Gotha G. IV And G. V Biplane Bombers

Potentially a major, advance in air warfare, the Gotha bomber was Germany’s major weapon in her attempt to subdue England’s civilian population in World War I. From it arose the misguided belief that terror bombing could win wars.

The first Hague Peace Conference in 1899 had banned the dropping of projectiles from balloons but only for a five-year period, and before 1914 the popular press and fiction writers had foreseen air attacks on cities. London’s vulnerability caused a panic in 1913.83 After war began, humanitarian considerations caused little hesitation. The French bombed Ludwigshafen in 1914, and they and the British continued to raid enemy border towns into 1915–16, although neither had yet developed specialized bomber aircraft and the damage caused was slight. From Germany, only Zeppelin airships could reach London, and they came under the German navy. Gradually Wilhelm – who had scruples about targeting historic buildings and his cousins’ palaces, while the Chancellor was worried about neutral public opinion – ceded to the navy’s enthusiasm, and raids on London began on 31 May 1915. For some months the British had no answer, but during 1916 new BE2C aircraft arrived that climbed higher and were stable at night, and fired incendiary ‘Buckingham’ bullets. Supported by better anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and an improved ground observer system, they shot down so many Zeppelins that from September 1916 raids on London ceased. Because of raw-material shortages the airships’ skin was no longer rubberized, and their ribs consisted of wood rather than aluminium, making them even more flammable. The danger seemed over, and in early 1917 the British authorities were winding down their civil defence arrangements.

But the Zeppelins prepared the way for bombing by aircraft. German engineers had been working on the Gotha G-IV bomber since the start of the war, and the OHL wanted it ready for raids to coincide with unrestricted submarine warfare. London, 175 miles from the Gothas’ bases in Belgium, fell within their 500-mile range. Unlike French cities, it could be approached over water, without ground defences, and the Thames estuary provided a conspicuous guideline. Gothas carried a smaller payload than did Zeppelins, but they were faster (87 mph), higher (up to 10,500 feet), more heavily armed (carrying three machine guns), and harder to shoot down. Moreover, whereas the British decrypted the Zeppelins’ wireless code and always had warning of their arrival, the first daylight Gotha raids (codenamed Operation Türkenkreuz) were unanticipated. They killed and injured 290 people at Folkestone on 25 May, and on 13 June they killed and injured 594 in bombing centred on London’s Liverpool Street Station and the East End, including eighteen children at the Upper North Street school in the East India Dock Road; on 7 July another raid on the capital claimed 250 more casualties. By this stage there was media uproar and tense discussion in the War Cabinet. Two fighter squadrons returned from the Western Front (over Haig’s protests) – and a new agency, the London Air Defence Area (LADA), was created under Major Edward B. Ashmore, a gunner moved from Flanders. Ashmore added another barrier of fighters east of London and altered their tactics so that they attacked the Gothas in groups rather than singly, and the same bad weather that bedevilled British troops in Belgium assisted him. In three raids during August the Gothas failed to reach London, and in the last they lost three aircraft, one to AA fire and two to fighters. Perhaps prematurely, they switched to night attacks.

By far the most famous German bombers of the war were the Gotha G. IV and G. V biplanes, which carried out highly successful raids on London in the summer of 1917. They were derived from the earlier Gotha G. II and G. III, which were designed by Hans Burkhard and introduced in 1916. The former proved to be underpowered with its twin 220 hp Benz inline motors, limiting production to just ten aircraft. The latter, however, were powered by two 260 hp Mercedes inline engines and could carry a bomb load of approximately 1,100 lbs. The G. III was also the first bomber that attempted to provide the tail gunner with the ability to fire downward as well as laterally and upward. Replaced on the Western Front fairly quickly by the much-improved G. IV, the G. III was transferred to the Balkans after Romania entered the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The G. IV was introduced in late 1916 and formed the nucleus of Heavy Bomber Squadron No. 3, which by war’s end was to drop more than 186,000 lbs of bombs on London in a series of raids that began with a daylight raid on 25 May 1917. With a wingspan of 77 ft 9.25 in., a length of 38 ft 11 in., and a loaded weight of 7,997 lbs, the G. IV was capable of carrying between 660 and 1,100 lbs of bombs, depending on the mission and the amount of fuel carried on board. In order to have maximum range for the attacks on London, for example, the G. IV carried just 660 lbs of bombs. One of the chief reasons for its success was that its twin 260 hp Mercedes D. IVa inline motors (configured in a pusher arrangement) enabled it to reach a maximum speed of 87 mph and to operate from a service ceiling of 6,500 m (21,325 ft)-a height that was beyond the capabilities of the home defense aircraft used by the British. As a result of the raids, the British were forced to divert top-of-the-line fighters to home defense, forcing the Gothas to switch to nighttime raids. The G. V was a heavier version that had a better center of gravity and featured an improved tail gunner firing arrangement. All versions of the Gothas had a three-man crew. Although precise production figures are not available, it is estimated that 230 G. IVs entered service in 1917. Total production probably exceeded 400, of which forty airframes produced by L. V. G. were supplied to Austria-Hungary and equipped by Oeffag with 230 hp Hiero inline engines.

Kagohl 3

Kagohl 3 was still carrying out raids on French ports and over the front, but casualties were mounting at an alarming rate. At the beginning of February, Ernst Brandenburg returned to take command again, but after one look at what remained of the England Geschwader he had the unit taken off operations to re-organize and re-equip. By the spring of 1918, Kagohl 3 was once more flying combat missions over France and the western front, but they did not attack England again until 19 May.

The raid on 19-20 May was the largest to be mounted against Britain during the whole war, 38 Gothas and three R-planes flying the mission. From 2230 until long after midnight the bombers streamed across to London, and destruction was extensive with over a thousand buildings damaged or destroyed. But the Gothas paid a fearful price. Only 28 of those that took off actually attacked England; fighters claimed three victims, anti-aircraft fire accounted for three more, and one crashed on its return flight.

As had happened with the GIV, the performance of the GV deteriorated as loads increased and serviceability declined, and the 19 May raid had been carried out from only about 5,500ft, whereas earlier night missions with GV’s had been at over 8,000ft. Bombing at such low levels was bound to be expensive.

By June 1918 new types of Gotha were beginning to arrive at Kagohl 3. The GVa and GVb both had shorter noses than the normal GV, box-tails with twin rudders instead of a single fin and rudder, and auxiliary landing wheels under the nose or at the front of each engine nacelle. The GVb could carry a useful load of 3,520lb, 8031b more than earlier models, but its performance was otherwise no better and in some respects inferior. Since the GIV was now obsolete, these aircraft were being supplied to the Austrians for use on the Italian front, or to training squadrons in Germany.

At the end of May the England Geschwader were switched exclusively to targets in France in support of the German spring offensive, including Paris and Etaples, on the French coast. Later they were diverted to tactical targets near the front as the Allies counter-attacked, and the squadron inevitably suffered catastrophic losses. By November it was all over, however, and grandiose schemes to renew the raids on England in 1919 came to nothing as Germany sued for peace.

The casualties suffered by Kagohl 3 at the end of hostilities totalled 137 dead, 88 missing and over 200 wounded. On raids against England alone, 60 Gothas were lost—almost twice the basic strength of the unit. But the Gotha threat kept two British front line fighter squadrons at home at any one time and thereby indirectly benefited the German Air Force in France and Flanders.

Siegfried Sasson, the war poet, observed an air raid – in his case of the Gotha raid of the 17th August 1917 that attacked the City of London. It warrants a paragraph in his “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” “When my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad Street (as indeed it was). “I suppose we may as well go on to the station,” I remarked, adding, “it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!” The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me. At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of my noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front-line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatised to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organised retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . .”

The Peak of German Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

The German blockade of the British Isles, the so-called Sperrgebiet, or “prohibited area,” might be described as a rectangle with cut corners. It ran from 20 miles from the Dutch coast to the Terschelling light vessel, then north to Utsire off the Norwegian coast, and then northwest to 62° N at its most northerly point, dipping to 3 miles south of the Danish-owned Faeroe Islands. It reached its most westerly point at 20° W before angling back to the Continent 20 miles off Cape Finisterre and then extending 20 miles off the neutral Spanish coast to the French frontier. There was also a prohibited zone in the Arctic Ocean, notably the approaches to Archangel and the Kola Peninsula. The Germans declared the waters in the Sperrgebiet closed to traffic, and that all neutral ships entering them would do so at their own risk. The Germans offered to permit one American steamer per week to proceed to Falmouth, provided its hull was marked with prominent red and white vertical stripes and it flew red-and-white-checked flags at each masthead. A daily Dutch paddle steamer with the same markings could also sail between Flushing and Harwich.

The entire Mediterranean was also a Sperrgebiet, except for the area west of a line running southeast from near the mouth of the Rhône to a point approximately 60 miles off the French North African coast. There was also a 20-mile-wide corridor running through the Mediterranean to Cape Matapan and Greek territorial waters. Unarmed neutral vessels were allowed in these waters, although subject to prize rules. The exceptions catered to the maritime needs of neutral Spain and then-neutral Greece. The Germans eliminated the corridor in November 1917.

The Germans soon paid the diplomatic price for their 1 February resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. President Wilson of the United States felt mere diplomatic protests would no longer suffice, and on 3 February the United States severed relations with Germany. The president was still not convinced war was a foregone conclusion, but German action served to make it inevitable. At the end of February, the president learned of the Zimmermann telegram. This proposal by the German foreign secretary for a German-Mexican and possibly German-Japanese alliance in the event of war with the United States seemed to furnish further proof of Germany’s aggressive intentions. Its interception and disclosure were handled in a masterful fashion by British Intelligence. The inevitable sinkings by submarines also occurred. The Cunard liner Laconia (18,099 tons) was torpedoed and sunk by U.50 160 miles northwest of Fastnet on 25 February. The loss of life was relatively small among the 292 aboard, but there were three to four Americans among the twelve dead. There were also at least five American steamers sunk, including the Algonquin torpedoed without warning on 12 March. The German provocations were sufficient to bring the United States into the war. On 2 April Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. On 6 April the United States declared war on Germany—but not Austria-Hungary—and the same day seized German ships interned in American ports. The primary question now was whether the German naval and military leaders were correct in their assumption that it would not really matter and that the war would be over before American power could have any significant effect on events.

The priority given by the Germans to submarine construction in 1917 reflects the results of the unrestricted submarine campaign. At first it seemed all the Germans might have hoped for, even if by late spring it was evident the British might not succumb as fast as the Admiralstab’s U-boat enthusiasts had predicted. The losses inflicted by submarines rose from 328,391 tons in January to 520,412 tons in February, 564,497 tons in March, and a staggering 860,334 tons in April. April 1917 represented the peak of German success in the submarine campaign, for Allied losses fell to 616,316 tons in May. They went up somewhat to 696,725 tons in June, but would never again reach the April total. The “exchange rate” went from 53 in February to 74 in March to an astonishing 167 in April. In February, March, and April the Germans lost only nine submarines; two of them succumbed to their own mines rather than British countermeasures. Three months of unrestricted submarine warfare had reduced the world’s tonnage by more than two million tons, nearly 1.25 million tons British. The annual wastage of oceangoing tonnage was nearly 23 percent per year, rising to more than 50 percent per year in the last fortnight of April. The chance of a vessel safely completing a round voyage from the British Isles to a port beyond Gibraltar was now only one in four. The tonnage added through new construction or by transfer from foreign flags was simply insignificant in the face of these losses, and if they had continued at that rate, the British would have been compelled to make peace by November. As Henry Newbolt admitted in the official history, “Everything, indeed, combined to show that the Allies were really in sight of disaster.”

The Germans also succeeded at first in their goal of terrorizing neutral shipping. British, Allied, and neutral ports were filled with neutral ships whose owners ordered them not to sail, and for a few weeks there was a general paralysis of neutral shipping. The British countered the crisis with ruthless measures of their own. They detained all neutral vessels in British ports and permitted them to sail for another Allied port only if they had received assurances they would not be laid up or diverted to a neutral port. Vessels trading with a neutral port were released only if they arranged to return with an approved cargo to a British or Allied port. Finally, in dealing with Dutch or Scandinavian ships, the British followed the so-called ship-for-ship policy in which vessels were allowed to sail only on the arrival in a British port of a similar vessel of the same flag.

