German Forces Post-Kursk

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.

The southern sector of the eastern front saw far more armored action than the other two in the months following Kursk. The Red Army’s performance was also exponentially better. Most of the best Soviet tank generals had been sent to that theater to see off the Kursk offensive and to prepare for the series of strikes expected to—finally—destroy German fighting power in south Russia.

It began on July 17. First Panzer Army and the re-created 6th Army initially held positions along the Mius River. Manstein planned a coun terstrike, using Das Reich and Leibstandarte to stun the Soviets on 1st Panzer Army’s front, then shifting them to 6th Army’s sector to join Totenkopf and 3rd Panzer in a larger concentric attack. When Hitler forbade it, Manstein borrowed the words of General von Seydlitz from two centuries earlier: His head was at the Führer’s disposal, but while he held command he must be allowed to use it.

Eventually, reinforced by a total of five panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, 1st Panzer Army did mount a tactically successful counterattack. But Manstein still faced over two and a half million men, 50,000 guns, 2,400 tanks, almost 3,000 aircraft. Purists sometimes suggest that Stavka should have used this overwhelming superiority to generate battles of encirclement, panzer style. But Stalin remembered all too clearly how Manstein had thwarted a similar approach after Stalingrad. At front and army command levels there also seems to have been a near-visceral desire to smash an enemy that had so often embarrassed them, and to do it with strength the Germans could not hope to match. Even airborne forces were thrown into the operation.

Ninth Army, 4th Panzer Army, and Detachment Kempf, rechristened 8th Army but with the same resources, paid the bill. Model secured Hitler’s permission for a fighting retreat from the Orel salient as part of the general withdrawal of Army Group Center. Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts by the Soviet onslaught, each fighting its own desperate battle. Useful reinforcements were few—the 8th Panzer Division arrived with no tanks. A staff officer at Army High Command confided—but only to his diary—that the end might come before the new year. Manstein had to fight Hitler almost as fiercely as the Russians to secure permission to do anything but “hold, hold, hold!” Guderian cattily observed that Manstein was inappropriately tentative in the Führer’s presence. In fact Army Group South’s commander not only insisted that disaster awaited were he not allowed to fall back to the line of the Dnieper River, but on September 14 he declared that he would issue the orders the next day on his own responsibility. Hitler conceded defeat.

The success of the retreat depended on the panzers. Materially Manstein was playing a handful of threes. In contrast to Kursk, there were few chances to recover and repair damaged tanks. Casualty evacuation was random. Units constantly on the move meant stragglers were usually lost for good. It took two weeks to reach the Dnieper. By that time Army Group South counted fewer than 300 serviceable tanks and assault guns. The average infantry division’s frontline strength was around a thousand men. Its average front was twelve to thirteen miles.

Even Tigers felt the strain. In the course of the campaign, Army Group South’s single battalion of Panzer VIs was increased to four. But their commanders complained the Tigers were victimized by their reputation: thrown in piecemeal, shuttled from sector to sector, denied time to maintain the complex and sensitive vehicle. Too often they were used as mobile pillboxes. Too often their infantry support was nonexistent or ineffective.

The tankers ascribed that last to poor training and low morale. From the infantry’s perspective, it was often common sense. The Tiger was essentially different from the familiar assault guns, whose low silhouettes and maneuverability enabled them to seek ambush positions and use cover—almost like a Landser on treads. The Tigers were big. They drew fire like magnets and attracted Soviet tanks like flies to manure. Any smart rifleman—and slow thinkers had short life spans in the autumn of 1943—was likely to avoid them rather than take the risk of providing close-in protection.

As they fell back, the Germans scorched the earth. That is a polite military euphemism for a swath of devastation covering hundreds of square miles, sparing nothing and no one except by accident. “They are burning the bread,” Vatutin admonished his men. Few Soviet soldiers did not know what hunger felt like. Small wonder the Russians succeeded in throwing bridgeheads across the river. Small wonder that the Germans’ best chance of holding was to destroy them before they could metastasize. And small wonder that they failed.

