1st Cruiser squadron at Jutland

Battleship Thüringen fixes Black Prince in her searchlights in Willy Stower’s painting.

Claus Bergen’s take on the end of Black Prince.

The 1st Cruiser squadron on the eve of the battle of Jutland had remained unaltered since November 1915 when it had comprised the four armoured cruisers, Warrior, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and the Defence. Three of the squadrons names would become synonymous with the date, 31st May 1916 and the battle they fought on that day. When the guns fell silent and the ships started to returned home on the 1st June, the 1st CS would all but cease to have existed. The carnage heaped upon that squadron would see it disbanded until July 1917 and the arrival of ‘Fishers Follies’ the Courageous, Glorious and Furious. But thats a chapter outside our tale.

At the Battle of Jutland the obsolete ships of the 1st CS were deployed to form a screen to the front right beam of the Grand Fleet Battle Squadrons. As the two dreadnought fleets first came into contact on that Wednesday afternoon, the ships of the 1st CS lay in the waters directly between them. Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot ordered that his ships close up, with the Defence and Warrior moving closer to each other, while the Duke of Edinburgh was beginning to lag a short distance behind them. The Black Prince, for reasons unknown, slips here from the battles accounts, and we are only permitted an occassional fleeting glimps of her in the days recollections by others. With her loss we are deprived of both the ships log books and more tragically, her crews recollections.

Arbuthnot pointed his command towards the sound of the guns and on a direct course for the German light Cruiser Wiesbaden. The manoeuvre was also to place the four ships on a collision course with the oncoming Beatty and his the Battlecruiser Force. At around this time, 17:42, the Black Prince lost contact with the rest of her Squadron as it came into contact with the German forces. At 17:47 the two leading ships of the squadron, the flagship, Defence, and Warrior, having sighted the German II Scouting Group exchanged fire with them. With their 9.2″ shells falling short, the two cruiser’s turned to port in pursuit of their targets, cutting across the front of the battlecruiser HMS Lion, just as the fleet was deploying into line, ready for facing Scheer’s battle squadrons. To avoid a collision Beatty’s ships swung sharply away to avoid the armoured cruisers. Beatty’s Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield from on board Lion recalled “As a result of Arbuthnot’s orders, the armoured cruisers cut right across the battlecruisers just as the Grand Fleet began to deploy into its battle line. This manoeuvre could have caused an absolutely disastrous collision. At that exciting moment I saw the 1st CS leading from port to starboard across my bows. It was clear that unless I altered course drastically I should collide with one of his ships, so I jammed the Lion’s helm over and swung her under the stern of their second cruiser, which only cleared us by a cable’s length. By forcing the Battlecruiser Squadron off its course in the low visibility, which was then only five miles, Arbuthnot caused us to lose sight of the enemy fleet and he himself took the place of the battlecruisers as their targets.”

Boy 1st Class John Davies from on board the Duke of Edinburgh recorded “To tell the truth I had been brought up to believe that the British Navy was untouchable in warfare, I was expecting the German ships to go down one after another. So that when our Squadron, with the Grand Fleet, arrived at the scene of action, I was surprised to see some of our ships (Beatty’s battlecruisers) burning and out of control, sinking and helpless I was not frightened, but surprised to discover that the Germans had men and ships that were as good, maybe better, than ours. Our Squadron steamed on. Three heavy cruisers, the Black Prince had fallen out, we were firing our 9.2″s to starboard where the enemy were. Then our Admiral, Robert Arbuthnot, made the signal for the Squadron to turn into the enemy”.

Arbuthnot’s manoeuvre drew the German battlecruiser fire down onto his ships. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis, one of the Duke’s Royal Marines wasn’t surprise at his admiral orders, “Admiral Arbuthnot had made it abundantly clear in a series of addresses to the ships’ companies of the vessels under his command, that when he encountered the enemy he would close to the rather meagre range of our guns and engage remorselessly. In the action he put his precepts into practice, but the old ships of the 1st CS were no match for the German battlecruisers” The Defence and Warrior while cutting across the battlecruisers bows had begun to pour their 9.2-inch shells into the stationary Wiesbaden, which had only just survived an assault by the British destroyers. As the two armoured cruisers remorselessly pounder their German victim, the smoke of their 9.2″s drifted across the battlefield obscuring the German fleet from the Grand Fleet. We don’t know if Arbuthnot was aware of the consequences of his action. One modern historian describes him as “in a colloquial if not a clinical sense, insane”. Maybe he was trying to regain his rightful position within the fleets deployment, or maybe having the battered cruiser within his sights, he as as a dog with a bone. We don’t know and we can never know now. As the Admiral manoeuvred his ships, the Duke of Edinburgh was unable to follow the first two ships of the squadron and she turned to port (northeast). Duke of Edinburgh then to spotted the disabled Wiesbaden at 18:08 and the Duke’s Gunnery Officer on the day Lieutenant-Commander (G) J. K. B. Birch directed his guns on the German cruiser, firing twenty rounds at her. At around 18:30 the Duke had steamed to a position off the starboard bow of King George V, the leading ship of the 2nd Battle Squadron, where her funnel smoke was to obscured the German ships from the leading dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

If the Grand Fleet’s view of their German opponents was limited by the Warrior and Defence’s smoke, the German gunnery officers had a fine view of Arbuthnot’s two ships. Commander Günther Paschen on board the Lützow, noted how ” From left to right there appears in the field of the periscope, a ship, improbably large and close. At the first glance I recognise an old English armoured cruiser and give the necessary orders. My arm is clutched, “Don’t fire, that is the Rostock!” But I can see the turrets fore and aft. “Action! Armoured Cruiser. Four funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Range 76hm. Salvo!” Five salvoes rapidly follow, of which three straddled; then there was repeated the now familiar sight of a ship blowing up”. Derfflinger following in the Lutzow’s wake didn’t even have time to train her guns and fire on the Defence before she exploded. In an instant, at 18:20, Arbuthnot and his men were gone.

Now the Warrior was alone and the Germans switched their attention as she followed in the wake of her lost flag ship. Lieutenant Patrick Lawder, from on board the 4th BS Benbow wrote “I stopped to have another look and saw one of our four funnelled cruisers being heavily shelled. Splashes were all round her and one salvo straddled her quarterdeck, with one or two shots this side. At the same time, as the splashes rose a tall column of smoke, 200 to 300 feet high, rose from her quarterdeck, the smoke being lit up by the flame inside it in a very pretty way. She went on, however, and immediately afterwards was again straddled, but I didn’t notice any hits. There was a good deal of smoke about and I didn’t see what damage had been done by the explosion”

As the two ships from her squadron suffered, the Duke of Edinburgh was now a considerable distance behind the Defence and Warrior. Able Seaman Ewart Eades, a spare sight setter on ‘Y’ Turret noted how, “Our Gunlayer, Petty Officer Gunners Mate Rawles, said that the lens of the gunlayer telescope was getting fogged up with the spray and cordite smoke. I was sent out with some cloth to see if I could wipe the telescope lens from the top of the turret. Now I had a desire to see what was happening being young and without nerves or fear. However I looked and found that it seemed to me that we were between the Grand Fleet and German Fleet. Shells were going over us both ways. I saw that the Defence went up in flames and then the Warrior took a broadside and dropped out of line. I never did make the top of the turret for it seemed that the helm was put hard over. I was nearly decanted into the sea”. As the Duke swung away to extract herself from the fate of the Defence, her smoke added to the already reduced visibility through which the Grand Fleet was trying to peer.

The Duke manoeuvred to survive, having like her sisters blundered into the German fleet’s big guns, she watched as a torpedo attack undertaken by the German destroyers on Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers failed. But it did force the Duke of Edinburgh to evade one torpedo at 18:47. The Duke reported a submarine sighting at 19:01, although no German submarines were operating in the area. She was to make a second erroneous submarine contact between 19:45 and 20:15.

But what of the fourth cruiser of the squadron, the Black Prince? There were to be no positive sightings of her after 17:42 and the 1st CS initial contact with the enemy. But a wireless signal from her was received at 20:45, reporting a submarine sighting. During the night of 31st May–1st June, the British destroyer Spitfire, having been badly damaged in a collision with the German dreadnought Nassau, sighted what seemed to be a German battlecruiser, with the two widely spaced funnels typical of the German designs. The sighted “battlecruiser” was described as being “…a mass of fire from foremast to mainmast, on deck and between decks. Flames were issuing out of her from every corner.” The “battlecruiser” exploded at around midnight and it was later believed that the burning ship may have been Black Prince, with her two midships funnels having collapsed or been shot away.

The German account of the ship’s sinking describes how the Black Prince briefly engaged the German dreadnought Rheinland at about 23:35 GMT, scoring two hits with her 6-inch guns. She was by now separated from the British fleet, and Black Prince approached the German lines at around midnight. On sighting the German capital ships, she made to turn away, but it was already to late. The German dreadnought Thüringen illuminated Black Prince with her searchlights and then opened fire. Up to at least five other German ships, including the Nassau, Ostfriesland, and the fleet flagship, Friedrich der Grosse, joined in the slaughter. Black Prince replied to the German main calibre shells with her 9.2″ but her efforts were ineffective. Most of the attacking German dreadnoughts were within between 750 and 1,500 yards (690 and 1,370 m) of the lone cruiser, all but point-blank range for naval gunnery. The Black Prince was struck by at least twelve heavy shells and several smaller calibre, sending her to the sea bed within 15 minutes of the first German salvo. The German Official Naval History’s describes her end, “She presented a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle as she drifted down the line blazing furiously until, after several minor detonations, she disappeared below the surface with whole of her crew in one tremendous explosion”. Of the 857 men on board that day, none were to survive and all were to find a grave in the cold north seas depths.

Having learnt of the loss of the Black Prince and the Warrior it was assumed by many that the Duke of Edinburgh, the only surviving ship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron would have been heavily mauled by the German fleet. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis serving on board the Duke of Edinburgh recalled afterwards how “by the time we arrived in the Flow it was common knowledge that three out of the four ships of our Squadron had gone down. It was to be expected, therefore, that the Duke of Edinburgh had certainly shared in the casualties, details of which we were asked to report by signal. The reply was, “One case of Rubella.” This was a mild form of fever contracted by a musician in the transmitting station. Compared with our consorts we certainly got off very lightly. Those that had survived felt guilt. Able Seaman Arthur Ford had missed the battle, as he had been sent on a gunnery course five days before it. When he learnt that his ship, the Black Prince, had been sunk with all “hands” he felt guilty. “My first thoughts were that I’d dodged the column and I ought to have gone with them. I did. I don’t know why but I did. I thought, “Why should I escape when all the others went west?” That’s the feeling I had for some time. “What a horrible end I’ve missed…” Imagine the different crews at their gun stations, I would know a lot of the men and what guns they were on. They were so exposed, the six inch guns were on deck with no shelter of any description, totally in the open. The guns had been brought up from the lower deck to the upper deck because they couldn’t fire them in rough weather in that type of ship. Can you imagine being half a mile away from the German High Seas Fleet with their 12″ guns. It would just blow them clean out of the water a broadside. Oh, it must have been a shocking, nobody able to do a thing, I doubt if they fired a shot hardly. But of course these things when you’re young these thoughts don’t last to long”.

The Duke of Edinburgh was to be the lone ship of the 1st CS to survive the battle, and was detached on the 1st to search for crippled ship’s or survivors. None of which she was to find. She returned to Cromarty in the afternoon of the 3rd June, where on the 5th of June, in Jellicoe’s post battle reorganization of his fleet, she was attached to the 2nd CS which comprised of the Minotaur (Flag), Cochrane, Shannon, Achilles, Donegal.


The Führer’s Squadron

Adolf Hitler with Heinkel He-111 P-2 [CA+NA]

13 March 1943. An airfield set amongst dense forest just outside the Ukrainian city of Smolensk. Hitler and his entourage walked towards two huge Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor aircraft belonging to the Führer transport squadron. A young army officer, Oberleutnant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, walked slightly behind the large party of senior officers headed for Hitler’s plane, carrying a medium-sized wooden box in his arms. As the Führer climbed a short ladder into the Condor followed by his senior staff members, Generalmajor Henning von Treskow reminded Oberstleutnant Heinz Brandt, who would be travelling with the Führer, to take the parcel. Unnoticed, Schlabrendorff had opened the top, crushed a short metal tube with a pair of pliers, resealed the package and then stepped forward smartly and handed it to Brandt. Inside were what appeared at first glance to be two bottles of French cognac. Treskow inveigled Brandt into taking the liquor to Germany for him as payment for a bet lost to Generalmajor Helmut Stieff, Chief of Organisation at Army High Command. Brandt was more than happy to oblige and such behaviour was not unusual among the senior military officers who worked around the Führer.

As the two Condors powered down the grass landing strip and headed off into the wide blue sky towards Germany Treskow and Schlabrendorff exchanged a knowing look. In thirty minutes Hitler would be dead and the plan to take back Germany from the Nazis would swing into action.

Due to the size of Hitler’s empire, the most efficient way to get around it was by plane. As with so many aspects of Hitler’s leadership style and security arrangements, he set a standard by using aeroplanes in an era when air travel was still a novelty. Hitler was the first modern politician to travel by aircraft, beginning during his election campaigning in the 1920s and 1930s. Once he became a war leader he utilised a fleet of aircraft to move speedily between his various headquarters, much like modern presidents and generals today. The speed of the modern battlefield dictated that if he wished to exercise effective command and control, and Hitler became increasingly ‘hands on’ as the war progressed much to his generals’ indignation and frustration, then air travel was really the only way he could do this. But air travel is intrinsically dangerous, particularly during wartime, so extreme precautions were taken by the Germans to ensure that Hitler travelled not only in comfort, but also in safety, including some very novel emergency equipment designed to preserve the Führer’s life if his aircraft was ever fatally damaged.

