PAUL HAUSSER Part I

Paul Hausser, the man who had perhaps the single greatest influence in the military development of the Waffen-SS, was born in Brandenburg on October 7, 1880, the son of a Prussian officer. He was educated in military prep schools and in 1892 enrolled in Berlin-Lichterfelde, Imperial Germany’s equivalent of West Point. Among his classmates were future field marshals Fedor von Bock and Guenther von Kluge.

Hausser graduated in 1899 and, as a second lieutenant, was assigned to the 155th Infantry Regiment in Ostrow, Posen. After eight years of regimental service he entered the War Academy in 1907 but did not graduate until 1912. In the interval he returned to his regiment and also underwent coastal defense and aerial observer training. He was assigned to the Greater General Staff in 1912 and was promoted to captain in 1914. Later that year, when the German Army mobilized for World War I, Hausser was assigned to the staff of the 6th Army, commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. Later he served on the staff of the VI Corps, as Ia of the 109th Infantry Division; with the I Reserve Corps (also as Ia); and as a company commander in the 38th Fusilier Regiment. He fought in France, Hungary, and Rumania and was awarded both classes of the Iron Cross. At the close of hostilities, he was Ia of the 59th Reserve Command at Glogua, Germany. After the war he served with a Freikorps unit on the eastern frontier before joining the Reichsheer in 1920.

During the Reichswehr era, Hausser was on the staff of the 5th Infantry Brigade (1920-1922); Wehrkreis II at Stettin, Pomerania (1922-1923); 2nd Infantry Division, also at Stettin (1925-1926); and the Saxon 10th Infantry Regiment at Dresden (1927). He also served as commander of the III Battalion, 4th (Prussian) Infantry Regiment at Deutsch-Krone (1923-1925), and 10th Infantry Regiment (1927-1930), and ended his army career as Infantry Commander IV (Infanteriefuehrer IV) at Dresden, a post he held from 1930 to 1932. In this last post he was simultaneously one of the two deputy commanders of the 4th Infantry Division. He retired as a major general on January 31, 1932, at the age of 51, with the honorary rank of lieutenant general. At this point in his career, Paul Hausser-who had always been a fervent German nationalist-became involved with the Nazi Party. By 1934 he was an SA Standartenfuehrer and brigade commander in the Berlin-Brandenburg area, when Heinrich Himmler offered him the job of training his SS-Verfuegunstruppe (SS-VT, or Special Purpose Troops)-the embryo of the Waffen-SS. Hausser entered the SS as a Standartenfuehrer of November 15, 1934. His first assignment was that of commandant of the SS-Officer Training School (SS-Junkerschule) at Braunschweig (Brunswick).

In the SS-VT, Hausser found enthusiastic but untrained young Nazis who were fanatically dedicated to their Fuehrer and were most willing to be shaped into a cohesive military organization. As a former General Staff officer, Hausser possessed command and organizational experience, both of which were needed and appreciated. He quickly organized the curriculum of the school into a model copied by all SS officers, NCOs, and weapons schools throughout Germany-and later throughout Europe. Hausser’s program emphasized physical fitness, athletic competition, teamwork, and a close relationship between the ranks-a degree of comradeship that did not exist in the German Army at that time. Hausser himself was a noted sportsman and equestrian who could successfully compete with men 30 years his junior. Under his leadership, the SS elite soon exceeded anything the army could field-at least in appearance. Himmler was so impressed that he named Hausser inspector of SS Officer Schools, in charge of the officer training establishments at Brunswick and Bad Toelz, as well as the SS Medical Academy in Graz. He was promoted to Oberfuehrer on April 20, 1936 (Hitler’s birthday) and to Brigadefuehrer in May 1936. Later that year, due to the rapid expansion of the SS, he was appointed chief of the Inspectorate of SS-VT and was responsible for the military training of all SS units except those belonging to Theodor Eicke.

Hausser proved to be an intelligent and professionally broad-minded director of training. It was he, for example, who saw to it that the SS-VT were the first troops to wear camouflaged uniforms in the fields, and he stuck to his decision, even though the army’s soldiers laughed and called the SS men “tree frogs.” (These uniforms were very much like the present-day U. S. Army battledress uniforms [BDUs, or “fatigues”].) During the next three years he oversaw the organization, development, and training of the SS regiments “Deutschland,” “Germania,” and “Der Fuehrer,” as well as smaller combat support, service, and supply units. Paul Hausser was quick to see the potential of the blitzkrieg and, as a consequence, most of the SS units were motorized. In the autumn of 1939, he was in the processes of forming the SS-VT Division, but the outbreak of the war caught him by surprise, and not all his units had completed their training; consequently, no SS division as such fought in Poland. Most of the combat-ready SS-VT units (and Hausser personally) were attached to the ad hoc Panzer Division “Kempf,” led by army Major General Werner Kempf. After this campaign the first full Waffen-SS division was established at the Army Maneuver Area Brdy-Wald, near Pilsen, on October 10, 1939. Its commander was the recently promoted SS-Gruppenfuehrer Paul Hausser.

Hausser trained his SS-VT Motorized Infantry Division throughout the winter of 1939-1940 and led it with some distinction in the conquests of Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940, during which it pushed all the way to the Spanish frontier. As a result of the successes of the Waffen-SS units in these battles, Hitler authorized the formation of the new SS combat divisions in the winter of 1940-1941. The SS-VT Division (now on garrison duty in Holland) provided the nucleus for these divisions, giving up a motorized infantry regiment and several smaller units in the process. Meanwhile, in December 1940, the SS-VT was transferred to Vesoul in southern France and redesignated SS Division Deutschland; however, this name was too easily confused with the regiment of the same name, so in early 1941 it became SS Panzer Division “Das Reich.”

Paul Hausser did not complain about losing almost half his veteran soldiers, but rather devoted himself to training their inexperienced replacements for the planned invasion of England. In March 1941, however, the Reich Division was transferred to Rumania and took part in the conquest of Yugoslavia in April. Hurried back to Germany, it was quickly refitted for Operation Barbarossa and was then sent to assembly areas in Poland, where it was still in the process of reforming on June 15.

The invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. Hausser crossed the border near Brest-Litovsk and took part in the battles of encirclement in the zone of Army Group Center. The Reich Division distinguished itself in extremely heavy combat. In July alone it destroyed 103 tanks and smashed the elite Soviet 100th Infantry Division. By mid-November the Reich had suffered 40 percent casualties, among them the divisional commander. Paul Hausser was severely wounded in the face and lost his right eye in a battle near Gjatsch on October 14. He was evacuated back to Germany, where it took him several months to recover.

Hausser (now an Obergruppenfuehrer) returned to active duty in May 1942, as commander of the newly created SS Motorized Corps, which became the SS Panzer Corps on June 1, 1942. Hausser was thus the first SS man to become a corps commander. He spent the rest of 1942 in northern France, controlling the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd SS divisions (the Leibstandarte, Das Reich, and Totenkopf divisions, respectively). Among other things these superbly equipped units were given a panzer battalion and a company of the first PzKw V (“Tiger”) tanks.

While Hausser prepared his new command for its next campaign, disaster struck on the Russian Front. Stalingrad was surrounded, the Don sector collapsed, and the Red Army poured through Axis lines, heading west. In January 1943, Hitler rushed the SS Panzer Corps to Kharkov, the fourth-largest city in the Soviet Union, which, for reasons of prestige, he ordered to be held to the last man. “Now at last Hitler was reassured,” Paul Carell wrote later. “He relied on the absolute obedience of the Waffen-SS Corps and overlooked the fact that the corps commander, General Paul Hausser, was a man of common sense, strategic skill, and with the courage to stand up to his superiors.”

By noon on February 15, Hausser was almost surrounded by the Soviet 3rd Tank and 69th armies. Rather than sacrifice his two elite SS divisions (Totenkopf had not yet arrived from France), Hausser ordered his corps to break out to the southwest at 1 p. m., regardless of Hitler’s commands or those of the army generals.

Hausser’s immediate superior, Army General Hubert Lanz, was horrified by this development. A Fuehrer Order was being deliberately disobeyed! At 3:30 p. m. he signaled Hausser: “Kharhov will be defended under all circumstances!”

Paul Hausser ignored this order as well. The last German rearguard left Kharkov on the morning of February 16. Hausser had made good his escape and had saved the army’s 320th Infantry Division and its elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division in the process. The question now was how Hitler would react to this piece of deliberate insubordination.

Adolf Hitler’s mentality demanded that a scapegoat be found for this latest disaster, but Hausser was not a candidate for public disgrace. After all, he was an SS officer, a loyal Nazi, and a holder of the Golden Party Badge, which Hitler had conferred on him just three weeks before. Instead, Hitler sacked none other than Hubert Lanz, the very officer who had insisted to the last that the Fuehrer’s order be obeyed. Contrary to usual practice, however, Lanz was given command of a mountain corps shortly thereafter, instead of being permanently retired.

Hitler did not forgive Hausser quickly, however, even after reports and events of the next few days made the correctness of his actions clear for all to see-even at Fuehrer Headquarters. As punishment, a recommendation that Hausser be decorated with the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross was not acted upon.

Meanwhile, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group South, devised a brilliant plan to restabilize the southern sector of the Eastern Front. Realizing that the overconfident Soviets were in danger of outrunning their supply lines, he allowed them to surge forward, while he hoarded his armor for a massive counterattack. This stroke would entail a pincer movement to cut off the massive Soviet penetration south of Kharkov, followed by an attempt to recapture the city. Hausser, now reinforced with the SS Totenkopf Division, would command the left wing of the pincer.

The Third Battle of Kharkov began on February 21, 1943. The fighting was fierce, but by March 9 the Soviet 6th Army and Popov Armored Group had been destroyed-a loss of more than 600 tanks, 400 guns, 600 anti-tank guns, and tens of thousands of men. That day Paul Hausser’s spearheads reentered the burning city of Kharkov, beginning the most controversial battle of the general’s career. Military historians generally agree that Kharkov was now doomed and that Hausser should have encircled the city; instead, he attacked it frontally from the west and began six days of costly street fighting against fanatical resistance. The conquest of Kharkov was not complete until March 14. During the battle, the SS Panzer Corps suffered 11,000 casualties, against 20,000 for the Red Army.

Hausser redeemed his military reputation that July, during the Battle of Kursk-the greatest tank battle in history. His command, now designated II SS Panzer Corps, penetrated farther than any other German unit and destroyed an estimated 1,149 Soviet tanks and armored vehicles in the process. Colonel General Hermann Hoth, the commander of the 4th Panzer Army, recommended him for the Oak Leaves, stating that despite being handicapped by his previous wounds, he “untiringly led all day from the front. By his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations, he imbued his troops with buoyancy and enthusiasm, yet he kept command of the corps tightly and in his hand. . . . [Hausser] again distinguished himself as an unusually qualified commanding general.”

While the Germans were being defeated at Kursk, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown on July 25. Hitler ordered the II SS Panzer Corps to transfer to northern Italy on the same day, although in the end only the corps headquarters and the 1st SS Panzer Grenadier Division ever left the Eastern Front. Hausser remained in Italy until December 1943, without engaging in any fighting; then he was transferred to France, where his corps took charge of the recently organized 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen” and the 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg.”