On November 3 the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Dnieper in force around Kiev, on Manstein’s northern flank. Fourth Panzer Army’s few remaining AFVs foundered in the Soviet tide. The 25th Panzer Division, sent to restore the situation, had spent most of its existence in the peaceful surroundings of Norway. Botched transportation schedules temporarily made it a panzer division with no tracked vehicles at all. Yet the division managed, somehow, to halt an entire tank army and set the stage for another of Manstein’s signature counterattacks.

This one would be made without Hoth, summarily dismissed by Hitler for his failure to hold the river line. His replacement represented no loss in ability. Erhard Raus had been tempered in the front lines from Leningrad to Kursk. Tactical command of the counterattack was in the arguably even more capable hands of Hermann Balck, now commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps. Even the weather obliged, freezing the mud to stability by the time Balck went in.

Hitler had rejected Manstein and Guderian’s proposals to concentrate every tank in the southern sector for a short, massive blow. Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps counted only 200 tanks and assault guns, but they were manned by some of the Wehrmacht’s best, divisions like 1st Panzer, 7th Panzer, and Leibstandarte. For three weeks they ran rings around the baffled Rotarmisten. Balck’s corps was on the point of executing 1941-style encirclement when a captured map showed the intended pocket contained no fewer than seven Soviet corps. Even for the intrepid Balck, that was a bit much. And despite virtuoso German performances from corps headquarters to tank crews, the Soviet bridgehead was still intact.

Further south, 1st Panzer Army and Army Group A, whose sector had been relatively quiet since the withdrawal from the Caucasus, came under increasing pressure in mid-August. Initially it was possible to plug gaps and secure flanks by using available AFVs as emergency relief. But when an eagerly awaited panzer division turned out to consist of seven tanks and an under strength panzer grenadier regiment, operational reality had an unpleasant way of unmistakably asserting itself. The situation was worsened in 1st Panzer Army’s sector, where Hitler had ordered an already dangerously deep salient where the Dnieper bent west at Zaporozhye to be expanded to a bridgehead—not for military reasons but to protect a dam producing electricity described as vital for the industry of occupied Ukraine, a dam that was also widely understood to symbolize Soviet achievement.

The extended deployment required to sustain this propaganda illusion drove Manstein to near-wordless fury. It took only four days for the Red Army to overrun the bridgehead in mid-October. The resources it had absorbed were unavailable to resist a far larger attack against 6th Army on 1st Panzer’s right: over a half-million men and 800 tanks against a fifth of the number of armored vehicles, in wide-open country. By the beginning of November the Crimea was isolated and Army Group A cut in half.

The Russians were learning how to keep moving tactically and operationally, and figuring out how to coordinate their movements on a theater level. On October 15 another sledgehammer shattered 1st Panzer Army’s left wing, and in 10 days covered the 100 miles to Krivoi Rog. On October 24 a second front-level offensive broke out of another Dnieper bridgehead a few miles south of the first. Mackensen, anything but an alarmist, reported the gap could not be closed, that his exhausted men had no more left in them. Hitler responded by giving Manstein control of 1st Panzer Army and a temporary free hand.

This time Manstein planned a movement. A panzer corps headquarters rotated from his army group through 1st Panzer Army’s rear zone into position on its left flank. It took command of Totenkopf, of 24th Panzer Division, in Italy since its reformation after Stalingrad, and of 14th Panzer Division, another Stalingrad revival currently shaking down in France. On August 28 this hastily assembled force drove southeast, into the Soviet rear toward Krivoi Rog. Mackensen’s LVII Panzer Corps attacked in the opposite direction two days later. Both operations took the Russians by surprise and succeeded in linking up to cut off the Soviet spearheads and restabilize the sector.

It was another neat local victory, and Mackensen’s last fight in Russia. On November 4 he was transferred to Italy, replaced by a no less capable man. Hans Hube had lost an arm in World War I, led a panzer corps with sufficient distinction to be flown out of Stalingrad, and done well against the British and Americans in Sicily. He had a reputation for willpower and energy. He would need both in the face of still another coordinated Soviet offensive in what again seemed overwhelming force.

