DORNIER Do 217: Nighthawks of the Luftwaffe

The least known of the three big Luftwaffe bomber families of the war, the Do 17/215/217 in its later variants provided the basis for a powerful and well­ armed night fighter, and for capable bomber, reconnaissance and anti‑ship platforms.

0ne of the enduring puzzles of World War II is why the Do 217, an extremely capable bomber, should have remained apparently unknown to British intelligence despite the fact that the first prototype flew in a completely open place in August 1938. Subsequent prototypes cleared most of the surprising list of difficulties, and by December 1940 the Do 217E‑1 bomber was in production. The surmise stemmed from the fact that the 217 was merely a heavier and pore powerful version of the widely used Do 177.

To be frank the Do 17 was not the world’s greatest tactical somber, though it was nice to fly and had no limitations whatever unlike the He 111 and Ju 88). The 217 was obviously potentially much pore formidable, with BMW 801MA or MI, engines of 1179 kW 1,580 hp) for take‑off and a bombload of up to 2500 kg (5,511 lb). In practice the initial major version, the 217E‑2, entered Luftwaffe servicein 1941, long after the Battle of Britain had been lost. Dornier Werke GmbH were never people to sit on their hands and wonder what had gone wrong. In June 1941 Claudius Dormer made a formal proposal for a Do 217 night‑fighter, and it came at the right time.

Even at the time the existing 217 was recognised as not by any neaps an ‘ultimate’ aircraft‑ All versions were likely to weigh well over 13608 kg (30,000 lb) and probably more than 15876 kg 35,0()0 lb), and called for 1492‑kW­(2,ooo‑hp) engines that were not available. On the other hand the basic 217 was a proven aircraft which many crews liked very much, and which could obviously without changing the engines ‑ be converted into a night‑fighter. The original E‑series internal fuel capacity of 2956 litres (650 Imp gals) was unchanged; it was enough for interception missions with the NJG wings and enough for intruder missions over England. The original E‑series bomber had capacious bomb bays, and the nightfighter retained the rear bay to house (for example) eight SC 5oX bombs of 50 kg (110 lb) each. In the forward bay was installed a tank of 1160 litres (255 Imp gals), giving a handsome margin over what aircrews might have expected.

The main, and obvious, change in the 217J night‑fighter was the nose. Instead of a multi‑pane Plexiglas nose for a bomb aimer, the J‑I had a ‘solid’ nose in which were installed four 20‑mm MG FF cannon and four 7.92‑mm MG 17 machine‑guns. The E‑2’s aft defensive armament, comprising an MG131 dorsal turret and a hand‑aimed MG131 in the ventral position, was retained unchanged. The J‑1 was operational from February 1942. Crews liked its firepower and endurance, but found it a rather heavy brute which was sluggish when fast manoeuvres were called for (not often) and needed bigger airfields than most of those that were available. More serious was the lack of airborne radar, though in 1941‑42 most Luftwaffe nightfighter pilots were far from convinced that such new gimmicks were worth having.

Dornier has no record of the first flight of a 217J‑2, with FuG 202 Lichtenstein BC radar, but it was probably in the spring of 1942. The J‑2 was a definitive night‑fighter, not an intruder, the bomb bays being eliminated. The J‑2 was lighter than previous Do 217 versions, and despite the `mattress’ of radar antennas the flight performance was almost the same as before. Only small numbers were built, and few combat missions were flown before 1943.

This was because, despite the heavy armament, the 217J was never considered as anything but a stop‑gap. Except for Rudolf Schoenert, none of the night‑fighter “experten” even considered the 217, and Schoenert only had a soft spot for it because only this aircraft could accommodate his invention of oblique upward‑firing guns ‑ later called schrage Musik ‑ with virtually no extra drag. Schoenert’s original suggestion in 1941 was not proceeded with, but following tests with a Bf 110 and Do 17Z in 1942 the idea was resurrected. Schoenert managed to get three Do 217J‑1s converted for tests at Wittmundhaven and Tarnewitz. Results were promising, and in winter 1942‑43 the 2 Jagddivision had three more 217s converted at Diepensee with a more fully engineered installation of either four or (one aircraft) six MG151/20s. In early 1943 these were tested with increasing success by Schoenert’s 3/NJG 3. When Schoenert was given the command of II/NJG 5 (Bf 110s) he brought his own 217 with him. As a result, a standard Rustsatze (factory modification) R22, for installing four MG151s at an angle of 70° into either the Do 217J or Ju 88C was introduced. These were the first schrage Musik kits to be officially approved for general use.

Thus, in the matter of armament, the 217 led all the other nightfighters in 1942‑43, and it always had superior flight endurance. On the other hand its performance, as delivered by Dormer, was totally inadequate. None of the bomber’s equipment had been removed (apart from the bombsight), so the operational Gruppen (all of which used the 217J in a mix with other types, usually the 110) began removing as much as possible.

Flame‑dampers on the exhausts clearly had to stay, but the rear defensive guns, armour, dinghy, dive brakes and (in the J‑1) bomb carriers and release mechanism were all removed. This had a considerable beneficial effect, maximum speed at optimum height of 5200 m (17,060 ft) rising from 430 to 510 km/h (26 7 to 317 mph) (still slower than the E‑2 bomber) and time to climb to 5000 m (16,404 ft) being reduced from 35 to 24 minutes.

Meanwhile, from mid‑1941 the Dormer works had been developing a series of different 217 versions. Several remained on the drawing board, but two families were destined by 1943 to supplant the original E and J sub‑types as the standard production models. The first of these new series was the Do 217K, the first prototype of which (briefly fitted with a single‑fin tail) made its maiden flight on 31 March 1942.

In all essentials the resulting production 217K‑1, which began to come off production in about October 1942, was similar to the later E‑series, and it was likewise intended for night bombing. The only significant changes were fitting BMW 801D engines, giving a maximum power of 1268 kW (1,700 hp), and a redesign of the forward fuselage. There had been nothing particularly wrong with the original cockpit of the Do 17Z/215/217E, but Dormer ‑influenced by Junkers’ development of the Ju 88B/188 ‑ developed a nose similar to that of the He 177 and FW 191, with the front glazed part continued up to the top of the fuselage. This had the slight drawback of making the pilot look ahead through distant Plexiglas on which he tended to mis‑focus his eyes, especially when the panes reflected lighted parts of the cockpit. At first the K‑1 had MG81Z twin 7.92‑mm guns in the nose, two single MG81s firing to the sides/rear, an MG131 in the dorsal turret and another MG131 in the rear ventral position. Later two more MG81s were added firing to the sides. It was possible to fit the R19 installation of one or two MG81Z firing astern from the tailcone, but it was more common to have the R25 installation of a Perlon divebombing parachute. Not many K‑is were built, at least one being fitted with underwing racks for no fewer than four LT F5b torpedoes.

Running a few weeks later in timing, the Do 217K‑2 was the heaviest of all production 217s, at 16850 kg (37,147 lb). It was specifically developed to carry the FX1400 radio‑controlled heavy bomb, the He 111H having been found not really suitable for the task. The massive bombs, also known as Fritz X, were slung on special racks under the inner wings. An extra fuel tank of 1160 litres (255 Imp gals) capacity was fitted into the forward bomb bay. To carry the greatly increased weight the outer wings were extended in span from 19 to 24.8 m (62 ft 4 in to 81 ft 4 in), and handling and overall performance remained satisfactory. Almost all K‑2s had the R19 fitting of twin MG81Z guns (four in all) in the tail, and some even had an MG81Z firing aft from the tail of each engine nacelle.

The K‑2’s greatest day was 9 September 1943. Maj Bernhard Jope’s III/KG 100, based at Istres, made a concerted assault on the Italian fleet as it sailed to join the Allies. The greatest battleship, Roma, took two direct hits, blew up and sank within minutes. Her sister, Italia, limped to Malta with 800 tons of water on board. Later the powerful bombs, each weighing 1570 kg (3,461 lb), crippled or sank many other ships. Some were launched by Do 217K‑3s, which instead of having the FuG 203a Kehl I/FuG 230a Strassburg guidance link, had the FuG 203c or 203d Kehl IV with which the bomb aimer could guide either FX 1400 or the smaller Hs 293A winged bomb.

The other production Do 217 family were the M bombers and N night‑fighters. Structurally these were similar to earlier versions; in fact the first 217M was merely a K‑1 fitted with Daimler‑Benz DB603A liquid‑cooled engines, each of 1380 kW (1,850 maximum horsepower). The M‑1 went into production almost straight away, being very similar to a K‑1 except for having slightly better performance at high altitude. Not many were built, the need for nightfighters being more pressing, but one achieved notoriety on the night of 23 February 1944 when it made a perfect belly landing near Cambridge (soon flying in RAF markings), the crew having baled out over 100 km (62 miles) away near London!

Despite its later suffix letter the corresponding night‑fighter, the Do 217N, flew as early as 31 July 1942, the DB603 engine installation having been designed in 1941. Production Do 217N‑1s began to reach the Luftwaffe in January 1943. By this time critical feedback about the 217J had been going on for many months, and the NJG crews were disappointed to find the N‑1 incorporated none of their mostly obvious recommendations.

This was largely because the RLM, and Erhard Milch in particular, disallowed any modifications that would reduce output or increase costs. By mid‑1943, however, Dornier had switched to the N‑2, and also produced the Ul conversion set with which existing night‑fighters could be modified. The chief changes were to remove the dorsal turret and lower rear gun gondola and add wooden fairings. The reduction in drag and removal of some two tonnes of weight raised flight performance to a useful level, maximum speed at medium heights exceeding 500 km/h (310 mph). With the devastating armament of four MGl51s and four MG17s firing ahead and four more MG151s firing at 70° upwards, the 217N‑2 was a vast improvement over the J‑1, and soon appeared with the FuG 220 Lichtenstein SN‑2 radar. By 1944 217Js and Ns were scattered over a vast area of Germany and the occupied countries, as well as I/NJG 100 on the Eastern Front. On the other hand no Gruppe was ever solely equipped with the Do 217, and various problems militated against it ever becoming a top nightfighter as did the Bf 110G and Ju 88G. In the case of the best subtype, the N‑2, the main problem was an enduring series of troubles and shortages with the engines, so that aircraft were continually being cannibalised. For example as early as July 1943 all 14 Do 217Ns of II/NJG 3 were lying around with damaged engines, leaving the Gruppe to carry on with just seven Bf 110s. The point could also be made that the same DB 603 engines powered the He 219, and this was not only nearly 200 km/h (124 mph) faster but it was also a superior night‑fighter in every way‑but endlessly dogged by its own problems and production difficulties.

Total production of Do 217Js and Ns amounted to a mere 364, terminating in October 1943. From April 1943 until Italy’s capitulation five months later small numbers of Do 217J‑2s served with the 59° and 60° Gruppi of the Regia Aeronautica. They saw little action and suffered severe attrition from accidents and other problems.

Various related aircraft which never entered service were all intended for flight at high altitudes. First to be started, as an entry in the 1939‑40 Bomber B requirement, was the Do 317. This was to be basically a 217 with DB604 engines, each with four banks totalling 24 cylinders and giving a maximum power of 1984 kW (2,660 hp) each, and with a four‑seat pressure cabin in the nose. In 1940 this was dropped and some of its features used to assist development of the Do 217P, which had a similar pressure cabin but was powered by two DB603B engines supercharged by a large two‑stage blower and intercooler in the rear fuselage, driven by a third engine, a DB605T. The first 217P flew in June 1942, and there were plans for a production Do 217P‑0 reconnaissance aircraft with almost the same extended outer wings as the K‑2 (raising service ceiling to an estimated 16154 m /53,000 ft), but this was abandoned.

Meanwhile, in late 1941, the Do 317 was resurrected, and in early 1943 the first 317 began flight testing. This was planned in two versions. The 317A was a broadly conventional high‑altitude bomber with DB603A engines, outwardly having much in common with the 217M apart from an odd tail with triangular vertical surfaces. The next‑generation 317B was to have extended wings of 26 m (85 ft) span, huge DB610 double engines each of 2141 kW (2,870 hp), and defensive armament comprising a remotely controlled 20‑mm MG151 in the tailcone and three twin‑gun turrets, two of them remotely controlled. Eventually the 317 also ground to a halt, but five of the 317A series prototypes were modified as unpressurised launch aircraft for the Hs 293A radio‑controlled missiles. Redesignated as Do 217Rs, they actually saw combat duty with III/KG 100 at Orleans‑Bricy in 1944. At 17770 kg (39,021 lb) they were the heaviest of the whole 2171317 family actually to fly, though had they gone ahead, the 317A and 317B would have been much heavier still.



Versatile bomber, nightfighter, recce-plane which also carried the first guided aerial weapon.

The Dornier 217 was the first new German reconnaissance bomber to enter large‑scale service with the Luftwaffe after the beginning of World War II. It began its operational life during the last months of 1940 flying clandestine reconnaissance missions deep into Russia‑with which Germany was, at that time, ostensibly still on friendly terms. During 1942 and 1943 the Do 217 inflicted most of the damage caused by German air attacks on Britain. At the same time, a few of these aircraft operated as night fighters against the RAF night attacks on the Reich.

