What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part I

The Challenge

On 15 June 1888, the twenty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned emperor of Germany. Although capable of moments of brilliant insight, Wilhelm II was infamous for his obnoxious arrogance, uncontrollable temper and erratic decision making. Intensely Anglophobic, he despised the British Empire and felt that Germany was being denied ‘a place in the sun’ by a conspiracy of British and French interests. Wilhelm II was determined to redress this balance.

Germany began to build its colonial empire in the 1890s using a handful of warships, but Wilhelm II dreamed of creating a fleet that would one day topple the Royal Navy itself. In 1897 he appointed Konteradmiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz shared Wilhelm II’s naval ambitions and had the political skill to steer the proposals through the Reichstag. Within a year, Germany had passed the First Naval Bill, which called for the construction of nineteen battleships by 1904. In 1900, Tirpitz used the pretext of strained Anglo-German relations as a result of the Boer War to increase the provision of battleships to thirty-eight vessels.

The gauntlet had been thrown down to Britain. For almost a century the Royal Navy had been the undisputed master of the oceans. Lord Horatio Nelson’s legendary victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had established such an overwhelming sense of British naval superiority that no other major power had dared to challenge it – until now.

The British government quickly perceived that German naval building was not merely a danger to the empire, but, by virtue of Germany’s geographic position, represented a grave threat to Britain itself. The Royal Navy responded to German construction in kind. The first great arms race of the twentieth century had begun.

In 1906 the Royal Navy changed the terms of the contest with the launch of the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. This vessel was faster, better armoured and more heavily armed than any ship then afloat. Dreadnought was so advanced compared to her rivals that from that point on battleships would be classed either as modern dreadnoughts or outdated pre-dreadnoughts.

Some strategists in Britain hoped that the launch of Dreadnought would convince the Germans that they were beaten and thus end the ruinously expensive contest. They had reckoned without the determination of Wilhelm II and Tirpitz. Germany saw the launch of Dreadnought as an opportunity, for although the new ship had rendered the German fleet obsolete, it had also done the same for the vast majority of existing British battleships. The balance sheet was cleared and it would now be a contest to see who could build dreadnoughts fastest. The arms race intensified in the years that followed as both sides strained to manufacture ever greater numbers of modern warships.

From Dreadnought onwards, each successive class of ships was bigger, faster, and more powerful than the last. Covered in thick steel plate, driven by the largest and most powerful engines available and carrying the heaviest guns it was possible to mount, the modern battleship was the most powerful weapon system in the world. The dreadnoughts were supported by battlecruisers, formidable vessels of comparable size that were built to emphasise speed and armament at the expense of armoured protection. In addition, both navies constructed numerous light cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to support the heavy ships.

The naval race strained finances to the limit, but it was Britain which emerged as the clear leader. By the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had launched twenty dreadnoughts, with another twelve under construction, compared to thirteen German dreadnoughts, with seven being built.

Germany now faced a serious strategic problem. During the arms race, Tirpitz had deluded himself with the hope that the fleet would be a deterrent weapon that would intimidate Britain and convince it to stay neutral in the event of war. At its heart the policy was a bluff – and the bluff was abruptly called in August 1914. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) now had to consider how to overcome the numerically superior Royal Navy.

The Balance of Power

Although heavily outnumbered, the High Seas Fleet had some advantages over the rival Grand Fleet. The most obvious was that it was concentrated in the North Sea. Whereas the British had to provide vessels to police the imperial trading lanes, the Germans could focus all their attention on the main theatre of operations. The expectation of operating in the North Sea had influenced German ship design. The vessels of the High Seas Fleet tended to be less heavily armed but more heavily armoured than their British counterparts. This trade-off was considered viable given Germany’s numerical disadvantage. Each vessel was precious and therefore survivability was of foremost importance.

There was no doubt that the German ships were highly resistant to damage. However, this fact was well known to the British Admiralty, and during the naval arms race a number of measures had been taken to nullify the German advantage in armoured protection. The British had increased the calibre of their heavy guns so that their latest vessels mounted mighty 15-inch batteries. More importantly, the British had also given serious thought to the design and effectiveness of their armour-piercing shells. Firing exercises had discovered numerous flaws with existing British ammunition. The most serious was the tendency of the shells to burst against armour plating rather than tearing through the steel and exploding in the interior of the enemy ship as they were intended. The problem was traced to a combination of inadequate fuses and unreliable explosive.

Director of Naval Ordnance and future commander of the Grand Fleet John Jellicoe was at the forefront of demanding improvements in ammunition. Although promotion soon took him away from his role with the ordnance department, he continued a vigorous campaign for better shells. The Admiralty reacted with the tardiness typical of large bureaucracies but Jellicoe refused to let the matter rest. The reform of the design, testing, and procurement process for new shells was painfully protracted but on the very eve of the war a new type of armour-piercing shell was finally accepted. Jellicoe was well pleased with the improved ammunition, claiming that it ‘certainly doubled’ the effectiveness of the Grand Fleet’s big guns. However, production delays caused by the demands of war meant that it took until mid-1915 for the fleet to be fully equipped with the new shells.

At the same time that ammunition was being improved, a fierce and often ill-tempered debate was raging over the best methods of fire control. At the heart of the issue was the firebrand Captain Percy Scott, who campaigned for centrally directed fire control and a wholesale reform of gunnery training. An abrasive and arrogant character, Scott nevertheless drove his reforms through and conclusively proved the value of his methods during gunnery trials. Admiral Sir John Fisher offered a blunt assessment of Scott: ‘I don’t care if he drinks, gambles and womanises; he hits the target.’

A particularly important reform pioneered by Scott was the adoption of a ‘double salvo’ system of fire. Under this system a capital ship would fire two quick salvos spaced several hundred yards apart. The fall of shot would be observed and appropriate corrections made: for example, if one salvo fell short and the other went over the target then the distance clearly lay in the middle and could be quickly calculated. Once the double salvo had acquired the range the guns would switch to rapid fire and smother the target with shells. The advantage of double salvo was that it allowed guns to zero in far quicker than if the range was determined using a single salvo.

The combined effect of these reforms was considerable. The Grand Fleet possessed more numerous and noticeably heavier guns than the High Seas Fleet. It was clear that in a fleet encounter the mighty broadsides of the British ships would prove decisive. As a result, Germany planned to fight a klienkrieg – a ‘small war’ – using mines and submarines. These subtle weapons would whittle away at the Royal Navy’s numerical preponderance until the number of British capital ships was so reduced that a fleet action could be fought on even terms.

Unfortunately for Germany, the strategy was bankrupt from the very beginning. The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade based on closing the exits of the North Sea and refused to charge recklessly into German waters which were teeming with undersea hazards. For their part, the Germans limited their efforts to some commerce raiding and the occasional ‘tip and run’ bombardment of British seaside towns. However, the latter operations were abandoned after the German battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group barely escaped from a bruising encounter with their British opposites at the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.

Forbidden by order of Wilhelm II from taking undue risks, the High Seas Fleet spent the rest of 1915 in a state of inertia. Meanwhile, the British blockade slowly tightened. Rationing was introduced in Germany in early 1915. The German nation was in the grip of a British stranglehold and only the navy had the power to break it.

The Ambush

In early 1916 a new commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, took charge of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer recognised that the naval situation was intolerable for Germany. Its attempts to use submarines to attack British commerce had succeeded only in alienating the United States. By contrast, Britain’s surface blockade was unrelenting and would remain so as long as the Grand Fleet was still afloat.

Scheer proposed a new strategy. The High Seas Fleet would take the fight to the British by returning to ‘tip and run’ attacks and aggressive operations designed to lure the Grand Fleet into an unfavourable battle. Scheer hoped to inflict stinging losses by ambushing isolated squadrons of the Royal Navy and escaping before retribution followed. The High Seas Fleet would work alongside submarines and minelayers to draw the British into ambush zones.

Yet unbeknownst to Scheer, the strategy had a fatal flaw – the British knew his every move. In August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground in the Baltic and been captured by the Russians. Onboard were three copies of the German naval signals book and cyphers.8 The Russians shared a copy with the British, and by November the Admiralty had established a dedicated naval cryptography department codenamed Room 40. By 1916, Room 40 could decode virtually all German naval signals traffic. Relevant information was swiftly passed to Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.

Ignorant of these developments, Scheer spent May 1916 planning an ambush for the British. The fast battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group would draw out the British battlecruisers and lead them on a chase that would ultimately carry them into the arms of the German battleships. Locally outnumbered, the British would be destroyed before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a simple and effective plan that may well have worked – but the British knew of it before it had even begun. In the small hours of 31 May, before Scheer had even set sail, the entire Grand Fleet had left port and was steaming towards the ambush area. Jellicoe planned to turn the tables on the Germans. His battlecruisers, under the command of flamboyant Vice- Admiral David Beatty, would ‘allow’ themselves to be drawn into Scheer’s trap. However, as soon as the German battleships appeared, Beatty was to turn about and lead them into a head-on collision with the awesome force of the entire Grand Fleet. The trap was set.

The Chase

The Battle of Jutland started in unassuming fashion. Beatty’s vessels were cruising in the region of anticipated German activity but the disappointing absence of enemy ships was in danger of dampening the mood. At 2.20 p.m. the light cruiser Galatea noticed a small tramp steamer blowing off an unusually large amount of steam, an action consistent with suddenly being forced to stop. Curious, the Galatea turned away from her sister ships and approached the civilian vessel. It was a minor incident in what had so far been an uneventful sweep.

As she approached the steamer, Galatea observed two unknown ships approaching from the opposite direction. Several pairs of binoculars snapped onto the newcomers and less than a minute later the signal ‘ENEMY IN SIGHT’ was flying from her yardarms and an urgent message had been whisked down to her wireless station. Seconds later she fired the first shot of the great battle, hurling a 6-inch shell at the approaching German ships.

The signal had an electrifying effect on Beatty’s squadron of six battlecruisers – Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indomitable. With Beatty’s flagship Lion in the lead, the battlecruisers swung around towards the approaching enemy. The call ‘Action Stations!’ was sounded and dense smoke poured from the funnels of the fast, sleek ships as they worked up to their fearsome top speed of some twenty-seven knots. Following close behind were the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron – Barham, Valiant, Malaya, and Warspite – under the command of Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Ships of the Queen Elizabeth class, they were known as ‘super dreadnoughts’ due to their cutting-edge combination of armour, guns, and speed. Due to their high top speed of twenty-five knots the Queen Elizabeth class were the only heavy units capable of operating alongside battlecruisers; however, in any prolonged chase they would inevitably start to lose ground.

Fortunately for the British, Beatty had taken account of 5th Battle Squadron’s lower top speed and had kept the ships close to his battlecruisers so that they would not be left behind in any sudden change of course.9 Both battleships and battlecruisers now turned to the south-east, increasing speed and clearing the decks for action. Union flags were hoisted at the main mast and numerous white ensigns were run up the yardarms. Malaya raised the flag of the Federated States of Malaya. Ten formidable warships were now surging through the sea to meet the Germans head on.

Their opponents were the five battlecruisers of Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group – Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann. A German gunner onboard Derfflinger recorded the approach of the British ships: ‘even at this great distance they looked powerful, massive … It was a stimulating, majestic spectacle as the dark-grey giants approached like fate itself.’ However, Hipper remained calm. His task was not to engage in a stand-up fight but instead to lure the British into reach of Scheer’s battleships. As Beatty and Evan-Thomas bore down on him, Hipper reversed course and began to race away to the south-east. The chase was on.

The range steadily decreased as the British closed in on the fleeing Germans. Beatty’s battlecruisers had reached twenty-five knots, with Evan-Thomas’s ships straining to keep up behind him. British and German destroyer flotillas rushed into the ‘no man’s land’ between the capital ships, prows bursting from the sea as they raced along at thirty-five knots. The tension was almost unbearable. A stoker in New Zealand remembered an ‘incredible thrill’ at hearing the order ‘All guns load!’ being relayed through the internal telephone system.

It was the Germans who began the firing. The broadsides of their battlecruisers rippled with flame as their sent out their first salvo at approximately 18,500 yards range – and closing fast. The British immediately returned fire. A crewman on Malaya remembered: ‘It was the most glorious sight and I was tremendously thrilled.’ Incoming shells ‘appeared just like big bluebottles flying straight towards you, each time going to hit you in the eye; then they would fall and the shell would either burst or else ricochet off the water and lollop away above and beyond you; turning over and over in the air.’

But shells soon began to smash home. Visibility favoured the Germans and they exploited their advantage to the full. Tiger was set ablaze and a direct hit on Lion blew the roof off a forward turret and started a dangerous fire that threatened to detonate the magazine – and with it the entire ship – until the chamber was flooded by order of the fatally injured Major Francis Harvey, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action. Most seriously of all, the Indomitable was simultaneously struck by almost every shot of a salvo fired from Von der Tann. The damage was catastrophic: ablaze from stem to stern, Indomitable turned away from the action and tried to open the range, but within a minute she was engulfed in a huge explosion and disappeared beneath the waves.

The British battlecruisers returned fire furiously but their gunnery was wayward, for their crews were not as thoroughly trained as their Grand Fleet comrades. However, the big guns of the 5th Battle Squadron were a different proposition. A German crewman recalled of the Queen Elizabeths: ‘There had been much talk in our fleet of these ships … Their speed was scarcely inferior to ours but they fired a shell more than twice as heavy as ours. They opened fire at portentous ranges.’