Hausser’s corps was supposed to be held in reserve to oppose the D-Day invasion, but when the 1st Panzer Army was surrounded in Galicia in April 1944, Hausser was sent back to the Eastern Front to rescue it. This was accomplished without too much difficulty, thanks to Manstein, Hausser, and the army’s commander, Hans Valentin Hube. Instead of sending the SS corps back to France, however, Hitler sent it to Poland, where it formed a reserve against the Soviets. It was not until June 11-five days after the Allies’ D-Day landings-that Hitler ordered the corps back to France. It was assigned a sector west of Caen, with the mission of holding the critical Hill 112.

 

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PAUL HAUSSER Part II

The Battle of Normandy was the most difficult and exacting of General Hausser’s career. Badly outnumbered, he faced an enemy with devastating air and naval supremacy, which made it difficult for him to either move or resupply his troops. Hausser nevertheless held his positions despite heavy casualties on both sides.

Meanwhile, the left half of the German front in Normandy, which was the responsibility of Colonel General Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army, was in serious trouble. At the end of June, shortly after the fall of Cherbourg, the hard-pressed general dropped dead of a heart attack. He was replaced by Paul Hausser, who shortly thereafter was promoted to SS-Oberstgruppenfuehrer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS-the equivalent of an American four-star general. He was the first SS man to be assigned to the command of an army on a permanent basis.

Hausser’s army, which included the LXXXIV Corps and II Parachute Corps, was much weaker than its sister army, the 5th Panzer, on its right. It had only 50 medium and 26 Panther tanks, for example, against 5th Panzer’s 250 medium and 150 heavy tanks, and it had only about one-third of the artillery and anti-aircraft guns as the 5th Panzer. It did, however, have the advantage of excellent defensive terrain, and Hausser’s men took full advantage of that situation. They were gradually pushed back, however, and Hausser’s divisions were slowly ground to bits. By July 11, for example, his elite 2nd Parachute Division was down to 35 percent of its authorized manpower, and most of his other divisions were also down to Kampfgruppe (regimental) strength. By mid-July Hausser was restoring to tactical patchwork to establish any kind of reserve at all.

The decisive breakthrough of the Normandy campaign occurred in Hausser’s sector of July 25, 1944. That day, in Operation Cobra, 2,500 Allied airplanes-1,800 of which were heavy bombers-dropped approximately 5,000 tons of high explosives, jellied gasoline (napalm), and white phosphorus on a six-square-mile block, mostly in the zone of the Panzer Lehr Division. Panzer Lehr’s forward units were virtually annihilated. By the end of the day, it had only about a dozen tanks and assault guns left, and a parachute regiment attached to it had vanished under the bombs.

There is little doubt that Hausser mishandled the entire Operation Cobra. Several days before the bombs fell, Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge (who had replaced a critically wounded Rommel a week before) had suggested that Hausser replace the Panzer Lehr with the 275th Infantry Division, which Hausser then held in army reserve. Meanwhile, on the far left flank, LXXXIV Corps had managed to pull the 353rd Infantry Division out of the line. Kluge suggested than Hausser use it to replace the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” at the front, thus establishing an army reserve of two armored divisions. The SS general, however, ignored both of his former classmates’ suggestions. “Hausser did little more than clamor for battlefields replacements, additional artillery, and supplies, and the sight of air cover,” according to the American official history records.

When the American ground forces began to advance at 11 a. m. on July 25, Hausser reacted slowly because he did not initially appreciate the magnitude of the disaster that had overtaken his army. By late afternoon, however, he realized that his front had been penetrated in seven places in the Lessay-St. Lo sector, and without an armored reserve, he could do little to seal the gaps. He therefore requested permission to conduct a general withdrawal to Coutances. Kluge, however, also misread the situation and would approve only a limited withdrawal. As a result, LXXXIV Corps was soon cut off on the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula and only broke out (on Hausser’s orders) with heavy losses. Meanwhile, the Americans were in the rear of the 7th Army; SS Oberfuehrer Christian Tychesen, the commander of Hausser’s old Das Reich Division, was killed near his command post by an American patrol; and Hausser himself only narrowly escaped death from an American armored car that fired on him near Gavray. There was little he could do but withdraw the remnants of his disintegrating command to the east, while the rapidly advancing Americans captured Avranches (at the base of the Cotentin peninsula) and broke out into the interior of France. In doing so they unknowingly came within a few hundred yards of the 7th Army’s forward command post, which was located 3.5 miles north of Avranches. Cut off, Hausser and many of his key staff officers had to escape on foot by infiltrating through the regularly spaced intervals between American troop convoys. There was, of course, nothing Hausser could do to influence the course of the battle, which was totally out of hand.

When he finally learned of the extent of the 7th Army’s disaster, Kluge’s dissatisfaction with the 7th Army’s leadership reached a head. On July 30, he inspected Hausser’s headquarters and found it “farcical, a complete mess,” and concluded that “the whole army [is] putting up a poor show.” Lacking the authority to relieve the SS general (or perhaps not daring to do so, given his own previous association with the conspirators who had tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few days before), Kluge sacked Hausser’s chief of staff and the commander of the LXXXIV Corps-who was less responsible for the disaster than Kluge himself-and replaced them with his own men. Kluge also took active charge of the left flank himself. It was too late by then, however; the battle was already lost.

Paul Hausser had little influence on the campaign in Normandy after July 28. As General George S. Patton’s U.S. 3rd Army advanced south and east of Mortain and threatened to encircle the 5th Panzer and 7th armies south of Caen, Hausser joined Kluge in objecting to Hitler’s unrealistic plan to concentrate nine depleted panzer divisions in the western edge of the salient, with the objective of thrusting west to the coast, to cut off Patton. Instead, Kluge and Hausser wanted to fall back behind the Seine while there still might be time to do so. Kluge was overruled, however, and it is significant that, on the orders of Adolf Hitler, the final effort to reach the west coast was directed by an ad hoc panzer group under Army General Heinrich Eberbach, the former commander of the 5th Panzer Army, and not by Hausser. In any event it was defeated, and the bulk of Army Group B was surrounded in the Falaise Pocket on August 17. Hausser, still with his men inside the pocket, ordered all units capable of action to break out in individual combat groups on the night of August 19-20.

Hausser’s actions saved about one-third of his army, which was on the far side of the encirclement. (A considerably larger portion of the 5th Panzer Army was saved because it did not have as far to go to reach friendly lines.) The general himself joined the 1st SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler and, on August 20, was marching on foot with a machine pistol draped around his neck when an Allied artillery shell landed in front of him, and a piece of shrapnel hit him right in the face. Some soldiers from the Leibstandarte placed him on the stern of a tank and eventually succeeded in getting the seriously wounded commander back to German lines, after a number of narrow escapes. He was taken to the Luftwaffe hospital at Greifswald, where he slowly began to recover.

Six days after he was wounded, Hausser was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross; however, he was unable to return to active duty until January 23, 1945, when he became acting commander of Army Group Oberrhein (Upper Rhine), replacing Heinrich Himmler. Six days later this headquarters was dissolved, and Hausser was given command of Army Group G, controlling the 1st and 19th armies and later 7th Army as well. He was given the task of defending southern Germany. The war, however, was already lost, and Hausser could do little but fight a delaying action through the Saar and Palatinate. By now thoroughly disillusioned with the Nazi leadership, Hausser became increasingly frustrated by Hitler’s constant interference in the details of operations of his forces and especially with his hold-at-all-costs orders-one of which cost Hausser much of his command, which had not been allowed to retreat across the Rhine in time. The personal relationship between the two men, which had begun to deteriorate during the Second Battle of Kharkov, had reached a new low in early 1945, due to a heated argument they had over tactical matters. On March 30, 1945, Hitler remarked to Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, that neither Sepp Dietrich nor Hausser had any real operational talent and that “no high-class commander has emerged from the SS.” Three days later a dispatch from Hausser arrived, suggesting that a gap between the 1st and 7th armies be closed by another retreat into southern Germany. Furious, Hitler immediately relieved Hausser of his command and replaced him with General of Infantry Friedrich Schulz. Unemployed for the rest of the war, Hausser surrendered to the Americans in May. At Nuremberg he was the most important defense witness for the Waffen-SS, stating that his men were soldiers like any other. Nevertheless the entire SS, including the Waffen-SS, was condemned as a criminal organization. Hausser himself was not subjected to a long imprisonment, however.

As a general, Paul Hausser proved to be an above-average divisional commander and a gifted-and sometimes brilliant-corps commander, although his conduct of the Third Battle of Kharkov is hardly above criticism. As a trainer, he had few equals anywhere. He was largely responsible for establishing the Waffen-SS as a potent combat force, and it bore his influence throughout its existence. As the commander of the 7th Army in Normandy, however, his performance left a great deal to be desired. It is not possible to objectively evaluate his direction of Army Group G, except to say that it would have been more effective had he been left to his own devices, rather than receiving “help” from Adolf Hitler. It would probably have been better for Nazi Germany if he had been left in command of an SS panzer corps-or as director of training for the Waffen-SS-from 1943 on.

In the postwar years, Paul Hausser was an active member of the Mutual Aid Society of the Waffen-SS (Hilfsorganization auf Gegenseitigkeit der Waffen-SS, or HIAG), the Waffen-SS veterans organization, and wrote numerous articles for its magazine, Wiking Ruf (Viking Call), now Dei Freiwillige-The Volunteer. In 1953 he wrote his first book, Waffen-SS im Einsatz (The Waffen-SS in Operation), which he expanded in 1966 and subtitled Soldaten wie Andere Auch (Soldiers like Any Other). He died on December 28, 1972, at the age of 92. His funeral was attended by thousands of his former soldiers.

 

Codenamed Circus

An image of Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron in the air.

A Spitfire Mk Vb of 92 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, May 1941. The Mk Vb was the principal Spitfire variant in service during 1941 and 1942. This particular aircraft (serial R6923) was shot down by a Messerschmidt Bf 109 near Dover on 21 June 1941. CH 2929.

An image of Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation.

Hurricanes of 312 Squadron escorting Short Stirling bombers on a ‘circus’ operation to Lille, 5 July 1941. The use of heavy bombers instead of the more usual Bristol Blenheims was a further attempt to encourage Luftwaffe fighters into the air. C2027.

In late 1940, a few British pilots, demonstrated that British fighters did have the range to conduct attacks on targets or conduct fighter sweeps over Northern France, Belgium and Holland. From the Spring of 1941 to early 1944 the Fighter Command squadrons primary tasks were to conduct seek and destroy missions (Rodeos) Fighter Sweeps (Ramrods) and if the weather was bad small scale attacks on targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs). Collectively these were known as circuses.

The year of 1941 had been a desperate one for the Allies on all fronts. Allied armies in North Africa were on a see-saw of operations back and forth across the desert, Malta was being pounded by Italian and German aircraft, German U-boats were decimating ships bringing supplies across the Atlantic, Russia had been invaded, and in early December Japan had brought America into the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. There had been one or two high spots, such as the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May, and the London Blitz had come to an end that same month, but everything seemed to be going rapidly downhill. Bomber Command was doing its best to strike back, but without the navigational aids and target identification methods that were to come, the damage inflicted was less than supposed, or hoped for.