In the summer of 1943‑as the performance of the Dornier was beginning to fall short of what was required by frontline units‑the type underwent a new lease of life. It was modified to carry radio‑guided missiles. These were the first such weapons ever launched operationally from aircraft. In its new role the Do 217 scored some spectacular early successes. Finally, however, the overwhelming Allied fighter superiority on all fronts caught up with the bomber units operating the Do 217. From the beginning of 1944 almost all attempts to operate these aircraft against worthwhile Allied targets‑by day or by night, with or without missiles‑resulted in the same debilitating losses. By late summer 1944, after 1,887 examples had been delivered, the Do 217 had been all but discarded from front‑line service in the Luftwaffe.

A twin‑engined high‑winged monoplane with twin fins and rudders, the Dornier 217 was of conventional all‑metal construction. It carried a crew of four‑pilot, observer, radio operator/air gunner and ventral gunner. The observer, as well as navigating the aircraft, was responsible for bomb aiming and firing the nose‑mounted flexible gun on the rare occasions it was used. The positioning of the crew close together in the nose made for efficiency. During operations, a lot of information could be conveyed by signs or by pointing. This minimized the distractions caused by ‘intercom natter’.

The most used variant of the Do 217 was the E model. The forward‑firing gun armament usually fitted was a fixed 15mm cannon and a flexible 20mm cannon. The former was fired by the pilot and the latter by the observer. For defense there was a 13 mm machine‑gun in the power‑operated dorsal turret, four rifle‑calibre machine‑guns firing from the side windows of the crew compartment. Another of these weapons (later replaced by a 13mm gun) was mounted in the ventral position. Four 500kg bombs, or four containers each with 140 1‑kg incendiary bombs, or two 1,000kg sea mines were the typical loads carried in the bomb bay. There was also provision for the plane to carry a single F5B torpedo internally. But it seems that the aircraft never carried this weapon operationally.

Like other German bombers, the crew positions in the Do 217 were well protected with armor. The pilot had an 8.5mm‑thick steel plate shield behind his seat, 5mm‑thick steel under his seat pan and a further 5mm‑thick plate above and behind his head. Behind the crew compartment was a semi‑circular transverse armored bulkhead 8.5mm thick, with 5mm plates at the sides. As was normal German practice, the compartment for the inflatable life raft in the rear fuselage was protected with 5mm plate at the sides, top and bottom, and 8.5mm plate at the rear.

Also, as was usual for German bombers, self‑sealing fuel and oil tanks were fitted in the Do 217. This was a vital safeguard. The ignition of petrol or oil leaking from tanks caused major aircraft losses during World War II. The standard German self‑sealing tank comprised an inner shell of compressed cellulose fibre around which was a layer of thick leather, a layer of thick crude rubber, two layers of thin rubber sheet and an outer layer of thick vulcanized rubber. Altogether, the wall of the tank with its self‑sealing layer was about half‑an‑inch thick. When bullets or shell fragments hit the tank they usually punched their way clean through the walls and out the other side. But when the petrol or oil leaked out of the holes and reached the crude rubber a chemical reaction was set up. This caused the crude rubber to swell‑sealing the holes. During the sealing process a small amount of crude rubber was dissolved into the petrol. This caused some contamination, but not enough to seriously affect the engines. They continued to function with little loss of efficiency.

A further factor which helped reduce the vulnerability of the Do 217 was the fitting of air‑cooled engines. Because there was no coolant to leak away, air‑cooled engines were about half as likely to be stopped by battle damage as were liquid‑cooled engines. The 1,580hp BMW 801 14‑cylinder radials of the Do 217E employed direct fuel injection‑a useful feature because the engines continued to operate under negative‑G conditions. This was in contrast to the float‑type carburetors fitted to British fighters during the early war period. These cut out when their pilots tried to follow German aircraft bunting over into a dive.

Pilots who flew the Do 217 recall that it was a stable machine with good handling characteristics at the medium and high-speed ends of its performance range. Due to its high wing loading, however, the landing speed was also high. And the undercarriage frequently proved unable to take the demands made on it during a heavy landing.

With a maximum all‑up weight of about 17 tons, a range of 1,430 miles and a top speed of 320mph, the Dornier 217E’s closest equivalent was the American B26 Marauder. This had a similar weight and performance and was also designed with a high wing loading.

The Dornier 217 was designed as a replacement for theearlier Do17 medium bomber. The new plane was to have a higher performance and be able to carry a heavier bomb load, and it had to be stressed and equipped for dive-bombing attacks. The first prototype of the Do 217 made its maiden flight in August 1938. But its handling characteristics were bad and the prototype crashed the following month, killing both members of the test crew. By early in 1939 three more prototypes were flying. The problem of improving the basic handling characteristics of the Do 217 proved relatively simple to overcome. But that of making such a large aircraft into an effective dive-bomber proved beyond solution. Following lengthy trials with different types of air brake, during which some aircraft were lost and others overstressed during the pull‑out maneuver the dive-bombing attack was deleted from the aircraft’s repertoire.

The first Do 217 to enter service with the Luftwaffe was the E variant. Late in 1940, 10 of the first production aircraft were issued to the Second Staffel of Fernaufklaerungsgruppe 11‑a long‑range reconnaissance unit which soon afterwards became involved in the clandestine high‑altitude flights over Russia. During these missions the Dorniers carried two vertically‑mounted long‑focal‑length cameras. They took the photographs of the Soviet defenses which were to play an important role when the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941.

The first bomber unit to receive the Do 217 was the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 40, based in France, which received its complement (a Gruppe had a nominal strength of 30 aircraft) during the spring and summer of 1941. At first the aircraft were employed on minelaying missions against British harbors and shipping lanes and, less often, in direct attacks on shipping. Later in 1941 the three Gruppen of Kampfgeschwader 2 moved to France, also equipped with the new bomber.


By this time, large‑scale German air attacks on Britain had come to a halt with the transfer of the bulk of the bomber force to the Eastern front. Do 217s concentrated on anti‑shipping work. However, this quiescent period came to an abrupt halt following the powerful RAF attack which destroyed much of Lübeck on 28 March. Hitler demanded retaliation and in the month that followed German bombers, for the most part Do 217s of KG2, launched two sharp attacks on Exeter and two more on Bath. On the very night that Bath was under attack, however, the RAF was engaged in a series of four destructive raids on the German town of Rostock. Hitler was apoplectic at this affront and in an impassioned speech he spoke of taking a copy of Baedeker’s guidebook and marking off each British city as it was razed to the ground. Because of this the series of attacks became known in Britain as the Baedeker Raids. During the late spring of 1942, Bath, Norwich, York, Cowes, Hull and Poole, Grimsby and Exeter, all suffered varying degrees of damage. But the German bombers had to penetrate the increasingly powerful British night fighter and gun defenses, and suffered heavy losses. The series of attacks ended with three raids on Birmingham and one on Hull at the end of July, which cost the Luftwaffe 27 aircraft and caused only minor damage.

Following this battering Kampfgeschwader 2, which was now the only bomber unit operational with the Do 217, was withdrawn from operations over Britain to make good the losses suffered. But the respite was to prove short lived. On 19 August Allied forces launched the large‑scale seaborne raid on Dieppe and virtually all operational Luftwaffe units in France and Belgium went into action in defense of the port. Operating by day, the Dorniers came up against powerful standing patrols of Spitfires. The Germans suffered catastrophic losses. Out of a total of about 80 planes committed by KG2‑many of them flown by trainee crews‑20 were shot down. Having started the year with an average strength of 88 trained crews, by September 1942 KG2 was down to 23.

KG2 took little part in operations for the rest of the year. At the end of 1942 two improved versions of the Do 217 entered service‑the K and the M. Both of these had more powerful engines and a redesigned low‑drag nose profile. The K model was fitted with the new BMW 801 D radial engine developing 1,700hp, while the M employed the similarly powerful liquid‑cooled Daimler Benz 603 in‑line. The two new variants were about 20mph faster than the earlier E model. In addition to their greater speed the new Dorniers had the advantage of carrying tail‑warning radar to reduce the chances of surprise fighter attack at night, and radio altimeters to make possible a low‑level penetration of defenses at night or in poor visibility.

With these technical improvements the revitalized KG2 recommenced its operations over Britain early in 1943.

During these night attacks the Do 217s exploited every possible stratagem to avoid the attentions of the defenses: a low‑level approach, climbing to medium level to bomb then letting down to low level for the withdrawal; a high-level approach, bombing during a shallow descent and making the withdrawal. Since the bombers’ targets were rarely more than 50 miles inland, these methods helped a lot to keep the German losses down. Even so, the defenders were able to take their toll. During March 1943 alone, Kampfgeschwader 2 lost 23 complete crews.

Typical of the German raids on Britain in the summer of 1943 was that by 91 planes on Portsmouth, on 15 August. The Dornier 217s of the First and Third Gruppen of KG2 operated from St Andre and Dreux respectively, both near Paris. After take‑off the bombers funnelled together over Cap D’Antifer near Le Havre and headed NW across the sea flying at an altitude of 200ft, beneath the prying beams of the British radar. At a point 24 miles south of Brighton the bombers commenced their climb, aiming to arrive over Portsmouth at 15,000ft. The actual attack was delivered soon after 0100 on the morning of the 16th. It lasted about 10 minutes. Afterwards the bombers turned to port and withdrew along the route they had come. Such a low‑level approach to a coastal target should have given the raiders the advantage of surprise. But the RAF night‑fighters proved their alertness by shooting down five of the attackers ‑all Do 217s. Four of the bombers fell to the Mosquitoes of No 256 Squadron, based at Ford near Bognor, Sussex.

The Dornier 217 was involved in the resurgence of air activity over Britain in early 1944. But the units operating the type represented less than a fifth of the force involved. By that time the performance of the Do 217 was not good enough to enable it to survive without heavy losses in the face of the powerful defenses.


During 1942 and 1943 a total of 364 J and N nightfighter versions of the Dornier 217 were delivered to the Luftwaffe. In addition to Lichtenstein radar equipment with a range of 21 miles, these aircraft carried a forward‑firing armament of four 20mm cannon and four rifle‑calibre machine‑guns. The High Command thought that the long endurance of the Do 217 would make it a useful addition to the German night fighter force. But it proved unpopular with the front‑line units. It was too heavy on the controls and had too low a rate of climb to be very effective against the RAF night bombers. After a short time the majority of the Do 217 night fighters were relegated to training units. About 30 were turned over to the Italian Air Force.

In the summer of 1943 some Dornier 217s were modified to carry air‑launched guided missiles‑the first such weapons ever to be used in action. There were two quite different types of missile, though subsequent accounts have frequently confused them or treated them as one.


The first of the guided missiles to enter service was the Henschel 293 glider‑bomb. This weapon looked like a small aeroplane with a wingspan of just over 10ft. Prior to launch it weighed a little over 2,000lb, 1,100lb of this being the warhead. After release from the parent aircraft the rocket motor under the missile fired‑carrying the weapon to a speed of about 370mph. Then the motor cut out and the missile coasted on in a shallow dive, accelerating slowly towards its target. The range of the missile depended upon the altitude of the parent plane at the time of release. A typical operational range was five miles, for which the aircraft needed to be at 4,500ft. In the tail of the missile was a bright tracking flare. This allowed the observer in the parent aircraft to follow its movements. The observer operated a small joy‑stick controller, the movement of which fed the appropriate up‑down‑left‑right impulses to the guidance transmitter, which in turn radiated them to the missile. Here, they were converted into control movements for the ailerons and elevators. The observer only had to steer the tracking flare until it appeared to be superimposed on the target and hold it there until the missile impacted. The Henschel 293 was a low‑speed weapon compared with a normal‑gravity bomb and as a result had little penetrative ability. It was intended mainly for use against merchant ships and more lightly armored warships.

The glider bombs were used in action for the first time on 25 August 1943.Fourteen Do 217s of the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 attacked a Royal Navy U‑boat-hunting group off the NW tip of Spain. An observer on the sloop HMS Landguard later reported, after the aircraft had formed up off her starboard quarter at a range of about six miles


‘A pall of smoke forming into a streamer appeared from the leading aircraft. At the time of firing the aircraft were on a reciprocal course to the ships, well out on the beam. The projectile was seen for some time apparently near the aircraft, but this was probably due to the fact that it was coming towards the ship at a constant bearing. Flashes were seen coming from the aircraft at about the time of the firing (almost certainly this was due to the tracking flare lighting up) but neither smoke nor flame from the projectile during the later stages of its run . . .. The projectile then banked exactly like an aircraft and set course towards the ship, descending at an angle of about 15° or 20°. When about two cables from the starboard quarter the bomb appeared to be pointing straight at the ship. Then it banked to starboard and lost height rapidly, falling in the sea one hundred yards off Landguard’s starboard quarter and exploding on impact.’

Two further bombs were aimed at Landguard, both of which exploded clear of her.

The only damage inflicted during the action was to the sloop HMS Bideford. A near miss caused splinter damage to her port side, holing her stores, Asdic compartment and forward mess deck and causing some flooding. She was able to continue in action, but was later in dock for a month being repaired.