The Soviet Union had paid for its successes against Army Group South with over 1.5 million casualties, a quarter of them dead or missing. The German front still held—barely—but its defenders were so tired and apathetic that in the words of one report, they no longer cared whether they were shot by the Russians or their own officers. And this was the elite Grossdeutschland Division, which enjoyed its own personal battalion of Tigers.

On December 24 the Red Army struck again: four fronts, 2.25 million men, 2,600 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army was again hammered into fragments, each making its own way west as best it could. Manstein almost by reflex saw the best response as shortening the front and concentrating his armor for a counterattack, as he had done after Stalingrad. When Hitler refused, Manstein, on his own responsibility, pulled 1st Panzer Army out of the line and redeployed it on 4th Panzer’s right. Hube had his own III Panzer Corps, XLVI Panzer Corps transferred in haste from France, and a provisional heavy tank regiment with a battalion each of Tigers and Panthers, plus some attached infantry and armored artillery. His counterattack cost the Russians a few tens of thousands of men and around 700 tanks. It was a victory—but only in the most limited tactical sense.

The experiences of Mackensen and Hube showed clearly that even in reasonable strength the panzers could do no more than restore local situations. Both counterattacks, moreover, had depended for half their striking power on divisions transferred from the west. How long would it be before Allied initiatives made that impossible?

Any doubts that the balance in armored war had definitively shifted should have been dispelled by the Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans still held a 100-mile stretch of the Dnieper north of that city. Hitler projected its use as a springboard for a proposed spring offensive and forbade withdrawal. On January 24, two Soviet fronts hit the sector with a third of a million men, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in proportion. Inside of a week a half dozen divisions, including what was left of Viking, were cut off in the city of Korsun: around 60,000 men. Their armor support totaled two dozen tanks and half as many assault guns.

Hitler, remembering Demyansk, ordered the pocket to hold and promised supply from the air. Those melodies were too familiar. Manstein, well aware of the morale-sapping fear throughout his army group that the pocket would become another Stalingrad, planned a major relief operation using no fewer than nine panzer divisions. Initially every one of the divisions he proposed to use was already engaged elsewhere in Russia, and one was literally stuck fast trying to move through early spring mud. The four divisions finally assembled under 8th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps had a combined total of 3,800 men in their eight panzer grenadier regiments. Their progress was predictably limited.

That left it up to Hube. His strike force for the unusually domestically named Operation Wanda—III Panzer Corps—included 1st, 16th, and 17th Panzer Divisions, Leibstandarte, and the heavy regiment. But the Panzer IV’s Tigers and Panthers bogged tread-deep in mud the wide-tracked T-34s traversed with relative ease. Fuel consumption spiraled; breakdowns multiplied; supply vehicles were immobilized. By February 15 it was clear that the pocket could not be relieved. Instead Manstein ordered a breakout in the direction of the mired III Panzer Corps, code word “Freedom.”

Orders were to leave anyone unable to march. For one of the few times in Wehrmacht history, something like a mutiny took place. Wounded who could be moved were loaded onto every available vehicle. With its seven tanks and three assault guns, Viking took the point and carried the retreat through the first Russian defenses. But III Panzer Corps was unable to fight its way to the designated meeting point and unable to contact the pocket by radio. Command and control were eroding even before the Germans entered a Russian combined-arms killing zone around dawn on February 16. For over four hours Russian tanks and cavalrymen chased fugitives through the ravines and across open ground. This was one of the few verifiable occasions where T-34s systematically ran over fleeing men. And the killing was likely both payback and pleasure.

Around 36,000 men, including 7,500 wounded, eventually reached III Panzer Corps’s lines. Eighty-three hundred of them belonged to Viking and the Walloon SS brigade attached to it. Total casualties in the pocket amounted to around 20,000: no bagatelle, but a long way from Stalingrad. First Panzer Army’s loss of over 150 AFVs reflected its inability to move immobilized tanks and repair breakdowns, rather than any sudden forward leap in the effectiveness of Soviet armor. Nevertheless, though Goebbels’s propaganda machine described a great victory, the battle for the Cherkassy Pocket highlighted the continuing decline of Hitler’s panzers from a strategic and operational force to a tactical instrument.