The intense British pressure on neutral ships to continue trading with British or Allied ports was of little use if the ships were sunk. The German onslaught was now overwhelming the British system for the defense of trade, which was exposed as totally inadequate. Troopships had been specially escorted or convoyed since the beginning of the war. Commencing in early March 1917, ships carrying cargo termed “of national importance” were given special routes through one of three triangles that had their apexes at Falmouth, Queenstown, and Buncrana. The ships were ordered to enter the base line of the triangle at a designated degree of longitude and relied for protection within the triangle on patrolling destroyers, sloops, and trawlers. The method was far from perfect; there were only about 20 ships to patrol the approximately 10,000 square miles of each triangle. The loss rate was high; from March to June 1917,63, or 7 percent, of the 890 ships routed in this manner were sunk, and in June the loss rate was a disturbing 11 percent. For the great majority of their ordinary shipping the British relied on a system of dispersion and patrolled lanes along coastal routes, which they considered “had sufficed” in 1915 and 1916. Steamers left ports at dusk and made port at dawn, followed dispersed routes far from the main trade routes, and crossed dangerous points in the hours of darkness. Every steamer received its orders from a specially appointed naval officer, and when the number of patrol craft in service had increased to a sufficient point, were directed to follow certain well-defined and closely patrolled routes that, whenever possible, were close to the shore. The Admiralty would act on intelligence of U-boat activity, anticipate the U-boat’s future movements, and divert trade to alternate routes. When all routes appeared to be threatened, the Admiralty suspended all traffic until the submarine had been destroyed or changed its area of operations.

There were flaws in the system; for example, owing to the requirements of secrecy, local commands did not always have the latest intelligence available from intercepts. Ships could be diverted only as they left port, and there was no method of controlling them while they were at sea. Inbound ships on the approach routes would be acting on even older intelligence. Furthermore, while the suspension of traffic might have saved ships from being sunk, it also had the effect of enforcing the German blockade. The very detailed technical history produced by the Admiralty after the war made a significant point: “It is important to realize that the Routing System was not an alternative to direct protection, whether by patrols or convoy, but an auxiliary to such methods; when such methods were not available, owing to lack of ships, the Routing System could only hope to act as a palliative, and could never be a substitute for proper defensive methods.” Finally, there was another fatal flaw in any system of dispersion. However effective dispersion might have been, there were invariably certain focal points where approach and departure routes converged, and here submarines could count on finding attractive targets.

One of Jellicoe’s first actions after he became First Sea Lord at the beginning of December 1916 was to form the Anti-Submarine Division at the Admiralty. While still commander in chief of the Grand Fleet he had advocated that “a Flag Officer of authority” should preside at the Admiralty over a committee or department charged with the exclusive purpose of developing antisubmarine measures and empowered “to follow through suggestions with all speed and press their execution.” Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Duff was its first head, succeeded when he became assistant chief of the naval staff in May 1917 by Captain William W. Fisher.

The question of what should be done to counter the submarines became the major issue of the naval war by the spring of 1917. For a long time the majority of naval officers, and certainly the prevailing opinion at the Admiralty, was in favor of the system of hunting patrols as opposed to escort or convoy work. The latter was considered “defensive,” as opposed to “offensive” hunting patrols in areas where submarines were known to be operating. Hunting patrols were generally considered the proper role for men-of-war and naval officers. The traffic lanes close inshore were patrolled by the auxiliary patrol, converted vessels that entered service in large numbers during the war. Farther out, the approach routes were patrolled by sloops or Q-ships. The general idea was that no merchant vessel attacked by gunfire ought to have far to steam before a patrol vessel arrived to assist. The fitting of merchantmen with defensive armament had also offered hope earlier in the war when statistics indicated they had less chance of being sunk and a greater chance of escape if attacked. The German switch to ruthless underwater attack without warning canceled that advantage. The initial effectiveness of Q-ships also declined once the surprise factor had been lost and the Germans routinely attacked without warning. There is some evidence the Germans made a deliberate effort to destroy Q-ships in 1917, sinking those that were recognized before they had the slightest chance of defending themselves. U-boat commanders became much more proficient at recognizing through periscopes characteristics such as seams for collapsible plates, which betrayed the nature of the ship. No fewer than sixteen Q-ships were lost to submarine attack in 1917.

The idea of hunting patrols with destroyers or sloops patrolling areas where submarines were known to be operating was also attractive, but the results were disappointing. Naval officers who rode to the hounds ashore sometimes even used the metaphors of fox hunting to describe their goals. But they lacked the “hounds” or tools to pick up the “scent.” Science and technology raised some hopes for defeating the submarine when hydrophones of various sorts were introduced. The hydrophones were first developed by Commander C. P. Ryan, who founded the Admiralty Experimental Station at Hawkcraig, which remained the most important hydrophone research center throughout the war. It was not the only one; there were ultimately no fewer than twenty-nine antisubmarine research centers of various sorts in the British Isles and another two run by the British in the Mediterranean. The British established hydrophone stations on shore and eventually fitted with various types of listening devices all sorts of craft, ranging from motor launches to P-boats, trawlers, and destroyers. Special hydrophone hunting units were formed to try to trap a submarine by triangulation. The listening devices generally failed to fulfill the great hopes placed in them. Without entering into the technical details, they were on the whole too primitive to be a serious menace to the submarine. The hydrophone hunting groups might also necessitate all vessels in the area stopping their engines so as to avoid masking the sound of the submarine. Stopping a ship in waters where submarines were known to be operating was hardly an attractive activity for most skippers. After they entered the war, the Americans also lavished a great deal of effort on hydrophones. The results were equally disappointing. Success in the effort to render the oceans transparent was as elusive then as it remains today. The real counter to the submarine offensive was the system of convoys to which the British belatedly turned. Before discussing this, however, it would be well to examine methods on which the British lavished considerable effort with only limited success.

U-boat War in World War One

Published sources
K.Adm. Arno Spindler, Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten
Erich Gröner, German Warships 1815-1945, vol 2
Robert M. Grant, U-boats Destroyed
Robert M. Grant, U-boat Intelligence
V.E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive 1914-1945
Termote Tomas, Verdwenen in de Noordzee, De Krijger, Erpe-Mere, 1999
Humphreys Ron, The Dover Patrol, Sutton, Stroud, 1998
Eberhard Rössler, Die Unterseeboote der Kaiserlichen Marine
Ryheul Johan, Marinekorps Flandern, Mittler, Hamburg 1997
Gibson & Prendergast, The German submarine war 1914-18
K.Adm Stoelzel, Ehrenrangliste der Deutschen Kaiserlichemarine
Bendert, Harald, Die UB-Boote der kaiserlichen Marine 1914 – 1918
Bendert, Harald, Die UC- Boote der Kaiserlichen Marine 1914-1918

Fortress Berlin I

Last Defence before Berlin

By early April the situation for Army Group North, now renamed Army of East Prussia, deteriorated further. Its forces were now hemmed in around the Bay of Danzig from Samland and Konigsberg to the mouth of the Vistula. The remnants of two corps were given the task of holding positions north of Gotenhafen on the Hel peninsula. Hitler demanded that it be held and all costs. He instructed all forces in the Army of East Prussia and Army Group Kurland, to stay in the front, and then hold in order to draw the maximum enemy forces toward itself and hopefully away from the main Soviet drive on Berlin.

In the first two weeks of April as German forces tried to maintain their unstable position in the north the Red Army pulled together its forces into three powerful fronts with the main front being directed against Berlin. In the north the 2nd Belorussian Front was to cross the Oder north of Schwedt and strike toward Neustrelitz. Its thrust was intended to drive out the defending 3rd Panzer Army back against the coast and cover the advance toward Berlin on the north. German forces, however, were determined to try and hold their positions for as long as possible and prevent the Russians from taking possession of German territory. But in spite of dogged resistance in many places the Germans no longer had the man power, war plant or transportation to defend their positions effectively. The 3rd Panzer Army had 11 remaining divisions, whilst the 2nd Belorussian Front had 8 armies totalling 33 rifle divisions, 4 tank and mechanized corps, and 3 artillery divisions plus a mixture of artillery and rocket launcher brigades and regiments. The Germans were dwarfed by enemy superiority but continued to fight from one fixed position to another.

By mid-April the 2nd Belorussian Front had successfully pushed back the 3rd Panzer Army and had taken a bridgehead ten miles long above the city of Stettin. Inside Stettin the city had been turned into a fortress and was being defended by ‘Fortress Division Stettin’. It was formed out of parts of the 3rd Panzer Army, and during its defensive battle it put up a staunch defence.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front the Germans were trying their utmost to hold back the Russian drive. By April 1945 the atmosphere among the troops of Army Group Vistula became a mixture of terrible foreboding and despair as the Russians prepared to push forward on the River Oder. Here along the Oder and Neisse fronts the troops waited for the front to become engulfed by the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed by the Russians. General Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and General Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front were preparing to attack German forces defending positions east of Berlin. For the attack the Red Army mustered some 2.5 million men, divided into four armies. They were supported by 41,600 guns and heavy mortars as well as 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns.

At dawn on 16 April 1945, just thirty-eight miles east of the German capital above the swollen River Oder, red flares burst into the night sky, triggering a massive artillery barrage. For nearly an hour, an eruption of flame and smoke burst along the German front. Then, in the mud, smoke, and darkness, the avalanche broke. In an instant, General Zhukov’s soldiers were compelled to stumble forward into action. As they surged forward, the artillery barrage remained in front of them, covering the area ahead.

Under the cover of darkness on the night of 15th, most German forward units had been moved back to a second line just before the expected Russian artillery barrage. In this second line, as the first rays of light prevailed across the front, soldiers waited for the advancing Russians. Along the entire front the 3rd and 9th Armies had fewer than 700 tanks and selfpropelled guns. The largest division, the 25th Panzer, had just 79 such vehicles: the smallest unit had just two. Artillery too was equally spurse with only 744 guns. Ammunition and fuel were in a critical state of supply and reserves in some units were almost non-existent. Opposing the main Russian assault stood the 56th Panzer Corps. It was under the command of General Karl Weidling, known to his friends as ‘smasher Karl’. Weidling had been given the awesome task of preventing the main Russian breakthrough in the area.

When the Soviet forces finally attacked during the early morning of 16 April, the Germans were ready to meet them on the Seelow Heights. From the top of the ridge, hundreds of German flak guns that had been hastily transferred from the Western Front poured a hurricane of fire into the enemy troops. All morning, shells and gunfire rained down on the Red Army, blunting their assault. By dusk the Russians, savagely mauled by the attack, fell back. It seemed the Red Army had underestimated the strength and determination of their enemy.

By the next day, the Russians had still not breached the German defences. But General Zhukov, with total disregard for casualties, was determined to batter the enemy into submission and ruthlessly bulldoze his way through. Slowly and systematically the Red Army began smashing through their opponents. Within hours hard-pressed and exhausted German troops were feeling the full brunt of the assault. Confusion soon swept the decimated lines. Soldiers who had fought doggedly from one fixed position to another were now seized with panic. The Battle for Berlin had now begun.

Fortress Berlin – Encirclement

On Monday, 23 April in the weakly beating heart of Nazi Germany the less-important courtiers of Hitler’s regime were taking their leave. As some left, others moved in, among them were Magda Goebbels and her six children. Outside the Fuhrer bunker, across the bomb- and shell-ravaged city, Berliners waited for the battle to begin on their doorsteps.

Having fallen back on Berlin, General Helmut Weidling, commanding LVI Panzer Corps, although under sentence of death, arrived at the Fuhrer bunker to find that he was now commander of the capital’s defenders. His own corps consisted of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions, the Muncheberg Panzer Division, the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and fragments of 9th Parachute Division. All were now at a tithe of their titular strength, therefore Weidling told off all bar 18th Panzergrenadier Division, which constituted his reserve, to strengthen the eight defence sectors. The force available to Weidling numbered approximately 45,000 army and SS men and 40,000 Volkssturm with roughly 60 tanks. It was anticipated that stragglers and more cohesive groups would swell the numbers over the next few days.

However, according to NKVD General I. A. Serov’s report on the condition of the city’s defences there was little for Weidling’s men to stand behind: ‘No serious permanent defences have been found inside the 10–15km zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.’ Further comments included intelligence gained from Volkssturm POWs who told how few regular troops were in Berlin, how short of arms and equipment they were and how unwilling the Volkssturm was to fight.

Unaware of this report, troops of First Belorussian Front began to move cautiously into suburban Berlin from the north, the east and the south-east. The main thrust was an attack by Fifth Shock, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies. Several units of Eighth Guards crossed the Spree and Dahme rivers in the direction of the suburb of Britz, on the Teltow canal. To their right, Fifth Shock, with the support of gunboats of the Dnieper Flotilla, also crossed the Spree.