The effect was swift. Fifteen-inch shells plunged down around the German ships, causing devastation wherever they struck. All of Hipper’s ships felt the force of this fire, but Von der Tann was hit particularly hard. Shells wrecked her superstructure and caused serious flooding below decks. One crewman recalled that the ‘tremendous blow’ of being hit by a 15-inch shell made the ‘hull vibrate longitudinally like a tuning fork’.

Although visibility favoured Hipper’s ships, the greater weight of British fire began to tell on the 1st Scouting Group. German vessels shuddered beneath high-calibre-shell hits that sliced through steel plate as though it were paper. Soon Hipper’s battlecruisers were cloaked beneath the smoke of the numerous fires that raged aboard. Von der Tann was so heavily damaged that she could scarcely fire a single gun, but her captain courageously kept her in the line so that the British could not concentrate fire on her sister ships. German fire slackened as the 1st Scouting Group adopted a zigzag pattern to try and throw off the aim of the British ships.

However, Hipper could endure such punishment as long as he could fulfil his part of the German plan. Every minute of the chase brought the British closer to Scheer’s battleships. The trap was about to be sprung.

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part II

Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.

The Run to the North

At approximately 4.35 p.m. a barrage of signals burst from Beatty’s advanced light cruiser screen. The most important was ‘Have sighted enemy battlefleet SE. Enemy course north.’ Scheer and his battleships were on the way.

However, Beatty had been prepared for this due to the information relayed by Room 40. Wasting no time, at 4.40 p.m. he ordered his squadron to swing about and begin its own race to the north. In a role reversal, Hipper’s ships turned and now became the pursuers, whilst Scheer and his dreadnoughts increased their speed and strained to bring their heavy guns to bear.

Fortunately for the British the turn away from Scheer was executed with skill. The 5th Battle Squadron fell into line behind Beatty’s battlecruisers and the two squadrons raced north. The battle against Hipper’s ships continued, and the 5th Battle Squadron exchanged long-range fire with the van of Scheer’s battlefleet. A British sailor remembered that ‘their salvos began to arrive thick and fast around us at the rate of 6, 8, or 9 a minute.’ Visibility once again favoured the Germans, but both sides scored hits. By now the 1st Scouting Group was feeling the effects of an hour of fierce combat. At around 5 p.m. Von der Tann, listing and ablaze, suffered a serious hit to her engine room that brought her to a shuddering halt. Down at the bows and crippled beyond repair, she sank within the hour.

Scheer was prepared to accept these losses if he could catch and destroy Beatty’s force. Unfortunately for the Germans, every minute brought them closer to the British trap. Beatty was sending a steady stream of positional reports to the rapidly approaching Jellicoe, who was well informed as to the German course, speed, and bearing.18 At 4.51 p.m. Jellicoe had felt sufficiently confident to send a tantalising signal to the Admiralty: ‘FLEET ACTION IS IMMINENT’.

Jellicoe had a little longer to wait. It was not until around 5.40 p.m. that Beatty made contact with the advance elements of the Grand Fleet. At this point Beatty made an important and decisive manoeuvre, turning his ships on a north-easterly course and cutting across the German vessels that were running parallel to him. This caused the Germans to turn onto a similar course themselves to avoid Beatty ‘crossing the T’ and being able to concentrate the fire of his entire squadron on the first ship in the German line. A German officer later commented that this was ‘an excellent tactical manoeuvre’, for it blinded Scheer to the approach of the Grand Fleet until it was far too late.

Concealed from German view and with the element of surprise on his side, Jellicoe gave orders for his massive fleet to change from cruising formation to a battle line. This was a decision that could have momentous consequences. If Jellicoe got the manoeuvre wrong his ships would blunder into battle in a state of disorganisation and possibly be defeated as a result. The stakes were enormous. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, Jellicoe ‘was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

If the gravity of the situation weighed on Jellicoe’s mind, his ice-cold demeanour did not betray the fact. His orders were clear and his crews thoroughly trained. With a smoothness that belied the complexity of the manoeuvre, twenty-four dreadnoughts deployed into a compact fighting line approximately six miles in length. Years after the battle, the famous fighting admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham remarked: ‘I hope I would have the sense to make the same deployment that JJ did.’

The Tables Are Turned

Scheer was about to receive the shock of his life. A fellow officer on the bridge of the Friedrich der Grosse noted that Scheer did not have ‘the foggiest idea of what was happening’. The German fleet of sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts was heading directly towards the massed broadsides of the Grand Fleet. Beatty’s sharp turn had blinded the Germans to the danger which they were about to face.

Hipper’s battered vessels were the first to feel the force of the British guns. Localised fog had descended across part of the seascape and Hipper was surprised when several fresh British battlecruisers – the vanguard of the Grand Fleet – suddenly emerged at medium range. Both sides opened fire immediately but the British gunnery was exceptionally good. Invincible rained shells on the German ships, prompting her captain to inform his gunnery officer: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep it up as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ The punishment proved too much for Hipper’s flagship Lutzow, which staggered away from the action with mortal damage below the waterline. Hipper transferred his flag to a torpedo boat but was unable to get aboard a capital ship for the remainder of the battle, thus removing his dynamic leadership from the German fleet.

However, this short, violent clash of battlecruisers was only a precursor to the main event. At around 6.20 p.m. ‘the veil of mist was split across like the curtain at a theatre’ and Scheer’s battlefleet was confronted with an image of Armageddon. One officer recalled that all he could see on the horizon was ‘the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships, salvo followed salvo almost without intermission.’

The results were devastating. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke singled out the König and fired forty-three shells at her in less than five minutes, scoring hit after hit. Shell splinters ripped through the armoured compartments, gun turrets were torn asunder, and an officer recalled being knocked off his feet as a result of ‘several violent concussions in the forepart of the ship’ that produced a drastic list to port. More hits followed until the König suddenly lurched over and capsized.

Elsewhere the courageous battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group finally met their nemesis. The gunnery officer of Derfflinger recalled: ‘Several heavy shells pierced our ship with terrific force and exploded with a tremendous roar which shook every seam and rivet.’ With her lower compartments flooded, her funnels shot away and her gun turrets reduced to burning wreckage, Derfflinger finally disappeared beneath the deluge of fire. Her sister ships Moltke and Seydlitz only escaped a similar fate by retreating into the mist, concealed by smoke from the uncontrolled fires that raged aboard. The 1st Scouting Group had effectively been destroyed. Seydlitz would sink later that night and Moltke was lucky to be able to limp home with severe damage.

Scheer had a single chance to save his fleet. With shells plunging down around his ships and the König vanishing beneath the waves, Scheer ordered a Gefechtskehrtwendung – a sudden, simultaneous turn away – to take his ships away from Jellicoe’s punishing fire. It is a testament to the quality of German training that the manoeuvre was carried out comparatively successfully, although Scheer’s lead ships were subjected to a hail of shells that inflicted further damage. Turning his back to the British, Scheer led his vessels away into the darkening mist.

Jellicoe was not in a position to observe the manoeuvre and was initially perplexed as to what had happened. Expecting Scheer to re-emerge from the fog at any moment, Jellicoe steered his fleet to the south to close in on his quarry. At this point, Scheer made a fatal mistake. As the firing died out, he reasoned that if he were to reverse course again then he would pass in the wake of the Grand Fleet, effectively slipping behind them while they fruitlessly cruised south. This done, he would be able to escape into the dusk and retreat to safer waters.

However, Scheer had miscalculated. Instead of slipping behind the Grand Fleet, he mistimed his turn and led his ships right into the middle of the southbound British line. The position was even worse than during the initial clash. The German line was in a state of disorganisation, many ships were struggling to put out fires caused by the earlier encounter with Jellicoe, and the 1st Scouting Group had been forced to withdraw from the action, leaving the High Seas Fleet partially blind. Visibility decisively favoured the Grand Fleet: British ships were partially concealed in the North Sea mist, but German vessels were silhouetted against the horizon and presented a perfect target.

The German situation was dire. Scheer’s vessels were closely bunched as a result of their earlier sharp turns. The congestion at the head of the fleet was so severe that some ships were forced to stop to avoid collisions with their sisters. One officer described the situation as an ‘absoluten Wurstkessel!’ A tornado of British fire swept through the German line. Salvo after salvo shrieked in from the east, with the source only visible from the constant gun flashes that illuminated the horizon.

With the 1st Scouting Group gone from the battle, the British were able to concentrate every available gun on Scheer’s dreadnoughts. The damage was catastrophic. A shell smashed into the engine room of the Markgraf and exploded with dreadful force. A survivor recalled: ‘The terrific air pressure resulting from [an] explosion in a confined space roars through every opening and tears through every weak spot. Men were picked up by that terrific air pressure and tossed to a horrible death among the machinery.’ Grosser Kurfurst was struck by a 15-inch round that blew a thirty-foot-wide hole below her waterline and caused her to list sharply to port. A shell ripped through a casemate gun battery aboard Kaiser and ignited stored ammunition, causing a huge gout of flame to erupt from the side of the ship.

With his battleships reeling under the remorseless guns of the Grand Fleet, Scheer desperately ordered a second Gefechtskehrtwendung. But the manoeuvre was no easy matter under heavy fire, with the High Seas Fleet dangerously bunched and forced to steer around the crippled Markgraf. In the confusion Kronprinz and Prinzregent Luitpold collided, with both ships suffering severe damage as a result. Attempting to buy time, Scheer ordered his torpedo boat flotillas to rush the Grand Fleet and launch a mass torpedo attack.

The small vessels raced towards the Grand Fleet, braving a barrage of fire from the secondary batteries of the battleships. Jellicoe responded by steering his ships away from the oncoming attack, causing many of the torpedoes to run out of range well short of his battle line. The few that reached the battleships were easily avoided. The manoeuvre was a ‘skilful dodge’ that left Jellicoe’s line undamaged and fully formed.

However, the turn away had broken contact with Scheer’s ships, which had disappeared into the gloomy twilight, leaving behind only the stricken Markgraf, which was swiftly ‘blotted out’ by a hail of heavy shells. Steering towards Scheer’s last position, Jellicoe’s ships sporadically opened fire at dim sightings in the mist, but the fading light prevented a renewal of battle.

The darkness saved the High Seas Fleet from complete destruction, but the German fleet experienced a harrowing night. On several occasions the picket lines of light cruisers and destroyers brushed against one another, prompting sudden, savage skirmishes in which both sides lost ships. More seriously for Scheer, British destroyer flotillas slipped through the German cruiser screen to launch daring torpedo attacks against his battleships. In the confused engagement that followed, the German pre-dreadnought Pommern was hit and sank with all hands.

As the night wore on, Scheer planned his escape route. He guessed that the British would be steaming south to try and cut off his retreat. He hoped to slip behind them and take his surviving ships home to Wilhelmshaven via the Horns Reef. He reasoned Jellicoe would be unlikely to pursue for fear of running into hidden German minefields.

But Room 40 was a step ahead. At 10.10 p.m. they had decrypted a signal from Scheer which asked for zeppelin reconnaissance over Horns Reef at first light. The message was in Jellicoe’s hands by 10.30 p.m. and he altered the Grand Fleet’s course to intercept Scheer at first light. This was not a simple manoeuvre and involved a great deal of what Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt described as ‘groping in the dark’. Tensions were high and the night was punctuated by sudden bursts of gunfire at real or imagined targets.

Both British and German officers anxiously scanned the horizon as the grey dawn began to break over the North Sea. However, it was the weather – the ultimate arbiter of naval warfare – that would define the engagement of 1 June. The sea around Horns Reef was shrouded with dense fog that gradually broke up into thick clouds of drifting mist. Visibility was poor and information sketchy.

In places the mist suddenly cleared and short, sharp actions broke out. These engagements proved fatal for several damaged German vessels. The most serious loss was the Prinzregent Luitpold. The ship was already listing due to severe damage below the waterline as a result of her earlier collision when she was suddenly engaged at long range by Benbow. Prinzregent Luitpold was hit several times in the brief exchange of fire that followed, causing further flooding and forcing her crew to abandon ship.

However, there was to be no general engagement on 1 June. Visibility was poor and although Jellicoe was aware from sighting reports that he was in rough proximity to the southbound High Seas Fleet, he was increasingly concerned that he was in danger of leading his vessels into one of the many German minefields in the area. Ultimately, a fresh Room 40 decrypt informed Jellicoe that Scheer was in the region of Heligoland to the south. The High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the mist. Jellicoe was disappointed and afterwards criticised himself for not pressing the retreating Germans harder, but he was comforted by a letter from Beatty in which the latter reminded his commander, ‘When you are winning, risk nothing.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Royal Navy had won a striking victory. The High Seas Fleet had been mauled, losing four battlecruisers in the form of Lutzow, Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Von der Tann, five battleships – König, Kaiser, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Prinzregent Luitpold – as well as the pre-dreadnought Pommern and a considerable number of lighter ships. In addition, unbeknownst to the British the battleship Ostfriesland struck a mine on its way home and sank.

The Battle of Jutland was over. The triumph was not quite on the scale of Trafalgar, but it was a great victory for the Royal Navy all the same.

The Fruits of Victory

The Grand Fleet returned home in a jubilant mood. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Germans and suffered few casualties in return – Indefatigable was the only British capital ship lost during the fighting. Jellicoe was the hero of the hour and was lauded by press, public, and navy. Beatty also received lavish praise, although he was heard to grumble that without the efforts of his battlecruisers the battle would never have occurred, much less been won. After almost two years of difficulties and setbacks on the land front, the British public savoured the moment of triumph. The ‘spell of Trafalgar’ had been recast.

