‘Battles” in France 1940

12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

Destroying the Albert Canal bridges would be a major setback for the advancing German forces, but bridges are notoriously difficult targets. Only a direct hit is likely to cause any damage against even a small bridge, and the bridges over the Albert Canal were very solid structures. The Belgian Air Force tried to destroy them on 11 May with its sole bomber squadron, which was equipped with Fairey Battles. Interestingly, the Belgians were using them as two-seaters. The planes only carried 50-kg bombs, which were unlikely to inflict much damage on a bridge. Six of the nine Battles, along with two of the six escorting Gladiators, were shot down by flak and German fighters and the few bombs that landed anywhere near the bridges did little damage.

Attacking such small targets required precision, which meant either low-level or dive-bombing. The Albert Canal was not supposed to be the AASF’s zone of operations, but destroying the bridges seemed like a job for the Battles. By 12 May, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions were approaching Gembloux, some fifty miles to the west. The bridges were well in the German rear, close to German fighter airfields, and there had been plenty of time to organise strong anti-aircraft defences. The heavy losses that the French, Belgian, and British air forces had already suffered in the area underlined the strength of the German defences.

Nevertheless, it seemed worth the risk. Rarely are targets so far in the rear so crucial; there were no obvious alternative ways of getting supplies and reinforcements across the Albert Canal and temporary substitutes would not be easy to organise. However, for a reasonable chance of success, the attack required a reasonable number of bombers carrying bombs larger than the 250-lb weapons the Battle could manage. As it was, a single squadron of Battles was given the task and this would only be assigning three planes to each bridge.

The mission was judged so dangerous that volunteers were called for. All the pilots volunteered, so the crews due to fly the next mission took on the task. Two Blenheim squadrons were supposed to bomb nearby Maastricht at the same time to distract the defences. The official narrative talks of twelve Hurricane squadrons providing cover, but most of these were only operating in the general area—indeed, half of them were operating well to the northwest, with instructions to cover the Belgian forces retreating westwards towards Antwerp. Only No. 1 Squadron seems to have had the specific role of protecting the bombers, and it hoped to achieve this by flying ahead and clearing the area of enemy fighters.

Fg Off. Garland, Fg Off. McIntosh, and Sgt Marland had the metal Veldwezelt bridge as their target, while Fg Off. Thomas, Plt Off. Davy, and Fg Off. Brereton were to tackle the concrete Vroenhoven bridge. As they prepared to set off, Garland and Thomas were involved in a ‘heated discussion’15 about the best way of attacking the bridges. Garland was adamant that the low-level approach was best, while Thomas insisted dive-bombing was more likely to succeed. Brereton’s Battle had a technical fault, as did a second plane his crew tried, so just Thomas and Davy set off for the Vroenhoven bridge. They seemed to have benefitted from three Hurricanes that had attached themselves to the Battles in the run in, which helped beat off Bf 109s and gave the Battles a chance to begin their dive-bombing runs. The two planes dived from 6,000 feet and released their bombs at 2,000 feet. Both planes were hit by anti-aircraft fire and again, it was damage to the engine that proved to be decisive. Thomas crash-landed near the bridge, while Davy made it as far as friendly territory before his engine gave out. Their bombs appear to have landed close to the bridge, but did not inflict any serious damage.

Meanwhile Garland’s flight was heading towards the Veldwezelt bridge. McIntosh’s fuel tanks were ablaze before he could drop his bombs, but he did his best to send his bombs in the general direction of the bridge before crash-landing. McIntosh was pulled clear from the blazing wreckage by his crew and had to endure a lecture from his German captors on the futility of attacking a bridge after giving the defenders two days to prepare their defences. Garland and Marland were able to aim their bombs more accurately and caused some damage but both were hit, and all six crew-members died when the planes crashed within a few miles of the bridge. All of them were equally courageous, but fears of devaluing the Victoria Cross by distributing it too liberally meant only Garland and his navigator Sgt Gray were so honoured. There was no alternative posthumous award to give, so the bravery of LAC Reynolds, Sgt Marland, Sgt Footner and LAC Perrin went unrecognised. It was an operation that had all the heroic and hopeless qualities associated with The Charge of the Light Brigade. The known strength of the fighter and anti-aircraft defences made the Albert Canal operation a suicide mission, but so did the lack of adequate armour protection and self-sealing tanks.

The Albert Canal operation was always going to be a risky operation in which heavy losses were almost inevitable, but the losses against less well-defended targets were the real cause for concern. In the middle of a crucial battle, Air Marshal ‘Ugly’ Barratt, commander of the BAFF, and his staff found themselves desperately trying to work out a way to use his bombers without incurring unacceptably high losses. Barratt felt the bombers needed to operate from higher altitudes to avoid the worst of the anti-aircraft fire, but Air Vice-Marshal Playfair, commander of the AASF, believed that the maximum altitude from which they could expect to hit small targets would still be within the range of light flak.18 There were no easy solutions. Barratt and Playfair followed the various tactics adopted by the Battle squadrons on 12 May particularly closely in the hope that answers would emerge. For the first time, the Battles were targeting Guderian’s crucial drive on Sedan. All the missions were in the Bouillon area, where Guderian’s panzers were now just ten miles from Sedan and the main French defence line. The Semois flowing through the town was the last river barrier before the Meuse.

At dawn, a section of three Battles from No. 103 Squadron bombed a bridge over the Semois, it would seem from a very low level, and all returned safely. At around 1.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 103 squadron approached the same target at 4,000 feet. Almost inevitably, they ran into German fighters in the shape of twin-engined Bf 110s, but at least the Battles were now fitted with armour that offered some protection to fighter attack. There was no attempt to close formation and slug it out with the enemy; the Battles dived to ground level in an effort to shake off the Messerschmitts, which they succeeded in doing. They then bombed from just 20 feet what looked like a pontoon bridge under construction next to a blown bridge and made their escape.

At around 03.00 p.m., three Battles from No. 150 Squadron bombed columns between Neufchâteau and Bertrix ten miles east of Bouillon. One of the planes was hit, exploded and crashed in flames, but the remaining two attacked the columns from 100 feet and escaped. Two hours later, three Battles from No. 103 Squadron and another three from No. 218 Squadron set out to attack more targets in the Bouillon region. Those from No. 218 Squadron were flying at 1,000 feet in formation, while the three from No. 103 Squadron flew to the target individually, presumably at low level. The Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron were supposed to be in the area providing protection, but again, it was only very loose general cover. The bombers never saw the fighters, and the only claim made by the Hurricanes was for a Henschel Hs 126 observation plane.

Two of the three Battles from No. 218 Squadron were lost, at least one of them the victim of anti-aircraft fire. No. 103 Squadron’s individual low-level approach was no more successful, and they also lost two planes. Interestingly, by this time, No. 103 Squadron had decided it was pointless carrying a specialist navigator/bomb aimer for short-range, low-level daylight missions; they were not needed and it just put another life at risk unnecessarily. From now on, the squadron flew its Battles as two-seaters. It was a step that could have been adopted by all Battle squadrons long ago and would have enabled the bombers to carry more protection. The sole survivor from No. 103 Squadron had demonstrated another way of reducing losses. The plane, piloted by Plt Off. Cunningham, had not flown as far as Bouillon. Short of the target, he came across a column of German tanks and, in line with the original plans for using the Battles to block the leading German elements, bombed these. The column was taken by surprise and the Battle escaped. Admittedly, Bouillon was only a few miles further east, but attacking the first enemy forces encountered seemed far more useful and far less risky. There was perhaps a danger that pilots using their own initiative might hit friendly forces by mistake, but there were few Allied forces east of the Meuse, and the Battle crews seemed in little doubt that the columns firing at them were German.

The day’s operations provided no clear evidence that the low-level approach was more dangerous, although it was difficult to draw any conclusions from such a small number of sorties. The tragedy for the RAF was that its commanders were having to work out what might work in the middle of a crucial battle. So far, in sixty sorties, thirty Battles had been lost—Portal’s pre-offensive prediction was coming to pass with uncanny accuracy. In the evening, Newall ordered Barratt to cut back on operations in order to conserve the force for the crucial phase of the battle that must lie ahead. To the Allied commanders, that still seemed a few days away; German forces were beginning to reach the main French defensive position along the Meuse, but it would take time to bring up the artillery needed to cover a crossing. The failure to appreciate that air support could substitute for artillery was about to cost the Allies dear. On 13 May, German forces, covered by a fearsome aerial bombardment, began crossing the Meuse.

As dawn broke on the 13th, the AASF squadrons had no inkling that, just fifty miles from their airfields, a crisis was looming. Allied commanders believed the situation in the Netherlands was far more threatening; the French were in trouble in the south and the Dutch were asking for air support further north, on the central front. No. 76 Wing (Nos 12, 142 and 226 Squadrons) was ordered to send a flight of four Battles to bomb German forces advancing in the Wageningen area, some 250 miles from the Battle bases. Poor weather in the Netherlands spared the Battles from having to perform this mission but, later in the morning, seven Battles from No. 226 Squadron were dispatched to attack German columns moving south-westwards from Breda, some 200 miles from AASF airfields. It seemed strange to be sending Battles so far to attack targets that were easier to reach from No. 2 Group airfields in Britain. No enemy forces were spotted near Breda, but a factory was brought down to block the route. All the bombers returned. Ironically, just a few miles from the Battles’ home bases, there were countless targets to choose from, and all of them were far more important than any targets in the Netherlands.