Two days later‑27 August‑the Dorniers again attacked British warships off the NW tip of Spain. This time the victims belonged to the 1st Escort Group comprising the destroyers Grenville and Athabaskan, the frigates Jed and Rother and the sloop Egret. Soon after 1200 the force of 18 bombers was sighted coming in from the north. The warships were heading southwards in a line‑abreast formation searching for U‑boats. The commander of the force, Captain Godfrey Brewer in Egret, immediately ordered ‘Repel Air Attack’. All ships went to action stations and ‘ increased speed. The ships swung into two columns of two ships in line ahead‑with two miles between columns. With her powerful AA armament of eight 4in guns, Egret was to move across the rear to support whichever column was threatened.

The attack began with four Dorniers flying along the ships’ port side. When they came within gun range Athabaskan and Egret opened fire. But the bombers held their course and each launched a glider bomb at Athabaskan. ‘ The first three missiles fell harmlessly into the sea, but the fourth continued on and struck and destroyed near the base of her ‘B’ gun turret. The bomb smashed straight through the superstructure, shedding its wings and body in the process. The warhead finally detonated just clear of the ships’ starboard side abreast the forward end of the bridge. The explosion caused severe splinter damage. ‘B’ turret shell‑room, two fuel tanks, the torpedomen’s mess and lower power and gyro room were all flooded. The blast caused the fires in the boilers to flash back into the boiler rooms. This resulted in a minor oil fire. Athabaskan’s engines stopped. She slid to a halt.


Meanwhile the German bombers were forming up on the starboard side and Egret departed to support the column there. But her gallantry was to bear bitter fruit. It was on her that the German crews now concentrated their attack. Within a short time seven glider bombs were streaking towards the sloop. The commander of Egret, Commander John Waterhouse, reported afterwards:

Several rocket bombs were now heading for Egret and I increased to full speed and put the wheel hard to starboard in an endeavour to point them and present the smallest possible virtual target. Two bombs passed close astern and a third was either hit by Oerlikon fire or else fell into the sea within thirty feet of the starboard side amidships.

After this escape a report was received from the engine room that all was well below and I assumed that any damage sustained was superficial. The ship was momentarily steadied on a west‑north‑westerly course with her main armament engaging the enemy, when two more bombs were reported approaching from just before and just abaft the starboard beam. I did not see the one approaching from aft, which I believe missed, but I was able to observe carefully the behaviour of that before the beam. Swinging fast under full starboard rudder the ship would normally have brought the bomb, which was flying level about fifteen feet above the water, within 30° of the ship’s bow and the bomb should have passed down the starboard side. In the event the bomb banked sweetly and turned smoothly to starboard like a well‑piloted fighter aircraft and so continued to head straight for the bridge . . ..

The missile struck Egret near her forecastle deck, and the warhead continued on into the ship before detonating. The resultant explosion, whose force was probably compounded by the detonation of one of the ship’s magazines, almost certainly blew out a large area of plating on Egret’s port side.

She listed badly to port. Within about 40 seconds of the explosion she had capsized completely. She floated bottom up for over an hour before sinking. Only 36 men survived out of a complement of 188. So it was that Egretgained thedubious distinction of being the first ship ever to be sunk by an air‑launched guided missile.

The crew of Athabaskan were able to effect temporary repairs to their engines and the destroyer returned to Britain under her own steam. Permanent repair work kept her out of action for over two months.

From German records it would seem that Leutnant Paulus and Hauptmann Vorpahl, respectively, had captained the Dorniers which sank Egret and damaged Athabaskan. It must be said, however, that the total of only two hits for an expenditure of 25 glider bombs during the attacks on 25 and 27 August was hardly impressive. During a subsequent investigation into the causes of the missile failures‑held at the bombers’ base at Bordeaux/Merignac‑‑it was discovered that several of the Dorniers had had their missile control transmitters sabotaged in a very cleverwayso thatnormal ground tests did not reveal the fault. The SS conducted a full investigation, but the culprit was never found.

While the Second Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 was operating with its glider bombs, the Third Gruppe was preparing to go into action with a quite different type of missile. This was the Fritz‑X guided bomb‑‑a high‑velocity weapon designed to pierce the heaviest armor. In appearance the Fritz‑X resembled an ordinary bomb, except that it carried four stabilizing stub‑wings mid‑way along its body. It weighed 3,100 lb and was unpowered. Released from altitudes around 20,000ft, it fell under gravity to reach an

impact velocity close to that of sound. In the tail of the bomb was a tracking flare, and after release the missile was guided down to its target in a similar way to the glider bomb. Since the Fritz‑X had to be released from high level if it was to reach the necessary impact velocity, III./KG 100 received the high‑flying K2 version of the Dornier 217. This model was similar to the normal K type‑except that its wingspan was 19ft wider.

For the Third Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 100 the big chance came on 9 September. The Italians capitulated and their battle fleet made its dash to Malta to surrender. The main body of the fleet sailed from La Spezia in northern Italy and included the modern battleships Roma, Italia and Vittorio Veneto. Early that afternoon Major Bernhard Jope, the commander of Kampfgeschwader 100, led a striking force of eleven Dorniers off the ground at Marseilles/Istres. Each aircraft carried a single Fritz‑X under its starboard wing, close to the fuselage.

The bombers caught up with the Italian warships off the Straits of Bonifacio‑between Sardinia and Corsica. The German crews broke formation and attacked individually–aiming their missiles at the ships twisting below. After releasing the Fritz‑X each pilot throttled back his engines and climbed through 1,000ft. This brought the aircraft in line with the missile and the target during the final stage of the missile’s trajectory. It was now possible to guide the Fritz‑X on to the target. Apart from being essential for the control of the missile, this maneuver produced the useful bonus of throwing off predicted AA fire from below.

One of the first bombs scored a near miss on the Italia, temporarily jamming her rudder. A few minutes later another scored a direct hit on Roma, on her deck near the starboard side abeam her after funnel. The missile punched its way straight through the ship and exploded immediately underneath the hull, wrecking her starboard steam turbines and causing some flooding. Severely shaken, Roma’s speed fell to 16 knots and she began to list to starboard. A little later a second bomb struck Roma. This was almost certainly released from the Dornier flown by Oberleutnant Heinrich Schmetz with Feldwebel Oscar Huhn as observer. This missile hit the ship squarely just in front of her bridge and pierced deep into her vitals and then detonated. The explosion‑its effects worsened by being confined inside the armored structure‑knocked out the remaining steam turbines and started an uncontrollable fire which raged through to the forward magazine. With a violent explosion the battleship snapped in two like a jack‑knife, and sank. Only 622 officers and ratings survived, out of her crew of nearly 2,000.

Shortly after the second bomb hit Roma, Italia took a Fritz‑X on her bow, which blew a large hole. She took on about 800 tons of water. In spite of this, the battleship was able to limp to Malta unaided.

In the months that followed, the Dornier 217s of Kampfgeschwader 100 scored other successes. A direct hit and two near misses with Fritz‑X bombs on the battleship HMS Warspite put her out of action for seven months; a single Fritz‑X hit on the cruiser HMS Uganda, which required repairs lasting over a year. At the same time, Henschel 293 glider bombs sank the cruiser HMS Spartan and several destroyers. But the Allies proved able to take the measure of the new threat. Strong fighter patrols were maintained over all future concentrations of shipping. From the spring of 1944 it was rare for the missile‑carriers to reach their targets. They usually suffered debilitating losses whenever they tried. During the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 the Allied shipping not only enjoyed powerful fighter cover, but some of their number carried special transmitters which emitted jamming on the German missile‑control frequencies blotting out the radio command signals. As a result of these countermeasures, the missiles were virtually useless.

The German failure to contain the Allied invasion of Normandy coincided with the success of the Allied strategic bombing offensive against the German oil industry. This led to a crippling shortage of aviation fuel. One result of this was that the Luftwaffe bomber force was reduced to a shadow of what it had been. Most of the units were disbanded, their men being sent to the fighter units or into the army. A few Dornier 217s continued in use until the end of the war; but the majority of those that survived their bomber units ended their days in aircraft parks, where they swelled the scores of strafing Allied pilots.


Medieval Prints by Graham Turner

Although firmly rooted and fairly well developed in the Rhineland, Franconia, Lorraine (the old Lotharingia) and Burgundy, feudalism in its widest sense was never as strong in Germany as in, say, France or England, and true knighthood and the customary granting of fiefs was unknown in Germany until the 12th century; the earliest recorded instance of knighting actually dates to 1146.

During the period under review Germany was basically a confederation of petty states led by princely families of tribal origin, of whom very few held their Lands as vassals of the crown. In the first half of this era, therefore, the king (or Emperor) had to depend almost entirely on the goodwill of these autonomous princes and dukes for military support, who recognised Imperial authority only when they deemed it expedient to do so. Their principalities had largely evolved from once-independent territories and sub-kingdoms (principally Saxony, Thuringia, Burgundy, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia) and the princes continued to associate themselves with the ethnic origins of their lands. Without their support the Emperor had practically no army, and therefore no power, at all, and it was as a result of this dependence that the Imperial throne became elective in the second half of the 13th century, the most powerful princes becoming Kürfursten or ‘Electors’ whose one concern was effectively to ensure their own autonomy by the maintenance of a weak monarchy. Some idea of the princes’ military potential can be got from the fact that at a Diet (parliament) in Mainz in 1235, where they were nearly all present, their personal retinues are recorded to have totalled 12,000 knights. An individual prince might easily raise several hundred knights (mostly ministeriales, for which see below), the Archbishop of Cologne reputedly fielding 500 in 1161.

Other than for the king’s expedition to Rome to be crowned (the expeditio italica, after 1135 called the expeditio roma or Romfahrt, later Romzug) only the princes of the church -the abbots, bishops and archbishops- were actually obliged to render him military service, since they alone owed their positions to the crown, having been invested with their various estates and offices by the king; therefore it was on them that he relied predominantly for troops. In 1167, 1174 and 1176, for example, German armies operating in Italy under Frederick I Barbarossa consisted almost entirely of church contingents. However, the obligations of ecclesiastical princes differed from those of feudal vassals; with them it was more a case of administering an Imperial estate and, when necessary, financing contingents of troops from the proceeds. Sometimes such proceeds were inadequate to pay for the requisite troops and it was not uncommon for the church to have to mortgage or pawn property and estates in order to raise men. Most German bishops were therefore soldiers first and churchmen second and many even commanded Imperial armies in the field, despite the fact that for most of this era there was bitter enmity between Empire and papacy. In 1257 Richard of Cornwall wrote to his brother, King Henry III of England, about the ‘mettlesome and warlike archbishops there are in Germany. It would be a fine thing for you if you could create such archbishops in England.’

It was Frederick I (who added the ‘Holy’ to ‘Roman Empire’) who first sought to fully reorganise German feudalism on the model of France. Realising the necessity of pulling together the heterogenous elements that made up the Empire, Frederick made a concerted effort to ensure that all princes, both ecclesiastical and lay, were tied to the throne by bonds of vassalage, and by 1180 the structure of the feudal hierarchy had been firmly established; the princes and dukes were now tenants-in-chief (the princes of the church inevitably taking precedence over lay princes), with their vassals obliged to perform military service as knights. Where previously the king bad been able to solicit military aid from his nobility chiefly only by cash payments, the late-12th century saw them serving for a standard period of6 weeks per year, in addition to which, after an interval, their vassals could be called upon for further service of another 6 weeks at the expense of the tenant-in-chief or crown. Unfortunately after Frederick’s death in 1190 his successors were unable to maintain their hold on the nobility, his grandson Frederick II (1214-50, best known for his Sicilian and Italian exploits) issuing in 1231 the ‘Statute of Favour of the Princes’ which granted lay and ecclesiastical princes alike absolute autonomy within their lands and total freedom from royal interference; assorted exemptions from and limitations on obligatory military service followed (Bohemians and Saxons, for instance, could commute their obligation to participate in the Romfahrt by means of a token cash payment). Thereafter the German monarchy was purely elective and royal authority Little more than nominal. Rudolf of Habsburg (1273-91) appears to have been at least partially successful in forcing the nobility back into submission, though be bad to put dissidents down by force on a number of occasions and destroyed some 70 or more castles in the process. Nor were his achievements particularly lasting.

Since the princes were of dubious loyalty, and because the German peasantry were basically forbidden to bear arms by the late-12th century, it was inevitable that some reliance should be placed on mercenary troops (principally Germans), though they were apparently never employed in particularly large numbers. As early as the late-11th century it had been suggested to Henry IV (by Benzo of Alba) that mercenaries, paid for by a form of scutage, should replace the feudal or semi-feudal muster, and the suggestion was revived following the failure of Henry V’s French campaign of 1124and again after the decisive defeat of the Imperialists under Otto IV at Bouvines in 1214. Certainly Frederick I had depended on Brabanson mercenaries in Italy in 1166-67 (5-800 men, or perhaps 1,500 including Flemish mercenaries too) and 1174-75 (commanded by the Archbishop of Mainz), where they gained a morale ascendancy over the Italians, who were scared to death of them (or, rather, of their reputation); such Brabanzonen were only actively employed within Germany itself once, in Saxony in 1179 by Archbishop Philip von Heinsberg of Cologne, who fielded as many as 4,000 mercenaries, cavalry and infantry together, of whom the Brabansons constituted the latter. The Emperors themselves tended to rely heavily on mercenaries in their personal retinues to compensate for the indifference of their vassals; for a crusading enterprise of 1196-98 Henry VI personally raised a contingent of as many as 6,000 mercenary troops, 1,500 of them knights and a further 1,500 being esquires. Many such troops were paid with money-fiefs. Hungarians too were sometimes employed, about 600 horse-archers being recorded in an army raised in 1158, while as many as 14,000 are supposed to have been present under their king in Rudolf’s army at Marchfeld 120 years later.

