Battle of Houdilcourt

2nd Pz.Div. actions in the Houdilcourt area June 10, 1940.

Army Group A launched its offensive on June 9, four days later than the units near the English Channel. Guderian now had two Panzer corps at his disposal, both of which had been positioned in the Reims area. His grouping was the easternmost of the German mechanized formations and included four Panzer divisions and two infantry divisions. They were to be committed when infantry divisions had secured bridgeheads across the Aisne.

On June 9, Guderian’s units remained in reserve. One of them was the 2nd Panzer Division, which was cautiously moved forward. Although the main offensive had been launched, it remained important not to reveal the Panzer divisions and thereby disclose the overall intensions of the Germans. The commander of the division, Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel, continuously received information on how the attack progressed. He issued instructions accordingly to the battle groups formed in his division. They gradually moved south, troubled by traffic jams but not unduly hindered.

Early in the afternoon, alarming reports from the fighting infantry division were received. They indicated that French resistance was stiff. Heavy French tanks had also been observed, and so Lieutenant-General Veiel was requested to send tanks in support. He resisted, as he believed his tanks were inferior to the heavy enemy tanks and he did not want to reveal the presence of his division yet.

The 2nd Panzer Division’s preparations proceeded virtually according to plan, and early on June 10 it was ready to attack south. Veiel’s division had two Panzer regiments, the 3rd and 4th, with two battalions each. They belonged to the 2nd Panzer Brigade, which was commanded by Major-General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron. He had elected to advance with the 4th Panzer Regiment in the lead. It had taken longer than expected to cross the Aisne during the night, but at 6.30 a.m., the 4th Panzer Regiment attacked. An hour later, the 3rd Panzer Regiment joined in Beautiful summer weather accompanied the tanks of the 4th Panzer Regiment as they set out. The tanks made good progress across the billowy fields, but soon fire from a wooded area was aimed at the German tanks. The tankers asked for infantry to clear the woods. The request was first made on the radio, and then by a liaison officer. However, nothing had happened after fifteen minutes. The commander of the Panzer regiment did not wait any longer. The German tanks continued south and were soon able to report that the defenders had been defeated.

High tempo was vital to the German success. Accordingly, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued attacking, and soon after 7.30 a.m. it neared the village of St. Loup. The tanks had thus advanced approximately 5 km south of the Aisne. To maintain the tempo of the attack, one Panzer battalion from the 3rd Panzer Regiment was directed to outflank St. Loup to the east while the 4th Panzer Division attacked into the village as well as outflanking it to the west.

At this moment, the Germans observed French tanks moving north. The German tankers immediately opened fire and could soon see the French tanks turning south. Further west, the Germans found a French battery, which was also rapidly taken under fire. The French gunners tried to evade the attackers with their equipment, but the German Panzer IIIs and IVs continued to shell them. Only remnants of the battery managed to escape. St. Loup was captured without much trouble.

After this objective had been attained, the commander of the Panzer regiment ordered the advance to continue towards Houdilcourt, located approximately 8 km west-southwest of St. Loup. As was customary in the German Army, the brigade commander issued his orders orally by visiting his subordinates at their command posts. They did not find the brigade commander’s instructions surprising given the overall mission. The exact direction was, of course, not self-evident, but the brigade commander indicated it clearly.

From the St. Loup area, German tanks drove towards the slopes northwest of the village, but some of them remained at the village until the infantry arrived. Most of the 4th Panzer Regiment did, however, begin to move, initially without encountering any significant opposition. The 5th Company advanced on the left flank and the tank commanders raised their heads above the turret hatch to search for the enemy. They suddenly saw muzzle flashes from antitank guns north of Sault-Saint-Remy. One of the German platoons immediately opened fire and knocked out the French battery before any tanks were knocked out.

The battle grew fiercer as the German tanks approached Houdilcourt. The village was located along an east–westerly stretch of woodland. The German maneuver brought them alongside the woods. Concealed French antitank guns, fire controllers for the artillery and heavy infantry weapons lurked beneath the branches. After the command was given, they opened fire on the German tanks, which lacked supporting infantry at this stage. Neither were the German tanks accompanied by fire controllers for the artillery.

Despite their disadvantages, the 4th Panzer Regiment continued the attack and tried to envelop the French position by advancing west, which would allow it to roll up the defense. However, the attempt failed as the French flank extended further to the west than anticipated by the Germans. The 6th Company did manage to break into Houdilcourt and clear the village, but the strongest French defenses were located in the woods east and west of Houdilcourt. The French were also protected by minefields and the bridges across the Retourne river—the swampy banks of which extended westwards through the woods—had been barricaded.

The regiment commander regarded artillery support as necessary for successfully attacking the French position. Over the radio, he requested fire support from the divisional howitzers, but this could not be provided immediately. It was not until 12.20 p.m. that the tankers received any information suggesting that artillery support could be expected soon. The tanks in Houdilcourt were ordered to move out of the village to avoid being subjected to the artillery fire. The howitzers would commence firing at 12.45 p.m.

The German tank crews anxiously waited for the shells to hit the French positions, but despite straining all their senses, they could not see any artillery fire when their watches passed 12.45. Neither did they receive any information on the radio, leaving them with no option but to wait—they could not risk being hit by their own artillery.

A sort of stalemate resulted from the poor communication between the German tanks and artillery. Finally, tanks from the 5th and 6th Companies began to move in order to find firing positions on a slope, but they drew fire from French antitank guns. Several German tanks were knocked out by the well-concealed French guns, which the Germans were unable to locate. At this moment, the German tankers decided not to wait any longer, despite the uncertainty of the artillery fire. II Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Regiment attacked east of the French position, thus rolling it up from the flank. Around 200 prisoners were captured, as well as five antitank guns.

Shortly thereafter, the Panzer regiment was able to establish a connection with the neighboring division, which detailed two of its artillery battalions to support the tanks. The latter could thus continue its attack and dislodge the defenders from their positions. The tanks could not pursue south in force until the minefields and other obstacles had been removed. However, the tanks and the temporarily subordinated artillery from the neighboring division fired upon the retreating French defenders.

Later in the evening, the 3rd Panzer Regiment took up defensive positions south of Houdilcourt, near the northern outskirts of St Etienne sur Suippes. The French line of defense had been broken, but at a cost. No fewer than twenty-one of the tanks in the 3rd Panzer Regiment had been knocked out, although it was possible to repair many of them. The 2nd Panzer Division recorded twenty-five killed in action, seventy-one wounded and three missing. Of these, three of those killed, twenty-one of those wounded and one of those missing belonged to the 3rd Panzer Regiment. Casualties within the 4th Panzer Regiment were far smaller: two killed in action, nine wounded and one missing.

In the evening of June 10, two pieces of news were received by the 2nd Panzer Division. The Allies had evacuated Narvik, and thus the campaign in Norway had come to an end. Also, Italy had declared war on Britain and France. This information was enthusiastically received, but the 2nd Panzer Division ad no time to rest on its laurels. During the night, the bridges across the Retourne were cleared of mines and obstacles. Another river, the Suippes, flowed across the German axis of advance further south, and the retreating French blew up the bridges spanning it. Nevertheless, the 2nd Panzer Division advanced on a broad front east of Reims on June 11.

The battles northeast of Reims had shown that the spirit of the French Army was not yet broken. However, once the Germans had broken through the prepared defenses, they could not be stopped. The losses suffered previously in the north had left France bereft of any significant reserves, and when the fighting became more fluid, the Germans held all the trump cards. No significant opposition would bother Guderian’s divisions after June 11.

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180 rounds of rifle fire

RAF Hawker Hurricanes take on Luftwaffe He-111’s in 1940 Battle of Britain.

The German invasion came not by water but by air, because Hermann Göring promised Adolf Hitler that his airmen would win command of the skies before the army and navy crossed the sea. In 1937, while entertaining Lord Trenchard, boasting of the superior powers of his secretly rebuilt Luftwaffe, Göring took his guest outside for a magnificent firework display in the chilly night. Loudspeakers blared out an amplified recording of an artillery barrage, mixed with the whine of dive-bombers swooping to drop their whistling loads of explosive bombs. This was barely two months after the destruction of Guernica. ‘That’s German might for you,’ Göring shouted. ‘I see you trembled. One day German might will make the whole world tremble.’ ‘You must be off your head,’ the founder of the RAF angrily replied. ‘I warn you, Göring, don’t underestimate the RAF.’

From July to October 1940 the Luftwaffe and the RAF clashed above southern England in the series of air combats that became known as the ‘Battle of Britain’. Some doubt if there was ever a coherent German plan; bombers would simply bash Britain until it gave up, which it surely had to. But the illogical British stubbornly refused to surrender, and what ensured was the mythic battle of which Churchill said, in August 1940, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The ‘few’ were British, Canadian, Czech, Polish and South African pilots.

London’s Croydon Aerodrome was attacked on 18 August, when the Home Guard managed to shoot down a Dornier with 180 rounds of rifle fire. Central London and the City were first hit by the German air force on the night of the 24th. Then it became a war of tit for tat. RAF Bomber Command bombed ‘military targets’ in the German capital Berlin. Major Nazi reprisal bombing started at teatime on Saturday, 7 September 1940. A huge armada of enemy aircraft flew up the Thames estuary in broad daylight, over 300 bomber planes with more than 600 fighters protecting them. The journalist Virginia Cowles, weekending in the country, saw them in the distance like a swarm of insects. They were heading for the wharves and warehouses.

