Battle of Sept-Îles

22/23 October 1943

The English Channel’s importance as a transit route for British and German shipping made it one of the war’s most bitterly contested bodies of water. When the blockade runner Münsterland and its escort of six minesweepers and two patrol boats departed Brest on October 22, 1943, the Royal Navy’s Plymouth Command ordered the antiaircraft light cruiser Charybdis (senior officer, Captain G. A. W. Voelcker); the fleet destroyers Grenville and Rocket; and the escort destroyers Limbourne, Wensleydale, Talybont, and Stevenstone to intercept the German convoy. Because Plymouth was a transit point, it often tried to maximize resources by using ships that were passing through, such as the Charybdis, but this practice had its dangers, as became clear in execution.

The British warships arrived off the Breton coast shortly after midnight on October 23 and, with the cruiser in the lead, began sweeping west. Meanwhile, the German 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla, T23 (Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf ), T26, T27, T22, and T25 reinforced the escort. Based on past operations, the Germans had a good idea when and how the British would come. When T25’s hydrophone detected ships to the northeast, the 4th Flotilla turned toward the contact.

At 1:30 a. m., the Charybdis’s radar detected the Germans 14,000 yards ahead. As the columns rapidly converged, Captain Voelcker ordered his column to come to starboard and increase speed, but there was confusion and only the rear ship received his signal. A minute later at 1:43 a. m., the German commander saw the cruiser’s large silhouette illuminated against the lighter northern horizon only 2,200 yards distant. He ordered an emergency turn to starboard. As they came about, the T23 and then T26 emptied their torpedo tubes toward the enemy.

British radar was registering contacts and the British were intercepting German radio traffic. The Charybdis fired star shell, but the rockets burst above the clouds and only brightened the overcast sky. The Limbourne, which had lost touch with the flagship, plotted a contact off its port bow and, unsure whether it was hostile, likewise fired rockets. The fleet destroyers came to port and crossed ahead of Limbourne. Then lookouts aboard the Charybdis reported the tracks of torpedoes.

The cruiser came hard to port, but at 1:47 a. m., a torpedo struck it on the port side. As this happened, the German column was still turning and both the T27 and T22 fired full torpedo salvos as they came about. Only the T25 failed to launch. At 1:51 a. m., the German column withdrew on an easterly heading.

Another torpedo struck the Charybdis, and within five minutes its deck was under water. A minute later, a torpedo slammed into the Limbourne and detonated the small destroyer’s forward magazine. The Grenville and Wensleydale barely avoided the massive explosion. The Charybdis sank at 2:30 a. m. Attempts to tow the Limbourne failed and it was scuttled.

The British force was an improvised one following a scripted plan and had blundered into a massed, close-range torpedo salvo. The British were fortunate in that they only lost two ships. Admiralty staff studied the action off Les Sept Iles intensely and drew many of the right conclusions. Not coincidentally, it was the last clear victory German surface forces would win during the war.

References Smith, Peter C. Hold the Narrow Sea, Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945. Ashbourne, UK: Moorland, 1984. Whitley, M. J. German Destroyers of World War Two. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991

Blockade Running

In the early stage of World War II, the main lines of communication between the Axis powers were either over land via the Trans-Siberian Railway or, when Japan entered the war in December 1941, across the sea by surface blockade runners. Japan used German blockade runners to send such goods as rubber, cooking oil, lead, tin, and tea to Germany. In return, the ships carried industrial products such as locomotives and machinery and various pieces of technical equipment, scientific instruments, and chemical and pharmaceutical products to Japan. In addition, ships carried supplies and spare parts for German warships in the Far East. Some blockade runners also supplied German armed merchant cruisers operating in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and Pacific.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation BARBAROSSA ) in June 1941, the continental line was cut, and only sea routes remained. Blockade running that began in April 1941 and ended in October 1943 involved a total of 36 ships traveling from Asia to Europe. Six of them were recalled or returned after sustaining damage, and, of the 30 that remained, 11 were sunk by Allied forces or were scuttled by their own crews to prevent capture. Another 2 were accidentally sunk by German submarines, and 1 was seized by a U. S. cruiser. Thus, 16 ships actually completed their voyages and delivered their cargo to the port of Bordeaux in German-occupied France.

In the other direction, 23 ships, including 5 fleet supply ships, were sent from Europe to the Far East between September 1941 and April 1943. Of these, 16 reached Asian ports, 5 were sunk or scuttled, and 2 were recalled or returned to port.

Overall, 45.8 percent of the blockade runners on the Far East route were lost. However, annual ship losses rose dramatically over the course of the war. Between April 1941 and October 1942, only 12.1 percent were lost, whereas in 1943, losses rose to 85.7 percent. Of 104,700 tons of materials loaded on the ships, only 26,600 tons reached their destinations. In addition to raw materials and equipment, these ships also transported passengers. Some 900 passengers embarked to travel from the Far East to Europe, but fewer than half of them arrived safely. A total of 136 died when their ships were sunk, and the remainder became prisoners of war or remained in the Far East after their ships turned back.

From early 1944, submarines took over the blockade runners’ mission. Between then and early March 1945, 16 German U-boats sailed to the Far East as combat cargo transporters. But only 8 actually arrived in Far Eastern ports, carrying some 930 tons of cargo. The other 8 boats were lost, most of them to hostile action. Through the end of 1944, only 3 submarines reached Europe, but none got to Germany: the U-843 arrived at Norway but was sunk in the Kattegat Straits; the U-510 and U-861 reached French ports.

Under the code name AQUILA, 5 Italian submarines also participated in blockade running. Departing France, they carried some 500 tons of supplies for German/ Italian submarine bases in the Far East as well as personnel and cargo for Japan. None of them returned to Europe. The Japanese also sent five submarines to Europe to transport German military technology and to exchange personnel. Ultimately, four of them reached the Continent, but only three returned: two to Singapore and one to Japan. All these submarines had Japanese and German technicians, liaison officers, and equipment and blueprints of German’s newest weapons. Of 89 passengers aboard Axis submarines traveling from Japan, 74 arrived in France; the remainder died when their boats were sunk. A total of 96 passengers sailed in the opposite direction, 64 of them arriving safely; 22 were lost while under way, and 10 others fell into U. S. hands.

References Boyd, Carl, and Yoshida Akihiko. The Japanese Submarine Force and World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002. Krug, Hans J., and Yoichi Hirama. Reluctant Allies: German-Japanese Naval Relations in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.


Battle of the Bay of Biscay

28 December 1943

After the invasion of the Soviet Union severed German land access to strategic raw materials such as rubber and tin, blockade runners became essential to the Axis war effort, and the Kriegsmarine maintained destroyers and fleet torpedo boats on the French Biscay coast to escort blockade runners into port during the dangerous final leg of their voyage. On December 27, 1943, two German flotillas sortied to meet the blockade runner Alsterufer, not realizing that Allied aircraft had surprised and sunk it the day before. The German units were the 8th Destroyer Flotilla (Kapitän zur See Hans Erdmenger) with the Z27, Z23, Z24, Z32, Z37 and the 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla (Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf ) with the T23, T22, T24, T25, T26, and T27. Two British light cruisers, the Glasgow and Enterprise, which had been hunting the Alsterufer, were south of the Germans, and, learning of their mission from signals intelligence, they steered to intercept.

The German flotillas united just after noon on December 28 and swept eastwardly. It was a rough day in the Bay of Biscay with a strong easterly wind. Conditions were difficult aboard the German Type 36A destroyers, which were poor sea boats, and they were worse for the torpedo boats, which had green seas breaking over their bows and spray inundating their bridges.

At 1:32 p. m., the Glasgow spotted the Germans, and eight minutes later, the Z23 saw the British cruisers bearing down. At this point, the Germans were steaming south-by-southeast in three columns. Almost immediately, Erdmenger ordered a torpedo attack, which was impractical due to the range and rough seas. Meanwhile, the British closed, and at 1:46 p. m., Glasgow’s forward turret fired the first salvo from a range of 18,000 yards.

Initially both forces ran south-southeast trading long-range broadsides. At 1:56 p. m., Erdmenger ordered another torpedo attack, and the Z32, Z37, and Z34 took station to port and edged toward the cruisers. At 2:05 p. m., a shell from the Z32 struck the Glasgow, killing two men. At 2:15 p. m., the Z37 fired four torpedoes from 14,000 yards.

While this futile barrage churned through seven miles of stormy water, Erdmenger decided to divide his force, even though German shooting had been at least as good as the British. At 2:19 p. m., the T26, T22, T25, Z27, and Z23 turned north as Z32, Z37, Z24, T23, T24, and T27 continued southeast. The Z27 turned toward the British rather than away, and the flagship became the first German vessel damaged when a 6-inch shell from the Enterprise penetrated a boiler room and ignited a huge fire.

As the Germans divided, the Glasgow joined Enterprise and ranged its turrets on the three torpedo boats heading north. At 2:54 p. m., the Glasgow damaged the rear warship, the T25. Then the Glasgow shifted fire to the T26 and hit its boiler room.

After temporarily disengaging to clear some gun defects, the Enterprise joined the Glasgow, and the two cruisers sank the T26, the most southerly of the three damaged ships at 4:20 p. m. The Enterprise dispatched the T25 at 4:37 p. m. with a single torpedo. Finally, the Glasgow found the Z27 drifting with all guns silent. It closed and exploded the German destroyer’s magazines at 4:41 p. m. The British cruisers then made for Plymouth. The Glasgow had been hit once, while the Enterprise received minor splinter damage from numerous near misses. The rest of the German force safely made port.

The Germans fired 34 torpedoes from impossibly long ranges in eight separate attacks, but in rough conditions with extended visibility the better gun platform prevailed. The German commander’s decision to divide his flotilla also proved ill-advised as afterward ranges dropped. In the engagement, the Germans lost three ships.

The two British cruisers met up once more and, seeing no further signs of the German squadron and having accounted for three of them at no significant damage to themselves, withdrew toward Plymouth. They arrived on the evening of 29 December, low on both fuel and ammunition. Glasgow had received one hit that killed two crew members and wounded another three, while Enterprise had no real damage except for shell splinters.

The two German survivors, T22 and Z23, reunited and headed towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border. The rest of the German ships headed back to the Gironde.

Only 283 survivors of the 672 men on the three sunken ships were rescued: 93 from Z27, 100 from T25 and 90 from T26. British and Irish ships, Spanish destroyers and German U-boats took part in the rescue. About 62 survivors were picked up by British minesweepers as prisoners. 168 were rescued by a small Irish steamer, the MV Kerlogue, and four by Spanish destroyers, and they were all interned.

References Koop, Gerhard, and Klaus-Peter Schmolke. German Destroyers of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. O’Hara, Vincent P. The German Fleet at War 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004


On the 26th December eleven German destroyers and torpedo boats sailed into the Bay of Biscay to bring in the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”. however she was sunk by a Liberator bomber of RAF Coastal Command on the 27th, and next day as the German warships return to base they are intercepted by 6in cruisers “Glasgow” and “Enterprise”. Although outnumbered and out-gunned they sank the 5.9in-gunned destroyer “Z-27” and torpedo boats “T-25” and “T-26”.

Regarding the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”….Sunderland aircraft operating from Castle Archdale…201 & 422/423 RCAF also helped in the tracking and took part in several attacks on the ship.