Another considerable – and unique – element of the Imperial army (and of the ecclesiastical contingents in particular) was supplied by ministeriales (German Dienscleuten), a class of ‘unfree’ knights. These appeared in the first half of the 10th century, were only first introduced on a large scale by Conrad II (1024-39), when they were much used for royal garrisons. They were initially nonnoble freemen administering fiefs without actually holding them as vassals, and they could be granted by one lord to another, leased out as mercenaries, or even sold.

The building of fortresses was one of the duties of the levy, particularly in the Marches. Henry the Fowler (919-936, founder of the dynasty), introduced a system where every ninth man lived in a fortified town, helping to build and maintain it, while the other 8 continued their agricultural chores and stored one third of their produce within the town, taking refuge there themselves during Slav or Magyar raids. These men were lower-class vassals, sometimes referred to as agrarii milites, who were in many ways the forerunners of the mediaeval German ministeriales, unfree knights.

It was Conrad II (1024-1039) who actually introduced ministeriales on a large scale. A ministerialis is best described as an unfree man in possession of a benefice and performing the same military service as a free, feudal tenant would. They appear to have originally evolved as a result of church lands being obliged to supply feudal troops in the same way as the nobility had to; so as not to incur a loss of income by granting the land to free vassals to fulfil these obligations, unfree men were granted such lands instead and were obliged to supply the requisite military duties while at the same time, being unfree, not being permitted any of the benefits or income of a free vassal. This practice became widespread in Germany.

Many vassals therefore bad no need to involve themselves in subinfeudation, since they could utilise ministeriales to satisfy their military obligations without loss of land or revenue, and it was this aspect that made them particularly popular with the church. However, ministeriales often became important Imperial officials so that their status steadily improved. As early as 1126 we find ministeriales being made knights and by the mid-century they had to be paid for service beyond their master’s own domains. Many were by this time becoming powerful and wealthy enough to be considered capable of holding lands on their own account, so that their offices were subsequently convened into feudal possessions. Their ability to hold property and thereby have vassals of their own inevitably broke down and blurred the original distinction between the ‘unfree’ ministerialis and the free knight (to the disgust of the latter), one powerful ministerialis of Frederick I’s reign, Werner von Bolanden, even being reported as holding 17 castles and allegedly being owed the service of as many as 1,100 men-at-arms. By the mid-13th century when, in South German contingents at least, as much as 95 per cent or more of an army could be composed of ministeriales – they were indistinguishable from the nobility, a considerable proportion of the latter by then being of ministerialis origin, including even dukes, counts and bishops.

Some ministeriales appear to have served as infantry but most evidence indicates that they were cavalrymen. The same applies to the Sariants, or sergeants, who first appear in the 12th century. Nethertheless infantry were an important element of German armies. Many were still supplied by the Heerbann or its equivalent, the traditional Germanic levy of all able-bodied freemen which lasted up until the 13th century, though from the late-12th century the lower classes were being steadily excluded from military service. It lasted longest in the north and east, in Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria; Saxon and Thuringian infantry were present in strength at Bouvines in 1214 and fought in nearly every important campaign of the 11th and 12thcenturies.

The standard role of infantry in this period was of an almost entirely defensive nature, an attitude which remained prevalent until the beginning of the 14th century. They were either assigned to the cavalry units or organised separately, usually as close-order phalanxes. They could be drawn up before, behind, between or on the flanks of the cavalry depending on circumstances.

To strengthen the infantry and boost their morale many commanders chose to dismount at least a percentage of their knights, particularly in the late-11th and 12th centuries; this is especially true of English, Norman and German armies. Prior to the 13th century, in fact, German knights are recorded in a number of contemporary sources as better at fighting on foot than on horse. The 12thcentury Byzantine chronicler Cinnamus records them as being at their best fighting on foot with the sword, comparing them to the French who were better on horseback with the lance. William of Apulia, describing Swabian knights fighting on foot at Civitate in 1053, says they were ‘better with the sword than the lance since they are incapable of handling their horses or thrusting vigorously [with the lance]. But they excel with the sword.’ At Damascus in the Second Crusade we even find German knights dismounting to charge, William of Tyre telling us that this ‘was the custom of the Germans when circumstances obliged them to use it.’ Conversely, we are told that French knights were of little value on foot, while a source ofc. 1120 describes Breton knights as 7 times more effective mounted than they were when dismounted.

Other infantry were provided by town militias from the 11th century onwards, these participating in most of the civil wars which racked the reigns of every German king of this era.

They were obliged to go to war when ever called upon to do so by their sovereign (ie, the ruling prince, duke, bishop etc of the state in which the town stood, which in the case of Reichsunmittelbare towns-those under direct royal control- was the king or Emperor himself). In most cases, however, they were not expected to do much more than defend their own town walls, except in dire circumstances when they might be called upon to serve in the field locally (this obligation frequently being reduced in the 13th century so that service could not be called for further than a half-day’s march from the militia’s home town). Hence the reliance on Italian, Brabancon and other indigenous or mercenary infantry when campaigning outside Germany.

Auxiliaries were also employed, Magyars, Poles, Wends and other Slavs all being recorded in the 10th and 1th centuries. Even Danish auxiliaries are sometimes mentioned, by the mid-11th century apparently sometimes serving as cavalry As an indication of the numbers of troops available, 32 legiones were mustered for an attack on the Capetian Hugh the Great in 946, though these included Carolingian French and Flemish units, while at Lechfield in 955 there were 8 legiones, probably a more usual size for an army. Otto II, campaigning in Italy in 982, requested reinforcements of 2,080 feudal cavalry from Lotharingia, Bavaria, Franconia and Swabia, 1,482 of whom were supplied by ecclesiastical vassals; this may very well have been after his defeat by the Arabs at Cotrone, where he is recorded to have lost 4,000 men killed plus many more captured. In the mid-11th century Henry II had adequate troops to promise a Milanese rebel the loan of 4,000 knights (probably ministeriales).

The French 1917 Offensive in Context of 1914-17

The written histories of the French army during the opening months of the First World War often focused on the battle of the Marne in September 1914, a battle that it was crucial for the Allied armies to win. In contrast, the opening phase of the fighting along the French frontier with Germany has received remarkably little attention. In accordance with Plan XVII, the majority of the French troops were sent eastwards to deploy opposite the frontier with Germany, the direction from which the German army’s main thrust was expected. Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French had built fortresses along their eastern frontier. It was expected that the Germans would attempt to avoid these and attack from the Metz area of Lorraine, and Plan XVII allowed the French army to deploy and react to any German incursions.

Of course, the Germans had opted instead for a strategy of envelopment; the much-discussed Schlieffen-Moltke Plan allowed for the German army to send a large force, in fact the main effort of this attack, in a wide sweeping manoeuvre through Belgium. This group of armies would, it was hoped, sweep past Paris and into the rear of the main French armies. The French, sandwiched between two German army groups, would be destroyed in a decisive battle. This short campaign would then allow the Germans to turn eastwards to deal with the Russian army, which, it was thought, would be mobilising much more slowly. With the benefit of hindsight, the numerous flaws in the German plan seem obvious but it should be borne in mind that similar plans for large-scale enveloping manoeuvres were to prove successful on the Eastern Front, in particular at Tannenberg in August 1914.

Joffre was not unaware of the possibility of a German attack through Belgium but he refused to believe that this would be the main German effort and as a result sent just a single army to cover his left flank to the north. This was the French Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac. Joffre would cling stubbornly to this belief as the early battles developed, refusing to believe the reports from commanders on the spot that they were facing the bulk of the German army in its advance through Belgium.

Joffre also planned for a series of vast spoiling offensives that would shut down any German plan. The first of these would be launched into Alsace, the Saar and Lorraine. The line of eastern fortifications would force the Germans to attack through the Trouée des Charmes (the Charmes Gap), an unfortified area between Toul and Epinal, and this would allow Joffre to concentrate his forces to respond. A second wave of French offensives would be launched towards Metz and, if the Germans came through Belgium, he would attack through the Ardennes and detach the German right wing from the rest of the army. France was, after all, numerically weaker in the field and these plans allowed for the possibility of gaining local numerical superiority. Joffre was confident that his plans would be successful and this would allow the five French armies to contain and isolate the German forces in Belgium while also engaging their central group of armies along the eastern frontier. Within the French strategy there was, however, a dangerous tendency towards ‘mirror imaging’ when predicting German moves. Perhaps the single biggest flaw in Joffre’s plans was his assumption that the Germans would conform to his ideas as to how they should deploy. The result was to be a near disaster.

Mobilisation began in France on 1 August 1914 and deployment followed the minutely detailed timetables of Plan XVII. France called up twenty-seven year classes for service, while also deploying its standing conscript army and available colonial troops. Over 4,000 trains carried these men across France to their designated railheads and from there they covered up to 30km per day in route marches to their deployment areas. At this early phase of the war French troops were still dressed in what can only be described as nineteenth-century military splendour. The infantry wore red trousers and their uniforms were topped with a red kepi. In the weeks that followed, officers would lead attacks wearing white gloves and waving swords. The French cavalry similarly wore red breeches but topped their uniforms with a polished brass helmet, complete with plume. Cuirassier regiments wore polished breastplates. The opening battles would show how unwise it was to advance on the enemy wearing such distinctive and visible uniforms.

The initial French attack took place on the extreme right flank of the French army when VII Corps of the First Army, supported by a cavalry division, was sent to occupy Mulhouse. This would gain a foothold on the Rhine and allow for later operations. On 7 August VII Corps duly crossed the frontier but its commander, General Bonneau, was far from audacious as local intelligence reports alarmed him with accounts of an Austrian outflanking move through Switzerland. Nevertheless, his troops advanced with determination and after a six-hour battle overcame German resistance at Altkirch with a bayonet charge, as per regulations – but at the cost of over a hundred men killed. Bonneau sent a telegram directly to the Minister of War, Adolphe Messimy, in Paris, trumpeting a great victory while also by-passing the chain of command. The next day Bonneau took Mulhouse without further fighting but on 9 August his position began to unravel. He was ejected from Mulhouse by a series of counterattacks by the German Seventh Army (von Heeringen) and was beaten back to the vicinity of the fortress at Belfort. Soon after, Bonneau was removed from command. This initial phase of attacks had opened promisingly, only to quickly disintegrate into a veritable rout. The organisation and firepower of the German forces had overwhelmed the French formations. The French artillery had proved ineffective while the standard infantry weapon, the much-lauded Lebel rifle was found to be outdated. The Lebel proved to be overlong and poorly balanced, while its tubular magazine made reloading much slower. These problems were exacerbated by battlefield conditions. The French senior commanders had been shown to be wanting, while at regimental level officers found that there were too few maps and communications were poor. The tendency for infantry and cavalry to put in spirited attacks, while awfully gallant, also resulted in significant casualties.

In the immediate opening phases of the war there was little time to process such lessons. The early battles of August 1914 – referred to collectively as the ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ – comprised four simultaneous battles in Lorraine, the Ardennes forests, Charleroi and Mons. The fighting developed as the French army conformed to Plan XVII and the Belgian and British armies also deployed in an effort to counter the unfolding German plan. French offensives into Lorraine and the Ardennes followed a pattern that mirrored General Bonneau’s experiences and they were repulsed by tactically superior German forces.34 In front of Nancy, the French prepared to contest the German advance, only to find that their southern flank in the Ardennes was exposed. Full-scale retreat followed on 23 August. As the northern wing of the French army at Charleroi also retreated, alarming gaps began to appear in the Allied line. When the BEF retreated from Mons, a gap opened on its right between it and its nearest French support. By 24 August all of the Allied armies were being pushed back from the German advance, despite desperate rearguard actions such as at Le Cateau on 26 August.

In Paris these developments were met with considerable alarm. On 27 August the Union Sacrée coalition government was formed under Premier René Viviani but any public confidence in this act of political unity soon disappeared as the government was evacuated from Paris on 2 September and sent to Bordeaux to escape the worsening situation. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Parisians followed the example of their political masters and left the city.

The First Battle of the Marne, fought between 5 and 12 September, ultimately stabilised the Allied situation. It was, in fact, a series of battles fought out along a 150km front that stretched from Compiègne to Verdun, while at the same time other actions were developing on the eastern front in Lorraine. These desperate days saw convoys of taxis used to ferry over 6,000 reservists to the front. The key moment came on 4–5 September, during the prelude to the main battle, when General Gallieni realised that General von Kluck’s First Army was swinging away from Paris and exposing its left flank. This provided an opportunity for a French counter-stroke. Thereafter, now also hampered by poor communications, the German commander Helmuth von Moltke found his plan falling apart. The French armies and the BEF stubbornly held their ground south of the Marne river, and when Colonel Hentsch, a German staff officer, ordered a general retreat of the German First and Second Armies on 9 September, the battle was as good as lost. The German armies re-established themselves over 60km away along a line on the Aisne river, which would be the scene of another battle (the First Battle of the Aisne) later in September.