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15 October 1940
RAF Spitfire X4418 was shot down by a Spitfire over Maidstone:

“… I was shot down at the end of a battle — and by a Spitfire! This actually happened quite often — a Spitfire shooting down a Spitfire. With inexperienced chaps and the sky full of planes, there wasn’t all that much difference between our fighters and theirs at certain angles. We camouflaged the planes at first, trying to make the wretched things invisible, but then our own anti-aircraft guns used to go for us, so we gave them a more spectacular underside. The incident in question happened over Maidstone on October 15, 1940. There had been an engagement and I was gliding back to Biggin Hill after using up all my ammunition … I throttled back at about 25,000 feet. There was nothing in the sky except three Spitfires behind me. Then suddenly — bang! The aeroplane was full of holes. I was bloody indignant I can tell you. All at once I realised, ‘Christ! I’ve got to bail out!’ I had a bullet through one leg and my controls had gone. I had to get out!
As I was parachuting down I remembered that I was wearing a German Mae West! It was one that had been taken from a crashed plane — they were a sight more comfortable than ours. At that I began to get very worried. There I was dangling on my parachute going down outside Maidstone, and I could see a crowd gathering below. What if someone decided to take a shot at me, I thought! I believe there were instructions then to the Home Guard on how to deal with parachutists — apparently some of the Germans were coming down disguised as nuns! So one instruction said, ‘In order to ascertain sex of the parachutist, put hand up up skirt.’ Those were certainly desperate times! Anyhow, I landed safely, and the crowd soon realised from my language that I was English. In fact, as I said, it was by no means uncommon to be shot down by your own planes. I could name you a half dozen who were — the commander of Biggin Hill for one. And another chap I know of was deliberately shot down and killed by his own squadron. They didn’t like him, apparently …”
Brian Kingcombe
92 Squadron, RAF

See p.72-74, Haining, Peter, ed. The Spitfire Log: A 50th Anniversary Tribute to the World’s Most Famous Fighter Plane (London: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1985)

Minden 1759 I

The day before Minden fell (11 July) Ferdinand received another carping letter from Frederick, chiding him for his Fabian tactics. Exhorting him to remember Rossbach, Frederick admonished his brother-in-law that it was better to join battle with the enemy and lose than demoralise the troops by constant retreat; in a particularly nasty jibe, Frederick suggested that Ferdinand was a second Cumberland. At the same time George II was growing anxious about the lack of good news from Germany and was also starting to nag him for results. The effect on a man already suffering self-doubt can be imagined. His particular current anxiety was that the French would move on Hanover and cut him off from his communications with Frederick; perhaps the Prussian king had spoken more truly than he knew and it was now to be his (Ferdinand’s) fate to suffer Cumberland’s 1757 humiliation. This was the moment when his secretary, Christian Heinrich Philipp Edler von Westphalen, stiffened his resolve with a famous letter, urging Ferdinand to follow his own lights and not just agree with the last person he spoke to. From a secretary, this sounds at first like impertinence, but Westphalen had already shown that, when the occasion demanded, he was prepared to waive protocol and to go beyond the bounds of his formally subordinate station. Devoted to Ferdinand, having been with him at the battles of Lobositz, Prague and Rossbach, Westphalen was the Prince’s chief planning officer and strategist, a devotee of boldness and imagination as against the sound space-time logistics of the military manuals. Ferdinand trusted him, listened to him and always took his advice seriously. On this occasion his response to Westphalen’s written homily was as decisive as his secretary could have wished. Ferdinand decided he would make no attempt to retake Münster but would march to the Weser river and establish himself on both sides of the river, daring Contades to dislodge him.

Contades though, exhibited the usual inertia of French commanders in Germany in the 1750s. Excessively circumspect, by covering all possible options he left himself with insufficient troops to mount an offensive. Even the capture of Minden was something of an embarrassment to him, as his distribution of numbers left him in no real position to take advantage of it. Nonetheless he decided that the town gave him another impregnable base from which to operate, so he dug in there. Ferdinand then tried all the ruses he knew to get Contades to leave his Minden position and fight before French reinforcements arrived, but Contades refused to take the bait. There were constant skirmishes along the Weser and both sides’ big guns blazed away pointlessly at each other. After failing to coax Contades out of his prepared positions, Ferdinand tried to threaten his communications at Minden by a march on Lübbecke. This operation he entrusted to his favourite commander, the twenty-four-year-old Erbprinz of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who had won Ferdinand’s undying respect and affection by serving under him even after his father (the Duke of Brunswick) had forbidden it. Ferdinand’s thinking was that Contades would have to deal with this threat either by turning south or giving battle. When the Erbprinz with his force of nearly 10,000 men brushed the French aside at Lübbecke on 28 July, Contades decided this was a challenge he could not ignore and sent the Duc de Brissac to intercept him. Brissac was told to buy time until reinforcements, expected under the command of the veteran Lieutenant-General, the Comte de St-Germain, arrived, guaranteeing overwhelming numerical superiority. The vanguards of the two armies collided near Bünde on 31 July, but this did not halt the Erbprinz’s probe and soon he had advanced as far as Kirchlengern and Quernheim. Now in serious alarm at the threat to his communications, Contades realised that inaction was no longer an option. But would he plump for retreat or battle? Ferdinand made contingency plans for either eventuality, detaching a liaison force under General Gilsa to make sure he was in constant touch with the Erbprinz, but meanwhile disposing his army so that it could operate at a moment’s notice in the Minden plain.

Contades had been in Minden for sixteen days, in a position of great strength, with his right resting on the Weser and Minden and his left covered by the Bastau marshes. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Bastau and Weser, Minden looked out to the north-west over a plain where on the horizon could be seen the villages and hamlets of Hahlen, Stemmer, Kutenhausen and Maulbeerkamp; the principal features on the skyline were a windmill and a cemetery. As one headed north and east from Hahlen, the landscape became more choppy, broken up by smallholdings, plantations and orchards abutting the hamlets. Contades’s idea was to recall Armentières from the protracted siege of Lippstadt, leaving Chevreuse to invest it and with the Armentières and St-Germain forces to overwhelm Ferdinand. Contades was irritated that the Brunswick prince had given him the slip since Bergen and wanted to finish him off in one go. His preference was to wait for Ferdinand to attack him, but he was under the same sort of nagging pressure from Belle-Isle and Versailles as Ferdinand was experiencing from Frederick and Berlin. He wanted to win the glory of being the French commander who made the definitive conquest of Hanover, and it was also in his mind that Versailles needed a decisive breakthrough in west Germany so that it could switch some of the 100,000 troops there to the invasion of the British Isles.

Contades therefore decided to launch a surprise attack on Ferdinand. But first he had to extricate his troops from the bottleneck – perfect for defence but not offence – between the Bastau marshes and Minden and this, he decided, was best done at night. Because of the difficult terrain, the infantry would have to be on the flanks of the cavalry instead of the other way round as in normal circumstances. Meticulous planning was necessary for the surprise attack, since while this night manoeuvre in unorthodox formation on a narrow front was going on, Broglie’s troops would have to be brought over from the other side of the river. At 6 p.m. on 31 July, therefore, Contades summoned his generals and issued his orders. Broglie was to march at dusk, cross the Weser by a stone bridge, proceed through Minden and link up with the artillery and eight battalions of Grenadiers. Situated on Contades’s right, at dawn he would launch a sudden attack of unparalleled ferocity, exposing Ferdinand’s left flank. The main army meanwhile would cross the Bastau by bridge and draw up, ready for daybreak, with the infantry on the flanks and the cavalry in the centre; artillery would cover the cavalry by enfilading fire from both flanks. Between Broglie’s corps and the right of the main army, a third column, eight battalions strong under General Nikolai (yet another veteran who would have to wait until his sixties to receive a Marshal’s baton) would support Broglie’s left and make sure the enemy could not drive a wedge between Broglie and Contades. Nikolai, whose forty-seventh birthday it was on the morrow, hoped to celebrate with a notable victory. Contades’s left meanwhile would be protected against flank attack by the Duc d’Havre and four battalions. Making sure that proper contact was maintained with the Duc de Brissac in the reserve, d’Havre would initiate the action by feinting across the causeway towards Ferdinand’s right just before dawn.

The plan might have worked had not Ferdinand almost simultaneously decided that he would launch a surprise attack on the French after a night march. The army was to be ready to march at 1 a.m., the right was to seize the Hahlen windmill and the left to occupy the hamlet of Stemmer. The best scholarship discounts the idea that Ferdinand was forewarned of French intentions by a peasant who brought him a package containing Contades’s battle orders; what is not explained in the traditional story is how a peasant with anti-French sentiments could have been entrusted with top-secret documents – and ones, moreover that were in clear and not coded. The most likely explanation is that Ferdinand simply intuited what Contades intended and beat him to the punch. By this time he too probably wanted a decisive confrontation. The strain on him of the chivvying and carping George II and Frederick was not assuaged by an extremely difficult relationship with the British commander, Lord George Sackville.

Estimates of Sackville’s character range from the moderately critical to the outright denunciatory. According to Lord Shelburne, who knew him well, Sackville was the avatar of all the vices: he was incompetent, cowardly, an intriguer, a vindictive enemy, a lover of low company and an unbalanced individual who swung violently from spurious optimism to false pessimism. The reference to ‘low company’ was code for the consistent canard that Sackville, even though he was married and would sire five children, was a homosexual. Even his friends conceded that he was a difficult man, reserved, haughty and socially isolated even among his peers and equals. Relations between Ferdinand and Sackville by 31 July 1759 were icy, and it is clear that at one of the many conferences Ferdinand liked to convene, Lord George had given deep offence by something he had said. The most plausible explanation is that Sackville expressed his frustration with the constant retreating before the French and threatened to pull the British troops out of the campaign. The threat could not be presumed to be idle, for in the War of Spanish Succession the great Duke of Marlborough had done just that to his ally Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The upshot of the two converging night marches was that by dawn on 1 August Contades’s army was drawn up along a line stretching from Hahlen to Maulbeerkamp and Ferdinand’s from Hartum to Stemmer. The British troops during their night march had noticed that the fields and hedgerows were teeming with wild red and yellow roses, so they picked the flowers and put them in their hats. Broglie’s corps completed the march as planned, made contact with the enemy left at about 5 a.m. and opened fire. Lieutenant-General Georg August von Wangenheim, the Hanoverian commander who enjoyed the best relations with the British – he had been a battalion commander in England in 1756–57 during the invasion scare – was taken by surprise as a heavy pre-dawn thunderstorm drowned the noise of the approaching attackers. But the French plans began to unravel almost immediately. Instead of pressing home his advantage, Broglie waited for Nikolai to come up in support, giving Wangenheim time to get his big guns ready. There followed a pounding artillery duel, in which Broglie’s leading troops, the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties. By 6 a.m., with Wangenheim’s artillery gaining the advantage, Broglie sent Nikolai to try to loop round the enemy and occupy Kutenhausen. But, cautious like all French commanders, he first reconnoitred and seems to have persuaded himself that a German cavalry charge was imminent.