Fighter Command, along with light bombers from 2 and 16 Groups, and later with Stirlings and Hampdens from 3 and 5 Groups, had taken the air war into the skies of northern France and Belgium, but at what cost? If success was being thought to be made because losses were far less than German aircraft shot down, then success was elusory. In the beginning, the idea was merely to take the air war to the Germans following the hard fought actions during the Battle of Britain. It helped morale if the RAF fighter pilots could hit back and feel they were ‘dishing it out’ rather than constantly ‘taking it’.

After the Germans moved on Russia in mid-June, there was another incentive in taking this air war to the enemy. Russia wanted Britain to harass the Germans in the West in the hope that the pressure in the East could be eased somewhat. Britain’s war leaders thought that by keeping up attacks over northern France, it would force the Germans to reduce the number of aircraft being used on the Eastern Front. As we now know this did not happen, and leaving just two fighter Gruppen in France and the Low Countries was more than enough to cope with these RAF incursions.

The idea that massed fighter sweeps [Codenamed Circus] by Fighter Command would encourage Luftwaffe fighters to rise and do battle was very naïve.  Exactly when the code-word ‘Circus’ came into being is obscure, but one imagines someone of WW1 vintage likened the mass of aircraft to be akin to the German Flying Circuses they had seen above the trenches during 1917–18. In a report on this operation it was referred to as ‘First Fighter Sweep’. While many German pilots were keen to engage in dogfights, if for no other reason than to increase personal victory scores, their leaders saw no percentage in shooting down a few Spitfires or Hurricanes while risking perhaps a similar number of losses. The RAF had found this out in late 1940, knowing that fighter sweeps, or Frei Jagd as the Germans called them, posed no threat to military or civilian targets, and were mostly left alone, thereby eliminating the loss of valuable pilots and aircraft. The Germans had countered by using their bomb-carrying jabo staffels to make it difficult for RAF interceptors to ignore. Now, in 1941, the Germans had to be encouraged to engage by using small formations of bombers as bait, and when this started to pall, the RAF introduced four-engined Stirlings to entice air combat.

As 1941 progressed, the RAF was encouraged by the number of German fighters that were being shot down, or in truth, being ‘claimed’ as shot down. Even in the 1914–18 war it was known that fighter claims bore little or no relation to the number of enemy aircraft that were actually destroyed. In that conflict, the RFC, RNAS and then the RAF, were constantly over the German side of the lines in France, and the chances of a German falling on the Allied side were few and far between. In order to produce some measure of success, the only guide to what damage was being inflicted was by corroborated reports by the pilots themselves.

This was all very well, but put simply, the conditions that prevailed made this a very hit and miss affair. Aeroplanes, and therefore airmen, flying at high speed, and, if they were not stupid, constantly looking out for danger, had very limited access to a clear picture of what was happening around them. Certainly if they were firing upon a hostile aeroplane and it burst into flames in front of them, or perhaps a wing or two came adrift, then it was fairly certain the aircraft was destroyed. Even seeing it go down and strike the ground resulted in making a good claim, but it could rarely, if ever, be known with absolute certainty if the crashing aircraft was in fact the one you had shot at. Several pilots shooting at several aircraft, and as the whirling and turning continued, looked down when an opportunity occurred, and saw an aircraft crash, believed it was the one they had been firing at moments before. In this way, one crashing aircraft produced two or three claims by the squadron as a whole.

Cloudy or misty conditions did not help in the claiming game either. Firing at and seeing an opponent go spinning down into cloud, could never be turned into a confirmed kill, so it was frustrating for the fighting pilots not to be able to claim a definite scalp. Therefore, it was not long before these sorts of actions resulted in what was termed as an ‘out of control’ claim. That is to say, someone else saw the action and confirmed that their colleague had indeed hit an enemy aircraft so badly that it had gone down ‘out of control’ (adding the word completely also helped). Pilots were supposed to understand the difference between an aircraft really out of control, rather than one with a pilot simply spinning out of the fight, and once below the cloud into which he was seen spinning, flattened out and went home, a better and a wiser man. This inevitably became, what in WW2 would be known as a ‘probable’ victory. Of course, the ‘ooc’ aircraft might well have continued down through the cloud or ground mist, to smash to pieces over the French countryside, but unless it was near enough to the lines for an Allied soldier to witness it, the ‘victorious’ pilot could only report one enemy aircraft ‘out of control’.

As things progressed, the word ‘victory’ became synonymous with ‘destroyed’, and the armchair historians in later years, added confirmed victories together with these ‘ooc’ aircraft (or probables) in order to create a total victory list for the man. Therefore, if the pilot was given credit for three enemy aircraft destroyed and four ‘out of control’ his score became seven. In citations for medals this separation was not always recorded and the journalists of the time, and then the pulp fiction writers of the 1920–30s invariably ignored (or did not fully understand) the two types of claims, and listed the victory scores as enemy aircraft destroyed. This in itself didn’t matter a hoot, but this is why many WW1 pilots appear to have achieved a considerable number of victories – of which some, in reality, were merely probables.

In WW2 this did not happen. Fighter pilots could claim an enemy aircraft destroyed, probably destroyed or damaged. If confirmed as destroyed it had to have been witnessed by an independent person and seen to crash, crash in flames, break up in the air, or the pilot take to his parachute. If it merely fell or spun away out of sight trailing smoke or flame but not actually seen to crash, blow up or its pilot bale out, then it was a probable. Even if the victorious pilot reported it had crashed but had no witnesses to the event, the squadron intelligence officer could only give credit for a probable, although it became obvious that certain pilots – those with a track record for shooting down enemy machines – were often given credit. Whatever the result, only those aircraft confirmed as destroyed were credited as victories, and were not, like WW1, added to probables to show an overall score. As camera guns were fitted to day fighter aircraft, often a confirmed victory could be given if the pictures showed the enemy aircraft being destroyed, or at least, so heavily damaged that it was more than probable that it was destroyed. Anything less, even if the attacker saw the aircraft crash after he had stopped firing, was more often than not given as a probable or even a damaged.

The German pilots had similar categories of victory credits, especially the confirmation by another pilot or ground observer. However, neither side, obviously, kept to these rules, as witnessed by the number of claims and credits against actual losses. It was generally a case of the head seeing what the eye did not. If a pilot was convinced that his opponent had been destroyed, even if he had to admit to himself he had not actually seen it, he might easily report it destroyed because he could not believe it could have survived the damage he had inflicted.

If the problem of speed in WW1 contributed to over-confidence in claiming a victory because, having fired at an opponent, then taking his eyes from it to check his own safety, then having turned or banked looked back and saw what he assumed to be the aircraft he had just attacked crash, it was easy to assume it was his. In the Second World War, the speed of combat compared with World War One meant that a pilot very quickly exited the immediate combat zone. It was this more than anything else, especially in a fight where there were several aircraft of both sides involved, that one falling aircraft could become the ‘victory’ of several pilots. And if an aircraft was seen to fall into the sea or crash several thousand feet below, it was easy to say that it was a German aircraft when in fact it might well have been a British one.

What of course becomes very clear from the earlier chapters in this book, is that both sides were claiming vastly more of their opponents as destroyed, than were actually lost or even damaged. On Circus operations during 1941, the RAF’s own score of enemy fighters destroyed came to 556, which added to other types of operations that showed 219 victories, the total then became 775. Of the 219, eighty-two were under the heading of ‘fighter sweeps’ and often these sweeps were in support of Circuses, so one could argue that Circuses had accounted for well over 600 victories. As the Germans only lost 103 fighters between 14 June and 31 December on the Western Front in 1941, it does not take a mathematical genius to see that the RAF pilots were vastly over-claiming. Often in good faith one has to say. To say otherwise would not be very gallant. However, there are some examples of pilots being credited with a confirmed victory with untruthful combat report narratives.

Today’s Internet figures record that the Germans lost 236 fighters from all causes, 103 of them in combat. RAF claims, however, amounted to 711 [another source says 731] enemy aircraft, while the RAF lost approximately 411 Spitfires and ninety-three Hurricanes [or about 505 in total].

It is only human nature to discover that if the intelligence officer was not keen in giving a confirmed victory or if a pilot’s report did not mention a realistic demise of enemy aircraft or pilot, that an extra couple of words would make the difference. There is the case of one successful British pilot who claimed a 109 shot down, and ended his report by saying he saw it dive into the sea. We now know from German evidence that this particular German pilot, while heading for the sea, did not crash but pulled out and went home. But as the RAF pilot’s report said it dived into the sea, it helped his claim for a confirmed victory. Don’t forget that most of these RAF pilots were little more than boys and with the adrenalin flowing, heart pumping and breathing heavy, it is all too easy to guild the lily, and come home a champion rather than an also-ran.

It happened on the German side too. One has only to compare RAF losses with German claims to see that the same was just as true as with the RAF, especially on the rare occasions when Blenheims survived the fighter onslaught and all returned home, yet some were claimed as destroyed anyway. Despite the assumed strict confirmation rules, it has to be said that those German aces with growing scores, appear to be among the most prolific over-claimers. Their carrot was the award of the Knight’s Cross for approximately twenty victories, it was a definite aim.

Luftwaffe claims according to one report noted almost 1,500, broken down into 850 Spitfires, 100 Hurricanes, 161 Blenheims, 149 Wellingtons and 1 Lancaster (but no Stirlings).

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The Air Ministry – that is to say, the top brass who were over-seeing the day to day, week to week, month to month activities of the offensive operations being carried out – blinkered to common sense, or did they just go along with everything? Did they really think that Fighter Command was actually inflicting so such damage on the Luftwaffe? Surely Intelligence gathering sources could reveal that there was a vast difference between claims of losses and actual losses?

At the end of August 1941 for instance, Fighter Command gave an analysis of enemy casualties during that month. Total enemy losses attributed to RAF fighters was 146 with another seventy-seven as probables. While this did include some sixteen Me110s, He111s, Do17s and Ju88s, it still made 131 Me109s lost by the enemy. Staying with the fighter losses, these figures estimated (and assumed) personnel losses of the same number, i.e. 131, plus a possible sixty-eight more casualties in the probable category, making 199 pilot casualties. This analysis also estimated, by adding total and probable losses together, that the Luftwaffe had suffered a possible loss of 227 during the month.

We imagine that the Chief of the Air Staff and his immediate inner circle read these figures and jumped up and down with joy, believing the war was not far off being won if their fighter pilots could inflict such pain on the enemy. However, there had to be some officers questioning the ‘intelligence’ reports. Presumably everyone looked with less favour on RAF losses. During the year the figure of lost pilots recorded by Fighter Command who had been on Circus operations totalled 296 killed, taken prisoner or were still missing. Another fifty-five had become casualties on fighter sweeps, while overall, for all operations (including Rhubarbs, anti-shipping escorts, etc.), pilot losses were 462.