Further west along the banks of the Teltow canal Konev’s Third Guards Tank Army, supported by a colossal concentration of artillery, prepared to launch itself across this vital water barrier. Opposing them were numerous Volkssturm battalions braced with elements of 18th and 20th Panzergrenadier divisions.

The Nordland Division, falling back in the face of Zhukov’s Guards infantry and tanks, took the opportunity to refuel its armour at Tempelhof airfield. Any possible repairs were made, and they even received armoured reinforcements. However, the bulk of the fighting rested on the weary shoulders of the infantry, and on 24 April they were launched in a series of counterattacks to push the Soviets back across the Spree river. As Weidling’s counterattacks began, so did Konev’s canal crossing. Soviet artillery and mortars began firing at 06.20 hrs, and 40 minutes later the first footholds had been established. Fighting desperately, the Panzergrenadiers and Volkssturm were unable to hold the line and by midday T-34s began to cross the newly erected pontoon bridges.

To the east Zhukov’s troops held their ground and then counterattacked so successfully in their turn that they overran Treptow Park and reached the line of the S-Bahn railway, where they halted to regroup and bring up supplies.

Third Shock Army, approaching the outskirts of Berlin from the north-east, made steady progress passing through the infamously communist district of Wedding to reach the Schiffahrts canal.

Surrounded though Berlin was to the north-west and the west, the Soviet ring was as yet fairly porous as a group of French Waffen SS men found out as they made their way from the north, passing on the way thousands of refugees, Wehrmacht stragglers and escaping foreign workers. The French were subordinated to the Nordland Division just at the time it was retiring to defend Tempelhof airfield alongside the few tanks and men of the Muncheberg Panzer Division. This latter formation was a remarkable unit, having been formed less than two months previously around a cadre of men and machines from the Kummersdorf equipment-testing facility. Its armoured component included examples of nearly every tank and armoured fighting vehicle ever produced, including one-off experimental types. Even after the losses it had suffered at Seelow Heights and during the retreat into the city the Muncheberg Division could still pack a punch. But even this armoured miscellany could not hold Tempelhof indefinitely. LVI Panzer began to withdraw towards the city centre during the afternoon of 25 April. An officer of the Muncheberg Division described ‘incessant Russian artillery fire…despite strong artillery fire the civilians population tried to escape’ but more ominously the wounded soldiers were ‘left where they were for fear of running into the hands of the mobile courts.’ In the hell that Berlin was becoming, drumhead courts martial roamed the streets rounding up apparent deserters and hanging them from any convenient tree or lamppost with a sign describing them variously as ‘traitors to the Reich’, ‘cowards’ or any other suitable insulting epithet. The officer continued describing the cries of women and children, the whistles of Stalin Organs and the smell of death and explosives mixed with chlorine. His last words were ‘The fight continues tenaciously.’

With Zhukov’s forces heavily engaged around Tempelhof and the Hohenzollern–Schiffahrts canal and the Fifth Shock Army moving into the Freidrichshain district on the eastern edge of the city, First Ukrainian Front had split the defences on the Teltow canal forcing 20th Panzergrenadier Division onto Wannsee Island as its left flank pushed through the Grunwald forest towards Charlottenburg and the centre advanced driving the Volkssturm and 18th Panzergrenadier Division back towards the city centre.

Now, almost everywhere the fighting was taking place in densely built-up areas which neither the Soviets nor the Germans had experienced so seriously since Stalingrad 30 months before. Bombing and shelling had destroyed many buildings creating ready-made fortresses in which defenders could take cover and from which they could launch tip-and-run ambushes. Trams, shattered vehicles, rubble and all manner of everything to hand was pressed into the creation of barricades to block roads and junctions. Where possible, slit trenches and machine-gun or Panzerfaust pits were dug. Railway tunnels were demolished and the guns of the three immensely strong Flak towers were turned to face the approaching Soviet armour.

In the cellars of buildings German troops waited with Panzerfausts, and suddenly Soviet tank and infantry losses began to rise dramatically. Countermeasures were drawn from Chuikov’s notes made during the Stalingrad campaign with updates from his recent experience of urban warfare in Poznan, and the small infantry assault group made its return.

But outside the city events were shaping somewhat differently, and in Hitler’s bunker the last politicking of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’ continued at fever pitch.

Fortress Berlin – Fantasy Armies

So far the advance into Berlin was proceeding well but German Ninth and Twelfth armies were beginning to fight back and pose problems for Konev’s rear to east and west. Moscow had been lax in dealing with these formations as its focus was the battle for Berlin. However, when it came, the reaction was swift. General Busse’s Ninth Army included men from XI SS Panzer Corps and V SS Mountain Corps as well as survivors of the Frankfurt garrison and V Corps, in all, upwards of 80,000 troops. The number of civilians who had attached themselves to Ninth Army was not recorded. However, Busse still had 31 tanks fuelled from abandoned vehicles. Ninth Army had been in contact with Wenck’s Twelfth Army on the Elbe river. On 22 April Hitler had agreed to General Field Marshal Jodl’s suggestion that Twelfth Army should be rotated eastwards from its position opposite the Americans on the Elbe and set out to rescue Berlin. Ordering General Field Marshal Keitel to ‘co-ordinate the actions of Twelfth and Ninth armies’, Hitler packed him off with brandy, sandwiches and chocolate for the journey to Wenck’s HQ. Back in the Spree forest Busse was heavily engaged fighting off units of First Belorussian Front. Keitel reached Wenck on 23 April and delivered the order to save the capital. Hitler so lacked trust in his senior officers that he demanded that the order to save Berlin be broadcast on the national radio channel. When Keitel departed, Wenck and his staff planned their move. Part of Twelfth Army would march to Potsdam at the extreme western edge of Berlin while the greater part would head east to link up with Ninth Army. The objective was simple – to save as many soldiers and civilians as possible from the Soviet advance and then fall back to the west, where a screening force was to remain on the Elbe. When the men of the Twelfth Army were informed of this operation there appears to have been little dissent. For the people of Berlin, Wenck’s arrival could not come too soon, as it was about their only hope of deliverance from the Soviets, other than the arrival of the Anglo–Americans. Indeed, so wrapped up in the fantasy was Hitler that he informed Weidling on 25 April that Ninth and Twelfth armies would ‘deliver a crushing blow to the enemy’. Just what sort of blow could be delivered by two small, understrength forces that lacked fuel, armour, men and munitions was not detailed.

Wenck’s XX Corps, composed of four inexperienced, newly raised infantry divisions, set off eastwards on 24 April. One of its units, the Ulrich von Hutten Infantry Division, headed for Potsdam, and the others for Ninth Army.

The route that both Ninth and Twelfth armies were to follow led through forests, the most dangerous points of which were the crossing of open spaces, notably the roads that ran across their path. Busse’s force began its exodus on 25 April, ignoring all signals from Berlin. However, behind Ninth Army’s rearguard followed Zhukov’s II Guards Cavalry Corps and elements of Thirty-Third and Sixty-Ninth armies. Konev contributed Third Guards and Twenty-Eighth armies. It was a gap between these two armies that Ninth Army broke through on 26 April after bitter fighting. For the next five days Ninth Army fought its way through three lines of extemporised Soviet defence. Finally, on 1 May, Busse’s advance guard linked up with Twelfth Army at the village of Beelitz. Behind them came the rest, moving, as Busse described it, ‘like a caterpillar’. Roughly 25,000 soldiers had escaped, along with uncounted civilians.

Although Konev had had to switch his focus to his rear flanks the effect on the Berlin operation had not been critical.

Tactically the Soviet style had altered. Tanks no longer drove in column down the centre of a road but operated in pairs, one on each side of the road, giving cover to each other from Panzerfaust-wielding ambushers in the cellars and basements, or Molotov cocktails dropped from windows and rooftops. Supporting infantry operated in assault groups of between six and eight, armed with close-order weapons such as submachine-guns, grenades, knives and sharpened shovels. Artillery of all calibres was deployed to clear away barricades and stubborn pockets of resistance. And everywhere were flamethrowers and engineers with demolition charges for ‘bunker busting’.

Late on 26 April, Tempelhof airfield was abandoned as the Muncheberg and Nordland divisions’ remaining armour was ordered back to the Tiergarten. With room to manoeuvre, Chuikov projected his left flank across Konev’s right, cutting First Ukrainian Front off from the Reichstag and glory. As the fighting began to close in on the central defensive area, the Citadel, German reinforcements arrived in the shape of some Kriegsmarine personnel and Latvian SS men.

Elsewhere, Spandau Prison, on the Havel river to the north-west was taken and Gatow airfield came under ground-attack. Along the Landwehr canal, Fifth Shock Army was making progress onto the Wilhelmstrasse while Third Shock Army crossed the Westhafen canal. Pushing on throughout 27 April, the Soviets reduced the German defence area to a zone 5km by 15km, which roughly ran from the Alexanderplatz in the east to Charlottenburg and the Reichssportsfeld in the west.

News, inside this enclave and outside, as Soviet control of many areas was incomplete despite their best efforts, was at a premium as the radio service had virtually ceased to function, therefore one of the major sources was the tabloid Der Panzerbar – The Armoured Bear, referencing Berlin’s symbolic animal, the bear. Der Panzerbar’s headline for 26 April ran, ‘The battle has reached its climax, German reserves are rushing to Berlin.’ Lower down the page, a box read: ‘Whoever shows cowardice over fighting like a man…is nothing but a low-down bastard.’ The same day an attempt was made to relieve 20th Panzergrenadier Division but failed.

In some areas the defenders established in strongly built structures held out. On Third Shock Army’s front the Stettiner Railway Station posed particular problems, as did the Schleisischer Railway Station and the Lowen Brewery for Fifth Shock Army. In these cases the Germans enjoyed the fire support of the two massive flak towers at Humboldthain and Friedrichshain respectively.

Fortress Berlin II

Eighth Guards Army was now responsible for flushing out German resistance in the Tiergarten, where, as various participants in the action recalled, the rhododendrons were just coming into bloom, and the Anhalter Station.

During the course of the next day, 28 April, Wenck’s thrust towards Potsdam linked up with the forces stationed there and began to evacuate them to the west. Commanding a skeletal unit still called a division there was General Reymann, the officer formerly in charge of Berlin’s defences.

However, the crowning moment of 28 April belonged to Third Shock Army’s LXXIX Rifle Corps which, having fought its way down Alt Moabit, came in sight of the Reichstag. During First Belorussian Front’s preparations for the Berlin offensive, senior officers had familiarised themselves with the landscape of Berlin by means of a massive architectural model, on which the Reichstag was objective 105.

With his empire’s capital reduced to a smouldering heap, Hitler, ensconced in his bunker, continued to act as though he still controlled armies by the dozen and subjects by the million. Having decided to remain in Berlin and die, Hitler, on 27 April, having stripped Goering of all his offices for alleged treason, received General von Greim and appointed him commander of the Luftwaffe. Others, such as Albert Speer, the Minister for Arms Production, had already made their farewells. Indeed, on 23 April Speer had described Hitler as an old man resigned to death. Again on 27 April Hitler had repeated his order to Ninth and Twelfth armies that their attacks must be, ‘principally to save Berlin’ but no response was forthcoming. SS Obergruppenfuhrer Fegelein, brother-in-law of Eva Braun, the Fuhrer’s mistress, was arrested and later executed for alleged knowledge of Himmler’s plot to negotiate with the Anglo–American governments. This covert scheme of Himmler’s was, for Hitler, the final straw, particularly when it was confirmed by Reuters News Agency on 28 April. Convinced there was no longer anyone he could trust, Hitler married Eva Braun and dictated his political and personal statements. Appointing Grand Admiral Doenitz Reich President, he blamed an international Jewish cabal for forcing him to go to war. Command of the army was given to General Field Marshal Schorner, who was leading the remains of Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia. Having completed his paperwork he joined his wife, and the newlyweds retired to bed. It was Sunday 29 April.

Fortress Berlin – Collapse

The advance along Alt Moabit towards the Spree river by two infantry divisions of Third Shock Army, the 150th and 171st, had brought them, on 28 April, within 800m of the river, across which lay the Reichstag. To reach this objective they had to cross the Spree, and in front of them was the intact, inviting shape of the Moltke bridge. Barricaded and mined with artillery and machine-guns to both flanks, the bridge would not make for easy crossing, however. The task was made more difficult when, at 18.00 hrs, the Germans blew it up, but the explosives had only done a partial job and it was clearly passable on foot. Having arranged artillery covering fire, an infantry platoon, led by Sergeant Pyatnitsky, led the crossing. As the Hitlers celebrated their wedding, more and more men of both Soviet divisions crossed the river into the governmental sector, an area dotted with the monolithic ministerial buildings, many of which were heavily fortified and garrisoned. The first building that the 150th Infantry Division had to contend with was the Ministry of the Interior. As it was impossible to bring heavy guns over the Moltke bridge, hand-to-hand combat went on all morning.