The Admiralty soon sought to capitalise on the victory. There was bold talk of withdrawing the Royal Naval Division from the Western Front and using it in an amphibious assault against one of the small islands that dotted the German North Sea coast. Daring attacks on Heligoland and Borkum were proposed as a precursor to a landing on the coastline of Germany itself. However, the painful lessons of Gallipoli were still fresh in British minds and there was little appetite for another risky amphibious operation. Furthermore, such naval adventures would needlessly place elements of the Grand Fleet at risk and allow the Germans to extract some measure of revenge for Jutland.

Nevertheless some of the bolder officers of the Royal Navy saw merit in making feints against the German coast. They reasoned that the psychological effect of ‘demonstrations, raids, and harassment’ in enemy waters would be considerable. The inability of the High Seas Fleet to prevent such operations would be revealed, thereby harming public morale and perhaps even persuading the German General Staff to transfer additional army resources to defend the coast.

Over the course of 1916 the Royal Navy launched several raids against German coastal islands and associated shipping. The highly trained Harwich Force and its dynamic commander, Commodore Roger Keyes, were at the forefront of these operations. Although the attackers were at risk from mines and submarines, they were secure in the knowledge that the battleships of the cowed High Seas Fleet would not emerge to destroy them. Germany’s coastal defence forces consisted of small or obsolete vessels that were no match for the modern destroyers and light cruisers of Harwich Force. Several German ships were intercepted and sunk during raids in June and July. In August, Harwich Force took advantage of a captured map that revealed the swept channels in the German minefields and carried out a daring bombardment against shore installations on Heligoland. One of the shells struck an overstocked magazine and caused a huge explosion that was visible on the German coastline. The incident sparked alarm amongst the civilian population, who feared that it was a precursor to a British invasion. As a result, the army sent additional forces to Hamburg and invested considerable effort in improving Germany’s coastal defences.

The most important consequence of the Battle of Jutland was the tightening of the Allied blockade. Although the naval cordon was already formidable, there were some weaknesses that allowed neutral powers to continue trade with Germany. For example, Norway had continued to trade materials such as coal, copper ore, and nickel on the basis that they were not classed as contraband under the terms of the London Naval Conference of 1909. However, the dominance of the Royal Navy after Jutland allowed Britain to pressure Norway and other neutrals into ceasing maritime trade with Germany altogether.

In addition, the victory had altered the balance of power in the Baltic. Russian and German vessels had sparred with one another throughout 1915, but Russian efforts were hampered by concerns that Germany would deploy the High Seas Fleet to the east and overwhelm Russia’s Baltic defences. Jutland removed this fear and allowed Russia to adopt a more aggressive naval strategy. Encouraged by Britain, Russia targeted Germany’s iron-ore trade with neutral Sweden. Although the delicate nature of Russo-Swedish relations made it impossible to halt the trade entirely, the efforts of the Russian Navy greatly diminished the flow of the precious raw material.

In combination, these changes applied a deep chokehold on Germany’s economic windpipe. The pressure steadily mounted in the second half of 1916 and the effects would be severely felt the following year.

Recriminations and Consequences

In Germany, the search for a scapegoat began scant hours after the battered remnants of the High Seas Fleet had limped into Wilhelmshaven. On hearing news of the disaster Wilhelm II worked himself to such a pitch of fury that witnesses feared for his health. The worst of his wrath fell upon Scheer. Citing the example of Admiral John Byng, a British officer executed by firing squad in 1757 for ‘failing to do his utmost in battle’, the Kaiser demanded that Scheer be placed on trial for his very life. The demand met with concerted opposition from officers and men of the fleet – including its new commander, Franz von Hipper – as well as from ministers and politicians.

Wilhelm II ultimately backed down in the face of threats of resignation and mutterings of mutiny in the fleet. Soon, his mood had changed from anger to despair. Depressed over the fate of his beloved navy, he refused to visit the remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet and lost all interest in naval matters. The Kaiser’s apathy hurt the survivors of Jutland deeply, contributing to a precipitate decline in morale that would fester into open mutiny by early 1917.

The Naval Staff remained detached from the post-battle recriminations and devoted their efforts to formulating a new strategy. The possibility of an Allied landing against the German coast was studied in depth. Although the exploits of Harwich Force caused a degree of concern, the Germans judged that the British were unlikely to risk capital ships in mine-infested coastal waters. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff gratefully accepted the offer of army support and the construction of heavy-gun emplacements on the North Sea coastline.

A much more serious problem was the remorseless and intensifying blockade. Planners warned that the German economy would be brought to its knees in 1917 unless the stranglehold was broken. But how was this to be achieved? There was no prospect of defeating the Grand Fleet in battle. In the view of many key naval officers the only hope lay in the submarine. In late June, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff produced a controversial memorandum arguing that a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare was Germany’s only hope of victory. This was a risky proposal, for a new submarine campaign would bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Holtzendorff’s case rested on the belief that submarines could inflict such severe damage on maritime trade that Britain would be forced to seek terms within six to eight months. Britain would thus be defeated long before America had fully mobilised. The plan was a huge gamble, but it offered the tantalising prospect of victory.

On 1 September 1916 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite initial successes the policy would prove disastrous. Neutral opinion was enraged and the United States declared war in November. Worse still, Britain was ultimately able to overcome the submarine menace through introducing the convoy system and assigning large numbers of destroyers from the Grand Fleet to serve as escorts. The full and terrible consequences of Germany’s policy would become apparent in 1917.

The Reality

The Battle of Jutland is one of the most studied naval engagements of all time. The debate still continues as to which side ‘won’ the battle. The Germans inflicted heavier losses, sinking the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible and only losing the battlecruiser Lutzow in return. But ultimately the High Seas Fleet fled from the engagement damaged and in disorder. The experience was sufficient to convince Scheer that future surface engagements were best avoided. As a result the German Navy would not seek battle in the North Sea for the remainder of the war. After casting about for a solution for several months, Germany finally returned to submarine warfare in February 1917. The High Seas Fleet languished in harbour and was wracked by mutiny in November 1918.

There are innumerable ‘what ifs’ around the Battle of Jutland, many of which focus on the contrasting personalities and decisions of Beatty and Jellicoe. Much of the interest of Jutland centres on how close the British came to a crushing victory. Historically, the British had a tremendous advantage in the form of Room 40 and possession of the German code books. As described in the story, British intelligence on Scheer’s movements was so good that the Grand Fleet actually set sail before the High Seas Fleet had left port. Such accurate intelligence placed the initiative firmly in the Royal Navy’s hands. Beatty managed to lead the unsuspecting High Seas Fleet into range of Jellicoe’s guns and Scheer’s ships were in mortal danger, particularly when they blundered into the Grand Fleet for the second time. However, Jellicoe lost sight of the enemy by turning away to avoid a torpedo attack and was unable to regain contact in the evening gloom.

In this scenario the main change to the history is technical rather than tactical. A fundamental problem for the Royal Navy was the inadequacy of their armour-piercing shells. A detailed study of damage at Jutland discovered that British armour-piercing shells managed to penetrate heavy armour and explode internally on just one occasion (a 15-inch hit from Revenge on Derfflinger). Historically, Jellicoe was aware of the problems with British shells as early as 1910, but made little effort to make changes.

In the story these problems are corrected by Jellicoe prior to the war. I have assumed the Royal Navy are equipped with the improved shells that appeared in 1917–18, making British gunnery far more powerful. I have also had the navy adopt the ‘double salvo’ system prior to the war; historically it was introduced post-Jutland to speed up gunnery, but there is no reason why it could not have been introduced earlier.

The main tactical change in the scenario is Beatty’s performance in the opening of the battle. In reality, Beatty made a serious tactical error by leaving the 5th Battle Squadron too far behind his battlecruisers, thus denying himself their powerful support in the engagement against Hipper. Here I have assumed he handles his forces with more skill and keeps the Queen Elizabeth class close. This would have dramatically changed the nature of the fighting and probably saved the Queen Mary from destruction. Finally, I have introduced the Room 40 decrypt that revealed Scheer was heading to Horns Reef, thus allowing the Grand Fleet a few parting shots. Historically, it remains a mystery why this message was never passed on to Jellicoe.

I am very grateful to Dr Philip Weir for his assistance in researching this scenario.

By Spencer Jones


A model of the Tuman.

The Type 1934-class Z4.

It is the 10th of August, 1941. The Red Army’s front is collapsing and the Germans are closing on the most important cities of the USSR.

But we aren’t talking about that today. Our attention is drawn to the Barents Sea, 15 miles northwest of Kildin Island. There sails the hero of our story, the lone lightly armed naval trawler Tuman.

On the horizon, the little ship sights the worst thing she ever could have encountered: three German destroyers. The Z4 Richard Beitzen, the Z10 Hans Lody, and the Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt are rapidly closing in on her position. Each displaces twice as much as the little patrol boat and is armed with four 5-inch guns that seemed like weapons of mass destruction when compared to the Tuman’s two 45 mm cannons and light machine guns.

Running is out of the question, as her top speed of 9 knots is only a fourth of the destroyers’. She has no options left but to face her opponents and give them what she has. She lays down a smoke screen and begins evasive action.

The destroyers close to five nautical miles and open fire. She is prevented from returning fire due to her aft gun being knocked out almost immediately. She takes eleven 5-inch shells over the course of the battle. Her captain and commissar are both killed. Her flag is shot down from the mast. She is, by all intents and purposes, defenseless.

She is not dead yet, however. The flag is raised again and her crew continues to desperately work to keep her alive just a little longer. They all know by now that she is going to sink, but they are going to make sure that the Germans have to work all that much harder to kill her.

On Kildin Island, the shore batteries had been malfunctioning, but no longer. As the Tuman slowly slips beneath the waves, the shore batteries open fire. The destroyers, hoping to avoid damage, are forced to retreat from the now-operational cannons. The battle is over.

Of the 52 sailors on the trawler, only 15 died that day. Upon returning to shore, every one of the survivors is presented with tributes from the citizens of Murmansk. When the Alyosha Monument was erected there in 1974, a capsule of seawater from the spot of her final stand was placed inside of it.

Even today, as Russian warships pass over the spot where she sank, they dip their flags and blast their horns in salute to the brave patrol boat that faced down the Kriegsmarine.

While you can meet some abbreviation for ship classes in Russian-language literature (like LK for battleship, EM for Destroyer, etc.), they were never “officially” systemized. During WWII only “Official” abbreviation used were “SKR” (for picket ships), “TSch” (for sea-going minesweepers) and “BTSch” (for large sea-going minesweepers), and “MO” (for submarine chasers). Another note: “SKR” class was VERY different in its subclasses. One group was armed trawlers and steamers with a mix of 45-mm, 76-mm, and up to 102-mm guns, light AA, some sub chasing equipment, etc. – were used extensively for close-to-coast escort duties. Two (“Tuman” (“Fog”) and “Passat”) were sunk in surface engagements with German destroyers of Arctic group, where they had no chances at all. Another story were SKR’s of “Bad Weather” class. Specially built, excellently armed, and well-equipped, they were closer to frigate/corvette/torpedo boat classes, than to “picket ships”. Built in 1920’s-30’s, multiple units had “Bad Weather” names – “Storm”, “Snowstorm”, “Darkness”, “Strong Wind”, etc. They had 2 120-mm guns, 2 small guns, 1 3-tube 533-mm torpedo apparatus, AA’s, plenty of depth charges.

Executing Noball

The routes flown on 14 January 1944 by the two sections of the 392nd BG.

British intelligence eventually identified four kinds of Noball targets in France: heavy sites, ski sites, modified sites, and supply and support facilities. It was the discovery of the nine large construction sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg that first captured the attention of British intelligence analysts. Throughout 1943 Organisation Todt’s building units, supported by thousands of slave workers and conscripted civilian labor, began excavating and building what British documents refer to as the “heavy” Crossbow sites. After the war, the Allies discovered that the German air force had responsibility for four of these, which were intended to store, assemble, and launch a large number of V-1 flying bombs. Code-named “Wasserwerk,” or water works, by the Germans to hide their purpose, these were primarily long tunnels with gaps in the ceiling to fire rockets toward London. In the Cotentin, they built one in Tamerville, northeast of Valognes, and the other at Couville, southwest of Cherbourg. The US Army’s VII Corps overran both of these installations in late June 1944. The other two were Lottinghen, east of Boulogne, and Siracourt, west of Arras in the Pas-de-Calais. Siracourt was typical of these kinds of launching sites. The dozen or so houses at the beginning of the war contained fewer than 140 citizens, mostly farmers and their families. The German army evacuated the French civilians as Organisation Todt arrived in the spring of 1943. On a little hill, just west of the village, contractors began construction in September. This facility was to be the first of four to process, store, and possibly fire the V-1. The main construction was 625 feet long and 132 feet wide and oriented at a right angle to London. The 1,200 workers, primarily Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, and French forced labor, lived in a camp at Croix-en-Ternois a little more than a mile away. Under the supervision of Organisation Todt’s guard force (Schützkommando), the workers ultimately built the structure and poured more than 50,000 cubic meters of concrete to make it invulnerable to Allied bombers. Because of the bombing, however, it was impossible to finish its construction. As a result, the Germans never fired a flying bomb from it, and it fell to Canadian troops in September 1944.