A good number of these losses were veterans of the Battle of Britain, in fact over 200 pilots that had seen action in the defence of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940 had become casualties from late 1940 and during 1941 – some eighty-two being killed in action with twenty-six others taken prisoner. Some, naturally, had lost their lives in flying accidents – about fifty-three – while about twenty others had been lost or shot down after being sent to Malta or North Africa, but that still meant that over 100 had become casualties, mainly over France and the Channel, while ‘taking the war to the enemy’. A number had also been wounded, some never to return to operational flying. A few had also been brought down, evaded capture and eventually managed to return to England.

During the second half of the 1941 ‘offensive’, the RAF lost around 600 fighters, as opposed to some 920 in the Battle of Britain. Luftwaffe records seem to indicate around 100 Me109s lost.

The two main Geschwaders, JG26 and JG2, generally had around 250 fighters on strength, although serviceability often reduced this overall figure – sometimes by up to a third. After Rolf Pingel was interrogated following his capture in early July, it became clear to Fighter Command leaders that their task of reducing Luftwaffe effort on the Eastern Front so as to counter the offensive over France was not working. It also became clear that German losses were not in accord with RAF claims. Following a conference on 29 July, it was decided to reduce somewhat the intensity of the offensive. Ironically, the RAF failed to realise that their efforts were in fact having some impact on Luftwaffe fighter serviceability which was at this time down to 70 per cent. More ironically, the respite enabled the serviceability to increase to around 80 per cent by August. However, this brief lull was over by mid-August and Circus operations returned to normal. In late August the question of continuing with these operations was still being considered.

1941: The Difficult Year

By Marshal of the RAF Sir Sholto Douglas

The Circus Offensive, 14th June to 31st December 1941

 

 

Paul von Hindenburg

Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg (painting by Hugo Vogel)

Fully expecting a short war, Paul von Hindenburg paced restlessly in Hanover as seven German armies swept into France, Luxembourg, and Belgium in August. As the Schlieffen Plan unfolded in the west, Russia mobilized weeks earlier than predicted and in mid-August invaded East Prussia with two armies. The cry of Kossaken kommen! sent tens of thousands of villagers onto the roads, no matter that the Russian army’s actual Cossacks were on the whole thoroughly domesticated: often no more than farm boys mounted on plow horses, with officers who wore glasses and sported paunches. Nevertheless, the image of savages who raped, killed, and plundered at will was strong enough that even officers groveled for their lives when they fell into Cossack hands.

Streams of German refugees reached near flood tide when the Russian First Army, the northern arm of the invasion’s pincers, administered a sharp local defeat to the Germans at Gumbinnen on August 20. When the German Eighth Army’s commanding general and his chief of staff suggested a general withdrawal to the west bank of the Vistula, a panicky Moltke the Younger sacked them. Moltke and the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, or Army High Command) then had to select a new command team to stabilize Germany’s eastern front.

Moltke’s selection of Erich Ludendorff as the new chief of staff of the Eighth Army was easily made. Ludendorff had overseen the general staff’s prewar blueprint for mobilization until outspoken advocacy of army expansion landed him in political hot water. Exiled to a socially second-rate regimental command in the industrial city of Düsseldorf, when war came he distinguished himself within days. Attached as deputy chief of staff to the Second Army, Ludendorff assumed command of a leaderless brigade, stormed the Belgian fortress of Liege, and boldly demanded its surrender by hammering on the citadel’s door with the hilt of his sword. For this act the Kaiser decorated the “hero of Liege” with the Pour le Mérite (the coveted Blue Max). Audacious and technically brilliant though Ludendorff was, he was known to be a hothead; he suffered from nerves when plans went awry; and his social origins were not quite top-drawer. Ludendorff would make an excellent chief of staff, Moltke concluded, but someone higher ranking was needed to take command and provide stability and aristocratic presence.

As Moltke debated the choice, a distant relative of Hindenburg attached to OHL recalled that Hindenburg stood ready in Hanover, conveniently centered on a major rail line. The telegram went forth, the retired general replied “Ready,” and a special two-car train carrying Ludendorff from Coblenz made a stopover at Hanover in the early morning hours of August 23. Lacking a regulation field gray uniform, Hindenburg improvised with black trousers and a peacetime Prussian blue tunic let out by his wife to accommodate a postretirement paunch. Ludendorff stepped forward, saluted his oddly garbed commander, and stood respectfully aside as the newly promoted Generaloberst (colonel general) bid adieu to his wife. Together Hindenburg and Ludendorff readied themselves for the journey to East Prussia. It was their first meeting and the beginning of a remarkable strategic partnership.

Hindenburg’s new chief of staff was born on April 9, 1865, two days after Hindenburg had been commissioned a second lieutenant. Son of a bourgeois father and an aristocratic mother, Ludendorff reflected the new wave of general staff officers distinguished more by military proficiency than by aristocratic lineage. He was, in Basil Liddell Hart’s telling phrase, a “robot Napoleon.” He had Napoleon’s work ethic, endurance, and capacious mind, but none of his charisma or inspirational qualities. Peering through a monocle, a sternly self-important expression animating a bulky and somewhat flaccid frame, Ludendorff in peacetime had moved expertly from crisis to crisis. Irascible, humorless, indefatigable, he was the stereotype of a Prussian officer. His main flaw was unbridled ambition. Subordinates respected him but feared his sarcastic tongue and dictatorial ways. In his unrefined bossiness and mastery of minutiae, he was the antithesis of what the Kaiser looked for in his senior officers (der Feldwebel, or that sergeant major, the Kaiser was heard to call him), but no one else in August 1914 had Ludendorff’s combination of tactical skill, operational insight, and boundless energy.

On the train Ludendorff summarized the military situation in East Prussia. After half an hour, Hindenburg nodded his agreement and then set the standard for their relationship by calmly going to sleep. As Hindenburg explained in his memoirs, there was little they could do until they reached Eighth Army headquarters at Marienburg. Hindenburg’s calm confidence reassured the excitable Ludendorff. Already these men had begun to form a symbiotic relationship.

In their postwar memoirs, both men celebrated the Hegelian synthesis they had forged during the war. Ludendorff gushed that he and the field marshal had worked together “like one man, in the most perfect harmony.” Hindenburg’s account was more measured and telling. He described their bond as a “happy marriage” in which they became “one in thought and action.” More to the point, Hindenburg admitted that he gave “free scope to the intellectual powers, the almost superhuman capacity for work and untiring resolution” of his “brother warrior.” That last phrase suggests the most appropriate trope for their relationship. Hindenburg was like an older, shrewder, but less gifted, brother who, as the war progressed, found himself eclipsed by the unbounded ambition of a younger sibling.

At first the older comrade provided much needed stiffening to the younger. Recalled to active duty at the age of sixty-seven, Hindenburg had little left to prove. Having already served with distinction during the German wars of unification, he only wanted to be of service for a week, a month, or however long it took Germany to win this war. Having assiduously studied the geography of East Prussia and having been committed since the 1890s to the idea of repulsing a Russian offensive with aggressive counterattacks, he quickly grasped and approved Ludendorff’s concepts for redeploying the Eighth Army.

Arriving at Eighth Army headquarters in the late afternoon, Hindenburg’s commanding physical presence and emotional imperturbability proved a tonic. Few commanders possessed the force of will to steady not only an inexperienced army whose previous commander and chief of staff had been summarily cashiered, but also a skillful but anxious chief of staff whose imagination plagued him with paralyzing visions of catastrophic defeat and failure. Teaming with Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Max Hoffmann, a highly capable and equally arrogant officer of the army staff, Hindenburg and Ludendorff confirmed plans to concentrate Eighth Army’s strength against the Russians advancing from the south.

Facilitated by the Russians’ failure to follow up their victory at Gumbinnen, the Germans took advantage of their road and railroad networks to bring the equivalent of five army corps against a Russian Second Army suffering from overextension and disrupted communications. On August 27, First Corps crushed the Russian left wing. Two more corps, reaching their positions by hard marching in the brutal August heat, drove in the Russian right. The Russian commander sought to restore the situation by attacking forward with the five divisions of his center and came closer to success than is generally realized. By the evening of August 28, however, German forces advancing on the flanks had closed an unbreakable circle around the Russians.

Victory, the saying goes, has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. After the fact, many self-proclaimed “victors of Tannenberg” stepped forward. But as Hindenburg himself noted, only he would have taken the blame if the battle had gone the other way. Tannenberg was Hindenburg’s victory. He knew what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. By restoring calm at headquarters, he created an environment in which officers could get on with their jobs. Meddling or micromanaging was simply not his way. Instead, he provided the force of command by holding his nerve and calling Russia’s bluff. An overly ambitious Russian advance, launched prematurely to aid France, was almost fated to fail if German forces moved expeditiously to outflank and outmaneuver their less mobile Russian counterparts. Tannenberg was nevertheless a stunning victory. It marked the destruction of the Russian Second Army, the suicide of its commander, and the capture of ninety-two thousand men and nearly four hundred guns. Yet, it did not even come near to driving Russia from the war-Schlieffen’s criterion for decisive victory. In this it was ironically similar to the Carthaginian victory at Cannae, which only reconfirmed Rome’s determination to resist. Tannenberg’s legacies were nonetheless important. Together with the victory over the Russian First Army at Masurian Lakes in September, it reinvigorated a German war effort seeking to cope with a conflict of unexpected length and dimensions. Even more importantly, Tannenberg created a new national hero.

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Paul von Hindenburg reached maturity as the Second Reich emerged triumphantly from the Franco-Prussian War. As Germany sought to cohere as a nation-state in fin de siecle Europe while simultaneously reaching out for its own imperial place in the sun, the Junker-dominated officer corps in which Hindenburg proudly served provided the glue that enabled Wilhelm II to maintain a semiauthoritarian rule into the twentieth century. In return, Hindenburg and his brother officers earned the enviable status that came with serving in imperial Germany’s most visible and admired institution, an army that had earned its spurs by producing decisive victories on the battlefield. Even professors were known to flaunt reserve commissions and when introduced, chose to have their military rank announced first, academic credentials second.

Hindenburg’s retirement in 1911 marked a fitting end to a respectable military career. It certainly did not weaken the feudal bond he felt to his liege lord, the Kaiser. Recalled to active duty in the opening weeks of the war, Hindenburg won acclaim and celebrity with impressive victories at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes. With Ludendorff by his side, in two years Hindenburg rose from command of an army, to field marshal and overlord of Germany’s eastern front, and eventually to chief of the imperial general staff. By 1917 these men became virtual military dictators of Germany, and by extension Austria-Hungary as well as Germany took over a faltering Hapsburg war effort.

Excessive power and near-universal adulation exposed Hindenburg’s shortcomings. The wooden statues that became his wartime symbol unintentionally captured a certain woodenness of character. Strength and fortitude Hindenburg possessed; dexterity and breadth of vision he did not. Effective as an army commander, he was out of his depth as a coalition commander and especially as a soldier-statesman. Rejecting negotiated settlements to the war as dishonorable and pusillanimous, Hindenburg and Ludendorff agreed that all-out offensives in every sphere, military, political, and intellectual, were the answer. Unrestricted submarine warfare, however, failed and inexorably dragged the United States into the war, restoring the morale of faltering Entente forces. Meanwhile, overweening ambition in the east prevented concentration of force in the west. Bewilderment and strategic overstretch combined to produce all-or-nothing attacks on the western front from March to July 1918 that ended in exhaustion and widespread disillusionment on both the battlefront and the home front.