At dawn on 29 April another of Fifth Shock Army’s units, 301st Infantry Division, attacked the Gestapo HQ on Prinz-Albrechtstrasse. Preceded by point-blank artillery fire, two battalions overcame the defenders and planted a Red Flag on the roof. But the victory was short-lived as a fierce counterattack by men of the Nordland SS Division reoccupied the building.

Simultaneously, Eighth Guards and First Guards Tank armies crossed the Landwehr canal and were now within 2km of the Reichstag. The guards infantry had either swum or used improvised rafts, accomplishing the crossing under cover of a smokescreen. However, the Potsdammer bridge was captured intact by the faking of a fire on board a T-34; oily rags on its hull were set ablaze, then the crew opened fire on the defenders at close range as more tanks followed through the smoke. A dug-in Tiger I formed part of the defences as by now almost all fuel had been used up. Damaged vehicles were used as anti-tank positions until they were overwhelmed.

Chuikov’s right flank was now almost opposite Weidling’s HQ in the Bendlerstrasse. Weidling, realising that the end was approaching rapidly, conferred with his senior officers informing them that Twelfth Army had reached Potsdam. Following a situation report that indicated that there were approximately 10,000 troops in the Citadel area, it was decided that a breakout towards the west would be made at 22.00 hrs the following day. Naturally Weidling had to seek Hitler’s permission for the breakout and visited him the next day. Two days earlier Weidling had proposed leaving the city with Hitler under close escort but the Fuhrer had declined. Weidling’s second attempt was initially refused but later in the day permission was granted as long as the escapees joined up with combat formations to continue the fight. Word of the attempt was spread as rapidly as possible. But as Weidling laid his plans, so did First Belorussian Front. Remarkably Stalin had been comparatively relaxed during the Berlin operation, allowing his Front commanders to guide matters more freely than had been the case. Possibly this light touch was the result of having surrounded the city, thereby denying access to the Anglo–American forces.

The Reichstag was the focus of attention for Zhukov and his subordinates; it was the symbolic building that he wished to present to Stalin in time for the 1 May parade in Moscow. The honour of mounting the first attack on the Reichstag fell to 150th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General V. M. Shatilov, a part of Third Shock Army. Under orders to carry submachine-guns, and having eaten a hearty breakfast prepared for them in the cellars of the Ministry of the Interior, the first wave went into the attack at 06.00 hrs on 30 April.

To reach the Reichstag the attackers had to cross the open ground of the Konigsplatz, which was cut across with a flooded anti-tank ditch some 3m wide. Heavy fire from the partially bricked-up windows of the Reichstag caused considerable casualties, which increased sharply when crossfire from the Kroll Opera House hit the attackers’ right flank and rear. Cut off while other units were sent to subdue the Opera’s defenders, the first assault wave hugged the ground until, a little after 11.00 hrs, they reached the anti-tank ditch. For another two hours they lay and endured fire from the Reichstag, itself under continual bombardment, until risking a further charge. Once again hit by flanking fire, this time from the flak tower in the zoo grounds, the Soviet infantry sought cover in shell holes and behind broken barricades. As they lay waiting for darkness few suspected that at 15.15 hrs Hitler and his wife had committed suicide. At 18.00 hrs Weidling was summoned to the Fuhrer bunker and told of Hitler’s death. Sworn to secrecy, he was also told to forget the breakout attempt, as an armistice was about to be requested and as Berlin’s commander he would be required to be present.

Less than a kilometre away from the bunker the Soviets launched their final attack on the Reichstag. Heedless of casualties and under cover of smoke, dust and the coming of darkness, three infantry regiments rushed the building with armoured support. Breaking into the vast reception hall the men of 150th Infantry Division found the defenders had either hurried upstairs or gone to the cellars. For several hours vicious fighting continued from room to room as flag bearers attempted to reach the roof.

Officially the Red Flag was planted on the Reichstag’s dome at 22.50 hrs as the fighting raged below.

Six hours later General Krebs was ushered into Chuikov’s HQ, where he remained while news of his appeal for an armistice was passed up the chain of command. Stalin was only prepared to offer unconditional surrender, which Krebs felt unable to accept. As May Day morning drew on and no word was received from the Germans they were given a reminder of the power they were facing as the guns of First Belorussian Front let loose a shattering bombardment. In the Reichstag and in other government buildings the battle continued into the afternoon. But elsewhere across the city isolated German units began to capitulate as the Soviet troops celebrated May Day.

At 06.00 hrs on 2 May Weidling crossed into the Soviet positions and while Martin Bormann and other of Hitler’s cronies tried to make good their escape, arranged the surrender of the Berlin garrison with effect from 15.00 hrs that day.

The agreement to surrender did not end hostilities immediately. Although a recording of Weidling’s voice was broadcast there were few who heard it. A leaflet-drop achieved more success and gradually the news spread across the city. However, there were those who did not wish to surrender, such as members of the foreign SS units who had no home to return to and only a cause to die for, as surrender, to them, meant, more often than not, immediate execution. Such men fought on until killed during the course of the next two or three days. Thousands attempted to escape in groups of varying sizes and with different results. Some reached Twelfth Army in Potsdam but many were rounded up by the growing cordon of NKVD and regular troops established by Zhukov to ensure that neither Hitler nor his closest followers such as Goebbels eluded capture. The hunt for Hitler and the others now proceeded apace as the population of Berlin tried to come to terms with their new situation.


Weidling had surrendered to General Chuikov, entirely appropriately in the minds of many, as it was his valiant defence of Stalingrad that had turned the tide on the Eastern Front, but there were other armies’ surrenders to consider, especially now that Berlin had capitulated, in particular, Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia.

General Field Marshal Schorner, a particularly devoted Nazi, had signalled Doenitz on 2 May that Army Group Centre was well supplied with munitions and fuel and would head for the Elbe river. However, events overtook Schorner as Konev’s First Ukrainian and Malinovsky’s Fourth Ukrainian fronts bore down on his forces threatening them with encirclement. Then, on 4 May, the population of Prague rose up and broadcast appeals in English and Russian for help in ridding their country of the Germans. Schorner attempted to regain control of the city but at this point the Russians intervened. However, these were not Stalin’s men but Vlasov’s renegade Russian Liberation Army, which had regrouped around Prague after the debacle on the Oder. Having briefly supported the insurgents, the newly convened Czech National Council told Vlasov and his men to go. With the Soviets closing in, representatives of Army Group Centre surrendered to the Czechs in preference to Konev. Caught completely off balance, Moscow only ordered Konev and Malinovsky to move on 6 May. When Soviet overtures to Army Group Centre went unanswered a brief battle took place and on 9 May First Ukrainian and Fourth Ukrainian fronts linked up in Prague. Army Group Centre surrendered the same day, as did German units isolated at the mouth of the Vistula river.

Back in Berlin the days immediately following the garrison’s surrender had been busy ones for the city’s new masters. In keeping with Russian military tradition the general commanding the first troops into a city became its governor. Therefore, this honour fell to General Nikolai Berzarin, commander of Fifth Shock Army, who was appointed to the post by Zhukov on 26 April. What Zhukov and Berzarin did not know was that the city was to become an NKVD fiefdom and the NKVD owed its allegiance to Stalin and not the Red Army. Indeed, it was NKVD and SMERSH operatives from Third Shock Army, chosen to avoid any connection with Berzarin, who took responsibility for the hunt for Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis. Information regarding this matter was denied to Zhukov and his staff.

The bodies of Hitler and his wife were finally discovered on 5 May and promptly smuggled out of Berlin to a SMERSH forensic unit. Dental records confirmed the cadavers’ identities two days later.

As the NKVD combed Berlin for Nazis, great and small, Berzarin busied himself with governing the city. With an army to feed and house he was remarkably tolerant towards the German population. Hospitals were opened, the utilities were restored and civilians cleared the rubble-filled streets, and corpses were buried to prevent the spread of disease as summer drew on. Indeed, when Berzarin was killed in a motoring accident the sadness of Berliners was genuine.

As well as the NKVD being beyond the control of the Red Army so too were the ministerial representatives from Moscow who arrived in Berlin tasked with the removal of as much of Germany’s industrial equipment as could be taken as reparations. Entire factories were shipped to the USSR, many simply to rot by the railways in Siberia. However, alongside the nuts and bolts, intellectual property and, more importantly, the ore to produce atomic weapons were at the top of Stalin’s list. Operation Borodino, the Soviet atomic research programme, was to benefit from the capture of the scientists and the plant and research undertaken at a facility south-west of Berlin, but the Soviet scientists’ particular need was uranium. The home of Germany’s atomic research was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which was captured on 25 April. Although much had already been evacuated before the NKVD cordoned the area off, ‘250kgs of metallic uranium, three tons of uranium oxide and 20 litres of heavy water’ were discovered there, which amounts were adequate for the Soviets’ immediate requirements. Other sources of uranium lay in Saxony and Czechoslovakia, now also accessible to the USSR, but only after the peace treaties had been signed.

During 2 May on Germany’s Western Front the provisional German government under Grand Admiral Doenitz published directives that continued the war against the Soviets with the simple intention of allowing as many Germans as possible to escape to the west. War with the Western Allies would continue only where they disturbed this policy. The same day the remains of Army Group Vistula surrendered. The next day Ninth and Twelfth German armies east of the Elbe river opened negotiations with American Ninth Army and began to cross to the west in significant number on 4 May. Simultaneously, Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the surrender of all German forces in Holland, Denmark and northern Germany. General Field Marshal Jodl, as Doenitz’s representative, was sent to meet with Eisenhower at his HQ in Rheims. Unable to avoid unconditional surrender, Doenitz ordered Jodl to sign a total capitulation document with effect from midnight on 8 May. At midday on 7 May Doenitz ordered all commanders on the Eastern Front to ‘fight their way through the Russians if they had to’ but above all to head for the west as soon as possible. Furthermore, all hostilities against the Western Allies were to cease. Jodl also obtained a statement from Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff that the Wehrmacht High Command would not be held accountable should ‘individual soldiers and some units’ disobey the surrender order.

Signatures were affixed at 02.41, one of which was that of General I. Susloparov, the Soviet representative attached to Eisenhower.

Livid, Stalin insisted on a ceremony in Berlin as the Red Army was still fighting Army Group North in Courland and Army Group Centre in Czechoslovakia.

On 8 May Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz from the USA and General de Lattre de Tassigny, representing France, arrived in Berlin at the same time as Jodl and the German delegation. At Zhukov’s HQ the Allies signed the act of surrender, followed by the Germans, who then left the city. The deed was done and the celebrations began; the battle for Berlin and Europe ended at 23.01 hrs on 8 May 1945.

Hitler’s ‘Fortified Area’ Order March 1944

The Führer            Führer Headquarters

High Command of the Army          8th March 1944

Führer Order No. 11        

(Commandants of Fortified Areas and Battle Commandants) In view of various incidents, I issue the following orders:

A distinction will be made between ‘Fortified Areas’, each under a ‘Fortified Area Commandant’, and ‘Local Strong points’, each under a ‘Battle Commandant’. The ‘Fortified Areas’ will fulfil the functions of fortresses in former historical times. They will ensure that the enemy does not occupy these areas of decisive operational importance. They will allow themselves to be surrounded, thereby holding down the largest possible number of enemy forces, and establishing conditions for successful counter-attacks. Local strong points deep in the battle area, which will be tenaciously defended in the event of enemy penetrations. By being included in the main line of battle they will act as a reserve of defence and, should the enemy break through, as hinges and corner stone’s for the front, forming positions from which counter-attacks can be launched.