To maintain and restore even temporarily Army Group South’s sector of the Eastern Front in the months after Kursk had required the commitment of most of the army’s combat-ready armor. That commitment, moreover, was increasingly ad hoc. A “panzer division” in the German order of battle was increasingly likely to be on the ground with as many tanks as could be made operational combined in a single battalion; the mechanized panzer grenadier battalion and the reconnaissance battalion, both brought to something like table of organization strength by transfers from the remaining panzer grenadiers; the half-tracked pioneer company; and a few self-propelled guns. These remnants were repeatedly thrown in against odds of ten to one or higher without time to absorb replacements and work in new officers. They might bear famous names and numbers. They were not what they once were. But then the same could be said about an entire Reich approaching the point of unraveling.

The tipping point on the Eastern Front was even more clearly indicated in March 1944. The Korsun-Cherkassy breakout enraged Stalin, but was not even a speed bump to the continuing Russian offensive. Zukhov had taken over, and his hands drove the spearheads that tore 50-mile gaps in the front, left 1st Panzer Army facing in the wrong direction, and created within days a pocket containing over 200,000 men, fighting soldiers, their rear echelons, and the detritus of an occupation. Twenty-two divisions were represented. One had only 600 men and not a single antitank gun, and that was all too typical. The isolated Germans counted 50 assault guns and 43 tanks, some of them unable to move for lack of fuel.

One veteran spoke of “clean undershirt time,” when one looked for anything white enough to make a surrender flag. Hitler insisted on “holding what there is to hold.” Manstein informed Hitler that he intended to order a breakout on his own responsibility. Hitler temporized to show who was in charge, then agreed.

Manstein’s plan was by now almost conventional: reinforcements from France, this time the refreshed II SS Panzer Corps, to attack from the outside; 1st Panzer Army to drive west toward the SS spearheads. Radio interceptions—midlevel Red Army communications security had not progressed too far since 1914—helped Manstein time the breakout. Hube brought another idea to the table. His experience at Stalingrad and Cherkassy had convinced him of the risks involved in depending on a relief force. If one appeared and made contact, all was well and good. If necessary, however, Hube was prepared to fight his own way through in a “traveling pocket.”

Hube’s plan and its execution are still studied in war colleges. He had four corps headquarters, three of them panzer. He had elements of 10 panzer divisions—all the command elements he needed. The problem was how best to organize the operation. Given overall Russian superiority in the sector, conventional wisdom suggested a strong armored spearhead. The problem was that the tankers might move ahead too fast and too far, leaving the rest of the army to fend for itself—a polite euphemism for being overrun and destroyed. Instead Hube did the opposite. He organized the breakout in two parallel columns. Each had a vanguard of infantry supported by assault guns. The panzers formed the rear guard, in a position to move forward and support the advance forces when necessary.

Hube commanded the breakout in person. He had kept his men active in the days of preparation, sublimating feelings of despair and panic. Straggling and desertion were minimal. Zukhov’s threat to shoot every third prisoner if the pocket did not capitulate by April 2 was not generally known, but would have surprised few. That the Soviet marshal later restricted proposed victims to senior officers was limited comfort to anyone aware of the concession.

Hube originally wanted to break out to the south and head for Romania. Manstein insisted on a western direction despite the longer distance and the numerous river crossings it entailed. He had the senior rank and the final word. On March 27, 1st Panzer Army started west. It had the advantages of surprise; sluggish enemy reaction enabled the rear guard to close up to the main columns relatively unmolested. Hube kept his men closed up and moving. Improvised airstrips enabled the Luftwaffe to bring in fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded—a major continuing boost to morale and a tribute to “Aunt Ju,” the Ju-52 transports that could land and take off from ground that was unusable by even the American Dakotas. On April 6, 1st Panzer’s spearheads made contact with elements of II SS Panzer Corps. A few days later its divisions were in action on a new defense line that held this time. Hube, awarded the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, was killed in an air crash on his way to receive it.