Contades, realising that his plans were already behind schedule, sent a mounted messenger to find out why Broglie had not advanced. Broglie then wasted further time by galloping over to Contades’s headquarters to explain his fears. In the meantime Contades, as dithering as his second-in-command, became alarmed by a supposed threat to his left, so told Broglie to return and contain the enemy right, until the situation on the left wing was sorted out; he even discussed with Broglie contingency plans for withdrawal. So, only two hours into the battle, things had already gone seriously awry; instead of launching a dawn attack, Broglie was now in limbo and even thinking of retreat. He could scarcely feel pleased with the morning’s work. He should not have waited for Nikolai, but attacked Wangenheim without delay; since Wangenheim was caught unawares, Ferdinand’s left would then have been turned. Broglie showed himself indecisive: he mistook a movement by Wangenheim’s men when taking up their position as an attack and therefore decided to wait for Nikolai. And so Broglie’s advance, on which the whole battle plan of Contades was supposed to turn, petered out. The unintended consequence was that he spent the rest of the battle containing Wangenheim – a stalemate that was compatible with Ferdinand’s tactics, but not with Contades’s.

Meanwhile Contades’s infantry had been delayed crossing the Bastau. They saw the sky lit up by flashes of gunfire and assumed that Broglie’s attack was proceeding as planned. The consequence was that the Comte de Lusace, on the French left, commanding fifteen battalions of Saxons, came to a halt near Hahlen at dawn, in close contact with another sixteen French battalions who were already in the village. This was the precise moment when Ferdinand, unaware that the enemy was present in strength, ordered forward Karl, Prinz von Anhalt-Bernburg and his men to occupy the village. Luck was with the Germans that morning. As they stormed forward into a potential death-trap, houses on the western side of the village caught fire, probably from incendiary shells. The wind caught up the fire and fanned it into the faces of the French defenders, who were driven back by the fierce heat and blinding smoke. The first British troops seriously engaged in battle in Germany now came into play as Foy’s Light Infantry Battalion collided with the French at the windmill just north of Hahlen. Seeing his attack now well under way on the right, Ferdinand ordered Wangenheim on the left to advance, and also gave the signal to Spőrcken’s corps on the right centre to close the gap left as Anhalt advanced.

General Freiherr von Spőrcken was, at sixty-one, the oldest officer on the field that day, an unspectacular plodder as a soldier but very popular with his men. Although nominally a German column, Number Three column (Spörcken’s) was actually comprised largely of British troops, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (51st Foot) and the other troops commanded by General Waldegrave and Colonel Kingsley, six regiments all told. Spörcken’s column came on at the double, at first hidden by woods, then deploying as it emerged from the sylvan darkness. To his alarm Ferdinand noticed Spörcken’s men getting ahead of the rest of the army and sent word for them to slow down. They made a brief halt in a copse but then recommenced their advance at the same rapid pace. Swerving to the left, and thus not hitting their intended target, they caught the left flank of the French cavalry. So on Ferdinand’s right, the situation was that the leading British and Hanoverian infantry were not only ahead of the rest of their comrades but had cut across them and were beginning to crowd them out. Nobody knows exactly why Spörcken’s men decided to fight virtually at running pace. Some say the orders were garbled in transmission because of language problems, but since Spörcken was in command this hardly makes sense. Others say the British wanted to show the other regiments their mettle, as they had been criticised for being raw troops. Doubtless a combination of élan and naivety caused the near-fiasco. Having dislocated the order of battle and being caught alone out in the open, they should have been severely punished and defeated in detail. But luck was with Ferdinand in all sectors this morning.

The battle for Hahlen now settled into a grim slugging match between the big guns of the French and those of Spörcken. This was a critical moment in the battle for, as Spörcken’s men stumbled towards them, the French infantry should have been able to seize the big guns before the artillery duel began. Unaccountably they failed to do so – later it was said they had been blinded by smoke and dust from the battle. That Ferdinand’s artillery was able to engage the French big guns was a hugely significant development, as the French were thereby prevented from sweeping away the opposition facing their own cavalry. Had these German guns not come into play at this juncture, the right flank of the British infantry would have been at the mercy of the French guns, causing heavy casualties and possibly affecting the entire result of the battle. In a letter to his mother written on the afternoon of the battle, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery of the 12th Regiment of Foot explained the atmosphere that morning:

We advanced more than a quarter of a mile through a most furious fire from a most infernal battery of 18-pounders, which was at first upon our front, but as we proceeded, bore upon our flank, and at last upon our rear. It might be imagined, that this cannonade would render the regiments incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount almost any difficulty.

Minden 1759 II

(German) Map of the Battle of Minden 1759. The work is based on a seperate map in Großer Generalstab / Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung (Hrsg.): Der Siebenjährige Krieg 1756–1763, Bd.11: Minden und Maxen, Verlag Ernst Siegfried Mittler & Sohn, Berlin 1912 (= Die Kriege Friedrichs des Großen, Theil 3).

Relentlessly the British battalions pressed forward onto the French cavalry, 7,000 strong, who could do nothing to stop them as they were equipped with sabres and pistols, and not muskets. Seeing that they were in danger of becoming sitting targets, the cavalry commander gave the order to charge. Commanding the cavalry was the Due de Fitzjames, yet another forty-seven-year-old at Minden that day. Grandson of James II of England and son of the Duke of Berwick, the Jacobite warrior who was killed at Philipsburg in 1734 (the young Fitzjames was at his side when he died), the Duc de Fitzjames was a veteran of a dozen battlefields, first in the War of Austrian Succession and more recently at Hastenbeck, Krefeld and Lutterberg. Now he ordered the Marquis de Castries to lead the first cavalry wave of eleven squadrons in a daring attempt to demoralise and rout the enemy. Spörcken’s infantry had just one round apiece, after which it would be a combat of bayonets against sabres. Every round had to tell.

A series of crashing volleys from the superbly disciplined British regiments tore the heart out of the French cavalry; those who survived the deadly fire and got through to the enemy were finished off with the bayonet. As the French retreated, their tormentors reloaded and stood ready for the next charge. Fitzjames then ordered his second line – twenty-two squadrons – to charge. Now, if ever, the British proved their calibre for their casualties were mounting and yet there was no sign that they were losing their heads or becoming downhearted. Lieutenant Montgomery summed up the situation nonchalantly: ‘These visitants [i.e. the first French cavalry wave] being thus dismissed, without giving us a moment’s time to recover the unavoidable disaster, down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the person of the Gens d’Armes.’ Once again murderous volleys tore holes in the careering horsemen; once again a few French horsemen got through only to be skewered at point-blank range; once again the German infantry reloaded and stood ready. This time they did not wait for a third charge but surged forward. In so doing they exposed their right flank, and the Comte de Guerchy on Fitzjames’s left saw his opportunity.

Forced to turn their second line half-right to meet this new challenge, the hard-pressed Spörcken’s infantry now had just three battalions to pit against a new enemy nearly three times as strong. It would have gone hard with them, had not Ferdinand spotted the new development and ordered to their support five battalions of Scheele’s men (situated on Spörcken’s right) and a brigade of heavy artillery. Ferdinand had only just plugged this hole when the French launched another cavalry attack, this time under General de Poyanne and 2,000 horsemen. This was not a frontal attack like Fitzjames’s but an enveloping movement on Spörcken’s left flank and rear. This was the crux of the battle, for Poyanne’s attack was the most dangerous French movement so far. Lieutenant Montgomery continued his recital: ‘The next who made their appearance were some regiments of the Grenadiers of France, as fine and terrible looking fellows as ever I saw. They stood us a tug, notwithstanding we beat them off to a distance, where they galded [goaded] us much, they having rifled barrels, and our muskets would not reach them. To remedy this we advanced, they took the hint and ran away.’ But how much longer could the British regiments really withstand this dual envelopment, by infantry to the right and cavalry to the left and rear?

This was the supreme moment of glory for the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who have had Minden among their most prized battle honours from that day on. Ably supported by the Hanoverian Guards, they fought like lions, taking the brunt of a frenzied attack from front, flank and rear. The hindmost ranks turned and faced about, knowing there was no reserve behind them. For a brief moment they wavered and looked likely to break. Vicious fighting ensued with the French tearing large holes in the defence and the British holding firm and closing the gaps. Again and again Guerchy’s infantry tried to make the breakthrough but were driven off by close, precise fire, with the Anglo-Hanoverian artillery joining in during the final stages of the titanic struggle. Finally Ferdinand was able to get reinforcements to the vital arena. Wutginau’s column (from the centre and thus immediately to the left of Scheele’s) came up, and its right wing, composed of Hanoverians and Hessians, caught the French in the flank. More slaughterous close-quarter and often hand-to-hand fighting resulted. Poyanne’s cavalry were the first to snap. Soon the flower of French horsemen, the Gendarmerie and Carabineers, were streaming away in defeat, having lost half their numbers. By this time General Imhoff ‘s column on the Anglo-German left centre had come into line. They were late onto the field partly because they had marched all night and partly because Spörcken’s column crowded them out by advancing so quickly and impetuously. Their arrival completed the disarray of the French who had been trying to rally. The remaining French cavalry were especially devastated. As Fitzjames desperately tried to get them to regroup and mass, the big guns further decimated them. Finally Fitzjames ordered his remaining horsemen to charge, but their attempt was flung back with ease by an allied army already confident of victory.