The German army controlled the V-2 rockets, and it designed large concrete installations, capable of launching seven to ten rockets per day, with sophisticated storage and assembly capability. For example, the launchers at Wizernes, next to Saint-Omer, lay beneath a massive concrete cupola twenty feet thick and were capable of launching their rockets from two platforms. Other sites at Watten (Éperlecques), near Calais, and Sottevast, near Cherbourg, were just as massive and required millions of tons of concrete. Forty-four miles north of Siracourt and eleven miles northwest of the Luftwaffe airfields at Saint-Omer is the three-square-mile complex at Watten. On its southwest corner, Organisation Todt built a massive structure that came to be called the Blockhaus. It was an incredibly large structure that absorbed thousands of tons of concrete and the forced labor of thousands of unfortunate workers. Based on experience at the submarine pens along the coast, the German engineers expected it to withstand the bombardment of whatever the enemy could drop on top. The Allies never understood its exact purpose but knew they had to destroy anything that was consuming so much German effort. It was the first site detected by British reconnaissance. Duncan Sandys never believed it had an offensive capability and, even after his visit in October, considered it to be a plant for the production of hydrogen peroxide, which the Germans were using as a fuel. Postwar records and analysis indicate, though, that it may have served as a general storage, assembly, and launching facility in, according to one researcher, “a bomb-proof environment.” Most experts believe it was capable of launching rockets on its own.

Watten (Éperlecques)

Twelve miles south of the Blockhaus near Saint-Omer is the village of Wizernes. In an old quarry, Organisation Todt constructed one of the largest installations of the war, the V-2 launcher site known as La Coupole, or the dome, for the most impressive aspect of the facility. Todt designed it to assemble, fuel, and fire rockets from within the protected site. Upwards of 1,300 forced laborers worked on this project twenty-four hours a day. Like the Blockhaus, it had two launcher ramps that could fire rockets simultaneously and was probably the most sophisticated of the vengeance weapon launching sites. By March 1944 British intelligence was convinced that it needed to be added to the list of Noball targets. The most sinister of V-2 launcher sites was the silo complex west of Cherbourg near La Hague. These, generally overlooked by Allied intelligence, resemble the later American nuclear missile silos of the Cold War. It never became operational, and the US VII Corps occupied this region in July 1944. The problem for the Germans was that the construction crews could not hide the extensive work sites from the hundreds of Allied reconnaissance aircraft searching for signs of activity. The continuous bombing of the extensive excavations in France meant the Germans could not complete the launching facilities, which ended any possibility of the German air force using them. Ultimately, the Germans would fire no V-2 rockets from fixed sites but would employ mobile launchers that were essentially impossible for the Allies to detect in advance.

Eleven miles from Cap Gris-Nez, across the channel from Dover and ninety-five miles from the center of London, is a facility unique among the heavy sites. The British knew the Nazis were developing a long-range gun, but they did not know any details. The German army had done this before, and Allied commanders had visions of a weapon similar to the artillery used to bombard Paris in the previous conflict or the large guns deployed along the French coast. Therefore, most analysts believed the construction at Mimoyecques, France, was a variation on a V-2 launch site, since it bore no resemblance to anything with which they were familiar. Also, since most of the workers were German, few details emerged as to its actual intent. In reality, the site housed something revolutionary, a large battery of long-range guns, called Hochdruckpumpe (high-pressure pump) guns, later referred to by the Allies as Vengeance Weapon-3. Each 330-foot smooth-bore gun was to be capable of firing a six-foot-long dart about a hundred miles. Its range was the product of added velocity created by solid rocket boosters arrayed along the edge of the tube. Each projectile could carry about forty pounds of high explosives. The plan was to construct banks of five guns each with the potential of firing six hundred rounds per hour toward London. British intelligence knew little about what was going on inside the facility. After the war, Duncan Sandys’ investigation of the large sites discovered the true nature of the threat they had faced. Fortunately, Allied air attacks prevented Organisation Todt from ever finishing its work and German gunners were never able to fire these weapons.

The second kind of targets identified by Allied analysts were the so-called ski sites, named from the configuration of several buildings that looked like snow skis on their side. By late 1943 British intelligence officers had identified between seventy and eighty of these, hidden in the hundreds of wooden patches that dot the northwestern French countryside, with their launchers pointed directly at their intended target. If left alone, each one of these small installations could hurl fifteen FZG-76 flying bombs across the channel each day. The cumulative effect of hundreds of these striking London daily would not help civilian morale. They also posed a direct threat to the harbors from which the Allies would launch and sustain the invasion. One of the first sites identified by intelligence analysts was in the Bois Carré (Square Woods) about three-quarters of a mile east of Yvrench and ten miles northeast of Abbeville on the Somme. A French Resistance agent was able to infiltrate the construction site in October 1943 and smuggle out some of earliest detailed descriptions of a ski site layout. The long catapult, generally visible from the sky and quickly identified by reconnaissance aircraft, became the signature target indicator. As a result, even with extensive camouflage, they were identified, targeted, and destroyed by Anglo-American aircraft. As a result, none of these installations ever became operational.

Soon after the first air attacks, German leaders began considering an alternative method of launching the V-1. Security and concealment now became a priority, and these modified launcher sites were better camouflaged and of simpler construction. These new launchers no longer had many of the standard buildings, especially those that resembled skis, which had contributed to their rapid discovery by intelligence specialists. With minimal permanent construction, the only identifiable features were an easily hidden concrete foundation for the launch ramp and a small building to set the bomb’s compass. Other buildings were designed to blend into the environment or to look like the local farmhouses. All this took less than a week to fabricate, and forced labor no longer did the construction work, as German soldiers prepared each site in secret. Supply crews delivered the flying bombs directly to the launcher from a hidden location, assembled and ready to launch. All the teams needed to do was set the compass and mount it on the catapult. Difficult to locate from the air, these launchers would remain operational until overrun by Allied ground troops in early September 1944. After that, the Germans launched their V-1 rockets from sites in the Netherlands or from German bombers specially configured to fire these weapons.

One week after the last V-1 flew from French soil, the V-2 rocket made its first appearance when it slammed into a French village southeast of Paris, killing six civilians. The German army had abandoned any hope of using large fixed sites for anything other than storage, and they now organized the delivery of their rockets as mobile systems, structured around less than a dozen vehicles and trailers. While the rocket was still hidden, crews prepared it for launch, a process that took between four and six hours. Within two hours of mission time, the firing unit deployed to a previously surveyed site and erected the rocket on a mobile pad. As soon as it was on the way, the soldiers disappeared into the woods, leaving little trace of the launch. Unless an Allied fighter happened to catch the Germans during the short preparation process, there was little the air forces could do to prevent launches. The Germans fired none of the mobile V-2s from French soil, but fired them instead from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. While not part of the discussion of bombing France, these rockets are an important reminder that the Germans continued to use mobile sites until the end of the war.

The final kinds of Noball targets were the supply sites that provided rockets for the individual firing units and the transportation network that supported them. By February 1944 the Allies had determined that seven facilities existed, one on the Cotentin Peninsula and the remainder arrayed just east of the belt of launchers. These, however, were relatively difficult to attack and were often located within underground bunkers or railroad tunnels, under fortresses, or deep within thick woods. They also were often protected by extensive anti-aircraft artillery. More vulnerable were the various rail yards that served as offload and staging points for these systems. Rail stations in Saint-Omer, Bethune, Lille, Lens, and Arras were the crucial nodes in this network. Attacking these transportation nodes also supported the goals of the Transportation Plan, the Allied attack of bridges along the Seine and Loire, and Operation Fortitude, the effort to deceive the Germans as to the actual location of the invasion.

German Advisors at Shanghai 1937

Seeckt served as a member of parliament from 1930 to 1932. From 1933 to 1935 he was repeatedly in China as a military consultant to Chiang Kai-shek in his war against the Chinese Communists and was directly responsible for devising the Encirclement Campaigns, that resulted in a string of victories against the Chinese Red Army and forced Mao Zedong into a 9,000 km retreat, also known as the Long March.

Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

Alexander Ernst Alfred Hermann Freiherr von Falkenhausen (29 October 1878 – 31 July 1966) was a German General and military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Some 80,000 Chinese troops, in eight divisions, were trained and formed the elite of Chiang’s army. However, China was not ready to face Japan on equal terms, and Chiang’s decision to pit all of his new divisions in the Battle of Shanghai, despite objections from his both staff officers and von Falkenhausen, would cost him one-third of his best troops. Chiang switched his strategy to preserve strength for the eventual civil war.

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”


Baba Toraji, a 21-year-old employee of the exclusive department store Mag-asin Franco-Japonais, was growing more nervous for every minute that passed on the morning of August 18. A younger colleague of his, fellow Japanese Sakanichi Takaichi, had left earlier to buy bread for his colleagues, and he had not returned. In the end, Baba decided to go looking himself. It did not take long before he found Sakanichi, caught up in a Chinese crowd that had identified him as Japanese. Both men were mauled severely and left on the street. Baba was pronounced dead by the time medical personnel arrived. His younger colleague was sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Earlier in the month, a group of eight Japanese had unwisely shown up on the Bund, trying to push their way through a dense crowd. Jeers started. Someone picked up a discarded shoe and threw it at them. The Japanese broke into a run, and seven managed to escape. A huge brick went sailing through the air and hit the eighth in the back. He fell to the ground, and the mob was upon him. “Men could be seen jumping in the air to land with both feet on the unfortunate man’s body,” the North China Daily News reported. “Others, with stick and bricks that seemed to come from nowhere, belabored him from head to foot.” He was eventually rescued and hospitalized in a critical condition.

Being Japanese in Shanghai in August 1937 was dangerous. By contrast, Shanghai’s western residents only came into contact with the horrors around them in an indirect fashion. They watched the dense black smoke rising over Hongkou, and they saw the flotsam drifting down Suzhou Creek—cows, buffaloes, and a steady stream of uniformed corpses. The debris of war served as a warning that the battle was escalating and could soon engulf the foreign enclaves. It was time for the women and children to leave. A total of 1,300 British and American evacuees departed from Shanghai on August 17. The British left for Hong Kong on the Rajputana, while the Americans boarded the President Jefferson for Manila. On August 19, 1,400 more British citizens, mostly women and children, sailed on destroyers to board the Empress of Asia at Wusong.50 This was part of a scheme to evacuate a total of 3,000 British nationals, including 85 percent of the women and children in the city.

Staying on the fringe of a great battle, as the foreigners did, made life more dangerous. Even so, they were not deliberately targeted, and that made them the envy of the Chinese population. Shanghai shops saw brisk sales of the national flags of major non-belligerent nations, as Chinese residents hung them at their doorways in the hope that the sight of a Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes would ward off enemy fire, very much in the fashion that the images of guardian deities kept traditional Chinese homes safe from evil spirits. However, few had faith that anything they could do would make a difference, except running away. Desperate crowds, many uprooted from their homes in the north of the city, gathered in the International Settlement, clamoring for food. Looting soon became widespread. Crowds attacked trucks transporting rice, or smashed their way to shop supplies. The authorities were merciless in tackling the problem. On at least one occasion, French police opened fire on a crowd that had attacked a food hawker. Law enforcers in the International Settlement handed over dozens of looters to the Chinese police, knowing perfectly well they would be shot within hours.

Violence in many forms, often lethal, was meted out in liberal doses among the Chinese. An atmosphere of intense suspicion permeated the city, and everyone was a potential traitor. On the first day of fighting, six Chinese nationals were executed. All were sentenced to death for spying on behalf of the Japanese or for carrying out acts of sabotage in Zhabei and other areas under the control of the Shanghai municipal government. On another occasion, two women and seven men were decapitated for working for the Japanese. Their heads were placed on top of poles and put on display in the market square, as thousands of men, women and children watched with glee.

Following rumors published in the local press that the Japanese had bribed collaborators to poison the water supply, gangs armed with clubs and other primitive weapons raged through the streets, stopping suspicious-looking individuals. Anyone caught with a powdery substance, even medicine, was severely beaten. Fifteen innocent Chinese were killed and 40 injured that way, according to police. Even having the wrong appearance could be deadly. On the morning of August 17, an unregistered Portuguese man was beaten to death by a mob because he was thought to look Japanese. A Sikh police officer who came to his rescue was in turn badly mangled by the crowd.

One group of Shanghai residents was particularly unfortunate and unable to go anywhere, despite being directly in the middle of some of the worst fighting. They were the inmates of Ward Road Jail, Shanghai’s largest prison, located in Yangshupu. Thousands of them, along with their wardens, were trapped when the battle started. On the morning of August 17, a shell struck the prison, killing ten people and causing extensive damage to both the cells and the prison staff’s quarters. In the days that followed, the prison suffered several direct hits when Chinese artillery in Pudong or at the North Railway Station misfired.

By August 20, the penal authorities began evacuating the prisoners, starting with the criminally insane, who would pose the greatest danger if a chance grenade were to make escape possible. On August 22, a more comprehensive evacuation was planned to take place, but buses meant to bring 150 juvenile criminals to the Chinese district via the International Settlement were stopped by Japanese guards at the Garden Bridge. The juveniles were young and could be recruited for the Chinese war effort and they were returned to their prison. From then on, the evacuation drive nearly stopped, and weeks later, the Ward Road facility was still brimming with inmates, exposed to the deadly fire from both sides.


The Japanese marine units dispatched from Manchuria on August 16, the day of crisis for their compatriots in Shanghai, arrived in the city during the morning of August 18 and were immediately thrown into the battle. A few hours later, the Japanese Cabinet announced the formal end of a policy of non-expansion in China, which by that time had been a hollow shell for several weeks anyway. “The empire, having reached the limit of its patience, has been forced to take resolute measures,” it said. “Henceforth it will punish the outrages of the Chinese Army, and thus spur the (Chinese) government to self-reflect.”