Each ‘Fortified Area Commandant’ should be a specially selected, hardened soldier, preferably of General’s rank. The Army Group concerned will appoint him. Fortified Area commandants will be instructed to personally be responsible to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army Group. Fortified Area Commandants will pledge their honour as soldiers to carry out their duties to the last. Only the Commander-in-Chief of an Army Group in person may, with my approval, relieve the Fortified Area commandant duties, and perhaps order the surrender of the fortified area. Fortified Area Commandants are subordinate to the Commander of the Army Group, or Army, in whose sector the fortified area is situated. Further delegation of command to General officers commanding formations will not take place. Apart from the garrison and its security forces, all persons within a fortified area, or who have been collected there, are under the orders of the commandant, irrespective of whether they are soldiers or civilians, and without regard to their rank or appointment. The Fortified Area Commandant has the military rights and disciplinary powers of a commanding General. In the performance of duties he will have at his disposal mobile courts-martial and civilian courts. The Army Group concerned will appoint the staff of Fortified Area Commandants. The Chiefs of Staff will be appointed by High Command of the Army, in accordance with suggestions made by the Army Group

The Garrison of a fortified area comprises: the security garrison, and the general garrison. The security garrison must be inside the fortified area at all time. Its strength will be laid down by Commander-in-Chief Army Group, and will be determined by the by the size of the area and the tasks to be fulfilled (preparation and completion of defences, holding the fortified area against raids or local attacks by the enemy). The general garrison must be made available to the Commandant of the fortified area in sufficient time for the men to have taken up defensive positions and be installed when a full-scale enemy threatens. Its strength will be laid down by the Commander-in-Chief Army Group, in accordance with the size of the fortified area and the task which is to be performed (total defence of the fortified area).


The First Battle of Heligoland Bight I

British light cruiser HMS Arethusa, Commodore Tyrwhitt’s flagship in the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War

The outbreak of the First World War occurred at a moment of extreme good fortune for the Royal Navy. Instead of the normal summer manoeuvres in 1914, there was held a test mobilisation of the Third Fleet – the reserve units that would be brought to operational readiness in case of war. This began on July 15, 20,000 reservists having been called up, and on July 17-18 a grand review of the entire fleet took place at Spithead. On the days following, the fleet put to sea for tactical exercises; after this, on July 23, the units of the Third Fleet began to return to their home ports. On July 26, with the diplomatic situation having sharply deteriorated, Battenberg, as First Sea Lord, suspended the demobilisation. It thus came about that the First Fleet, soon to be called the Grand Fleet, was effectively on a war footing and on the night of July 29/30 it sailed through the Dover Straits en route for its battle stations at Scapa Flow, Cromarty and Rosyth.

The Grand Fleet, at the outbreak of war, consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battle Squadrons and the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron, a total of twenty one dreadnoughts, four battle cruisers and eight predreadnoughts. In addition there were the 2nd and 3rd Cruiser Squadrons, comprising eight armoured cruisers; and the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron of four ships, with nine other cruisers and forty two destroyers. It left behind the Channel Fleet, based on Portland, consisting of the 5th, 7th and 8th Battle Squadrons, with a total of nineteen predreadnoughts. At Harwich, under Commodore Tyrwhitt, who reported to Jellicoe, was a force of light cruisers and destroyers, together with a force of the newer submarines under Commodore Keyes. In addition, there were a series of Patrol Flotillas based on Dover, the Humber, the Tyne and the Forth. The 12th Cruiser Squadron patrolled the western end of the Channel.

The bases to which it was steaming were not, however, by any means in an ideal state. The navy’s traditional bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth were too far from the North Sea to be useful and Chatham, on the east coast, was also too far to the south. It had been resolved, therefore, as early as 1903 to establish a first class base at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth, where the excellent anchorage was roughly equidistant from Heligoland and the Skagerrak. The extensive works required, however, were frequently postponed for economic reasons; in addition, as Professor Marder observed, the Firth of Forth did have a number of disadvantages, which contributed to the delay, such as its exposure to danger from minelaying, the limited area of deep water above the line of defence, and the tidal stream above what Fisher, who disliked Rosyth, called ‘that beastly bridge’.3 Since Rosyth would not be fully ready until 1915, it was resolved to look about for what were termed ‘advanced bases of a temporary and auxiliary character’, and these were found at Cromarty Firth and Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

Scapa Flow and its strategic significance was succinctly described by one of its historians:

A large area of water, some 120 square miles of it, almost totally enclosed by a ring of islands, the South Isles of Orkney, and this whole mosaic of land and sea, poised strategically just off the north coast of Scotland, divides the long grey surges of the Atlantic Ocean from the equally inhospitable waters of the North Sea. It is this combination of geographical location and natural formation which has given Scapa Flow its unique character and its potential as a naval base; a potential it has held throughout the centuries, for whoever controls it commands the North Sea with easy access to either side of the British Isles and the wide oceans of the world beyond.

Originally there were nine major entrances to Scapa Flow, but four of these were later blocked during the Second World War by massive causeways. The principal entrance used by the larger units of the fleet was Hoxa Sound, between the islands of Flotta and South Ronaldsay; smaller vessels such as destroyers tended to used Switha Sound, between Flotta and Switha. The actual appearance of Scapa Flow was lyrically described by the Orkney author Eric Linklater, who wrote:

On calm days the islands floated on a deep-blue sea in a charm of shadowed cliffs and reddish moors, the harvest was ripe, and the fields were bearded with bright gold or gay in a lovely green. The forehead of the hills rose in smooth lines against a lucent sky, and rippled lakes provoked a passion for mere water.

Thus Scapa Flow in the golden days of summer; but during less clement weather it was a grim place to be. Linklater also wrote of the experience of a south easterly gale as enduring ‘such a hurly burly, so rude and ponderous a buffeting, that one could hardly deny a sense of outrage, a suspicion that the wind’s violence was a personal enmity.’

In the Napoleonic wars a battery was built, to defend Longhope Bay together with two Martello towers; but during the following century little more was done to make Scapa Flow a secure naval base, and it was virtually defenceless when the Grand Fleet arrived. Nonetheless, it had its advocates, most prominent of whom was Fisher who, after the war, wrote in characteristically boastful terms, to The Times, to claim to have discovered it:

Once looking at a chart in my secluded room at the Admiralty, in 1905, I saw a large landlocked sheet of water unsurveyed and nameless. It was Scapa Flow. One hour after this an Admiralty survey ship was en route there. Secretly she went for none but myself and my most excellent friend the Hydrographer knew.

It was to Fisher that Jellicoe wrote as late as January 1915 to express his concern at the complete defencelessness of Scapa Flow as a base for the Grand Fleet:

If you would only just compare the orders for the protection of the High Seas Fleet … with the arrangements here you would be horrified. I wonder if I ever slept at all. Thank goodness the Germans imagine we have proper defences. At least so I imagine – otherwise there would be no Grand Fleet left now.

Churchill was particularly concerned about the seriousness of the submarine threat to Scapa Flow. Prompted by a letter from Beatty complaining that ‘we are gradually being pushed out of the North Sea and off our own particular perch,’ he demanded action, addressing a note to the First Sea Lord, the Third Sea Lord, the Fourth Sea Lord and the Naval Secretary on October 24:

Every nerve must be strained to reconcile the fleet to Scapa. Successive lines of submarine defences should be prepared, reinforced by electric-contact mines as proposed by the Commander-in-Chief. Nothing should stand in the way of the equipment of this anchorage with every possible means of security. The First Lord and the First Sea Lord will receive a report of progress every third day until the work is completed and the Commander-in- Chief satisfied.

Nevertheless, in the years before the war, in spite of Fisher’s enthusiasm for Scapa Flow, he and Churchill had supported the Admiralty’s view in 1912 that Cromarty Firth would be a better choice as the advanced base for the main fleet. The conclusive reason for this appears to have been the Admiralty’s finding that the sea could run so high inside Scapa Flow as to make the use of a floating dock and repairing facilities at times impracticable. The recommendation went on to note that Cromarty was connected to the rail network of the UK. In addition:

Apart from its primary value as a second class naval base Cromarty has a secondary and slightly less important value as a War Anchorage. Under the protection of the defences provided for the security of the floating repairing facilities, vessels containing fuel and stores of all kinds may be accumulated for the use of the fleet, forming a source of supply alternative and supplementary to Rosyth. Owing to the vast size of modern fleets, which makes their accommodation at a single anchorage almost impossible, the provision of supplementary war anchorage is a matter of great importance.

Cromarty, the Admiralty recommended, should be heavily fortified, whilst Scapa Flow should not be provided with fixed defences. This, it appears, was due solely to the cost involved. Cromarty, unlike Scapa Flow, could easily be made impregnable to attack from submarines; the multitude of entrances to Scapa Flow made the cost greater than, it was thought, justifiable. Thus it was that the Grand Fleet’s principal base at the outbreak of war was undefended. By comparison, the defences of the bases of the High Seas Fleet were, as Professor Marder put it, ‘simply terrific.’

The High Seas Fleet, which had been cruising off the Norwegian coast, was not immediately recalled because it was feared that this step would escalate the diplomatic crisis. By July 26, however, William was prepared to wait no longer and ordered the recall of the fleet. It returned to its bases to prepare to execute the War Orders issued to it. These were summarised by Scheer:

The order underlying this plan of campaign was this: The Fleet must strike when circumstances are favourable; it must therefore seek battle with the English Fleet only when a state of equality has been achieved by the methods of guerrilla warfare. It thus left the Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet freedom of action to exploit any favourable opportunity and put no obstacles in his way, but it required of him that he should not risk the whole Fleet in battle until there was a probability of victory. Moreover, it started from the assumption that opportunities would arise of doing the enemy damage when, as was to be expected, he initiated a blockade of the German Bight which was in accordance with the rules of International Law.

This assumption, that the British would penetrate at once into the Heligoland Bight, underpinned German thinking to the point that if it simply did not happen, Germany might in the words of Ivo Nicolai Lambi, be in the position of approaching the war ‘with no definite plans for naval operations against Britain and the Triple Entente.’ This assumption was held, as has been pointed out, after a series of war games to test the likely outcome of a British imposition of a blockade. In readiness for the imminent attack, the High Seas Fleet began on July 31 to move through the Kiel Canal to its bases on the North Sea. By the outbreak of war on August 4 the two dreadnought squadrons of the battle fleet, the I and II, were respectively stationed at the mouth of the Jade River and behind the Jade Bar, while Scheer’s II Squadron of eight predreadnoughts was assigned to the mouth of the Elbe between Cuxhaven and Brunsbüttel. Hipper’s I Scouting Group of four battle cruisers was at the mouth of the Jade. The other Scouting Groups, consisting of light cruisers and destroyers, were deployed around the entrances to the Jade, Elbe and Weser rivers.

On both sides, the taut expectation of immediate action was disappointed, and within two weeks this was already being strongly felt. Tyrwhitt wrote from Harwich on August 15 that he was starting to feel ‘rather bored at looking for nothing’ and that he was ‘beginning to give up hope of getting at the Germans for some time.’ Beatty was similarly disillusioned, writing to his wife on August 24:

We are still wandering about the face of the ocean and apparently get no nearer to the end. In fact we have not begun yet. This waiting is the deuce and, as far as we can see, has no limit. We are entirely in the hands of our friends the Germans as to when he [sic] will come out and be whacked.

The Germans shared the British feeling of surprise, but for Scheer the postponement of any immediate confrontation was all to the good:

The fact that an English offensive did not materialise in the first weeks of the war gave cause for reflection, for with every day’s grace the enemy gave us he was abandoning some of the advantage of his earlier mobilisation, while our coast defences were improved. The sweep of light cruisers and destroyers which, starting out star-wise from Heligoland, had scoured the seas over a circumference of about 100 sea miles had produced nothing.

Roger Keyes, as commodore commanding the submarines, based at Harwich, was even more discontented than his friend Tyrwhitt, especially following an incident in the southern part of the North Sea on August 18. That day, two German light cruisers, Stralsund and Strassburg, covered by a screen of submarines, came out in search of British patrols. They met the light cruiser Fearless, commanded by Captain Wilfred Blunt, which was leading sixteen destroyers of the Harwich 1st Flotilla. Fearless was a 3,440 ton cruiser of the Active class, armed with 10 – 4 inch guns; Stralsund and Strassburg were both 4,550 tons of the Breslau class, carrying 12 – 4.1inch guns. Blunt, however, after having gone in pursuit of Stralsund, wrongly identified her as the armoured cruiser Yorck, of 9,350 tons, mounting 4 – 8.2 inch guns and 10 5.9 inch guns. Fearing that the armoured cruiser’s guns would outrange those of his force, Blunt turned away and called for support from Tyrwhitt. Had Stralsund continued steaming southwest in pursuit of Fearless, she would have sailed into a trap; but her captain being warned of this, she turned away.

This prompted an anguished letter from Keyes to Leveson, the Director of Operations of the Naval War Staff, on August 21:

When are we going to make war and make the Germans realise that wherever they come out – destroyers, cruisers, battleships or all three – they will be fallen on and attacked? I feel sick and sore … a light cruiser equal in offensive power to the Fearless, has put 16 destroyers and the Fearless to flight. However one glosses it over, those are the facts. Don’t think I am blaming Blunt or his captains . But it is not by such incidents we will get the right atmosphere.