It was now about 9 a.m. and Anhalt sensed a great opportunity not just to defeat but to annihilate the French army. Ferdinand sent orders to Lord George Sackville to enter the fray and tip the balance decisively with his fresh troops. Sackville had found the waiting period exasperating and began to fume at the delay and inaction. But now began one of the most disgraceful incidents in the Seven Years War. Two separate aides arrived from Frederick but with what Sackville claimed were contradictory orders, making no sense and in no way conforming with the battle plans discussed the day before; further confusion arose from the fact that the two messages were delivered independently and no one could agree which of the aides had arrived first. In the end Sackville rode to Ferdinand to find out exactly what his orders were. Ferdinand, already nursing a giant grievance against the British commander for the threat to leave him in the lurch, listened to Sackville’s explanation of confusion with icy politeness and then replied: ‘My lord, the situation has changed, my dispositions of yesterday can no longer have any effect; and in any case it is enough that I want it so and I beg you to do it immediately.’ Sackville bowed and withdrew but then took an unconscionable time about drawing up his cavalry on the heath and getting them into position. What was the reason for this slowness? Was Sackville confused by the earlier contretemps and still slightly dazed at Ferdinand’s words? Was he simply incompetent at cavalry tactics? Or was he, as his critics suggest and as seems most likely from his psychological profile, deliberately dragging his feet and ‘working to rule’ in rage at Ferdinand’s publicly delivered rebuke?

The battle continued without Sackville’s intervention. The French centre was by now decisively broken, but Contades riposted by throwing his sole hitherto uncommitted troops into the struggle. Eight battalions of Beauprieu’s in the right centre, to the left of Broglie and Nikolai, were just preparing to launch a shock attack when they were overwhelmed by a combined onset of nineteen Prussian and Hanoverian cavalry squadrons, backed up by four bayonet-wielding Hessian infantry battalions. Contades’s last forces were thrown back onto the pitiful remnants of the French cavalry. The only part of the French line still holding firm was the axis formed by Beaupréau’s second line and the ten squadrons of cavalry from Broglie’s left flank. But at this precise moment Wangenheim, hitherto on the defensive, unleashed his cavalry, all sixteen squadrons, who smashed through Nikolai’s two brigades and collided with Broglie’s cavalry. The thrusting, slashing combat of horseman against horseman was almost Contades’s last throw. On the left the Comte de Lusace and his Saxons meanwhile made a last effort against Spörcken’s infantry and performed valiantly. The Saxons actually forced the British heroes of the earlier struggle to give way, only to be beaten off when they came under artillery fire north of Hahlen. Seeing the day lost, Contades reluctantly ordered a general retreat. He was in danger of rout and annihilation, and all that was needed was the charge of the twenty-four cavalry squadrons that Sackville continued to manoeuvre around Hartum. They never appeared on the field. While Sackville was away receiving his reprimand from Ferdinand, his deputy Lord Granby actually ordered the cavalry forward on his own responsibility and they were just setting off at a trot when the peevish Sackville, smarting from the ‘insult’ offered by Ferdinand, returned from the interview and countermanded the order.

Ferdinand’s other chances for destroying Contades also came to nothing. Wangenheim’s infantry were slow to leave their entrenchments and in the end did so only after direct orders from Ferdinand, so whatever pursuit there was of the French right came from the heavily encumbered artillerymen. Broglie successfully covered the retreat of the French right, and by 11 a.m. the French were back across the Bastau, with Broglie occupying a position protected by Minden fortress. Even so he was hard pressed and soon found himself retreating right back through Minden itself. Brissac, covering the retreat of the French left, was theoretically in danger from the Erbprinz’s mobile columns, for Ferdinand had intended that he should envelop Brissac and close the road behind him, thus trapping the French left between Minden and the Porta Westfalica. But the Erbprinz, instead of pressing on to the bank of the Weser, allowed his worries about the forces under Armentières and Chevreuse to prey on his mind; in short, he feared that while he sought to trap Brissac, he might be ambushed himself and the two French commanders not at Minden might suddenly appear on his flank with superior numbers. At any rate the French made good their escape and by noon all firing had ceased; Contades got his army across the Weser and did not stop retreating until he reached Kassel.

The allies pitched their camp between Hahlen and Friedewalde and started sifting through the battlefield wreckage. Ferdinand had every reason to be proud. He had successfully enticed Contades to come out and fight, the French had been driven from Westphalia and Hanover was no longer threatened. The victory at Minden was crucial. Since Frederick of Prussia was defeated by the Russians at Kunersdorf on 12 August, if Ferdinand had lost at Minden and been forced to retreat east to Prussia, Frederick would have been in a desperate situation. Indeed, he came close to losing his nerve altogether after his defeat. A brilliant beginning to the battle, when he broke the Russian left wing and captured 180 cannon, petered out after furious fighting, when he was first thrown back and later routed. He had two horses killed under him and for two days could barely speak with rage and disappointment. To his favourite Frenchman, d’Argens, he wrote: ‘Death is sweet in comparison to such a life as mine. Have pity on me and it; believe that I still keep to myself a great many evil things, not wishing to burden or disgust anybody with them, and that I would not advise you to escape these unlucky countries if I had any ray of hope. Adieu, mon cher.’

Frederick was in the doldrums, but Ferdinand’s reputation, in danger of dipping after his first twelve months on a roll, was now once again sky-high. He had proved himself a good general who could think quickly and turn subordinates’ mistakes to his advantage. He had handled his artillery superbly, especially on the right as, but for the big guns, Spörcken’s corps would have been badly mauled and perhaps ‘eaten up’. Bergen had taught Ferdinand the importance of artillery and he had learned the lesson well. A delighted George II awarded him £20,000 and the Order of the Garter when he received news of Minden.

But for Contades the battle was a disaster and his reputation was in tatters. Belle-Isle wrote to his friend the Marquis de Castries, who at thirty-two had now added Minden to a long list of battle honours (Dettingen, Fontenoy, Roucoux, Lawfeldt, Rossbach, Lutterberg; he probably saw more front-line service than any other senior French commander in the eighteenth century): ‘I can’t understand why sixty squadrons at the height of their powers could not break nine or ten battalions of infantry, especially as the same British infantry also put to flight four of our infantry brigades who on their own were numerically superior to them.’

So alarmed and despondent was Belle-Isle that he sent the veteran sixty-four-year-old Marshal d’Estrées, now also a member of Louis XV’s elite Council of State, to Germany, officially as Contades’s ‘adviser’ but really to oversee operations and report directly to the War Minister, since Belle-Isle had lost confidence. As all the senior French commanders were madly jealous of each other, it was not surprising that d’Estrées immediately found much to criticise. He wrote to Versailles as follows:

I can’t recover from my surprise when I reflect that, in less than two months, a strong French army of 100,000 men has been reduced to about half that number. Here are the finest regiments in the French Army and one can hardly recognise them. To help poor Contades, against whom the duc de Broglie, the comte de Saint-Germain and Saint-Pern make such loud and derisive cries, I have made the least wounding report possible to the Court; but despite that, the mere reading of a factual recital of this battle is enough to ensure his immediate recall, unless he receives the protection of the woman of whom we have spoken so many times [i.e. Madame de Pompadour].

D’Estrées did not like what he saw in Germany and cannily resisted pressure from Versailles (and the despondent Contades himself) to take over command. But if Contades clearly had to be replaced to restore morale and credibility, who could replace him? Broglie was the obvious choice but he was not popular at court and was junior in rank to many would-be marshals who considered themselves just as good he was. But in the end Austrian pressure was decisive, and Broglie was confirmed as French Commander-in-Chief in Germany in November.

In many accounts of the Seven Years War in Germany, Minden receives scant mention compared with Rossbach and Krefeld, and especially the terrible maulings Frederick took from the Russians on the eastern front. But it is worth emphasising that it was a colossal military achievement. With 41,000 troops ranged against Contades’s 51,000, Ferdinand’s army inflicted 11,000–12,000 casualties; among the French infantry alone, six generals and 438 officers were killed. Ferdinand’s total losses amounted to 2,762, of whom 1,392 were from the heroic six British regiments, which lost an incredible 30 per cent of their fighting strength. These six regiments had seen off altogether thirty-six squadrons of cavalry and forty battalions of infantry; truly, as was said at the time, ‘at Minden the impossible was achieved’.

Although Minden relieved the pressure on Frederick, it was not the decisive battle it might have been had the war in west Germany been a self-contained affair. Ferdinand quickly cleared Hesse of the French and wanted to take Frankfurt and then push the French back to the Rhine. But he wasted time on triumphalism, with Te Deums being sung and fireworks (feux de joie) being let off. And after Kunersdorf Frederick’s pleas for help became so insistent that Ferdinand had to abandon his more ambitious plans. Frederick pressed him to move on Leipzig instead of Frankfurt, but Ferdinand was unwilliing to move to the eastern front until he had cleared the French out of Münster; otherwise they would retain it as a base for future threats on Hanover. Since Münster did not surrender until 22 November, it was only then that Ferdinand felt able to transfer troops to Frederick. Once again the western front restored Frederick’s fortunes. His defeats at Maxen (20 November) and Meissen (3–4 December), which made 1759 as black a year for Prussia as it was for France and Louis XV, restored the balance of continental fortunes to the Austrian coalition, even after Ferdinand (and his replacement Wangenheim, during the Prince of Brunswick’s frequent absences to confer with Frederick) had checkmated the initial moves of the new French commander, Broglie.

‘Wilde Sau’ fighters

Fw 190A-5/U2 of III. Gruppe des Jagdgeschwaders 300, 1943.

Major Hajo Herrmann had been one of the most famous of the Luftwaffe bomber pilots, with an already incredible record of accomplishment. In early 1943 he was at staff college, fuming at the fact that each night the Reich was being defended by grossly overworked night fighters while hundreds of single-seaters stayed on the ground. He made out to Kammhuber a powerfully argued case for what was virtually a return to the old Helle Nachtjagd system. Herrmann was a man of influence far above his rank, and he explained how readily he could build a potent night force of single-seat fighters that would not be part of the regular day (JG) wings but manned by skilled former bomber pilots, all men used to flying at night and toughened by years of action. In his view such a man flying a 109 or 190 could find enemy bombers at night, especially over the glow of a burning city. Searchlights would be invaluable, and he considered that such experienced pilots ought to be able to destroy every bomber held in a searchlight cone for as long as two minutes. But Kammhuber had patiently constructed a formidable defence based on close GCI Himmelbett control. Fighters ranging uncontrolled among the Flak bursts seemed a terrible idea, even though Herrmann stressed that he wanted to fight not in place of the NJG force but in addition to it.