As the day progressed, Playfair and Barratt slowly became more aware that a major crisis was brewing on the Meuse front. ‘[W]eaknesses in the French line between Sedan and Givet’ were enough for AASF HQ to begin discussing contingency plans for a possible withdrawal to safer airfields further south. Barratt and Playfair were not only becoming aware that the Allied line was in trouble, they also had an opportunity to do something about it. In the evening, a French reconnaissance plane had spotted Rommel’s first attempt to cross the Meuse at Dinant and, following instructions for passing on information about crucial targets of opportunity, the pilot headed for the base of No. 12 Squadron. It would have been an opportunity to provide real close support for the French forces struggling to contain Rommel’s advance. Authorisation was sought to attack the bridgehead but both Playfair and Barratt felt they had to conserve their Battles and so permission was denied. This was a missed opportunity. It would soon become clear that the decision to risk the Battles in the Netherlands but not along the Meuse was a serious misjudgement.

By late evening, Barratt was coming under intense pressure to use his bombers. General Billotte, the overall commander of Allied forces, explained how the air assault on Sedan had caused elements of the French Army to panic and flee. The German infantry had established bridgeheads on the west bank of the Meuse and pontoon bridges were under construction; once these were ready, the tanks would be able to cross. French reinforcements were moving into place but Billotte needed d’Astier and Barratt to buy as much time as possible. He wanted both commanders to throw everything they had against the German crossing points, starting that night if possible. This was a very different proposition to the attacks on the bridges over the Albert Canal on the 12th. These had taken place after the Germans had been given two days to set up their anti-aircraft defences, and the bridges had been very near German fighter airfields. Sedan was much closer to RAF bases and more distant from German airfields, and German forces were just beginning to cross the river, so had not yet had time to organise defences. The bridges were also just temporary pontoons under construction, far easier to destroy than permanent bridges.

Despite the plans Barratt was making for a possible evacuation, he still could not believe the situation had become so critical so quickly, and conservation remained uppermost in his mind. He would only promise a small raid at dawn the following day. Six Battles of No. 103 Squadron bombed pontoon bridges in the Sedan sector and all returned, although one wounded pilot was forced to crash-land. Encouraged by this relative success, another four Battles attacked the bridgehead at around 7.00 a.m., and all returned safely. It would seem at this point that the fighter and anti-aircraft defences were not as formidable as they would be a few hours later.

During the morning of 14 May, French pleas became more frantic. The French Air Force was planning to throw obsolete Amiot 143 bombers against the bridges, a plane that was broadly equivalent to the Fairey Hendon, so desperate was the situation. At around midday, the French persuaded Barratt to join these attacks with every bomber he had. It was the AASF’s first all-out effort. The plan was for the French to attack first; the AASF would then follow. Both forces would then return to base, rearm and attack again. Blenheims from No. 2 Group would then round off the assault.

Hurricane squadrons operating further north would fly south to reinforce the AASF and the French fighter force. However, while French fighters would fly with their bombers, RAF fighters would still only be providing general support in the area. Once again, the Hurricanes would be operating out of sight of the Battles. They did useful work shooting down several Henschel Hs 126 observation planes and Ju 87 dive-bombers, but this was little consolation to the Battle crews. Some of the Battle formations were assured they would have French fighter escorts, but in reality, these were just fighters which happened to be in the general area on other missions. By the afternoon, German fighters were operating in strength and anti-aircraft guns had been extracted from the columns making their way into Sedan. The scene was set for the worst day in the RAF’s history. It was a day that would seal the reputation of the Fairey Battle.

The French attacked first. Eight modern LeO 451s and thirteen ancient Amiot 143s, with a powerful escort, attacked the bridges soon after midday, losing three of the lumbering Amiot 143s and one LeO 451 in the process. Between 03.00 p.m. and 03.45 p.m. forty-five Battles attacked bridges and another eighteen, along with eight AASF Blenheims, bombed enemy columns. It seems that some of the Battles were now flying at higher altitudes, which reduced their vulnerability to ground fire, but also increased the chances of meeting German fighters.

Five Battles from No. 12 Squadron dive-bombed the crossroads at Givonne, between Sedan and Bouillon, where they ran into low-calibre but intense flak. At least two bombed the target, but only one made it back to base. Eight Battles from No. 142 Squadron set off in pairs to bomb the pontoon bridges, carrying eleven-second-delay fused bombs in a clear intention to attack from low-level. Nevertheless, they were unable to avoid German fighters, and at least two of the four lost were shot down by Messerschmitts. No. 226 Squadron sent six Battles to dive-bomb the bridges at Douzy and Mouzon, just south of Sedan, and here ground fire seemed to be the main problem. Of these six, one was forced to return with heavy damage before it even reached the target, and three others failed to return. Only four out of eleven No.105 Squadron Battles made it back—one very badly damaged machine landed at another airfield, while another made it to friendly territory before crash-landing. The four Battles of No. 150 Squadron ran into Bf 109s and all were lost. Eight Battles from No. 103 Squadron, still the only squadron flying with a two-man crew, attacked the crossing points, some at very low-level, others in dive-bombing attacks. Three failed to return, although all three crash-landed in friendly territory. One of the pilots subsequently died of his wounds, but the other crews safely made it back to their squadrons. Of eleven No. 218 Squadron Battles, only one returned. No. 88 Squadron dispatched ten Battles, four to attack bridges and six to bomb enemy columns between Bouillon and Givonne; all attacked successfully and only one plane was lost.
It was the highest loss rate suffered by the RAF in any major operation in its history. Of the sixty-three Battles taking part, thirty-five were lost. Five out of eight Blenheims also failed to return. Those that made it back were so badly damaged that there was no question of carrying out the second round of raids.28 With more planes attacking from higher altitudes, there were fewer losses to ground fire but German fighters had made sure no advantage was gained. It had all been very different earlier in the day when neither the flak nor the fighter defences had been so strong: if the bombers had struck sooner, the outcome might have been very different. A prompt response could have helped to reduce the risks. This was another lesson learned the hard way.

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Imperial Russia’s Retreat 1915

German Cavalry entering Warsaw on August 5, 1915.

Not until April 1915 did OHL inform OAK in Vienna how it planned to use Mackensen’s 11th Army, and only then because it required Conrad to transfer two corps of his 4th Army to Mackensen’s command. Conrad again protested that the area of intended operations was on the front of which he was commander-in-chief, but had to accept this partial usurpation of his authority, since it seemed the only way to force Brusilov’s retreat from the Carpathian passes, where he was little more than 100 miles from Budapest, twin capital of the dual monarchy.

On paper, the Central Powers now had a coordinated strategy from the Baltic coast right down to the Romanian frontier. In East Prussia, Hindenburg’s forces consisted of the new 10th Army, 8th Army under von Below and 9th Army facing Warsaw. South of the salient, Austro-Hungarian forces were, from north to south, 2nd, 1st, 4th and 3rd armies. Russian forces holding the line were 10th Army in the north on the East Prussian border, 1st and 2nd armies defending Warsaw in the salient and the new 12th Army to the north-east of Warsaw. South of the salient, facing the Austro-Hungarians, were 5th, 4th, 9th, 3rd, 8th and 11th armies.

On 2 May Mackensen’s artillery loosed a devastating 4-hour barrage on a 35-mile stretch of the lines of Russian 3rd Army. He had tried to break through west of the River Narev in February and March, and was determined not to fail again. Mackensen had just over ten divisions in the line and another in reserve against the seven divisions of Russian 1st and 12th armies. He had 1,000 guns on this small front, with 400,000 rounds of shell, all coordinated by General Bruchmüller, the artillery expert, facing 377 guns with only forty rounds apiece. Immediately following the barrage, German infantry moved in, ready to tackle Russian survivors emerging from dugout shelters, but found instead almost all the men in the badly constructed front line, as well as the reserves, who had been held too far forward, lying dead because they had been cut to pieces in their trenches by shrapnel bursts and literally vaporised by high explosive (HE). It was about this time that the enormous numbers of casualties on the Russian fronts led to burials in ‘brothers’ graves’, where dozens and sometimes hundreds of men were buried in the same mass grave without discrimination of nationality, race or religion.

For the reality of what lies behind the bland body counts we have an eye-witness account. For those not killed outright and lucky enough to be brought to a letuchka, or mobile surgical unit, everyday nursing was in the hands of the krestovaye sestry – Red Cross sisters. A few of these women who braved all the discomforts and dangers of working close to the front lines were English. Florence Farmborough was a 27-year-old governess employed by a surgeon in Moscow, who had volunteered and been given a few weeks’ training in a hospital before spending a whole month in trains to reach the south-western front. Fortunately, she kept a diary, writing down events whenever she had time. With the general insufficiency of field hospitals, delay in treating even a small wound often meant death from infection. So the letuchki worked very close to the lines, moving frequently to keep up with advances and retreats. Florence’s first base was in a well-built house with several pleasant, airy rooms, where the nurses’ first task was to scrub every surface clean and paint or whitewash the walls. An operating theatre was set up and a pharmacy stocked with medicines and surgical material. They were told not to think they would be there long: the stay might be six months or six hours, depending on the movement of the front. Not knowing exactly what to expect, she took some solace in the scenery of the undulating Carpathian foothills.

Mackensen pressed on with the German 11th Army in the centre, flanked by Austrian 3rd and 4th armies, demolishing any sustained Russian resistance with more massive artillery bombardments. Conventionally, Russian units north and south of the CP advance should have attacked the flanks, but Stavka was afraid of Brusilov’s 8th Army being too exposed on the south-western front and ordered a general withdrawal to straighten the line, in the absence of sufficient heavy artillery – and especially sufficient stocks of shell – to even slow down the CP advance. Casualties rapidly mounted to the million mark, with reinforcements arriving and being thrown into battle after only two or three weeks’ training.