On the same day, the British charge d’affaires in Tokyo, James Dodds, suggested a peace proposal to Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Horinouchi Kensuke. The proposal, drafted two days earlier by the British, American and French ambassadors to Nanjing, called for the transformation of Shanghai into a neutral zone based on a commitment by both China and Japan to withdraw their forces from the city. Japan was not excited about the idea, and on August 19, Horinouchi presented the British diplomat with his government’s official refusal, stating that China would have to retreat to the boundaries outlined in the truce that ended hostilities in 1932. Japan was gaining confidence.

Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling on the Chinese side that important opportunities had been missed. On August 18, Chiang Kai-shek dispatched Deputy War Minister Chen Cheng, one of his main military aides, to the Shanghai front in order to confer with Zhang Zhizhong about how to carry the battle forward. The two generals reached the conclusion that rather than focusing the attacks on the heavily fortified Hongkou area, they should turn their attention to the Yangshupu district, seeking to push through to the Huangpu River and cut the Japanese forces in two. This was the decision the German advisers and the frontline commanders had been waiting for. The gloves had come off, and the self-defeating reluctance to attack Japanese troops inside the settlement borders was gone.

As the forces that had been in Shanghai since the start of hostilities were beginning to show signs of attrition, the generals decided to place the main responsibility for the attack with the 36th Infantry Division, which had only just arrived, and was being moved to the eastern side of the Hongkou salient. It was an obvious choice, as its soldiers were from the same German-trained elite as those of the 87th and 88th Divisions. Two of the division’s four regiments were ordered to attack straight south in the direction of the Huangpu, down streets running perpendicular to the river. In order to reach the wharf area, the soldiers would have to pass five heavily defended intersections. Severe casualties were expected.

The two regiments launched the attack almost immediately, moving out in the early hours of August 19. Sabotage and incendiary bombs resulted in a number of large fires that helped improve visibility during the night fighting. However, the intersections proved a problem. The Chinese soldiers, most of whom were seeing battle for the first time, became defenseless prey to Japanese infantry posted on the rooftops or in windows on the upper floors of buildings along their route. In the absence of any other cover, they often had to duck behind the bodies of those already killed. Even so, for a brief period of time, the Chinese believed they had finally managed to break the back of the hated Japanese. “I thought we could push the enemy into the river and chase them out of Shanghai,” said Zhang Fakui, watching the battle from the other side of the Huangpu.

Once they had reached Broadway, the last street running parallel with the Huangpu River, they faced the most formidable obstacle of them all. The Japanese defenders had taken up positions on top of high walls protecting the wharfs. Dislodging them was akin to storming a medieval castle. A large steel gate formed an entrance into the wharves, but it yielded to no weapon that the Chinese had brought; even the 150mm howitzers could not destroy it. Officers and soldiers tried to scale the gate, but were mowed down by enfilading Japanese machine gun fire. Also located near the river were Japanese-owned factories, many of which had been turned into veritable fortresses. One example was the Gong Da Cotton Mill at the eastern edge of the International Settlement. Again, the Chinese attackers did not possess weaponry powerful enough to penetrate the Japanese defenses there.

While the Chinese were short of large-caliber guns, the Japanese had plenty aboard the Third Fleet anchored in the Huangpu. The 36th Infantry Division was subjected to merciless bombardment, which threw several of its units into disarray. The following night, between August 19 and 20, the 88th Infantry Division for the first time showed that its ability to wage war had been so severely compromised it was, temporarily at least, unable to carry out meaningful offensive action. When ordered to attack, it moved in a belated and reluctant fashion, and got nowhere. While the Chinese were getting weaker, the Japanese were growing stronger. The marines dispatched from Sasebo arrived in Shanghai on that same night, boosting the number of marines inside the garrison to 6,300 well-armed men.

Despite a propensity to husband expensive equipment, the Chinese decided at this point to throw major parts of their new tank force into the battle. As was the case with the German-trained divisions and the air force, this was another key asset that had taken years to build up. Following the 1932 incident, when Japan had used its armor to some effect, the Nationalist government had decided to acquire its own tank arm, purchasing tanks from a variety of European nations, including Germany, Britain and Italy. As a result of these efforts, by the outbreak of hostilities in 1937, China was able to deploy the British-built, 6-ton, single-turret Vickers model in Shanghai.

The 87th Infantry Division was given disposal of two armored companies, and it lost everything. Some of the tanks had just arrived from Nanjing, and their crews had not had any time to undertake training in coordinated attacks, or even simply to establish rapport with the local troops. As a result, the tank companies were mostly left to their own devices without infantry support. The Chinese also often neglected to seal off adjacent streets when deploying their tanks, allowing Japanese armor to outflank them and knock them out. To be sure, the Japanese, too, lacked experience in coordination between armor and infantry and frequently saw their tanks annihilated by Chinese anti-tank weapons.

On August 20, Zhang Zhizhong was inspecting the Yangshupu front when he met one of his former students from the Central Military Academy, who was in charge of a tank company that was about to attack the wharves. Some of the tanks under his command had been under repair and hastily pulled out of the workshop. “The vehicles are no good,” the young officer complained. “The enemy fire is fierce, and our infantry will have trouble keeping up.” Zhang was relentless, telling the young officer that the attack had to be carried through to the end nonetheless. A few moments later the tank company started its assault. The young officer and his entire unit were wiped out in a hail of shells, many of them fired from vessels anchored in the Huangpu River. “It saddens me even today when I think about it,” Zhang wrote many years later in his memoirs.

In this battle, modern tank warfare mixed with scenes more reminiscent of earlier centuries. Wu Yujun, an officer of the Peace Preservation Corps, was manning a position in the streets of Yangshupu on the morning of August 18 when a detachment of Japanese cavalry attacked. The raid was over almost instantly, and left numerous dead and injured Chinese in its wake. The Japanese repeated the assault two more times. The third time, Wu Yujun prepared an elaborate ambush, posting machine guns on both sides of the street. As the riders galloped past, they and their horses were chopped to pieces. Apart from four prisoners, all Japanese lost their lives. The 20th century had met the 19th century on the battlefield, and won. It was a typical incident, and yet in one respect also very atypical. In the streets of Shanghai in August 1937, Chinese soldiers were far likelier to confront a technologically superior enemy than the other way around.

Many of the Chinese units arriving in Shanghai had never tasted battle before, and in the first crucial days of fighting, their lack of experience proved costly. Fang Jing, a brigade commander of the 98th Division, one of the units to arrive early in Shanghai, noticed how his soldiers often set up inadequate fortifications that were no match for the artillery rolled out by the Japanese. “Often, the positions they built were too weak and couldn’t withstand the enemy’s 150mm howitzers,” he said. “The upshot was that men and materiel were buried inside the positions they had built for themselves.”


No one was surprised that the Japanese soldiers put up a determined fight in Shanghai. Since their 1904–1905 triumph over the Russian Empire, the legend of the “brave little Jap” had become firmly established in the mind of the global public. So widespread was this view that if Japanese soldiers did not fight to the death, it was a source of genuine surprise. However, at moments of absolute frankness, the Japanese themselves could feel a need to add nuance to foreign stereotypes about their countrymen’s behavior in battle. “Our soldiers would prefer death to surrender,” a Japanese diplomat was quoted as saying, “but the majority secretly hope that they will return honorably to their own country, either wounded or unscathed.”

Foreign journalists noticed to their astonishment that there seemed to be little in the Japanese code of honor that prevented them from fleeing from a hopeless situation. One of them remembered seeing a number of Japanese soldiers run back from a failed attack during the battle of Shanghai, with the Chinese in hot pursuit. There were even rare instances of Japanese soldiers raising the white flag. The same correspondent witnessed a party of about 50 Japanese motorcyclists who had become bogged down in a rice paddy near the city and were surrounded by Chinese. They surrendered immediately without making any effort to resist.

These were minority cases. Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”


On August 20, five Chinese aircraft were returning after another fruitless attack on the Izumo, which was still moored in the middle of the Huangpu, when they encountered two Japanese seaplanes over western Zhabei. A Chinese plane broke formation, went into a steep dive and fired a short machine gun salvo at one of the Japanese. It did not have a chance. It burst into flames and plunged to the ground. The other Japanese plane disappeared in the clouds. The entire encounter had only taken a few seconds. It was one of a series of hits that the Chinese Air Force scored during a brief period in August before it was completely subdued by its Japanese adversary.

Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber

In particular, it posed a threat to Japanese bombers, such as the highly flammable Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber aircraft assigned to striking targets in Shanghai and other cities in central China. Japan’s First Combined Air Group lost half of its medium attack planes in the first three days of the battle for Shanghai, some missing, some confirmed shot down and others heavily damaged. Their crews were particularly vulnerable, since they did not bring parachutes on their missions. From late August, the air group’s bombers were escorted by Type 95 Nakajima A4N fighter biplanes. This action amounted to a humiliating admission that China’s nascent air force was a force to be reckoned with.

Nakajima A4N

“In view of the pressing situation in the Shanghai area,” said the First Combined Air Group’s commander, “our air raids reminded me of that famous, costly assault against the 203-Meter Hill.” The battle for 203-Meter Hill had been one of the bloodiest episodes of the entire Russo-Japanese War, claiming thousands of casualties on both sides. The Chinese performance was significant enough that even foreign military observers paid attention. British intelligence, in a report summarizing military events in the middle of August, noted Chinese claims of having downed 32 Japanese aircraft. “This statement appears well-founded,” the report’s writer added.

Even so, the Chinese airmen had been mostly untested and only partly trained when the war started. Their inferiority, especially against Japanese fighters, began to tell, and they gradually disappeared from the skies over Shanghai. Their compatriots on the ground expressed frustration over the lack of air cover. “We occasionally spotted two or three of our own airplanes, but the moment they encountered enemy anti-aircraft fire, they disappeared,” said Fang Jing, a regimental commander of the 98th Infantry Division. “They were no use at all. After August 20, I never saw our planes again.”

That may have been hyperbole, but it was undeniable that the evolving Japanese air superiority proved a major handicap for the Chinese. The Chinese commanders soon realized that they had to carry out major troop movements under the cover of darkness. Japan’s domination of the skies affected everything the Chinese soldiers did and even determined when they could get food. “We didn’t eat until at night,” said Fang Zhendong, a soldier of the 36th Infantry Division. “That was the only time we could get anything. In the daytime, it was impossible to transport provisions to the frontline.”

Without fighter protection the troops on the ground were dangerously exposed. They had very little in the way of anti-aircraft weaponry, mostly 20mm Solothurn guns produced in Switzerland. However, even these weapons made next to no difference as they were primarily deployed against enemy infantry. Also, the Chinese officers were reluctant to use their anti-aircraft guns lest they reveal their positions to the Japanese aircraft. In late August when Japanese Admiral Hasegawa was asked by a Reuters journalist visiting his flagship if he was in control of the air, his reply was prompt: “Yes,” he said. “I believe so.”

Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part I

On 3 October 1943, German forces landed at Kos. Three companies of II./Gren.Rgt.16 were delayed by stiff resistance at an ‘ammunition dump’, actually a logistics camp.

That the campaign in the Aegean was a defeat is obvious and, indeed, can hardly be denied. As the last stragglers made their slow way back to safety, Hitler was jubilantly conferring on Lieutenant General Müller the accolade “Conqueror of Leros” and giving his “abundant appreciation” of his success. It must be admitted that this praise had been earned. Edwin Packer, in his summary of the campaign, headed his conclusions “No reward for audacity,” and in applying this to the British, he is certainly correct. For the Germans, however, audacity had paid a handsome dividend.

Other historians, although not all, while admitting that the British suffered a grievous setback, have sought to lessen its significance by comparing the British and German losses on a balance sheet that sometimes comes out equal and other times shows a marked advantage to the British. Though all the facts will never be known precisely, it is worth examining a few of these statements in detail in order to get a better picture.

British casualties are well tabulated. The Royal Navy lost heavily in its final duel with the Stukas; indeed, the scale of loss is comparable to the disaster suffered off Crete three years earlier. The cruiser Carlisle was damaged beyond repair; six destroyers, two submarines, and ten lesser vessels were sunk. Three cruisers were heavily damaged, as well as four more destroyers. The Germans lost twelve small steamers and twenty minor warships, plus one destroyer wrecked and bombed.

The Royal Air Force lost 115 aircraft, with a further 20 damaged. Luftwaffe losses in the same period have not been assessed, but one British historian has stated that “the figures reported at the time, 135 destroyed and 126 damaged, are certainly an over-optimistic calculation.” With the example of many other such estimates before us, we can agree that this is probably true. Even now the enormous casualties claimed to have been inflicted on the Germans during the Battle of Britain are still believed by many, although the actual figures were much smaller and have been given in several excellent works. The same will surely be found to apply in the claims and counterclaims of the Aegean air fighting, and it seems doubtful that German aircraft loss exceeded 120 planes.

The army had a casualty list of about 4,800, the size of an extended infantry brigade, but many of these were taken prisoner. The list of officers killed during the fighting on Leros makes it clear, however, that the British suffered particularly heavily in this respect, because of the general bravery and self-sacrifice of these men.

The fighting on Leros was particularly bloody, and the Germans took casualties not far short of the British. In their official communications of the time, they claimed to have taken 200 officers and 3,000 British POWs plus 350 officers and 5,350 Italians. Sixteen antiaircraft guns and 120 cannons were also captured. Their own casualties were appalling. The paratroops in particular were cut to ribbons. As was revealed under a “TOP SECRET” heading in the OKW Diary, the Germans suffered 1,109 casualties in taking Leros, 41 percent of the invading force. These were not all killed, but included the wounded. Some claims by British historians about the casualty ratio are rather misleading. It is on record that the graves on Leros were found to contain 1,000 Germans and 400 British, which conveys, even if unintentionally, the impression that this was the ratio of losses in the battle. If this were so, then it would seem that only 109 of the German casualties were wounded as opposed to killed, which is indeed an impressive figure. Lieutenant General Müller gave his losses for the invasions of Cos and Leros, as 260 dead, 746 wounded, and 162 missing. The British evacuated only 177 captured Germans from Leros before it fell. However historians sympathetic to the British cause add it up, the German number killed is less than a third of the figure claimed at the time.