Getting nowhere with Kammhuber, he did not give up; he just went over his head, straight to Generaloberst Weise. Weise had no vested interest in the Himmelbett system, and felt that every little helped, especially as Herrmann had secured a verbal agreement from the Berlin Flak commander to restrict gunfire to below an altitude of 5 km (16,404 feet), giving the fighters a safe region above; and presumably other Flak divisions might do the same. Weise gave permission for trial operations, and Herrmann gathered his forces to practise what he called the Wilde Sau (wild boar) method. It was intended to be simple and effective. The single-seaters would be standard except for carefully flame-damped exhausts and, in some cases, the fitting of Naxos-Z homers. The main Wilde Sau fighters were the Bf 109G-6/U4N and Fw 190A-5/U2N. The name of the unit was the Kommando Herrmann, and there is no doubt that – quite apart from whatever else it achieved – it exerted an inspiring effect on the regular NJG forces. Herrmann’s ex-bomber pilots were imbued with their leader’s fanaticism. One way in which this was manifest was in their flight planning, which was based on continuing each mission until the tanks had practically run dry. The heavily armed single-seaters carried no external fuel, and endurance was very limited. It may have been deliberate policy to eschew such a nicety as being bothered about the fuel state, because in the course of the winter 1943–4 this became increasingly the general policy among the NJG units as well. Night fighters were now pouring off the assembly lines. So long as the crew got away with it, a dead-stick landing in the dark that destroyed the aircraft was of little consequence. Indeed, the most remarkable factor was the high proportion of pilots who did manage to regain an airfield runway.

The Kommando Herrmann began operations in the Essen/Duisburg area in June 1943, and had their first big chance on 3 July, when the target was Cologne. Undeterred by the fact that he had not notified the local Flak division, Herrmann and eleven of his pilots spent two hours among the intense shell bursts and shot down twelve bombers. Next day Herrmann found himself a national hero; he was instantly summoned to Karinhalle, where Goering authorized him to form a full Wilde Sau wing, designated JG 300 (not, it will be noted, NJG). It put Kammhuber in a difficult position. In the Nazi environment of constant intrigue it might have served him best to decide that, if he couldn’t beat Herrmann, he would join him (by publicly joining in the chorus of adulation). He chose instead to stick to his rigid and narrow doctrine of close radar control, and to call for a further increase in radar production. Little did he know what was just around the corner.

On the afternoon of 24 July 1943 the crews of over 800 RAF bombers were briefed to attack Hamburg. During the briefing they were at last told about Window, and that night the 746 aircraft that bombed also released about 92 million strips of foil. The result was chaos. Ground controllers, night fighters, master searchlights and Flak were thrown into frantic confusion. Only twelve aircraft were lost, and those tended to be either low-flying Stirlings or the highest-flying Lancasters, cruising outside the main Window cloud. Just a few Himmelbett stations and NJG operators managed, partly by luck, to pick off from their crowded and flickering display screens the vital blip that appeared to have a motion different from the rest. But Window made no difference to Herrmann. In subsequent attacks in the ten-day battle that destroyed Hamburg, his single-seaters moved to the area and destroyed more than fifteen bombers, while others fell to NJG crews operating in the same freelance way. Some of the bombers were seen from below, dimly reflecting the light of the burning city. Some were seen from above, silhouetted against the fires, while others were spotted against the numerous searchlight beams pointing out the bombers’ track almost horizontally along the ground. It says much for the courage and tenacity of the German pilots that they were able to inflict many casualties by the same crude methods that had proved so ineffectual over Britain in 1917 and 1940. But one is not comparing like with like: over Germany in 1943 the bombers were bigger and much more numerous, and the amount of illumination on the ground and in the sky was immeasurably greater. Both RAF and Luftwaffe aircrew were hard-put to retain their night-adapted vision in the midst of such an inferno. (It was in theory a court-martial offence for Bomber Command aircrew to look at the glowing target.)

Great as was the confusion caused by Window, it was not the only countermeasure used by the RAF. The awareness, ingenuity and fast action of the TRE, Bomber Support Development Unit and other organizations had already begun a succession of ECM developments that henceforth kept the Luftwaffe perpetually off-balance. One of the first was Mandrel, a powerful airborne radio transmitter that broadcast intense noise interference on the exact frequency of Freya. Defiants, pensioned-off from night fighting, orbited bravely near the outer reaches of the Kammhuber Line with Mandrel instead of armament, taking out a section up to 200 miles wide during major RAF attacks. The heavies themselves were able to carry the jamming across Germany, because a Mandrel transmitter was installed in an average of one bomber in every squadron. To blot out GCI communication between the Himmelbett stations and the NJG fighters most bombers also carried Tinsel. This was simple and effective: the ordinary TR 1154/1155 radio was tuned to the German controller’s wavelength and arranged to broadcast from a microphone bolted inside one of the bomber’s engine nacelles. With Wilde Sau tactics, in a sky full of Window, everything depended on guiding the fighter in among the bombers. The Luftwaffe reacted violently to Mandrel and Tinsel, investigating ways of making the newer Mammut and Wassermann early-warning radars resistant to jamming, and building powerful new HF and VHF radio stations for broadcasting to the night fighters – all of them, not just the single-seaters. The RAF responded with Special Tinsel; monitors in England listened to the GCI traffic and radioed each new frequency to the attacking force, which then jammed it as before. To smother the VHF frequencies, 101 Squadron Lancasters sprouted tall mast aerials to broadcast jamming from ABC – Airborne Cigar – an extremely powerful VHF transmitter manned by a special German-speaking operator who listened to all VHF transmissions until he or she found the GCI frequency.

This was still only the beginning, for there was even more that the RAF could do. For months the possibility of sending the RAF’s own night fighters over Germany had been discussed, but as the majority of possible targets they might find were RAF heavies there were obvious snags. Of course IFF would help, but how could they be made to home on to the Luftwaffe night fighters? The answer was provided by TRE within a week of laying hands on the Lichtenstein-equipped Ju 88 that landed at Aberdeen. They devised Serrate, a small receiver tuned to 490 MHz and displaying any received signals on a cockpit CRT. The observer saw a display like a gappy herringbone; the bones became longer as the range closed, and moved up or down the display. When the fighter was heading straight for the German night fighter the bones were equal in numbers and length on each side of the vertical time-base. Serrate was issued first to 141 Squadron at Wittering, equipped with early Beaufighter VIF aircraft that still used AI.IV radar. Radar was essential, because Serrate did not positively indicate range. Under aggressive Bob Braham No. 141 began a few weeks of startlingly successful intruder operations, mostly over Holland, but after destroying 23 Luftwaffe night fighters the work was halted in September, because there were insufficient customers. By this time No. 141 was achieving a kill every 35 sorties, on average.

I suspect the real problem was bringing Braham’s men and their quarry together. One of the snags was that the rather tired Beaufighters were almost always slower than the German night fighters. Another was that, in a chaotic electronic environment, the Luftwaffe night fighters were operating freelance all over Germany. A leading Experte, Oberst Viktor von Lossberg, had argued for NJG units to infiltrate into the bomber stream before the heavies even reached the coast, and he transferred several squadrons to the Scheldt estuary and north German coast. Under the name Zahme Sau (Tame Boar) he proposed a freelance running fight with the NJG force to partner Herrmann’s Wilde Sau single-seaters which concentrated over the target. An integral part of Zahme Sau was to use the RAF’s own Window to confirm the position and track of the bomber stream. The technique recognized that under the new circumstances the Himmelbett system was useless, except to get the odd straggler that strayed out of Window protection. The answer seemed to be loose control, with fighters flying perhaps right across Germany, instead of staying in a neat little box, and fighting until they ran out of fuel. It was essential for the GCI controller to use every wile and sixth sense to try to divine the bombers’ target in advance, and to note every turn made by the leading sections in the bomber stream. Co-operation with Flak was essential, and one of the recurrent problems was that the free-ranging fighters were often running into intense Flak.

British Forces in Western Germany 1757-59

The Battle of Krefeld on a painting by Emil Hünten.

Map of the Battle of Krefeld on June 23 1758.
Source: Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen, volume III by the German Grosser Generalstab

Rarely had military fortunes changed so rapidly. In September 1757 the French thought they had won definitively in western Germany and only a few mopping-up details remained. By May 1758 the tables were turned, Ferdinand had an army 40,000 strong and France was floundering. Richelieu’s replacement on the western front proved an even greater disaster than his philandering predecessor. Now in his fiftieth year, Louis de Bourbon-Condé, Comte de Clermont, a prince of the blood, was an oddity in that he had been destined for holy orders but then given a papal dispensation to become a soldier, after which he had fought at Dettingen, Fontenoy and Raucoux during the War of Austrian Succession. The peculiarity of his position was that he retained his clerical benefices as Abbot of St Germain-des-Prés and was known mockingly by his troops as the ‘Général des Bénédictines’. Evidently Clermont had a line in gallows humour, for it is said that he wrote to Louis XV as follows on taking up his command: ‘I found Your Majesty’s Army divided into three parts. The part which is above ground is composed of pillagers and marauders; the second part is underground; and the third is in hospital. Should I retire with the first or wait until I join one of the others?’