‘Sixty-four survivors were rescued by the cruisers and several more by an Irish steamer, a Spanish destroyer and U-boats.

KERLOGUE, Wexford S.S. Co. Built in Holland in 1938 for the Wexford S.S. Co. In 1957 the KERLOGUE was sold to Norwegian interests and wrecked in 1960 off Tromso.”

All Irish ships leaving Ireland had to call at Fishguard to obtain a British Navicert before proceeding and likewise when returning to Ireland. In the early hours of the 29 December 1943 when the Irish Vessel Kerlogue was enroute from Lisbon a Focke Wulf 200 circled and signalled ” SOS follow” the ship picked up 168 survivors from the encounter with HMS Glasgow and HMS Enterprise. The little ship with a crew of 12 under Capt Donohue set course for Ireland direct. The senior German officer Kplt. Quedenfeldt requested that they be taken to Brest but he refused. They Irish crew could have been easily overpowered but the refusal was accepted. Despite repeated requests by Lands End radio, to proceed to Fishguard they continued to Ireland and landed the survivors there. They were interned. The Irish captain was at the receiving end of a very abusive Naval officer when he next called to Fishguard, who threatened to have him interned for his humanitarian act.

Bay of Biscay Offensive (February-August 1943)

Major anti-U-boat operation conducted by the British and U. S. air forces. Beginning in January 1942, Allied maritime patrol aircraft carried out air antisubmarine transit patrols in the Bay of Biscay. The advent of the new 10-cm radar in late 1942 and new methods of operations research encouraged a fresh approach to the flagging campaign there. The revised concept foresaw a continuous barrier patrol of the U-boat transit exit routes from the Bay of Biscay into the Atlantic by a total of 260 aircraft equipped with brand-new ASV Mk. III 10-cm-band radars. Operational command would lie with the Number 19 Group of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command. Allied projections for success were vague and excessively optimistic, but the planners assumed correctly that it would take the Germans at least four months to respond effectively to the new 10-cm radar.

The actual offensive was preceded by three trial phases: Operations GONDOLA (February 4-16, 1943), ENCLOSE I (March 20-28, 1943), and ENCLOSE II (April 5-13, 1943). Beset by difficulties, such as the withdrawal of the U. S. Army Air Force’s B-24 Liberator bombers, slow delivery of the ASV Mk. III radar, and lack of aircraft, the operations were nonetheless a success in that they demonstrated an increased efficiency in aircraft allocation and in U-boat sightings.

Air Marshal Sir John C. Slessor, head of Coastal Command, decided to launch the full-scale offensive (Operation DERANGE ) on April 13 with 131 aircraft. The repeated, accurate night attacks by the Vickers Wellington medium bombers of Number 172 Squadron, then the only Coastal Command aircraft equipped with new ASV Mk. III radars and Leigh lights, produced instant, although unforeseen, results. The failure of the German threat receivers to warn the U-boats of the incoming aircraft and the success of two U-boats in shooting down the attacking planes convinced the German U-boat command that the remedy was to give up the night surface transit and to order the U-boats to fight it out with aircraft while on the surface during daylight hours.

Coastal Command aircraft wreaked havoc among the grossly overmatched U-boats during those daylight battles. In May alone, six U-boats were destroyed and seven so severely damaged that they had to return to their bases. In turn, the U-boats accounted for only 5 of 21 aircraft lost by the Coastal Command in the Bay of Biscay that month.

The German withdrawal from the North Atlantic convoy routes following the “Black May” of 1943 allowed Slessor to step up the operation with additional air assets. The Germans took to sending the U-boats in groups in order to provide better antiaircraft defense, yet in June, four U-boats were lost and six others severely damaged. DERANGE peaked in July, when Allied aircraft claimed 16 U-boats- among them three valuable Type XIV U-tankers-compelling Grossadmiral (grand admiral) Karl Dönitz to call off a planned operation in the western Atlantic.

German losses in the Bay of Biscay dropped considerably thereafter, but the air patrols remained a formidable obstacle throughout the remainder of the war by forcing the U-boats to stay submerged for most of the time during transit. Although the Battle of the Atlantic was ultimately won around the convoys, the Bay of Biscay Offensive contributed to the success by preventing many U-boats from reaching their operational areas in time to saturate convoy defenses as they had done in March 1943.

References Blair, Clay. Hitler’s U-Boat War. Vol. 2, The Hunted, 1942-1945. New York: Random House, 1998. Gannon, Michael. Black May. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 10, The Atlantic Battle Won, May 1943-May 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. Roskill, Stephen W. The War at Sea, 1939-1945. Vols. 2 and 3. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957 and 1960

Operations Plan No 19

Map showing schematic of proposed German Fleet raid of October 1918 and possible British response.

In early 1918, the future seemed brighter than at any other time during the war. After Russia collapsed in 1917, Germany dictated a peace with Russia in March 1918 and with Romania two months later. These agreements gave Germany direct or indirect control of huge territories on its eastern border and in the Balkans. Thus, the dreams of many annexationists seemed to be coming true. After this victory in the east, the Imperial High Command was also confident that it could risk playing its last card in the west by launching a new offensive, `Operation Michael’, in March 1918. With this offensive, the High Command hoped to gain victory before US troops arrived on the continent and turned the numerical scale in favor of the Allies. Despite great initial success, the offensive finally ended in military disaster and defeat, culminating in the famous `black’ 8 August 1918. Slowly, the German armies, which were exhausted after four years of fighting and whose strength was dwindling at an alarming rate, had to retreat on the Western Front. The Allies proved overwhelming in terms of numbers and, more important, materiel. At last, on 29 September, the Imperial High Command, which had slowly begun to realize that the war was lost and that the army, whose soldiers had already begun a `hidden military strike’, was broken, had no choice but to admit defeat and ask the government to negotiate an armistice.

While a newly appointed coalition government, which even included leading Social Democrats, tried to pave the way for peace, the Supreme Navy Command, which had been established only in August, drew different conclusions from these events. Forced to give up unrestricted submarine warfare in mid-October, its chief, Admiral Scheer, regarded these developments as an almost golden opportunity for a final sortie against the Grand Fleet. Against the background of its nearly complete lack of success during the war, the Supreme Navy Command believed that only a gallant fight could justify the build-up of a powerful new navy after the war. As early as September 1914, Tirpitz had written to his wife: `With regard to the great distress after the end of the war, the navy will be lost in my eyes, if it cannot prove some success at least.’ The fact that the High Seas Fleet was unable to break the British blockade of the North Sea further diminished its reputation among the populace, as well as within the political and military establishment. This nightmare of complete failure had haunted the navy’s leadership throughout the war. Despite great efforts it had been unable to turn the tide.

In October 1918, however, danger was in many ways imminent. Both the end of the war, in which the navy had not proven its right of existence yet, as well as a far-reaching reform of the old system, which had been the basis of the navy’s position within the military establishment and within German society, were now in sight. For the navy, defeat would be even more humiliating. In early October, General Ludendorff, Quartermaster-General of the Imperial High Command, had pointed out to a representative of the Supreme Navy Command that the navy would probably be extradited to Britain and that `it would mainly have to pay the bill’ for defeat.

The Supreme Navy Command was by no means willing to accept this fate. Scheer tried to continue unrestricted submarine warfare for as long as possible, but the Emperor finally ordered its suspension on 21 October. More important, as soon as the opportunity arose, Scheer was determined to fight a final battle against the fleet it had challenged for almost two decades-in vain as it seemed so far.

On 30 September 1918, Scheer had already ordered the High Seas Fleet to assemble on Schillig Roads. This was indeed remarkable, for during the war this meant that a sortie was imminent. Several days later, Trotha, the chief of staff of the High Seas Fleet, put forward a memorandum-significantly called `deliberations in a critical hour’. In this memorandum, Trotha suggested that, `From an honorable fleet-action, even though it was a death-struggle in this war, would arise-unless the German people failed-a new future navy.’ Another high-ranking officer and former chief of staff, Captain Michaelis, also proposed a death sortie, though for different reasons. Since defeat was inevitable, he thought that a success at sea might be a means to achieve a change of mood at home and thus help reach a peace that, while bad, still seemed preferable to a total catastrophe.

Scheer immediately accepted the idea of a final sortie by the High Seas Fleet, for this was the only alternative to a humiliating defeat at the hands of its greatest enemy. Moreover, having grown up, like Trotha, in the Tirpitz tradition, Scheer likely shared the latter’s view that only a navy that had gone down fighting bravely could hope to rise again. To disguise its plans, the Supreme Navy Command informed neither the Chancellor nor the Supreme War Lord, the Emperor. Moreover, the final order for Operations Plan No. 19 was passed orally to the newly appointed C-in-C of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral von Hipper, in order to maintain secrecy and avoid interference either from politicians or the Emperor himself, as had happened so often before.

Some historians have argued in recent years that this motive played only a minor role in launching an attack, which made sense neither militarily nor politically. Instead, they assume that the Supreme Navy Command tried to initiate a coup d’état against the Imperial government, which was to be transformed into an institution responsible to parliament in the future. However, there is no proof that this motive was important when the Supreme Navy Command decided upon its last sortie.

The U-boat campaign had failed, even though, in terms of personal courage, the officers and men in the submarine service achieved incredible results. Between 1914 and 1918, 104 U-boats destroyed 2,888 ships of 6,858,380 tons; 96 UB boats 1,456 ships of 2,289,704 tons; and 73 UC boats 2,042 ships of 2,789,910 tons. In addition, the undersea raiders sent to the bottom 10 battleships, 7 armoured cruisers, 2 large and 4 light cruisers, and 21 destroyers. But the cost ran high: 178 boats were lost to the enemy, and with them 4,744 officers and men.

German naval leaders, who as late as August 19 I 8 had been planning amphibious operations against Kronstadt and Petrograd (Operation Schlussstein), proved surprisingly willing to cease the unrestricted submarine warfare. “The Navy”, Scheer’s planners lustily announced, “does not need an armistice.” In fact, a new bold design had entered their heads: the fleet could be hurled against the combined British and American surface units stationed at Rosyth. Admiral v. Hipper concluded that “an honourable fleet engagement, even if it should become a death struggle”, was preferable to an inglorious and inactive end to the High Sea Fleet. Rear-Admiral von Trotha was equally adamant on this matter, arguing that a fleet encounter was needed “in order to go down with honour”. And Admiral Scheer was not the man to stand in the way of such an adventurous undertaking. “It is impossible that the fleet … remains idle. It must be deployed.” Scheer concluded that the “honour and existence of the Navy” demanded use of the fleet, even if “the course of events cannot thereby be significantly altered”.

Hence, for reasons of honour and future naval building (Zukuntsfiotte), it was decided to launch the entire High Sea Fleet against the enemy in a suicide sortie. It is revealing that on 22 October 1918, Levetzow verbally passed on word of the projected sortie to Hipper. The new head of the Army, General Groener, was not brought into these discussions. Nor were the Kaiser or the chancellor informed of the planned operation; despite this, Germany’s admirals at one point considered taking Wilhelm on board for the final naval assault. Scheer, however, simply did not think it “opportune” to inform political leaders of his designs.