Together, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had failed to honor their promises to the soldiers wearing field gray, ultimately betraying their trust. Instead of taking their share of the blame, Hindenburg and Ludendorff sought scapegoats. Defeat marked an acrimonious split of the so-called marriage between these men. Recrimination and betrayal replaced cooperation and mutual respect. Their bitter divorce was a minor, if telling, manifestation of the totality of the Second Reich’s moral collapse.

The End at Verdun

Raymond Abescat took part in the offensive against Douaumont and was lucky to come out of it alive. Eighty years after, as one of the last of the Verdun veterans, he recorded his memories of 24 October 1916 and they were as vivid as if they had happened the day before. He recalled ‘a particularly disturbing moment’ quite unrelated to the military achievement of that day:

There were a few of us in some shell holes. About four in each crater. In one of these hollows there were only three men, whereas the one that I was in held five along with the sergeant. As it was a bit of a squeeze the sergeant said to me: ‘Look, get in with the other three!’ I was about to do so when a comrade volunteered and went there in my place. A moment went by. Suddenly, a German plane flew over us… ‘A bad sign, that!’ And in fact, a few minutes later a whole artillery discharge rained down on our heads and a shell landed right in the hole where I ought to have been. Of the four who were there three were killed and the fourth – the one who had taken my place – was buried under the earth. We got him out gravely wounded. Because of that I have always felt that survival depends on factors that are completely arbitrary.

He was in action again on 16 November:

On that occasion I got a piece of shrapnel in my ankle. It was between nine and ten in the morning and there was no question of moving a muscle because everything that did move was shot down! I had to wait till night-time to get myself as best I could to the first-aid post. My war ended there. The time that had elapsed between being wounded and getting medical care had brought on the beginning of gangrene. I almost had to have my leg amputated. When I got over it, I wasn’t sorry to have left that hell behind me without meeting a tragic end…

Abescat’s reference to the fighting of 16 November shows that the battle did not end with the reclaiming of Douaumont. Nivelle and Mangin were eager to inflict more defeats on the now discomfited Germans. Fort Vaux was added to the tally of success on 2 November, the Germans having abandoned it as being not worth defending; to the French this low-cost seizure helped to cancel out the easy taking of Douaumont that had rankled ever since February. But a more positive flourish was required before the fighting could be closed down. It came in mid-December with a three-day battle on a six-mile front, in which Mangin’s troops advanced two miles beyond Douaumont and took 115 guns, a mass of machine guns and mortars, and 11,000 prisoners. Though only a right-bank offensive it was seen as an unambiguous triumph, and was acknowledged as such by the German Crown Prince. He wrote in his memoirs:

At dawn on December 15th our artillery positions and all the ravines north of the line Louvemont-Hill 378-Bezonvaux redoubt were heavily bombarded with gas shells. The French infantry advanced shortly before 11 a.m., after two hours’ drum-fire on the whole front from Vacherauville to Vaux. On our side the co-operation between infantry and artillery again left much to be desired, and our barrage came down too late.

In the centre of our front in Chauffour and north of Douaumont part of the 10th Division and General von Versen’s 14th held their positions with great stubbornness till late in the evening. In the sectors to the right and left of them, however, the enemy broke through on a wide front. On our right wing Vacherauville, part of Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Hill 378, and on our left the whole Hardaumont and Bezonvaux redoubt ridge were lost. During the latter part of the day the enemy extended his large initial gains, and enveloped the positions still held by our troops in the centre from either flank and in rear. Fighting went on till late in the evening, but all our struggles were in vain… This second defeat before Verdun was marked by a disproportionately high total of prisoners lost, exceeding even those taken on October 24th. The enemy’s communiqué claimed 11,000 prisoners, mostly unwounded, from all five of our divisions engaged…

The spirit of our troops had declined to a marked degree… to a considerable extent their morale and power of resistance was unequal to the demands placed on them by their onerous task…

The mighty drive of the battles for Verdun in 1916 was now at an end! To the bold confident onslaught of the first February days had succeeded weeks and months of fierce, costly and slow advance; then the gradual diminution of our forces had led to the cessation of the offensive, and finally two regrettable setbacks had wrested back from us much of the blood-soaked ground we had so dearly won. Small wonder if this ill-starred end to our efforts wrung the hearts of the responsible commanders.

I knew now for the first time what it was to lose a battle. Doubt as to my own competence, self-commiseration, bitter feelings, unjust censures passed in quick succession through my mind and lay like a heavy burden on my soul, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was some time before I recovered my mental balance and my firm confidence in ultimate victory.

That confidence too, it is scarcely necessary to add, would also end in disillusion.

This final stage of the campaign, spectacularly conducted under new management, was bound to cause casualties in the structure of the French high command. Nivelle and Mangin were so much in the ascendant that they had to be rewarded. Pétain slipped back somewhat into the shadows, to return in a vital role some months later, but the more significant victim was Joffre. On 13 December, two days before the final attack began, he was appointed technical adviser to the government and deprived of direct powers of command. On the 15th Nivelle was summoned to G.Q.G. to take over the post of Commander-in-Chief. On the 26th Joffre effectively fell on his sword by resigning. Some honour was retrieved when he was made Marshal of France on the following day, but the die was cast and he began his journey into an obscurity from which he would never emerge. An embarrassing scene took place at Chantilly in which Joffre, appealing for loyalty among the staff who had worked under him since August 1914, found only one officer prepared to stay with him as he relinquished his command; the fact that he had ‘limogé’ numerous generals in his time did not make his own removal seem the less pathetic. He would still have duties to perform but they would be ceremonial only, such as heading a French military mission to the United States in 1917 or serving as figurehead president of the Supreme War Council in 1918.

Meanwhile Mangin celebrated the new regime with an Order of the Day that trumpeted greater glory to come: ‘We know the method and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’ Future events – though not this time at Verdun – would show that his claim was as empty as Nivelle’s ‘We have the formula’ assertion on the steps at Souilly all those months before. But for the moment Nivelle was the hero of the hour, and Verdun was his triumph. And if nothing else the long struggle was over.

What kind of a battle was it that had thus come to an end after 298 days? Where in its almost ten grim months had Verdun taken the concept of modern war?

The Germans seized the opportunity of a major campaign to try out certain technical innovations. Von Knobelsdorf’s use of phosgene in his June offensive added another name to the burgeoning list of noxious gases; curiously, or perhaps not in view of the way the secretive Falkenhayn was running the campaign, the Kaiser only heard about it from the newspapers. Flamethrowers, initially tested in the region in 1915, were also employed on a major scale here for the first time. In July the flamethrower units were given the insignia of the death’s head; this would later become the insignia of the Waffen SS. Steel helmets were first used en masse at Verdun; the British equivalent came into use roughly at about the same time. Additionally German Sturmtruppen – ‘Stormtroopers’, trained to break through at speed leaving other units to ‘mop up’ behind them – had their first trial runs at Verdun: they would wreak much havoc in the great German attacks of 1918.

Artillery dominated the battle, and was by far the greatest killer. It was used on a massive scale. In White Heat, specifically devoted to ‘the new warfare 1914–18’, John Terraine wrote about Verdun: ‘The statistics of the artillery war… are staggering. For their initial attack the Germans brought up 2,500,000 shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June the artillery on both sides had grown to about 2,000 guns, and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this stretch of dedicated ground.’ But artillery on both sides was often massively inefficient and wasteful. Heavy guns were not always the super-weapons they were thought to be; some had to be re-bored after firing 50 to 100 rounds; moving them meant rendering them ineffective for many hours at a time. There were innumerable instances on both sides of casualties by ‘friendly fire’; thus the infantry could find themselves hating their own apparently careless or uncaring gunners more than the enemy. Communications were primitive and vulnerable; telephone wires were constantly being cut by shell fire; runners with vital messages often took hours to get through or never got through at all. Any assumption that one might have of cool Teutonic precision or brilliant Gallic inspiration and dash should be put to one side. This was for much of its time a monster of a battle in which gallantry had little meaning and glory was only in the eye of the distant beholder.

The cost in human terms was enormous. Estimates vary but one much quoted is that total French casualties, dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, were around 377,000 while the Germans lost about 337,000, a very high proportion of these figures being fatalites.

The concept and conduct of the battle attracts few approving nods from military historians. Summing up the campaign Peter Simkins has written:

The French Army had come through major crises in February and June and had saved Verdun, but nobody had gained any strategic advantage from the bloodletting, certainly not the Germans. Falkenhayn’s fatal irresolution and failure to match the means to the end had merely resulted in the German Army being bled white along with the French. Neither side ever fully recovered from the hell of Verdun before the end of the war.

Adding together the casualty figures as given above, and noting some of the collateral consequences of the battle, Richard Holmes has commented:

700,000 and for 1916 alone: rather more than half the casualties suffered by Britain and her Empire in the Second World War. Nine villages, which had stood on those uplands for a thousand years, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Woods and fields were so polluted by metal, high explosive and bodies that they were beyond cultivation. Declared zones rouges, red zones, they were cloaked in conifers and left to the recuperative powers of nature.

A distinguished scholar of the German Army in the twentieth century, Michael Geyer, has written:

More than any other battle, Verdun showed the military impasse of World War I, the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design and tactics, and the inability to use the modern means of war. But most of all, it showed, at horrendous costs, the impasse of professional strategies.

Alistair Horne has been honourably referred to, and frequently quoted, in these pages, so that it is perhaps superfluous to include him in this brief gathering of opinions. But there is one passage towards the end of his book which sums up so much so pertinently that it virtually demands its place, if offered here in slightly abbreviated form:

Who ‘won’ the Battle of Verdun? Few campaigns have had more written about them (not a little of it bombastic nonsense) and accounts vary widely. The volumes of the Reich Archives dealing with it are appropriately entitled ‘The Tragedy of Verdun’, while to a whole generation of French writers it represented the summit of ‘La Gloire’…

[I]t suffices to say that it was a desperate tragedy for both nations. Among the century’s great battles, Verdun has been bracketed with Stalingrad (no more tellingly so than by Hitler, as quoted in this book’s first chapter.) However, Antony Beevor, in his book Stalingrad, gives that battle the palm, stating: ‘In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed “Rattenkrieg” by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled the generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events.’ (One might add that, in common with the whole Russo–German war of 1941–45, Stalingrad was conducted with a racial-cum-ideological viciousness which would have appalled both sides at Verdun.) But if there was no ‘savage intimacy’, there was at Verdun a kind of terrifying loneliness. As the French historian Marc Ferro has written, ‘Each unit was on its own, often bombarded by its own guns, and told only to “hold on”… The only certainty was death – for one, or other, or all.’ It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims.

Robert Georges Nivelle (October 15, 1856 – March 22, 1924) was a French artillery officer who was briefly commander-in-chief of French forces during World War I.