While this battlefield success was hailed as the ‘Miracle of the Marne’, it was obvious to both sides that the inconclusive end to these opening phases meant that the war would not be a short affair. Both the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan and Plan XVII had failed to bring a decisive victory. In a similar vein, the commanders and armies of both sides had exhibited problems in terms of battlefield command, communications, training and equipment. Joffre, who was lauded as the ‘hero of the Marne’, had shown great calm in the face of the rapidly deteriorating situation, yet he had also displayed a certain slowness and lack of imagination. In the months that followed, a series of battles was fought in northern France and Flanders as the Germans and Allies sought to outflank each other in the phase of fighting that came to be known as the ‘Race to the Sea’. By the end of 1914 the front was static, with trench lines running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. A large tract of France was occupied by German forces, which over time developed more elaborate defences and trench systems. For the next four years French commanders would try to figure out how to eject these German forces from French soil. It was a problem that confounded many a high-ranking French general, and in the immediate sense Joffre showed himself unequal to the new battlefield conditions.

It was during the early battles of 1914 that Robert Nivelle first came to popular notice. At the outbreak of the war Nivelle was an obscure colonel, commanding a regiment of artillery. Born in Tulle in 1856, he was the son of a French officer; his English mother was the daughter of one of the Duke of Wellington’s officers. Following training at the École Polytechnique, Nivelle was commissioned into the artillery in 1878 and later attended the cavalry school at Saumer (1881). His early service was in the artillery and he served in Tunisia and also in the Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1908, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was posted to Algeria. In 1912 he was promoted to full colonel and commanded both the Fourth and Fifth Artillery Regiments in the years before the war.

During the Alsace Offensive in 1914 Nivelle displayed great skill in the deployment and use of his guns, and during the Battle of the Marne (5–12 September 1914) he displayed great bravery and coolness under fire. During this battle Nivelle realised that the infantry brigade to his front was beginning to disintegrate and as the terrified infantrymen began to stream to the rear, he limbered up his guns and drove them forwards through the retreating troops. Technically speaking, it was exactly the opposite of what he should have done at that moment. But instead of ordering his unit to safety in the rear he deployed his regiment of 75mm guns and engaged the advancing Germans over open sights. At point-blank range he coordinated an intense fire on the German troops, halting their advance and stabilising his section of the line. It was a courageous act; indeed, Nivelle never lacked personal courage. In the First Battle of the Aisne (12–15 September 1914) he again laid down a devastatingly effective fire on German formations. In reality, what we refer to as the Battles of the Marne and the First Aisne consisted of a series of dispersed and confusing actions but Nivelle performed well throughout this period, especially at the engagements at Crouy and Quennevières.

Nivelle’s actions brought him to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed by his initiative and offensive spirit. In November 1914 Nivelle was promoted to command of a brigade, and in February 1915 was promoted again, to command of a division. Thereafter, his rise was nothing less than meteoric, and in December 1915 he was appointed to command III Corps of Pétain’s Second Army. By 1916 Nivelle had established a reputation that made him a contender for the commander-in-chief’s position. He would be the prime architect of the disastrous events of 1917. Nivelle was highly intelligent and an excellent artillery officer. He was extremely effective in coordinating artillery at regimental, brigade and divisional level. But it could be argued that his later promotions took him beyond his abilities and out of his ‘comfort zone’ as an artillerist.

For Joffre, the immediate problem was how to break the German lines and restore a war of movement. From late 1914, and throughout 1915, he followed a programme for offensive action. These offensives came to be characterised by the increased use of artillery, successive attacks by the infantry and high casualty figures. In late 1914 Joffre initiated his First Champagne Offensive, which ran from 10 December to 17 March 1915. This intense phase of fighting saw separate battles developing along a wide front, including three battles for the town of Perthes alone, with further fighting around Noyon and Givenchy. Supplementary attacks took place at Verdun, Artois and Woëvre. By the end of the campaign the French had advanced to a maximum depth of 2km into the German lines. French casualties stood at more than 90,000 killed, wounded or missing.

Unperturbed, Joffre turned his attention to the Artois sector. He was convinced that the Germans were sending forces to the east to counter the Russians and felt sure that he could break the line there. His Artois Offensive was launched on 9 May and ran until 19 June, and incorporated the British First Army under Haig. There were some significant successes. The French preceded the attack with a five-day preliminary bombardment and Pétain’s corps covered more than 5km in 90 minutes in one assault towards Vimy. The British attack at Neuve Chapelle on 9 May was preceded by minimal artillery preparation, however, and resulted in 11,000 casualties. Later French and British attacks made minimal gains. When the offensive was finally shut down, the French had lost more than 100,000 casualties.

Despite shell shortages and the difficulties of coordinating such large-scale attacks, Joffre persisted – with similar results. The Artois–Loos Offensive and the Second Champagne Offensive, which ran simultaneously from 25 September to 6 November, resulted in 48,000 and 145,000 French casualties respectively. By the time these two offensives had been called off in early November, the French army and the BEF had suffered over 320,000 casualties collectively.

In light of such enormous losses, it became increasingly obvious to political leaders that they needed to exert greater control over the military commanders, in particular Joffre. While the military complained about the difficulties on the Western Front, German success in the Baltic during their Vilnius Offensive in September 1915 spurred the Viviani administration to try to gain control of the war. Yet the politicians would be thwarted in these efforts. Since early 1915 Viviani had been pressuring Joffre to allow deputies to visit the front on tours of inspection but permission was not forthcoming. The government also wished to free up French forces for a campaign in Serbia but Joffre would not release them. The final straw was Bulgaria’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers in October. This occurred despite the best efforts of the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to keep Bulgaria on the Allied side. Exasperated and looking increasingly ineffectual, Viviani resigned in October 1915. He was succeeded by Aristide Briand, who would fare no better.

In the aftermath of such huge casualties the French army hoped for a period of rest and recuperation during the winter months of 1915/16 but on 21 February 1916 the Germans took the battlefield initiative to launch a massive offensive against Verdun. This bloody battle would run in several phases and last until December. As a result, it became the longest battle in human history. Both sides allowed themselves to be drawn into a contest over objectives of questionable strategic value. For France, the battle would later define the struggle against Germany. In the decades after the war the ‘300 Jours de Verdun’ would be depicted as an existential battle and an iconic period in French history. French efforts on the Somme in the summer of 1916 were largely successful, indicating that the army was developing tactically but the Verdun battle overshadowed all other efforts. This is unsurprising. When the battle finally wound down in the winter of 1916, the French had suffered more than 550,000 casualties. To a modern reader, such casualty rates are simply beyond comprehension. Yet in his plans for 1917, Joffre was intending to unleash a further series of offensives.

Nivelle was also to play a significant role in the French army’s struggle to maintain its grip on Verdun. At the outbreak of the battle he was still in command of III Corps in Pétain’s Second Army. In April 1916 he mounted a series of attacks with III Corps on the right bank of the Verdun sector and achieved some success. But it was not without cost. Once again Nivelle’s offensive spirit came to the attention of Joffre, who was impressed with Nivelle’s confidence and ‘can do’ attitude, which was in striking contrast to the pessimism of Pétain. Joffre saw an opportunity and promoted Pétain to command the Groupe d’Armées du Centre (Central Army Group or GAC) and on 27 April 1916 Nivelle was promoted and appointed to command the Second Army. In less than two years Nivelle had been promoted from colonel to lieutenant-general.

At a time when the French people needed positive news from the Verdun front, the choice of Nivelle to command the Second Army seemed a wise one. Apart from his capabilities as a soldier, Nivelle knew how to handle visiting pressmen and politicians and had a flair for providing well-timed quotes for the press – what we would refer to today as ‘sound-bites’. After the German capture of Fleury on 23 June 1916, and at a particularly desperate time for the French, Nivelle concluded his order of the day with the inspiring line ‘Ils ne passeront pas!’ (‘They shall not pass!’). This was trumpeted from the headlines of newspapers and later became a national slogan that would be used on recruiting posters and in army bulletins. Nivelle was not without his critics, however, and some criticised him for the casualties incurred in his counter-offensives.

It is worth taking a moment to discuss some of the other personalities associated with Nivelle at this time. One of his divisional commanders was General Charles Mangin, who commanded the Fifth Infantry Division, made up largely of colonial troops. Mangin was an extremely tough and competent soldier, who had seen much campaigning in the colonies before the war. He had been wounded three times in various campaigns and had served in Mali, Senegal, Tonkin and in the Fashoda expedition of 1898. In the immediate pre-war years Mangin had pushed strongly for the establishment of a ‘Force Noire’, effectively an army of black troops made up with regiments from France’s colonies in Africa. In 1910 he published a work on the subject. Within Mangin’s central idea lurked his belief that African and Arab troops were less imaginative and less sensitive to pain and suffering. It now seems evident that he apparently also viewed them as expendable, or perhaps just more expendable than metropolitan troops. To modern sensibilities, Mangin’s views can only be seen as intrinsically racist and insensitive but at the time he was considered to be a successful commander and was valued by Nivelle within the Second Army. During the summer of 1916 Mangin had pushed some reserve units to their breaking point and there were calls for him to be removed, but Nivelle intervened on his behalf and he remained in command. Among the common soldiers Mangin was known as ‘the Butcher’ and his callous tendencies would become apparent once again during the 1917 offensive.

An equally dark and somewhat mysterious figure was Lieutenant-Colonel Audemard d’Alançon (often referred to as d’Alenson in English sources). D’Alançon occupied the role of chef de cabinet for Nivelle. This was a uniquely French appointment, combining the roles of military secretary and chief of staff. The two men had first met in Algeria before the war and it is now recognised that d’Alançon had a major influence on Nivelle in the planning of operations. D’Alançon was suffering from a terminal disease – tuberculosis according to contemporary accounts – and as a result he was driven by an overwhelming desire to see the war concluded with a French victory in the limited span still allotted to him. He was also a firm believer in the potential of offensive action and he supported Nivelle’s offensive actions at Verdun. He would later be a prime mover in the 1917 offensive, pushing Nivelle’s agenda despite the doubts that were mounting on all sides. Edward Spears wrote that he was ‘far more acute and intelligent than would have been gathered from his appearance and he was no mean judge of men’. At a more negative level, Spears noted that he:

Urged constantly, such was the frenzy of his haste, that the tempo of the attack and the speed of the preparations should be increased, until the impression one gained ceased to be that of high authority prescribing dispatch but rather of an uncontrolled force like a swollen torrent rushing madly onward.

His French counterparts expressed similar concerns. They found that d’Alançon pushed for offensive action while also acting as a shield for Nivelle against the doubts expressed by senior officers. General Micheler referred to his ‘keen intelligence and character’ but also was concerned about his influence over Nivelle, stating that d’Alançon seemed often divorced from reality, showing a marked tendency to twist facts to fit his desired reality. Jean de Pierrefeu, who served on Nivelle’s staff in 1917, was equally critical of d’Alançon and later wrote that:

Colonel d’Alançon had the true gambler’s temperament, as was proved by his reply to Colonel Fetizon, deputy-chief of the Third Bureau, a calm methodical man of considerable common sense, who had asked, ‘And if we fail? What then?’ D’Alançon replied, ‘Well, if we fail, we will throw our hands in.’ We certainly lived in a gambling atmosphere.

These tendencies would reappear during preparations for Nivelle’s offensive in 1917. The Nivelle–Mangin–d’Alançon partnership resulted in further offensives during the later phases of the Verdun battle. Having organised the counterattacks on the right bank of the Verdun sector in April 1916, Nivelle now focused his attention on Fort Douaumont, which had been lost to the Germans in February. Quite apart from its symbolic value to the French, the fort stood on a height at 1,200ft and dominated the surrounding area. Despite this dominant position and its comprehensive defences, the fort had fallen to the Germans quite easily. To add further insult, the Germans also captured Fort Vaux in July and Nivelle’s attempt to recapture this fort was beaten off with such high casualties that Pétain forbade any further attempts to recapture the forts. However, during July Nivelle continued to mount counterattacks against the German assaults. Mangin mounted a particularly effective counterattack before being stopped in his tracks, with heavy casualties, on 11 July.

While it is easy to criticise such offensives, the alternative was to allow the Germans to break through and exploit. Nivelle also persuaded Pétain to allow him to engage in further efforts to retake the forts but accepted the caveat that he had to engage in very thorough preparations. In the weeks that followed, Nivelle engaged in massive artillery preparations, gathering more than 500 additional guns, including two 400mm railway guns, in his planned attack zone. These were to support the Second Army’s existing artillery. Ultimately there would be one artillery piece for every 15 yards of front, with over 15,000 tons of shells stockpiled. The assault troops rehearsed over ground prepared to resemble the approaches to Fort Douaumont and their advance would be preceded by a creeping barrage once the attack began. On 19 October a three-day preparatory bombardment began, which targeted not only Douaumont but also other known German positions and lines of communication in that zone. This bombardment proved accurate and devastating, while the use of gas shells proved extremely effective.