On 24 October 1918, the Supreme Navy Command formally adopted Operations Plan No 19 (O-Befehl Nr 19). It called for one destroyer group to be sent to the Flanders coast and another to the mouth of the Thames, while the High Sea Fleet took battle station in the Hoofden, the North Sea between the Netherlands and Great Britain. Twenty-five U-boats were in position to intercept the British and American surface units in the North Sea. The Grand Fleet, the Germans argued, would rush out of its Scottish anchorages in order to attack the two destroyer “baits”, which thereupon would draw the British and American fleets to Terschelling, a Dutch island in the North Sea, where the naval Armageddon would take place.

Execution of Operations Plan No 19 was set for 30 October 1918. With it German naval strategy in desperation returned not only to Tirpitz’s dream of the Entscheidungsschlacht in the southcentral North Sea, “between the Thames and Helgoland”, but also to the conviction of Baudissin, Fischel and Wegener, among others, concerning the need for an offensive in the North Sea in order to force the approaches to the Atlantic Ocean.

Operations Plan No 19, seen in retrospect, was anything but foolproof. In the first place, it is highly doubtful whether the Grand Fleet would have reacted to the advance of the two destroyer flotillas and the submarines in the prescribed manner; British naval leaders had ignored similar German sorties before. Secondly, the expectations which German admirals placed on the U-boats were not sound. By the end of October, only twenty-four submarines were in position and six were heading for their stations. While in the process of heading out to battle stations, seven U-boats were rendered hors de combat owing to mechanical breakdowns, and two were destroyed by the enemy. The weather was also against the submersibles: “Rain and hail showers, hazy, high seas and swell; dismal, stormy November ~weather. No visibility, no possible forward advance, no worthwhile targets for attack could be recognized in the haze.” Finally, the Germans failed to appreciate that apart from Great Britain there was another major sea power involved in the war. In fact, German naval leaders throughout 1917-18 persisted in their claims that United States naval forces as a whole were not worthy of their consideration, and hence paid no attention to the five United States battleships attached to the Grand Fleet, to the three others stationed in Ireland, or to the entire capital-ship strength of thirty-nine units.

Of far greater ultimate effect was the deteriorating internal structure of the Imperial Navy. The naval reorganization of 1I August 1918, which had brought the triumvirate of Scheer, Trotha and Levetzow to the fore, had also caused apprehension concerning planned changes and discharges. Even Admiral v. Hipper noted: “I dread the next few days.” Trotha spoke to Levetzow of “insecurity” and “uneasiness” among commanders and begged for the return of “at least a few leading figures” to the fleet. “We cannot discharge our duties … with only mediocre and bad materiel.” On numerous surface vessels, both captain and first officer had recently been replaced. Nevertheless, when Levetzow asked Trotha on 16 October if he believed that naval personnel could be relied upon for a major sea battle, Trotha “answered without reservation in the affirmative”. This miscalculation was to prove decisive within a fortnight.

The High Sea Fleet, according to Operations Plan No I 9, was to assemble in Schillig Roads on the afternoon of 29 October. Two days before, the crews had already appeared anxious and excited. News had leaked out, especially from Hipper’s eager staff, that a major battle with the British was in the offing. Men in both Kiel and Wilhelmshaven nervously spread the word of a “suicide sortie” planned by the executive officers to save their “honour” at the eleventh hour – a notion not without ample basis.

By the 29th, ratings from the battle-cruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann failed to return to their posts from shore leave. Sailors assembled to demand peace and to cheer Woodrow Wilson. Insubordination quickly spread to the Third Squadron battleships Kaiserin, Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm, and Markgraf as well as to Thuringen and Helgoland in the First Squadron. The Baden’s crew also seemed on the verge of revolt, and the battle-cruisers Moltke and Seydlitz were rendered inoperative because of rebellious sailors, as were the light cruisers Pillau, Regensburg and Strassburg. Only the men on the torpedo-boats and the U-boats remained calm and loyal to their officers.

The disturbances in the fleet on 29 October caught naval leaders off-guard and unprepared. Hipper initially cancelled sailing orders late in the evening of the 29th, but reactivated them later as he was unaware of the extent of the rebellion. Trotha at first agreed that the revolt was only temporary and that discipline could be restored shortly. But when disorder spread on 30 October to Friedrich der Grosse and Konig Albert, the game was up. Hipper now realized that Operations Plan No 19 had been stillborn. “What terrible days lie behind me. I had really not thought that I would return [from battle], and under what circumstances do I return now. Our men have rebelled.”

One of Hipper’s last acts as Chief of the High Sea Fleet was to disperse the rebellious ships, sending the First Squadron to the Elbe, the Third to Kiel, where it surprised an utterly unprepared Admiral Souchon, and the Fourth to Wilhelmshaven. He could hardly have made a more grievous miscalculation. In the various ports along both Baltic and North Sea shores, the sailors incited local uprisings and there found mostly hospitable receptions. Sea battalion soldiers refused to fire on them. Executive officers did not oppose them. A mere four Seeoffiziere were wounded in their efforts on behalf of the Kaiser.

Admiral von Trotha quickly informed Scheer, on 2 November, that the rebellion was a “Bolshevist movement”, but one that was directed against the government rather than against the officer corps. One day later, Trotha met with Levetzow to co-ordinate their stories concerning Operations Plan No 19. It was placed entirely in a defensive light, with stress placed primarily upon the submarines in the North Sea; the anticipated British advance from the north was sold as an attack on the German fatherland. Trotha even visited the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwarts to make quite certain that this official line was properly played up. Not yet knowing of the official line, the State Secretary of the Navy Office, Vice-Admiral von Mann, told the rebellious sailors of the Third Squadron that the sortie against the British had been designed to bring the U-boats home safely.

Admiral Scheer was not quite as inventive. He placed the entire blame for the failure of the operation upon the Social Democrats, and specifically upon the government’s inability in the autumn of 1917 to suppress the USPD. Scheer wrote after the war: “It still appears almost incomprehensible to me: this reversal from certain victory to complete collapse, and [it is] especially degrading that the revolution was planned without haste, and in thorough detail, right under our eyes.” At least the Navy’s liaison officer at Army headquarters, Lieutenant-Commander von Weizsacker, grasped the meaning of the events in the fleet: “We do not even know the state of mind within the naval hierarchy; this has been demonstrated during the planned assault.”

The aftershock of the mutiny continued a long time. Even many months after the revolution and as far away as Scapa Flow, many sailors still hated their officers. For example, on board the battleship Friedrich der Große, the former fleet flagship, men roller-skated on top of officers’ cabins day and night in order to break their nerves. Against this background, it is hardly astonishing that the great majority of the old officers corps regarded the mutiny and the revolution as a stain on the navy’s shield.

In the eyes of the officer corps, the mutineers and their-alleged – political leaders were nothing but `November criminals’, who had stabbed a proud and almost-victorious army and navy in the back. As soon as possible, they were to take revenge for this infamous crime. As early as October 1918, a high-ranking naval officer had written to the chief of staff of the Supreme Navy Command: `Unfortunately, we have been unable to keep the shield shining, which we took over from our ancestors stainless; our sons will have to wash off this stain. They shall work and hate.’ Subsequently, in 1919-20 naval officers conspired against the democratic Weimar Republic. They only failed because the trade unions proclaimed a general strike. Nevertheless, in this respect, the brutality of Scheer’s former chief of staff, Admiral von Levetzow, when fighting demonstrating workers in Kiel in 1920, was only an example of worse developments to come.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a future revenge also included acting against its former wartime enemies. In 1936, when Admiral Beatty, the C-in-C of Britain’s Grand Fleet in the final years of the war, died, Grand-Admiral Raeder refused to comply with the latter’s last wish that the C-in-C of the German Navy take part in his funeral. Thus, Raeder finally made clear that he still had not forgiven Beatty for the order he had signaled to the vessels of the Grand Fleet when the High Seas Fleet was approaching the Firth of Forth in November 1918, `that the enemy was a despicable beast’.

Not surprisingly, when Hitler came to power in 1933, the navy firmly supported his regime. Although he reckoned with a much longer period of peace in order to build up a powerful navy, Raeder left no doubt that the navy fully endorsed Hitler’s plan of establishing German hegemony on the continent and of challenging Britain. More important, still suffering from the traumatic events of November 1918, the navy tried to be more loyal than either the army or the air force. In his memoirs, Raeder admitted that `every officer had sworn a silent oath that there would be no November 1918 in the Navy again’. This refusal to acknowledge either their own shortcomings or the structural problems of Wilhelmine society blinded naval officers to the prerequisites of a modern democratic society. In 1945, the wheel finally came full circle: there could be no doubt that the navy’s leadership also bore responsibility for this second catastrophe in German history in the twentieth century.

Of Tanks and Storm Troops I

Specialized soldiers operating with the German army in France in World War I.

It has often been said that the initial employment of tanks in small numbers on the Somme was a tactical blunder, and that it would have been better to wait until several hundred machines became available and then deliver a concentrated blow with the new weapon, so preserving the element of surprise. There is much to be said for this argument, but there is another side to the coin as well.

Once the Germans had recovered from their initial shock, they set about evaluating a number of tanks which had fallen into their hands. They found that not only were they mechanically unreliable, they were vulnerable to direct gunfire as well. In the opinion of many German officers the tank was a freak terror weapon of limited efficiency and with a strictly local potential. Special anti-tank ammunition, known as the K round, was developed for use by the infantry, and guns brought into the front line for use in the direct fire role. Of greater importance was the German decision not to divert resources to manufacturing their own tanks, a decision which seemed entirely justified by the sight of British vehicles wallowing their way into bottomless mud-holes during the 1917 Flanders offensive. But the German evaluation contained a number of blind spots. It was wrong to assume that the British would not improve the mechanical efficiency of their tanks; wrong to assume that armour thickness would not be increased, so reducing the K round to impotence almost as soon as it was issued; and, above all, wrong to assume that tanks would always be employed across the least suitable going.

The Tank Corps, as the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps became, had as its commander 36-year-old Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer who had advised Haig during the tank’s development stage. Elles’ Chief of Staff (GSO 1) was Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, an intellectual soldier who had originally served with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and who would later become a distinguished military historian.

Fuller possessed an insight which amounted to genius. Although at first he was somewhat less than lukewarm to the tank idea, his conversion was total. Like many such men, he had little patience with those who failed to grasp what he considered to be an essential truth, treating them with caustic scorn. The cavalry he considered to be completely useless, the artillery an over-subscribed fraternity whose principal contribution was to smash up the ground which his tanks would have to cross. During the Passchendaele fighting he had a board erected outside Tank Corps HQ, saying,


Elles made him take it down; it was too close to the truth not to make enemies.

Both Elles and Fuller worked unceasingly for the chance to show what their Corps could achieve fighting en masse and on good going. Haig, more often remembered for his premature comment that the tank was “a pretty mechanical toy” than for the later support he gave to the Corps, granted their request after some prompting from General Sir Julian Byng, whose Third Army sector contained the most promising ground for the attack, consisting of rolling chalk down land as yet little cut up by shellfire.

The object of the offensive was to seize the enemy’s communications centre of Cambrai. The tanks would breach the formidable Hindenburg Line in conjunction with Third Army’s infantry, and the Cavalry Corps would exploit beyond. Artillery preparation was limited to a short hurricane bombardment at H-Hour.