His death was at once irony and paradigm. Hans Hube had conducted an epic, indeed heroic operation—but in the wrong direction. First Panzer Army brought out its tanks and its wounded at a cost of 6,000 dead and missing. Its anabasis bought time, but to what purpose? “For slow exhaustion and grim retreat/For a wasted hope and a sure defeat.” The words of an American captured on Bataan in 1942 might well serve as an epigram—or an epitaph—for the saga of Army Group South in the endgame months of the Russo-German War.

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Generalmajor Meinrad von Lauchert

Dates: 29 August 1905 in Potsdam – died 4 December 1987 in Stuttgart

A highly decorated Generalmajor in the Wehrmacht during World War II. He was also a recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves was awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership.

Von Lauchert entered on active duty as a Fahnenjunker (Officer Cadet) on 1 April 1924. By the eve of World War II, he had advanced to the rank of Hauptmann (Captain) and commanded the 2nd Company of Panzer Regiment 35. The first day of fighting in Poland brought his elevation to battalion commander after the previous commander, Hauptmann Stenglein, received a serious head wound – a common injury for armour commanders.

Lauchert served with Panzer Regiment 35 of the 4th Panzer Division throughout the Polish and French Campaigns. During the first drive into Russia in the summer of 1941, he earned the Knight’s Cross to the Iron Cross.

Lauchert’s skill and energy as a Panzer leader caught the attention of such armour notables as Heinz Guderian and Heinrich Eberbach. When Germany developed a new tank to regain its lost superiority on the battlefield, Major Lauchert was chosen to form and train the first two battalions of Panthers.

Hitler ordered the delay of the 1943 summer offensive until Lauchert’s Panthers arrived to spearhead the southern arm of the attack. Unfortunately, the failure of the commanders whom Lauchert was supporting to familiarize themselves with this new weapon caused the Panther’s debut at the Battle of Kursk to be less than decisive. Lauchert continued to command a battle group of Panthers after Kursk, was promoted to Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) and eventually was named as the commander of Panzer Regiment 15 of the 11th Panzer Division. While with this unit, he earned the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.

In the summer of 1944, Lauchert was called upon to command Panzer Brigade 101, one of several new armoured units hastily formed to restore the German Army’s precarious situation in the East. As part of Panzerverband von Strachwitz and later as its commander, Lauchert helped restore the land connection between Army Groups North and Centre.

Just one day before the start of the Battle of the Bulge, Oberst (Colonel) Lauchert was tasked with taking charge of the 2nd Panzer Division. His division punched through the American lines on 16 December 1944 and by the time the offensive had literally run out of fuel Lauchert’s men had achieved the deepest penetration into Allied-held territory of any of the German formations.

Afterwards, Lauchert’s division fought a continuous rearguard action against the US forces as they pushed him back across the German frontier. During the fighting in February and March 1945, the 2nd Panzer Division had ceased to exist as much more than a marker on the map.

By the end of March, as the remnants of his division were backed up against the Rhine without a secure crossing point, Generalmajor Lauchert ordered a breakout eastwards in small groups. Lauchert swam the Rhine with a small number of his staff and, apparently fed up with the hopelessness of the situation, quit the war and walked home to Bamberg, the home garrison of Panzer Regiment 35.

After the war, he was imprisoned for trial at Nuremberg for war crimes, but was found not guilty and released.

Later Career

He was technical advisor on the 1965 movie Battle of the Bulge and is featured in the “Making of the Battle of the Bulge” featurette produced in 1965.

Awards

Iron Cross (1939)

2nd Class (22 September 1939)

1st Class (23 October 1939)

Panzer Badge in Silver

Eastern Front Medal

Honour Roll Clasp of the Army (8 August 1941)

German Cross in Gold (5 September 1943)

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves

Knight’s Cross on 8 September 1941 as Major and commander of the I./Panzer-Regiment 35

396th Oak Leaves on 12 February 1944 as Oberstleutnant and commander of Panzer-Regiment 15

Mentioned in the Wehrmachtbericht (25 October 1944)

The Opening Round of the Battle of Britain I

Barry Spicer is a celebrated aviation artist from Adelaide, Australia. Barry considers himself lucky to be able to do something he loves, and his fascination in aviation goes back to his childhood. At the age of 6, his parents took him to see the film “The Battle of Britain” and was so inspired by the sight of the graceful but deadly aeroplanes that he turned his already established pastime of drawing to aircraft. Since then he has been fascinated by flight and just about anything that flies which is evident in his finished works, be they drawings or oil paintings.
This recent work entitled “Combat Over the Channel” captures a dramatic Battle of Britain dogfight between a pair of Bf 109s and Hurricanes over the Channel coastline.