Clermont was hardly exaggerating. French losses in the winter campaign amounted to more than 16,000 in dead, wounded, prisoners and deserters with another 10,000 sick. But as one of the great aristocrats of the ancien régime, Clermont had pull. With the able collaboration of Belle-Isle at the War Ministry, he made good the numbers. By May he could muster 32,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, and Belle-Isle promised him he would have an army nearly double that size by the end of June. Clermont was an efficient if unimaginative soldier and he was taken unawares by the energetic Ferdinand, who crossed the Rhine near the Dutch border on 1–3 June after constructing a pontoon bridge. Madame de Pompadour, now secure in Louis XV’s favour and always keen to take the rest of the Bourbon family down a notch or two, wrote to him witheringly: ‘What a humiliation, monsieur, to allow the enemy to build a bridge across the Rhine and land 6,000 men a day on the other side.’ But Clermont’s humiliation was not yet complete. Despite the reassurances from his friend Belle-Isle that Ferdinand was now dangerously exposed, Clermont could make no impression on him. He did at least hold his own in the indecisive battle at Rheinberg on 12 June 1758 but nine days later Ferdinand won a hard-fought victory at Krefeld. Faced with the threat that Ferdinand might invade the Netherlands, Belle-Isle had to detach to Clermont’s aid a second French army, which was supposed to be helping Maria Theresa and the Austrians in Bohemia.

Seven thousand British troops joined Ferdinand after Krefeld, but the Anglophone and German-speaking troops did not meld seamlessly. Differences in culture and military tradition were compounded by the language barrier, except in the case of the officer class who usually spoke French to one another. The British troops were indisciplined, prone to illness and lacked the hygiene of their German counterparts while their officers were touchy and arrogant, inclined to treat the Hanoverians as natural inferiors. There were numerous niggling items of discord between the two sides: the Germans, for example, resented the extra forage required by the horse-loving British. The choice of British commander was perhaps especially infelicitous. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough, though modest and generous, was ignorant, careless and insouciant, and was a particularly poor diplomatic choice in that in the previous war he had complained vociferously about the behaviour of German troops. But Marlborough died before Krefeld, in October 1757, and the British command fell to his deputy – an even more disastrous appointment, as it turned out.

At forty-two, Lord George Sackville, second son of the Earl of Dorset, was sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hypersensitive to criticism. A heavily set, melancholy-looking individual, with clear blue eyes, protruding lower lip and an ugly snout of a nose, Sackville was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and had fought at Fontenoy with Cumberland (also later in the Jacobite rising and under Wolfe in Scotland). MP for Dover since 1741, he was an important political figure whom Pitt and Bute had wanted as their Secretary of State for War in 1757. But the great barrier to Sackville’s political and military advancement was the hatred of George II. Sackville had attached himself to the rival court clustered round the King’s hated eldest son Frederick and his son George (later George III). Sackville’s drive and energy were not matched by tact or an ability to make himself popular. His joining the Anglo-German army was a case in point. Leicester House favoured military raids on the French coast and was strongly opposed to German entanglements, but by accepting the position with Marlborough Sackville showed poor political nous. His appointment was simply Pitt’s way of co-opting Leicester House into a German adventure but the Prince of Wales did not see it that way. Sackville simply weakened his status with Bute and Leicester House without commending himself to George II. He made fresh enemies without making any new friends.

Although in retrospect the partnership of Prince Ferdinand and Lord Sackville was an accident waiting to happen, in 1758 Sackville confined himself to complaining about Ferdinand’s Fabian policy and the continual retreats. After Krefeld, though, even his mouth was shut. Krefeld was a setback to France almost as serious as Rossbach. In England, where Ferdinand was lionised as a hero, Pitt realised the potential value of the western front. Properly reinforced, Ferdinand’s Anglo-Hanoverian army could pin down huge French forces, not only preventing them from fighting Prussia on the eastern front but also making it impossible for Versailles to reinforce its beleaguered garrisons in India and North America. Expertly managed by the Duke of Newcastle, Parliament voted to send to Germany another five battalions of infantry and fourteen squadrons of cavalry. After a further embarrassment with the fall of Düsseldorf (July 1758), Clermont meanwhile was replaced by the fifty-four-year-old Louis-Georges Erasme, Marquis de Contades, who had a long and distinguished military career, beginning in Italy and Corsica in 1734–35, extending through the war of 1740–48 and most recently taking in the battles of Hastenbeck and Krefeld.

Contades showed more respect for Ferdinand than Clermont had, and played cat-and-mouse with him, probing and making contact with his vanguard, but never allowing Ferdinand’s main army to get close to him. There was stalemate as both sides faced each other across the Erft river from 14 to 24 July, but the French grew stronger every day as Belle-Isle made good his promises about increased numbers. Ferdinand, still waiting for the British reinforcements before making a decisive move, resolved to withdraw and put the Rhine between himself and the French, but Contades moved north swiftly to hem him in between the confluence of the Roer and Meuse rivers. Ferdinand was now in deadly peril, in imminent danger of having his communications cut, and Contades came within an ace of a stunning victory, but he narrowly failed to take the all-important bridge at Mehr that would have sealed Ferdinand’s doom.

Belle-Isle now decided that the only way to finish off Ferdinand before he became even more powerful with extra contingents from Britain was to use a second army against him. This force was commanded by the vanquished Marshal of Rossbach, Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise. Another of the great French aristocrats, Soubise was a member of the influential Rohan family, had been Louis XV’s aide-de-camp in the War of Austrian Succession and had served as Governor of Flanders and Hennegau. Something of a French Cumberland, Soubise was notorious for the catastrophe at Rossbach but his many supporters at court would talk up a minor victory at Lutterberg in Hesse rather as Cumberland’s cronies had portrayed his walk-over victory at Culloden as a glittering triumph of the military art. The truth was that, aged forty-three, Soubise was a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent and owing everything to his being a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, who assiduously pushed for his promotion far beyond his intrinsic abilities.

Realising Ferdinand’s military calibre, Belle-Isle urged caution and close coordination between the armies of Contades and Soubise. Resentful and envious of each other, Contades and Soubise each waited for the other to act and refused to collaborate on a detailed strategy.

September found both of them writing peevishly to Belle-Isle to know what the other proposed to do. Belle-Isle fulminated at his two generals for being the passive dupes of Ferdinand, warned that French military honour was being compromised, and advised them that France was becoming the laughing stock of Europe. Finally Soubise stirred himself and began marching towards Hanover. But he seems to have taken fright at his own decisiveness, feared he was over-exposed and, blaming Contades for having been slow to support him, withdrew to Kassel. There, stiffened by the Due de Fitzjames, the timid Soubise finally felt strong enough to give battle. Marginally victorious at Lutterberg on 12 October – though some critics thought the battle drawn – he failed to support Contades when he in turn finally made a move and threatened Münster, an important allied base. This was another timid probe, carried out too late and with too small forces to be a serious threat.

By the end of 1758 all of Belle-Isle’s efforts had produced a null result in west Germany. Despite all the reinforcements he had thrown into the western front, the French armies were again suffering numerical shrinkage and under-equipment. That winter Belle-Isle wrote to the future Duc de Choiseul (then Comte de Stainville, French ambassador in Austria): ‘Two-thirds of our infantry are without clothes and consist either of men who have had no rest for fifteen months, or of recruits who are not strong enough to withstand the cold and rain of this late season.’ Meanwhile his past, present, future, actual and putative generals spent most of their energy intriguing against each other and trying to discredit or belittle each other in the eyes of Louis XV: Soubise, Richelieu, d’Estrées, Broglie, St-Germain, Contades and Clermont were only some of the principals involved in the Machiavellian and disgraceful game, for the Dauphin himself had petitioned his father hard to be allowed to succeed Clermont as Commander-in-Chief. The truth was that Louis XV had no one of the calibre of Marshal Saxe in the last war, or even of Lowendahl, and some Jeremiahs lamented that in France military science had gone into a tail-spin. Ferdinand, by contrast, had been a brilliant success. At the beginning of 1758 the French had occupied most of Hanover but by the end they occupied not an inch of it. Understandably George II was the great champion of Ferdinand. In September he awarded him £2,000 a year for life and in December Frederick of Prussia appointed him a Field Marshal. But Ferdinand seemed to some critics to be running out of ideas, and it was noteworthy that he went into winter quarters in mid-November 1758 and did not try to repeat his exploits of the previous year.

On 4 February 1759 Soubise, appointed commander of the army projected for the invasion of England, handed over to the forty-year-old Duc de Broglie. Victor François, Duc de Broglie, would prove to be the most capable French army commander in the Seven Years War, and the year 1759 would have gone better for France if he had been confirmed as supreme commander in Germany. He inherited a much healthier situation than at the beginning of 1758 for, under Belle-Isle’s energetic leadership, the two French armies in Germany had been extensively re-equipped and retrained. Broglie’s Army of the Main contained fifty squadrons of cavalry and fifty battalions of infantry – a total of 31,000 men. Contades’s Army of the Lower Rhine was much larger, with ninety-one squadrons and 100 battalions (66,000 men). With this army of nearly 100,000 men, Belle-Isle intended to drive the pestilent Ferdinand across the Weser river. With Broglie’s army in support, Contades was to cross the lower Rhine in June, capture Münster and Lippstadt and sweep the enemy before him. The obvious snag was that Ferdinand might take the offensive first. To preempt this and give themselves a sound base of operations, the French seized the free city of Frankfurt on New Year’s Eve. They used an underhand trick to secure admission, then overpowered the garrison while the citizens were sleeping. Frankfurt became the base for French operations during the rest of the war; it was easily defended and could be supplied by the river.

Five miles north-east of Frankfurt the French fortified the strong natural position of Bergen covering the approaches from Kassel and sought to make it all but impregnable. This single fact determined allied strategy for 1759. Ferdinand strengthened his bases at Münster and Lippstadt, with subsidiaries at Nienburg, Hameln Stade and Hamburg, and patiently built up his total numbers to nearly 72,000 by April 1759, including two new companies sent from England. Originally he had been planning to attack the French in Hesse but that scheme was aborted when Frederick of Prussia told him he had no troops to spare. Lacking the manpower to tackle Hesse, Ferdinand now played cat and mouse with the French in a winter campaign lasting through January-February 1759, but found himself outpointed by Broglie. Initially threatened on his right flank, Broglie neatly turned the tables on Ferdinand by trying to punch through his right. Perhaps realising that he faced an opponent of real military calibre, Ferdinand finally sheered off after a face-saving, protracted and confusing (confused?) war of manoeuvre. At length he made up his mind to attack the main French strength at Frankfurt. He left Münster on 22 March, determined to test to the limit the strength of the French position at Bergen.