The tank Corps had available a total 376 Mark IV gun tanks, plus a further 32 fitted with grapnels for clearing wire from the cavalry’s path, 18 supply tanks and a handful of communication and bridging vehicles. The Hindenburg trenches were dug both wide and deep, and were considered to be tank-proof by the Germans. To counter this many tanks carried huge bundles of brushwood, known as fascines, on their roofs, which could be released into the trenches, so forming a bridge.

The attack was to commence on the morning of 20th November 1917, and the evening before Elles sat down to scribble his now famous Special Order No. 6.

  1. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months – to operate on good going in the van of battle.
  2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
  3. It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
  4. In the light of past experiences I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
  5. I propose leading the attack of the centre division.

Hugh Elles,

  1. G.

Commanding Tank Corps. 19th Nov. 1917

Distribution to Tank Commanders.

Elles led out his men in the tank Hilda of H Battalion, proudly flying his Corps’ brown, red and green standard. He had chosen the colours deliberately as a demonstration that the tanks could and would smash through the mud and blood of trench deadlock and advance into the green fields beyond.

That morning, the Tank Corps affirmed another essential element of Blitzkrieg – overwhelming concentration of force at the point of impact. The Germans could offer little effective resistance and fled, routed and panic-stricken, leaving a huge six-mile gap yawning in their laboriously constructed defence system.

For a brief period, the cavalry had the chance to break out into open country. They did not take it, since their Corps Commander had installed himself in a headquarters several miles in the rear, and kept his subordinates on a tight rein. By the time he was fully conversant with what was taking place and authorized a general advance, the enemy had rushed in reinforcements to seal the gap, and the moment had passed; in addition, the horses had been on the move or standing to all day, and badly needed watering. Here again was a lesson that would be absorbed into subsequent Blitzkrieg techniques – that the commander of an exploitation force must travel with the leading troops if he is to make the most of the opportunities he is offered.

But for the moment that did not seem to matter; what really mattered was that at last a way had been found to break the German defences at a comparatively trivial cost in lives. For the only time during the Great War the church bells of Britain rang in joyous celebration of a great victory.

During the next few days, battle casualties and mechanical attrition progressively reduced the numbers of tanks available for action. The tempo of the battle slowed and the front seemed to reach a state of stabilization again. The tanks were gradually withdrawn find despatched by rail to their base.

Then, on 30th November, the unbelievable happened. The Germans counter-attacked with a speed and drive that had never been experienced before on the Western Front. Whole units were isolated and cut off, while others went down fighting to stem the tide. The few tanks which had not been shipped away, often battlefield recoveries, were formed at commendable speed into provisional units which succeeded in eroding the weight of the German effort, but by 7th December much of the ground taken during the great tank attack had been recaptured, and a little more besides. The Battle of Cambrai had ended with honours exactly even, and for the British this was as humiliating as it was inexplicable.

Reports were called for, containing an explanation for the disaster. Neither Haig nor Byng, nor the corps and divisional commanders, could offer any militarily intelligible explanations. To the eternal disgrace of their authors, those reports that were submitted sank to unplumbed depths of moral cowardice in that blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of the regimental junior officers and even NCOs, who, it was said, had failed to exercise proper leadership. These were the very men who had died resisting the German attack, and to whom military discipline denied any right of reply if they survived.

Obviously the general public was not going to accept this outrageous suggestion without making a great deal of trouble for the Government and the military Establishment. Some sort of quasi-plausible excuse was cobbled together, based on the lack of reserves which, it was said, had been absorbed by the Flanders sector or which were in transit to the Italian Front; but it did not explain why the German infantry had managed to break through the defences so quickly. The plain fact was that nobody really knew.

One officer, Captain G. Dugdale, diagnosed one of the symptoms when he wrote his own record of the battle. He wrote that “The German aeroplanes were very active, flying over our lines in large numbers, very low. They were shooting with machine guns at the troops on the ground, and I am quite sure this did more to demoralise our men than anything else.” Here was something that would be instantly recognizable to the Blitzkrieg generation – the use of air power in conjunction with the ground attack to eliminate centres of resistance and induce fear.

This was part of the answer, but only part. The Germans had in fact perfected their own method of breaking the trench deadlock, and the Cambrai counter-stroke was only a foretaste of what was to come.

The story began three months earlier in the most unlikely of settings, on the Baltic coast at Riga. Here the Russian Twelfth Army under General Klembovsky held a bridgehead along the west bank of the River Dvina. Their opponents were General von Hutier’s Eighth Army, which had the task of eliminating the bridgehead and capturing Riga as a prelude to an advance on Petrograd.

Klembovsky knew he was to be attacked, but imagined that von Hutier would first eliminate the bridgehead before crossing the river. He therefore retained his more reliable troops in the bridgehead itself, and detailed divisions of doubtful quality to hold the river line.

However, von Hutier’s strategy was the exact opposite. His plan was to force a crossing of the river and then swing north towards the coast, so placing the defenders of Riga inside a trap. In so doing he was employing the strategic principle of Blitzkrieg known as the Indirect Approach, a recognition that an enemy position could be made untenable as a result of successful operations elsewhere rather than by direct assault.

Apart from the overall strategy of the Riga operation, its tactical execution is of great interest as well. The first German attempts to use poison gas had been clumsy, involving the release of chlorine from cylinders in the front line when a favourable wind was blowing, but of course any change in wind direction tended to make this a very two- edged weapon. Since the early experiments chlorine had been replaced by phosgene, otherwise known as mustard gas, which required only one part to four million of air to be effective. It was, therefore, possible to incorporate a small cylinder of the gas into the filling of a conventional high explosive artillery shell, thus ensuring its accurate delivery. The beauty of the device, if that is quite the right word, was that the recipients were unaware that they were being gassed until it was too late. The results were extremely unpleasant, consisting of painful blistering and violent attacks of vomiting, with a consequent reduction in both the capacity and the will to fight. The new shell had not been used in offensive operations before, and von Hutier’s artillery was to treat the Russians to a very stiff dose.

The German infantry, too, would be employing new tactics. Once across the Dvina, the assault troops would rely on speed and infiltration to work their way through the enemy’s successive defence lines, while waves of ground attack aircraft raked the trenches with machine-gun fire.

They went in on 1st September, following a five-hour bombardment, a mere disturbance by Western Front standards, but enough to drench the Russian positions with gas, shake their occupants with high explosive and blind them with smoke. When the German infantry swarmed across the river their rapid advance past sectors which were still holding out completely unnerved the remainder of the defenders, who began streaming away to the east in panic. Within hours the front had been broken.

The very speed with which success was attained prevented von Hutier from reaping the full fruits of his victory. He had prepared a strict timetable which had been overtaken by events, and it took him some time to accelerate the northern thrust that was meant to be decisive. In that time Klembovsky, reacting with a promptness foreign to the majority of Russian general officers, re-appraised the situation and withdrew the remainder of his army through Riga and along the coast road to Pskov.

Casualties in terms of killed and wounded had been negligible for both sides, although 9000 Russians had been taken prisoner. The Kaiser, delighted at von Hutier’s almost bloodless capture of Russia’s second most important port, paid him the compliment of a personal visit.

On 24th October the same tactics were employed again, this time against the Italian Second Army on the Caporetto sector of the Isonzo front, by General von Below’s Fourteenth Austro-German Army. The Italian Commander in Chief, General Luigi Cadorna, had suspected that this sector had been chosen as a target for a major offensive, and had given instructions for a defence in depth to be prepared; his instructions were ignored, with catastrophic consequences.

The German bombardment, erupting among the surprised Italians, disrupted all communications with the rear, so that formation headquarters were left floundering in a fog of war as dense as that which enveloped their choking front-line troops. And then came the assault infantry, sinister grey ghosts flitting in groups through the zone of gas and on towards the artillery and administrative areas, followed by more substantial formations which eliminated any centres of resistance which had been by-passed. Regiments shredded away from the front, while those on either flank, bereft of instructions from the paralysed command system, were forced to conform to the movement. Soon the whole of Second Army was straggling towards the rear, thus compelling the withdrawal of Third Army on its right as well.

Cadorna hoped to check the flood along the line of the Tagliamente, but the pursuit was as rapid as it was ruthless. Crossings were forced before the Italians could reorganize their shattered forces, Second Army HQ being reduced to the common lot of fugitives, incapable of organizing a coherent front from the drifting wrack of its troops. Not until 7th November did the Italians turn and fight again, manning a hastily dug defence line which followed the southern bank of the River Piave.

In less than three weeks they had sustained a staggering 300,000 casualties, lost 2,500 guns, and been propelled back more than 70 miles from their original front line. It was a blow which almost knocked Italy out of the war, and which caused the urgent despatch of sorely needed British and French divisions from the Western Front to stiffen the defence.

The conduct of war is subject to certain inescapable rules, one of which is that the power of the attack diminishes in proportion to the distance it has covered. The operation of this rule had given the Italian Army the time it needed to form a new front; von Below had available neither armoured cars nor cavalry with which to exploit the sudden collapse, and the pursuit had been carried out by infantry who had reached the limit of their endurance.

Riga, Caporetto and the Cambrai counter-stroke all pointed to the way in which the German Army planned to fight its 1918 battles, but the evidence was too fragmented by distance for the Western Allies to draw any firm conclusions. Riga had been fought against troops already war-weary and demoralized by revolution; the Italians were not considered to have a first-class army, and anyway, mountain warfare was different; and of course Cambrai remained an enigma.

Meanwhile, the Germans were refining their techniques, forming their Stosstruppen into special battalions which would form the spearhead of their respective divisions. The Storm Troopers were chosen from among young, fit men of proven initiative and represented the cream of the army. They moved in groups, their favourite weapons being the grenade, of which each man carried at least one bag, the light machine-gun and the man-pack flamethrower. They came on at a run, rifles slung, taking advantage of all available ground cover, and if they encountered opposition they worked their way round it, jumping trenches without pausing to fight for them. Their object was to get into the enemy’s artillery zone, overrunning batteries and pressing on towards brigade and divisional headquarters with little respite. Continual movement was the essence of their tactics. On occasion, an attack might make ground so quickly that it was in danger of running into its own supporting artillery fire, and a system of rocket signals was evolved to inform the gunners when to lift onto the next target.

Behind the Storm Troops would come the Battle Groups, specially trained to reduce strong-points which had been left unsubdued, followed by the mass of the infantry divisions, which would eliminate the last pockets of resistance and secure the captured ground. The whole system resembled a gigantic snake in that once the tail had caught up, the head would shoot off again.

Overhead flew the Schlachtstaffeln (Battle Flights), more specialists who concentrated on ground strafing enemy troops in the immediate path of the Storm Troopers. Generally the Schlachtstaffeln, consisting of up to six Hannover or Halberstadt machines, attacked from a height of about 200 feet, sometimes dropping bundles of grenades to supplement the fire of their guns.

Both the Royal Flying Corps and the German Imperial Air Service had begun ground strafing in mid-1917. The RFC did not, however, believe it necessary to form special units for the work, which was considered to be an extension of normal squadron duties, and employed a variety of machines of which the best remembered is the famous Sopwith Camel. The British produced the better results by flying at ground level, there being several recorded instances of German soldiers being knocked flat by the wheels of British aircraft. The moral effect was considerable, provoking bitter complaint from the Storm Troops that the Schlachtstaffeln were not doing their job properly. An enjoyable diversion for the British pilots was the pursuit of motor-cycle despatch riders and staff cars – not quite the trivial occupation it sounds, since the undelivered message and the general prevented from exercise command can both contribute to the failure of an operation already plagued by difficulties. The French formed a large organization for heavy local ground support, the Division Aerienne, which could be moved about the front as required.