Born in Tulle, France, to a French father and English mother, Nivelle graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1878 and served in Indochina, Algeria, and China as an artillery officer. He rose in rank from sub-lieutenant in 1878 to regimental colonel in December 1913, which he held at the start of the war in August 1914. A gifted artilleryman, the intense fire he was able to maintain played a key part in stopping German attacks during the Alsace Offensive early in the war, the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–10, 1914) – where he earned fame by moving his artillery regiment through an infantry regiment on the verge of breaking and opening fire on the Germans at point-blank range – and the First Battle of the Aisne (September 15–18, 1914). He received a promotion to Brigadier-General and command of a brigade in October 1914, then of a division early in 1915, then of a corps at the end of that year. A leading subordinate to Philippe Pétain at Verdun in 1916, he succeeded Pétain in command of the Second Army during the battle, and later in the year succeeded in recapturing Douaumont and other forts at Verdun.

Nivelle was an exponent of aggressive tactics, arguing that by using a creeping barrage he could end the war on the Western Front. His ideas were popular with the besieged Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister and in December 13, 1916 Nivelle was promoted over the heads of the Army Group Commanders to replace Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. He devised a grand plan to win the war in 1917. This involved a British attack to draw in German reserves, followed by a massive general French attack aimed at the Arras–Soissons–Reims salient. However, Nivelle was willing to talk about his plan to anyone who asked, including journalists, while the Germans captured copies of the battle plan left in French trenches; consequently the element of surprise was lost. When launched in April 1917, the Aisne campaign (Nivelle Offensive) was a failure. He continued with the strategy until the French Army began to mutiny.

Nivelle was replaced in early May by Philippe Pétain, who restored the fighting capacity of the French forces. Nivelle was reassigned to North Africa in December 1917, where he spent the rest of his military career before retiring in 1921.

Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin, (1866–1925)

French Army general. Born on July 6, 1866, in Sarrebourg in the Moselle Department of Lorraine, Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin was expelled with his family following the German occupation as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. In 1885 Mangin joined the 77th Infantry Regiment and entered L’École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr the next year, graduating in 1888. Most of his early military career was spent in the French colonies. Known as an aggressive commander, Mangin was three times wounded in colonial service. His first assignment was in Senegal, and he led the advance guard of Colonel Jean Baptiste Marchand’s expedition across Africa to the Nile River at Fashoda in 1898. Admitted to the École de Guerre in 1899, Mangin was assigned to Tonkin in northern French Indochina before returning to Senegal during 1906–1908. Promoted to colonel in 1910, he carried out military operations in French West Africa

While in Africa, Mangin found time to write a book, La Force noire, which he published in 1912. In it he suggested that France could offset its population imbalance with Germany by utilizing troops from its African possessions. Such troops could be employed effectively in North Africa, freeing up French forces there. Mangin also believed that native soldiers, once they had completed their service, would form the nucleus of a new colonial elite who would be loyal to France. That same year the French Chamber of Deputies authorized the raising of several battalions of Senegalese troops. Under Mangin’s command, they carried out military operations in Morocco, seizing Marrakech in October 1912.

Returning to metropolitan France, Mangin was promoted to général de brigade on August 8, 1913. At age 47, he was the youngest general in the French Army. On August 2, 1914, Mangin took command of the 8th Brigade. Entering Belgium, he fought in the earliest battles of World War I near Charleroi. On August 31 he received command of the 5th Infantry Division. Mangin took part in the Battle of the Marne (September 5–12) and in the First Battle of Artois (December 17, 1914–January 4, 1915). He was promoted to général de division in early 1915. Mangin greatly admired African troops and used them whenever possible in his attacks.

Mangin was one of France’s more skillful commanders. His hallmarks were careful coordination and attacks launched on time and in an aggressive fashion. Utterly fearless, Mangin often inspected his troops at the front and was wounded several times. He was equally reckless with the lives of his men, winning him the sobriquet “The Butcher.”

In the spring of 1916, Mangin was ordered to Verdun with his 5th Infantry Division of Général de Division Robert Nivelle’s III Corps. Mangin’s division succeeded in recapturing from the Germans Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, and Mangin soon became Nivelle’s favorite commander. Appointed commander of the Sixth Army, Mangin led it in the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive in Champagne (April 16–May 9, 1917) but failed to capture his objective of the Chemin des Dames. Attempting to shift the blame for his own failure, Nivelle relieved Mangin in May.

Absolved of any fault by a board chaired by Général de Division Ferdinand Foch, Mangin in December 1917 commanded VI Corps, the reserve of the First Army, which was in March 1918 assigned to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force. On June 16, 1918, he received command of the Tenth Army during the Second Battle of the Marne (June 15–18) and led it with distinction in helping to halt the last attacks of the German Ludendorff Offensive (March 21–June 18).

Foch then selected Mangin to launch the first counterattack. Mangin’s forces then drove toward Laon, which he seized in October. As part of Army Group East, Mangin’s Tenth Army was preparing for a major offensive in Lorraine in early November, but the armistice of November 11, 1918, superseded. The Tenth Army entered Metz (November 19) and then reached the Rhine at Mainz (December 11) and occupied the Rhineland.

Following the war, Mangin commanded French occupation troops in Lorraine in the Metz area. In this capacity, he supported Rhineland autonomy movements in an effort to detach that area from the rest of Germany. Made a member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (War Council), his last assignment, which he retained until his death, was the inspectorate of French colonial troops. He also wrote his recollections, Comment finit la guerre (1920). In 1921 he carried out a diplomatic mission to South America. Mangin died in Paris on May 12, 1925.

What Faced NATO in East Germany?

1953 – Demonstrations and riots in East Berlin – Soviet occupation Troops go into action against civilians.

On 9 July 1945, the Group of Soviet Occupation Forces Germany (GSOFG) was formed from elements of the 1st and 2nd Belorussian fronts, becoming an Army of Occupation. These occupation forces were subsequently maintained at close to wartime levels, soon considerably outnumbering the combined Western forces facing them. In 1949 they were renamed the ‘Group of Soviet Forces in Germany’ (GSFG), which remained in being until 1 June 1989 when they became the Western Group of Forces (WGF) as the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe began to unravel. This formation stayed in Germany until 1994 when the total withdrawal of Russian forces was completed. These forces were huge, supplemented until 1990 by the GDR’s own military services.

At the height of the Cold War, GSFG could muster 21 Tank and Motor Rifle (armoured infantry) Divisions grouped into 5 armies and a single front that each possessed its own subordinate units. In total they consisted of nearly 500,000 personnel with some 6,100 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), 8,000 armoured vehicles, 4,300 artillery pieces which included 600 multiple rocket launchers and 200 surface-to-surface missile systems, 1,200 air defence systems (including surface-to-air missile systems), 310 attack helicopters and 350 transport and utility helicopters. The 24 (later 16) Tactical Air Army provided fixed-wing air support to GSFG. Helicopter units were usually subordinated to the relevant Army-level formation, except for one regiment that was a front-level asset. The Tactical Air Army possessed around 610 fighter aircraft, 320 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters.

The huge Soviet presence was supplemented by the GDR’s forces, consisting of the East German Army – the National Volksarmee (NVA). The NVA had six Tank and Motor Rifle Divisions grouped into two Military Districts (MD) and the Ministry of National Defence (MND), each of which had directly subordinate units of its own. There were also five reserve Motor Rifle Divisions. These forces consisted of 180,000 personnel and operated around 2,700 MBTs, 5,400 armoured vehicles, 1,700 artillery pieces (including 200 multi-barrel-rocket-launchers (MBRL)) and 700 air defence systems, including SAM systems. There were also some 40 attack and 110 transport helicopters. The East German Air Force consisted of two Air Divisions and could muster around 450 fighter aircraft, 90 fighter-bombers, 50 attack and 120 transport helicopters. The East German Navy was composed of three flotillas based on the Baltic coast. It was predominantly a coastal force but did have a considerable amphibious warfare capability plus three squadrons of helicopters.

The four Border Guard (Grenz Truppen) commands were in essence another Military District but without heavy armour and self-propelled artillery. The Border Guard had around 47,000 personnel and besides small arms they also operated some obsolescent armoured vehicles and artillery pieces.

The Soviets and East Germans occupied nearly 900 installations at some 400 locations in the GDR. These included over 55 airfields and 150 major training areas and ranges. About 40 per cent of these locations lay either directly beneath or adjacent to (up to 20 miles outside) the Corridors and BCZ. There were also other locations that could be seen from the air along the Baltic Coast of the GDR and near the German–Czechoslovakian border. The installations in the GDR that could be viewed from the Corridors, BCZ and their immediate environs are listed in the appendix. Beyond any doubt this was an intelligence ‘target rich environment’ and for the next forty years both sides conducted an intelligence battle across the IGB using all means at their disposal.
Intelligence Resources

Both sides possessed a formidable array of assets in Germany to acquire the intelligence sought by national governments, military staffs and Germany-based commands. The Western Allies’ assets included HUMINT: the division of Germany presented many opportunities for HUMINT exploitation. West Germans could travel to visit families in the GDR, although reciprocal trips were not possible. Such movements of people provided one source of information. Civilian employees of the Allied forces were required to report any visits to the GDR and on their return were usually debriefed by military or civil security authorities. There was also a constant flow of refugees from the East as well as defectors and controlled sources (spies).

A key and very successful resource was the unique presence of the Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs) created after Allied occupation of Germany by the wartime Allies.

Allied Military Liaison Missions

Because the GDR was diplomatically unrecognised, there were no Western military attachés based there. Their nearest equivalents were the three Allied Military Liaison Missions (AMLMs), which were far more valuable. Established in 1946 and 1947 under individual agreements between the respective Western Commanders-in-Chief and the Soviet Commander-in-Chief, they were accredited with a quasi-diplomatic status. The British Mission’s full title was the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet forces in Germany, mercifully shortened to ‘BRIXMIS’ or ‘The Mission’. The British, Americans and French had Mission Houses in Potsdam, also the home of the Soviet military headquarters until it moved to Zossen-Wünsdorf. The houses were where all Mission touring activity started and generally finished. Although the Mission houses were ‘sovereign’ territory, like an embassy, the locally employed East German staff reported the comings and goings at the houses. Mission members’ activities, both official and personal, were closely monitored and reported, and communications were believed to have been monitored and intercepted and were accordingly regarded as insecure. The AMLMs’ close proximity to Berlin meant that they also maintained HQs co-located with their own national headquarters in West Berlin, which gave them much more security, freedom and flexibility.
Reciprocal Soviet Military Liaison Missions were located in each of the three Western Zones. The Soviet presence in the British Zone was known as ‘the Soviet Commander-in-Chief’s Military Liaison Mission to the Commander-in-Chief British Army of the Rhine’, shortened to ‘SOXMIS’. During its existence SOXMIS was located in Bad Salzuflen, Lübbecke and Bünde in special compounds but these were never sufficiently close to the GDR for them to have a separate HQ like the Allies in Berlin, so they were always rather more isolated in their operations.