French military planners had not been exaggerating when they boasted that Bergen was the dream defensive position, difficult to outflank and high enough to provide an overview of any approaching enemy forces while providing plenty of cover. Two miles north-east of Frankfurt was where Broglie intended to begin drawing up his forces. The battleground he selected was adjacent to flat and marshy country on the right which ran to the steep escarpment topped by Bergen. On the left the terrain was not so steep. Wooded and striated by streams, with open country between the woods and Bergen, it was cut across by two sunken roads, impeding any attack from the east. Bergen itself was enclosed by a fortified wall, eighteen feet high and three feet thick, outside which were farms, orchards and enclosures, surrounded by banks and hedges. In front was the hill of Am Hohen Stein, offering some protection to an attacker on its eastern slope; but the western slope, extending to the scarp on the right and the woods on the left, was devoid of cover. North-west of Bergen, 1,000 yards away and set on a knoll, was a tower, the Bergen Warte, dominating Bergen and the 1,000 yards of open land between it and the village. South of Bergen the escarpment ran westwards until it hit the River Main. Here Broglie awaited Ferdinand’s coming with some 30,000 men, eight battalions in Bergen itself and another thirteen held in reserve. On his left, behind the woods, were the Saxons; in the centre, behind the Bergen Warte, were the cavalry; the artillery was in the centre, between the sunken roads. Ferdinand, relying on false estimates of enemy strength from his scouts and an irrational belief that the French were not present in strength, was confident that Broglie could not hold his position and proposed to attack 30,000 seasoned defenders with a numerically inferior force, computed at 24,000–27,000 troops.

Ferdinand began by sending General von Gilsa into the orchards, where he quickly cleaned out the French. Broglie, commanding a panorama of the battlefield from his obsevation post on the Bergen Warte, ordered his reserves to counterattack. Emerging in a cloud from behind the walls of Bergen, they quickly repulsed the enemy. The seesaw battle in the orchards continued when Ferdinand ordered his Brunswickers into the fray and they in turn began to push the French back. One hundred yards from the walls the French dug in and a furious struggle commenced. Sensing that this was the moment to commit the last of his reserves, Broglie gave the signal to his veterans who decisively repelled the Brunswickers. Ferdinand next ordered his artillery to come to the aid of the Brunswickers but his gunners were caught by a murderous fire from the French artillerymen at the western end of the sunken road. Ferdinand’s principal lieutenant, Johann Kasimir, Prince of Isenburg, rallied his men for another charge but was counterattacked on the flanks; he fell, mortally wounded, and his men broke and fled. Ferdinand now expected an all-out assault but Broglie had no intention of going over onto the attack, as this would mean leaving his strong position and meeting the enemy in the open. This gave Ferdinand a welcome breathing space, so once again he rallied his men before withdrawing them to the Am Hohen Stein, vainly hoping that Broglie would pursue him there. When Ferdinand’s big guns were in position, he prepared for a final attack but cancelled the assault when he saw movements on the French side indicating an imminent charge. Broglie, though, was simply strengthening his left flank by positioning more artillery there and moving up his last six reserve battalions from the Bergen Warte. A period of phoney war developed, with the artillery exchanging shots and each side waiting for the other to make the first move, and so it continued until dusk. Ferdinand withdrew under cover of night but had sentries posted at dawn, waiting for what seemed like an inevitable attack. But it never came. Broglie, having been left on the field and with 1,800 casualties against Ferdinand’s 2,500, claimed the victory.

Ferdinand withdrew to the north, still in dread that Broglie would strike his slow-moving column; he was especially vulnerable now, with a tired, hungry and demoralised allied army. But the Anglo-Hanoverians were left to recoup in peace, as Broglie made no attempt to exploit his victory and indeed huddled fearfully near Frankfurt, apprehensive that Ferdinand would attack again. Both sides were left to ponder the implications of French success in the first campaign of 1759. Broglie’s performance was efficient rather than brilliant, since he fought from a well-nigh impregnable position, outnumbered the enemy in men and guns and had fresh troops who were not afraid of Ferdinand since they had not been involved in the 1758 defeats under Clermont and Contades. His failure to pursue Ferdinand was deplorable and showed once again that the tradition of Condé, Turenne, Saxe and Lowendahl was dead. Broglie had many enemies at court, who immediately tried to spread the rumour that his victory was really a defeat. The friends of the Prince de Soubise were particularly forward in this regard and even spread the canard that Broglie had abandoned his field hospital during the battle. Soubise’s champion was Madame de Pompadour and she in turn had the ear of the King. Broglie would not get his Marshal’s baton for a while yet. But if Broglie had been excessively timid, Ferdinand had been rash, complacent and over-confident, and perhaps the victories of 1758 had made him gravely underrate the French. That seems the most likely explanation for his extraordinary decision to make a frontal attack in a piecemeal fashion and without proper artillery support, though the false estimates produced by his scouts hardly helped. Ferdinand did not relish the task of reporting to Frederick, but for once the Prussian king did not nag him mercilessly, contenting himself this time with the suggestion that Ferdinand should at once increase his complement of heavy guns. Secretly Ferdinand blamed Frederick for his defeat, since the Prussian preoccupation with the eastern front meant that he had not been able to open his offensive at the beginning of March, as he wanted.

April–July 1759 was a very bad patch for Ferdinand, and now for the first time his Achilles heel became manifest. He cultivated a persona of professionalism and unflappability, but his mask of serene courtesy concealed anxiety and insecurity; some have speculated that he had a chip on his shoulder about Frederick, that Brunswick always felt itself to be in the shadow of Prussia and suffered the same feelings of inferiority that Poland has always had about Russia. Studies of the accident-prone invariably show depression lurking in the shadows, and it is surely significant that on 30 June, while riding with his aide-de-camp the Duke of Richmond, Ferdinand fell off his horse into a deep water-filled ditch and was almost drowned before being rescued.

Ferdinand’s principal anxiety was that when the French marched north in June on the summer campaign, they would have an army twice as strong as his. His difficult relationship with Frederick simply made his problems worse, for when he asked the King’s advice, Frederick soon lost patience with his ‘defeatism’: the King’s replies were initially cordial, shortly became peevish and thereafter downright insulting. The beginning of the summer campaign underlined Ferdinand’s worst fears. Advancing slowly but surely, the French took Münster and then Minden. The Marquis d’Armentière’s first attempt to capture Münster was beaten back with heavy losses, but he brought up reinforcements, forcing the defenders back into the citadel where, after a perfunctory defence, the garrison of 3,600 surrendered. Armentière then proceeded to Lippstadt to lend his weight to the siege being conducted there by the Duc de Chevreuses. Minden was another French triumph. Learning that the town was weakly garrisoned, Broglie sent his brother (the Comte de Broglie) with 1,500 infantry and 1,200 cavalry to seize it; the coup was successful but Minden was then looted in a way not seen since the Thirty Years War and it was with difficulty that the French commanders restored order.

Tanks Against Forts at Różan

Captain Collin received the attack order just before noon on September 5. It was quite brief. His company was instructed to capture two old forts dating from World War I on the western outskirts of the small town of Różan in northern Poland. The mission was clear and did not require much elaboration. Instead, Collin could instruct his platoon commanders. In addition to Lieutenants Parow and Schnelle, who both were platoon commanders in Collin’s company, two more platoons, commanded by Lieutenants Friese and Stöhr, were attached for the mission.

From positions northwest of Sielun, situated approximately 5 km from Różan, Collin’s company and the battalion it formed part of would attack. The attack would unfold along the road to the west of Sielun and Różan. After crossing a creek, the battalion would advance to a point west of Różan, where Collin’s company would turn left and attack two forts numbered 2 and 3 by the Germans.

After instructing his subordinates, Collin mounted a tank. The regiment had been in action from the very first day of the war and had suffered losses; several tanks had either been knocked out by enemy fire or suffered breakdowns. Usually, Collin commanded from a specifically designed command tank based on the Panzer I chassis. A fixed super-structure had replaced the revolving turret to accommodate a radio operator and sets for receiving and transmitting radio messages. In the original Panzer I, the interior was so crammed that only a receiving set could be accommodated. Such a limitation was, of course, wholly unacceptable to a commander, but it had sufficed for basic training and the Panzer I had been envisaged for such purposes. However, Collin’s command tank had been damaged and taken to a workshop. He thus chose to lead from a Panzer II, whose vexed commander had to climb into a Panzer I.

Like Collin’s normal command tank, the Panzer II had a crew of three, including the commander. The driver was positioned forward in the hull in both vehicles, but the tasks to be performed in the turret differed. In the Panzer II, the commander had to aim the gun in addition to his other duties. The radio operator doubled as loader of the 2-cm gun. This was far from ideal, but the small size of the Panzer I and Panzer II precluded better solutions.

Favorable fall weather had characterized the previous days. Except for some mist at dawn, visibility had been very good and the ground remained dry. Good weather reigned on September 5 too, when Collin’s company began to move south. The commanders saw the sun ahead as they moved with their heads up through the turret hatches. They proceeded somewhat cautiously, perhaps remembering the debacle near Mława on the first day of the war.

After advancing slightly more than 1 km, Collin’s company reached higher ground, where a halt was ordered. He observed the terrain closely through his field glasses. No sign of the enemy was seen, but fires were evidently raging in Różan. The church had been spared up to now, but Collin saw the flames reach it. Some of the villages closer to Collin’s company were also ablaze.