In previous offensives along the Western Front it had been the practice of the higher command to commit its reserves against the strongest resistance encountered. The strategy of infiltration differed radically in that only successful penetrations were reinforced; in this way the merest trickle through a broken defence could become a flood and ultimately a torrent. Whereas offensives had until now burst like a wave against the rock of defence, the new system could be likened to an in-coming tide, probing insidiously into the channels between sandbanks, flowing round them yet still maintaining its advance against the shore, while behind came the great mass of water under which the sandbanks would ultimately vanish.

As 1917 drew to a close it appeared that of the two alternative forms of attack, only the German method produced lasting results. For General Erich von Ludendorff, effective commander of the German armies in the west, it seemed as though the New Year was to be one of great promise.

Of Tanks and Storm Troops II

Following the `holing’ of two Mark IV (female) tanks by `Nixe’, which forced the British tanks to withdraw from the Cachy Switch, 2nd Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV (male) engages his German adversary, striking its starboard plate.

Russia had at last staggered out of the war and was preoccupied with her own internal struggles, while it would be some months before American troops could reach the battlefields in any significant numbers. In the period before the American presence could make itself felt, the troops released from the Eastern Front could be used to deal the tired British and French armies a series of knock-out blows.

In Ludendorff’s eyes, Great Britain had become the dominant partner in the Alliance, not merely at sea, but also on land. He reasoned that if the French were beaten into surrender, the British would continue to fight; that the reverse did not apply; therefore the next major offensive must be designed to inflict a severe defeat on the British and physically separate them from their Allies.

The offensive, codenamed Michael, would begin with a massive attack on the Arras – Cambrai – St Quentin sector. The strategic objective would be the communications centre of Amiens, and a mere twenty miles beyond lay an even more glittering prize, the Somme estuary and the sea. If only the sea could be reached, the Western Front would be ripped apart and the British armies confined to a coastal enclave; from that point onwards the British would be fighting for survival and not for victory. It was an attractive strategy, and one which, some twenty-two years later, would form the basis of a plan presented to the Führer by Field Marshal von Manstein.

On the forty-mile stretch of front no less than 67 divisions of the German Seventeenth, Second and Eighteenth Armies had been concentrated against a total of 33 belonging to Gough’s Fifth and Byng’s Third Armies. In addition Ludendorff’s team would include a number of very important names, including those of von Hutier, hero of Riga, and von Below, the victor of Caporetto.

Also present was a Colonel Bruchmuller, who had fired the crucial opening bombardment at Riga. Bruchmuller was a brilliant artilleryman who commanded a “travelling Circus” of medium and heavy guns which moved up and down the line throughout Ludendorff’s 1918 series of offensives. He insisted that all batteries under his command should register their targets by mathematical survey rather than by the more usual ranging shellfire, thus achieving total surprise when they did open up. During its career, the Bruchmuller Circus consistently achieved such spectacular results that the colonel became know throughout the army as Durchbruch Muller (Break-Through Muller).

In great secrecy the German artillery was focused against Gough and Byng, so that 4,010 field guns opposed only 1,710, and 2,588 medium and heavy pieces were ranged against the 976 available to the British. In the meantime, events on the other side of the wire were also tending to further the success of the German plans. Not only had more of the front been taken over from the French, a new system of defence was being developed as well. This contained three elements: a Forward Zone, consisting of a series of strong-points which were in effect little more than fortified outposts; a Battle Zone trench system manned by about one third of the defenders, some two to three miles behind the Forward Zone; and a Rear Zone trench system, housing the reserves, some four to eight miles beyond the Battle Zone.

Every aspect of the system played right into Ludendorff’s hands. The Forward Zone provided the Storm Troops with the very opportunities they sought to infiltrate: the Battle Zone was within range of the German artillery yet lacked dug-outs in which the troops could shelter during bombardment; and in places the Rear Zone had not even been dug, its location being marked by a line of spit-locked turf. The system was, in short, a recipe for complete disaster, revealing how little the British understood of the new German artillery and infantry tactics, compounded by the fact that each nine-battalion division was badly below strength, battalions containing an average of 500 effectives in contrast to the 1000 with which they had gone to war.

Deserters had warned of the impending offensive, but none of the defenders had the slightest inkling of just what was in store for them.

At 0440 on 21st March almost 7,000 guns rocked the atmosphere with the opening salvo of the most concentrated bombardment in the history of the war. It is said that when the 2,500 British guns opened up in reply there was no appreciable difference in the noise level, since the air was too disturbed by continuous shock waves to conduct more than an impression of sound.

From 0440 until 0640 Bruchmuller’s men fired a mixture of gas and high explosive shells into the British gun batteries, command posts, communication centres and bivouac areas, punctuated at 0530 by a ten-minute switch directly onto the Forward Zone. At 0640 there was a 30-minute pause to rest the sweating gun crews, during which batteries fired check rounds only.

At 0710 the guns thundered out again, hammering the British trench systems while the heaviest pieces engaged targets in the rear. By 0940 the whole area had been combed and swept several times, and what was not smashed by high explosive was drenched in gas and shrouded in drifting smoke. At 0900 the fire rose to a crescendo, its pattern changing ominously to a barrage which obliterated what remained of the Forward Zone, then lifted 300 metres, halted for three minutes, lifted 200 metres, halted for four minutes, and lifted again, maintaining a steady progress into the Battle Zone.

0940 was the Storm Troopers’ H-Hour. Their rapid advance across No Man’s Land was cloaked by a natural mist and they met little resistance in the shattered Forward Zone. They pressed on into the Battle Zone, their green signal rockets soaring to request an acceleration of the creeping barrage, and were seen working their way through gaps in the main trench line. Behind came the Battle Groups, isolating and subduing small pockets of stubborn defenders, and in their wake followed the main weight of the attack. Only the Schlachtstaffeln were absent, grounded by the mist, but as this cleared they began to arrive over the battlefield about midday, their activities covered by a swarm of fighters.

One characteristic of the British soldier is his stubborn immobility in defence. With their telephone links to the rear cut by shellfire, battalions fought their battles with little direction from their higher formation. Some, the luckier ones, were able to withdraw, doggedly covering the retreat of the artillery; others, more quickly surrounded, fought on to the death and were never heard from again. These, and little group of cooks, clerks, batmen, signallers and drivers, rushed into the line at a minute’s notice, all took toll of their attackers, but the fact remained that by nightfall a forty-mile gap had been punched in the line and Fifth Army was on the point of disintegration.

The week that followed was one of deep trauma for the British both in France and at home. The Flesquiers salient, last remnant of the great tank attack at Cambrai, was swallowed up in the first day’s advance; four days later all the ground that had been bought so bloodily during the Somme battle was once more in German hands. British and French divisions, hurrying to plug the gap, found themselves caught up in the general retreat.

The crisis was of such proportion that on 26th March the Allies appointed a Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, to co¬ ordinate counter-measures. Everyone appreciated the strategic significance of Amiens and divisions from both the British and French sectors were despatched quickly into the danger area. By 5th April the line had been stabilized at Villers-Bretonneux, a mere ten miles east of Amiens, partly because of these counter-measures and partly because the German offensive was running down in obedience to the laws of the attack.

The Storm Troops, having advanced up to forty miles in a week in the van of a hard-fought battle, were exhausted and had suffered a fiercer rate of attrition than had been allowed for. Their casualties been caused by the stubborn defence, by the RFC’s universal ground- strafing, and by encounters with tanks fighting in the counter-attack role.

These last encounters are of interest, for while it is true to say that tanks can take ground but not hold it, they can buy time, which in war is the most priceless commodity of all. On a number of occasions tanks caught Storm Troop and Battle Group units in the open and dispersed them with some slaughter, effectively blunting divisional spearheads and so delaying the advance of the main body until a reorganization could be effected.

There was another influence at work too, a factor which could not have been foreseen by either side. God tends to remain aloof from Man’s foolishness, but the devil does not and the battlefield is his playground. On 28th March German air reconnaissance reported that the country between Albert and Amiens was clear of Allied troops, but for no intelligible reason the advance did not proceed beyond the town of Albert itself. A staff officer was sent forward by car to investigate. On arrival he found a state of complete bedlam. Drunken men, some wearing top hats and other looted clothing, were staggering about the streets, helping themselves to whatever they fancied, quite beyond the control of their officers. By the time the advance was resumed, Amiens was no longer attainable.

Elsewhere along the front similar scenes were taking place whenever an Allied supply depot was captured. Weary Storm Troopers, suddenly presented with stocks of drink, real tobacco, real coffee and items of food which the British maritime blockade had long since made a memory in Germany, found themselves unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves with unaccustomed luxuries; even such mundane things as boot polish and notepaper had not been seen in the trenches for many months, and now they were to be had for the taking.

The advance was resumed as soon as order had been restored, but the Storm Troops’ keen psychological edge had been dulled and the élan of the early days was lacking. The daily advance rate became slower and slower until it was clear that the Michael offensive was over.

Disregarding the demoralizing effects of the Allied supply depots, it must be admitted that Ludendorff had it within his power to capture Amiens. That he did not do so stemmed from a decision taken as early as 23rd March. Instead of maintaining the westward march of his three armies, he dispersed their effort, insisting that Seventeenth and Eighteenth Armies should turn respectively north-west and south-west, while in the centre Second Army alone continued along its original axis.

This can be justified only in part as the conventional strategy of building protective shoulders for the huge salient which was forming, but it also denied a basic military tenet and fundamental principle of Blitzkrieg, namely Maintenance of the Objective; in other words, having set Amiens as his primary strategic objective, the majority of his effort should have been directed at capturing the city in accordance with the aims of his original plan.

His decision, in conjunction with the various other factors already mentioned above, did not merely cost him a meticulously planned and gallantly executed infantry Blitzkrieg victory; ultimately it cost Germany the war.

The following month Ludendorff would attack again, this time in Flanders, recovering all the ground lost during the 1917 British offensive, and in May the French were forced back more than thirty miles on the Chemin des Dames sector, but neither operation possessed the same strategic menace as had the great drive on Amiens. Not that Amiens had been forgotten. On 24th April the Germans mounted a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, heralded as usual by an intense bombardment with gas and high explosive. This time, however, it was not the Storm Troops who emerged from the morning mist but tanks of a totally unfamiliar design.

The tanks’ break-through at Cambrai had at last convinced the Germans that they must, after all, form their own Panzer Corps. Experiments had been going on in a dilatory sort of way since October 1916, conducted by the secret Allgemaine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Verkehrswesen (General War Department 7, Traffic Section), known as A7V for short, which also gave its name to the finished product, of which only a handful had been built by the Spring of 1918.

In form the A7V followed the French concept of an armoured box on a tracked chassis. Its armament consisted of one 57-mm Russian Sokol gun in the front plate, two machine-guns on each side and two at the rear. Although possessing a sprung suspension the vehicle was a poor cross-country performer and had a high centre of gravity. Inside no less than eighteen men were stuffed in supreme discomfort into a space measuring 24 feet by 10 feet, which also housed two 100-h.p. Daimler engines.