Three days after Florence’s arrival on this front, there was a sense of foreboding in her entry for 28 April, which recorded the arrival of a first batch of fifty wounded men, whose wounds had to be dressed before they were sent on to Yaslo. Against the booming of cannon fire, the soldiers voiced their dismay that German troops and heavy artillery had been sent to this section of the Front. ‘We are not afraid of the Austrians,’ they said, ‘but the German soldiers are quite different.’

Two days later, the new nurse of Letuchka No. 2 was shocked by a colossal influx of seriously wounded men after Russian 3rd Army was cut to pieces and 61st Division – to which the letuchka was attached – lost many thousands of men. The reality of a combat nurse’s exhausting life had sunk in:

We were called from our beds before dawn on Saturday 1 May. The Germans had launched their offensive. Explosion after explosion rent the air. Shells and shrapnel fell all around. Our house shook to its very foundations. Death was very busy, his hands full of victims. Then the victims started to arrive until we were overwhelmed by their numbers. They came in their hundreds from all directions, some able to walk, others dragging themselves along the ground. We worked day and night. The thunder of the guns never ceased. Soon shells were exploding all around our unit. The stream of wounded was endless. We dressed their severe wounds where they lay on the open ground, first alleviating their pain by injections. On Sunday the terrible word retreat was heard. In that one word lies all the agony of the last few days. The first-line troops came into sight: a long procession of dirt-bespattered, weary, desperate men. Orders: we were to start without delay, leaving behind all the wounded and the unit’s equipment! ‘Skoro, skoro! Quickly! The Germans are outside the town!’

Again and again, the surgeon, orderlies and nurses of Letuchka No. 2 fled eastwards out of towns and villages as the German spearheads entered them from the west. The arrival of a Cossack despatch-rider on his mud-flecked pony meant packing up the instruments and tents, always to head further east. Sleep-deprived, the nurses nodded off to get whatever rest they could in the jolting horse-drawn carts bumping over unmade roads. This was the Great Retreat of 1915.

In April 1915 Hindenburg also continued his push on the northern front into Russian-occupied Lithuania and Courland, relieving Königsberg and capturing the Russian naval base of Libau (modern Liepaja) on the Baltic coast in early May. On 2 May Mackensen’s now very mixed armies opened an attack from the line of the Vistula River, all the way south to the Carpathian Mountains. Preceded by an enormous barrage, it was a huge success, with Russian 3rd Army suffering severe losses. The advance continued with the capture of the ruined fortress of Przemyśl – which could not be defended because of all the damage caused during the Russian siege and the demolitions carried out by the Austrian garrison before surrendering in March. Less than three weeks later, Lemberg was also recaptured. The joint German-Austrian attack continued its momentum, driving the Russians back to the River San just over a week after that. By the end of the month, the front had shifted 100 miles to the east.

By 15 June Letuchka No. 2 had moved so many times as the front collapsed that it was back inside Russia, but the retreat was not over yet. Asleep on their feet, the nursing sisters collected up all the equipment and re-packed again and again as the temporary haven of care for the suffering where they had worked the previous day fell into the hands of the enemy. Bumping along the bad roads in unsprung carts, two of the nurses were ill – partly, Florence thought, from the sustained anxiety. Trying at night to sleep on a carpet of pine needles in the forest, she heard the nurse lying beside her crying quietly. When dawn came, they merged again into the stream of humans and animals, all moving eastwards. Entire herds of cattle were being driven by their owners with droves of sheep and pigs. And always behind them black clouds of smoke rose into the sky as all the peasants’ hayricks and barns full of straw were fired, to deny them to the enemy. She wrote:

It was said that the Cossacks had received orders to force all the inhabitants to leave their homes so they could not act as spies. In order that the enemy should encounter widespread devastation, the homesteads were set on fire and crops destroyed. The peasants were heart-rending. They took what they could with them but before long the animals’ strength gave out and we would see panting, dying creatures by the roadside, unable to go any farther. One woman, with a sleeping infant in her arms, was bowed almost double by a large wicker basket containing poultry, which was strapped to her back. Sometimes a cart had broken down and the family, bewildered and frightened, chose to remain with their precious possessions, until they too were driven onwards by the threatening knout of the Cossack or the more terrifying prospect of the proximity of the enemy.

Near Lublin in the salient 5,000 Cossack cavalry and Russian artillery wiped out two crack Austrian cavalry regiments, mostly killed in medieval manner by sabre or lance. Knox described one Austrian officer taken prisoner after having the whole of his lower jaw carried away on the point of a lance. Joseph Bumby described his capture like this:

I was left alone in front of the Russian trenches with six dead men on my left and the forest on my right. The Russians were 200 paces behind me when I was shot in the neck. In the evening when the firing died down, some Russian soldiers came close and called out to me. One escorted me to a house in the village of Něgartova where they gave me bread, tea and cigarettes, but they stole my gloves and some canned goods I had. Then they gave me some straw to sleep on.

One always recalls the first night in captivity, after which it all becomes a blur.

After General Alexander von Linsingen recaptured Strij with the Galician oilfields, which were 60 per cent British-owned, a cartel of businessmen in Berlin pre-echoed Hitler’s plan to enslave the populations of Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. The southern end of the Russian lines was now floating unanchored and Mackensen continued pressing his advantage for four months with the tsarist forces retreating all along the Russian fronts – which ran from Latvia in the north, looped around Warsaw and, with most of Galicia back in Austrian hands, continued south to the Romanian border.

On 7 July Russian forces took thousands of POWs on the northern front and pressed on to take the key fortresses at Königsberg and Allenstein before being driven back. Florence Farmborough’s mobile surgical unit was then attached to 5th Caucasian Infantry Corps. Her diary records that, of 25,000 men, only 2,000 were left. But the major defeat of that terrible midsummer was due to a joint German and Austrian push towards Warsaw. Although Stavka managed to extricate three armies from encirclement, once the loss of the Polish salient became inevitable, an evacuation of all civilians was ordered, with the destruction of all homes, food and animals in the scorched-earth policy used against Napoleon. Knox recorded the start of the Third Battle for Warsaw on 13 July, of which the first warning came when human intelligence indicated that the frontier railway stations at Willenberg, Soldau and Neidenburg were being enlarged to handle more traffic. After a feint along the River Vistula, the Germans opened up a hurricane barrage on 12 July, which showed that they had no shortage of shells on this occasion. The weather had been dry and roads were at their best, so one corps of Russian 1st Army had to counter forty-two large-calibre enemy guns with only two of its own, with the result that an entire Siberian division was virtually wiped out amid widespread panic. The infantry attack came in on 13 July, when the Russian troops withdrew from the front line without pausing to defend a second defensive line that had been prepared on the line Przasnysz–Tsyekhanov–Plonsk–Chervinsk. The majority of Russian conscripts being of peasant origin, when a scorched-earth policy was ordered in retreats, they routinely drove off livestock and looted other possessions from civilians, which slowed down their movement, with the result during this retreat the enemy cavalry caught up and broke through in the centre of the line, attacking the slow-moving and vulnerable transport columns. The term ‘scorched earth’ requires clarification. It seems that poor peasants lost everything, as did the Jews. But noble estates belonging to rich Polish landowners who had connections with German, Austrian and Russian high commands, could ‘arrange’ for their lands and property to be left intact.

On 16 July the fortified line Makov–Naselsk–Novo Georgievsk was reached, where Russian 4th Corps was sent immediately into combat as they stepped off the trains from Warsaw. Even this desperate measure was too little, too late. On the night of 18 July the retreat continued to the River Narev. After four German divisions forced a bridgehead on the right bank, it was decided to evacuate Warsaw. By this time, Russian 2nd Army had only a single corps remaining on the left bank, 4 miles outside the city. On the night of 4 August this too retreated to the right bank, after which the Vistula bridges were blown at 0300hrs on 5 August. The German scouts reached the left bank at 6 a.m.

By the time Warsaw fell to Mackensen that day, Russian losses in the war totalled 1.4 million casualties and nearly a million officers and men taken prisoner. The ‘black summer’ continued, but the German advance – in places up to 125 miles from the nearest railhead – was fraught with problems, corps commanders complaining that fodder for horses was impossible to obtain in sufficient quantity as they drove through primeval forest and hit the Pripyat marshes where, ironically, there was no drinking water for men or horses until it had been boiled.

There was already trouble brewing in the subject nations on both sides. A Czech independence faction wanted to use the war to break away from Austrian domination. The Slovaks wanted independence from Hungary. If not the Tsar, at least the Russian government was aware that the Finns, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, as well as the Caucasian nations subdued in the nineteenth century, were all waiting for the right moment to escape from Russian hegemony. In a feeble attempt to purchase the loyalty of the vassal races, the tsarist government promised reforms – which stopped short of independence – to Poles and Finns, to the Slavs of Galicia and to the Jews, although Nicholas was a strident anti-Semite.

Morale in some Russian units was still good although losses already totalled 3.8 million killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Even these figures are to some extent conjectural. General Hindenburg wrote:

In the Great War ledger the page on which the Russian losses were written had been torn out. No one knows the figure. 5 millions or 8 millions? We too have no idea. All we know is that sometimes in our battles with the Russians we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.

On the day following the surrender of Warsaw, Colonel Knox lunched about 1,000yd from the firing line with the commander of the elite Preobrazhenskii Guards Regiment, founded by Peter the Great. They ate from a camp table covered with a clean white cloth and all the officers seemed in excellent spirits. When Knox asked about strategy, one of them joked: ‘We will retire to the Urals. When we get there, the enemy’s pursuing army have dwindled to a single German and a single Austrian. The Austrian will, according to custom, give himself up as a prisoner, and we will kill the German.’ There was laughter all round.