Hitler first flew to a war front during the Polish campaign in September 1939. Two modified Junkers Ju 52/3m transport planes, the tri-motor corrugated metal workhorses of the German armed forces, were used to fly Hitler and his military entourage to a recently captured Polish airfield, closely escorted by several Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes. Following a short meeting at an army headquarters at the front Hitler was flown back to Berlin by his personal pilot and friend, Hans Baur.

Baur, who was born in Ampfing, Bavaria in 1897, had transferred to the flying service in 1915 as an artillery spotter. By 1918 he had claimed six aerial victories, plus three probables, and had been awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for bravery. After the war Baur worked as a courier pilot and was one of the first six pilots employed by the fledgling German national carrier Lufthansa. In 1926 he pioneered Lufthansa’s new ‘Alpine Route’ between Munich, Milan and Rome, one of his passengers being Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria. That same year Baur joined the Nazi Party and later came to Hitler’s attention. He first flew Hitler during the 1932 elections. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he acquired a Junkers Ju 52/3m that he named ‘Immelmann II’ in honour of a famous First World War German fighter ace. Baur was selected to be the Führer’s principal pilot. At this time, because of the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles, the Luftwaffe did not exist, so in order to give Baur some authority and power Hitler had him appointed an SS-Standartenführer. Because of this, Hitler’s personal pilots were never Luftwaffe officers, always SS.

After the old Reich President Paul von Hindenburg died in 1934 Hitler was able to absorb the posts of president and chancellor into one new office, becoming ‘Führer’. He also reorganized the government and, with Lufthansa’s help, acquired a further Ju 52/3m, which he christened ‘Richthofen’ after the Red Baron. In 1935 ‘Immelmann II’ was replaced by ‘Buddecke’ and ‘Richthofen’ was renamed ‘Immelmann II’. Hitler used his new powers to create the Regirungsstaffel (Government Squadron) with Baur as its commander headquartered at Berlin’s vast Tempelhof Airport.

The new Government Squadron was quickly expanded to include eight Ju 52/3ms, each capable of carrying seventeen passengers in relative comfort. These aircraft were to be used to ferry around Hitler, his senior inner circle of ministers and the all-important army generals. Some leaders were of such importance that they were assigned their own personal pilots, all of the flyers being former Lufthansa captains. Baur’s second-in-command and co-pilot on Hitler’s aircraft was Georg Betz. Deputy-Führer Rudolf Hess was assigned Kurt Schuhmann. Propaganda Minister Dr Goebbels’ pilot was Max von Müller, while Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, professional head of the German Navy, was assigned Peter Strasser. An aristocrat, Count Schilly, flew the two chiefs of the army general staff, Werner Frengel and Walther von Brauchitsch.

Baur soon became one of Hitler’s court favourites. Hitler knew how to extract personal loyalty from his immediate subordinates and Baur was no exception. To celebrate Baur’s fortieth birthday in 1937 Hitler hosted a lavish dinner in his honour at the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. He also presented him with a brand new Mercedes car as a present. It is small wonder that so many of Hitler’s subordinates stayed close to the Führer until the regime’s very bitter end.

In September 1939 Hitler ordered the government squadron renamed. It would now be called Die Fliegerstaffel des Führers (F.d.F), becoming in effect Hitler’s private squadron.

Hitler visited Poland for a second time by air shortly after the invasion began, this time the first part of the journey completed aboard the Führersonderzug, his personal train. Baur picked him up in a Ju 52 and flew the Führer along the front lines so that he could see his panzers racing into action.

On 5 October 1939 Hitler first flew in the aircraft that was to become his primary means of aerial transport during the war – the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. Baur had convinced Hitler that the Condor was a superior aircraft over the older Ju 52, as well as being much safer. Hitler, who often consulted Baur on matters aerial, including Luftwaffe strategy, was easily won over by his trusted subordinate. Originally proposed to Lufthansa as a transatlantic airliner by Kurt Tank of Focke-Wulf, the aircraft entered service in 1937. In Luftwaffe service the Condor, named after the famous Andean bird because of its huge wing-span, was utilized as a transport, maritime reconnaissance aircraft and bomber. In the transport configuration a Condor could carry thirty fully-armed troops. With a length of 23.45m and a wingspan of 32.85m, the Condor had a maximum speed of 360km/h at 4,800m with a service ceiling of 6,000m. The aircraft’s range was an impressive 3,560km.

As well as Hitler, some of the Reich’s more important military commanders were assigned personal aircraft, but not at this stage the new Condor. These aircraft were mostly converted Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 52/3m, Siebel Fh 104A or the small Fieseler Fi 156 Storch spotter plane.

In 1939 Baur flew Hitler from Berlin to recently conquered Warsaw aboard Fw 200A-O Condor ‘Grenzmark’ for a special victory parade through the devastated Polish capital. Hitler was by now sold on the Condor and steps were taken to formally integrate more of the aircraft into the F.d.F. Baur also arranged for several Ju 52/3m transports to be transferred from their civilian operators to the Luftwaffe where two were to join Hitler’s private squadron as back-up aircraft. As well as a few smaller liaison planes, Baur also had some Luftwaffe pilots and ground crew transferred into his squadron in addition to ground crew from the German national airline Lufthansa. Baur never joined Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe, remaining an SS officer throughout the war.

In Berlin on 10 November 1939 Hitler flew for the first time in his new personal transport aircraft – an Fw 200A-0 named ‘Immelmann III’, taking off from Templehof Airport. The day before, Hitler had narrowly avoided being killed by a bomb planted by a carpenter called Georg Elser inside the Burgerbraukeller beer hall in Munich.

By 1942 Baur had requested three armed Condor aircraft for the F.d.F. At the Wolf’s Lair at Rastenburg, Hitler’s main Eastern Front HQ, the runway had been strengthened and also lengthened to accommodate these larger aircraft. The first aircraft delivered was an Fw 200C-3/U9 marked KEzIX. This plane was not intended as the Führer’s personal transport – instead it would act as a passenger plane for ferrying around Hitler’s large retinue of staff when visiting the front. It was armed with a 13mm MG131 machine gun in an upper turret just behind the cockpit and a 7.9mm MG15 firing from a raised dorsal position aft of the main door. Another MG15 was mounted in the nose. Under its fuselage was a long gondola with a machine gun position. The other two aircraft were also delivered at this point. Of course, these weapons would be a last resort, for it was never expected that F.d.F. should have to fight it out with enemy fighters. When they were airborne these large transports were well protected by a strong Luftwaffe fighter escort.

Hitler’s personal plane, the “Führermachine”, was an Fw 200C-4/U1 (CEzIB). It had the same comfortable layout as the older ‘Immelmann III’. Behind the cockpit was an equipment compartment containing the flight engineer’s panel and positions for the radio operator and navigator. From here two of the gun positions could also be accessed. The next small compartment housed equipment, lubricants and fuel tanks, with a small toilet on the starboard side. Behind this, accessed through a door, was Hitler’s specially insulated cabin containing an elaborate ‘parachute seat’ on the right facing forward, with a wooden table in front.

According to Baur the Führer’s seat was fitted with a parachute harness. This harness was installed in the back of the seat cushions. The backrest was attached above by two buttons in the chair, and this had to be pulled forward to reach the stowed parachute. In an emergency Hitler would have donned the parachute harness in the back of the seat and pulled hard on a red lever on the wall. This would have opened a spring loaded escape hatch in the floor of the aircraft in front of him. The seat back cushion and seat bottom cushion remained attached to the jumper with the parachute harness. Hitler would then have climbed through the hatch and baled out. Once free of the aircraft he would have manually released his parachute and floated down to safety. However, the likelihood of a middle aged and increasingly infirm man managing this in an emergency does seem a little farfetched. Normal parachutes were stored in the cabin for Hitler’s other passengers who would have presumably baled out through the main door or through one of the gun positions. Needless to say, none of this was ever put to the test in reality, though a Luftwaffe volunteer made a successful test of Hitler’s parachute seat, proving the theory at least. All parachutes were checked at least once a month.

On the left side of the cabin were four seats, two side by side. The cabin was armoured against enemy machine gun bullets, cannon shells and anti-aircraft bursts. The walls, floor and ceiling were lined with 12mm thick armour plate and the windows were 50mm thick bulletproof glass.

The crew consisted of pilot Baur, co-pilot Betz, a flight engineer (who also doubled as a gunner), navigator/radio operator (also working as a gunner if required), and a steward. Moving aft beyond Hitler’s cabin was another passenger cabin that was fitted with six seats, two on the right facing each other, and four on the left that also faced one another. Maximum passenger capacity on Hitler’s personal aircraft was thirteen.

In both cabins the windows had curtains for privacy and to prevent sun glare and the interior was finished in highly polished wood so that it more closely resembled a railway carriage or a ship’s cabin than an aircraft. ‘The inside of Hitler’s Condor looked like a gent’s salon,’ recalled Hauptmann Alexander Stahlberg, who flew in the aircraft in his capacity as an aide to Generaloberst Erich von Manstein in mid-April 1942 from his headquarters in the Crimea to a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair. ‘The walls were wood-panelled and the furniture leather covered. China and cutlery were solid silver and bore the NSDAP insignia. A steward was on board and served meals and drinks as desired.’

At the rear of the plane was a small galley, located behind the rear gunner’s position. No cooking was permitted on Hitler’s plane; instead a specially insulated cabinet contained pre-heated meals that were similar to those found on today’s commercial airliners. Hot coffee and hot water for tea were also available, though not alcohol. Luggage and clothing was stored separately in an unheated cargo hold and for safety each passenger had an oxygen tank under his seat.

The third Condor acquired by Baur for the F.d.F. was an Fw 200C-4/U2 (CEzIC). This plane was used primarily for transporting staff and guests but Hitler did travel on this and KEzIX occasionally. CEzIC was fitted with fourteen seats in a single large panelled cabin, but lacked a special parachute seat for the Führer.

Because of the added weight of bulletproof windows and armour plating, CEzIB and CEzIC had a maximum ceiling of 5,800m, a top speed of 330 kph (though they cruised at 280 kph) and normally loaded could travel just over 3,200km without refuelling.

Before every trip that carried the Führer was very carefully managed. In particular, measures were taken to prevent the use of bombs onboard the plane. The best type of bomb to be successfully smuggled aboard Hitler’s plane would have been one fitted with a barometric fuse that detonated when the plane reached a certain altitude. This avoided the need for ticking parts in the bomb. To counter anyone trying something like this, before every trip Hitler’s aircraft was taken for a ten or fifteen-minute test flight, including up to cruising altitude. Of course, such measures were useless had anyone managed to smuggle a time bomb aboard Hitler’s plane.

The Condor also had a significant Achilles heel, a design fault that could have killed Hitler on several occasions. In June 1942 when his Condor landed at Michaeli near Wiborg in Finland so that Hitler could have a meeting with Finnish leader Field Marshal Mannerheim, Finnish ground crewmen were filmed running towards the plane’s landing gear armed with fire extinguishers. The problem was in the design of the brake actuating cams. When the brakes were used ‘forcefully’, such as in landing, they overcentred and locked slightly in the ‘on’ position, with the brake shoes dragging on the drums. This friction could cause the linings to catch fire on landing. The problem could also manifest itself during takeoff as well. If the plane was parked overnight with the brakes on, or if the brakes had not released cleanly on parking, they did not free up fully when taxiing and this would lead to the linings catching fire on takeoff. This could be lethal, and several Condors were lost in Luftwaffe service because of this small technical fault. The wheels retracted into bays that were adjacent to the wing fuel tanks, the last place one would want to have a fire.

Ju.290A-6 Unit: I/KG 200 This airplane was to be personal Hitler’s transport. But it was served with KG 200 and used for special operations. In April 1945 it flew to Barcelona with escaped Nazi leaders (piloted by Capt.Braun). Later it served with Spanish AF until 1956.

Air travel was dangerous, particularly during wartime, yet Hitler seemed to prefer the risks rather than using his train for most long-distance journeys. Hundreds or even thousands of railway workers, any one of whom could have been a potential assassin, would know about Hitler’s train and its route, whereas air travel and Hitler’s unpredictable changes in his plans better protected the Führer from plotters. But in flying he risked thunderstorms, burning wheels, foggy takeoffs and landings, soft ground, and, later in the war, enemy fighters and flak.

The plot that came very close to killing Hitler in the Ukraine in 1943 centered on the idea of destroying his Condor aircraft whilst it was in flight over the Soviet Union. It appeared that of all the methods of killing Hitler, a catastrophic high-altitude explosion was the surest. But it was not the first method that was discussed. Henning von Treskow’s plan was the result of several discussions that he had had with the hard core of anti-Hitler plotters who were centered around General-feldmarschall Gunther von Kluge and Army Group Centre headquarters at Vinnitsa and Smolensk in the Ukraine.

Kluge’s officers had carefully worked out three options to kill Hitler. The first idea was that an officer armed with a pistol would simply shoot Hitler dead during lunch when he next visited Army Group Centre headquarters. But the problem was that no officer could be found who was willing to do it. This was not only because it was clearly a suicide mission, but for a higher principle. It was not a question of courage, for all of the plotters were highly decorated combat soldiers, but a question of morality. These largely aristocratic Junkers could not countenance the idea of assassinating an unarmed man, particularly their commander-in-chief. They took the personal oath that they had sworn to Hitler very seriously, not because of the Führer as a man but because oath taking was part of their rigid code of honour. To break an oath was to impugn one’s personal and family honour. It was unthinkable.