In conjunction with five captured Mark IVs, four A7Vs had been used in penny packets on the first day of the Michael offensive. Their use had gone unrecorded by the British, since those who had seen the tanks had either been killed or captured. Thereafter, the tanks’ low mechanical endurance had prevented them from keeping up with the advance.

At Villers-Bretonneux the Germans led their attack with a total of twelve A7Vs. The effect of the tanks on the British infantry was precisely the same as it had been on the German. A three-mile gap appeared in the line, through which the Storm Troops poured into the shattered town.

However, a little way to the south-west lay the Bois de l’Abbe, and lying up in the wood were two Female and one Male Mark IVs of No 1 Section A Company 1st Battalion Tank Corps, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown. The crews were still suffering from the effects of gas but those who had not been totally incapacitated manned their vehicles and proceeded towards the still unbroken Cachy switch-line. Throughout the subsequent action Brown controlled his tanks on foot, running across open ground between them to direct their movement.

No sooner had No 1 Section emerged from the wood than they were warned by the infantry of the presence of German armour. The following extracts are taken from an account of the engagement written by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell, commanding the Male tank.

“I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole, I looked out. There, some 300 yards away, a round, squat¬ looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.”

Mitchell’s right-hand gunner at once engaged the German vehicle with his 6-pounder. He worked under the greatest difficulty, being all but blinded by gas, and was forced to load for himself while the Male pitched in and out of shell holes, his usual loader being one of those left behind in the wood. Meanwhile the A7V, Elfriede of 3rd Panzer Abteilung, was firing at the other tanks in the section with its 57-mm gun. The two Females, being armed only with machine-guns, were powerless to reply and were quickly forced to retire with holes blown in their armour plate. Simultaneously the A7V’s machine gunners were engaging Mitchell’s vehicle, sending the crew diving to the floor as a continuous shower of sparks and splinters flew off the inside of the hull. Mitchell decided to halt so as to give his gunner a better chance.

“The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through his narrow slit, the gunner shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out! Quickly I signalled to the machine gunner and he poured volley after volley into the retreating figures.”

Elfriede’s driver, probably concussed by the thunder-clap explosion of the first 6-pounder round against what Mitchell calls, with some justice, the conning tower, had lost direction and run his tank slantwise onto a steep slope. The second and third hits seem to have caused little damage, but the ground had given way beneath the A7V, which slowly toppled onto its side into a sand pit.

Well pleased with the result of the action, Mitchell set off in a slow-motion pursuit of the two remaining German tanks, which had begun to retire towards their own lines. Unfortunately, a direct hit from an artillery shell brought an end to the chase and Mitchell and his crew were forced to evacuate their vehicle and shelter in the nearest infantry trench.

The state of play was now as follows. On the British side, Mitchell’s Male had been immobilized and Brown’s two Females had retired with battle damage; to balance this one German tank had been knocked out and two more had voluntarily withdrawn, leaving the Storm Troops vulnerable to counter-attack if more British tanks appeared.

That this actually occurred was rather the result of personal initiative than of any grand design. An RFC pilot, flying over the area of the tank battle, had observed the stalled German infantry preparing to advance again towards the switch-line and had dropped a message to that effect into the harbour area of a 3rd Battalion Tank Company three miles west of Cachy.

The tank company consisted of seven Whippets commanded by Captain T. R. Price, who at once set his vehicles in motion. As he approached the battle area Price deployed his tanks into line abreast and advanced at top speed over good going. The Germans, amounting to two battalions, were taken completely by surprise while forming up in a hollow and were massacred as the Whippets tore into them, machine-guns blazing. At the end of their run the tanks wheeled round and combed the area again, the crews later being sickened by the discovery that their tracks were “covered in blood and human remains”. Both German battalions were utterly dispersed with the loss of 400 men killed. British casualties amounted to three killed and two wounded. Three Whippets were slightly damaged by shellfire. A fourth, which against Price’s orders had shown itself on a skyline, was knocked out – at the time it was thought by artillery, although it was later found to have fallen victim to a solitary A7V which remained in the area.

So ended the first tank battle in history. The Germans abandoned their attempt to take Cachy and during the night an Australian attack threw them out of Villers-Bretonneux.


WWII Luftwaffe Generals who won the WWI Pour le Mérite

Oberleutnant Hermann GÖRING ‘The Iron Man’ (22 victories)

The son of Dr Heinrich Göring, Governor of German South West Africa, Hermann Göring was born in Rosenheim, Upper Bavaria, on 12 January 1893. A rebellious and undisciplined child, he was sent to the military academy at Karlsruhe, and from there to Lichterfelde, an army cadet college for future officers. He graduated with the highest honours a cadet could achieve, and received praise from the Kaiser himself. Göring was commissioned into Prinz Wilhelm Regiment Nr 112. He had a passion for mountain climbing and did not shrink from the danger, believing nothing bad could happen to him.

At the outbreak of war his regiment went straight into action as it was stationed at Muhlhausen in Alsace-Lorraine, on the wrong side of the Rhine. When the regiment moved to the Vosges region, Göring contracted rheumatic fever. While in hospital he was visited by his friend Bruno Loerzer, who had served in the same regiment but was now a pilot with the German Army Air Service. His visit gave Göring much to think about, not least the dismal prospect of returning to the cold and the mud. He therefore wrote to his CO requesting a transfer to the Freiburg flying school. After having had no response for two weeks, he ‘obtained’ the papers and signed them himself. He spent the next two weeks flying with Loerzer and getting all the training he could. However, his transfer was refused and he was ordered to rejoin his unit; the situation was serious, as he had left himself open to charges of desertion and forging papers. He immediately telegraphed his godfather, Ritter von Epstein, who moved in high circles, and suddenly Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm intervened, asking that Göring be posted to the German Fifth Army field air detachment. The charges were reduced to one of ‘lateness’, and Göring was given a medical certificate saying he was unfit for front-line duty. It should be remembered here that he was not trying to get out of the fighting–he just wanted to fight in the air.

In the autumn of 1914 he completed his training and then joined Bruno Loerzer at FFA25. They flew together as often as possible, soon winning a reputation for carrying out the most dangerous missions, and in March 1915 were awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In May they were sent to carry out a reconnaissance of the French fortresses of Verdun, a task that many others had tried–and failed. For three days they flew over the Verdun area and took pictures so detailed that General Erich von Falkenhayn asked to see them personally. The High Command were so impressed with the results that Crown Prince Wilhelm exercised his royal prerogative and awarded them both the Iron Cross 1st Class in the field. In June 1915 Göring was posted to Freiburg for pilot training, passing out in October and being sent to FA25. On 16 November, while flying an Albatros, he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Maurice Farman, over Tahure.

In 1916 Göring was posted to Kek Stennay flying Fokker EIIIs, and then in March to Kek Metz, where he shot down a Caudron on the 14th; on 30 July he shot down another Caudron over Memang. On 9 July he went back to FA25, and again to Kek Metz on 7 September. He was posted to Jasta 7 in early October and then on 20 October to Jasta 5. While on patrol on 2 November he came across a Handley-Page bomber; as he closed in on it, he came under fire, which he returned, killing one of the gunners. Then he came under attack from an escorting Sopwith, being hit in the thigh; losing consciousness momentarily, he came to as his aircraft was plummeting to the ground. He was able to regain control and landed next to an emergency hospital just inside the German lines, and within a very short time he was in the operating theatre.

At the beginning of February 1917 Göring was posted to Jasta 26, now under the command of his friend Bruno Loerzer, and by the end of the month had brought his score to six. On 10 May he shot down a DH4 of 55 Squadron over Le Pave and one week later was given command of Jasta 27. Although it had been in existence for three months, this unit had yet to score its first kill. On 16 July Göring shot down an SE5a for his ninth victory but was himself brought down in the process, both pilots claiming a kill. On 21 September Göring shot down the Bristol Fighter flown by Lieutenant R.L. Curtis (fifteen victories) and Lieutenant D.P.F. Uniacke (thirteen victories). His scoring was much slower at this time due to the responsibility of command, and it took until the end of October to bring his tally to fifteen. On 27 October Göring was awarded the Military Karl Friedrich Merit Order, the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order and the Knight’s Cross 2nd Class with Swords of the Baden Order of the Zahringer Lion. On 7 November he achieved his final score for that year, a DH4 north-west of Poelcapelle, although much confusion surrounds this claim as the only British aircraft reported lost on this date was an AWFK VIII two-seater.

It was not until 21 February 1918 that Göring scored again, bringing down an SE5a from 60 Squadron, followed by an RE8 from 48 Squadron on 7 April. On 2 June 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite by the Kaiser, and by the end of that month he had brought down three more aircraft to bring his tally to twenty-one. On 9 July he was given command of JG1, the Richthofen Wing, with promotion to Oberleutnant. His only victory while leading this unit came on 18 July, bringing his total to twenty-two. From then on he did very little flying, having either decided or been ordered to take a more administrative role due to the lack of experienced officers.

On 9 August 1918 the order to cease all further air operations came and he was ordered to transfer his unit’s aircraft to an Allied airfield; Göring obeyed the order but, knowing full well the Allies wanted the latest Fokkers, he ordered his pilots to set fire to their planes on landing. After fighting in the post-war revolution with the rank of Hauptmann, he went to Denmark in a flight advisory capacity, but returned to Germany in the early 1920s.

Göring joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and was appointed commander of the SA in 1923. In November 1923 he was involved in the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’: Ludendorff, Hitler and Göring marched in front of a large column with Ulrich Graf carrying a swastika flag before them; shots were fired and Göring was hit in the hip and thighs. As a result of his wounds he was given two shots of morphine a day for a month.

In 1925 he went into a sanatorium three times to be cured of his morphine addiction, which he did by will-power alone. In 1928 he was elected to the Reichstag, and in 1932 became its President. When Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1933, Göring became Reich Minister, Reich Commissioner for Aviation and Acting Prussian Minister of the Interior; later the same year he was appointed Minister President of Prussia. He was promoted to General in May 1933, but from April his old wounds started to give him problems and he was back on painkillers. In March 1934 he was named as Hitler’s successor. March 1935 saw him appointed General of the Luftwaffe with the rank of Generalleutnant and he was soon promoted Oberstgeneral.

In April 1935 he was appointed Dictator of Raw Material, a post that allowed him to channel resources into the Luftwaffe. In October 1936 he was appointed the person responsible for the ‘Four Year Plan’ intended to make the Reich independent from imports. Göring also appointed himself Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe in June 1937. Throughout that year he tried many weight cures, which only weakened him, and he was still being treated for his addiction to pills. Yet another promotion came in February 1938, this time to Airmarschall. On 30 September 1939 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

Published in 1940, his authorised biography is called Hermann Göring; The Man and his Work. On 19 July 1940, after the fall of France, he was promoted to Reichsmarschall and, uniquely, was awarded the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. He was now at the height of his power.

From the Battle of Britain onwards his influence started to decline, not least because the Luftwaffe proved unable to dominate the skies as he had promised the Fuhrer it would. In 1941 his paratroopers suffered heavy losses in the battle of Crete. He became known throughout Germany as ‘Meier’, due to his boast that no enemy plane would ever fly over the Reich–by now a common occurrence. The Fuhrer lost even more faith in him after the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, as Göring had promised he could re-supply the city from the air, though by now he was completely unable to prevent the bombing of German cities. Reproached by Hitler, he feared being relieved from command of the Luftwaffe, and mood swings now became part of his persona.