By the time the infantry assault began on 24 October 1916 the fort had been rendered virtually untenable due to the intensity of the barrage and had already been partially evacuated. A thick mist aided the attacking troops while the creeping barrage moved ahead of their advance. The light artillery fired 70 yards ahead of the advancing French infantry, while the heavy artillery fired 150 yards ahead. The whole movement was coordinated using field telephone communications and the barrage lifted in stages to allow the troops to advance. The troops crossed the devastated landscape at a rate of about 25 yards per minute and on reaching the fort Mangin’s divisions (made up of Moroccan and Senegalese troops and units of Coloniale infantry) cleared the defences using flamethrowers. Nivelle repeated this success at Fort Vaux on 2 November and in a subsequent eight-division attack on 15 December he pushed the Germans back a further 3 miles and captured more than 9,000 prisoners. The key to Nivelle’s success seemed deceptively simple: methodical preparation followed by massive and focused artillery bombardment. But unlike in previous offensives, this artillery fire was concentrated along narrow corridors to create lanes for the attacking infantry.

In the context of this vast attritional battle that had ground down the French army and nation throughout much of the preceding year, these successes seemed little short of miraculous. Criticism over continuing these attacks as winter drew on, and the casualties incurred, was lost amidst the general public rejoicing. Nivelle became a national hero and received much attention in the French press. The Briand government, which was looking increasingly threatened, also made much of this new public hero.

It has been repeatedly suggested that Nivelle’s fellow generals, and in particular his immediate commander, Pétain, disapproved of his methods. Yet at this time Nivelle was keeping step with Pétain’s own philosophy of thorough preparation followed by a focused attack for a specific and limited objective. In this context, Nivelle’s methods had potential for success. Problems would occur in 1917, however, when he tried to develop attacks based on these principles but on a vast scale. His success in 1916 imbued Nivelle with the vast confidence that would later prove so damaging. To his staff officers he announced ‘We now have the formula’, while in his parting address to the Second Army he announced ‘The experience is conclusive, our method has proved itself.’ Nivelle would later refer to these tactics as the ‘Verdun Method’, while in the press it was referred to as ‘Nivelling’.

By late 1916 new armaments programmes were supplying better equipment to the French army. There was more and better artillery, while at battalion level there were increased numbers of weapons such as trench mortars, light machine guns and flamethrowers. New infantry doctrine was drawn up to reflect this and lessons were incorporated based on German infiltration tactics. On the surface at least there was much to be confident about.

The French army was still wedded to the idea of the offensive and this would have dangerous consequences in 1917. Also, it became increasingly obvious to any observant staff officer that the troops were exhausted. Morale in the winter of 1916/17 was at an all-time low. This was against a backdrop of discontent on the home front and political uncertainty. All the indicators should have urged for caution but instead Nivelle precipitated perhaps the biggest gamble undertaken by the French army during the war.

PzKpfw III SK 1 (1943)

Trials and demonstrations took place in the grounds at Arys in October 1943, with two or three PzKpfw III Ausf L/N of the final series, armed with the 7.5cm KwK L/24. The machine was given the designation of ‘SK 1’ meaning ‘Schienenkampfwagen 1’ (Rail Tank No 1). The transmission, motor and cooling system were identical to those of the original tank, the last three torsion bars of the suspension needed modifying. With the added parts under the tank the ground clearance decreased from 48cm (1ft 7in) to 34.2cm (1ft 1½in). The drive on the rails was transmitted via the forward axle, the other being free-rotating. No matter how well the system performed, and the speed and haulage capacities were impressive, by 1943 the PzKpfw III was completely outclassed as a fighting vehicle.

SK 1 Technical specifications:

Length (buffers folded): 5.62m (18ft 51/4in)

Length (buffers extended): 6.00m (19ft 61/4in)

Width: 2.94m (9ft 73/4in)

Height (on road): 2.435m (8ft)

Height (on rails): 2.825m (9ft 31/4in)

Weight: 25 tonnes Motor type: 12-cylinder Maybach HL 120 TRM

Horsepower: 320hp at 3000rpm

Transmission: Fichtel & Sachs six-speed gearbox

Speed on rails (maximum): 100km/h (62mph)

Speed on rails (normal): 60km/h (37mph)

Wheelbase on rails: 2.94m (9ft 73/4in)

Gauge (European standard): 1435mm (4ft 81/2in)

Gauge (Russian): 1524mm (5ft)

Fuel capacity: 350 litres (921/2 Imperial gallons)


‘I had been going ahead partly submerged, with about five feet of my periscope showing. Almost immediately I caught sight of the first cruiser and two others. I submerged completely and laid my course so as to bring up in the centre of the trio, which held a sort of triangular formation. I could see their grey-black sides riding high over the water. When I first sighted them they were near enough for torpedo work, but I wanted to make my aim sure, so I went down and in on them. I had taken the position of the three ships before submerging, and I succeeded in getting another flash through my periscope before I began action. I soon reached what I regarded as a good shooting point.

Then I loosed one of my torpedoes at the middle ship. I was then about twelve feet under water, and got the shot off in good shape, my men handling the boat as if she had been a skiff. I climbed to the surface to get a sight through my tube of the effect, and discovered that the shot had gone straight and true, striking the ship, which I later learned was the Aboukir, under one of her magazines, which in exploding helped the torpedo’s work of destruction. There was a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation. She had been broken apart and sank in a few minutes. The Aboukir had been stricken in a vital spot and by an unseen force; that made the blow all the greater.

Her crew were brave, and even with death staring them in the face kept to their posts, ready to handle their useless guns, for I submerged at once. But I had stayed on top long enough to see the other cruisers, which I learned were the Cressy and the Hogue, turn and steam full speed to their dying sister, whose plight they could not understand, unless it had been due to an accident. The ships came on a mission of inquiry and rescue, for many of the Aboukir’s crew were now in the water, the order having been given, “Each man for himself.” But soon the other two English cruisers learned what had brought about the destruction so suddenly.

As I reached my torpedo depth, I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue. The English were playing my game, for I had scarcely to move out of my position, which was a great aid, since it helped to keep me from detection. On board my little boat the spirit of the German Navy was to be seen in its best form. With enthusiasm every man held himself in check and gave attention to the work in hand.

The attack on the Hogue went true. But this time I did not have the advantageous aid of having the torpedo detonate under the magazine, so for twenty minutes the Hogue lay wounded and helpless on the surface before she heaved, half turned over and sank. But this time, the third cruiser knew of course that the enemy was upon her and she sought as best she could to defend herself. She loosed her torpedo defence batteries on boats, starboard and port, and stood her ground as if more anxious to help the many sailors who were in the water than to save herself. In common with the method of defending herself against a submarine attack, she steamed in a zigzag course, and this made it necessary for me to hold my torpedoes until I could lay a true course for them, which also made it necessary for me to get nearer to the Cressy.

I had come to the surface for a view and saw how wildly the fire was being sent from the ship. Small wonder that was when they did not know where to shoot, although one shot went unpleasantly near us. When I got within suitable range, I sent away my third attack. This time I sent a second torpedo after the first to make the strike doubly certain. My crew were aiming like sharpshooters and both torpedoes went to their bullseye. My luck was with me again, for the enemy was made useless and at once began sinking by her head. Then she careened far over, but all the while her men stayed at the guns looking for their invisible foe. They were brave and true to their country’s sea traditions. Then she eventually suffered a boiler explosion and completely turned turtle. With her keel uppermost she floated until the air got out from under her and then she sank with a loud sound, as if from a creature in pain.

The whole affair had taken less than one hour from the time of shooting off the first torpedo until the Cressy went to the bottom. Not one of the three had been able to use any of its big guns. I knew the wireless of the three cruisers had been calling for aid. I was still quite able to defend myself, but I knew that news of the disaster would call many English submarines and torpedo boat destroyers, so, having done my appointed work, I set my course for home. . ..

I reached the home port on the afternoon of the 23rd, and on the 24th went to Wilhelmshaven, to find that news of my effort had become public. My wife, dry eyed when I went away, met me with tears. Then I learned that my little vessel and her brave crew had won the plaudit of the Kaiser, who conferred upon each of my co-workers the Iron Cross of the second class and upon me the Iron Cross of the first and second classes.’

German Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, recalling his part in the sinking of the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue by U-9 in September 1914, cited in Source Records of the Great War, vol. 2, pp. 297–300.

The opening gambits of the war in 1914 did provide Germany with some spectacular U-boat successes. Significantly, and quite unexpectedly, these were not against unarmed merchantmen, but against powerful surface warships that conventional wisdom claimed were immune from underwater attack. On 5 September 1914 Kapitanleutnant Otto Hersing’s U-21 made history by launching the first submerged torpedo attack of the war, sinking the British light cruiser HMS Pathfinder near Scotland’s Firth of Forth; on 22 September 1914 Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 created the first piece of enduring combat iconography by destroying three of the Royal Navy’s 12,200-ton Cressy-class cruisers in a single hour: HMS Cressy, Aboukir, and Hogue. In doing so, Weddigen vindicated the submarine as an offensive weapon and provided his country with a naval hero when it sorely needed one. Every aspect of the attack was a new venture and would be described in surprisingly accurate detail in postwar literature.

Surfacing that morning near the Maas Lightvessel after having ridden out the previous day’s storm submerged, Weddigen and his crew found calmer weather and clearer visibility. Captain, engineer, and the watch-officer Johannes Spieß (who also would become a famous skipper) were taking in the morning air after a fetid night and were bracing themselves against the heavy swell. It was 0545, just before sunrise. As the U-boat began charging her batteries with her notoriously smoky gasoline engines, Spieß cursed the billowing exhaust that could betray her presence. Weddigen reduced speed in order to cut down the smoke and went below, leaving Spieß to carry out a lazy zigzag course along the Dutch coast, some twenty miles from the town of Scheveningen. The crew were anxious to catch their first glimpse of the enemy; anxious, too, to avenge the loss of their “chummy ship” U-15, which had been rammed and sunk by the cruiser HMS Birmingham in August. Thus when the first target hove into sight over the horizon, Spieß all-too-readily identified it as one of the “Birmingham-class.” That meant a light cruiser, U-9’s crew went swiftly to battle-stations. A series of automatic commands triggered well drilled responses: battening hatches, flooding tanks, switching from petroleum engines to batteries, arming torpedoes. And in all this controlled swirl of activity, the last navigational fix and target bearing were taken to begin setting up the first outlines of the tactical picture. Poised at periscope depth despite the swell that could thrust her exposed hull to the surface, U-9 waited for the target to approach. It soon became clear that not one cruiser, but three were heading their way, steaming in line ahead. No U-boat had ever faced such a threat before, and only one had ever fired a torpedo in hopes of killing such Goliaths. So new was both the situation and the technology that no one really knew for certain what would happen when the fight began. Would U-9 survive against such massive surface power? And if she could get in close enough for a kill, would the explosion of her torpedoes against the cruisers’ hulls destroy her as well? These questions were by no means idle. The officers all knew the fate of U-15 and they knew that U-21 had been severely shaken by the explosion when torpedoing HMS Pathfinder from a range of 1200 meters. It was generally accepted that at a virtually lethal range of 500 meters they could expect heavy bow damage and the possible destruction of her diving planes. In a series of short, snappy periscope sights, Weddigen coolly calculated his chances and decided to strike the cruiser steaming in the middle of the column. Weddigen cautioned the crew to take the boat down to fifteen meters and stay there once he had fired, for the range was “rather tight.” It was, in fact, just under 500 meters.

As Spieß later recalled, these were nerve-tingling moments. At 0720 Weddigen fired the first shot. Thirty-one seconds later a dull blow announced the detonation and triggered jubilation in the U-boat. Unable to see, they could only guess what was happening by listening to the abrasive underwater sounds of cracking and wrenching soon emanating from her victim’s death-agony. After a cautious wait, Weddigen brought u-g to periscope depth to watch Aboukir sink. Meanwhile all available crew of U-9 were kept running between bow and stern in order to maintain diving trim in the swell. The bow had immediately become buoyant once the torpedo had fired and would only regain its displacement as the bow tube was reloaded. A quick look from close range revealed a serious miscalculation: the targets were not light cruisers at all, but huge Cressys. By this time U-9 was committed. At 0755, thirty-five minutes after his first shot, Weddigen made two direct hits on Hague from 300 meters. But despite all efforts to tighten her turning-circle in the escape maneuver racing full speed ahead on one screw and full speed astern on the other, U-9 scraped her periscope along Hogues’s hull. There was just time to reload when HMS Cressy loomed into range. At 0820, precisely one hour after the first shot, Weddigen fired his two stern torpedoes and struck from a range of 1000 meters. Cressy died slowly, and Weddigen fired his last torpedo into her as a coup de grace. Spieß’s final periscope glimpse of the scene was especially vivid. Up until now U-9 had been witnessing the destruction of machines and had not yet seen men die: “But now life entered this tragic theater. The giant with his four stacks rolled slowly but inexorably over onto his port side, and like ants we saw black swarms of people scrambling first onto one side and then onto its huge flat keel until they disappeared in the waves. A sad sight for a seaman. Our task was now done, and we had to see to getting ourselves home as quickly as possible … When we blew tanks and surfaced at 0850 there was no enemy to be seen. The sea had closed over the three cruisers.” For many years to come, veterans would hallow 22 September as “Weddigen Day,” and heroic tales would capture much of the flavour of wartime reality, U-9’s successful triple attack had been unprecedented, and many national presses – including those of Allied powers – recognized the fact. The Kaiser cabled congratulations and awarded Weddigen and his crew the Iron Cross; “bundles of congratulatory telegrams,” one of the officers later wrote, awaited the submarine on arrival home. The crew allegedly required a special shed to keep all the gifts and letters that a grateful German public showered upon them. Admiral Scheer explained the national euphoria thus: “Weddigen’s name was on everyone’s lips, and especially for the navy his deed was sheer relief from the feeling of having as yet achieved so little in comparison with the heroic deeds of the army. Such a success was necessary in order to appreciate the value of the submarine for our conduct of war.”