Von Treskow admitted, probably realistically, that any putative assassin would in all likelihood freeze at the vital moment when face-to-face with his supreme commander. This was not without precedent, for the year before a young Luftwaffe officer, less hidebound by military tradition, had concealed himself in woods at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia planning to ambush Hitler during his morning walk accompanied by his pet Alsatian Blondi. When Hitler appeared the officer found that he could not move his arms. It may sound dramatic, but Hitler was more than just a man, he was a cult that loomed like a mental colossus over most of his subordinates. Few were immune from the invisible aura of power that surrounded the man. Junior officers, perhaps because they spent little time in close proximity to Hitler and never engaged him in ‘normal’ or relaxed conversation, unlike the field marshals and generals, could not view him simply as a man. To shoot Hitler face-to-face would require not only nerves of steel but also incredibly fast reactions and accurate shooting. Any hesitation during a heavily guarded lunch would result in the assassin being gunned down by Hitler’s RSD escort within seconds of raising a weapon. Waves of arrests and interrogations would then follow, potentially destroying the entire anti-Hitler resistance. Of course, success would also mean death, as the RSD bodyguards would kill the assailant even after he had shot Hitler.

Rittmeister Georg Baron von Boeselager, the highly decorated 28-year-old deputy commander of cavalry regiments in Army Group Centre suggested that he kill Hitler using an entire unit of soldiers. Boeselager, a deeply religious man, had come to believe that Hitler was the anti-Christ and that it was his sacred duty to rid the world of this evil man and save Germany from further destruction. He was prepared to break his oath to Hitler for the higher ideal of the Fatherland.

Boeselager formed a cavalry “honour guard” consisting largely of fellow anti-Hitler officers. His plan was to intercept Hitler’s fleet of cars as they drove from the airfield to the field HQ near Smolensk. The cavalry would then overwhelm and destroy Hitler’s FBB and RSD escort and kill the Führer. Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge stymied this plan, objecting to the idea of German soldiers fighting each other, even if the other side were SS. Kluge also believed that Hitler’s SS escort was too strong for Boeselager’s men to overcome, leading to failure, great loss of life and the exposure of the remaining plotters.

The British inadvertently made the third option possible. The Abwehr, German military intelligence whose head, Wilhelm Canaris, was sympathetic to the Resistance, had captured several British Plastic-C time bombs from SOE agents who had been dropped by parachute into France. Sympathetic Abwehr officers passed some of this material on to the anti-Hitler movement.

The bomb was ingenious, but also so simple as to be virtually foolproof. An acid fuse contained within a slim copper tube was inserted into a slab of plastic explosive. Using a pair of pliers the assassin simply crushed the fuse, releasing the acid inside which slowly ate away at a wire. When the wire snapped it released a spring-driven hammer that struck a small percussion cap, setting off the explosive charge. The bomb was silent as there were no parts to make a telltale ticking sound, and the chemical fuse did not give off any smell as it burned. Therefore, it was virtually undetectable. The length of fuse determined the time delay before detonation, and for the attack on Hitler’s aircraft Treskow selected a 30-minute fuse. All going well, Hitler’s aircraft would be destroyed somewhere over Minsk. The loss of the Condor so close to the front could have been attributed to Soviet fighters, giving the conspirators more justification in taking immediate control of the Reich in the event of the Führer’s sudden death.

Disguised as a parcel containing two bottles of cognac, Oberstleutnant Brandt unknowingly took Treskow’s bomb aboard Hitler’s Condor. He intended to hand the package to Generalmajor Stieff on arrival in Germany. Stieff, though sympathetic to the resistance, was not yet an active plotter. But he was Treskow’s friend, so sending him the cognac as payment for a lost bet looked perfectly normal. Ironically, Hitler disliked the 42-year-old Stieff greatly. A small man, Hitler called him a ‘poisonous little dwarf’. Unsurprisingly, in light of his commander-in-chief’s insults Stieff soon became more active in the plot to kill the Führer.

The 13 March 1943 should have been Hitler’s last day alive. Brandt handed the parcel to the plane’s steward, who placed it with the other luggage in the unheated cargo hold. This was in direct contravention of the accepted rules for loading Hitler’s aircraft. All servicing, repairs and loading of luggage at any airport could only be done in the presence of the flight engineer or another member of the crew, as well as in the presence of RSD guards. Brandt knew this full well, but as with many security procedures the people most likely to break them were those who lived within this restrictive arena day in, day out. Perhaps it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt.

As the two Condors taxied down the grass strip and lifted off into the clear blue sky Treskow and Schlabrendorff exchanged a look before settling into a radio truck to listen for news of the Führer’s demise. In thirty minutes, with Hitler dead, they would institute a takeover plan. General der Infanterie Friedrich Olbricht in Berlin would order the Replacement Army to seize the capital as well as Vienna and Munich.

The Replacement Army was a sprawling organisation which provided reinforcements and replacements to the field army. Its garrison units would be used to overcome any SS resistance to the army high command seizing control, though whether individual generals and their subordinates would obey the orders of Olbricht and the other plotters is open to question. Many army officers were devoted Nazis, and the Waffen-SS and Gestapo very strong. The plan was for a new anti-Nazi government to be placed in charge and the senior Nazis either arrested or shot. A negotiated peace could then be made with the Allies and the war ended before Germany was militarily defeated and occupied.

At the airfield outside Smolensk the expected news that Hitler’s plane had crashed did not arrive. Something had gone terribly awry. ‘Treskow and I,’ wrote Schlabrendorff, ‘judging from our own experiments, were convinced that the amount of explosive in the bomb would be sufficient to tear the entire plane apart, or at least to make a fatal crash inevitable.’ No word came for two agonizing hours. The two men could not understand what had happened – the plan and the equipment appeared to be foolproof.

Treskow was suddenly informed by phone that the Führer’s plane had landed safely at Rastenburg airfield. It was almost unbelievable. Schlabrendorff hurriedly took the next plane to Germany and retrieved the parcel before Brandt became aware of its true contents. When the bomb was examined it was found that it had actually worked perfectly. The acid had released the spring hammer and struck the percussion cap. But because of the intense cold inside the unheated cargo hold, the percussion cap had failed to detonate and the bomb had not exploded. Hitler had been saved from certain death once again by the tiniest of flaws, one conspirator commenting bitterly that he appeared to have a ‘guardian devil.’ If the parcel had been carried inside the heated passenger cabin everyone onboard the plane would have perished. The explosives were returned to storage until they could be used for another attempt to kill Hitler.

The plot to destroy Hitler’s aircraft was never discovered, and so the Führer continued to travel by air, oblivious of the potential dangers. But air travel was becoming risky for reasons other than the aristocratic plotters within the Wehrmacht. American B-17 Flying Fortresses had first bombed Berlin on 6 March 1944, followed by repeated American and British raids. When the promoted SS-Brigadeführer Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot, flew the Führer from Rastenburg to Salzburg in early March, so Hitler could visit the Berghof, he had to fully coordinate the flight plan with the Luftwaffe air control centre to make sure that they did not encounter Allied aircraft or German fighters and flak en route.

The same precautions were taken in June when Hitler received word of the Normandy landings whilst he was at the Berghof. Deciding to take battlefield command, Hitler was flown on 17 June from Salzburg to Metz and then driven in a heavily armed convoy of cars to his headquarters at Margival, near Soissons.

In early July 1944 Hitler, who had returned to Berchtesgaden, was flown to Rastenburg in order to coordinate efforts to stop the massive Soviet spring offensive that had filleted Army Group Centre. It was at the Wolf’s Lair on 20 July that the German resistance struck again, coming closest to killing Hitler.

Following the July Plot, the German war situation entered terminal decline. Hitler’s special transport squadron started to run short of spare parts for their planes. In the wake of the bomb at Rastenburg, security was so tight that even conducting routine maintenance on the flight’s aircraft became difficult. Hitler’s Condors were closely guarded twenty-four hours a day by the FBB and closely inspected for sabotage before every flight. The chances of smuggling a bomb aboard in a similar fashion to that at Smolensk in 1943 had decreased to virtually zero, as every item of luggage and cargo was minutely examined. The only possibility would have been someone wearing a suicide vest, and this was never considered, largely because the explosives and detonator could not be modified to be carried or let alone worn in such a way without attracting attention.

Due to the pressing war situation, most Nazi leaders had lost their personal aircraft, with the exception of Albert Speer and Heinrich Himmler. Speer, Minister for Armaments and War Production, needed to constantly visit factories, secret missile and aircraft projects and the regional Gauleiters, and could only do so efficiently by air. Himmler remained the second most powerful man in Germany, controlling the vast SS empire. Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, Head of the OKW, was permitted a Junkers Ju 52/3m BDzDH as the Reich’s senior military officer.

In September 1944 Hitler was flown from Rastenburg to bomb-damaged Berlin for an important conference, the planning for Operation ‘Watch on the Rhine’, more commonly known to history as The Battle of the Bulge. But at the same time the Wolf’s Lair was threatened, as the Soviet juggernaut continued its inexorable advance into East Prussia. Baur expected Soviet air attacks on the airfield at Rastenburg, and dispersed the F.d.F aircraft and supplies between the main airfield and a local airport. Knowing full well that an evacuation was inevitable, Baur obtained use of the large warehouse at an airfield in Pöcking, between Braunau and Passau in Bavaria, where he could relocate the F.d.F.12

In early December 1944 fifty personnel, spares, tools and engines were on their way to Pöcking by train when they were involved in a collision with another locomotive in western Poland. Seventeen members of the F.d.F were killed, its highest losses during the war.

Baur decided to disperse Hitler’s squadron around Berlin. Small detachments were sent to carefully camouflaged airfields at Schoenwalde, Rangsdorf, Rechlin and Finsterwalde. Realising that Hitler must shortly move to Berlin, Baur flew Condor TKzCV to an airfield near Berlin. This aircraft would be kept ready for immediate use by the Führer should he need to flee the capital. In the event, Hitler chose to die in Berlin, but the F.d.F. remained a vital component in the hectic last few weeks of the war.

October 1940: Autumn, Jabos And Blitz’s I

Danger UXB

As September 1940 gave way to October, the winds freshened and leaves on the trees started to turn brown as the autumn finally arrived. The noticeable change in the season also heralded the noticeable change in Reichsmarschall Goring’s temperament. Chastised by his Fuhrer over the frustration of the invasion plans, Goring vented his spleen on the Luftwaffe’s fighter units. As they had, in his considered opinion, manifestly failed to protect the vital bombers, they could now carry the bombs to England themselves. Accordingly, he had one third of the total available fighter strength converted to carry a 500lb bomb under the fuselage of a Messerschmitt 109 or three such bombs under the wings and fuselage of a paraZerstorer.

These Jabos (short for Jagdbombers, fighter-bombers) as they were now called, would fly as live-bait, escorted by a vast number of fighters, whose task it would be to annihilate any RAF fighters that tried to intercept them. If the Jabos got through, they were to drop their bombs on the troublesome English below, preferably on a decent target of opportunity; but failing such, anywhere. The German fighter pilots felt thoroughly dejected and angered by this order, and it was an order that came to mark the end of their esteem for Reichsmarschall Goring personally.

The autumn weather in England started cloudy, but it was still dry, still mild enough for the Jabos to reluctantly take up their role. Flying as high as they possibly could with their burden of bombs, the Jabos headed for England, escorted by their Kameraden of the Jager, but just as their own enthusiasm for this onerous task was half-hearted, the reaction of the defenders ultimately proved maddening to them.

Initially, as RDF couldn’t tell what type of enemy aircraft were coming in, Park had no choice but to send appropriate forces to meet this new threat, which of course, was exactly what the Germans wanted. But after a week of such activity, a specialist unit called 421 Flight was formed at RAF Gravesend, at the behest of no less a person than Winston Churchill. The Flight was formed on October 7th, from a nucleus of 66(F) Squadron’s pilots and was initially equipped with the Hurricane.

421 Flight’s job was to check up on inbound raids and identify the nature of the enemy aircraft involved. Given that 421 Flight’s primary role of spotters meant that they were ordered not to engage the enemy unless attacked themselves, it was soon decided that the faster Spitfire would be a more suitable aircraft for them to use.

Because RDF could “see” over much of Northern France, Gravesend’s position was ideal for 421 Flight’s purpose, as the singleton spotter could climb steeply as he flew south over Kent to take up his high-altitude position over the Channel. Once in position, he relayed the necessary information back to his controller by radio and sped back to Gravesend as the appropriate numbers of defending fighters were “scrambled”.

Once 421 Flight was established, Dowding and Park simply wouldn’t play the Germans’ game. Both men realised that the paraJabos were the last act of a desperate Reichsmarschall and could have little more than a nuisance value, so Park steadfastly refused to despatch the massive fighter formations that the Germans wanted him to, in order to deal with them. Park sent just enough of his own fighters to chase the dispirited paraJabo pilots away. More than anything else, it was the introduction of the paraJabo at the same time as the German day bombing raids diminished, which convinced Dowding and Park that the Battle of Britain was all but over.

But after ten days of their spotting operations, 421 Flight had lost four aircraft, shot down by German fighters. At such high altitudes, the two-stage supercharger of its DB601 engine gave the Messerschmitt 109 a distinct edge in performance over its British adversaries. From October 18th, 421 Flight’s spotters were despatched in pairs, one to spot whilst the other provided cover.