In another light-hearted moment Knox recorded two Jews discussing the progress of the war in a market. When one said, ‘Our side will win,’ and the other agreed, a Pole standing nearby asked which side was ‘ours’. Both the Jews said: ‘Why, the side that will win.’

What was the truth of the Russian belief that Slavs in Austro-Hungarian uniform would willingly surrender at the first opportunity? Firstly, as Bolshevik commissars were to do with fellow Russians a few years later, the officers and senior NCOs of Conrad’s predominantly Slavic units were ordered to shoot any men preparing to give up without a fight – as did also British and French NCOs and military police on the Western Front. Secondly, unless all the men in a particular group were agreed about surrender, there was always the possibility of an informer giving away the plan. Ferdinand Filacek was a Czech metal-worker from Litomysl who was called up, aged 18, in August 1914. Arriving at the front in mid-November, he was taken prisoner near Novy Sad on 5 December. It is true that he was temporarily out of danger, but the next year was spent in three different POW camps at Kainsk, Novo-Nikolajevsk and Semipalatinsk (modern Semeï in Kazakhstan) a sparsely inhabited area 2,000 miles east of Moscow, where the Soviet Union would explode hundreds of nuclear devices during the Cold War.

German Logistics – Rail in Russia I

August 1941. Victories along the whole eastern front. Russian broad gauge railways are converted to German gauge.

Track gauge conversion

One surprising aspect of the German Army in 1939 was the limited extent to which it was motorized. The British had dispensed with the horse apart from ceremonial duties, but the Germans surprisingly had made less progress in converting their army to motor vehicles. This was partly because of Hitler’s lack of attention to detail, which meant he focused on the more sexy hardware like tanks and aeroplanes, but was also a result of the German motor industry’s inability to meet army requirements. According to van Creveld, ‘of 103 divisions available on the eve of the war, just 16… were fully motorised and thus to some extent independent of the railways’. The rest of the army marched on foot while their supplies were, for the most part, carried in horse-drawn wagons as lorries could not cope with the demands of the army and, in any case, there were not enough of them. In the technological conditions of 1939, an astonishing ‘1,600 lorries would be required to equal the capacity of just one double-track railway line’. Worse, trucks use up vast amounts of road space and require more fuel and people than an equivalent railway, greatly elongating the army’s ‘train’, which meant that in relation to payload, ‘the railway maintained its superiority at distances of over 200 miles…however great the effort, there was little chance that motor vehicles would relieve, much less replace, trains as Germany’s main form of transportation in the foreseeable future.’

Hitler’s focus on motorizing his army and his failure to see it through left the railways suffering from comparative neglect, with the result that there were fewer locomotives and wagons available in 1939 than there had been at the outbreak of the First World War. To a large extent, the marching German armies depended on scavenging trucks from the local populace – a move that increased antagonism towards the invaders – and, equally unpopular, even from their own civilians.

While the German invasions of Poland, and France and the Low Countries in 1939 and 1940 respectively, were astonishing victories, they exposed weaknesses in the Army’s logistics. German advances were characterized by having two sections, a small rapid motorized advance party which quickly took over vast swathes of territory but lost contact with its supply line, and a much larger, slower-moving rear. This tactic was fine in these early assaults since they were successfully concluded rapidly enough not to require reinforcements and the prolonged maintenance of supply lines. In Poland, the destruction of the railways by the retreating Poles had been so complete that it was only the rapid surrender of their army that prevented a logistical bottleneck for the Germans, who lost about half their trucks to the atrocious roads on which they were wholly reliant. By January 1940, the supply organization at Army HQ (OKH) was forced to resort to horse-drawn transport to make up the shortfall in available trucks. In France, the logistical failings did not escape Hitler’s notice since they contributed to the decision of the Germans not to press home their advantage in their sweep through northern France. The armoured spearheads speeding over the Meuse towards Paris progressed faster than expected and, as the railways had all been destroyed by the French, lost contact with their supply lines, leaving a gap between the two flanks. Hitler called a halt to allow for the supply lines to be re-established, which is why the British Expeditionary Force was able to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk, an event which contributed much to the Allies’ morale. Although the sabotaged railways were reinstated as soon as possible, there were too few Eisenbahntruppen to carry out the work quickly enough or to work the lines efficiently. There were frantic calls to requisition ‘all the lorries of Germany’ but by the time they arrived the Dunkirk beaches had been cleared. Again, as in Poland, had the French not crumbled so quickly, the split between the two parts of the army could have been exploited by the Allies and the Germans would have been forced to stop and consolidate.

It was the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 where the logistical failings were to be cruelly exposed. In truth, however, Operation Barbarossa, the name given to the massive plan to invade Russia, was always doomed to suffer the same fate as all previous attempts to overcome the Great Bear. The Germans decided on a rather muddled three-pronged attack on a vast 1,400-mile front aimed respectively at Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg, then Petrograd), Moscow and Kiev, involving more than 3 million men, five times the number that Napoleon had at his disposal, and the largest invading army raised in the history of warfare. The basic orders for the operation, which van Creveld calls ‘a rambling and confused document’, provided for an advance to the line Dvina-Smolensk-Dnieper, respectively 600, 700 and 900 miles away from the point of departure. Yet, each army group only had one railway line to supply it during the advance, with motorized transport expected to do the rest. It was simply impossible because of the massive shortfall of motorized transport. Not only was the fleet of trucks a ramshackle collection of vehicles of 2,000 different types largely purloined from occupied countries, but to replace rail with road movements to reach Moscow would have required ‘at least ten times the number of vehicles actually available’. Operation Barbarossa was overwhelmed by the logic of its supply constraints and its failure changed the course of the war.

There was, therefore, no alternative to using Russia’s sparse railway network and that was fraught with difficulties. Locomotives with boilers that kept functioning in the arctic conditions would have to be produced and track relaid because of the change in gauge between Germany and Russia. In other words, as Len Deighton puts it, ‘the speed of the advance would be limited to the speed at which a new railway could be built’.

The plan for the German advance was therefore drawn up in the light of these logistical constraints. To be successful Russia had to be conquered before winter and to achieve that a series of optimistic assumptions were made by the German HQ. It was to be the apogee of the blitzkrieg method of warfare, the strategy that combined tanks, infantry and air power in a single overwhelming attack concentrating tremendous force at points of weakness in order to overcome the enemy quickly. The plan for Barbarossa envisaged the rapid motorized units of all three army groups speeding 300 miles into Russia and then pausing while new railways were built and supply depots created to prepare for the final assault further east. To this end, remarkably, the Eisenbahntruppen, charged with repairing and converting the railway, were sent ahead as part of the advance party, even before the territory where they were expected to work was properly secured. This contradicted normal military practice. As van Creveld puts it, ‘instead of the logistic apparatus following in the wake of operations, it was supposed to precede them, a procedure probably unique in the annals of modern war’. Such expediencies were a measure of the desperation of the Germans, who grasped that the successful invasion of Russia depended entirely on their ability to supply their armies. And they couldn’t. The attack was launched on 22 June, rather later than seemed wise given the short Russian summer. Military historians argue about whether the start had been fatally delayed by Hitler’s last-minute decision to invade the Balkans to get the Italians off the hook in Greece, where they were being beaten by a poorly equipped Greek army, or whether he always intended to begin the invasion on the longest day of the year. Initially, the Germans met only feeble resistance from the shell-shocked Russians, allowing the fast advance units to reach their targets within days. However, the unmetalled roads proved to be even worse than expected, and deteriorated in the face of unusually heavy rainfall during the first week of July. A quarter of vehicles had failed within three weeks of the start of the campaign. On the railways, the difference in gauge meant the invaders were heavily reliant on using captured rolling stock but the Russians took away the best locomotives and destroyed the rest, leaving only a few wagons and coaches behind.

Not surprisingly, the Eisenbahntruppen could not cope with the scale of their task and were beset by a host of difficulties. Undermanned and lacking requisite skills, they failed to carry out conversions and repairs thoroughly, tending only to provide the tracks without installing such vital equipment as platforms, workshops and engine sheds. They were forced to travel by road but were not given the priority they needed because the officers of the combat regiments did not understand the importance of their task.

Changing the gauge was a slow and cumbersome job and proved to be the major obstacle for the efficiency of the lines of communication. While captured wagons could be adapted to standard gauge, it was impossible to convert locomotives and therefore, effectively, the Germans were always having to contend with two separate railway systems. At the point of change of gauge, which was advanced into Russia as quickly as possible and therefore had to be moved frequently, huge bottlenecks built up, at times delaying loads for two or three days.

Railways tend to have their own particular characteristics and the Russians had built theirs with lighter rails and fewer sleepers, with the result that the lines, even once converted, could not cope with the more modern but heavier German locomotives which were used on the sections where the gauge had been changed. German engines struggled in the winter, too, as they had not been built to withstand the extreme temperatures. Unlike the Russian engines, their pipework was external and in the harsh climate of the Russian steppe, far colder than anything ever experienced in Germany, the pipes quickly froze and burst, putting the locomotives out of action.

Shortages of fuel, both coal and petrol, were a perennial problem. Russian coal was inferior and therefore needed to be mixed with some imported fuel in order to power the German locomotives. To compound the supply difficulties, Russian petrol had such a low octane value that it was unusable for German vehicles. Even the horses were of the wrong kind. To pull their heavy wagons, the German army relied on strong draught horses, which proved unsuited to the cold conditions and required enormous quantities of forage. Amazingly, in order to ensure supplies could be carried, half the infantry divisions were equipped with small hand carts, Panje wagons, which meant the world’s most modern army was dependent on a transport method familiar to Christ.