In April 1945 Göring sent Hitler his famous telegram stating that he would assume overall leadership of the Reich if he [Hitler] was unable to act freely. Two days later Göring was relieved of all offices and Hitler ordered his arrest. He was supposed to be shot after Hitler’s death but the SS guard was unsure of this and telephoned Feldmarschall Kesselring, who forbade it and told the guard to leave Göring to himself. On 8 May he fell into the hands of the Americans. He was sent to trial at Nuremberg in 1946 and found guilty of war crimes, and killed himself with poison on 15 October 1946. His ashes were scattered in an unknown German river.

Oberleutnant Robert Ritter von GREIM (28 victories)

The son of a police captain, Robert Greim was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on 22 June 1892. At 14 he became a cadet, joining the regular army on 14 July 1911 at the age of 19. He was immediately put forward for officer training and on 29 October 1912 joined Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment Nr 8 and was commissioned Leutnant on 25 October 1913. When the war broke out his regiment was one of the first into action; he commanded a battery at the Battle of Lorraine at Nancy-Epinal, and at the assaults on St Mihiel and Camp des Romains. For these actions he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, and on 15 March 1915 was appointed the 1st Battalion’s Adjutant. At the end of April Greim was awarded the Bavarian Military Merit Order 4th Class with Swords.

Like so many other young men, he began to look at the newly formed German Army Air Service and applied for a transfer. He started his training as an observer on 10 August 1915 and was posted to FFA3b. Greim opened his tally by shooting down a Maurice Farman on 10 October. He was then sent to FA(A)204 as an observer during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but applied for pilot training towards the end of the year. After graduating he was sent to FA46b as a reconnaissance pilot on 22 February 1917 and then to Jastaschule in March for single-seater training. On completing this he was posted to Jasta 34b on 3 April 1917; he now had his aircraft painted with his own markings of a red nose, two red fuselage bands and a white/silvery tail. On 18 May 1917 he was awarded the Bavarian Military Merit Order 4th Class with Crown and Swords.

On 24 May he shot down a Spad over Mamey but this was unconfirmed. The next day he shot down a Caudron R4 over Ramaucourt, and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class. By the end of 1917 he had brought down seven enemy aircraft. On 29 April 1918, with his tally at nine, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order and on 21 March he was given command of Jagdgruppe Nr 10 and later Jagdgruppe Nr 9. In April, May and June he brought down only four enemy aircraft, but in August he shot down six, including two on the 8th. On 8 October 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite and by the end of the month had brought his score to twenty-eight, and subsequently was awarded the Bavarian Max Joseph Medal, entitling him to use the term ‘Ritter von’ (thus making him a knight); he was also promoted to Oberleutnant. After the war he served with the Bavarian Air Service and later became an adviser to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force.

In the early 1930s he became Director of the Bavarian Sport Flyers Association, then in 1934 he joined the newly formed Luftwaffe with the rank of Major, taking command of the Richthofen Geschwader. In 1938 he was promoted to General and during the Second World War commanded Fliegerkorps V, and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 24 June 1940. The Oak Leaves to this medal followed on 2 April 1943 and the Swords on 7 August 1944. By 1944 he was commanding the air fleets in Russia with the rank of Generaloberst. By the time he was captured by the Americans in 1945 he was head of the Luftwaffe, a post given to him by Hitler, who also promoted him to Generalfeldmarschall. He committed suicide on 24 May 1945, his last words being ‘I am head of the Luftwaffe with no Luftwaffe.’ He is buried in the Communal Cemetery, Salzburg, Austria.

Oberleutnant zur See Theodor OSTERKAMP ‘Uncle Theo’ (32 victories)

The son of a forestry worker, Theodor Osterkamp was born in Duren in the Rhineland on 15 April 1892. He was studying forestry himself when the war started, and he volunteered for the Naval Flying Corps in August 1914, requesting to be trained as a pilot. However, the need for observers was greater at that time. On completion of his training he was posted to the Marine Flying Detachment, where for the next two years he flew reconnaissance missions along the Belgian coast. Osterkamp’s success was rewarded with the Iron Cross 2nd Class and a commission to Leutnant zur See in June 1916.

The routine nature of these missions soon started to get to him and in February 1917 Osterkamp applied for pilot training and was accepted in March. On graduating on 14 April, he was posted to MFJ I and the same week shot down his first enemy aircraft, a Sopwith, while on patrol over Oostkerke. By the end of July his tally was five and on 29 August he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and the Knight’s Cross of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order. His sixth victory came on 24 September when he shot down a Spad from Escadrille 31. Then on 15 October 1917 he was given command of MFJ I and promoted to Oberleutnant zur See.

While on a solo familiarisation flight in a new Fokker EV monoplane he was jumped by three Spads and had to bale out of his aircraft, landing behind his own lines. At the beginning of 1918 he spent some time reorganising his unit to make it more efficient and the results started to show. By the end of July his personal tally had risen to nineteen and by the end of August stood at twenty-three. On 2 September 1918 he was awarded the Pour le Mérite. His total stood at thirty-two by the war’s end. After the Armistice he, along with Peter Jacobs and Gotthard Sachsenberg, fought the communists in the Baltic.

Osterkamp took part in the FAI International Tourist Plane Contest Challenge three times, finishing eleventh in 1930, twelfth in 1932 and fifth in 1934. In 1935 he joined the Luftwaffe, and was given command of Jagdfliegerschule Nr I in 1939. He held this post until taking over command of JG51 the following year. During the invasion of France Osterkamp was almost immediately in action, shooting down four enemy aircraft in May and two more during the Battle of Britain, including three Hurricanes and a Spitfire (so perhaps his final score should be thirty-eight). For this he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 22 August 1940. He was appointed commander of fighters in northern France and later Sicily, with the rank of Generalleutnant. He was very critical of the High Command and the way they were directing the air war, and because of this he was retired in 1944. It was probably only the respect that Luftwaffe pilots and ground crew held for him that prevented a worse fate.

He died in Baden-Baden on 2 January 1975.

Oberleutnant Ernst UDET ‘The Flying Clown’ (62 victories)

The son of a wealthy landowner, Ernst Udet was born on 26 April 1896 in Frankfurt-am-Main. He had a flair for anything mechanical, and owned a motorcycle. He tried to join the army first at the age of 17 but was rejected several times before being accepted on 21 August 1914 as a motorcycle messenger for the 26th Wurttemberg Reserve Division. For the next few months he delivered messages up and down the lines. Then one night he swerved to miss a shell hole and crashed; after ten days in hospital, he was sent to find his division but could not. While in Liege he met a pilot, Leutnant von Waxheim, who convinced him to join the German Army Air Service.

Udet made several applications but all were refused and he was ordered back home. He trained as a pilot at his own expense while putting forward more requests to fly. In early 1915 he was ordered to Darmstadt for pilot training, on completion of which he was sent to FA(A)206 with the rank of Gefreiter. Leutnant Bruno Justinus was appointed as his observer. After three long weeks, during which time they never even saw an Allied aircraft, they spotted a French monoplane attacking a railway station. As they approached and got in behind it, it became obvious that the Frenchman was having difficulties. Noticing that the monoplane had a machine-gun mounted behind the propeller, Udet ‘encouraged’ the French pilot to make a forced-landing on the German side of the lines; before he could set fire to his machine, the Frenchman, Roland Garros, was captured by German soldiers. The capture of his aircraft with its machine-gun and crude inter-ruptor gear was to alter the course of the war in the air. For this action Udet was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

On 18 March 1916 Udet was posted to FA68 (which later became Kek Habsheim, and in September Jasta 15), and on the same day he shot down his first enemy aircraft, a French Farman F40, over Milhausen; it is said that he attacked twenty-two enemy aircraft single-handed. It was a good start but he would only score two more by the end of the year. At the beginning of January 1917 he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class and commissioned Leutnant on 22 January. After his sixth victory he requested a transfer to Jasta 37 and was posted there on 19 June. On 7 November he was appointed commander of Jasta 37 after the death of its commander, his friend Heinrich Gontermann. He was also awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords of the Royal Hohenzollern House Order on 13 November. He continued to score steadily and by the end of 1917 had sixteen confirmed victories.

With his tally at twenty, Udet was made acting commander of Jasta 11 on 23 March 1918, a post he held until 8 April. On the 9th he was awarded the Pour le Mérite and given command of Jasta 4. Most of Udet’s aircraft had his fiancée’s initials ‘LO’ painted on the fuselage, and his Fokker DVII had a red fuselage, with the top surfaces of the wings ‘candy striped’ red and white. Written on the top of his rear tail surface was Du noch nicht! (‘Not you yet!’) On 29 July, with his score standing at forty, he was involved in a dog-fight with a French Breguet two-seater; forced to jump from his aircraft, he landed by parachute in a shell hole. In August 1918 Udet shot down twenty enemy aircraft, including three on the 1st and the 8th, and two on the 9th, 10th, 21st and 22nd. He was awarded the Lubeck Hanseatic Cross in August and the Hamburg Hanseatic Cross in September. Then, on 26 September, after shooting down his sixty-first and sixty-second enemy aircraft, Udet was badly wounded in the thigh, putting an end to his combat days. But he had become the second highest scoring German pilot of the war and the highest surviving ace of the war.

After the war Udet became something of an adventurer, flying all over the world. He was also involved in stunt flying for films and worked as a test pilot. At the start of the Second World War he was persuaded to join the Luftwaffe and attained the rank of Generaloberst. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 4 July 1940. However, he could not deal with the political in-fighting within the Luftwaffe and on 17 November 1941 he committed suicide. The German propaganda machine announced that he was killed while testing a new aircraft and he was given a state funeral. He is buried in the Berlin Invaliden Friedhof.

Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Italy around 1000, short after Otto II’s death in 983.

The distinctions between domains, benefices and allodial property remained fluid into the thirteenth century, because it was often not clear how individuals had acquired particular manors and other assets. The greater use of written documentation to record possession inevitably encouraged sharper distinctions and more coherent and exclusive concepts of personal property. Crucially, this occurred during the change from transpersonal kingship to enduring Empire. The exact nature of this process remains hotly debated.

The root problem is semantics: a wide variety of terms were used well before they were defined in legal treatises in the twelfth century. The process of definition undoubtedly changed their meaning and use, complicating the interpretation of earlier evidence. The situation for the Empire was exacerbated by the excessive romanticization of the Germanic past, which reached new heights under the Nazis. Writing in the 1930s, Theodor Mayer presented the Empire as a Personenverbandstaat, or a state formed by ties of personal allegiance. This term proved very influential, yet it rested on imposing quite narrow and often anachronistic definitions on earlier medieval terms. Mayer’s model suggested the early Empire was organized with the king as leader of free warriors bound in personal allegiance. Finally, anglophone historiography brings its own problems, because the term ‘feudalism’ has been overloaded with other anachronistic interpretations implying a conscious system. Variations were part of the reality, not aberrant discrepancies within an otherwise coherent system. Local arrangements were negotiated according to immediate needs. Renegotiation could involve exemptions and changes to the level of burdens associated with fief-holding.