Burning to take the offensive, Tyrwhitt and Keyes conceived a plan for a raid into the Heligoland Bight. Strictly speaking, both of them were under the command of Rear Admiral Christian, the overall commander of the Southern Force, but they were resolved themselves to take the initiative. The plan was based on information gathered by Keyes’s submarines about the German patrols in the Bight. It was noted that their practice was for light cruisers to lead out a flotilla of destroyers each evening; the destroyers then fanned out during the night, returning the following morning to rejoin the light cruisers 20 miles NW of Heligoland. Keyes ‘was of opinion that a well organised drive, commencing inshore before dawn, should inflict considerable loss on the returning night patrols’. The plan was revised to provide that the advance was not to be made until 8.00am, so that the target would now be the enemy’s daytime destroyer patrols. Two lines of submarines were to be posted to attack any German cruisers that came out to support their destroyers. The strike force was to be Tyrwhitt’s new flagship, the light cruiser Arethusa, and Fearless, leading the 1st and 3rd Flotillas respectively. Support would be provided by the battlecruisers Invincible and New Zealand, based in the Humber.

Keyes, who at first had received little attention from the Naval War Staff when he first took his plan to the Admiralty on August 23, obtained an interview with Churchill who was immediately taken with the scheme. Next day a meeting with the First and Second Sea Lords was convened, to which Keyes and Tyrwhitt were invited, and the plan was approved with some variations. These in part were due to the fact that the operation was intended as a cover for the proposal to land three Royal Marine battalions to hold Ostend.

The intention was for Keyes to sail on August 26 and the remaining forces next day, so that the sweep could begin on August 28. Extraordinarily, the Naval War Staff did not tell Jellicoe of what was planned until two days after the meeting, and then he was only informed that a sweep by the 1st and 3rd Flotillas was planned for August 28 from east to west, commencing between Horns Reef and Heligoland with battlecruisers in support. Two hours later, at 4.35pm, Jellicoe replied that he proposed to cooperate in the operation and asking for full details of the plan; he would leave at 6.00am on August 27. He got no immediate reply, and his next signal, at 5.54pm illustrated his perplexity:

Until I know the plan of operations I am unable to suggest the best method of cooperation, but the breadth of sweep appears to be very great for two flotillas. I could send a third flotilla, holding a fourth in reserve, and can support by light cruisers. What officers will be in command of operations, and in what ships, so that I can communicate with them? What is the direction of the sweep and [the] northern limits, and what ships take part?

Sturdee’s indifference to Jellicoe’s concern may be judged by the tone of his eventual reply, sent just after midnight on August 27: ‘Cooperation by battle fleet not required. Battlecruisers can support if convenient.’20 Jellicoe ordered Beatty and Goodenough to sail at 5.00am on August 27, and himself put to sea with the 2nd and 4th Battle Squadrons at 5.45 pm that day; the 1st and 3rd Battle Squadrons were already at sea. Beatty aimed to rendezvous with Moore’s two battlecruisers 90 miles NW of Heligoland. As Goldrick remarks, Jellicoe’s ‘sane measures had restored some chance of success to what had become a dubious venture indeed.’ Meanwhile nobody told Tyrwhitt and Keyes of the support they were to receive. When the Admiralty finally sent a message to Harwich for them they were by then out of range for a wireless message from the port.

Deficient though the Admiralty’s management of the operation was, the German dispositions in the Bight were such as to give the British plan every chance of success. Responsibility for the patrols belonged to Hipper as commander of the scouting forces, but Ingenohl, characteristically, issued instructions as to how the patrols should operate. Erich Raeder, Hipper’s Chief of Staff, was extremely critical in his memoirs:

According to these instructions, the light forces, during daylight, were stationed in patrol sectors centred on the outermost Elbe lightship and covering the entire Bight. Upon approach of darkness they would steam to sea to form an advanced picket line against any approach, and then return to their inshore stations at daylight. Naturally, as the patrolling ships ranged farther and farther from Heligoland, the circles widened and the gaps between the respective patrol craft increased. Consequently the ships had to patrol singly, instead of in pairs or groups as prudence would have dictated in the presence of a strong enemy… using the light cruisers for routine picket line work not only exposed them to enemy submarine attacks, but likewise took them, as it also did the torpedo boat squadrons, away from their correct tactical employment – which was to conduct long range night reconnaissance.

The consequence of these fundamentally defective dispositions was soon to be dramatically demonstrated.

Keyes, with the destroyer leader Lurcher and Firedrake, and eight submarines, put to sea at midnight on August 26. He was followed five hours later by Tyrwhitt with the Harwich Force, while at the same time Moore sortied from the Humber, his two battlecruisers accompanied by four destroyers. Finally the five elderly armoured cruisers that constituted Cruiser Force C, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Christian, sailed on the night of August 27 to patrol off Terschelling. What followed was an extremely confused affair indeed.

At about 3.30 am Tyrwhitt’s lookouts sighted dark shapes approaching from astern, which to his great surprise turned out to be Goodenough’s squadron. Tyrwhitt, puzzled by this, signalled: ‘Are you taking part in the operation?’ To this Goodenough replied: ‘Yes, I know your course and will support you. Beatty is behind us.’ It was as well that Tyrwhitt now knew the true position; the silhouette of Goodenough’s light cruisers, having two masts and four funnels, would have led them to be taken to be enemy ships. Keyes, still in ignorance of Goodenough’s arrival, was soon to do just that.

The First Battle of Heligoland Bight II

German destroyer V187 sinking during the Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28th August 1914 in the First World War.

The situation was further complicated by the weather; as the British forces steamed eastward, a thickening fog reduced visibility. First contact came just before 7.00 am, when the 1st Flotilla sighted the German destroyer G 194, which made off southeast, pursued by Laurel and three others of the 4th Division. Hipper, on receiving the news, issued an order to the light cruisers Stettin and Frauenlob to ‘hunt destroyers’; the other light cruisers were ordered to raise steam. Tyrwhitt turned to follow Laurel and the others; meanwhile other German destroyers were steering parallel with Arethusa. The German destroyers, the V Flotilla, were soon suffering from engineering problems as they were unprepared for high speed operations; their speed dropping, they called for cruiser support, of which the first elements, in the form of Stettin and Frauenlob, arrived at 7.57 am.

Fearless engaged Stettin, scoring one hit before the German light cruiser turned away, principally to raise steam in all her boilers; Fearless turned SSW to follow Arethusa. Tyrwhitt’s flagship was engaging Frauenlob, and having rather the worst of it, suffering 15 direct hits on the side and waterline and many inboard. However she hit Frauenlob 10 times before turning away to the west; her adversary did not follow, retiring south eastward. While this was occurring Keyes, to the north west, had sighted two four funnelled cruisers which he supposed to be hostile, being still unaware of Goodenough’s presence.

At 8.20 am Fearless and her destroyers sighted the isolated German destroyer V187. Attempting to outrun the 5th Division of destroyers sent by Blunt to pursue her, V187 found herself steaming directly towards Lowestoft and Nottingham, detached by Goodenough to support Tyrwhitt. V187 executed a 180 degree turn, but now encountered the rest of Blunt’s flotilla. Within a few moments she was fatally damaged; her remaining gun fired at and hit Goshawk.. At 9.10 am V187 went down. As several boats from the British destroyers moved towards the survivors in the water Stettin reappeared; Captain Nerger was unaware that rescue operations were in progress, as he later reported:

At 9.06 am eight destroyers were sighted bunched together. I at once signalled the Admiral commanding the Scouting Forces, ‘Am in action with flotilla in square 133,’ turned to port and opened fire at 7200 metres. The first salvo straddled and thereafter many hits were observed. While most of the destroyers scattered, two remained on the spot, apparently badly damaged, but were soon lost to sight in the mist.

In addition to Stettin and Frauenlob, Hipper had also ordered Köln and Strassburg from Wilhelmshaven and Mainz from Ems to put to sea, while the elderly Hela and Ariadne, which had been on patrol, were also at sea. Köln was the flagship of Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, the commander of the II Scouting Group. In addition, Hipper put three further light cruisers on standby, being Stralsund, Danzig and München. At this time Hipper was unaware of the presence at sea of Beatty’s battlecruisers, but at 8.50am he asked Ingenohl: ‘Will you permit Moltke and Von der Tann to leave in support as soon as it is clear?’ Pondering this. Ingenohl replied at 9.08 that the battlecruisers would be released only when the full strength of the British was known, subsequently authorising the sortie.24 As Eric Osborne points out, however, the exchange was academic. That day, the tide was particularly low, and the depth of water over the Jade Bar was at 9.33 only twenty six feet. Both battlecruisers drew over twenty six feet, and would in any case not be able to pass the bar before noon. Two battleships, Heligoland and Thüringen were outside the bar; but Ingenohl refused to allow them to weigh anchor.

Meanwhile at 8.55am Fearless had come up with the badly damaged Arethusa, and with her steamed slowly west south west, while the flagship’s crew worked desperately to repair some of the damage. Hearing from Keyes at 9.45 that he was being chased by enemy cruisers (in fact Goodenough’s light cruisers) Tyrwhitt turned back towards Heligoland. His speed, however, was down to ten knots and he soon realised that Keyes had in fact seen Goodenough’s ships, so he turned again and then, at 10.20, stopped to continue the repair work, Fearless and the 1st Flotilla remaining with him while the 3rd Flotilla continued to the westward.

Anxious to get to grips with the enemy, Maass did not wait to concentrate what would, united, have been a powerful force of light cruisers. His failure to do so was his undoing. He was unaware of Beatty’s presence at sea, or even that of Goodenough. When he left Wilhelmshaven he did so in clear weather with good visibility; in the Bight, however, there was a thick fog, which also delayed Mainz as it left the Ems estuary. None of the German units involved had warned Maass of this. In Köln he steamed northwest, which so far as he knew was the direction in which to find the British, while Strassburg steamed west north west aiming at what was taken to be the flank of the British fores. Mainz was ordered to pursue a course NNE to aim at Tyrwhitt’s rear.

At 10.55 Strassburg sighted Arethusa and Fearless through the mist, and opened fire. Tyrwhitt considered his force outgunned and turned away southwest, launching a destroyer attack on the German light cruiser. As it turned away, to avoid the torpedoes, all of which missed, it lost contact with Tyrwhitt’s ships; Captain Retzmann decided not to renew the action because of the risk of further torpedo attacks. Next on the scene was Köln: the brief engagement that resulted followed the pattern of that involving Strassburg. Significantly, however, Tyrwhitt identified Köln as an armoured cruiser of the Reon class, and radioed Beatty for support. The latter’s immediate reaction was to order Goodenough to detach two more light cruisers; but Goodenough decided to head for Tyrwhitt with all four remaining ships of his squadron.

Strassburg now reappeared, and brought Arethusa and Fearless under such heavy fire that Blunt followed up Tyrwhitt’s previous appeals with another message to Beatty: ‘Assistance urgently required.’27 It was about 11.30am. Beatty was at this time about forty miles north west of Tyrwhitt’s force, and he had an immediate and difficult decision to take, which he discussed with Chatfield, his Flag Captain:

The Bight was not a pleasant spot into which to take great ships; it was unknown whether mines had been laid there, submarines were sure to be on patrol, and to move into this area so near to the great German base at Wilhelmshaven was risky. Visibility was low, and to be surprised by a superior force of capital ships was not unlikely. They would have had plenty of time to leave harbour since Tyrwhitt’s presence had been first known. Beatty was not long making up his mind. He said to me, ‘What do you think we should do? I ought to go and support Tyrwhitt, but if I lose one of these valuable ships the country will not forgive me.’ Unburdened by responsibility, and eager for excitement, I said, ‘Surely we must go.’ It was all he needed but whatever I had said would have made little difference.

Beatty turned his squadron to the south east, at a speed of 26 knots. At 11.45 he altered course to ESE, increasing speed to 27 knots, signalling to Blunt that he was coming to his support.

Meanwhile Mainz had arrived, and had begun engaging the destroyers of the 1st Flotilla. Just as she threatened to inflict serious damage, however, Goodenough appeared. Mainz at once turned away, as her first lieutenant later described:

Immediately on identifying three cruisers of the ‘Town’ class ahead of us the helm of the Mainz was put hard over to starboard, but even in the act of turning the enemy’s first salvos were falling close to us and very soon afterwards we were hit in the battery and the waist.

As she headed south at her maximum speed, Mainz sighted Fearless with six destroyers. Opening an accurate fire, she disabled Laurel, and then concentrated on Liberty, hitting her twice, and wrecking her bridge and killing her captain. Transferring her fire to Lysander and Laertes, she hit the latter with a salvo of six shells, hitting her boilers and bringing her to a standstill. It was an impressive demonstration of what would have been the vulnerability of Tyrwhitt’s force had it not been so heavily supported.