Each of the three German armies was accompanied by two armoured trains. The Wehrmacht had been rather unenthusiastic about armoured trains, especially after their failure during the invasion of Poland, where attempts to use them to spearhead attacks on key railway crossings over rivers were stymied when the Poles simply blew up the bridges. The Poles themselves deployed five armoured trains, which proved effective in several encounters with German Panzer (armoured) units, but three of them were destroyed by the Luftwaffe, demonstrating their vulnerability to air attack. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht decided that they would be useful in the initial stages of Barbarossa to seize railway bridges and then, after conversion to the wider Russian gauge, to protect the long stretches of railway line from attacks by partisans, which as the Germans advanced deeper into Russia increased in both severity and effectiveness. The Germans used not only their own armoured trains but several captured from the Soviet forces, who had started the war with a far bigger fleet but lost many in the early battles of Barbarossa. Some of the trains used by the Germans were even protected with armoured cars, mostly French Panhards, converted to rail use and sent out in front of the train to reconnoitre the line and draw any fire.

Of the three armies that invaded Russia in theory the northern group led by Field Marshal von Leeb, which headed towards Leningrad, had the easiest task as it only needed to cover a distance of 500 miles from East Prussia. And at first, helped by the good road and railway network in the Baltics, which had been prosperous independent states before their occupation by the Soviets in 1940, progress was remarkable, with the motorized units covering 200 miles in just five days. However, as the convoy headed north-east, the forests became denser and the roads fewer, and the supply trucks became entangled with the huge infantry columns marching ahead of them. Soon airlifts had to be organized to keep the forward troops supplied and although by 10 July the leading armoured troops led by General Max Reinhardt were within eighty miles of Leningrad, and were in the process of overwhelming the outer defence line of the city, launching an all-out attack proved impossible because the infantry was strung out over the Baltics and the tanks could not operate in the heavily wooded terrain. This was typical of many similar offensives in the Second World War in which the attacking armoured forces ran ahead of their logistical support that then failed because it was predominately road-based. By then the Eisenbahntruppen had converted 300 miles of railway but the railhead was still well behind the front and in any case the line was in such poor condition that it could only accommodate one train per day. The armoured troops therefore had to wait for supplies to arrive by road and for the transport situation to improve, and consequently the opportunity to take Leningrad swiftly was lost. Moreover, Russian resistance stiffened with numerous partisan attacks on German supply lines, making life difficult for the invaders, and in August heavy rain turned the roads into quagmires. By September, Hitler, recognizing that Leningrad could not be taken quickly, ordered the withdrawal of the Panzer tank unit, Panzergruppe 4, to join the assault on Moscow, leaving the Luftwaffe with the impossible task of trying to take the city. Van Creveld concludes that the strategy of the attack was fatally flawed at the outset: ‘It seems certain that Army Group North’s best chance for capturing Leningrad came around the middle of July, when Reinhardt’s corps had penetrated to within eighty miles of the city. At this time, however, supply difficulties ruled out any immediate resumption of the offensive.’ By the time any attack was possible, the citizens of Leningrad had built a series of fortifications, including anti-tank ditches, trenches and reinforced concrete emplacements that proved all but impenetrable during the siege, which lasted two and a half years and became one of the most deadly in human history.

German Logistics – Rail in Russia II

This is a German class 52 Kriegslok built in Vienna in 1943 and regauged to Russian 5ft gauge.

Soviet Railways1941

The middle group, aimed at Moscow and led by Field Marshal von Bock, was by far the strongest force. While initially its supply difficulties were the least pronounced of the three army groups because it straddled the main Warsaw-Moscow railway that remained undamaged, they were to play a crucial role in the army’s failure to reach Moscow. Indeed, the progress of the central army group was initially even more impressive than that of its counterpart to the north. The strategy was to create a series of pincer movements with Smolensk, about halfway to Moscow, as the target for the first stage of operations, but the usual difficulties of roads being blocked by streams of infantry and of insufficient railway capacity soon became apparent. There was a shortage of petrol exacerbated by the higher consumption of lorries on the atrocious roads and of spares, especially tyres, whereas on the railways there were the customary bottlenecks at the gauge changeover points. However, by and large there was reasonable progress until the Germans attempted to build up a supply base for the final attack on Moscow. Then it became clear that there was insufficient capacity to launch the assault on the Russian capital. Bock needed thirty trains per day to build up stocks whereas, at best, he was getting eighteen. Just as in the north, Hitler then changed the game plan, diverting resources – a tank unit, Panzergruppe 3 – to the south, along with 5,000 tons of lorry capacity, to ensure that Kiev could be taken. It was a terrible mistake. While Ukraine was important in terms of resources – wheat, coal and oil – Moscow was the centre of the nation’s communications and had the Germans been able to block it off, the Russians would no longer have been able to use the rail lines to transport troops between the north and south.

With the help of the extra panzers, Kiev soon fell but then another mistake resulted in the move eastwards being undertaken too hastily. Already the south group, which had been charged with taking Kiev and then crossing the Dnieper to capture the coalfields of Donetz and invading the Crimea, had been beset by wet weather that knocked out half its motor transport. Progress was also slowed by fiercer resistance from Russian partisans than faced by the other two groups. Once Kiev had been encircled, the eastward move resumed on 1 October but it was greatly hampered by the destruction of the bridges over the Dnieper, which forced supplies to be shipped across the river. The Germans took over sections of the Russian railways but they were in a poor state and during October barely a quarter of scheduled trains arrived at the two easternmost railheads. Chaos on the Polish railways further back on the line of communication added to the supply difficulties. Therefore, the decision to resume the offensive proved premature as, without any effective railway support, there was no hope of reaching the Donetz Basin with its mineral riches before winter set in. Although the Germans captured Rostov in late November, their supply lines were overextended and they subsequently lost the town, the first time the German advance had been successfully repelled.

The attack by the centre group on Moscow finally began on 2 October after the Panzer division returned from Kiev, but it was too little, too late. One unit reached the suburbs, but the Germans’ strength fell far short of the numbers needed to take the capital. There was a final hopeless attack on 1 December, which had no chance of success because of the lack of resources. The Red Army, which had the advantage of ski troops, counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back sixty miles by January, not only removing the immediate threat to their capital but, even more importantly in terms of morale, achieving their first large-scale success over the invading forces.

By the winter, therefore, all three prongs of the German advance were at a standstill far short of their objectives, and with little likelihood of achieving them. The Germans had to adapt to a war of attrition, for which they were not prepared, and which ultimately would be their undoing. As van Creveld concludes, ‘the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the largest military operation of all time, and the logistic problems involved of an order of magnitude that staggers the imagination’. Yet, although the means at the disposal of the Wehrmacht were modest, the Germans came closer to their aims than might have been expected, which van Creveld attributes ‘less to the excellence of the preparations than to the determination of troops and commanders to give their all’, making do with whatever means were made available to them. Indeed, during the initial phase of the attack, the supply shortages were greatly alleviated by the armies living off the land in the traditional manner, but once the frost set in, the conditions not only made transportation more difficult but the required level of supplies increased greatly. The most notorious failing was the lack of provision for winter coats and other cold-weather equipment for the troops advancing on Moscow, which resulted in thousands of men, fighting in their summer gear, freezing to death in the cold. There is much debate among historians as to whether this equipment was available or not, but van Creveld is convinced this is irrelevant because there were no means to deliver it: ‘The railroads, hopelessly inadequate to prepare the offensive on Moscow and to sustain it after it had started, were in no state to tackle the additional task of bringing up winter equipment.’

Ultimately, the Russian invasion was a step too far for the Germans, who even with everything in their favour and better preparation would probably not have succeeded simply because of the size of the task – the territory to be captured was some twenty times the size of the area conquered in western Europe and yet the German army deployed only 10 per cent more men and 30 per cent more tanks. Hitler’s dithering and his changes in strategy, and the dogged resistance of the Russians, often using guerrilla tactics, undermined the advance further and made failure inevitable, but supply delays played a vital, if not decisive, role. The German supply lines were simply extended beyond their natural limit, as the optimism of the HQ generals who had prepared the assault came up against the reality of the Russian steppe. The effect of the logistical shortfalls was not just practical but extended to the morale of the troops. Arguments between different sections of the military over the need for transport led the Luftwaffe to protect their supply trains with machine-gun-toting guards ready to fire not at Russian partisans but at German troops keen to get hold of their equipment.

Throughout the campaign, the Red Army troops retained the advantages of fighting on their own territory, which had proved crucial to all defending armies since the start of the railway age. Cleverly, rather than building up huge supply dumps that risked being captured by the enemy, the Russian Army supplied its troops directly from trains at railway stations, a task which required a level of flexibility and operational experience of the particular lines that would never have been available to an invading force. The Russians had, too, ensured that they retained most of their rolling stock by transporting it eastwards in anticipation of the German attack, with the result that the railways still in their control enjoyed a surfeit of locomotives and wagons. According to Westwood, ‘by 1943, the Russian railway mileage had decreased by forty per cent, but the locomotive stock by only fifteen per cent’.

Stalin, unlike Hitler, had long recognized the value of the railways and thanks to an extensive programme of investment in the interwar period the Russian system was in a much better state than at the onset of the previous war. While Hitler had been counting on the Russian system breaking down under the strain of retreating troops, it held up remarkably well. Indeed, the smooth running of the Russian railways was instrumental in allowing the rapid wholesale transfer of much of the nation’s industry during the early days of the war from threatened western areas to the remote east, an evacuation conducted so efficiently that even frequent bombardment was unable to disrupt it. At times traffic was so great that signalling systems were ignored and trains simply followed one another down the track almost nose to tail.