Yet once the euphoria had died down, many voices began to minimize the success. The three cruisers, as the British press had correctly pointed out, had been old and should never have been deployed in the exposed area that had been Weddigen’s patrol zone. Indeed, as a British submariner would observe in 1930, Weddigen’s success had been in large part due to Britain’s “early policy of heroic but useless sacrifice.” Moreover, the Royal Navy’s standing orders had actually required the warships to stop to pick up survivors after the initial hit. This effectively turned the remaining two warships into stationary targets for the likes of Weddigen. But on 15 October 1914 Weddigen’s U-9 again vindicated the U-boat when it torpedoed and sank the modern 7,800-ton cruiser HMS Hawke northeast of Aberdeen. The U-boat’s mission had covered over 1700 nautical miles and had expended virtually all her fuel. It now seemed abundantly clear that submarine technology was allowing German sailors to operate deep within British waters and to destroy heavily armed ships. Weddigen this time won the coveted Prussian award Pour le merite.

U-Weddigen had become the stuff of legends. They persisted long after his death in action in 1915, “an event which was felt most painfully by the whole nation,” as his former watch-officer recalled in 1930. Myths conveniently ignored the fact that when attacking a British ship of the line on 18 March 1915 in his new boat, U-29, he had been ignominiously destroyed by an ancient maritime weapon – the ram. Ironically, the fatal blow had been struck by the bow of the obsolescent battleship HMS Dreadnought. Weddigen’s exploits had nevertheless encouraged public and naval leadership alike. Widely disseminated throughout the country, a volatile mix of fact and fiction about submarine adventures encouraged boldness in both naval and civil circles.

Nimy Bridge August 1914

The initial German assault on Mons consisted of five divisions attacking the British II Corps of two divisions commanded by Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien, an old India hand. The German attack must have seemed quite familiar to him; they advanced in tight ranks across open ground, as ignorant of the effect of concentrated firepower as any tribesman he had faced on the Northwest Frontier. Von Kluck’s men suffered heavy casualties and the first assault was thrown back. They regrouped and a more extended order of attack advanced on the British line a half-hour later. This probe managed to find and dislodge the exposed flank of the British 3rd Division and turn the previously defensible perimeter of the British force into a dangerous salient.

Despite the tremendous casualties inflicted by the defenders, the sheer weight of numbers worked against them; what had initially resembled Omdurman was rapidly turning into something more akin to Isandlwana. The point companies holding the bridge approaches suffered what for this early stage of the war were heavy losses, but still managed to hold on. There at the Nimy Bridge Lieutenant Maurice Dease, machine gun officer of the Royal Fusiliers, won the first Great War Victoria Cross. `The gun fire was intense, and the casualties very heavy, but the lieutenant went on firing despite his wounds, until he was hit the fifth time and was carried away to a place of safety where he died.’ The second VC followed in short order, as Private Sidney Frank Godley took Dease’s place at the gun and kept it firing until the position was overrun. In a final gesture of defiance, Godley smashed the firing mechanism and tipped the gun into the canal just before retiring:  

We carried on until towards evening when the order was given for the line to retire. I was asked by Lieut. Steele to remain and hold the position while the retirement took place, which I did do, although I was very badly wounded several times, but I managed to carry on. I was on my own at the latter end of the action. Of course, Lieut. Dease lay dead by the side of me, and Lieut. Steele, he retired with his platoon. I remained on the bridge and held the position, but when it was time for me to get away I smashed the machine gun up, threw it in the Canal, and then crawled back on the main road where I was picked up by a couple of Belgian civilians and was then taken to hospital in Mons…I was being attended by the doctors…when the Germans came in and took the hospital.

In a phenomenal act of courage, German private August Niemeyer swam across the canal under intense British fire and brought back a boat so that his patrol could cross. The German patrol then crossed the canal and engaged the defending British soldiers. Then, Niemeyer set the swing mechanism in motion that moved the bridge back into position across the canal and reopened the bridge to road traffic. In its closed position, the Nimy swing bridge allowed traffic to cross the canal. When a water vessel needed to pass, motors rotated the bridge horizontally about its pivot point out of the way. The British troops rotated the Nimy bridge away from the banks but did not disable the mechanism. As a result, even after Niemeyer was killed, German troops were able to charge across and secure the bridge. By 1:40 p.m., the British infantry was falling back under fire from the Germans advancing through Mons to Ciply. Had the machine guns been placed at an angle in a protected position from which they could have swept the bridge, the British might have held it much longer.

The End of the Milk Cows – U-490 et al Part I

June 1944 to May 1945

Doenitz sent out another nine U-boats to remote areas at the end of May 1944, and the last U-tanker, U-490, was sent out from Germany in support. By mid-May, U-490 was in the Northern Transit area. Apart from these boats there were only five U-boats in remote theatres (excluding the Indian Ocean) tying down Allied forces, and on 4 June one of these, U-505, was captured by the Guadalcanal carrier group off Dakar. The code books were recovered intact, but there was little to be gained from them at this late stage of the war. Indeed, the US ‘10th Fleet’ discovered that the codebooks and other documents on board U-505 were less up-to-date than their own records, since the U-boat had been at sea for some months. Much more useful, however, was the capture of the short-signals books.

On 1 June, Doenitz reviewed the U-boat war in the U-boat Command diary. ‘Our efforts to tie down enemy forces have so far been successful,’ he wrote. ‘The numbers of enemy aircraft and escort vessels, U-boat killer groups and aircraft carriers allotted to anti-U-boat forces, far from decreasing, has increased. For the submariners themselves the task of carrying on the fight solely for the purpose of tying down enemy forces is a particularly hard one.’

At this time Doenitz and all members the armed forces were mostly concerned with the impending Allied invasion of Normandy, with large numbers of U-boats lying in bomb-proof pens along the French and Norwegian coasts with a view to impeding the invasion of either country. The ‘electric’ U-boats had been held up by Allied bombing and were not expected to enter service until January 1945 (in fact, the first long-range ‘electric’ U-boat did not commence operations until the last days of the war).

However, there was some hope with the advent of the schnorkel. This originally Dutch invention was essentially an air mast raised to the surface of the sea that enabled a submerged U-boat to run its diesel engines and thereby recharge its batteries without having to come to the surface. The invention was, of course, a major advantage at a time when aircraft were sinking so many surfaced U-boats, and the Germans claimed to have invented it independently of the Dutch. The schnorkel was by no means a cure-all as it emitted a stream of gases in operation that could be seen a long way off, so schnorkelling was conducted at night. Even so, the head of the schnorkel could be detected by the new 3cm radar entering into Allied service. However, the improved Naxos-U radar search receiver could pick up these radar transmissions, enabling the U-boat to submerge again almost instantly. Use of the schnorkel reduced the U-boats’ speed to about 5 knots, whereas on the surface they had been accustomed to making 17 knots. Even a slow convoy would leave a schnorkelling U-boat behind, but the new device proved to be so useful as a defensive measure that on 1 June, Doenitz ordered that no U-boat should proceed on operations without one.

The schnorkel was ideally suited to milk cows, which had no interest in chasing convoys but only wanted to preserve themselves from air attack. But the development was too late for the U-tankers. On 1 June, the last survivor, U-490, was already at sea, cruising through the North Atlantic air gap on a southerly heading. The U-boat Command war diary lists U-490 as one of several boats recalled that day to France for fitting with a schnorkel. Presumably this was a typing error in the diary, for U-490 already possessed the equipment and made no effort to return to France. On the 7th, U-boat Command ordered U-490 to continue southwards as planned.

U490 was commanded by the experienced Oberleumant zS Gerlach, and had left Kiel on 4 May with instructions to proceed to the mid-Atlantic where she was to support operations for the remote theatres, before heading on into the Indian Ocean to assist the return of the U-boats remaining there. The 39-year-old Gerlach was another sailor promoted from the lower deck, having served on the successful U-124 between July 1940 and September 1941. He had then been selected for officer training, after which he had returned to U-124 as a watch officer in 1942 before being sent on the commanders’ course in 1942-3. He had commissioned U-490 on 27 March 1943 and the boat had remained in the Baltic for correction of bombing damage and subsequent serious flooding, and for training until her services were required.

U490 successfully negotiated the difficult Northern Transit area as she passed from the North Sea into the North Atlantic, and reported a convoy on 4 June. Meanwhile, the crew had difficulty with her schnorkel, which appeared to be usable only in fairly calm seas. U-490 was located by H/F D/F in the middle of the ocean as she made a weather report on the 10th. Gerlach, described by his crew as nervous about Allied air activity, wanted to maintain radio silence, but he could not ignore a direct order requiring him to transmit information about the weather as he passed through the Atlantic. The American escort carriers were at this time making a concerted drive against the handful of U-boats stationed in the Atlantic to provide weather reports. On 11 June, U-490 made another weather transmission, but it was to be her last. She was caught on the surface within hours by aircraft from the Croatan carrier group, but managed to submerge and went very deep.

She was then hunted all through the night and the next day by the carrier’s destroyer escorts, which dropped 189 depth-charges in all. U-490 carried some experimental guinea pigs aboard. These kept squealing during the attacks and had to be destroyed to reduce the noise. Eventually her air ran out and she was forced to return to the surface. The destroyers in the meantime had played the trick of moving off in opposite directions at decreasing speed (giving the sound effect of a high-speed departure), and then creeping slowly back to the target area. The U-tanker surfaced and when it was at once attacked with heavy gunfire, Gerlach ordered his boat to be scuttled; all sixty crew members were rescued. American interrogators described the crew as ‘undistinguished’, but remarked on the unusual seniority of the petty officers. The crew volunteered to answer ‘honourable questions’ provided they were not handed over to the British, but they had little new to report.

As U490 had not refuelled a single U-boat when she was sunk, this effectively wrecked the last of Doenitz’s hopes for overseas operations, and only one or two U-boats were able to patrol in remote waters, with occasional refuelling by fuel sharing with one another. The war diary of U-boat Command shows that just three U-boats were successfully refuelled by other attack U-boats in the period June 1944 to May 1945.

However, the loss of U-490 was not immediately appreciated as her crew had been too agitated to remember to send a final distress signal. As late as 27 June, U-boat Command ordered U-490 to make for Penang at high speed, where the boat was to load up with essential war supplies, with a minimum docking time, and return home. While on passage (in either direction), any Type IXC boats in the Indian Ocean (presumed to be U-183, U-510, U-532 and U-843) were to be refuelled for the journey home.

The Type XB minelayer U-233 had been commissioned on 22 September 1943 by the 36-year-old Kapitaenleumant Steen, who had previously been the First Officer on her sister ship, U-117, from October 1941 to February 1943, and had subsequently attended a commanding officers’ course. Most of the crew were new recruits. After the usual working-up exercises in the Baltic, which involved a practice minelaying mission of 132 mines in that sea during the winter of 1943, U-233 received a full overhaul and refitting from February 1944. She left Kiel on 27 May for her first war patrol, with orders to lay sixty-six mines apparently off Halifax, Canada. However the U-boat Command war diary claims that U-233 received ‘alternative orders’ on 17 June to carry out her minelaying operation off Halifax. She was not fitted with a schnorkel and, according to her crew when later interrogated, there had been no plans to deploy U-233 for refuelling purposes after the minelaying operation, neither did the boat carry spare parts for other U-boats.

Travelling on the surface at night to recharge her batteries, U-233 entered the Northern Transit area, which was then the scene of a massive search by Coastal Command for outward-bound U-boats, but she was one of the few fortunate boats to break through, albeit after many tribulations. On 1 June, U-233 sighted many aircraft and next day was suddenly attacked by a four-engined bomber, too late to dive. U-233 defended herself with her 37mm and two 20mm cannons scoring some hits, but the aircraft still managed to drop five bombs that exploded all around the U-boat, remarkably causing no damage. The U-minelayer seized the chance to dive.

After resurfacing, U-233 was again forced to dive by aircraft combing her likely route and changed course in a successful effort to shake off her aerial pursuers. Steen then steered for the east coast of the USA, surfacing at night just long enough to recharge his batteries. The quick-firing 37mm flak gun had repeatedly jammed during the engagement with the bomber and test-firing two weeks later caused a shell to explode in the barrel, rendering it useless.

Then her luck ran out. Now close to Nova Scotia, Canada, she sent a message by W/T. This was intercepted by H/F D/F, leading to a search by the Card carrier group. The carrier aircraft spotted an oil slick on 2 July and dropped sonobuoys, which gave a positive response to underwater sounds, although thick fog interfered with further aerial operations. The US destroyer escort finally gained passive sound contact (i.e. listening only, without using active Asdic) on 5 July. This was not detected by the U-minelayer, which was then floating at a depth of 30 to 50 metres while servicing her stern torpedoes. Suddenly the horrified crew heard the whine of the propellers of the destroyer Baker, followed by the shocking impact of depth-charges all around the boat.