By now, however, Goodenough’s cruisers had again caught up with Mainz, and subjected her to a furious cannonade. Briefly, Mainz disappeared into the mist, and was almost at once torpedoed by the destroyer Lydiard; when she became visible to Goodenough’s cruisers, she was lying nearly stopped. Lieutenant Stephen King-Hall, in Southampton, described Mainz’s fate:

We closed down on her, hitting with every salvo. She was a mass of yellow flame and smoke as the lyddite detonated along her length. Her two after funnels melted away and collapsed. Red glows, indicating internal fires, showed through gaping wounds in her sides. At irregular intervals one of her after guns fired a solitary shot, which passed miles overhead. In ten minutes she was silenced and lay a smoking, battered wreck, her foremost anchor flush with the water. Ant-like figures could be seen jumping into the water as we approached. The sun dispersed the mist, and we steamed slowly to within 300 yards of her, flying as we did so the signal ‘Do you surrender?’ in International Code. As we stopped the mainmast slowly leant forward, and, like a great tree, quite gradually lay down along the deck. As it reached the deck a man got out of the main control top and walked aft – it was Tirpitz junior.

At 12.25pm Goodenough ordered ‘cease fire’ and Lurcher went alongside the stricken cruiser to rescue survivors. Keyes, seeing one young officer remaining on the poop after superintending the removal of the wounded, called to him and held out his hand to help him:

But the boy scorned to leave his ship as long as she remained afloat, or to accept the slightest favour from his adversary. Drawing himself up stiffly, he stepped back, saluted, and answered: ‘Thank you, no.’

At 13.10 Mainz went down, the survivors in the water being picked up by Firedrake and Liverpool. Among them were the young officer and also Lieutenant Wolf von Tirpitz. When the latter came aboard Liverpool, he was grateful for his courteous reception:

They offered us clothes while our own were drying in the engine room. We were given port wine and allowed to use the wardroom. Only the sentries before the door reminded us that we were prisoners. Shortly after I came on board the captain sent for me and read me a wireless signal from his admiral: ‘I am proud to be able to welcome such gallant officers on board my Squadron.’ I repeated this message to my comrades. It cheered us up, for it showed that Mainz had made an honourable end.’

By now, Beatty’s battlecruisers were arriving on the scene. Almost at once, Strassburg turned away; but Köln turned too late, and for seven minutes presented an unmissable target for the main armament of the battle cruisers, which inflicted terrible damage on her. She was given a reprieve when Ariadne, steaming for the sound of the guns, appeared. Lion shifted her fire to the elderly cruiser, and her consorts joined in; Ariadne lurched away, a mass of flame and smoke. Beatty, anxious to keep his ships concentrated, and fearful of reported mines in the vicinity, also turned away and went to finish off Köln. Ariadne stayed afloat until 3.10pm by which time Danzig had arrived to take off survivors.

Beatty soon found Köln again, sighting her at 1.25pm. Lion’s first salvo smashed the armoured conning tower, the steering gear, and the engine rooms. Chatfield watched her destruction:

She bravely returned our fire with her little four-inch guns aiming at our conning tower. One felt the tiny four-inch shell spatter against the conning tower armour, and the pieces ‘sizz’ over it. In a few minutes the Köln was also a hulk.

Köln sank within ten minutes; of her crew of five hundred men only one, a stoker, survived. Beatty now ordered all the British forces to withdraw, particularly keen to get the damaged vessels away as quickly as possible.

At 2.25 Moltke and Von der Tann, under Rear Admiral Tapken, belatedly arrived on the scene; Ingenohl had ordered them ‘not to become engaged with the enemy armoured cruiser squadron,’ and Hipper had instructed Tapken in any case to wait until he himself arrived in Seydlitz, an hour behind. When he arrived, the three battle cruisers, with Kolberg, Stralsund and Strassburg, began a search for the missing cruisers, but it was soon evident to Hipper that they must have gone down, and at 4.00pm he turned for home.

Tyrwhitt, in the crippled Arethusa, limped homeward until 7.00pm when her engines failed, and he had to radio for assistance, which arrived in the form of the armoured cruiser Hogue at about 9.00pm, and which took her in tow. As she entered the Nore, Arethusa was cheered all the way. At Sheerness, Churchill came aboard and, as Tyrwhitt described, ‘fairly slobbered’ over him. The victory, such as it was, had come at just the right moment to confirm the public belief in the supremacy of the Royal Navy. Beatty wrote to his wife to tell her of the victory:

Just a line to say all is well. I sent Liverpool in to Rosyth today with some prisoners and wounded. We got at them yesterday and got three of their cruisers under the nose of Heligoland, which will have given them a bit of a shock. The ones in the Liverpool were all that were saved out of one ship and, alas, none were saved from the others that sank. The 3rd disappeared in fog in a sinking condition and I doubt if she ever got back. I could not pursue her further, we were too close already and the sea was full of mines and submarines, and a large force might have popped out on us at any moment. Poor devils, they fought their ships like men and went down with colours flying like seamen, against overwhelming odds.

Beatty’s euphoria did not last long; by September 2 he was complaining bitterly to his wife at the lack of any commendation from the Admiralty:

I had thought I should have received an expression of their appreciation from Their Lordships, but have been disappointed, or rather not so much disappointed as disgusted, and my real opinion has been confirmed that they would have hung me if there had been a disaster, as there very nearly was, owing to the most extraordinary neglect of the most ordinary precautions on their part. However, all’s well that end’s well, and they haven’t had an opportunity of hanging me yet and they won’t get it.

In fact, Beatty did subsequently get his commendation in the form of a letter from the Admiralty on October 22, expressly referring to ‘the risks he had to face from submarines and floating mines’ in bringing his force into action.

The defeat imposed even greater caution on the German high command, and the Kaiser issued a personal order that no operations involving the heavy units of the fleet were to be carried out without his express permission. Admiral von Müller laconically noted in his diary for August 29:

Tirpitz is beside himself. The Kaiser was swift with his reproaches: carelessness on the part of the Fleet, inadequate armour of the cruisers and destroyers. Pohl was shrewd and championed the Fleet.

Immediate precautions were taken to strengthen the German defences. Two large minefields were laid to the west of Heligoland, which Scheer recorded as being effective, and in conjunction with improved weaponry such as aircraft and anti submarine equipment ‘kept the inner area so clear that the danger from submarines came at last to be quite a rare and exceptional possibility.’37 He was, however, concerned that the Heligoland Bight raid was merely a precursor to a more ambitious offensive move; the defensive posture imposed on the High Seas Fleet must make such a British move much more dangerous:

To anticipate it was therefore obvious that our High Command would desire greater freedom of movement in order to have a chance of locating parts of the enemy forces. This could only be done if the light forces sent out ahead could count on timely intervention by the whole High Seas Fleet. On the other hand, it was not the Fleet’s intention to seek battle with the English Fleet off the enemy’s coasts. The relative strength (as appeared from a comparison of the two battle lines) made chances of success much too improbable.

Keyes and Goodenough put the outcome of the battle in perspective, both regarding it as having been a missed opportunity. The former wrote that ‘an absurd fuss was made over the whole affair … It makes me sick and disgusted to think what a complete success it might have been but for, I won’t say dual – but multiple control.’ At the Admiralty Captain Herbert Richmond was even more scathing:

Anything worse worded than the order for the operations of last Friday [August 28] I have never seen. A mass of latitudes and longitudes, no expression to show the object of the sweep, and one grievous error in actual position, which was over 20 minutes out of place. Besides this, the hasty manner in which, all unknown to the submarines, the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron suddenly turned up in a wholly unexpected direction, thereby running the gravest dangers from our own submarines. The weather was fairly foggy, ships came up on one another unexpectedly, and with such omissions and errors in the plan it was truly fortunate that we had no accidents.

Richmond was thoroughly discontented with the Admiralty’s general policy at this time, writing in his diary on September 4:

If we go on like this the North Sea deserves its other name of German Ocean. It is the German Ocean at this moment. Only those fatuous and self-satisfied creatures, Sturdee and Co, with their sprinkling of undigested knowledge, can think it a sea in which we retain or have any command.

Leichte Ladungsträger Goliath

Among the most numerous of the German anti-mine vehicles was the Leichte Ladungsträger Goliath SdKfz 302. This was a small wire-guided vehicle designed for minefield clearance, destruction of enemy installations or in extreme cases, as an antitank weapon. The Goliath measured only about 1.5 meters, and the initial version was considered too small and underpowered. This version was known as SdKfz 302a (E-Motor) and was powered by two Bosch MM/RQL 2500/24 RL2 electric motors. Borgward and Zündapp produced 2,650 units of this type from April 1942 to January 1944.

The second version of the Goliath was known as the SdKfz 302b (V-Motor). This was powered by a Zündapp SZ7 two-cylinder, two-stroke engine and was larger and could carry more explosives. The manufacturers Zündapp and Zachertz built 325 units by November 1944. Regardless of the type, a control-wire drum was located at the rear of the vehicle that contained a three-strand wire, two strands for driving the vehicle and a third for detonating the charge. For transport the Goliath could be mounted and towed on a two-wheeled trailer.

The interior of a Goliath, SdKfz. 303, showing the petrol engine, control cable reels and the space for the warhead. U.S. Department of Ordnance – Catalog of Enemy Ordnance Manual Vol. 1 – 1945

“Goliath” leichte Ladungsträger (SdKfz 302 & 303)

Developed by Borgward, the three versions of this vehicle were among the most interesting German engineered vehicles, at least in the eyes of the average GI or Tommy encountering them.

These tethered remote-controlled demolition vehicles were about five feet long and weighed less than a half ton. Consistent with the tongue-in-cheek naming of certain German vehicles (the 200-ton superheavy tank was named “mouse”), this vehicle’s name was Goliath.

Development of the vehicle began in 1940 when Borgward was ordered to create a very small electrically powered vehicle capable of placing a charge of about 50 kgs.

The design that was approved was powered by two electric motors and carried a 60 kg charge. Control of the vehicle was via a wire which unwound out of the rear compartment of the vehicle as it advanced.

Despite being protected by a 6 mm armor plate at the front, in practice the vehicles were easily defeated either by small-arms fire through the unarmored sides, or by merely severing the control cable.

Production of this vehicle, which was given the Sonderkraftfahrzeug (special purpose vehicle—SdKfz) number 302, began in April 1942. The considerable expense of the vehicles, along with the limitations, in particular the vulnerability of the electric drive, led to production being discontinued in January 1944, after 2,635 had been completed.

This was not the end of Goliath, however. In April 1943 a much improved, slightly larger version entered production.

Assigned SdKfz number 303, other than a slight increase in size, the most dramatic change was the use of a two-stroke Zundapp gasoline engine to power the diminutive tracklaying vehicle. The frontal armor was upgraded to 10 mm, and strangely the gasoline-powered variant seemed more tolerant of small-arms fire than was the electric model, but nevertheless some of the handicaps remained. Among these, the vulnerability of the sides, and the reliance on the rear spooling wire leading to the tethered remote control.

A total of 4,929 gasoline-powered versions of the SdKfz 303 were produced in two models, the SdKfz 303b having a slightly larger payload charge of 100 kgs, compared to 75 kgs for the SdKfz 303a.

The Goliath began to be issued in January 1942, and was first used near Sevastopol in June. Additional units were created and equipped with 162 Goliath each beginning in October 1942. By 1944 the SdKfz 303 was being issued thirty-each to normal Pioneer (Engineer) battalions.

Wola and Ochota are Lost, 6-11 August 1944 -Warsaw Rising

Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.J Control Tank with Borgward IV Ausf.B


Early in 1941, with fewer German day raids, even using fighter-bombers, RAF Fighter Command’s pilots were beginning to feel under-employed. There had been attempts during the winter to use Spitfires to augment the still limited number of radar-equipped Bristol Beaufighters as night fighters, but this had resulted in little success and at least one occasion when a twin-engined Beaufighter was mistaken for a Junkers Ju88, probably the best medium bomber that the Luftwaffe employed. The risk of being shot down by British anti-aircraft fire was another problem, while heavy smoke from the industrial installations of the day made flying at night even more dangerous for day fighters without radar.

There were other problems. The Spitfire was the livelier and more modern aircraft, overall with a better performance, but if one had to use a day fighter on a night patrol the Hurricane had a better view than the early Spitfires and a roomier cockpit, and a wider undercarriage as the narrow undercarriage of the Spitfire made it more difficult to land at night.