Why the great difference in calculating? Mainly because German casualties were not separated from Italian at the time, as Churchill adopted his usual “creative accounting.” The prime minister was well-known for such exaggeration. Among the many examples, he stated to the House that hundreds of German Stuka dive-bombers had been shot down during the battle of Britain, when the true figure was just fifty-four. Earlier, when at the Admiralty, he claimed that the Royal Navy had sunk fifty German submarines, a totally ridiculous overestimate, when the true, verifiable figure was actually fifteen, as proved by postwar studies; spitefully, Churchill even had the director of antisubmarine warfare, Capt. A. G. Talbot, who dared to tell the true figure, removed from his post.

Churchill’s figures on the Aegean casualties were never challenged. For example, Capt. S. W. Roskill in the official history, The War at Sea, also states in a footnote that when the Sinfra was sunk, nearly 2,000 German and Italian soldiers were lost, which is the exact figure Churchill bragged about to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. Though this figure is true, a mere fraction of this total were on the opposing side. The Sinfra went down with the loss of about 40 German soldiers out of the 500 carried; there were also aboard some 2,000 Italians—loyal to the Badoglio government and the Allies—and 200 Greek partisans, all of whom were being shipped back as POWs. Of these, only about 539 Italians and 13 Greeks were saved. The prime minister’s assertion “we drowned 2,000 of them” sounds far more impressive than “we drowned 40 of them.” Again, more than 1,200 Italians in transit were lost aboard the Donizetti. Clearly the deaths of British allies should not be included in the list of German losses, and only a politician grasping at straws would attempt to do so.

The scale of air attacks mounted by the Luftwaffe to subdue the Leros garrison has frequently been quoted as being up to 600 missions a day. Yet the official publication The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force, compiled by British experts after examination of German records, completely refutes this:

The major share of the German Air Force in the success of both operations [Cos and Leros] stands out beyond all doubt. Yet this success was achieved, not as has sometimes been suggested by the use of overwhelming air power, but by fully exploiting a favorable situation with a small force maintaining only a moderate scale of effort. Both at Cos and Leros Luftwaffe activity was slighter than had been expected. The total effort in the two days operations for the reduction of Cos amounted to under 300 sorties including 65–75 Me.109 sorties of a defensive character; the main weight of the attack on October 3rd and 4th was born by Ju 87s which flew 140–150 sorties.

Of Leros, it states that operations, although very effective, were only moderate in scale: “during the five days of attack only 676–700 offensive sorties were flown.” The Luftwaffe had, however, conducted a softening-up campaign during the previous two months. Compare this with the Allied effort: From October 1 to 7, the U.S. Army Air Force made a total of 425 daylight sorties against airfields, landing grounds, ports, and bases, and the British made 63 night sorties by heavy bombers alone. From mid-October to mid-November, when the island fell, the U.S. made 317 sorties in seven days and the British 278 sorties on twenty-eight nights by heavy bombers. In daylight attacks against German shipping, American Mitchells made 86 sorties and Wellingtons and Beaufighters 11.

In addition, offensive sweeps were carried out almost daily during the actual period of fighting on Leros. Between November 12 and 17, Beaufighters and Mitchells made 79 sorties. Heavy bombers—American Liberators and Mitchells and British Halifaxes and Liberators—made a total of 212 sorties against airfields in Greece and Rhodes. Wellingtons, Hudsons, and Baltimores made an additional 55 sorties. Spitfires with special long-range tanks and Hurricanes made repeated sweeps over Rhodes and Crete at this time.

Particularly impressive was the record of the faithful Dakotas of No. 216 Squadron, which had operated efficiently and constantly throughout the campaign despite the most difficult and hazardous conditions and some losses. From October 6 to November 19, they flew 87 sorties and dropped a total load of 378,650 pounds. They also flew in the 120 paratroops to Cos, and one of the most outstanding of their efforts was the dropping of 200 officers and men of the Greek Sacred Squadron on Samos on the night of October 31–November 1. None of these troops had ever jumped before, and very few had any experience in flying. Nevertheless, on a pitch-black night, the six Dakotas carried out their mission with complete success. Also, all of the dispatchers they carried were volunteer airmen and soldiers, and flying in slow transports over German airfields packed with high-performance fighters in a round-trip of many hours surely called for a high standard of heroism.

Much has been made of the claim that by this small effort in the Aegean a large concentration of vital forces was drawn into the area from more important zones. This is partially true, but not of quite the significance that many have attached to it. Certainly the small resources of the German maritime fleet in the Mediterranean were called on to the limit, their shortcomings being made up from captured Italian tonnage, and the losses in proportion to the total were large. Certainly, too, the Germans deployed aircraft from Russia and France, but here again only on a small scale, some 150 machines in all. The aircraft used were predominantly of obsolete types anyway, which would have had only a limited value in the main theaters.

For example, the main air weapon, the Ju 87 dive-bomber, although it had a brilliant war record, had been replaced by the Fw 190 fighter-bomber for ground support in the main theater of war, the Russian front, and was mainly used as a night intruder over Western Europe toward the end of the war. The Ju 52s, which gave such sterling service, and the Ar 196 float-plane were both low-performance aircraft and not greatly missed. The bomber groups were soon switched back to the main fronts on termination of the campaign, and their absence was not greatly noticed, even in Italy. Here the Germans were able to hold with ease the Allied ground thrusts; they even counterattacked with telling effect and managed to reinforce as well, despite the massive effort of the heavy and medium bomber forces deployed continually against their communications.

As for the troops employed, with the sole exception of the Parachute Battalion, which was flown in from central Italy via Athens, all were from regiments already in occupation of Greece and the Balkans. Not one soldier of the Wehrmacht was otherwise pulled back from Russia or Italy. Some time later, the islands of Cos, Leros, and Samos were handed over by Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Müller to Assault Division Rhodes, which became the garrison force. Müller survived the war but was tried and sentenced to death by a Greek court for alleged war crimes during his tenure in command on Crete and was executed by them on May 20, 1947.

The Germans were jubilant as well as shocked at the simplicity of their victory. According to the January 1944 issue of Das Signal magazine:

The fighting showed especially, two facets: In the first place, England’s sea power, which is engaged throughout the world’s seas, was not able to successfully defend important bases in the Eastern Mediterranean from where it had planned to put increasing pressure militarily. In the second place, however, the quick surrender of many enemy island defenders was a surprise. Contrary to the German soldier who, where fate puts him, fights to the last bullet, the soldier of the Western Powers stops fighting the moment he recognizes there is no chance to win the fight.

Failure always brings recrimination, and this campaign was no exception. It is not the aim of this book to censure anyone, but to set out the facts and present the arguments on each side. At the risk of oversimplification, they can be summarized in sections. First is the issue of Churchill versus the Americans, which is intermixed with the arguments involving the Middle East Command and the British Chiefs of Staff. The basic reason for the failure of the campaign was decidedly the question of air power, which can conveniently be summarized as Tedder versus Douglas, while at the level of the actual fighting, it was the soldier and sailor against the “brass hats.”

Edwin Packer wrote, “The undoubted strategic advantages which possession of the Dodecanese gave—clearly recognized by Churchill and Hitler, though not by Marshall and Eisenhower—blinded the British into thinking that audacity would be rewarded on this occasion as it had many times before in the history of their country.” This is indisputably true; but it is equally true that the Americans, though incredibly blind to the glittering prospects offered, as it seems in retrospect, had a good case for withholding their approval.

Captain Roskill pointed out that “we should take account of the fact that every peripheral operation inevitably grows in size as it progresses, with ever-increasing demands on resources; and the dislike of the American Chiefs of Staff, and of General Eisenhower and his subordinate commanders, for such enterprises, what time the major campaign which they had on their hands still had to be decided, is readily understood.”

He added later a further point: “In any theatre of combined operations there is always one position, generally an island, which, because of its geographical position and because it possesses harbors and airfields, is the key to control over a wide area.” As everyone realized, this key was Rhodes, and when it was captured by the Germans it was the time for the Allies to abandon the Aegean operation completely or recapture Rhodes first. Neither course was adopted. The Middle East Command instead made the decision to hold the lesser islands, but at first with the knowledge that the Germans were preparing for the imminent occupation of Rhodes. This must be stressed. General Maitland Wilson can hardly be blamed for embarking on the occupation of the Dodecanese when he did, even though from the outset the odds were against him. When he made his decision to go in, even Eisenhower was still in favor of Accolade taking place. Following Churchill’s telegram to Eisenhower on September 25 and Eisenhower’s reply on the twenty-sixth, in which he agreed to spare the asked-for armored brigade and most of the shipping, the assault date was set for October 23 by the Middle East Command. Therefore, the islands would have had to hold out for only one month, and this at a time when the strength and reaction of the Germans were not certain.

Nor can Maitland Wilson be blamed for the loss of Rhodes, for he was given insufficient warning. Had he been given time to organize a demonstration in strength as soon as the Italian capitulation was announced, it is possible that the Germans, unaware of his true strength and expecting the British to have been forewarned—and therefore forearmed—could have been overawed. Certainly there would have been a better chance than that given by withholding this vital information from Wilson until too late. As it was, only the Germans, not the Italians or the British on the spot, were ready when the time came. All else followed.

It was not until the unexpected fall of Cos to the Germans that two points were made clear. First, Hitler had a deep interest in the Aegean, and the German forces there were very much aware of its importance. And second, this reverse had a profound effect on American thinking about the campaign, and they thereafter began to hedge. Eisenhower certainly received more than adequate discouragement from his superiors in Washington.

The new American viewpoint was not made clear until the Tunis Conference, and despite everything that Churchill could do to save the scheme, Accolade was finally abandoned. By this time, the British were fully committed in the islands, but they still could have cut their losses and pulled out without too much difficulty. The arguments that this would have been a difficult operation were later proved to be overly pessimistic; enough stores and troops were run in to more than justify an attempt to get the small garrison out at that time. But it was not so decided.

The outcome of the Tunis Conference and the subsequent decisions taken by the Middle East Command are vital as to why the campaign was pushed on to its ultimate conclusion. Prior to the conference, Portal had telegraphed Tedder on October 7 asking him to keep an open mind on the question of air support for Accolade. Maitland Wilson received a message from Churchill urging him to press strongly for further support for Accolade: “It is clear that the key to the strategic situation in the Mediterranean is expressed in the two words ‘Storm Rhodes.”

The Joint Planners in London were expressing different opinions, however. They felt that the Middle East Command was overestimating the strategic importance of Rhodes; its occupation would not in itself be adequate. They believed, as did the Americans, that further reinforcements would be required. They recommended instead that the islands the British did hold be evacuated.

Nevertheless, two of the principal delegates at the conference had received promptings to the contrary from London. These promptings, however, had little effect on the outcome, for on the evening of October 9, Eisenhower informed Churchill of the result. In this, the prize was agreed to be great, but those present felt that the situation that had just developed in Italy, added to the fall of Cos, did not permit the diversion of the forces promised earlier.

Part two of Eisenhower’s telegram is of particular interest: “Every conclusion submitted in our report to the CCS was agreed unanimously by all Commanders-in-Chief from both theaters. It is personally distressing to me to have to advise against a project in which you believe so earnestly but I feel I would not be performing my duty if I should recommend otherwise. All Commanders-in-Chief share this attitude.”

The situation in Italy at this time was that the Germans had shown unexpected resilience and were pouring in reinforcements at an enormous rate. Whereas in mid-September, thirteen Allied divisions faced eighteen German ones, by the end of October, there would be only eleven Allied against twenty-five German. There can be little doubt then that the decision reached was the correct one.

Tedder went even further, writing: “There was no doubt in the mind of anyone present at this meeting that ‘Accolade’ could not now be staged effectively. It was clear to me that the Middle East Commanders had no faith in the project and were relieved at the decision. It was not only a question of German reinforcements in Italy. The weather had changed decisively for the worse.”

He cabled Portal that the question of Accolade was considered on its merit and with great impartiality before repercussions on the Italian campaign were examined. Maitland Wilson admitted this in a telegram sent to Churchill. Rhodes could not be taken that year. Why then were the British garrisons in Leros not withdrawn forthwith? Edwin Packer surmised: “They knew the project was dear to the heart of the British Prime Minister. Would he have thought less highly of them if they had cancelled the operation remembering his criticism of Wavell in 1941? No one cared to put it to the test: a reputation for caution was not a characteristic Churchill admired. So the C-in-Cs in the Middle East decided to go on.”

Could that have been the reason? Maitland Wilson’s cable shows that other things were in their minds. As a substitute for Rhodes, why not Turkey? Again, there was a chance, as when Operation Accolade was still officially on, that if they stuck to Leros and Samos for a little longer, airfields would be made available in that country. Maitland Wilson clearly expressed this thinking: “This morning John Cunningham, Linnel and I reviewed the situation in the Aegean (Sholto Douglas was in London at this time) on the assumption that Rhodes would not take place till a later date. We came to the conclusion that the holding of Leros and Samos is not impossible, although their maintenance is going to be difficult, and will depend on continued Turkish co-operation [emphasis added]. I am going to talk to Eden about this when he arrives on Tuesday.”