U-233 was badly shaken, the lights went out and the boat plunged out of control to 120 metres. Water poured in through a leak in the stern and a heavy aft torpedo was toppled out of its stay, killing a crew member. When a second pattern of depth-charges drove U-233 to 230 metres, a desperate Steen gave the order to ^low tanks’ and surface. The milk cow managed to reach the surface, where she was instantly engaged with a hail of fire at a range of only 500 metres. Two destroyer torpedoes also struck the hapless U-minelayer, but had been fired from so close that they did not have time to arm themselves and bounced off without exploding. Steen gave the order to abandon ship, while the Chief Engineer went below to scuttle the U-boat. Meanwhile, shells continued to land all around as the crew jumped overboard, many losing their lives at this point.

Then another destroyer, the Thomas, stormed in and rammed the luckless U-233 which subsequently sank. Steen himself was severely wounded, but was supported in the sea by one of the surviving crew members. The American destroyers rescued Steen and twenty-nine other survivors from the sixty-man crew. It transpired that so accurate had been the American fire on the conning tower as the U-boat crew tried to abandon ship that virtually all the rescued survivors were those who had escaped from the forward hatch. Steen died of his wounds the following day and was buried at sea from the deck of the carrier Card. U-233 had been sunk before she could drop her mines and her loss was not recognized by U-boat Command until 11 August. Interrogation of survivors established that the crew were ‘dreadful’, almost devoid of experience, except for Steen himself and a few petty officers added to leaven the mixture. Steen had been well liked and the crew were unusually security conscious.

As a result of the early loss of the cows, the U-boats engaged in the remote waters campaign (excluding the Indian Ocean) sank only twenty ships between January and September, while thirteen of the U-boats engaged in this campaign were themselves sunk.

The Allies invaded Europe on 6 June, and by August the Biscay bases were in such danger of capture, and escort groups in the Bay posed such a threat, that all the U-boats within their pens were despatched either to Norway or, in the case of a few long-range boats, to the Indian Ocean. U-boat Command had already warned boats at sea, on 12 June, that they should retain enough fuel to reach Bergen, if necessary, rather than a French port. Some other U-boats were in no fit state to be sent out to sea and had to be scuttled in the French ports. Among them were: U-129, Type IXC, which we have encountered frequently at fuelling rendezvous and which had returned safely from her last aggressive patrol off Brazil; the U-cruiser U-178, returned from Penang; and U-188, Type IXC/40, returned from the Indian Ocean after an eventful journey. All were scuttled between 18 to 20 August. Kapitaenleumant von Harpe of U-129 had performed an extraordinary job in keeping the boat operating successfully during his tenure (July 1943 to July 1944) while so many were being sunk around him. He would be rewarded with command of one of the brand-new ‘electric’ U-boats, U-3519, in January 1945, but boat and commander were lost off Warnemuende (Germany) in March 1945 after an air attack.

By 25 August, there remained no serviceable U-boats at Bordeaux, and the boatless crews, dockyard workers, army troops and German civilians reassembled at La Rochelle, from where 20,000 would attempt to make the journey back across France to Germany. The unwanted ex-Italian UIT21 had been one of those scuttled at Bordeaux on 25 August and her former crew, including Wilhelm Kraus, now set out for Germany on bicycles. Many of them were captured in mid-France by partisans and Kraus was not released until the end of 1946.

The general chaos, with U-boats attempting to redeploy to Norway from France, resulted in complications for boats returning from remote waters. The homeward-bound U-516 (Kapitaenleutnant Tillessen), low on fuel, was unexpectedly required to steer for Norway instead of her closer French base. She signalled her predicament on 16 August and was ordered to meet a U-boat giving weather reports south-west of Iceland. On the 25th, U-858, the weather boat, reported that she had refuelled U539 at the rendezvous (AK1832), but had not seen U-516. U-855 was appointed as replacement weather boat while a fresh rendezvous between U-855 and U-516 was fixed for the same area on 3 September. Tillessen waited two days for U-855 at her rendezvous south of Iceland before signalling to U-boat Command that the supply boat had failed to appear. The Type VIIC boat U-245 was at once directed at full speed to her aid, but on the 9th U-516 was able to report that she had been refuelled by U-855 after all. Both boats returned to Norway.

After her return from the North Atlantic in January 1944, U-219 (Korvet-tenkapitaen Burghagen) had been prepared for a special cruise, as the first blockade runner of her class to the Far East. The minelayer was to be fitted out with supplies, rather than mines (the mineshafts had a huge capacity), but eight torpedoes would also be taken on board to retain some offensive capability from her two stern torpedo tubes. Planning for the event took three to four months, during which time radio equipment was loaded for Japan (the port of Kobe), also substitute machine parts, torpedo parts, medical supplies, operational orders, spare parts for the Arado-196 seaplane at Penang (a parting gift, long before, from a German auxiliary cruiser), duraluminium, mercury and optical items for the Japanese. However, contrary to recent reports, there were no parts for a putative Japanese atomic bomb, nor any foreign personnel aboard.

No one knew how the U-minelayer would behave with such a loading, so the first test cruise of U-219 in April was, to say the least, fraught with interest. Senior engineers from the 12th U-boat Flotilla went on board to give what aid they could. During the first trim-dive U-219 sank like a stone, but the engineers managed to recover her poise. After return to her bunker, as much as possible was done to save weight, including the removal of the large 105mm gun on deck and all its ammunition.

Schnorkel trials began on 1 May. When the Allied invasion began, the bunkers suffered constant air attack but U-219 remained safe in hers, although shortage of supplies caused a long delay in equipping the U-minelayer, which was also fitted with one of the new high-pressure designs of lavatory. This could expel its contents when at great depth, but required careful operation – faulty manipulation was to cause the accidental flooding and loss of one U-boat later in the war.

The two Type IXD1 U-transporters, U180 (Oberleutnant zS Reisen) and U-195 (Oberleutnant zS Steinfeldt), were recommissioned at Bordeaux as the other two blockade runners planned to sail to the Indian Ocean. Both had needed replacement diesel engines to permit this trip and were to be joined by U-219.

The former U-boat bases on the west coast of France were declared by Hitler to be ‘fortresses’, to be fought to the last man, but this meant that munitions had somehow to be ferried to them. U-boats were the vessels of choice, two small attack boats had already carried out a ferry operation, and U-180 and U-195 seemed to the Army to be especially good candidates. They were loaded with dynamite and ammunition for a planned operation to St Malo and Lorient, but the naval staff were singularly unenthusiastic -not to mention the crews – and finally seized on the shortage of supplies at Bordeaux as the excuse not to send the U-transporters out on this mission.

U-219 finally left her bunker on 20 August. It took until the 23rd to reach Le Verdon at the mouth of the River Gironde where she had to wait for U-195 and U-180, which had also sailed on the 20th. (According to a decrypted W/T message, U-219 had attempted to sail from Le Verdon on the 23rd, but an air attack on the escort had caused a withdrawal.) As this valuable assembly of blockade runners waited for a propitious moment to break into the heavily patrolled Bay of Biscay, the crews saw the destroyers Z-24 and T-24 attacked by a cloud of some forty Mosquito fighter-bombers. Both ships would be sunk by air attack at Le Verdon, respectively on the 25th and 24th. The signal announcing the imminent departures of U-180, U-195 and U-219 was decrypted by British Intelligence but, owing to a shortage of suitable escorts, U-219 did not enter the Bay of Biscay until the 24th. Finally the U-boat group emerged in the evening and put to sea with orders to sail to the Far East (Penang), with a paltry escort of only two M-boats. Evidence of heavy Allied aerial activity caused the boats to dive in only 50 metres of water, instead of the more common 200 metres.

It would have been at this time that U-180 disappeared without trace. She is commonly supposed to have hit a mine and sank, the sinking generally being listed as having occurred on 22 August, but this does not fit the information given above, derived from decrypts and survivors of U-219. Meanwhile, U-boat Command continued to give estimates other supposed position until 3 October, when U-180 was presumed lost. The historian Alex Niestle has discovered that the escort left U-180 in deep water late on 23 August, so that a mine sinking is most unlikely. A more probable explanation for the loss, in the view of the author, is a schnorkel defect (compare the troubles experienced by U-219 at the same time, below). Experiences from other U-boats make it clear that a sufficiently serious schnorkel failure could poleaxe an entire crew within sixty seconds.

U-219 began to use her schnorkel on the 26th, despite her lack of experience. The next few days were spent acquiring better knowledge of the schnorkel as the boat headed west. By 2 September, U-219 had reached the Atlantic, and surfaced briefly to clear the air in the boat and to determine her position. Then she began schnorkelling again. But on the 15th the device suddenly failed and could not be repaired, jammed at an angle of 45 degrees. U-219 ran thereafter on the surface at night for the minimum length of time needed to recharge her batteries; otherwise she remained submerged Meanwhile, the homeward-bound torpedo transport U-1062 required more fuel if she was to reach Norway. U-1062 was returning from Penang with a cargo of rubber and other strategic materials and had already had an eventful ride. But now she had been diverted from her originally intended French base owing to the Allied advance towards the Biscay ports. U-219 was conveniently close and U-boat Command radioed orders on 21 September for her to supply U-1062 at sundown south-west of the Cape Verde Islands, at a position of about 11.30N 34.30W.

But the rendezvous had already been revealed when the exchange of signals between U-boat Command and U-1062 on the 18th had been decoded, after the disguised grid reference had been cracked by local H/F D/F indicating the location of U-1062. The Mission Bay and Tripoli carrier groups were moved to the area and they mounted continuous air patrols looking for the U-boats. Arriving at the rendezvous in good time on 28 September, U-219 was alarmed to hear far-off explosions. She surfaced at dusk and the crew manned the anti-aircraft guns. Unknown to her crew, the U-minelayer had been detected by the large radar on the Mission Bay carrier.

Suddenly, in darkness, a carrier aircraft flew over at an altitude of only 70 metres. It saw the cow too late, circled and attacked. Heavy flak from the cow’s 20mm and 37mm guns shot the aircraft down, but not before it had dropped several bombs which exploded all around the boat. As the spray fell away, the stunned crew of U-219 found that their boat had stopped dead in the water, although there appeared to be no serious damage. A second aircraft saw the gunfire and closed, firing rockets that all missed. U-219 remained on the surface and was harried with guns and bombs before diving. Burghagen debated what to do. He thought it prudent to abandon the rendezvous, but U-boat Command ordered him to remain searching. All night the crew could hear the sound of distant explosions, blissfully ignorant of the fact that U-219 had just been chased by a Fido that had failed to make contact, and was even now being hunted with sonobuoys.

At light next day (the 29th), Burghagen sighted searching destroyers but still continued to wait hopefully for U-1062. U-219 surfaced on the 30th to recharge her batteries and then dived again to the constant thud of distant bombs and depth-charges.

Meanwhile, U-1062 had been located by sonobuoys on 30 September, chased repeatedly and unsuccessfully with Fidos, and finally sunk by hedgehog and depth-charge attacks by destroyers of the Mission Bay carrier group while close to the rendezvous, south-west of the Cape Verde Islands. There were no survivors.

On the first day of October another Allied search group was heard at the rendezvous by U-219, looking for the cow whose presence was still suspected. Next day the batteries were again depleted and U-boat Command had made no further pronouncement (the reason for which is unknown. U-boat Command did not recognize that U-1062 had been sunk until 2 December, by which time the staff claimed to have had no word from U-219 either.) U-219 drifted underwater at creeping speed for several days -so many that her crew became ill and it became necessary on 4 October to surface again to vent the boat. She was promptly located by an aircraft from the persistent Mission Bay group, but the intended bombs fell short. Sonobuoys were deployed and another Fido was dropped after a few hours. An explosion was heard but U-219 was unharmed.

On the following day, Asdic echoes came too close for comfort and Burghagen finally abandoned the rendezvous, heading south. The Tripoli carrier group did not, however, abandon the hunt for this valuable U-minelayer. U-219 had crossed the equator by the 11th, submerged but with due ceremony, and thereafter she ran mostly on the surface at night, albeit with constant dives before radar alarms. Unknown to Burghagen, the Tripoli was still in pursuit. On 30 October, aircraft from the Tripoli carrier group finally relocated U-219 with sonobuoys off South Africa and attacked the sound location with depth-charges. Underwater explosions were heard, but U-219 escaped (her crew seems to have been oblivious to this attack).

U-219 finally reached her most southerly point on 11 November, having at last thrown off her tenacious pursuer. Here she had to wrestle with some engine trouble before steering north-east, into the Indian Ocean and towards Penang. U-boat Command altered the destination base to Djakarta on the 20th, citing the new proximity of Allied bombers to Penang as the reason for the change.

When masts were seen well into the Indian Ocean on 26 November, Burghagen made a submerged attack, firing two torpedoes. One detonation was heard but, on coming to the surface, nothing could be seen of the target. U-219 claimed a sinking on the basis of this flimsy evidence, but in fact no merchant ship had been sunk; evidently Burghagen lacked confidence in the claim too, since he did not repeat it to U-boat Command after arrival at base.

U-219 at last reached the rendezvous for her Japanese escort in the Sunda Strait, punctually on 12 December. She hung around nervously, all crew on deck for fear of an attack by an Allied submarine in these infested waters. Burghagen’s fears were not eased when the ‘escort’ proved to be a Japanese fishing cutter that proceeded casually to Djakarta with the helpless U-minelayer tagging slowly along behind. However, she reached port without mishap.