Russian railwaymen were effectively conscripted as martial law was imposed on the railway system and those who failed in their jobs were liable to find themselves in front of a firing squad – but then so was anyone else. Later in the war, however, Stalin, grateful for the railway workers’ efforts, created a series of special medals for railway workers, including one for ‘Distinguished Railway Clerk’, presumably for issuing tickets to war widows while under fire. The Russians laid a staggering 4,500 miles of new track during the war, including a section of line that supplied the defenders at Stalingrad. The railways were crucial, too, to the defence of both Leningrad and Moscow. When all the railway lines to Leningrad were cut off by September 1941 – the Finns blocked communications from the north as they were fighting with the Germans – the ‘death’ road across the frozen Lake Ladoga, so called because of the dangers of using it, became the last lifeline to the beleaguered city and was supplied from trains. Towards the end of the siege a railway was built across the ice, like on Lake Baikal in the Russo-Japanese War, but since the territory around the south of the lake was soon regained by the Russians, it was never actually used.

In Moscow, a circular line had been built around the city just before the war connecting the existing lines stretching fan-like out of the city and this proved vital in maintaining links between different parts of the country after the Germans cut off most of the main lines. When the Red Army went on the offensive, the Russian railway troops regauged thousands of miles of line – indeed some sections of track were regauged numerous times as territory was won and lost – including parts of the Polish and German rail networks. Indeed, Stalin travelled to the Potsdam peace conference in a Russian train.

The need for effective railways during the invasion was made all the greater because of that great barrier to smooth transport, mud, whose impact on the outcome of the war cannot be underestimated. Not only was it a frequent obstacle on the roads, but at times it even prevented tanks from moving. Undoubtedly, better roads would have improved the supply situation but not solved it. As Deighton suggests, ‘the virtual absence of paved roads meant that mud was an obstacle on a scale never encountered in Western Europe’. Only more railways with greater capacity could have tipped the balance, something that was not within Hitler’s ability to change. Each of the three army groups stalled after initial advances as they waited for the infantry to catch up, allowing the Russians to regroup or even counter-attack. Even if Hitler, as some of his generals recommended, had decided to focus all his forces on one target, Moscow, the lack of logistical capacity, especially railways, would have saved the city from invasion.

The failure to complete the invasion before the winter of 1941-2 set in proved to be the turning point of the war. There would be big battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk, and the siege of Leningrad would continue, but essentially the German advance was checked along a vast but not entirely stable front that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and when the war of movement resumed, it was a westward push by the Red Army rather than any continued advance by the Germans.

ZEITZLER AND PLAN ZITADELLE

As Chief of the Army General Staff (O.K.H), General Kurt Zeitzler was very much the prime mover of Zitadelle, being permitted by Hitler to draft the documentation and oversee its detailed planning. Although initially very much the vocal champion of the offensive, he was concerned about the continuing delays. By June, he began to express public doubts about continuing with Zitadelle.

Three days later, convinced that events in the East no longer required his presence, Hitler gave the order to close down Werewolf, his Russian headquarters at Vinnitsa in the western Ukraine, and return to Rastenburg. The flight to East Prussia was made via Smolensk and the headquarters of Army Group Centre, where Hitler, with Zeitzler in tow, arrived shortly after midday on 13 March, to confer with Field Marshal von Kluge. In expectation of gaining some insight into the Führer’s thinking on the expected wide-ranging summer offensive, von Kluge and his staff expressed surprise at the seeming modesty of his aspirations. When asked about his intentions for the coming campaign, Hitler revealed that there would be no offensive campaign in the summer of 1943. The Ostheer would hold the line and conduct merely limited operations in support of that objective.

The primary purpose of his visit however, was not to discuss strategy but to assess the progress of the step-by-step retreat of Colonel General Walter Model’s Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. The retreat was reaching its climax and the Ninth Army’s availability for employment in the proposed early, limited summer offensive, was the key to its execution and success. Hitler, until little more than a month before, had been consistently stubborn in his refusal to abandon this most forward German position on the road to Moscow. Its retention continued to pose a symbolic, if not an actual threat to the Soviet capital, which lay just 112 miles to the east. As such, the Rzhev salient maintained the fiction that a future German assault on Moscow remained a possibility. Although the Red Army had been most vigorous in its attempts to destroy the salient throughout 1942, the very skilful German defence of the position had stood as a rock in the face of numerous bloody and abortive Soviet assaults. Despite the losses inflicted on the Red Army, the Rzhev salient nevertheless tied down very extensive German forces at a time when demands for manpower from other sectors dictated that it should be abandoned to allow the front line to be shortened, permitting those divisions deployed therein to be released and made available for employment elsewhere. Such had been the constant refrain of Zeitzler in the weeks following the encirclement of Sixth Army. Hitler, unsurprisingly, would have none of it, until in the days following von Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad, events fortuitously conspired to permit Zeitzler to get his way, by putting to the Führer an offer that given the circumstances, he could hardly refuse.

With the beginning of the New Year and even before the end at Stalingrad, the Army Chief of Staff had privately concluded that the Ostheer would have little choice but to adopt a strategic defensive in the East in 1943. He also realised that the general weakness of the Wehrmacht precluded the adoption of a purely passive defence that would grant the ever-growing Red Army the luxury of assaulting the German line at any time and point. Whereas Hitler was prepared to ridicule and dismiss the increasingly pessimistic intelligence summaries of the Fremde Heer Ost, Zeitzler viewed the dispassionate reports of Colonel Gehlen’s department about the Red Army’s burgeoning military strength with growing alarm. It forecast that by the spring of 1943 Soviet manpower would total some 5.7 million combatants deployed in 62 armies, three tank armies and 28 armoured and mechanized corps. This in turn would translate into some 400 infantry divisions, 194 infantry brigades and 48 mechanised brigades. At this time it was estimated Soviet industry was producing about 1,500 tanks per month – once again an underestimate – to which would need to be added the growing numbers of armoured fighting vehicles being delivered by the Allies through the Lend-Lease programme.

Zeitzler concluded that the only solution lay in the execution of a limited offensive by the Ostheer, the purpose of which – through the destruction of large numbers of Soviet formations – would be to neutralise the Red Army sufficiently to stabilize the Eastern Front for the remainder of the summer. Mindful that OKW already had designs on ‘his’ mobile formations in the event of an Allied landing in Europe, it was imperative that such an operation be launched as early as possible before they were inevitably pulled out for service in the West. Already convinced in his own mind that only an offensive solution, albeit limited, could resolve the impasse in the East, Zeitzler was present at Rastenburg on 6 February when von Manstein obligingly volunteered his own tentative ‘forehand’ proposal for the same.

Given his daily proximity to Hitler, Zeitzler was party to the wider factors impinging on the Führer’s thinking in a way that the Field Marshal was not. Sensitive to Hitler’s own predilection for offensive solutions and mindful of the German leader’s continuing loss of confidence in the wake of Stalingrad, the Chief of Staff of the Army was prompted to exploit his own present high standing and seize the opportunity offered by these discussions to kill two birds with one stone.

With von Manstein’s departure, Zeitzler pointed out to Hitler the twin advantages that would accrue from withdrawing the Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. Not only would it shorten the front line, thereby making the new one more economical to defend, but in addition, the one army command, five general commands and twenty-one divisions, including three panzer and two motorised infantry thus released would form an operational reserve. This could be drawn upon for employment in the limited offensive ‘forehand’ option outlined by the Field Marshal, to be directed at some as yet unspecified sector of the Soviet front, in the late spring/early summer. This was a horse trade Hitler could both understand, and to which he could assent. So taken was he with the possibilities opened up by Zeitzler’s proposal that the order for the withdrawal of Ninth Army and elements of Fourth Army from the Rzhev salient was sanctioned by him that very night, but on the strict proviso that the forces released be retained as an operational reserve for future offensive employment.

Enacting long prepared plans to address such an order, the systematic withdrawal of the 250,000 men of the Ninth Army thus began in conditions of the greatest secrecy on 1 March. When Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye to confer with von Manstein on the 10th, Operation Buffel was still underway and moving towards a successful conclusion. In the meantime, it had also become apparent that halting the Soviet Central Front in its westward advance along the Sumy-Rylsk line at the end of February had served to generate a huge Soviet salient projecting deeply into Army Group Centre’s position. This provided the Red Army with a superb jumping-off point for future offensive operations. It was not lost on either Hitler or Zeitzler that the numerous Soviet forces now deeply echeloned within the position and being reinforced by other units flowing into the salient on a daily basis, was creating the optimum target for the limited and early offensive they wished to launch against the Red Army. Furthermore, the formations of Ninth Army – which by the 25 March would include fifteen infantry, three panzer and two motorized infantry divisions – along with the SS Cavalry division, redeploying into the sector of 2nd Panzer Army and earmarked for the planned ‘forehand’ operation, was now ideally placed to provide the strike force against the northern neck of this salient.

Thus, by 10 March, Hitler and Zeitzler had already agreed in principle to the destruction of the Kursk salient as being the primary focus of early German offensive action once the dry weather returned and the mobile formations had been rested and refitted. On this occasion, Hitler took an uncharacteristic back seat in the actual planning of the operation, devolving oversight of it and the drawing up of the necessary directives to Zeitzler. The continuing loss of nerve he had suffered in consequence of the Stalingrad débâcle had resulted in his willingness to defer to the advice of the professional military, and Zeitzler was more than happy to embrace the opportunity. So the primary force behind the planning for the operation was the Army Chief of Staff. General Warlimont of the OKW was later to observe how Zeitzler certainly viewed Zitadelle – at least in this early period – as very much his offensive.