While Collin considered what might lie ahead, he also glanced at the flanks. To the right, he could see tanks from Captain Hoheisel’s company move forward into positions in line with his. Hoheisel’s unit was also mainly equipped with Panzer Is and IIs, supplemented by a few heavier tanks. Crackling voices in the headphones interrupted Collin’s thoughts. The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, had called for Hoheisel, but as all the company commanders used the same frequency, Collin overheard the conversation. The problem discussed was the poor reconnaissance, which meant that it was not clear where the creek ahead could be crossed. After a brief conversation, von Gersdorff decided to send the heavy tanks—Panzer IIIs and IVs—forward to reconnoiter the creek, which was difficult to see due to its wooded banks.

Perhaps the Germans had hoped to reach the creek undetected, but the large dust clouds created by the tanks would almost certainly arouse the suspicion of the Poles. No fire was directed at the Germans, but the dust must have been visible from a great distance. To make matters worse, the German commander began to despair as no ford had been found, and thus the entire attack might stall.

It was too early to call off the attack. As they were not fired upon, the German commanders dismounted from their tanks and reconnoitered the creek on foot. Collin instructed Second Lieutenant Stöhr to guard the flank with his platoon while the search for a ford proceeded. Despite their efforts, the Germans could not find a suitable ford, but there was perhaps still one chance. Collin believed the creek could be crossed at a particular spot provided the muddy banks were reinforced. The tankers quickly had to stand in as lumberjacks. Armed with axes, they attacked the trees along the creek. The heat and sunshine made them sweat as the strenuous work proceeded, but after one hour they had reinforced the banks sufficiently to allow the tanks to cross the water barrier.

The men were allowed a rest before the tanks crossed, while some of the officers crossed the creek on foot and approached a haystack to observe the terrain ahead. Major von Gersdorff, Captain Hoheisel and Captain Collin could clearly see the landscape in front of them. They saw the two windmills that marked the entrance to the town on their maps, thus concluding that they were on the right track. Forts number 1 and 2 were supposed to be located close to the windmills, according to the information available to the German officers. When looking to the left, they could also see infantry from the SS-Regiment Deutschland advancing towards Różan. Artillery shells began to explode around the windmills.

Major von Gersdorff issued attack orders. Collin’s company would attack on the left wing. There was still time for Collin to personally instruct his platoon commanders, except Stöhr, whose flanking mission had taken him too far away. At the haystack, Collin gave the necessary orders and pointed out the targets that could be seen from there.

Supported by the tree trunks, Collin’s tanks negotiated the muddy banks and took up positions south of the creek, waiting for the final attack order. They did not have to wait for long. At around 2 p.m., the order “Forward!” was heard in the headsets. The drivers revved the engines, which roared loudly. The squeaking sound from the tracks indicated that the attack had begun. The terrain ahead was rather open, but undulating. The tankers had to navigate carefully to avoid exposing their vehicles unnecessarily.

The German formation successfully reached a position west of the forts they were to capture. They stopped here as buildings, haystacks and vegetation might have been concealing Polish defenders. There were no friendly forces ahead of the German tanks and so there was no risk of fratricide as they opened fire against suspected targets. Collin tried to observe the effectiveness of the fire, but it was difficult to judge if it had had the intended effect. Unfortunately, Collin’s gun malfunctioned. Evidently dust had caused some part of the mechanism to jam.

Suddenly Collin was ordered to attack immediately. The intractable gun had not yet been attended to; armed only with a machine gun, Collin moved forward with the other tanks in his company. Very soon, a Polish antitank gun opened fire on the German left flank. Lieutenant Schelle immediately ordered his gunner to return fire. The dull and yet sharp sound from the gun revealed that a 7.5-cm shell left the barrel. The exploding shell threw up earth, stones and debris, but, as is common in war, it was difficult to know with certainty what effect the bursting shell had resulted in. Schelle remained stationary and continued to fire while the other tanks thrust forward.

Soon, von Gersdorff countermanded the attack order. Instead, Collin was to disengage and attack further south. Such a maneuver was not uncomplicated, but Collin managed to assemble his company and set it in motion southwards. The tanks crossed the northernmost of the two roads that ran west from Różan. At that moment, they took fire from Polish positions closer to the town.

Lieutenant Parow drove past Collin and took up a firing position. Collin watched as Parow fired three or four rounds before ordering his driver to continue forward. With the malfunctioning gun pointing straight forward, Collin’s tank began to move, but almost immediately Collin saw a shell hit the turret of Parow’s tank. Collin had hardly grasped what had happened before four men bailed out of the stricken tank and took cover. Another shell hit Parow’s tank within a second. Collin drove closer to the damaged tank to identify the men who had abandoned it. He first saw the loader, then the radio operator. Slightly later, he saw Private Köhler bandaging a bleeding man who Collin recognized as Private Boehlke. At this moment, Collin realized that Parow had been killed.

The sight of Parow’s damaged tank, as well as the men who had abandoned it, paralyzed Collin. Köhler, who attended the wounded Boehlke, had the presence of mind to wave Collin forward as his tank was in the line of fire of the Polish antitank weapons. Despite this, Collin remained numb until he had somehow absorbed the sight of Parow’s tank and the four crewmen. Not until then could he bring himself to order the driver forward, thereby continuing the attack past the second of the two roads from Różan.

Suddenly, an NCO from the SS-Regiment Deutschland and a few of his men jumped aboard the tank. Collin warned them against this, but they took no notice of his advice; instead, the NCO asked Collin to close the hatch so he could obtain an unobstructed field of fire. “Madmen but brave,” Collin and the radio operator, Guhl, said to each other.

An extended period of firing and short movements followed. Collin cursed the machine gun that malfunctioned. Guhl provided some consolation by handing Collin a lit cigarette, and the driver, Dörfle, offered him schnapps from his hip flask. Subsequently, Collin realized that the SS-NCO had disappeared. Guhl believed that he had been hit.

Collins finally passed fort 3 and approached fort 4, which meant that he and several other German tankers reached a point where they could look down into the depression where the river Narew flowed. They could see the road bridge and the open terrain on the eastern side of the river. Collin opened the turret hatch and found an SS-lieutenant on his tank. Except for four other SS-men on board a Panzer IV, no other infantry seemed to have accompanied Collin’s tanks.

Collin’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted by Polish fire. Despite the crammed interior of the tank, Collin ensured that the SS-officer came into the protection afforded by the thin armor of the Panzer III. The exhausted infantry officer was offered a cigarette and some schnapps. Unfortunately, he became entangled in the cable to Collin’s headset and pulled it off. Collin had hardly managed to get his equipment in order before another order crackled in the headphones; his company was ordered to attack towards Różan, northward along the river—a mission he deemed unsuitable.

It was quite late, and the sun had begun to set. It was so low that Collin was blinded when he turned his face west. Despite the poor visibility, the attack would continue. Collin’s company proceeded, passing an obstacle, but then Polish antitank weapons opened up at long range. Fortunately for Collin, the Polish fire was short. He turned the turret clockwise, but suddenly he heard the SS-officer behind him moan. The officer was being squeezed by the revolving turret basket. At that same moment, the engine coughed and died. Collin was nearly overwhelmed by his rising fears, but he and his crew managed to connect the reserve fuel.

The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, drove along side Collin’s stationary tank and shouted, “Why don’t you move?” A moment later, Collin’s driver started the engine and received orders from Collin to drive towards the dust cloud surrounding the other tanks. He objected as the dust made visibility very poor; at most, the driver would accept moving forward at a very slow pace. Collin urged him on and said that he would give the driver ample warning of obstacles as he could see more easily from his position in the turret. The tank resembled a drunken elephant staggering forward, but the attack was effectively aborted. Collin had to drive hard to catch up with his platoons, which headed east. Thus the German unit passed along the Polish forts, which began to fire at the flank of the tanks.

Collin finally caught up with one of his light platoons, but he had no idea where to find the rest of his company. He saw a few heavy tanks, but he did not know whether they belonged to his company or another. There was also a risk of friendly fire as the dust accumulated on the tanks to such an extent that the white crosses of the German tanks were hard to see. Collin’s fears were soon realized, but not as he had anticipated; one of the heavy German tanks opened fire on German infantry, but the shell did not hit. Collin raised his fist and drove in front of the muzzle of the other tank to stop it from firing.

At this stage, Collin and his company had again reached the two roads running west from Różan, which clearly showed that they were heading back. The dust made it impossible to see Parow’s damaged tank, but Collin could at least see the battalion commander’s tank driving down into a depression and disappearing. Collin ordered one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Stöhr, to follow the battalion commander. One moment later, the ground shuddered as artillery shells exploded around the tanks. The tanks increased their speed in an attempt to escape north.

When Collin let his eyes drift to the right, he suddenly saw something that made him doubt the accuracy of his senses—German tanks formed up as if they were on a peacetime parade. Collin tried to make them move by using the radio, but this was met without any apparent success. The tanks finally assumed a formation better-suited to the realities of war and proceeded to the area where the creek could be forded.

As the evening became ever darker, Collin reached the creek and realized how exhausted he was after more than five hours of uninterrupted action. Gradually, he came to realize that the battalion had suffered dearly. Some of the light tanks were towed by their heavy brothers, but eleven tanks that had been hit were left behind. Additionally, some that had suffered mechanical breakdowns or had become stuck in difficult terrain remained behind. Those still capable of moving forded the creek in the light from burning houses. Some exhausted SS-infantry rode on the tanks.

After crossing the creek, the battalion created a hedgehog defense, but it soon received orders to move to the area west of Sielun, from where the attack had begun. Collin found the path to the staging area far too winding—his tank was very low on fuel—but eventually they reached it. When the arduous journey had been completed, the officers gathered and discussed the casualties and the pointlessness of the attack while the men bivouacked. Food was offered, but few of the officers and soldiers had much of an appetite after the depressing experience. The exhausted tankers were sent to some barns to sleep, while the baggage men defended the area during the night.

The Battle of Różan featured but one of the many examples of a German army that went into war without being properly prepared. At Różan, light tanks attacked fortifications, while the coordination between tanks, infantry and artillery was very poor. In this particular case, the Panzer division had been formed at very short notice by putting together components from the Army as well as the SS. This did not facilitate coordination, but Army divisions also suffered from shortcomings.