While improved marks of Spitfire were entering service and the squadrons south of the river Thames had priority for these, the Messerschmitt Bf109 was also improving with the arrival of the Bf109F, the first to have the cannon fitted into the propeller boss that gave improved accuracy as well as the benefit of the more lethal cannon shell.

At the time, Johnnie Johnson, later a group captain and one of Britain’s top-scoring fighter aces, was a young pilot officer with No. 616 Squadron, which had just been moved south to RAF Tangmere in West Sussex, where his wing was commanded by the legendary Douglas Bader. It was Bader who declared one day that `. . ‘if the Huns won’t come up, we’ll put on a show over St Omer!’ St Omer was one of the main Luftwaffe fighter bases in occupied France. He recalls one of the first.

Soon after Bader’s arrival we flew on a two-squadron sweep. We were to climb across the Channel, poke our noses over Boulogne, skirt down the Somme estuary and withdraw. Although the Luftwaffe had withdrawn some of its fighter units from northern France to Rumania, to support the campaign in the Balkans, a considerable number of fighters and bombers remained to oppose us. During these early spring days of 1941 both sides regarded the Channel as neutral territory and Spitfires and Messerschmitts often clashed in bitter air battles.

There had been no time for Bader to teach us his own theories of combat formations and tactics. For this show we could fly in the old, tight, line-astern style and he would lead our squadron.

Climbing and still holding a close formation, we curved across the Channel. I was in the number three position in Bader’s section and ahead of me were Cocky and the wing commander. Behind me, in the unenviable tail-end Charlie position, was an apprehensive Nip. Suddenly I spotted three lean 109s only a few hundred feet higher than our formation and travelling in the same direction. Obviously they hadn’t seen us and would make an ideal target for a section of 145 Squadron who were still higher than the 109s. I should have calmly reported the number, type and position of the 109s to our leader, but I was excited and shouted, `Look out, Dogsbody.’ [`Dogsbody’ – the call sign for the formation leader, derived from his initials.]

But the other pilots of the wing weren’t waiting for further advice from me. To them `look out’ was a warning of the utmost danger – of the dreaded bounce by a strong force of 109s. Now they took swift evasive action and half-rolled, dived, aileron-turned and swung out in all directions, like a wedge of fast-moving teal avoiding a wildfowler on the coast. In far less time than it takes to tell, a highly organised wing was reduced to a shambles and the scattered sections could never be reformed in time to continue the planned flight . . .

 As Johnson suspected, on landing Bader was anxious to find the `clot’ who shouted `look out’. He was very unimpressed with Johnson’s explanation that there were three Bf109s above his formation, telling him that the two squadrons could have clobbered the lot. Bader then delivered a short, but clearly timely, lecture. In future, in extremis the pilot who identified a threat was to call out `break port’ or `break starboard’ using either the section’s name, such as blue section, or using the Christian name of the section leader, which Bader much preferred. The expression `look out’ was not to be used, to avoid mass panic. Otherwise, enemy aircraft were to be reported using the clock code, so it would be: `Dogsbody from red two. Three 109s at two o’clock high’, with the distance in yards.

Bader was not a man to hold a grudge or be angry for long. A few days later Johnson was sent to check the squadron’s Spitfires while most of the rest of the pilots were snatching a few hours in bed having been on night patrols. He was to check with the flight sergeant in charge of maintenance to see if any aircraft needed air tests. Bader appeared, and on hearing that a couple of aircraft required air tests, decided that he would take Johnson on a trip across the Channel to `see if we can bag a couple of Huns before lunch’.

They took off and climbed through the clouds and out into bright sunshine. Bader waved his hand across his face, signalling to Johnson that he was to take up a wide abreast position. The hand signal was meant to ensure that radio silence was maintained, but the radio crackled into life, challenging them as to their intentions. At first Bader ignored the request, but when told that the station commander wanted to know, Bader had to reply, telling the controller that two aircraft were on a `little snoop across the Channel’. Within a few moments the radio crackled into life again, ordering Bader and Johnson back to base. Nevertheless, never one to let an opportunity be lost, on the return flight along the Sussex coast Bader showed the younger pilot how to get onto the tail of a Bf109, with a steep climb and a tight turn.


After such a discouraging start, low-level fighter sweeps over France, codenamed `Rhubarb’, became very much the standard pattern of operations for the day fighters based at Tangmere. Days of low cloud or poor visibility were to provide the chance to drop below cloud level and look for `targets of opportunity’, such as aircraft on the ground, troops and staff cars, as well as transport targets such as railway rolling stock and locomotives. These aircraft were usually conducted by a section or pair of Spitfires hunting together.

Views on the usefulness of such operations varied. So pilots preferred the excitement and teamwork of dogfights, and some also believed that the gains from fighter sweeps did not justify the risk to aircraft or pilots. On the other hand, a fast-moving fighter, especially if fitted with the more lethal cannon, was more likely to succeed in an attack against aircraft on the ground or railway rolling stock than a bomber. A few cannon shells through the boiler of a steam locomotive was a very effective way of putting it out of action for some weeks, if not longer. Sadly, at the time the squadron’s Spitfires had machine guns and so their efforts were puny by comparison.

These operations were not a soft option and certainly not easy or without risk. While the poor weather helped to conceal the impending attack, often the cloud base was below 1,000 feet and, while most of the target area was low and level, there were small hills that could provide an unwelcome and sudden landing should they be waiting as the Spitfires dropped down through the cloud. The one safety precaution was that if the aircraft weren’t below cloud level at 500 feet, the operation was called off. This in itself was hardly a comforting precaution as the pressure altimeters in use needed local calibration for accuracy and this was hardly likely to be provided by the local Luftwaffe controllers!

Another pilot engaged in fighter sweeps was Captain Hamish Pelham-Burn, a Seaforth Highlander who had volunteered for a temporary transfer to the RAF after being evacuated from Cherbourg. He actually enjoyed the fighter sweeps, flying his Hurricane at close to treetop level to attack armed trains.

`Try to take out the gunner on the first pass,’ as he described his technique later. `Then pull up and have a go at the locomotive on the second time round. Ammunition finished, then streak for home.’

His brief career with the RAF was ended with a bout of sinusitis, after which he was transferred to special operations.

Flying in close formation so as not to lose one another in the cloud, the promises that most of the heavy AA fire would be concentrated on the coast soon proved to be false as Luftwaffe bases were, inevitably, always heavily defended and the gunners could hear the aircraft coming. Often decoy targets were placed, such as railway locomotives, drawing the attackers towards them and into a trap with surrounding heavy AA fire. The only way of having a chance of survival was to make one fast low-level attack and then climb away. Making a second run at a heavily defended target was suicidal.

While the Spitfire provided reasonably good armour protection for the pilot, its Achilles’ heel was the coolant, glycol, contained in a small tank just below the propeller spinner. If fractured by a lucky machine-gun bullet, this leaked and the aircraft engine seized up or caught fire within minutes.

Johnson was one of those who believed that the `Rhubarb’ operations were a dangerous and costly waste of time, but they continued until late 1943, during which time he believed that hundreds of pilots had been lost, when he had an appointment at 11 Group and was in a position to make his views known.

The problem was partly one of poor armament; the early attempts at fitting cannon to the Spitfire had, as mentioned earlier, been unsuccessful. There were steady improvements to the Spitfire, especially to the Merlin engines, and with later versions having the Griffin engine, the Spitfire, and its naval cousin, the Seafire, was produced in more marks than any other British aircraft. At the time of the fighter sweeps, Johnnie Johnson was flying Spitfire IIs, while other squadrons in 11 Group were flying Spitfire Vs, with a slightly more powerful engine. The Va had eight machine guns, but the Vb had two cannon and four machine-guns. The cannon was seen as being able to smash through the armour of enemy bombers, but would also have been even more effective at targets such as railway locomotives.

A big difference between the Spitfire II and the V was that the latter had metal ailerons rather than the fabric ailerons of the former, which made the aircraft much more manoeuvrable, requiring less stick pressure while the rate of roll at high speeds more than doubled. No. 616 Squadron approached the factory and had their fabric ailerons replaced with metal ones. All went well until a year later, when the authorities wanted to know who had authorised such a change. Nothing could be done, however, as by this time Bader was a prisoner of war and the squadron commander at the time of the change was on operations over the Western Desert.


The Luftwaffe soon began to ignore high-level fighter sweeps over France, intended to draw the enemy into battle, as they realised that fighters flying at high altitude could do little damage whilst flying over the Pas de Calais. The RAF changed its tactics to `Circus’ operations, in which a dozen or so Bristol Blenheim bombers would be escorted by fighters to short-range targets in France.

Despite its modern appearance, the Bristol Blenheim did not distinguish itself during the early years of the war. Its operations prior to the fall of France had resulted in heavy losses. Much of this was doubtless due to the relatively small numbers employed on any one operation during the early years, whereas larger numbers would have forced the enemy to divide their fire. Another problem was the relatively poor defensive armament of the Blenheim. Yet, despite this, there were even ambitious attempts to use the Blenheim as a night fighter before the Beaufighter came into service in greater numbers. In short, despite its modern appearance, this aircraft was inferior to the Handley Page Hampden and simply did not compare with the larger Vickers Wellington, which was initially described as a `heavy’ bomber until the arrival of the four-engined Short Stirling, Avro Lancaster and Handley Page saw it downgraded to `medium’.

The idea was that, faced with an attack on targets in the Pas de Calais, the Luftwaffe would not fail to respond. The force of twelve Blenheims was often accompanied by as many as twelve fighter squadrons, placed as close-escort, escort-cover, high-cover and top-cover wings. To avoid alerting the enemy’s radar until the last moment, often the fighters assembled with the bombers below 500 feet off the Sussex coast. This was no easy task, let alone safe, as often the assembly would be during the early morning with sometimes heavy mist off locations such as Beachy Head or Selsey Bill. As some squadrons would circle to port and others to starboard as they waited for the bombers, inevitably there came a moment when they met head on! The Polish fighter formations were the most difficult as they arrived in strict formation as if expecting everyone else to move out of their way. It was never a moment too soon when the bomber leader arrived and the fighters could get into position and set off for the French coast.

The Channel was often crossed at low level and the fighters did not begin their climb to their assigned positions until the bombers started to climb to their bombing height, just in time to face the deadly German 88mm anti-aircraft guns on the coast, one of the best AA weapons of the war. The `flak’ was extremely effective in forcing the close-escort fighter pilots to climb another 1,000 feet or so, realising that a direct hit would be enough to shoot such a small aircraft out of the sky. This manoeuvre was not welcomed by the Blenheim pilots who had to struggle on and maintain their assigned height.

Once clear of the coast a fresh problem arose, as the fighters had difficulty keeping pace with the much slower bombers and could not reduce their speed as this would make it difficult to fend off a Luftwaffe fighter defence. To overcome this, the fighters weaved and twisted around the Blenheims in twos and fours so that they could remain in position, with one wit describing the manoeuvre as the `beehive’. In addition to the escorts, other fighter squadrons carried out diversionary operations over enemy airfields, while some provided forward support and target support, and there was also cover for the withdrawal and even flank cover for the `beehive’.

There was no question that these operations were successful in drawing the Luftwaffe into action. For the Blenheim, targets such as Lille and Tournai in northern France were long penetrations, and the fighter pilots recalled the air-to-air combat as some of the most intense they experienced throughout the war. Fighter sweeps were preferable to fighter escort for the bombers, not least because of the difficulty in identifying friend or foe when large numbers of pairs or fours were flying in close protection for the bombers.

The large number of fighters comprising the `beehive’ could be seen from some distance by the Luftwaffe Bf109s, helped by the flak bursts as the bombers and fighters made their way across France.

The advantage of surprise usually lay with the enemy, with the morning sun behind them so that often the first the escort knew was when the Bf109s attacked at high speed from six o’clock high. The irony was that the escort then had to move quickly, but instead of intercepting the German fighters, they had to get out of the way of the Spitfires flying top-cover as they screamed down to attack the Bf109s. `It seemed to us that the risk of collision was far greater than the threat from a handful of Messerschmitts,’ recalled one RAF pilot.

Not every Luftwaffe pilot favoured the direct attack, and some, aided by the cloud, infiltrated the `beehive’ as if they were additional escorts. This required skill and courage, especially as often as many as four Bf109s in formation would join the Spitfires. The usual tactic was to wait until the defending Bf109s dived before striking at the bombers. Other Luftwaffe fighters would wait in the cloud and appear below the bombers when everyone’s attention was focussed on attack from above.