Meanwhile 66(F) Squadron, despite being in the thick of the fighting, hadn’t paraofficially lost a pilot since they’d moved to Gravesend, though Pilot Officer C. Bodie had a narrow squeak on 5th October. During combat with German fighters, his Spitfire suffered engine damage and also had most of its starboard wing physically torn to shreds by cannon shells. Three-quarters of his Spitfire’s starboard aileron was missing and the wingtip was hanging on by a thread, but Bodie somehow managed to gingerly coax his aircraft, with its unhappy Merlin and its disintegrating starboard mainplane, back to Gravesend; arriving quite literally on two-thirds of a wing and a prayer. To the astonishment of all those on the airfield who were anxiously watching his approach, he made a successful wheels-down landing, leaving his awestruck ground crew to wonder at how, paraexactly, the severely damaged fighter had stayed in the air at all in such a condition.

Despite such incredible luck as Pilot Officer Bodie’s, 66(F) Squadron now had their run of good fortune regarding pilot casualties ended. On 4th October, the day before Bodie’s miraculous return, Flight Lieutenant Kenneth McLeod Gillies, the Squadron’s popular ‘A’ Flight Commander, had been reported missing, following the successful interception of a Heinkel 111 bomber off the East coast. There was still no official news of him yet. On 8th October, Pilot Officer George Corbett, a Canadian, was shot down in combat over Eastchurch. Corbett was still in the cockpit of his Spitfire when it crashed and burned on Bayford Marshes, near Upchurch. The twenty-one year-old was German “Ace” Adolf Galland’s forty-third victim. Also lost that same day was Sergeant Pilot Rufus Ward. He too was shot down in combat with Messerschmitt 109’s and was killed when his Spitfire crashed at Borstal, near Rochester.

On the 11th, 421 Flight lost Sergeant Pilot Charles Ayling, formerly of 66(F) Squadron, when his Spitfire crashed at Newchurch following combat with enemy fighters over Hawkinge.

On the 17th, Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley, an outgoing, twenty-two year-old who was another of 66(F) Squadron’s Canadian pilots, was shot down and killed by another German “Ace”: JG51’s Major Werner Molders. Reilley’s Spitfire, R6800 LZN, crashed in flames at Crockham Hill, near Sevenoaks.

Of the other RAF casualties suffered as a result of the large high-altitude fighter sweeps that the Germans made over Kent at the time, some were not necessarily realised as being such. In particular, two that occurred on the 10th involved two fighters from different squadrons, 249 and 253 Squadrons respectively. The two aircraft crashed within minutes of each other in two totally separate though exactly similar, incidents.

In both cases, the pilots, 249’s Sergeant Pilot Edward Bayley and 253’s Sergeant Pilot H. Allgood, were seen by their squadron comrades to suddenly drop out of formation and head straight for the ground, for no apparent reason. Despite urgent radio calls, neither pilot responded, both aircraft diving ever more steeply and each seemingly bent on self-destruction. One of them, the Hurricane piloted by 249 Squadron’s Sergeant Bayley, made a lasting impression when, with its engine screaming, it slammed straight into the ground on Marshgate Farm, at Cooling, on the Hoo Peninsula, not far from “Shades House”.

At the time, both crashes were put down to Oxygen failure, which neatly explained the respective pilots’ failure to respond to their radio. If their Oxygen supply had failed at altitude, both pilots would have been rendered unconscious. The symptoms certainly seemed to fit.

However, Geoff Nutkins of the Shoreham Aircraft Museum told me that Bayley’s crash site was partially excavated a few years ago and one of the items recovered was the armour plate from behind the pilot’s seat. This plate bears a large hole, at head level, of the type and size that can usually be safely attributed to a 20mm cannon shell from a Messerschmitt 109, fired at close range. As we have already seen from Gerhard Schopfel’s example when he gave 501 Squadron such a black day on 18th August, the RAF’s rigid flying tactics, when cleverly exploited by an unseen “Lone Wolf”, could also lead to sudden losses like these.

At present, the front section of Sergeant Bayley’s Hurricane still lies deep in the marshland soil at Marshgate Farm, but if the hole in his recovered back armour is anything to go by, it is no wonder that Bayley didn’t respond to the radio calls from his squadron mates. It is extremely doubtful that the unsuspecting Bayley ever knew what hit him, but thanks to that partial excavation, we now have a much clearer idea of what probably happened to him. It is equally possible that the cause of Sergeant Allgood’s death may well have been strikingly similar in this respect also.

Of course, it wasn’t just enemy action that could cause losses. At 13:50 on 13th October, Pilot Officer J K Ross of 17 Squadron was forced to bale out of his stricken Hurricane, P3536, after being hit by the well intentioned, but sadly mistaken marksmen who were manning the Chatham Anti-Aircraft guns. Unfortunately for the hapless Ross, the gunners had added injury to his doubtlessly considerable insult, as he had been wounded. Coming down to earth on his parachute and no doubt in some pain, he watched his Hurricane as it crashed on the bank of the River Medway. Shortly after landing, Ross was taken to Gravesend Hospital, where he was admitted for treatment.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe’s night Blitz on London continued unabated. Night after night, the German bomber streams crossed the Channel to rain death and destruction on the population below. The Luftwaffe also started dropping parachute mines on London during this time. A fiendish development to say the least, it was simply a contact operated, two-ton sea mine, suspended from a parachute. It fell silently and unlike conventional bombs, it could not hope to be aimed at a specific target due to its tendency to drift as it descended; and of course, it contained enough explosive to sink a ship. It was purely a weapon of terror.

As well as regular bombs and the parachute mines, the Germans dropped tons of small incendiary bombs, filled with oil. “Firebomb Fritz” as these remarkably effective devices came to be known, caused widespread damage to the City of London and was probably the most effective device the Germans used. As they were delightfully cheap for the Germans to produce, the Luftwaffe obviously felt obliged to drop them on London by the thousand.

My late paternal grandfather, whom we always called “Diddy” (due to his being the shortest member of the family), was a serving London Fireman during this time. Now if there was one thing Diddy had always enjoyed, it was driving. Piloting a Dennis Fire Engine, bell ringing, through London’s blacked out, bomb-damaged streets on his way to yet another “shout” during the Blitz of 1940, suited him down to the ground. In fact, in later years he used to drive his Morris Oxford saloon car in much the same manner, never once using the clutch, as the Dennis Fire Engine of his day had what was commonly referred to as a “crash-change” gearbox. Diddy therefore opined that a clutch pedal was simply a luxury item, fitted solely for use by lazy drivers. It was a good job for him that his Morris cars all had a strong gearbox.

One story that he would often tell was of one particular night, shortly after the start of the Blitz, when his crew were called out to some blazing warehouses on the riverfront in his native Bermondsey. They’d arrived to find a Fireboat already on the scene in mid-river and a crew of the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) with their Taxi-towed pump, who seemed to be struggling to connect their hose to a Fire hydrant.

Diddy, by virtue of being the driver, was nominally in charge of his Fire Engine’s pumps once he’d got his crew to the scene. Diddy couldn’t understand why the AFS crew were having so much trouble trying to connect their hose to the hydrant, so he quickly went to see if he could help them, whilst the crew of his engine ran out their own hoses. It was then that he realised that at this early time, the AFS’ hoses though of the same diameter as the standard Fire Brigade hoses, had a coupling that was different and would therefore not fit the hydrant, an official oversight that he for one found “plain stupid”.

As the Thames was near high tide, he ordered the AFS crew to sling their feed hose into the river and use the water from there while he connected the feed hose from his engine, which he knew would fit, to the hydrant. The AFS crew got a marginal head start before Diddy opened up the pumps on his engine. As the AFS crew’s jet began gushing muddy river water at the blazing warehouses, Diddy’s hoses emitted nothing but an embarrassing splutter, and dribbled. The bombs had blasted the water main feeding the hydrant. Diddy duly shut his pumps down, disconnected the feed hose from the hydrant and threw it into the river alongside that of the AFS crew.

Using the Thames as a source of water had its drawbacks though, as Diddy and the AFS crew quickly discovered. The powerful pumps on Diddy’s engine could handle over 1, 100 Gallons of water per minute at full bore. It wasn’t long before the feed hoses became clogged with mud and debris from the Thames and once more, the pumps ran dry and the jets spluttered and died. The warehouses, with their timber floors and roof beams, burned to the ground, chiefly through a lack of water, as the determined efforts of the Fireboat were simply not enough to control the blaze. Dejectedly, the crews unblocked their hoses then packed up and left the scene.

Naturally, this event was the subject of much discussion back at the Fire Station. Word soon spread round the Central London Fire Stations that other crews had encountered the same problem, but there was a solution.

One crew from another Fire Station had come up with a novel but very effective idea for a filter by taking the waste paper basket from their Station office and tying it over the end of the feed hose prior to dropping it into the Thames. The basket in fact proved to be a remarkably efficient filter. Having sent word of this success round to the various other NFS London Fire Stations, it wasn’t long at all before there were no longer any waste paper baskets to be found in any of the various Fire Station offices. This measure proved so successful that proper basket weave filters were hurriedly produced and issued to London’s Fire crews and the AFS units, which was just as well, as there was no let up in sight in the Luftwaffe’s campaign of nocturnal arson.

October 1940: Autumn, Jabos And Blitz’s II

41 Squadron was airborne!

Another problem encountered by the citizens of London, usually the morning after a night of raids, was hand-painted signs that read “DANGER: UXB”. Such signs quickly became intensely familiar to the civilian population of Britain’s towns and cities. “UXB” was an abbreviation for an extremely deadly phenomenon: the UneXploded Bomb. Some such bombs were simply duds, whilst others were of a type purposefully fitted with a delayed action fuse, so that nobody knew when they would explode.

Sometimes, the only way a UXB revealed its sinister presence was when it suddenly detonated. One such nightmarish occurrence happened to nine-year-old Joyce Thomas. She was left deafened in one ear and scarred by flying glass when an undiscovered UXB went off as she and a group of her friends made their way home after their weekly Boys and Girl’s Life Brigade Club meeting. The UXB was lodged under a sweet shop in Gurney Street, near the Elephant and Castle in South London. The young girl walking next to Joyce, whose name was Florrie, was killed instantly as an item of street furniture that had been hurled skywards by the blast, came down directly next to Joyce; directly where Florrie had been seconds before. Florrie wasn’t the only fatality that evening and Joyce wasn’t the only casualty, but Joyce always considered herself to have been the lucky one that night.

Even those UXB’s whose locations were discovered, still wrought their own brand of havoc as the roads, schools, railway stations, factories, warehouses and any other location in which they lay, had to be closed. Dealing with them was the exclusive preserve of the Army’s Bomb Disposal Units, a select band of men who quietly tackled these Hadean devices on a daily and nightly basis, and who sometimes paid the ultimate price for their gallantry.

Finding adequate shelter from the rain of bombs was something else Londoners soon grew adept at. Of course, Anderson shelters were all well and good if you had a garden to put one in, but for those living in flats or one of the many thousands of back-to-back houses in London, the Anderson wasn’t an option. The public shelters, such as they were, simply couldn’t cope with the number of people trying to use them. Jane Fisher, then a 30 year-old whose husband, Fred, was away at sea in the Royal Navy, simply preferred to gather up their three-year-old daughter and take shelter in her under-stairs cupboard as soon as the sirens sounded, rather than risk going out to try any of the public shelters. She felt she had as much chance of survival under the stairs in her Bermondsey home as in any shelter. It certainly worked for her.

It wasn’t long though, before a lot of Londoners “used their loaf” and started using the Tube stations as air raid shelters. The deeper the station, the more popular it became as a shelter. People slept wrapped in blankets in the passageways and on the platforms. At first, the government were worried by this new development and tried hard to dissuade people from the practice, but the stubborn Londoners continued to utilise the Tube stations so in the end, a substantial section of the London Underground was made into official shelter areas. Bunks were fitted, as were extra lavatories and temporary canteens. Some stations boasted rudimentary medical centres and children even received some of their schooling whilst sheltering from the bombing deep in the Tube stations.

But even Tube stations were not totally bomb-proof. On the night of October 15th, the Luftwaffe unintentionally scored a direct hit with a High Explosive bomb on Balham High Road, just above Balham Tube station. Forty-three people were killed above ground in the blast, whilst Sixty-four of the shelterers and four London Transport staff members died underground, as the vast bomb crater caused the total collapse of one end of the tube station. Also wrecked was the main sewer directly above the station and many of those killed below were either crushed under the many tons of rubble, or else they died trapped in unimaginable filth. Added to the carnage was a double-decker Bus, LT669 on route 88, that had been abandoned by its passengers and crew when the sirens sounded. The Bus had subsequently been drawn into the vast crater as the ground suddenly subsided beneath it. LT669 became something of a public spectacle as it remained in the crater for two weeks. It was just as much of a spectacle when it was finally lifted out by a heavy crane.

Like every other aspect of London life, London Transport was now finding itself evermore in the front line too. The Luftwaffe’s bombs wrecked innumerable vehicles and did enormous damage to the depots and roads. Eleven days after the Balham Tube station disaster, in the morning rush hour, a line of Trams in the Blackfriars Road received a direct hit as they stood just south of the overhead railway bridge. Two Trams were completely destroyed and one was severely damaged, whilst a fourth lost most of the glass on its top deck. Fortunately, like LT669, the Bus caught up in the Balham disaster, the Trams had been abandoned before the bombs came down, though there were some people who were injured by the flying glass.