Thus the straw to which they clung, in affirming that the wishes of the prime minister were to be followed as far as possible, was Turkey. There were also other considerations that influenced their decision to a greater degree than the fear of displeasing Churchill. The islands of Leros and Samos had not yet been attacked, and although the fall of Cos had shown that the Germans were determined, it was still not thought that a reinforced Leros could be assaulted successfully for some time. The illusion of “Fortress Leros” still had not been revealed and they felt that it was a bastion that, if garrisoned with good troops, could hold out against an attack. The amount of irritation that they could inflict on the scattered German garrisons on the island— and maintain until either Turkey came in or the long-deferred Accolade could be remounted in the spring—held out the promise of allowing them to hold down large German forces with a limited effort.

Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part II

16 November 1943. Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (left) with the surrendered Fortress commander Brigadier Robert Tilney (right).

The result is succinctly recorded in the official history: “The local commanders did not hesitate; the Chiefs of Staff supported them; and the Prime Minister agreed with both.”

Indeed he did. Maitland Wilson received by return an enthusiastic reply: “Cling on if you possibly can. It will be a splendid achievement. Talk it over with Eden and see what help you can get from the Turk. If after everything has been done you are forced to quit I will support you, but victory is the prize.”

He was as good as his word. In the event, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was not forthcoming. Turkey was more impressed by German victories than by British promises or Soviet threats. There would be no fighter cover from Turkey.

The vital factor of air cover—and the divergence of opinion that resulted between Tedder and Douglas—must be examined together with the rigid command structure, which, in Churchill’s words, “drew an imaginary line down the Mediterranean” and relieved General Eisenhower’s armies of all responsibility for the Dalmatian coast and the Balkans. “These are assigned to General Wilson, of the Middle East Command, but he does not possess the necessary forces. One command has the forces but not the responsibilities, the other the responsibilities but not the forces. This can hardly be considered an ideal arrangement.”

With this command structure, the allocation of air power was also involved. Whereas Wilson was an independent commander and responsible only to London, Douglas and his command in the Middle East were under the operational control of Tedder at Eisenhower’s headquarters. This soon led to difficulties. Douglas wrote:

From the outset I was far from happy about the view of our efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean taken by Eisenhower’s HQ. The answers they were giving to our signals to them could never be considered as properly thought out, and I could not understand Tedder’s position in all this. He had appeared to approve of our plans to start with, and it was not until some three weeks after we had stated our intentions, and we had actually put them into operation, that he lodged his disturbing complaint about not being consulted.

Tedder’s viewpoint was somewhat different:

So far as I was aware the participation of elements of the Mediterranean Air Command had never been properly considered. The fall of Cos only made such an assessment more urgent. I set out in detail for Eisenhower’s eye the ways in which a determined attack on Rhodes would diminish our air strength in the Italian campaign. In particular I anticipated a demand for long range fighters for the purpose of covering convoys and the assault on Rhodes itself.

Eisenhower’s response to Tedder’s warning was to send him a reply to the effect that no specific undertakings should be made for Accolade other than that of bombing German airfields in Greece, which they had both already agreed was desirable. Tedder sent a copy of this to Portal and added that he wholeheartedly endorsed it.

It must also be stressed that even when Accolade was still a possibility, Tedder, in common with the others, stressed that an essential part of the revised plan lay in the retention of Cos and Leros, which in his opinion was as necessary to the capture of Rhodes as its own capture was necessary to their preservation. Thus when Cos went so quickly, it was to be expected that he would then have grave reservations about the rest of the plan.

While Cos was being subjected to heavy air attacks, Douglas had made repeated pleas for the bombing of the Greek and Balkan airfields, but Tedder felt that the bombing of the German supply lines in Northern Italy was of greater importance. He did in fact signal Douglas before the island fell that he was very concerned about the way the Aegean operations were going. He added that commitments were involved that he had had no prior opportunity of assessing. Tedder felt that events were underlining something he had always thought—that from the air point of view, the Balkans were strategically one and the same as the rest of the Mediterranean. He promised that he would do his best to help, but he insisted that he must be kept informed of future plans.

It was at this time that Portal signaled Tedder that in his opinion, the Allies should fight the German Air Force wherever it went. He also thought the Allies could better afford a diversion into the Aegean than could the Germans and that damage inflicted on the Germans in the Aegean was just as desirable as damage inflicted in any other theater.

With Cos gone and Accolade abandoned, the question of extra air diversions became even more acute. Tedder felt that they were becoming more and more wasteful and dangerous; Douglas felt more and more that he was letting down the other two services. With Portal’s message recording his pleasure at the forward policy being adopted by Middle East Command in the Aegean and Tedder’s signal complaining that he had no prior opportunity of assessing the operations then in progress, Douglas was perplexed. “It struck me that in some curious way Tedder appeared to be the only one who was not fully acquainted with what was going on—even London knew and approved. It confirmed for me my opinion that the time was more than ripe for a fundamental change in the structure of the overall command of the air in the Mediterranean.”

From this statement, it can be seen that the two men, although at loggerheads over this particular issue, had both come to the same conclusion, as had Churchill: that the system of command in the Mediterranean at this time was unworkable, unwieldy, and far too inflexible. There can be no denying that in this and in so many similar operations, from the occupation of Norway through the fall of France and on to the desert campaigns, it was the Germans who made unexpected moves and took chances with new and surprising tactics. It has always been the delight of British and American observers and commentators to depict the Germans as dull, methodical plodders who could never adapt. But in fact, time and time again, it was the Allies with their rigid command structures who were caught off-guard by German initiative.

After Leros had suffered the same fate as Cos, both Tedder and Douglas were dispirited. Douglas wrote:

I prepared a paper in which I summarized all that had happened in the last days of the operation. I was in no mood to pull any punches and I started off with the blunt statement: “I am very dissatisfied with the assistance that I received during the Leros operation.” I pointed out that when the deterioration of the weather in Italy had bogged down the battle there—right at the period during which Leros was being attacked—“a wider view should have been taken of the dispositions of heavy and medium bombers and of long-range fighters.” I further pointed out that we had asked “not once but many times” for Liberators and Lightnings to be located in Cyrenaica, and that “all we got were a few B-25s at first with disgruntled and later with untrained pilots and armed with semi-experimental 75-mm guns.”

He continued much in the same vein; recording that between October 27 and November 14, no attack had been made by Allied heavy bombers from the central Mediterranean on the Greek airfields. On November 14, ninety-one B-25s with forty-nine Lightnings as escorts had bombed Sofia, an attack that, if it had been directed against the Greek airfields instead, might have tipped the scales. Douglas came to the conclusion, in this paper and later, that it was the disregard by the Americans in general, and the indifference of the Mediterranean Air Command in particular, that resulted in the Middle East Command’s difficult position during this operation. We can certainly agree with him on the first part of this conclusion. As for the second, Tedder’s feelings were also recorded much later, when the campaign was but a memory. They are nevertheless both sincere and, in the context of the U.S. Chiefs of Staffs’ attitude, pertinent.

Tedder claimed that he had never ignored the fate of Leros, but that even less could he detach himself from the fate of the Italian campaign. He thought that the whole operation was a gamble that had failed to pay off and added that the assumption that heavy bomber raids could knock out the Luftwaffe was quite unrealistic because of the effort they would have required and the weather conditions prevailing at the time. The success of such a scheme was continuity of attack, and this continuity could not have been sustained. He recorded: “One would have thought that some of the bitter lessons of Crete would have been sufficiently fresh in the mind to have prevented a repetition and yet in the sad story of Cos and Leros we had the familiar cries—and justifiable cries—for protection from enemy air attack, complaints of inadequate support from the Air, and heavy casualties in all three Services, because we were compelled once again to attempt the impossible.”

Here again we can sympathize with this opinion. One destroyer captain wrote, “We younger destroyer skippers, I think, blamed Churchill.” This opinion was strongly endorsed by the late Capt. Stephen Roskill, who asserted, “Most of the responsibility for this failure must surely rest with Churchill,” who, Roskill had an “addiction” to capturing islands (for example, his obsession with Pantellaria in 1940 and 1941 and the Azores in the same period) that would have proved difficult to supply. Roskill also stated that the hopes Churchill entertained about Turkey entering the war being the principal plank on which he rested his case “was an illusion.” Another study went even further, naming the campaign “Churchill’s Folly” and claiming that the full story had “never been told”—which, as War in the Aegean was first published in 1974, was patently not so. The author also called the campaign “The Last Great British Defeat of World War II,” a dubious statement, with Arnhem at least as a stronger contender.

But all this criticism of the prime minister, though undoubtedly merited, does not seem entirely fair. Despite Churchill’s propensity for wild schemes and harebrained interventions, such Operation Catherine, the fiasco of Norway, Operation Workshop, the insistence of the dispatch of Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore against the advice of the Admiralty, and so on, there can be no doubt that on this occasion, he really did read Stalin’s future intentions for the Balkans far better than the naive Roosevelt and, indeed, the Americans in general.

Certainly the bright vision was Churchill’s, and he was extremely reluctant to see it thrown away. “Leros is a bitter blow to me,” he told Eden in a telegram sent on November 21. He continued:

One may ask should such an operation ever have been undertaken without the assurance of air superiority? Have we not failed to learn the lessons of Crete, etc.? Have we not restored the Stukas to a fleeting moment of their old triumphs? The answer is that there is none of these arguments that was not foreseen before the occupation of these islands was attempted and if they were disregarded it was because other reasons and other hopes were held to predominate over them. If we are never going to proceed on anything but certainties we must certainly face the prospect of a prolonged war.

He also stated that this campaign “constituted, happily on a small scale, the most acute difference I ever had with Eisenhower.”

Yet he showed not the slightest hint of remorse for all the sacrifice made for naught, only a politicians’ natural desire to gloss over the whole fiasco and quickly forget the part he played in it. Churchill telegraphed Eden: “No attempts should be made to minimize the poignancy of the loss of the Dodecanese. It is, however, just to say that it is our first really grievous reverse since Tobruk 1942. I hope that there will be no need to make heavy weather over this at all.”

On the other hand, the Americans adhered to their perfectly valid point that they were fighting against the Germans and the Russians were their allies. However far-sighted Churchill may have been in 1943, he had already hitched his country to the Soviet cause in June 1941, and his policy of reinforcing Stalin at the expense of the British Far East since then somewhat compromised his later “farsightedness” in the Balkans. After all, Churchill had declared, “If Hitler had invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” If Churchill was dismayed at Roosevelt’s belief that he “could do a deal with Joe,” it must be admitted that he had given the American leader an early lead in pandering to Stalin’s capacious appetite.

Jeffrey Holland, who fought there and returned to the island postwar to ponder the reasons for it all, told us: “The islanders themselves believe that part of the price Churchill would have had to pay (and been prepared to pay) for bringing Turkey into the war would be to accept Turkish sovereignty over the Dodecanese plus Rhodes. Colonel Kenyon thought the whole thing was a bloody shambles.”

As before, it was Turkey that saw things more clearly. Said Giuseppe de Peppo, the Italian ambassador to Turkey, “The Turkish ideal is that the last German soldier should fall upon the last Russian corpse.”

This fiasco in the eastern Mediterranean had shown that Britain alone could not succeed without American participation or backing. The Americans, with their upsurging strength, had now become the major partner, and as such, they were less ready to accommodate views that did not accord with their own. That this was the turning point in Anglo-American strategy is borne out by General Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who recorded in his diary on November 1, 1943, that he regretted that he had not had sufficient force of character to swing the American Chiefs of Staff into line with British thinking on the Mediterranean, but although he blamed himself, he doubted whether it was humanly possible to alter the American point of view more than he had succeeded in doing. Henceforth the United States exerted an ever-increasing domination over the conduct of the war, and it took the lion’s share in writing the final chapters in the postwar state of Europe. Not only had it surrendered the chance to beat the Soviets into the Balkans, but when the maps were redrawn later, they were to be even more generous to the greedy appetite of Stalin.

An isolated American view was that of Gen. Mark Clark, who wrote that “the weakening of the campaigns in Italy in order to invade Southern France instead of pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”

However, Professor Michael Howard dismissed all postwar speculations on the motives of Churchill to thwart the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe as being mainly wrong interpretations of mere wartime expediency on the part of the prime minister. He also added the most pertinent point of all: “The appetites which had been disappointed, especially those for seizing Rhodes and striking across the Aegean at the mainland of Greece, were largely ones which had developed en mangeant and which had not received general Allied—or even general British—sanction.”

There is one puzzling thing that is hard to understand: When the provision of on-the-spot air cover was so vital to the campaign, and the land-based fighters were not forthcoming, why was it that the navies of the two largest maritime nations the world had ever known could not provide aircraft carriers as a substitute? The British fleet alone had several carriers—two fleet carriers, Illustrious and Formidable; a light carrier, Unicorn; and three escort carriers, Attacker, Hunter, and Stalker—on station at the beginning of September, when the total number of British fighter aircraft were but a drop in the ocean of the Allies’ grand total of 4,000 aircraft. To have detached even the escort carriers to operate in the Aegean would have brought the cruisers and destroyers the respite they needed. Indeed, a year later this was done and worked. Instead, they were all withdrawn from the Mediterranean during this period because of heavy losses their aircraft sustained in deck landings supporting the Salerno operation. Perhaps the need for aircraft carriers, even in the landlocked waters of the Mediterranean, is the foremost lesson to be drawn from this campaign. In view of British defense decisions between 1963 and 1997, it seems that nobody in government understood or heeded this lesson, a blindness culminating in the absolute worst of misjudgments—that made by the Thatcher government just before the Falklands War—to sell off the last British carriers and not replace them.