Some viable generalizations can be made. Relations between monarch and fief-holders were always asymmetrical, based on reciprocity and constituting a form of vassalage that became more clearly defined as ‘feudal’ during the twelfth century. Both parties were free men until the emergence of the ministeriales as a new group of unfree vassals in the eleventh century. Throughout, relations involved questions of loyalty and trust, because they were mediated primarily through oral rather than written agreements. General rules were not fully codified until early modernity. The Carolingians and Ottonians used the term honores for both benefice and the function associated with it.

Vassalage could emerge from below as ‘commendation’ whereby a free man placed himself subordinate to a superior lord in return for ‘protection and guardianship’ (Schütz und Schirm). It could also come from being entrusted with a benefice to carry out a specific task. A sharper articulation of rights and responsibilities around the mid-twelfth century clarified this act as ‘enfeoffment’. The term ‘benefice’ was simultaneously displaced by ‘fief’ (feodum).

Vassalage always included rights for the subordinate, especially excluding ‘servile duties’ (opera servilia) like manual labour, which remained a characteristic of the unfree population. Instead, vassals were expected to serve in ‘word and deed’ (consilium et auxilium). The former encompassed constructive advice, while the latter was understood primarily as military service and was driven by the introduction of the armoured cavalryman as a distinguishing feature of Carolingian warfare. The necessary equipment exceeded the resources of most free men, requiring assets to be grouped as benefices to sustain an elite of armoured knights. Although Carolingian and Ottonian lords expected royal campaigns to secure plunder, all accepted that benefice-holding would cover most of the costs of service. This freed the king from having to pay his army. Service was not fixed, but a period of six weeks became customary. Longer campaigns, like Roman expeditions, were restricted to exceptional circumstances agreed in advance at an assembly. The distribution of rich benefices to the imperial church resulted in this providing a substantial part of most emperors’ forces: 15 bishops accompanied Otto II’s ill-fated Italian campaign in 981–2, while twelfth-century archbishops could bring up to 1,700 troops, with 200 to 400 being the average size of an episcopal contingent. Other duties could be expected, especially if these were tied to a particular benefice; for example, garrisoning castles or guarding frontier marches. Senior lords were also expected to attend the royal court, assist in passing judgements, uphold the law and provide advice. Failure to perform duties opened the culprit to charges of ‘felony’ (felonia), providing grounds for the king to escheat the fief.

Vassalage already extended to chains of three of more lords and vassals by 800. A Carolingian capitulary of 799 allowed the church to assign its property as benefices to lay subvassals to circumvent the canon law restriction on clergy serving as warriors. Longer hierarchies benefited the king by creating denser networks capable of mobilizing more men. The trend to hereditary possession was already obvious and could be deliberately granted as an inducement. For example, Charles II ‘the Bald’ allowed those accompanying his Roman expedition of 877 to bequeath their benefices to their heirs. Hereditary possession could aid the king by stabilizing arrangements and giving benefice-holders greater incentive to promote economic development.

The rituals of vassalage changed in line with the shift from benefice to fief, but always remained personal even after written codification. Homage (Latin homagium, German Huld) was the more solemn ceremony in which the vassal became the ‘man’ of his lord; hence the derivation of ‘homage’ from the Latin homo for man. Homage had to be performed in person and was often tied to land or services. Fealty (fidelitas) was an expression of personal allegiance, which could be sworn in person or by proxy. Both types involved personal oaths, which played a prominent part in medieval political culture. The vassal ‘commended’ himself by placing his hands inside those of his lord. The solemn oath accompanying this ‘joining hands’ was sworn on a holy object, such as the portable imperial cross accompanying the king on his royal progress. ‘Defiance’ meant literally renouncing fidelity. Those doing so lost entitlement to their lord’s protection and opened themselves to his punishment, including being deprived of their lands and offices.

Initially, the oath preceded investiture, which involved the lord handing the vassal an object symbolizing both the benefice and the vassal’s status in a wider hierarchy. The Ottonians introduced the practice of handing over a flag to senior lords, which ritual came to characterize duchies, margraviates, counties palatine and landgraviates collectively as ‘flag fiefs’ (Fahnenlehen). Other objects included sceptres, swords, lances, gloves and even twigs. The Salians’ problems with the papacy led investiture to precede the oath under the Staufers, while the whole process came to be considered enfeoffment.

In line with its personal character, vassalage ended in the event of Herren- und Mannfall. At the death of a lord (Herr), all vassals were required to seek renewal of service from his successor, while the death of a vassal (Mann) obliged his heirs to request a fresh enfeoffment. These requirements persisted after the Staufers formally accepted secular fiefs as hereditary. Hereditary fiefs meant that the king could not refuse to enfeoff a legitimate, able-bodied heir, but renewal was still required for the successor to exercise any rights or functions associated with the fief. Lordly families could choose one of their members as legitimate heir. This still required royal endorsement in the case of immediate imperial fiefs, creating additional opportunities for the king to intervene as arbiter of inheritance disputes.

Crown and Imperial Lands

Virtually any kind of property or right could be held as royal domains, fiefs or allodial possessions. Royal domains originally consisted of fairly extensive farmland worked largely by slave labour, as well as mills, fishponds and vast tracts of thinly populated forest reserved for hunting, notably the Dreieich Forest by Frankfurt and the Ardennes near Aachen. These possessions were not managed through centrally planned extraction. Most of the produce was perishable, bulky or both. It was difficult to transport across a kingdom that even an unencumbered rider required a month to cross. Much was consumed locally, just maintaining the producers and those who administered individual assets like palaces. Some produce might be concentrated regionally, for example to support a military campaign. However, the main purpose was to feed the royal entourage on its endless tours of the realm.

It seems likely that the Merovingian monarchy was already partially itinerant and while the Carolingians had favoured sites, they never stayed at them for long. Royal progresses were common in medieval Europe, but itinerant monarchy became a distinguishing feature of the Empire, persisting long after other European kings had largely settled down, and in stark contrast to the self-exclusion of the Chinese emperor in his Forbidden City. The ability to travel extensively distinguished the king from his lords, since he alone could freely move throughout the entire realm. Others would have to pay their way, unless they had strategically placed relations, and could find that prolonged absence weakened their local authority. The practice of royal progress continued well beyond the mid-thirteenth century, but gradually lost its significance as the formalization of elective monarchy by 1356 lessened each new king’s need to show himself to lords absent at his accession. The institutionalization of assemblies in the form of the Reichstag by the late fifteenth century also provided a convenient way to meet everyone at once, while the parallel move to territorially based imperial governance established a new focus in the capital of the imperial family’s hereditary lands.

The needs of itinerant monarchy dictated the extent and location of royal domains, which needed to be scattered to provide sustenance and accommodation along major routes and in areas of political and strategic significance. The Carolingians and Ottonians preferred travelling by river or lakes, given the lack of all-weather roads north of the Alps. Charlemagne had 25 major and 125 minor palaces sustained by 700 different royal estates. Most of these were on or close to the Rhine, Main, Danube, Saale and Elbe.

Aachen was the most important palace (palatium, Pfalz), used since the 760s as a winter residence because of its thermal springs. Other important sites included Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Ingelheim and Frankfurt. Paderborn provided a base in Saxony, while Regensburg served the same purpose in Bavaria. Konstanz and Reichenau on an island in the same lake were key staging posts between Italy and Germany. These locations remained significant into the later Middle Ages. Subsequent royal lines added further sites around their own family properties. The Ottonians developed Magdeburg, Quedlinburg and Merseburg in the Elbe–Saale region. The Salians added Speyer near their own base on the Middle Rhine, but also Goslar in the rich mining region of the Harz in northern Germany. Chapels were already present in Carolingian palaces, but the Ottonians developed closer connections between royal residences and religious sites, favouring royal abbeys and major cathedrals.

Most palaces were unfortified, except those near frontiers. There was no standard design, but the royal apartments were in an imposing building containing a great hall and chapel, while stables, servants’ accommodation and storehouses completed the complex. Aachen became the model for Magdeburg and Goslar as the Ottonians and Salians stressed continuity with the Carolingians. The later Carolingians began fortifying palaces, and already allowed other lords to protect their own residences from the 870s, especially if these were in frontier areas or along rivers vulnerable to Viking raids. Fortifications generally consisted of wooded palisades, sometimes atop a hill (Motte). Henry IV broke tradition by embarking on extensive castle-building to assert tighter control over royal domains in the former Ottonian heartland of Saxony, which risked becoming a ‘distant’ region with the transition to Salian rule in 1024. Using new wealth and manpower from economic and demographic growth, Henry IV constructed at least eight stone castles perched on rocky crags. The most powerful was the Harzburg, built after 1067 on a high hill south-east of Goslar, only approachable along a narrow path. Unlike earlier fortifications that had been intended as refuges for the surrounding population, Henrician castles were only large enough to accommodate a royal garrison intended to dominate the surrounding area.

The Carolingians had already created a special jurisdiction called a Burgwerk surrounding fortifications, which allowed the commandant to draw the resources and labour required to construct and maintain defences. Similar rights were attached to palaces, but were also granted to bishops and abbots so they had the means to develop their churches. Henrician castles were held by the unfree vassals known as ministeriales. By the thirteenth century, castle commanders were called ‘castellans’ (Burgmänner) and were usually endowed with a fief sustaining themselves and their garrison of between 30 and 50 men. These developments promoted the emergence of knights as a distinct group of vassals who were considered the lower echelon of the nobles.

The transfer of fiefs to support castellans was just part of a wider redistribution of resources under revised relationships throughout the Middle Ages. The Carolingians had already endowed monasteries and abbeys with additional royal assets, and the Ottonians extended this to enhance the ability of crown vassals to meet demands for royal service (servitium regis). The practice peaked under the Salians, who added few palaces, preferring instead to stay with abbots and bishops. The difficulties created by repeated clashes with the papacy prompted the Staufers to promote imperial cities as alternative accommodation on crown domains.

Resources were earmarked as Tafelgüter, literally ‘table properties’, supplying food and other consumables to sustain the royal court when it stayed in the associated palace, abbey or city. A rare surviving list from 968 records just one day’s requirements: 1,000 pigs and sheep, 8 oxen, 10 barrels of wine, 1,000 bushels of grain, plus chickens, fish, eggs and vegetables. Information from the better-documented Staufer era indicates that an army of 4,800 troops needed 8,400 baggage attendants, 19,000 horses, mules and oxen pulling 500 wagons, together consuming 2.4 tons of food and 57 tons of fodder daily.

The royal prerogatives included the right to fodrum regis, obliging communities to supply fodder, and to Gistum (hospitality). Various other rights existed, though their terms are not always clear. Fodrum regis retained its original meaning north of the Alps, but by the late Middle Ages meant accommodating the king in Italy where a separate term (albergaria) emerged by the eleventh century to denote obligations to house royal servants and troops. Non-material services could also be required, as indicated by Henry V’s charter removing legal and fiscal obligations from Speyer’s inhabitants in 1111 in return for their performance of an annual mass to commemorate his father buried in the cathedral. Royal service was commuted into cash in Italy during the eleventh century in a process that had become general across the Empire by the thirteenth century. As we shall see, however, indirect control of the Empire through vassalage remained the most important means of governance into early modernity, while the role of royal domains was taken by more extensive hereditary possessions directly held by the ruling dynasty.