The bridge itself was also very badly damaged, but not enough to totally stop the trains. It wasn’t long before they were able to cross it, just a little more slowly till full repairs had been carried out. The south side of the railway bridge and the surface of its brick support pier on the west side, opposite the old station entrance, still plainly bear the scars from this episode today.

Because of incidents such as these, the Buses found their routes constantly changing, but somehow London Transport continued to operate, just like the railways, keeping London moving as best they could. In another noteworthy incident, the Bus garage at Leyton, in east London, suffered damage by bombs one night and every Bus in the garage had its windows shattered. When the “All clear” sounded, the garage staff, undaunted, simply removed all the broken glass from every vehicle and sent the least damaged vehicles out first. By ten-to-nine that same morning, the entire fleet from Leyton garage was in service; albeit totally windowless and somewhat battered, but running nonetheless.

Also running, or rather cycling, during one of the many air raids of this time, was James Jenman who on this particular night, was cycling home after playing Rugby, when he was blown off his bike by the sudden explosion of a bomb. His bike was totally wrecked and so he had to walk the remaining five or six miles home. Although his back hurt him considerably, he thought, in his considered medical opinion, that it was just badly bruised. It later transpired that he had in fact fractured two vertebrae in the tumble, an injury that was to give him trouble throughout his later life.

On Sunday, October 20th, the high-flying Jabos returned, making daylight attacks on southeast England and London again. They came over in five waves, heavily escorted, from about 09:30 till approximately 14:00. Part of the fighter escort for one of the later raids was provided by 6/JG52, based at Peuplingues, in France and one of the escort pilots from this unit was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann.

The inbound raiders and their escorts had already been fighting their way across Kent when they reached Central London at around 13:40. The Jabos had dropped their burdensome bombs shortly before and their pilots could now engage the defending RAF fighters on equal terms, though ever with a cautious eye on the fuel gauge.

One of the RAF squadrons sent to deal with these raiders that day was 41 Squadron, up from Hornchurch. High over the City of London area, 41 Squadron’s Flying Officer Peter Brown in his Spitfire, was in combat with a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109, that flown by Friedemann. During the combat, Brown succeeded in gaining the advantage over his opponent and scored several decisive hits on Friedemann’s Messerschmitt, which started to belch brownish-black smoke from its now mortally wounded Daimler-Benz engine.

The crippled Messerschmitt began to lose speed and height as it flew over Tower Bridge, crossing the Thames in a roughly southeasterly direction. Brown flew his Spitfire alongside his vanquished foe as the German pilot jettisoned his cockpit canopy and raised himself out of the seat. Having no choice in the matter, Friedemann baled out of his doomed fighter over the Plumstead/Welling area of south London and as it transpired, his exit was not a moment too soon. Seconds after Friedemann had jumped, the Messerschmitt’s fuel tank exploded in mid-air. The time was almost exactly 13:45.

On the ground at Welling, was fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe. Though still at school, Ennis was the sort of girl who hated the fact that she was considered too young to take any active part in the war effort. She badly wanted to “do something” and even though it was she who had done the Lion’s share of the work involved in constructing the family’s Anderson shelter, it simply wasn’t enough for her to be content with, an attitude that had lead to several arguments with her father recently.

Not feeling inclined to enjoy the dubious comforts of the public air-raid shelter in Bellegrove Road that Sunday, Ennis was making her way home, on foot, half-watching the vapour trails of yet another aerial battle that was obviously taking place at altitude over London again. Suddenly, she heard a loud “boom” high above her. Stopping, she quickly looked up in time to see a fireball and a fighter aircraft breaking apart as another fighter turned rapidly away. The tail section of the stricken aeroplane disintegrated, but the front section was coming straight down, dropping like a stone.

A good many people on the ground, including young Ennis, also saw something else falling away from the doomed aircraft, flailing and tumbling through the air as it came down. It was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann, who was now condemned to realise a horrible end to his young life, by the fact that his parachute had failed to open.

The Messerschmitt’s largely intact front section landed with a very loud thud, upside-down in a front garden in Wickham Street, across the road from the gate of Gibson’s Farm. The impact forced the Messerschmitt’s undercarriage to spring partially from the wheel-bays. Albert Friedemann fell to his terrifying death a short distance away across the farm, whilst pieces of his Messerschmitt’s tail section fluttered down over a wide area.

Meanwhile, in Wickham Street, there was already a small crowd around the wreckage, the fallen Messerschmitt having miraculously missed the houses. The hot metal of the fighter’s engine was still ticking as it cooled, but there was no fire. The Messerschmitt’s remaining fuel had been burnt off in the mid-air explosion, some twelve thousand feet ago. People seemed to be looking at the vanquished aircraft with a mixture of curiosity and awe, as if it were something from outer space. The authorities were soon on the scene and gradually the crowd dwindled as the Police sent the sightseers away. Later, the RAF posted a guard over the wreck to prevent any possible souvenir hunting, for the wreck rapidly became a spectator attraction.

The authorities quickly removed Albert Friedemann’s shattered and lifeless body from Gibson’s Farm, but the wreck of his aircraft stayed in Welling for another three weeks. It was put on display outside the local cinema and fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe stood beside it nightly, in all weathers, for just over a fortnight, collecting donations from the queue of cinema-goers, in aid of the district Spitfire Fund.

At the end of each collection, she gave her collecting tin to the cinema manager, who counted the money she’d collected, paid it into the Post Office on her behalf and posted a notice showing the Post Office receipt for the amount raised. Ennis felt proud that she was at last doing her bit for the war effort, while her father simply shook his head in quiet capitulation. However, this episode proved to be just the beginning of a long, long history of young Ennis “doing her bit”.

The day after Friedemann’s death, October 21st, was one when the weather clamped down again. It was mainly cloudy with intermittent rain and even some lasting fog over England. Despite this, the Luftwaffe sent small formations and even single aircraft over to make a nuisance of themselves; an aim that they totally achieved, though the effort cost them six aircraft. Fighter Command suffered no losses, but the mournful weather seemed to portend the grim discovery that was made later that day.

Seventeen days after he’d last been seen, the body of missing twenty-seven year-old Flight Lieutenant Ken Gillies from 66(F) Squadron was washed ashore at Covehithe. After leading the successful interception of that Heinkel 111 bomber, it is entirely possible that his aircraft had been damaged by return fire, or that he’d perhaps fallen foul of an escorting Messerschmitt 109. Either way, his Spitfire had evidently crashed in the sea.

Six days later, on October 27th, 66(F) Squadron lost another pilot, as Pilot Officer John Mather was killed when his Spitfire crashed at Half Moon Lane, Hildenborough. What caused the crash is still not known, but once again Oxygen failure was strongly suspected at the time.

On October 30th, 66(F) Squadron left Gravesend for the newly completed and now operational airfield at West Malling, near Maidstone. Pilot Officer Mather was therefore the last of the fifteen pilots flying from Gravesend who’d lost their lives during the Battle, officially. This is purely because for the British, the Battle of Britain officially ended at midnight on 31st October 1940.

As if in recognition of this fact, 66(F) Squadron’s place was taken by 141 Squadron, a Defiant-equipped squadron whose role was now night-fighting. Henceforth, RAF Gravesend was to be a night-fighter station until the following spring.

With the threat of German invasion now patently passed, the daylight air battle was clearly won and the British position thus clearly saved. Air Chief Marshall Dowding and Air Vice Marshall Park, the two victorious commanders, were duly summoned to a meeting of the Air Council; at the end of which, both men, instead of being heartily congratulated, were actually removed from their posts; sacked, effectively. Dowding was sent off to America on a fact-finding tour whilst Park was transferred to RAF Training Command. There was no truer saying, it seemed, than the old proverb which states that people are seldom grateful toward their saviours.

1916: Change of OHL’s Leader[s]

German casualty figures for World War I remain notoriously difficult to reconstruct. The sheer scale of losses challenged record-keeping at every level. The problem was further exacerbated by, let us say, flexible standards for defining a wound. Those points made, it can reasonably be stated that almost a million German soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds in 1916, at Verdun, on the Somme, and everywhere else from East Africa to Lake Naroch that the tides of war carried them.

Casualties do not of themselves determine who is winning or losing a war. Nor do they determine the competence of commanders or the effectiveness of governments. But neither can they be dismissed as collateral damage, the cost of doing business. As early as midsummer 1916, Falkenhayn was showing signs of stress. The vultures in Berlin and at OHL headquarters were beginning to circle. And the Russian high command tried once more for a conclusion in the field. Russia had made an unexpected recovery from the debacles of 1915. Domestic production of weapons and ammunition reduced dependence on Allied imports. Grain reserves had more than doubled. Over six million men were under arms. And as the French calls to relieve the pressure at Verdun grew more strident, a new general offered a new plan. Alexei Brusilov, commanding the Southwestern Front, proposed to attack along the entire 350 miles of his four-army sector, each army in a particular zone. This would give the enemy no idea of which was the main effort or where the next blow would be struck. An overextended and demoralized Austro-Hungarian defense collapsed almost immediately. Falkenhayn scraped up ten divisions and enough artillery to stabilize the front, taking de facto charge not merely of the immediate fighting but virtually the entire Habsburg war effort.

The military and economic responsibilities accompanying that shift had little time to manifest before they were compounded by Romania’s August entry into the war on the Allied side. That kingdom hoped to gnaw the Dual Monarchy’s carcass in the wake of Brusilov’s successes. Its army proved spectacularly ill-prepared for the kind of war the Central Powers had learned how to wage, but it was Germany that was constrained to provide the bulk of the forces and planning for the Central Powers’ offensive against Romania. It furnished the commander as well.

The initial success of Brusilov’s offensive had led to increasing pressure from Bethmann-Hollweg and the Foreign Office, and within the High Command, which had relocated to Pless in Silesia, to turn over full command in the East to Hindenburg/Ludendorff. Falkenhayn resisted successfully-as long as he had the support of the Kaiser and those of his immediate advisors who as late as mid-July saw Falkenhayn as “a card . with which one either wins or loses,” whose sacrifice meant the end of William’s remaining credibility. Romania’s decision for war tipped the balance. At 11 pm on August 28 Falkenhayn received Imperial notice of his relief. The next morning Hindenburg appeared at High Command headquarters. At precisely 1:26 pm Erich von Falkenhayn boarded a train out of Pless.

He did not exactly vanish into obscurity. As a consolation prize and an opportunity for rehabilitation, Falkenhayn was given command of the Ninth Army, the assignment of driving the Romanians back across the border, and the constraint of completing the campaign before winter. Falkenhayn responded by emphasizing “speed and relentless attack.” Movement and assault would keep the Romanians so off balance that they could neither plan nor react before the next sequence shifted the paradigm again. This proto-blitzkrieg, implemented in one case by an improvised mechanized force, ranks with the Serbian campaign of 1915 as a tactical and operational cameo: the German Army at its best. On the other hand, like its predecessor, its scale was small. Its enemy was even more obliging in terms of decisions taken and blunders made. Nor did Falkenhayn’s cauterizing of a single running sore proffer guidelines to the comprehensive military and political challenges confronting Germany’s new command team.

The Hindenburg-Ludendorff appointment reflected and projected Germany’s situation. They were worked in as a command and planning team. Hindenburg described their relationship as like a successful marriage: neither party consistently dominant, each bringing something vital to the mix. Ludendorff was a manager and an organizer, talents reflected in his official title of First Quartermaster-General. Intelligent and industrious, a master of detail yet able to maintain a sense of general situations, he was at his best as a problem-solver with no time left over to indulge the irritability and anxiety that were the negative sides of his character. To an army badly shaken by Verdun, the Somme, and their aftermaths, Erich Ludendorff provided a sense of grip as welcome as it was badly needed.

If Ludendorff was a serious version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “model major general,” Hindenburg modeled a traditional Prussian general, arguably to the point of caricature. Solid of body, with a near-literally square head and appropriate facial hair and facial expression, he looked the part-a point to be neither overlooked nor mocked in an era of photography and newsreels. He projected an air of imperturbability: nothing seemed able to bring him out of countenance. And Hindenburg was popular, both as a public figure and in the corridors of power.

But were they hommes connetables, capable of fulfilling the military responsibilities they were assigned and the economic and political ones they would assume? The overwhelming consensus is that their inheritance was poisonous, nurturing an already potential combination of militarism and expansionism at the expense of wisdom and caution. Too often overlooked is a counterpoint: Germany in 1916 had no one else. When the army is specifically considered, there is an obvious void in the second generation, the mid-levels of staff and command. A first-rate crop of third-generation figures were emerging: Seeckt, Lossow, Rohr, Leith-Thomsen, and those yet unidentified, like the recycled reservist who would revolutionize artillery tactics in the next year, and the infantry captain whose feint-and-strike tactics in the mountains of northern Italy prefigured the methods of a later, greater war. But these were junior ranks: majors and lieutenant colonels. Their counterparts among the movers and shakers in the High Command, officers like Max Bauer and Gerhard Tappen, suffered from over-tempering: an involvement in situations beyond their maturity and judgment that began in the war’s early weeks. With the exception of Max von Gallwitz, it is difficult to identify, much less recall, any field commanders who began the war as colonels or Generalmajoren and had risen, or would rise, much above the level of what the British called “good plain cooks” and “safe pairs of hands.” Germany’s war was unlikely to end well in safe pairs of hands.