In addition to those other factors that prompted Zeitzler to embrace the ‘forehand option’, he was all too aware that there were many in the senior ranks of the army who still regarded him as a relative parvenu. Many believed that he was promoted above his station, and held none of the advantages of seniority, experience or authority of his highly-regarded predecessor, General Franz Halder. There was a strong sense following his appointment on 24 September 1942 that Zietzler was very much Hitler’s man, having been selected because he would be a willing and pliable instrument in executing the latter’s will with respect to the conduct of the war in the East. Certainly his initial address to his staff officers at OKH – where he demanded that they must ‘believe in the Führer and in his method of command’ – seemed to bear out this perception. In his first year of office it was apparent that ‘he enjoyed Hitler’s confidence, but not necessarily that of his own general staff subordinates or of the army groups in the East, for he tended to be a mouthpiece and telephonic link between them and the Führer’. That being said, he was no mere poodle, as there is ample documentary evidence to show that when push came to shove he could, and did stand up to Hitler, thereby gaining his respect. It is against this backdrop that we should understand his advocacy for Zitadelle. Its successful execution would clearly do much to enhance his credibility in the eyes of those senior army commanders in the East who at present still nursed doubts about his capacity to exercise the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

This is not to say that Hitler was divorced from the planning process, as has been implied elsewhere. It is clear that both men were in frequent discussions between 6 February and 13 March, and that Operational Order No.5, presented by Zeitzler to Hitler for his signature on his return to Rastenburg – while produced by Zeitzler and thus reflective of his own agenda – was nevertheless thoroughly in accord with Hitler’s own wishes and desires.

Queens of the Lake I

German gun crew manning Graf Goetzen′s 10.5 cm SK L/40 naval gun

Hedwig is sunk

Odebrecht spotted the approaching vessels, but continued to advance. He initially mistook them for Belgian craft, but the white ensigns revealed that they were British. He continued toward the shore until making a sharp turn to port at 09:30, either attempting to lure them toward Götzen, or having been fooled by an optical illusion into thinking the approaching vessels were larger than he had first thought. The pursuing vessels chased Hedwig, with Fifi opening fire with her bow-mounted 12-pounder. The recoil stopped her dead in her tracks; Odebrecht used this situation to pull away. Hedwig could do 9 knots (17 km/h; 10 mph) to Fifi′s 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph), but as Fifi fell behind, Mimi sped past, firing on the retreating German vessel with her three-pounder gun. The shots missed, but Hedwig′s stern guns did not have the range of Mimi′s weapon, and Odebrecht was forced to come about and try to hit her with his bow-mounted six-pounder. The two circled for a time, unable to score hits, until Fifi closed. Spicer-Simson, commanding aboard Fifi, was down to three shells on his 12-pounder, and risked being outclassed if Hedwig could bring her own six-pounder to bear. At this moment, a shell jammed in Fifi′s gun, and in the 20 minutes that it took to clear it, Hedwig again pulled away, searching for Götzen. With her second to last shot, Fifi fired again. The shell hit Hedwig′s hull, causing flooding, while moments later her last shell hit the engine room, bursting the boiler and killing five African sailors and two Germans. As fires began to spread through the stricken craft Odebrecht gave the order to abandon ship, and set explosive charges to destroy the sinking vessel. (Three of the dead were the engineer and two native stokers in the boiler room; the others were a warrant officer and three natives). Of the remaining ships company, a European stoker and native seaman were slightly wounded when two of the ships boats were hit by shells; Twelve Europeans, including the captain, and eight natives were captured by the British. Besides the 20 survivors the British also captured a large German naval ensign, the first to be taken in the war.

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If anyone thought that the sinking of the Konigsberg ended naval operations in German East Africa, they were gravely mistaken. Four hundred miles inland from the coast was Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in the world, measuring 400 miles from north to south and 47 miles across at its narrowest point. The lake provided a natural boundary between German territory, the Belgian Congo (Zaire) to the west and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to the south. The Germans enjoyed complete control of the lake because since 1914 they had fitted out three armed steamers whereas the British and Belgians had none. Since the disastrous landing at Tanga there had been no further attempts to invade the German colony and any attempt to do so from the west or south was, for the moment, out of the question because the enemy would promptly threaten the Allied rear with an amphibious landing wherever he chose.

An indefinite stalemate on the lake seemed quite probable until, in April 1915, a big game hunter named John Lee requested and was granted an interview with Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, the First Sea Lord. Lee was familiar with every aspect of central Africa and he was seriously concerned that Lettow-Vorbeck’s raiding activities might provoke tribal uprisings in Rhodesia and the Congo. He knew that the German flotilla on the lake presented Allied commanders with a serious headache, but he was able to offer a solution to the problem. This involved shipping out an armed motor boat that could sink the enemy’s warships. It was almost certainly in Jackson’s mind to have Lee politely shown the door, but the latter forestalled him by unrolling a detailed map of the Congo.

First, Lee’s finger traced a railway line 175 miles long joining Kabalo with Lukuga on the western shore of the lake. Of course, getting the motor boat to Kabalo would involve shipping it by rail from South Africa to the Congo, then a difficult overland journey that would require the assistance of steam traction engines, teams of oxen and hundreds of native labourers. Lee confirmed that he had travelled the entire route and believed that it offered a real possibility of getting at the Germans. Jackson was sufficiently interested to take the opinions of the War and Colonial Offices, both of whom confirmed Lee’s view. No better idea of dealing with the enemy on Lake Tanganyika had been forthcoming and Jackson, now converted to it, decided to carry it through with the purchase of two petrol-driven mahogany motor boats, capable of 15 knots. These were each fitted with a 3-pounder gun on the foredeck and a Maxim machine gun aft.

John Lee, given the rank of lieutenant commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was permitted to accompany the expedition as its Second-in-Command. The problem now was to find a suitable officer to command it. Of those officers of appropriate rank available, none wished to become involved in an apparently suicidal venture which, at best, would turn out to be nothing more than a fool’s errand – with one exception. His name was Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson and he was the oldest lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, claiming, with some justice, that he had been repeatedly passed over for promotion. His early service took place aboard China gunboats and he had carried out a survey of the Gambia River in West Africa, but his career was marred not only by the ramming and sinking of a liberty boat but also by a very unfortunate manner. He was autocratic, overbearing, unpredictable, opinionated, knowledgeable on every subject under the sun, eccentric and vain, none of which increased his popularity. Nor did the fact that his trunk and limbs were tattooed with snakes, nor his use of a cigarette holder, which was considered to be a trifle effeminate in a naval officer. On the outbreak of war he was appointed commander of the Downs Boarding Flotilla, consisting of two elderly torpedo gunboats, the precursors of the modern destroyer, and six armed tugs. This phase of his career ended a fortnight later when, having ordered the gunboat Niger to anchor east of the Deal Bank Buoy, he disappeared to entertain some ladies in a hotel. Unfortunately, a prowling U – boat took advantage of the stationary target to torpedo and sink it. In the circumstances it was no surprise that the Admiralty should decide that he would be better employed manning a desk in its Personnel Department. Equally, it accepted with pleasure his offer to command the Lake Tanganyika expedition, believing that the risk of losing Lieutenant Commander Spicer-Simson was probably justified. He immediately enraged Their Lordships by announcing that he would call his motor boats Dog and Cat and was ordered to choose other names. In the event, they went to war as Mimi and Toutou. After carrying out trials on the Thames the expedition, consisting of four officers and twenty-four ratings, sailed for Cape Town from Tilbury aboard the Union Castle Line’s Llanstephan Castle on 11 June 1915. Also aboard, for quite different reasons, was the Astronomer Royal, who was forced to sit in openmouthed astonishment while Spicer-Simson lectured him on the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

At Cape Town the boats were lifted on to railway flats and the party began an apparently endless journey by train on 2 July. Some 2,700 miles later they reached Fungurume in the Congo, where they found Lee waiting for them. He had left England some time ahead of them to make arrangements for the next and most difficult phase of the journey through 120 miles of bush. The boats would be carried on trailers made from the fore carriages of ox wagons, which were capable of the hardest usage. Some 50 tons of supplies had to be loaded into wagons that were hauled by over forty oxen. Large numbers of natives were hired as drivers, cooks and general labourers. Not least, a quantity of tools had to be assembled as Lee knew that in places the track ahead would need strengthening and widening while bridges and culverts needed strengthening to cope with the weight that would be imposed on them. On 14 August the railway delivered two steam traction engines. These were checked over and four days later the column set off. Hard physical work, heat, insects, dust and water shortage made the journey anything but pleasant. Once again, it was Lee’s foresight that kept the expedition moving. Without water for their boilers the traction engines could not be used, so he recruited large numbers of native women to carry pots on their heads from the nearest water source, which could be as far as 8 miles away. Six weeks after leaving Fungurume the column reached Sankisia having negotiated bush, forest and a mountain range.

At Sankisia the boats and supplies were transferred to the flats of a narrow gauge railway. The line only ran to Bukama on the Lualaba River, just 15 miles distant, where everything had to be off-loaded again. The sense of anti-climax must have been enormous and probably generated a shortness of temper. Whatever, Spicer-Simson had a row with Lee, without whom he would not have got this far, and gracelessly sent him packing.

However, the worst of the journey lay behind the expedition. From Bukama its route took it 200 miles along the river to Kabalo, from whence a railway ran the last 175 miles to Lukuga on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. The principal difficulty lay in the fact that at this time of year there was little depth of water in the river. However, Jack Tar has always been a man of considerable ingenuity and the two motor boats were floated by lashing empty casks to their keels, thereby increasing their buoyancy. Even so, there were places where the water was so shallow that the boats had to be manhandled. Simultaneously, the supplies were loaded into canoes and anything else that would float and propelled downstream by teams of native paddlers. At Kabalo trans-shipment was completed for the last time and on 28 October the expedition’s train steamed into Lukuga.