After the Allies had missed their main chance in the Balkans, the Aegean did indeed become a backwater. The German garrisons there were allowed to wither on the vine, and the Allies were satisfied that those troops were locked up away from the fronts in Italy and, later, France. It did not affect the Germans much, for Rome did not fall that easily, nor was Italy quickly conquered. The newly formed Raiding Forces carried out pinprick raids in their usual daring manner, and later escort carriers and cruiser-destroyer strike forces inflicted damage on the German convoy routes, as did strikes by RAF forces. The Soviet steamroller finally plowed through to the north sucking under Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and eventually the Germans withdrew from the Balkans in December 1944. The Allies could take little advantage then; indeed, the British had to make considerable effort in Greece to prevent the establishment of a Communist government, and Yugoslavia and Albania went the same way.

It is, however, futile to wring one’s hands over what might have been. There was no guarantee that the mere conquest of the Aegean would have brought Turkey into the war on the Allies’ side, nor that the Germans would have abandoned Greece. The Allies were never prepared to follow up with a main assault on the Balkans, no matter what the German reaction to the loss of the Aegean might have been. And even if they had achieved success there, it was at Teheran and Potsdam, and not on the battlefield, that the fruits of battle were decided.

1917-18 Air Defence of Britain

In London, steps were being taken that were to transform the whole conduct of the air war. On 17 August 1917, a committee presided over by Lieutenant General Jan Smuts had presented a report on air organization to the War Cabinet. It recommended the formation of an Air Ministry ‘to control and administer all matters in connection with air warfare of every kind and that the new Ministry should proceed to work out the arrangements for the amalgamation of the two Services and for the legal constitution and discipline of the new Service.’ It went on to point out that ‘The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’

This remarkably far-sighted report resulted in the creation of an Air Ministry on 2 January 1918, although its birth was not accomplished without a considerable amount of inter-Service wrangling. On the following day the first Air Council was formed, with Lord Rothermere as the first Secretary of State for Air. The Chief of the Air Staff was Major General Sir Hugh Trenchard, who was succeeded as General Officer Commanding the Royal Flying Corps in France by Major General J. M. Salmond on 18 January. The first moves had been made towards the creation of the Royal Air Force, the first independent force of its kind in the world.

This same period, the winter of 1917–18, also saw a reorganization of Britain’s air defences. The day of the large-scale Zeppelin raids on Britain was over, hampered by the weather and lack of navigational skills from the beginning, and finally crippled by the growing proficiency of the RFC’s night-fighter crews and the anti-aircraft defences. But from the summer of 1917 a much greater threat emerged with the beginning of sustained attacks on British targets by the Gotha bombers of Kagohl 3 (the unit’s designation being an abbreviation of Kampfgeschwader der Obersten Heeresleitung) of German High Command Bomber Wing.

Powered by a pair of 260 hp Mercedes DIVa liquid-cooled in-line engines, the Gotha GIV could carry a typical bomb load of six 110-lb bombs. Its maximum speed was about 85 mph, which even so was faster than some of the fighter aircraft sent up to intercept it, and its attack altitude of 16,000 feet made it a difficult target, unless defensive fighters had ample warning of its approach. The first attack on the British mainland, mounted by twenty-three Gothas in daylight on 25 May 1917, killed 95 civilians and injured 195 in Folkestone. More than seventy home defence aircraft were sent up to intercept, but the only ones to make contact were flown by two ferry pilots. Several Gothas were destroyed in subsequent raids, but these mostly fell to anti-aircraft fire or failed to regain their base because of adverse weather. The few home defence aircraft that did get close enough to intercept were usually beaten off by the Gotha’s substantial defensive armament of three Spandau machine-guns.

In September 1917 the Gothas switched to night attacks, and they were now joined by an even more formidable bomber: the Zeppelin (Staaken) R Type, known as the Riesenflugzeug (giant aircraft). This monster was capable of carrying a 2,200-lb bomb at 14,000 feet at 80 mph under the power of its four 260 hp Mercedes engines; moreover it was defended by five machine-guns, which made it a much tougher target than the Gotha. Only a small number of R Types were built, but they presented an immense threat to British targets. To meet this threat, the War Office implemented a new defence scheme whereby anti-aircraft guns and patrolling aircraft were allocated separate operating zones. In addition, balloons trailing steel cable ‘curtains’ floated in barriers up to 8,000 feet, theoretically forcing any attacking aircraft to fly above that height to a level where fighters would be patrolling.

The first German bombing raid of 1918 was mounted on the night of 28/29 January, when thirteen Gothas and two Giants were despatched to attack London. In the event seven Gothas and one Giant succeeded in doing so, killing 67 civilians, injuring another 166, and causing damage of nearly £190,000. The raid was thwarted to some degree by fog, as far as the Gothas were concerned, while one of the Giants had engine trouble and was forced to turn back, having jettisoned its bombs into the sea off Ostende.

Crossing the English coast at intervals from 8.00 pm between Harwich and the North Foreland, three Gothas bombed London and the remaining four attacked Ramsgate, Margate, Sheerness and Sandwich. The Giant also reached London just after midnight, and one of its two 660-lb bombs caused the worst single bombing incident of the war when it hit the Odhams Press building in Long Acre, killing 38 people and injuring 85.

One of the Gothas involved in the London attack, crewed by Lieutenant Friedrich von Thomsen (navigator and commander) and Sergeants Karl Ziegler (pilot) and Walther Heiden, dropped its bombs on Hampstead at 9.45 pm and was then tracked by searchlights as it flew over north-east London. The beams attracted the attention of two patrolling Sopwith Camel pilots of No 44 Squadron from Hainault – Captain George Hackwill and Lieutenant Charles Banks – who at once gave chase and independently picked up the glow from the Gotha’s exhausts as it passed over Romford at 10,000 feet. Banks was flying a Camel with an unconventional armament; in addition to its normal pair of Vickers guns it also carried a Lewis, mounted on the upper wing centre section and using the new RTS ammunition. Designed by Richard Threlfall and Son, this combined explosive and incendiary qualities.

It was Banks who attacked first, closing from the left to about thirty yards beneath the Gotha and opening fire with all three guns. Hackwill meanwhile closed in from the right and also opened fire, effectively boxing in the German bomber and presenting an impossible situation to its gunner, whose field of fire was restricted. After ten minutes or so the Gotha caught fire and dived into the ground near Wickford, where it exploded. It would almost certainly have crashed anyway, even if it had not caught fire, for a subsequent examination of the crew’s bodies revealed that the pilot had been shot through the neck. Hackwill and Banks were each awarded the Military Cross for their exploit.

Other Gothas were also attacked that night, briefly and without result, by pilots of Nos 39, 50, 61 and 78 Squadrons RFC, and by a Sopwith 1½-Strutter of the RNAS from Dover.

An hour after the last Gotha had cleared the coast, the Riesenflugzeug was over Sudbury, having made landfall over Hollesley Bay, east of Ipswich, and was droning towards London via a somewhat tortuous route. By this time, at least forty-four fighters were searching for it. It was sighted by two of them, from an unidentified squadron, not long after crossing the coast, but they lost contact with it and it was next sighted by the crew of a No 39 Squadron Bristol Fighter at about 11.00 pm near Harlow. The pilot of the Bristol, Lieutenant John Goodyear, positioned himself behind the Giant and fired a long burst from his Vickers, but was then hurled aside by the slipstream; this Giant, an R.12, was fitted with six coupled engines driving three propellers, and the wash they created was enormous.

He tried again, and the same thing happened. On the third attempt, with the Bristol now running through heavy defensive fire, he tried to position underneath the Giant so that his gunner, 1st Air Mechanic W. T. Merchant, could bring fire from his Lewis gun to bear. At that moment a burst of fire from one of the German gunners shattered the Bristol’s petrol tank and wounded Merchant slightly in the arm. A few moments later the engine stopped and Goodyear glided down to make a faultless engine-off landing at North Weald, whose flarepath he had seen in the distance.

Shortly after it had released its bombs over London, the Giant was picked up east of Woolwich by a Sopwith Camel of No 44 Squadron flown by Lieutenant Bob Hall, a South African. Hall followed it as far as Foulness, cursing in helpless frustration all the way because he could not get his guns to work. The Giant got clean away.

The anti-aircraft barrage scored one success that night, but unfortunately its victim was a Camel of No 78 Squadron flown by 2nd Lieutenant Idris Davies, whose engine was stopped by a near shell burst at 11,000 feet over Woolwich. Davies tried to glide back to Sutton’s Farm, but he hit telegraph wires near the Hornchurch signal box and was catapulted out of the cockpit. He fell between the railway lines, amazingly without injury, but the Camel was a complete loss. Forty minutes later Davies was sitting in another Camel, ready to take off if need be. Mostly, the anti-aircraft gunners co-operated very well with the RFC, and held their fire when friendly fighters were known to be overhead.

The following night witnessed the most remarkable night battle of the First World War, when three Giants out of four despatched attacked southern England. The fourth, having developed engine trouble over the Channel, bombed fortifications near Gravelines before returning to its base, while the others crossed the English coast between Southend and The Naze. Of these, one, the R.26, developed engine trouble soon after crossing the coast and began losing height, so its crew jettisoned the bomb load and limped back across the Channel on two engines, eventually landing at Ostende.

A second Giant, the R.39, came inland via the Blackwater estuary just after 10.00 pm, and ten minutes later it was sighted by Captain Arthur Dennis of No 37 Squadron, who was flying a BE12b. The latter, developed from the older BE2c, had enjoyed some success in the night-fighting role, one of No 37 Squadron’s aircraft having shot down Zeppelin L48 in June 1917. It was armed with a single Lewis gun, mounted on the port side of the cockpit and synchronized to fire through the propeller. Dennis opened fire from close range, braving fire from two of the Giant’s machine-guns, and scored hits on the bomber’s fuselage before drawing off to change his ammunition drum. On the second approach, however, he was buffeted by the Giant’s slipstream, and on recovery found that he had lost contact with the target.

The R.39 approached London from the north-west at 11,000 feet and was next sighted by Bob Hall of No 44 Squadron, who pursued it until it became lost in the haze near Roehampton. Once again, Hall’s guns gave trouble and he had no opportunity to open fire. Meanwhile, the Giant had dropped its bombs on residential areas between Acton and Richmond Park, the crew having apparently mistaken Hammersmith Bridge for Tower Bridge, which was several miles to the east. South of the Thames, the R.39 was attacked briefly and with no visible result by Captain F. L. Luxmoore of No 78 Squadron, flying a Sopwith Camel. He fired fifty rounds on his first pass, but as he made a second firing run one of his bullets struck the Camel’s propeller and the brilliant tracer element flew back into his face, temporarily blinding him. By the time his night vision was restored, the bomber had vanished.

Shortly after this the R.39, now down to 9,500 feet and travelling very fast, was located by Captain G. H. Hackwill of No 44 Squadron, who was also flying a Camel. Hackwill gave chase and fired 600 rounds from long range before shortage of fuel compelled him to break off. The Giant was last seen as it crossed the coast near Hythe by 2nd Lieutenants F. V. Bryant and V. H. Newton, the crew of an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 of No 50 Squadron. They too gave chase, but lost the bomber in haze.

The third Giant, the R.25, crossed the coast near Foulness at 10.50 pm and was almost immediately attacked by 2nd Lieutenant F. R. Kitton of No 37 Squadron, flying a BE2e. Diving his aircraft at a shuddering 100 mph, he got under the Giant’s tail and fired a complete drum of ammunition at it, observing several hits, but lost the bomber while he was busy rearming. The R.25 was next attacked by Bob Hall of No 44 Squadron at 11.15 pm over Benfleet, but his guns kept on jamming as he pursued it. He was joined by 2nd Lieutenant H. A. Edwardes, also of No 44 Squadron, who fired three long bursts before his guns also jammed.

By this time the R.25 was taking violent evasive action. The battle had now attracted three more Camels, all from No 44 Squadron; the first on the scene was 2nd Lieutenant T. M. O’Neill, who fired 300 rounds before his guns jammed too. Next came the squadron commander, Major Murlis Green, who was flying a Camel equipped with two Lewis guns using RTS ammunition. He had already made one run, only to break away when he almost flew into O’Neill’s fire. Now he closed in again to be greeted by the full attention of the Giant’s rear gunner. Undeterred, he fired three-quarters of a drum at the bomber before suffering a stoppage which he was unable to clear. As his second Lewis also refused to function, he had no choice but to return to base to have the trouble put right.

The R.25 was now in trouble. The Camels’ fire had put one of its engines out of action and some of its instruments had also been smashed. Although unable to maintain height with a full bomb load, and with their speed down to about 60 mph, the crew decided to press on to London. The Giant’s bombs fell in open ground near Wanstead. Up to this point the R.25 had been harried by Bob Hall, who was able to fire only five rounds before each stoppage; he now lost his target, but encountered the R.39 a few miles to the west.

The R.25 scraped home to Ostende, having survived successive attacks by five fighters. They had collectively fired over 800 rounds at her, and after landing she was found to have taken no fewer than 88 hits. Had the fighters not suffered continual gun stoppages, there seems little doubt that they would have brought down the bomber. However, there were other factors in their failure to do so; analysing the action later, the Camel pilots of No 44 Squadron realized that the Giant’s sheer size had led them to believe that they had been firing from a much closer range than was actually the case. Instead of closing to within 50 yards, as they had thought at the time, they must have been anything up to 250 yards away.