BRIXMIS’s primary official purpose was, according to the agreements, to maintain liason between the staff of the two Commanders-in-Chief and their military governments in the Zones to prevent incidents or events escalating to higher levels. Although emphasis quickly shifted onto intelligence collection the liaison function remained a core task throughout the Mission’s existence. Because of this liaison function, and some of the personal relationships created, serious incidents, including the detention of Mission staff, could often be resolved without involving respective Commanders-in-Chief, diplomats or politicians.

BRIXMIS’s intelligence collection included military and civil targets. To carry out these intelligence-gathering tasks BRIXMIS personnel were always unarmed, in working, not combat, uniform, and ‘toured’ throughout the GDR in specially marked military cars. They compiled visual, written and photographic reports on the activities they observed. Up to thirty-one British military personnel, referred to as being ‘on pass’, could be accredited to the GSFG Headquarters as being with BRIXMIS at any one time. They had relative freedom of movement within the GDR and their vehicles were regarded as being ‘sovereign’ territory and, in theory at least, inviolable. However, access was far from unfettered. The Missions were forbidden from penetrating designated ‘Permanent Restricted Areas’ (PRA), which theoretically placed the area out of bounds. Unsurprisingly, PRAs protected the high-value intelligence targets, including many of the Soviet and East German garrisons, airfields, major logistics facilities and training areas. PRAs were detailed on published maps. There were also designated Temporary Restricted Area (TRA) that were time limited, usually created to cover major military exercises or troop movements, often linking PRAs together. Unofficial ‘Mission Restricted’ signs, planted in the German countryside, were generally ignored by the Missions because they had no agreed official status and frequently became treasured souvenirs for Mission members. All these restrictions nevertheless inhibited Mission activities. However, the Soviets managed the imposition of PRAs and TRAs carefully because overuse ran the risk of provoking tit-for-tat restrictions on the Soviet Missions in the FRG.

The Missions deployed into the GDR every day, including Christmas Day, to observe activities, equipment and personnel. They recorded details, took photographs and sometimes returned with items of equipment and even, on a few occasions, pieces of ordnance. They had to be experts in military equipment recognition, learn Russian or German to a required standard and develop good photographic and later video skills. The aim was to get as close as possible to the opposition by stealth or using bluster and trickery to obtain the information they sought. For many Mission personnel this posting was often regarded retrospectively as a highlight in their military careers. Some experienced difficulty in returning to ‘regular’ soldiering afterwards. It was certainly a high-stress posting for many. In the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when East–West relations were particularly sour, Mission work became particularly dangerous. During this time there were two fatalities. Adjutant Chef Mariotti of the MMFL was killed in a deliberately engineered traffic accident in 1984, and in 1985 Major Nicholson of United States Military Liaison Mission (USMLM) was shot and killed by a Soviet guard close to a military installation at Ludwigslust. Throughout the Missions’ existence there were many incidents of Soviet and East German forces causing physical injury to Mission members by administering beatings if they compromised an observation point, or during the detention of a ‘Tour’.

The Mission’s exploits were truly remarkable and are too numerous to describe in detail, though mention of a few of their intelligence ‘scoops’ gives an idea of what they achieved.
In 1966, BRIXMIS personnel liaised with Soviet military personnel who were trying to access the wreckage of a Yak-28 Firebar aircraft that had crashed into the British part of the Havelsee Lake in Berlin. Officially this meant keeping the Soviets away from the crash site until it and the crew’s bodies could be recovered and returned by British forces. Unofficially, they were co-ordinating the underwater removal of parts, including its then state-of-the-art radar, which were quickly spirited away to the UK for scientific examination. BRIXMIS successfully managed to stop the incident from becoming anything more than a very tense stand-off and illustrates BRIXMIS’s liaison function in an exemplary fashion.

BRIXMIS members were expected to use their initiative and daring to gather intelligence. One Tour came upon a stationary train carrying BMP-2 armoured infantry combat vehicles (AICVs). A ‘current priority intelligence requirement’ was to discover the main armaments’ calibre. A Tour member sneaked onto the train and pushed an apple into the weapon’s muzzle before the train moved off, or he was shot at by a Soviet sentry. In 1987 the British Army tactic of ‘acquisition’ came into play when a Tour ‘acquired’ a sample of Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) – ‘it came off in me and Sir’ – removed from a stationary Soviet T-80 MBT when no one was close by. At the time the composition and operation of ERA was a very high priority technical intelligence target.

The BCZ also gave BRIXMIS the opportunity to use the RAF Gatow-based Chipmunk aircraft for airborne observation and photography. There are several books about BRIXMIS and its operations that give comprehensive insights into their activities and modus operandi and they are highly recommended. They include works by Tony Geraghty, Steve Gibson and Major General Peter Williams.

SIGINT: British, French and US forces engaged in significant SIGINT collection activities in Germany and Berlin. They utilised a network of ground-based listening posts, overlooking GDR territory. British airborne SIGINT assets operated peripheral flights mainly from the UK, where the necessary infrastructure existed to process the information collected. The French airborne effort originally flew from Germany before switching to Metz-Frescaty in 1966 when France withdrew from NATO. They too maintained ground-based listening stations. The US effort was largest of all with a major network of monitoring facilities and air assets. Most US airborne SIGINT assets were located in Germany, but they were frequently detached for periods of temporary duty across continental Europe from 1946 until 1974. From then most operations were undertaken by UK-based aircraft.

PHOTINT/IMINT: The existence of the Corridors and BCZ gave the Allies a unique situation that could be used to their advantage for the collection of PHOTINT/IMINT. The Corridors were internationally agreed and controlled airspace. Its rules allowed access to Berlin for some of the Western Allies’ military and civilian aircraft. Aircraft using the Corridors and BCZ belonged to units on the published ORBAT and generally carried unit markings, flown by uniformed crews in airspace they were perfectly entitled to use. Whilst the risks to manned overflights of Soviet territory grew, Corridors and BCZ flights could be executed at comparatively low physical and political risk.

Being able to fly close along the IGB and through an important portion of East German airspace along the Corridors and around Berlin meant airborne intelligence gathering was an irresistible activity. All three Allies mounted their own airborne intelligence-gathering operations of varying scale and scope. The technical aspects of mounting equipment in a suitable aircraft and flying the missions could be difficult enough, but they were relatively straightforward when compared to the sensitive political risks attached to such activities elsewhere. To be at their most effective these flights required proper preparation, co-ordination and integration into the normal transport and training traffic going about its lawful occasions in the Corridors and BCZ.

Thus the stage was set for the execution of some of the most audacious ICFs of the Cold War that provided almost daily surveillance of installations in the GDR.

Eastern Onslaught

WINTER 1943/44–AUTUMN 1944

By incredible efforts and courageous fighting the German Army managed to slow down the Russian offensive on the central sector of the Eastern Front. Throughout July Army Group Centre was withdrawing steadily through Poland. Its weary soldiers had been forced back towards Kaunas, the Neman River and Bialystok. The last of the German infantry units capable of retreating along the Warsaw highway over the Vistula at Siedlce was undertaken and assisted by the crack Waffen-SS division Totenkopf and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Division. The whole German position in the east was now crumbling, and any hope of repairing it was made almost impossible by crippling shortages of troops. German infantry divisions continued desperately trying to fill the dwindling ranks. However, by the end of July the Red Army was already making good progress towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. On 7 August 1944 the Soviet offensive finally came to a halt east of Warsaw. Feldmarschall Model sent Hitler an optimistic report telling him that Army Group Centre had finally set up a continuous front from the south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the River Vistula near Pulawy. The new front itself in Poland stretched some 420 miles and was manned by thirty-nine divisions and brigades. Although the force seemed impressive the German Army was actually weak; the divisions were under-strength, and were thinly-stretched. With these, the Germans were compelled to hold large areas along the Vistula River, which included Warsaw. What made matters worse was the fact that they faced a Russian force that was a third of the total Red Army. To the Germans, Warsaw possessed great strategic importance due to the vital traffic arteries running north-south and east-west, which crossed into the city. The Germans knew that if they wanted to keep control of the Eastern Front, they must hold onto the city at all costs.

As news reached Warsaw that the Russians were approaching, the Polish Home Army rose against the German forces in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising. In the north of the city the 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions, together with the Herman Göring Division, saw extensive action in trying to repulse the uprising. While the fighting raged inside the capital, north of the city Soviet troops had already made some impressive gains by pushing the 2nd Army towards the Narew River. Fortunately for the German troops the Red Army were too exhausted and the offensive ground to a halt.

But the lull in Poland was not mirrored elsewhere. In the north, Soviet forces were already in East Prussia threatening the German forces in that area by reaching the Baltic and cutting off Army Group North. In southern Poland the 1st Ukrainian Front captured Lemberg, while Romania fell to the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts. Soviet forces had also penetrated Hungary, and its powerful armoured forces soon reached the capital, Budapest. On 20 August, the 2nd Ukrainian Front broke through powerful German defences, and the Red Army reached the Bulgarian border on 1 September. Within a week, Soviet troops arrived along the Yugoslav frontier. On 8 September, Bulgaria and Romania then declared war on Germany. It seemed that nothing but a series of defeats now plagued the German Army during the summer of 1944.

In a radical effort to stem the series of setbacks, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General staff, proposed that thirty divisions of Army Group North, which were redundant in Kurland, be shipped back to the Homeland so they could be resupplied and re-strengthened to reinforce Army Group Centre in Poland. Hitler, however, emphatically refused Guderian’s proposal.

As a consequence of Hitler’s negative response, by October Army Group North was, as predicted, cut off, leaving 4th Army with only four weak corps to defend East Prussia against the full might of the Soviet forces. In Army Group Centre the 3rd Panzer Army and 4th Army were holding tenaciously to a weak salient in the north, while to the southwest, along the Narew River, the 2nd Army was still holding the river line. Army Group A had dug a string of defences from Modlin to Kaschau, with the 9th Army positioned either side of Warsaw along the Vistula. The 4th Panzer Army had dug in at Baranov and was holding positions against strong Russian attacks. The 17th Army had fortified its positions with a string of machine gun posts and mines between the Vistula and the Beskides, while the 1st Panzer Army was holding the area of Kaschau and Jaslo.

For the remaining weeks of 1944 the German Army defended Poland with everything it could muster. The bulk of the forces left to defend the frontlines were exhausted and undermanned. With reserves almost non-existent the dwindling ranks were bolstered by old men and low-grade troops. Struggling to find more manpower, convalescents and the medically unfit were also drafted into the ranks into what were known as ‘stomach and ear’ battalions because most men were hard of hearing or suffered from ulcers. Poland it seemed would be defended at all costs, despite the age and quality of the soldiers that manned the lines.

WINTER 1944/45–MAY 1945

The year 1944 ended with the German Army still fighting on foreign soil trying desperately to gain the initiative and throw the Red Army back from its remorseless drive on the German frontier. But despite the skill and determination shown by the German soldiers in late 1944, most of them were aware that 1945 would be fateful – the year of decision.