Naturally the Belgians were delighted by the expedition’s arrival. Many of them had received no news from home for well over a year and were grateful for anything that the sailors could tell them. They were more than a little startled by Spicer-Simson’s version of shirtsleeve order in which his shorts were replaced by a skirt, while the natives were deeply awed by the tattooed snakes on his thighs and forearms.

Regarding the German flotilla on the lake, the Belgians were able to supply much useful information. The largest was the Graf von Gotzen, named after the former governor of the colony. She was said to be armed with at least one 4.1-inch and two smaller guns salvaged from the wreck of the Konigsberg, but her maximum speed was limited to six knots. The Hedwig von Wissmann could reach ten knots but was much smaller, mounting two 6-pounder guns forward and one 37mm Hotchkiss aft. The smallest of the three was the Kingani, capable of seven knots but armed with only a single 37mm Hotchkiss forward. The flotilla was based at Kigoma on the opposite shore of the lake, to the north. It was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Gustav von Zimmer who, thanks to Central African gossip, had been informed of the expedition’s approach. His view was that such an undertaking was physically impossible and that the rumours were preposterous and should be ignored.

Queens of the Lake II

Graf von Goetzen

German East Africa and Lake Tanganyika.

Spicer-Simson’s first task was to secure his base. He was aware that the lake was subject to sudden, violent storms that could wreck his frail boats. The Belgians were asked to build a breakwater, which they did by blasting rock from the nearby cliffs. By late December the newly formed harbour, named Kalemie, was ready for use. On Christmas Eve Mimi and Toutou were launched and completed their trials satisfactorily. Christmas Day was spent in the traditional manner, but on 26 December the Belgians reported a steamer moving down the lake from the north. As the distance closed, the image hardened into the Kingani, engaged in a routine examination of the Belgian fortifications at Lukuga.

Spicer-Simson let her pass, then followed at a distance with Mimi and Toutou, widely separated so that the enemy would have to split his fire between them. A sudden belch of smoke from Kigani’s funnel and a steady turn to port indicated that she was simultaneously trying to escape and bring her gun into action. At 2,000 yards the motor boats opened fire. Immediately, their crews made the unwelcome discovery that unless their 3-pounders were fired directly ahead their recoil could cause damage to their flimsy hulls. Coupled with the need to dodge the German fire, this meant that at first their rate of fire was limited to about one round per minute. Kigani was engaging Toutou with her 37mm gun and firing small arms at Mimi, without hitting either. The advantages of speed and firepower possessed by the British boats now began to tell. With the range down to 1,100 yards, Mimi slammed a shell through the enemy’s gunshield, killing the ship’s captain and two petty officers. When another round killed the warrant officer who had attempted to take command, Kigani’s native crew began jumping overboard and swimming for the shore. The ship’s chief engineer then emerged and hauled down the German colours. Toutou came alongside to escort the prize into Kalemie where, taking in water rapidly from a shell hole in her port bunker, she was beached in just sufficient time to prevent her sinking.

It was unfortunate that Spicer-Simson chose this particular moment to boast openly to his men about his prowess as a gunnery expert, for it had been the 3-pounder gun layers who deserved all the credit, such corrections as he had given being drowned out by the roar of the Thornycroft engine. This was bad enough as they had little enough liking for him anyway, but he could hardly have avoided the contempt in their eyes when he took an ornate gold ring from the finger of the dead German captain and slipped it on his own.

Having been patched up and made watertight, Kingani was given the new name of Fifi and suitably rearmed. The Belgians contributed a 12-pounder gun from one of their coast defence batteries and this was mounted forward while the blind spot aft was closed with a spare 3-pounder. On 14 January 1916 one of the lake’s periodic storms swept down its length, battering Toutou against the breakwater and causing sufficient damage for her to remain out of commission for a while. Fifi began dragging her anchor but good seamanship got her clear of the harbour and, having put out a sea-anchor, she managed to ride out the gale.

Shortly after dawn on 9 February the Belgian lookouts reported Hedwig von Wissmann coming down the lake. The day’s heat was building up when Spicer-Simson boarded Fifi and immediately set off to intercept her, accompanied by Lieutenant A.E. Wainwright in Mimi. The Germans believed that the former Kingani had been sunk by Belgian coast defence batteries and were looking for some evidence to support the theory. Heat haze and thermals above the flat surface of the water prevented the German captain, Lieutenant Odebrecht, from seeing his opponents until they were only 4 miles distant. He immediately reversed course and headed for Kigoma.

The funnels of both steamers began to pour black smoke as oil-soaked wood balks were flung into their furnaces to raise boiler pressure quickly. Wainwright, taking full advantage of Mimi’s speed, forged ahead, opening fire at 3,000 yards range, beyond which the enemy’s stern-mounted 37mm gun could not reply. This seems to have produced results, for Odebrecht began making a series of short turns to starboard to bring his forward 6-pounders into action. Whenever this happened, Wainwright turned to starboard and the enemy shells burst in empty space. These brief pauses enabled Fifi to catch up. Wainwright drew alongside and shouted to Spicer-Simson that his 12-pounder shells were falling well ahead of the enemy. No doubt the seamen concealed their pleasure that their resident gunnery expert had been found wanting by a junior reserve officer, but the appropriate correction was made and the 12-pounder’s next round produced dramatic results. It punched a hole into the enemy’s hull to explode in his engine room and blew a hole in her side. Burning fiercely, her steering gear wrecked and her engines stopped, Hedwig von Wissmann fell away to starboard in a sinking condition and fifteen minutes later disappeared below the surface of the lake. Odebrecht, fifteen Germans and eight native crewmen were rescued from the water.

It would have been quite natural for Zimmer to wonder what had happened to the rest of his flotilla. When, the following day, Graf von Gotzen came down the lake, the British crews were confident that they could deal with her, despite her much larger size. Inexplicably, Spicer-Simson stubbornly refused to leave the harbour although repeatedly urged to do so by his officers. No reason was offered for his decision and the German ship was permitted to retreat back over the horizon. Not for the last time, the British officers and men felt that their commander had brought shame on them.

As the balance of power on the lake had now shifted in favour of the Allies, it was decided to commence land operations against German East Africa. The British invaded from Kenya in the north and Rhodesia in the south while the Belgians invaded from the north-west. Spicer-Simson, now promoted to commander, a recipient both of the Distinguished Service Order and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Three Palms, was ordered to ferry stores north to Tongwe where the Belgians were constructing a seaplane base. From this a number of air attacks were mounted on the Graf von Gotzen which, it was claimed, had sustained bomb damage. Whatever the truth, Zimmer scuttled her outside Kigoma harbour.

In the meantime, Spicer-Simson had been ordered to take his flotilla south to Kituta in Rhodesia and support operations to capture the German base of Bismarcksburg, with the specific task of ensuring that the enemy garrison did not escape by means of the lake. On 5 June his three craft arrived off the enemy port but were unable to make contact with any of the Rhodesian troops. On the other hand, inside the harbour there were five dhows that the German regularly used to transport their troops. They were a sitting target but Spicer-Simson refused to open fire on them, nor would he permit his officers to do so on the grounds that this would bring their craft within range of the guns in the whitewashed fort overlooking the harbour. The flotilla withdrew to Kituta and did not return to Bismarcksburg until 9 June, the day before Spicer-Simson believed that the Rhodesians would reach the area. To his horror, he found that the Germans had gone, as had the dhows, and it was the Union Flag that now flew above the fort. On entering the harbour the flotilla was met by an infantry officer who clearly had little respect for Spicer-Simson. Why, he wanted to know, had he permitted the Germans to escape the previous night when the Rhodesians had them boxed in the landward? Obviously, no reasonable explanation could be offered and Spicer-Simson was told to report to a Colonel Murray in the fort. Unwisely, the Commander chose not to change out of his skirt so that when he entered the courtyard he was subjected laughter and yells of derision from the Rhodesian infantrymen relaxing in the shade. No one knows what passed between Murray and Spicer-Simson but the latter emerged from the discussion ashen and incoherent.

After this, his actions became so erratic that the expedition’s medical officer recommended that he should be sent home on the grounds of nervous debility, which covered a multitude of sins. Following his treatment, he returned to his desk at the Admiralty, still sporting the ring he had taken from the dead German captain. In due course he received prize money for the capture of the Kingani and some smaller craft, as well as head money, based on the number of enemy casualties inflicted. Yet more money resulted from press interviews and lectures in which a very different gloss was put on the Graf von Gotzen and Bismarcksburg episodes. Finally, he had his portrait painted in naval full dress, including a cocked hat. Despite his unfortunate personality, these rewards should not be begrudged him as he had successfully executed a mission many of his peers thought impossible, without losing a man. Yet John Lee, the architect of the mission, received nothing.

The story inspired the author C.S. Forester to write his novel The African Queen, which became a film of the same name. Two of the original story’s participants survived the war. Toutou was despatched by rail to Cape Town where she was installed at Victoria Docks having received a wash and brush up and a polished plate inscribed as follows: ‘This launch served in the East African Campaign as an armed cruiser. Captured and sank two German gunboats with the assistance of sister launch Mimi.’ Before the Germans scuttled Graf von Gotzen outside Kigoma harbour they applied a thick coating of grease to her machinery, clearly intending that one day she should be raised and taken back into service. That day came in 1924 when she was raised by a Royal Navy salvage team. Disarmed, restored, renamed Liemba and given a slightly more modern appearance, she plied the lake until 2010 when she was finally withdrawn after a century of service.