The largest attack to date was carried out by waves of He111s – 16 of I/KG27, 12 of II/KG27, 12 of III/KG27 and 10 of I/KG4, 11 of II/KG4 and 10 of III/KG4 – on the night of 18/19 June, the Home Office Intelligence Summary revealing the extent of the raids and the damage inflicted during the period 18:00 on 18 June to 06:00 on 19 June:

Coastal districts from Middleborough to Portsmouth were under warning and sirens were sounded in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Huntingdonshire and Kent during the night. London was under yellow warning during the period, and so was the Barrow-in-Furness district on the South-West Coast. Some bombs dropped in the North-Eastern Region, and, a substantial number in the North Midland Region; the chief damage, however, was done at Cambridge, where houses were demolished and nine people were killed, at Southend, where houses and a boys’ school were damaged, and to oil installations Canvey Island. Incendiary and high explosive bombs were used. Ten civilian deaths [in total] and 26 people injured have been reported.

KG27 headed for the Midlands while East Anglia bore the brunt of KG4’s raids as bombers targeted RAF stations in Suffolk and Norfolk. Warned of the approaching enemy aircraft, Blenheim night fighters of 29 Squadron from RAF Debden were ordered off, while a lone Spitfire of 19 Squadron flown by Flt Sgt Jack Steere was scrambled from RAF Duxford at 23:15. At about the same time more Blenheim night fighters of 23 Squadron were taking-off from RAF Wittering. Heinkel 5J+GA of Stab/KG4 flown by Ltn Erich Simon with Oblt Heinz-Georg Corpus as observer led the way on a pre-attack reconnaissance, and was followed by the main force flying in sections at intervals. The first of these reached Clacton at 23:00, and 15 minutes later another was illuminated by searchlights, at which the crew released their bombs. Three exploded in nearby Holland-on-Sea, damaging houses in King’s Cliff Avenue and Medina Road. Another Heinkel jettisoned its bombs over Southend, where one of the thirteen casualties later died. By now the leading section of three Heinkels was approaching Bury St Edmunds, but east of the Suffolk market town they were intercepted by a Blenheim of 29 Squadron flown by Sqn Ldr John McLean. They proved too fast for the Blenheim, one Heinkel opening fire on its pursuer without effect. This, or another, jettisoned its bombs, which fell at Rougham Rectory and near its churchyard.

Another Staffel crossed the coast at Sheringham, near where Sgt Alan Close in a 23 Squadron Blenheim (L1458/S) engaged a Heinkel held in searchlights, only to be shot down by return fire. Close was killed but his gunner LAC Laurence Karasek managed to bale out. The Blenheim crashed in flames at Terrington St Clement. A second Blenheim (YP-L), flown by Flt Lt Myles Duke-Woolley (with AC Derek Bell as gunner) was soon in the area and engaged the same Heinkel – 5J+DM of Stab II/KG4:

00:45. Observed a ball of fire, which took to be a Blenheim fighter in flames, break away from behind the tail of the E/A. I climbed to engage this E/A and attacked from below the tail after the searchlights were extinguished. I close to a range of 50 yards and opened fire. E/A returned fire and appeared to throttle back suddenly. My own speed was 130-140mph and I estimate the E/A slowed to 110mph. I delivered five attacks with front guns and during these my air gunner fired seven bursts at various ranges. After the last front gun attack my gunner reported that the E/A’s port engine was on fire. As my starboard engine was now u/s I broke off the engagement and returned to base, where several bullet holes were found in the wings and fuselage, including cannon strikes in the starboard wing and rear fuselage.