Though it took time and lives, Britain and France eventually produced significantly deeper pools of senior military leadership that were unspectacular but able to shape the situation they confronted. Some, like Pétain, Foch, and Douglas Haig, grew incrementally into their responsibilities. Others-Fayolle and Mangin, Currie, and Monash-emerged from the ruck of war. Even Italy came out of the Caporetto disaster militarily revitalized, with Armando Diaz succeeding Luigi Cadorna. The parliamentary states, Britain and France, developed as well a body of effective second-generation political leaders. Lloyd George and Clemenceau had no counterparts in the Second Reich. Italy’s Vittorio Orlando is less familiar, but he rallied Italy and oversaw the destruction of an enemy army-something neither of the transalpine premiers achieved.

None of these men were especially pleasant-intriguers, manipulators, and schemers all, often with private lives to match. They were, however, competent relative to circumstances. In contrast, compared to Britain’s George V, William II cut an abysmal figure as a figurehead. Bethmann-Hollweg’s successors as chancellor remain obscure even to doctoral students. And so it goes. Wherever one looks in Germany after 1916, the images are of cut-and-paste, of second- and third-rate people with first-line responsibilities. The structural reasons for that phenomenon are outside the scope of this book, except to note the development of similar phenomena in the other war-making empires, and suggest it was hardly coincidental. For present purposes, a case can be made that the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team filled vacuums as well as arrogated power in what was in good part a response to a comprehensive emergency that bade fair to escalate into a general crisis.

The new command team turned first to the Western Front. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been too focused on events in the east-and on intrigues within the High Command- to be au courant with recent details and developments in what, mirabile dictu, was proving after all to be the war’s vital theater. It was his duty, Ludendorff stated, to adapt himself to the new conditions. He and Hindenburg began with a tour of inspection, visiting as many front-line units as possible, contacting others by phone, and demanding accurate information rather than eyewash and whitewash. Ludendorff came away convinced that the first months of the coming year would bring a battle deciding “the existence or nonexistence of the German people.” To meet that challenge, Ludendorff asserted, it was necessary to begin with the basics. German tactics must be revised on two levels: a general shift in emphasis to the defensive, and a specific set of coping mechanisms to check the increasingly effective Allied infantry and artillery team. In early September the High Command began systematically collating and evaluating recent frontline reports. On December 1, it issued Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. Ludendorff credited two relatively obscure and even more junior staff officers with constructing the manual that shaped German doctrines of defense in every theater for the rest of the war. But the fundamental ideas were Lossberg’s. Max Bauer and Hermann Geyer had previously served under him and absorbed his ideas. This was General Staff procedure at its best. Ludendorff’s ego was as large as anyone’s who held his kind of post is likely to be, but he applied it to generating and sustaining a corporate effort that had been less evident under Falkenhayn, who preferred keeping his own counsel. Bauer, a difficult man and a difficult subordinate, noted that Ludendorff’s style “lifted a great weight” from his working group. That opinion was as general in the High Command as any was likely to be among strong-willed men. It owed something to the Hawthorne effect generated by “an iron will and a firm determination.” It owed more to abandoning definitively the increasingly costly, increasingly futile, policy of holding and regaining the forward line at all costs.

The objective of defense was described in the new Principles as making the attacker exhaust himself by establishing positions in depth, defended in echelons. As the Allied infantry advanced it would become disorganized. Its communications would be disrupted. It would eventually outrun the range of even its heavy artillery, to find itself caught in a combination maze and net. A complementary accompanying manual on Principles of Field Construction gave details: a three-tiered system with a lightly held outpost zone as a tripwire; a battle zone that could be as much as three thousand meters deep with a forward trench position, a network of strong points; and a second trench line protecting the artillery and the reserves in the rear zone which would mount the final counterattacks to destroy or throw back the enemy before he could consolidate his temporary gains and restore the original position, or as much of it as made no difference.

Firepower was the revamped system’s framework: machine guns in the battle zone, artillery underwriting the counterattacks that were “the soul of the German defense.” Flexibility was the principle: “resist, bend, and snap back.” “Elastic defense” is a good capsule definition. So is “offensive defense.” But the system’s key and its core was human: “stout hearted men with iron nerves”-and individual initiative. Since 1914 falling back from a position had been defined as defeat, and carried an aura of disgrace. But by August 1916 it had become standard German operating procedure on the Somme to establish machine-gun positions outside the trench lines, in shell holes, to provide some protection from Allied barrages. Withdrawal was becoming instrumental, pragmatic: a means to the immediate ends of evading shell fire and wearing down attacking infantry, and to the ultimate one of setting the stage for the counterattacks that would reverse enemy gains.

Promulgating the doctrine did not mean its automatic implementation. Senior officers and their chiefs of staff were expected and accustomed to think for themselves, and the circumstances of the Western Front in 1916 fostered coping more than conformity. Lossberg himself believed the new regulations gave front-line troops and junior officers too much leeway in deciding when and how far to fall back. Ludendorff responded positively to that kind of criticism, asserting that the new system was a work in progress, to be modified when the Allies attacked again. Arguably more important to the reform’s credibility was the extent that it codified and systematized much of what was already being done, and proving effective, on the Somme. The point was reinforced in mid-December, when the final French offensive at Verdun owed part of its success to the failure of German sector reserves to respond effectively because they were held too far behind the front.

Dornier Do 17/Do 215

In response to a Lufthansa specification of 1933 for a six-passenger mailplane, Dornier designed a shoulder-wing all-metal monoplane to be powered by two 660 hp BMW VI engines. Three prototypes of this Dornier Do 17 were built in 1934, but although the airline carried out an evaluation programme early in the following year, the aircraft’s slim fuselage provided such limited passenger accommodation that all three were returned to the manufacturer. The design had military potential, however, and the fourth prototype, Do 17 V4, with twin vertical tail surfaces and a shortened fuselage was flown in the summer of 1935. Among development prototypes, the fifth was powered by 860 hp Hispano Suiza 12Y engines, the seventh mounted a 7.92 mm MG 15 machine gun in a dorsal blister, and the tenth was fitted with 750 hp BMW VI engines. The initial production versions were the Do 17E-1 which, developed from the ninth prototype, had a glazed and shortened nose, and carried a 500 kg bombload, and the Do 17F-1 reconnaissance aircraft with increased fuel capacity and two cameras. Both of these models made their operational debut with the Legion Condor in Spain during 1937. Their performance was such that they had little difficulty in avoiding contact with the obsolescent aircraft then serving with the Republican Air Force.

Introduced publicly at the 1937 International Military Aircraft Competition held at Dubendorf, near Zurich, the Do 17M V1 prototype powered by two 1000 hp Daimler-Benz DB 600A engines soon gained the nickname “Flying Pencil” because of its slender fuselage. More significantly, it was able to better the performance of international fighters taking part in the contest. Following this demonstration at Dubendorf, Yugoslavia showed interest in the type and the Do 17K was developed for that nation, being similar to the Do 17M but powered by two 980 hp Gnome-Rhône 14N 01/02 engines. The type was to be licence-built by Drazavna Fabrika Aviona at Kraljevo, the three versions produced being the Do 17Kb-1 bomber, and the Do 17Ka-2 and Do 17Ka-3 reconnaissance aircraft with secondary bombing and attack capability respectively. Two prototypes of a proposed pathfinder version which did not enter production were built under the designation Do 17L, these being powered by two 900 hp Bramo 323A-1 radial engines because of a shortage of Daimler-Benz DB 600s. The same Bramo powerplant was used for the thirteenth and fourteenth prototypes to develop the airframe/engine combination for the production Do 17M-1, which could carry a 1000 kg bombload and was armed with three 7.92 mm MG machine guns.

A photo-reconnaissance version of the Do 17M entered production under the designation Do 17P, powered by two 875 hp BMW 132N radial engines and carried Rb 20/30 and Rb 50/30, or Rb 20/8 and Rb 50/8 cameras in the Do 17P-1 production series. Two aircraft were built as engine test-beds under the designation Do 17R, one with 950 hp Daimler-Benz DB 600G, and the other with 1000 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A. They were followed by three DB 600G powered high-speed reconnaissance aircraft which had the designation Do 17S-0. Used for test purposes, these had an extensively glazed nose and the airframe incorporated a bulged section in the underside of the forward fuselage, accommodating a gunner in a prone position to operate an aft-firing MG 15 machine-gun. These experimental reconnaissance machines were followed by a small production batch of 15 pathfinders, comprising three Do 17U-0 and 12 Do 17U-1 aircraft, the five-men crews of which included two radio operators to handle the new and comprehensive communications and navigation radios.

Major production version was the Do 17Z, which appeared in several variants and was built to a total of some 1700 between 1939-40. They included the Do 17Z-0 which, powered by two 900 hp Bramo 323A-1 engines and armed with three MG 15 machine guns, was otherwise similar to the Do 17S. The Do 17Z-1 had an additional nose-mounted MG 15 but was underpowered and restricted to a 500 kg bombload; this situation was rectified in the Do 17Z-2 which with 1000 hp Bramo 323P engines could carry a 1000 kg bombload and up to eight MG 15 machine guns. Some 22 examples of the Do 17Z-3 reconnaissance aircraft were built, each equipped with Rb50/30 or Rb20/30 cameras, and they were followed by the Do 17Z-4 dual-control conversion trainer. Final bomber variant was the Do 17Z-5 which, generally similar to the Do 17Z-2, differed by having flotation bags in the fuselage and in the rear of the engine nacelles. Do 17 production ended with a single Do 17Z-6 Kauz I long-range intruder and night-fighter which incorporated a Junkers Ju 88C-2 nose housing a 20-mm MG FF cannon and three MG 15 machine-guns. However, for the nine Do 17Z-10 Kauz II aircraft that followed anew nose was developed which housed four MG FF cannon and four 7.92 mm MG 17 machine guns; when deployed as night- fighters they were equipped with Lichtenstein C1 radar and Spanner-II-Anläge infra-red detection apparatus

Export versions of the Do 17Z were planned under the general designation Do 215, the first to be developed being the Do 215A-1, with 1075-hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engines, which was ordered by Sweden in 1939. With the outbreak of WW II, the 18 aircraft were embargoed and following conversion to Luftwaffe requirements were delivered for use as four-seat bomber/reconnaissance aircraft under the designations Do 215B-0 and Do 215B-1. Two examples of the Do 215B-3 were delivered to the USSR during 1940, and the Do 215BA was a reconnaissance version, similar in configuration to the Do 215B-1, but carrying Rb 20/30 and Rb 50/30 cameras. Final variant was the night-fighter/intruder Do 215B-5 which had an unglazed nose, similar to that of the Do 17Z-10, but housing two 20-mm MG FF cannon and four 7.92 mm MG machine-guns.

Dornier Do 17 in the Battle of Britain

The Dornier Do 17 was the least numerous of the Luftwaffe bombers deployed against Britain during the Battle, but has been claimed by some to have been the most effective. Most German military aircraft of the period were designed from the start as warplanes, but were first revealed in a civil guise – masquerading as airliners or ‘high speed mailplanes’. For example, Dornier itself had built Do 11Cs in Switzerland as ‘freight transports’. The Do 17, by contrast, was really designed as a high speed mailplane, with tiny cramped cabins fore and aft of the wing accommodating six passengers with very difficult access. This was realised too late, and the three prototypes were soon placed in storage, where they remained until discovered by a curious RLM test pilot, who flight-tested one and was so impressed by its performance that he suggested the type’s conversion for use as a high-speed bomber.

Dornier were by then working on the long-range Do 19, a four-engined heavy bomber, and were not greatly interested in the idea. Nor, until the death of General Walther Wever, was the Luftwaffe. But Wever’s successor as Chief of Staff, Albert Kesselring was a tactical man, through and through, and preferred large fleets of relatively cheap, lightweight bombers optimised for what was, in essence, a close support role. The Do 17 soon won his approval, while the Do 19 (probably the aircraft the Luftwaffe really needed for the Battle of Britain) was unceremoniously scrapped. Three further Do 17 prototypes were built with twin endplate fins in place of the original aircraft’s single fin, and the forward fuselage was deepened and fitted with extensive glazing to accommodate a full bomber crew. The aircraft retained much of the appearance of the original, and this led to the type’s ‘Flying Pencil’ nickname.

The original Do 17E-1 bomber was easily capable of 240 mph (a stripped aircraft had demonstrated 283 mph) and great emphasis was placed on this ‘high speed’ capability. In fact, this was not even as fast as Britain’s modest Bristol Blenheim. To its credit, the Dornier could at least carry a meaningful internal bombload (by the standards of the day), and its crew of three were clustered close together, where they could work together and communicate easily. The Do 17 entered service in 1937, undergoing trials in Spain with the Condor Legion. The Do 17F-1 was a reconnaissance aircraft equipped with two floor-mounted Rb50/18 or Rb50/30 cameras.

The Do 17E and Do 17F gave way to the broadly similar Do 17M and Do 17P, which were bomber and reconnaissance variants respectively, differing from the earlier versions in being powered by 900 hp Bramo Fafnir 323A or BMW 132N radial engines in place of the inline DB600s originally fitted. These raised the maximum speed to fractionally above 300 mph. The DB600-powered versions remained in limited use at the beginning of the war, but by the Battle of France all had vanished from frontline service. On 10 May, 188 serviceable Do 17Ms and Do 17Ps were available, together with 338 examples of the further improved Do 17Z.