In January 1945 along the Vistula Front hope dawned among some of the more fanatical commanders of the German Army. The strongest of the forces deployed along the Vistula against the Russians were in Army Group Centre. Its battle line ran more than 350 miles. However, each division that was placed on the front lines was perilously under strength and would not be able to contain a Russian attack for any appreciable length of time. On 13 January 1945 the Soviet offensive opened up and soldiers and Panzer crews from the 4th Panzer Army bore the brunt of the attack on the Vistula. Almost immediately the army was engulfed in a storm of fire. Across the snow-covered terrain Red Army troops and massive numbers of armoured vehicles flooded the battlefield. By the end of the first day the battle had ripped open a breach more than twenty miles wide in the Vistula Front. The 4th Panzer Army was virtually annihilated. Small groups of German soldiers tried frantically to fight their way westwards through the flood of Red infantry and tanks.

As the whole German military campaign in the east began collapsing it was proposed that all German forces located between the Oder and Vistula rivers be amalgamated into a new army group named ‘Army Group Vistula’. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was to command the new army group. German soldiers together with elite formations of the Waffen-SS were supposed to prevent the Soviets from breaking through. However, the once mighty German Army was now suffering from an unmistakable lack of provisions. By January 1945, the problems had become so critical that even children and old men were being thrown into what was now being called the last bastion of defence for the Reich. In Army Group Vistula the German Army could no longer function properly.

There was no contact between units on the battlefield, battalions were out of touch with their companies, and regiments had no link with their divisions. Successive blows by the Red Army began to tear apart Himmler’s Army Group and send scattered German formations reeling back westward towards the Oder or north-westwards into Pomerania. As the whole front began withdrawing both the 9th Army and 2nd Army’s right wings lost contact with each other. In a drastic measure to restore the disintegrating situation General Weiss, commanding the 2nd Army, tried to stabilise the front on the Vistula between the town of Thorn and Graudenz. But still Soviet forces were overwhelming many German positions and pushing back Hitler’s exhausted forces.

Despite the best efforts of the German Army to bolster its dwindling ranks on the Eastern Front, nothing could now mask the fact that they were dwarfed by the superiority of the Red Army. It was estimated that the Russians had some six million men along a front which stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic. To the German soldiers facing the Russians, the outcome was almost certain death. They were well aware that what they had done in Russia and the occupied territories had caused the Red Army to exact a terrible revenge.

As the Nazi empire was sheared off piece by piece, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda chief, begun to switch from terror-mongering to reassuring the population that victory was just around the corner. However, in an atmosphere of near panic, stirred up by refugees and their stories of Russian atrocities, there was little to console them. Many stories had already reached the German front lines as to how the Red Army had raped and murdered women. The widespread panic among the civilians was causing the German command many problems, especially with supply and troop movements. In some areas the roads had become so congested with civilians and soldiers that many miles were brought to a complete standstill.

Out on the battlefield, the realisation among troops that they might lose the war was seldom admitted openly; but most of the soldiers already knew that the end would come soon. Troops were not convinced by their commanders’ encouragements especially when they were lying in their trenches subjected to hours of bombardment by guns that never seemed to lack shells. Poorly armed and undermanned, infantry and Panzer divisions were exhausted shadows of their former selves.

The last great offensives that brought the Russians their final victory in Eastern Europe began during the third week of January 1945. Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged into Silesia after the capture of Radom and Krakow. On the night of 27 January, the German divisions of the 17th Army pulled out of the region towards the Oder River. The principal objective of the Red Army during late January 1945 was for an all-out assault along the Baltic to crush the remaining under-strength German units that had formed Army Group North. It was these heavy, sustained attacks that eventually restricted the German-held territory in the north-east to a few small pockets of land surrounding three ports: Libau in Kurland, Pillau in East Prussia and Danzig at the mouth of River Vistula. It was here along the Baltic that the German defenders attempted to stall the massive Russian onslaught with the few weapons and men they had at their disposal. Every German soldier defending the area was aware of the significance if it were captured. Not only would the coastal garrisons be cut off and eventually destroyed, but also masses of civilian refugees would be prevented from escaping from the ports by sea. Terrified civilians eager to board the next ships to the homeland queued night and day until the next vessel came in. They were so desperate to leave that they stood out in the open, enduring constant bombing and strafing by low-flying Russian aircraft, whose presence was now unchallenged in the sky.

For the next several weeks thousands of civilians risked their lives in order to escape from the clutches of the Red Army. Even to the end of March 1945, as Soviet troops fought their way into the outskirts of Gdynia, the German Navy continued rescuing many refugees before the Russians could get to them. German soldiers too, even remnants of elite Waffen-SS units, found themselves faced with a similar experience. Thousands of dishevelled troops streamed towards the coast, mingling with countless numbers of terrified women and children. Just along the coast in Danzig, the Russians stormed the ancient Teutonic city, smashing into the rear of fleeing German troops who were making their way desperately along the Vistula estuary. To the German soldiers that saw Danzig fall, it marked a complete disaster along the Baltic. Russian soldiers, however, saw Danzig as a way of exterminating Teutonic culture, which had long since been despised. All over the city, they blew up old buildings, set alight churches and randomly executed groups of soldiers that had not raised the white flag of surrender, but had fought on until they ran out of ammunition.

Elsewhere along the Baltic coast isolated areas of German resistance continued to fight on, but still they had no prospect of holding back the Russians. Hitler made it quite clear that Army Group Kurland was not to be evacuated. To the Führer, Kurland was the last bastion of defence in the east and every soldier, he said, was to ‘stand and fight’ and wage an unprecedented battle of attrition. In fact, what Hitler had done in a single sentence was to condemn to death some 8,000 officers and more than 181,000 soldiers and Luftwaffe personnel. Those soldiers who managed to escape the destruction of Army Group Kurland retreated back towards the River Oder or returned by ship to Germany.

On other parts of the Eastern Front fighting was merciless, with both sides imposing harsh measures on their men to stand where they were and fight to the death. Since September 1944, Hitler had appreciated the importance of holding the city of Breslau from the approaching Red Army and declared it a fortress. As with other towns and villages lining the approaches to the Homeland, Breslau’s infantry formations consisted mainly of old men and young boys who were poorly-equipped and hastily trained for combat. Four months later in January 1945, the city was still poised for the arrival of the Russians. By February, the sound of approaching Russian guns brought the city to panic stations. It was the 269th Infantry Division, withdrawing in the face of the massive Soviet advance, that was given the objective of forming the main defence of Breslau.

To test the defenders of Breslau, the Red Army launched a series of probing attacks into the city. Four Soviet divisions then carried out a furious assault that penetrated Breslau’s defences. Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, Waffen-SS and various formations from the 269th Infantry Division put up a staunch defence with every available weapon they could muster. As the battle raged, both German soldiers and civilians were cut to pieces by Russian fire. The Red Army drive was so powerful and swift that by 14 February the city was cut off and isolated, miles behind the Russian front.

During these vicious battles, which continued into May 1945, after Berlin had fallen, there were many acts of courageous fighting. Cheering and yelling, old men and boys of the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend advanced across open terrain into a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire. By the first week of March, Russian infantry had driven back the defenders into the inner city and were pulverising it street by street. Lightly-clad Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend were still resisting, forced to fight in the sewers beneath the ravaged city. Almost 60,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded trying to capture the city, with some 29,000 German military and civilian casualties. When Breslau finally capitulated, the Red Army was bitter and vented its anger against the civilians.

As the massive Russian forces pushed ever westward, the German Army, along with the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend formations, withdrew under increasing pressure nearer and nearer to the Homeland. With every defeat and withdrawal came ever-increasing pressure on the commanders to exert harsher discipline on their weary men. The thought of fighting on German soil for the first time resulted in mixed feelings among the men. Although the defence of the Reich automatically stirred emotional feelings to fight for their land, many soldiers were quite openly aware that morale was being completely destroyed. They had all received a message from the Führer telling them to fight to the death, and they no longer had the manpower resources or strength to wage a bloody war of attrition. More young conscripts began showing signs that they did not want to die for a lost cause.

Conditions on the Eastern Front were miserable not only for the newest recruit, but also the battle-hardened veteran who had survived many months of bitter conflict against the Red Army. The cold harsh weather during February and March prevented the soldiers digging trenches more than a few feet deep. But the main problems that confronted the German Army during this period of the war were shortages of ammunition, fuel and vehicles. Some vehicles in the divisions could only be used in an emergency and troops were strictly prohibited from using them without permission from the commanding officer. The daily ration on average per division was for two shells per gun. Thousands of under-nourished civilians, mostly women and slave labourers, were marched out to expend all their available energy to dig lines of anti-tank ditches. For the benefit of the newsreel camera, which was intended somehow to help bolster the morale of the troops, Hitler made a secret visit on 13 March 1945 to the Oder Front. In fact, Hitler did not meet one ordinary soldier at the front and was surrounded by well-armed SS guards. During his brief war conference on the terrible situation faced by his Army, he gave a formal speech on the necessity of holding the positions. He told General Busse, commander of the 9th Army, to use all available weapons and equipment at his disposal to hold back the Russians.

However, nothing could stop the Red Army’s drive. Out on the Vistula Front, German troops were now barely holding their wavering positions that ran some 175 miles from the Baltic coast to the juncture of the Oder and Neisse in Silesia. Most of the front was now held on the western bank of the Oder. In the north the ancient city of Stettin, and in the south the town of Küstrin, were both vital holding points against the main Russian objective of the war – Berlin.

By late March, the situation in Army Group Vistula had become much worse. Not only were supplies dwindling, but rations too were becoming so low that some soldiers were beginning to starve. In the ranks rations were more abundant: most days each soldier received an Army loaf and some stew or soup, which was often cold and not very appetising. But the main problem was the lack of clean drinking water. As a result of this, many of the soldiers suffered from dysentery.

The bulk of the Vistula front was manned by inexperienced training units. Some soldiers were so young that in their rations they were handed sweets instead of tobacco. More experienced soldiers observed that the Soviets were playing with them like ‘cat and mouse’. Sitting in their trenches, cowering under the constant Soviet shelling, almost all of the men seemed fixated on one thing: ‘the order to hurry up and retreat.’

Despite all its weaknesses on the Vistula Front, the German Army could still be a formidable opponent. Both young and old alike fought together to hold some kind of line in the face of the massive Russian onslaught.

In the last months of the war on the Eastern Front, German infantry divisions tried their best to form some kind of defensive line along an increasingly shrinking front. Exhausted and demoralised skeletal units that had been fighting for survival in previous weeks were now fully aware of the impending defeat in the east. Yet the German General Staff was still determined to fight at all costs, even if it meant throwing together unfit or badly depleted regiments and battalions.

In late March 1945, east of Berlin, German infantry and Panzer troops were compelled to hold the front against superior Soviet artillery and aviation. The German soldier had neither the manpower nor the weapons to hold the Russian onslaught, in spite of determined resistance along some sectors of the Front.

The Eastern Front, over which the German soldier had marched victoriously into heartlands of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, was now no more than 100 miles from the Reich capital. Between Berlin and the River Oder was a motley assortment of German soldiers, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend and Luftwaffe troops preparing for the final onslaught of the Russian Army. When the final attack began on the River Oder on 16 April 1945 the German soldier was overwhelmed within days, and was slowly beaten back to the gates of Berlin. It was here that the German soldier fought out the last days of the war in the east until he was either captured or destroyed.