Production Do 17Zs featured more powerful (1,000 hp) Bramo 232P radial engines with two-stage superchargers, but more obviously had an entirely redesigned forward fuselage, much deeper, more extensively glazed, and with a huge underslung ventral gondola. This had first appeared on the Do 17Z (built in pre-production form only) and made the aircraft look much more like a Ju 88. It raised the crew complement to five, though the bombload remained a paltry 2200lb. Defensive armament was increased to six 7.9-mm machine guns, one fixed and one free-mounted firing forward, one firing aft in each of the dorsal and ventral positions, and two in the side windows. But these weapons were mounted singly, and had relatively limited arcs of fire. By comparison with the multi-gun powered turrets fitted to aircraft like the Wellington and Blenheim they represented little more than a last-ditch defence, although Do 17 gunners did down surprising numbers of RAF fighters which pressed their attacks too closely, or failed to break away aggressively enough. The Do 17U was basically a hybrid combining the new nose with the engines of the Do 17M. The 15 aircraft built were used as dedicated pathfinders by Kampfgrüppe 100, and carried a second radio operator.

In Poland, the 17’s where all but un-stopable, their speed still gave them a defensive edge, and carrying 20 of the 50kg bombs was more then enough to decimate the fairly primitive Polish army.   During the Battle of France and the Blitzkrieg, they still proved hard to shoot down, being surprisingly resilient to the 7.9mm machine guns used in most fighters. It was still a nimble airplane for its size, and could give any attacker a difficult time. The tables turned in the Battle of Britain, for all the bombers, not just the 17. The RAF had succeeded in rapidly modernizing their forces with fast, heavily armed fighters in large numbers with radar guidance. It has been said the 17’s suffered more, but a look at casualty statistics will show all the Luftwaffe bombers suffered equally heavily. What RAF pilots do acknowledged is 17’s where hard to shoot down, and many 17’s returned to safety with dozens, even hundreds, of holes in them.

Production of the 17/215’s stopped in the early summer of 1940 to make way for the entirely new Do-217 (arguably a massively improved 17/215). This, and not the Ju-88, may have been the reason for cessation of production. Do-217’s first combat sortie was late in 1940 and had a successful career (in contrast, planed replacements for the He-111 and Ju-88 were slow to materialized). With no new aircraft and parts rapidly dwindling, it would not be long before they were to few to use in the Gruppen. However the 17/215’s were never decommissioned from the Luftwaffe, being in constant service use till wars end.

Gruppen primarily equipped with Do-17’s (but not limited to these), list in order of which was first converted out first, by Quarters of year:

KG 76 (eventually replaced 4Q/1940 with Ju-88, then Ar-234 (jet bomber!), survived until wars end)

KG 77 (eventually replaced 4Q/1940 with Ju-88, disbanded 7/1944)

KG 3 “Blitz” (eventually replaced 2Q/1941 with Ju-88, last as late as 3Q/1941! disbanded 8/1944)

KG 2 “Holzhammer” (eventually replaced 3Q/1941 with Do-217, later a small number of Ju-188 and Me-410, dissolved 2/1945)

Aircraft losses suffered during the invasion of the Low Countries and France were not fully restored, while some units were already converting to the newer, faster and more effective Ju 88. Do 17 numbers dropped throughout the Battle of Britain. On 1 September 1940, the frontline bomber Kampfgrüppen had 158 Do 17Ms and 212 Do 17Zs on charge. These won a reputation for low level pinpoint bombing attacks, but also flew their share of medium level area attacks. The Do 17 was highly maneuverable, and its crews could dive at speeds which bordered on the unbelievable. If sufficient height were available, and the defending fighters low on fuel, Dorniers could sometimes escape by pushing their noses down and diving for home ‘flat out’ – much like the Ju 88.

A final version of the ‘Flying Pencil’ in use during the Battle of Britain was the Do 215B, 18 of which were designed and built for export (to Sweden) but were then embargoed and re-directed to the Luftwaffe, which used them for reconnaissance duties.

The Do-17 proved to be very successful and useful in the opening rounds in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. Carrying a variety of bombs, they decimated the Russian air force caught on the airfields and tore up ground units. Only in the summer of 1941 when more Ju-88’s and the totally new Dornier 217 entering service, were surviving Dornier 17Z’s used in secondary missions or passed on the allied countries, like the Finns, Croats, and Rumanians.  However the Luftwaffe did continue to use Do-17E’s, Do-17P’s, a few Do-17Z’s, and Do-215’s till wars end for occasional combat sorties such as combat glider towing, combat supply drops, and support duties of photo recon, training, and test beds. While 1943 seems to be the last year any groups of 17’s or 215 operated together in large formations, there is strong evidence to suggest remaining types continued to serve till wars end.

KG 3, III. Gruppe was the last KG to have a full Gruppen of Do-17’s, in early 1942! After that, Do-17’s where used for various other duties, including training, and a large number equipped the Croats, an ally of the Germans.

The Finnish also received 15 from the Luftwaffe (donated) which participated in the summer battles of 1944 versus Soviet Union. Do-17’s flew many of bombing missions alongside the rest of the FiAF bomber “fleet” (including Blenhiems and Ju-88’s) until the end of the war and performed well. Actually the last sortie by a Finnish plane in WW2 was flown in a Do-17 flying a recon mission at the end of the Lappland War in 1945.

Routine flights continued until the last flight of a Do-17 in FiAF, and most likely the last Do-17 flight ever, was flown on 13 Sep, 1948


Do 17E-1

Developed from the 9th prototype. Spoted a shortened glazed nose and carried 500 kg of bombs.

Do 17F-1

Photographic reconnaissance aircraft with two cameras and increased fuel capacity.

Do 17K, Kb-1, Ka-2 & Ka-3

The Do 17K was developed for use by Yugoslavia and was similar to the Do 17M but powered by two 980 hp Gnome-Rhône 14N 01/02 engines. This type was licensed and built by Drzavna Fabrika Aviona at Kraljevo. The Do 17Kb-1 was a bomber and the Do 17Ka-2/Ka-3 were reconnaissance aircraft with secondary capabilities as a bomber or attack aircraft.

Do 17L

Two prototypes of a proposed pathfinder version powered by two 900 hp Bramo 323A-1 engines.

Do 17M & M-1

The 13th and 14th prototypes powered by Bramo 322A-1 engines. This version was used to develop the airframe/engine combination for use on the production Do 17M-1, which could carry a 1000 kg bombload and was armed with three 7.92 mm MG 15 machine guns, in the dorsal and ventral positions and one firing through the starboard windscreen.

Do 17R

Two engine test beds, one with two 950 hp Daimler-Benz DB 600G and the other with 1000 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A.


A photo reconnaissance version of the Do 17M, which was powered by two 875 hp BMW 132N engines and fitted with Rb 20/30 and Rb 50/30, or Rb 20/8 and Rb 50/8 cameras in the Do 17P-1 series.

Do 17S-0

Three DB 600G powered high speed reconnaissance aircraft for trials with a prone gunners position in the underside of the forward fuselage, housing an aft firing MG 15 machine gun. The nose was extensively glazed.

Do 17U, U-0 & U-1

15 aircraft were built to this standard as pathfinders, carrying two radio operators among the five man crew.

Do 17Z, Z-0, Z-1, Z-2, Z-3, Z-4 & Z-5

The Do 17Z was the most numerous version built with some 1700 of them being built between 1939 and 1940. Several variants were built. The Do 17Z-0 was similar to the Do 17S with two 900 hp Bramo 323A-1 engines and armed with three MG 15 machine guns. The Do 17Z-1 had an additional nose mounted MG 15 machine gun but was underpowered and only able to carry a 500 kg bombload. In the Do 17Z-2, the Bramo 323A-1 engines were changed out in favour of the 1000 hp Bramo 323P engines which restored the bomload up to 1000 kg, and carried up to eight MG 15 machine guns. 22 Do 17Z-3 aircraft were produced for photo reconnaissance duties, with Rb 50/30 or Rb 20/30 cameras. The Do 17Z-4 was a dual control conversion trainer. The Do 17Z-5 was essentially a Do 17Z-2 with flotation bags in the fuselage and the rear of the engine bays.

Do 17Z-6 Kauz I

A single aircraft produced as a long range intruder and night fighter. Incorporated a Junkers Ju 88C-2 nose carrying a 20 mm MG FF cannon and three MG 17 machine guns.

Do 17Z-10 Kauz II

Nine aircraft with a new nose housing four 7.92 mm MG 17 machine guns and four 20 mm MG FF cannon. For night fighter duties they were equipped with Lichtenstein C1 rand and Spanner-II-Anlage infra-red detection apparatus.

Do 215A-1, B-0, B-1, B-3, B-4 & B-5

The Do 215 was developed as an export version of the Do 17Z. The Do 215A-1 was equipped with two 1075 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601A engines and originally built for export to sweden in 1939. The 18 aircraft built were embargoed and instead put into service with the Luftwaffe as the Do 215B-1 and Do 215B-2. Two aircraft were sent to the Soviet Union as Do 215B-3s. The Do 215B-4 was a photo reconnaissance aircraft with Rb 20/30 and Rb 50/30 cameras. The Do 215B-5 had a new nose similar to the Do 17Z-10 as well as similar armament for the role of night fighter.

Units that flew the Do 17 in Eastern Front

  • Luftwaffe:
  • Kampfgeschwader: Stab, I. and III./KG 2, 10.(Kroat.)* and III./KG 3, 15.(Kroat.)*/KG 53
  • Aufklärungsgruppen: 2.(F)/11, 3.(F)/22, 1.(H)/32, 1.(F), 2.(F), 3.(F) and 4.(F)/Nacht, F.Kette Lappland, Aufkl. Staffel Kroatien, Flugber. 2. Fl.Div., Erg. FAGr, Erg. Nacht-Staffel.

*: in July 1942 10.(kroatische)/KG 3 was renamed 15.(Kroat.)/KG 53

  • Other air forces:
  • Finnland (Do 17Z): three Z-1 (DN-51, DN-57 and DN-59), three Z-2 (DN-56, DN-61 and DN-65) and nine Z-4 (DN-52, DN-53, DN-54, DN-55, DN-58, DN-60, DN-62, DN-63 and DN-64).
  • Bulgaria (Do 17P) and Hungary (Do 215B).

Technical data and performance

Do 17P-1

  • Dimensions:

– length: 16.1 m

– height: 4.57 m

– wingspan: 18.0 m

  • Weight:

– empty: 4600 kg

– max. take-off: 7660 kg

  • Powerplant: 2xBMW 132N 9 cylinders radial

– take-off power: 2×875 hp

– power @ 4500 m. alt.: 2×665 hp

  • Speed:

– max. speed @ sea level: 347 km/h

– max. speed @ 4000 m: 393 km/h

– cruise speed @ 2800 m: 330 km/h

  • Combat radius (max. load): 730 km
  • Max. range (without load): 2200 km
  • Initial climb rate: 300 m/min
  • Service ceiling:

– 6200 m

  • Defensive armament: 1xMG 15 7.92 mm in right side of windshield, 1xMG 15 in dorsal turret behind the cockpit canopy and 1xMG 15 in rear ventral hatch

Do 17Z-2

  • Dimensions:

– length: 15.79 m

– height: 4.56 m

– wingspan: 18.0 m

  • Weight:

– empty: 5210 kg

– max. take-off: 8590 kg

– max. for transfer flight: 8850 kg

  • Powerplant: 2xBramo 323P “Fafnir” 9 cylinders radial

– take-off power: 2×1000 hp

– power @ 4000 m. alt.: 2×940 hp

  • Speed (8590 kg take-off weight):

– max. speed @ sea level: 300 km/h (352 km/h with 8050 kg take-off weight)

– max. speed @ 4000 m: 360 km/h (410 km/h with 8050 kg take-off weight)

– cruise speed @ sea level: 270 km/h

– cruise speed @ 4000 m: 300 km/h

  • Combat radius (normal fuel load and 1000 kg bombload): 330 km
  • Max. range (with extra fuel tank and 500 kg bombload): 1150 km
  • Initial climb rate: 330 m/min
  • Service ceiling:

– 7000 m (8550 kg take-off weight)

– 8150 m (8050 kg take-off weight)

  • Defensive armament: 2xMG 15 7.92 mm fixed in the nose, 2xMG 15 in lateral windows, 2xMG 15 in upper rear of cockpit canopy and 2xMG 15 in lower rear cockpit fuselage.
  • Bomb load: 1000 kg max., either 20×50 kg or 4×250 kg.

Do 215B-1

  • Dimensions: same as Do 17Z-2
  • Weight:

– empty: 5774 kg

– max. take-off: 8800 kg

  • Powerplant: 2xDaimler-Benz DB 601Aa 12 cylinders in-line

– take-off power: 2×1100 hp

  • Speed:

– max. speed @ sea level: 382 km/h

– max. speed @ 4000 m: 462 km/h

– max. speed @ 5000 m: 467 km/h

– cruise speed @ 4000 m: 410 km/h

  • Combat radius (normal fuel load and 1000 kg bombload): 380 km
  • Max. range (with extra 900 l. fuel tank): 2400 km
  • Initial climb rate: 366 m/min
  • Service ceiling: 9000 m
  • Defensive armament: 2xMG 15 in lateral windows, 2xMG 15 in upper rear of cockpit canopy and 2xMG 15 in lower rear cockpit fuselage.
  • Bomb load: 1000 kg max., either 20×50 kg or 4×250 kg.

The Greco-Italian Conflict, 1940-1

Among the armour the Italians deployed in Albania were these L3/33 tankettes.

Italian artillery in action during the campaign in Albania.

There is no doubt that Mussolini was jealous of Germany’s annexation of Austria, so it came as no surprise when he asserted Italian control over Albania by sending in troops on 7 April 1939. This action prompted the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, to offer to support the sovereignty of both Greece and Rumania should they be threatened and a month later a similar offer was made to Turkey. Not that that this was of any benefit to Rumania as in June, with Hitler’s encouragement, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia stripped it off its frontier provinces. As a sign of things to come the governor of Albania began agitating the Greeks on behalf of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus. After the headless body of an Albanian bandit was discovered near the village of Vrina he blamed the Greeks and began arming some of the Albanian irregular bands. It was therefore just a matter of time before Mussolini made his next move against Greece.

Neither the Italian nor the Soviet Government received official notification of the entry of German troops into Romania. This was all the more surprising to Mussolini because Italy and Germany had given a joint guarantee to Romania. He was very indignant about being faced with a fait-accompli and decided to pay Hitler back in his own Coin by attempting to seize Greece Without giving official notice to Germany. Mussolini expected that the occupation of Greece would be a mere police action, similar to Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. On two preceding occasions Hitler had agreed that the Mediterranean and Adriatic were exclusively Italian spheres of interest. Since Yugoslavia and Greece were situated within these spheres, Mussolini felt entitled to adopt whatever policy he saw fit. ‘There was no reason why the man who had revived the Triage Nostrum concept should hesitate to demonstrate to the entire world that his twentieth Century Romans were as Superior to their Mediterranean rivals as their ancestor s had been to the Greeks 2,00 years ago.

In Mussolini’s opinion one of the main attractions of an attack on (Greece was that Italy would not have to depend on Germany s assistance for the execution of such all operation. On 15 October he decided to invade Greece, although he knew that the Germans would disapprove. The attack was launched on 28 October, and the almost immediate setbacks of the Italians only served to heighten Hitler’s displeasure. What enraged the Fuehrer most was that his repeated statements of the need for peace in the Balkans had been ignored by Mussolini.

The German military experts also disapproved the Italian plan of operations, but for other reasons. In their opinion any campaign in the Balkans would have to be executed in a manner similar to the one applied by the Germans in the campaign in Norway. The strategically important features would have to be seized in blitzkrieg fashion. In the Balkans these points were not situated along the Albanian border but in southern Greece and on Crete. The Italian failure to capture Crete seemed a strategic blunder, since British possession of the island endangered the Italian lines of communication to North Africa and assured Greece of a steady flow of supplies from Egypt. Moreover, the British bombers were now within range of the Romania oil fields that the Germans had secured at such great effort.

Hitler’s decision to intervene in the military operations in the Balkans was made on 4 November, seven days after Italy had attacked Greece through Albania and four days after the British had occupied Crete and Limnos. He ordered the Army General Staff to prepare plans for the invasion of northern Greece from Romania via Bulgaria. The operation was to deprive the British of bases for future ground and air operations across the restive Balkans against the Romanian oil fields. Moreover, it would indirectly assist the Italians by diverting Greek forces from Albania.

The plans for this campaign, together with the projects involving Gibraltar and North Africa, were incorporated into a master plan to deprive the British of all their Mediterranean bases. On 12 November 1940 the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 18, in which Hitler outlined his plan for the conduct of future operations to the three services. He first mentioned that Vichy France was to be given an opportunity for defending its African possessions against the British and Free French. Gibraltar was to be seized and the straits closed, while at the same time the British were to be prevented from landing elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. German forces were to support the Italians in their offensive against Egypt, if and when the latter reached Mersa Matrull. The Luftwaffe, in particular, was to make preparations for attacking Alexandria and the Suez Canal. The Army was to ready ten divisions for the seizure of northern Greece, possession of which would permit German flying formations to operate against British air bases in the eastern Mediterranean and thus protect the Romanian oil fields.

One incident that the Greeks blamed on Italy was the torpedoing and sinking, with heavy loss of life, of their cruiser Helle by a submarine on 15 August 1940 when she was anchored off Tinos. Though taking no action against Italy, the President of the Greek Council, General Ioannis Metaxas, did ask what help Greece could expect from Britain; not that Churchill could offer much, other than naval support. The situation deteriorated further the following month when Italy sent three more divisions to Albania. This led Britain to discuss the possibility of a coordinated defence of Crete but the Greeks would not allow any landings on their soil without a declaration of war. Nor did the Italians have much luck either in their discussions with Germany. When they sought German support for an attack on Jugoslavia, Adolf Hitler was adamant that he did not want to see the war spread to the Balkans. As a result Mussolini switched his attention to Libya and on 13 September launched his forces on a drive into Egypt. Not that he turned his back on Greece entirely but, assured by the governor of Albania that there would be no difficulty in securing Epirus and Corfu if he decided to attack Greece, he drew up plans for the invasion. In preparation for this three more divisions were dispatched in September. Nevertheless, by October Mussolini had started to waver in his plans and it was only after Hitler sent a strong military mission to Rumania that he became aware of Germany’s true interest in the Balkans and finally resolved to proceed with his plans to invade Greece.

Thus it was at 3 am on the morning of 28 October that the Italian minister in Athens presented the Greek government with a note charging them with having systematically violated their neutrality, particularly with respect to their dealings with the British, by allowing their territorial waters and ports to be used by the British navy and their refuelling facilities to be used by the RAF. Metaxas’ immediate response was to reject these demands, with the result that 3 hours later the first Italian troops crossed the frontier into Greece.

The British response to this was to send a naval flotilla into the Ionian Sea on 29 October. It sailed as far as Corfu before returning to the west coast of Crete to await the arrival of a force charged with garrisoning Crete and setting up a naval refuelling base in Suda Bay. This force had been dispatched the same day from Alexandria carrying the 1st Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. They arrived on 1 November and were followed soon after by what anti-aircraft, engineer and ancillary units the Commander in Chief of the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, had reluctantly agreed to release. At that stage the only airfield was at Heraklion, 70 miles to the east, and too far away to provide air protection for the naval base so work began on another airfield for fighter aircraft at Maleme. Pleased with these moves, the Greeks withdrew the Crete Division from the island. However, their concern with the non-appearance of British aircraft prompted the British to arrange for the dispatch of Blenheims from 30 Squadron and Gladiators from 80 Squadron, though the Greeks forbade them from being stationed any further north than Eleusis or Tatoi to avoid provoking the Germans.

As it turned out the invading Italian forces were in for a rude shock. Expecting little resistance from the Greeks, the Italians launched their attack in the Epirus sector on the Greek Elaia–Kalamas River Line, with a flanking attack in the Pindus Mountains. Starting in the morning, 51 Divisione di Fanteria ‘Siena’ and 23 Divisione di ‘Ferrara’ backed by the Centauro Armoured Division thrust towards Elaia, prompting the Greeks to begin a slow withdrawal in that direction. On 2 November, despite being under bombardment from the air and artillery, the Greeks easily fought off repeated attacks, while the tanks of the 131 Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ wallowed in the marshy terrain. More success was had to their right as the Littoral Group, after a slow advance along the coast, secured a bridgehead over the Kalamas River on 6 November. On their left flank the 3 Divisione Alpina ‘Julia’ pushed through the mountains to capture the village of Vovousa but was unable to secure the critical pass at the town of Metsovo. Unfortunately at this point disaster struck when their troops found themselves entirely cut off by the arrival of Greek reserves and were virtually wiped out in the subsequent fighting. However, by then the fight had gone out of the Italians and on 8 November their offensive came to a halt.

At this point the Greeks responded by launching a counter-offensive on 14 November. With in a week they had captured Koritsa and Leslovik and re-crossed the Kalamas River. To add insult to injury they not only regained their lost territory but carried the war into Albania, penetrating deep into the mountains in the northwest of Koritsa. In the south they took the port of Santa Quaranta, thus restricting the Italians to the port of Durrës and the size of the forces they could keep in the field. In the centre the Greeks made good progress towards Berat and by 10 January 1941 had secured Klissoura, though were still short of their goal of taking Tepelene. By now, however, the weather, with frequent blizzards, was taking its toll on their troops, with cases of frostbite common. This was not the only reverse Mussolini suffered. In North Africa the British launched their counter-offensive which not only drove the Italians out of Egypt but by January 1941 saw them in headlong retreat along the Cyrenaican coast.

The British were not slow to respond to the fighting in Albania but reacted in quite a different way. Noting the reluctance of the Italian fleet to force the issue at sea, Admiral Cunningham decided instead to launch an attack on the Italian battle fleet in Taranto harbour. Originally planned for Trafalgar Day, 21 October, the attack had to be deferred till 11 November thanks to a fire in the hangar of HMS Illustrious. The attack was carried out in two waves that night, two aircraft dropping flares east of the anchorage and bombing the oil storage depot, while Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers, coming in from the west, attacked the main anchorage. As a result, two ships were hit and damaged for one aircraft lost. The second wave arrived at the harbour around midnight, hitting one additional ship, also losing one aircraft. By the end of the attack half of the Italian capital ships had been put out of action, two for at least six months. The success was not confined to this as later that night a raiding force sank another four Italian merchant ships in the Adriatic Sea.

The operations against Gibraltar and Greece were scheduled to take place simultaneously in January 1941, while the German offensive in North Africa was to be launched in the autumn of that year. The inversion of the British Isles was also mentioned in this directive, the target date of which was tentatively scheduled for the spring of 1941. The particular difficulty involved in the execution of some of these plans was that the German Army was supposed to conduct operations across the seas even though the Axis had not gained naval superiority in the respective areas. On 4 November even Hitler had voiced doubts as to the advisability of conducting offensive operations in North Africa, since Italy did not control the Mediterranean. That these doubts were well founded became apparent when, on 6 November, British naval fir forces inflicted a severe defeat on the Italian Navy at Taranto.

The German displeasure at the ill-timed Italian attack on Greece found its expression in a letter Hitler addressed to Mussolini on 20 November 1940. Among other things, he stated:

I wanted, above all. to ask you to postpone the operation until a more favorable season, in any ease until after the presidential election in America. In any event I wanted to ask you not to undertake this action without previously carrying out a blitzkrieg operation on Crete. For this purpose I intended to make practical suggestions regarding the employment of a parachute and of an airborne division.

After enumerating the psychological and military consequences of the Italian failure in Albania, the Fuehrer suggested a number of countermeasures to restore the situation. Spain would have to be induced to enter the war as soon as possible ill order to deny the British the use of Gibraltar and to block the western entrance to the Mediterranean. Every possible means would have to be employed to divert Russia s interest from the Balkans to the Near East. Special efforts would have to be made to arrive at an agreement with Turkey whereby Turkish pressure on Bulgaria would be relieved. Yugoslavia would have to be induced to adopt a neutral attitude or, if possible, be led to collaborate actively with the Axis in solving the Greek problem. In the Balkans any military operation that was to lead to a success could be risked only after Yugoslavia’s position had been fully clarified. Hungary would have to grant permission for the immediate transit of sizable German units destined for Romania. The latter country would have to accept the reinforcement of the German troops guaranteeing the protection of its territory. Hitler then continued by stating that he had decided to prevent any British buildup in northeastern Greece by force, whatever the risk may be.

In his reply of 29 November Mussolini expressed his regrets about the misunderstandings with regard to Greece. The Italian forces had been halted because of bad weather, the desertion of nearly all the Albanian forces incorporated into Italian units, and Bulgaria’s attitude, which permitted the Greeks to shift eight divisions from Thrace to Albania.

In December 1940 the German plans in the Mediterranean underwent considerable change when, at the beginning of the month, Franco rejected the plan for an attack on Gibraltar. Consequently, German offensive planning for southern Europe had to be restricted to the campaign against Greece. Upon insistence of the Luftwaffe, the entire country was to be occupied, not just the northern provinces. For this purpose the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 20, dated 13 December 1940, which outlined the Greek campaign under the code designation, Operation MARITA. In the introductory part of the directive Hitler pointed out that, in view of the confused situation in Albania, it was particularly important to thwart British attempts to establish air bases in Greece, which would constitute a threat to Italy as well as to the Romanian oil fields. To meet this situation twenty-four German divisions were to be assembled gradually in southern Romania within the next few months, ready to enter Bulgaria as soon as they received orders. In March, when the weather would be more favorable, they were to occupy the northern coast of the Aegean Sea and, if necessary, the entire Greek mainland. Bulgaria’s assistance was expected; support by Italian forces and the coordination of the German and Italian operations in the Balkans would be the subject of future discussions. The Luftwaffe was-to provide air protection during the assembly period and prepare bases in Romania. During the operation the Luftwaffe was to neutralize the enemy air force, support the ground forces, and whenever possible capture British bases on Greek islands by executing airborne landings.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was to assist the Italians in stabilizing the precarious situation on the Albanian front. This was to be accomplished by airlifting approximately 30,000 Italian troops and great quantities of equipment and supplies from the Italian mainland to Albania.

Even though Hitler had decided to attack Greece, he wanted to tread softly in the Balkans so as not to expand the conflict during the winter. If Turkey entered the war against Germany, the chances for a successful invasion of Russia would diminish because of the diversion of forces such a new conflict would involve. Moreover, at the beginning of December 1940 the British launched an offensive from Egypt and drove the Italians back to the west. Toward the end of the month the situation of the Italians in Libya grew more and more critical. By January 1941 their forces in North Africa were in danger of being completely annihilated. If that happened, Italy with its indefensible coast line would be exposed to an enemy invasion. To forestall such disastrous developments, German air units under the command of X Air Corps had previously been transferred to Sicily, and the movement of German Army elements to Tripoli via Italy was begun immediately. In February initial small contingents of German ground troops arrived in North Africa, and the critical situation was soon alleviated. The first German troops to arrive were elements of a panzer division under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Hitler ordered these forces to protect Tripoli by a series of limited-objective attacks, thus relieving the pressure on the Italian troops. The political objective of this military intervention was to prevent Italy’s internal collapse which would almost certainly result from the loss of her African possessions.