One bullet had lodged in Derek Bell’s parachute pack, fortunately without harming him. The Heinkel finally ditched in shallow water in Blakeney Creek on the north Norfolk coast. Coastguards captured the crew, Major Dietrich Fr von Massenbach (the Gruppenkommandeur), Oblt Ulrich Jordan, Obfw Max Leimer and Fw Karl Amberger, who was severely wounded. A subsequent news report revealed:

Two local auxiliary coastguard patrols saw an aircraft in obvious difficulties, off the coast. Flames were issuing from one of its engines, and it crashed in shallow water close to the beach. They gave the alarm and ran to the beach. They intercepted the crew of the aircraft, a Heinkel bomber, as they swam and waded ashore with the help of their rubber dinghy. It seemed at first that the crew, consisting of four men, would show fight. The auxiliary coastguard men thereupon covered the Germans with their firearms. The Germans shouted and surrendered. They were searched and disarmed and detained until the arrival of the military.

By now, other bombers had reached RAF Stradishall, home of Wellingtons, bombs falling around the village of Hargrave, six miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds. The rectory was hit and the vicar’s daughter injured by flying glass. More bombs fell on Lodge Farm, Rede and in Fersfield Street, Bressingham, without causing further casualties. RAF Marham in Norfolk was attacked by a lone bomber, the bombs missing the airfield and exploding near King’s Lynn, while RAF Mildenhall also escaped damage when the intended bombs fell near the village of Culford, four miles north-west of Bury St Edmunds. Bombs also fell near the sugar beet factory – one of the largest in Europe – on the outskirts of the town, slightly injuring two residents of Westfield Cottages in Hollow Road.

In addition to the Blenheims searching for the intruders, which now included aircraft from 604 Squadron, more Spitfires had been scrambled by 19 Squadron. Moments before midnight, a Heinkel released its bombs over Cambridge, where two bombs demolished eight houses in Vicarage Terrace, killing nine persons while another ten were admitted to hospital, three of whom were seriously injured. Among the dead were five children. Bombs also fell at West Fen, Ely, killing one civilian and 30 cattle, and elsewhere in the area. AA guns at RAF Feltwell engaged the raiders but claimed no successes.

Three Heinkels were credited to 29 Squadron’s Blenheims, Plt Off John Barnwell (L6636) engaging one illuminated by searchlights over Debden, which reportedly crashed with its starboard engine on fire. However, Barnwell’s aircraft was hit by return fire and crashed in the sea off the Stour Estuary. He and his gunner Sgt Long were killed. Plt Off Lionel Kells in L1508 fired at another Heinkel and believed that he had shot this down off Felixstowe. This was possibly a 4.Staffel machine that returned damaged by fighters during a sortie to attack Mildenhall airfield. One of Fw Heinz Schäfer’s crew was badly wounded in the stomach and on return was admitted to hospital in Lille. Shortly thereafter, Plt Off Jack Humphries in L1375 damaged another Heinkel near Debden, but his own aircraft was hit by return fire and crash-landed at Debden. His opponent was possibly Fw Erich Gregor’s Stab I machine that belly-landed, badly damaged, on a beach east of Calais on return. Gregor and his crew, Oblt Falk Willis (observer), Fw Karl Brucker and Uffz Josef Jochmann all survived unhurt although their aircraft was written off.

Meanwhile, Flt Lt Sailor Malan in a Spitfire of 74 Squadron encountered a Heinkel, a machine of 4./KG4 in which the Staffelkapitän Hptm Hermann Prochnow was flying. This was probably the aircraft previously engaged by Plt Off Barnwell. Malan pursued it to the coast and finally shot it down to crash into the sea near the Cork Light Vessel moored off Felixstowe. The captain and crew (Obfw Hermann Wojis, Uffz Franz Heyeres and Fw Richard Bunk) were killed and only the Staffelkapitän’s body was recovered. Malan’s subsequent combat report revealed:

During an air raid in the locality of Southend, various E/A were observed and held by searchlights for prolonged periods. On request of [74] Squadron I was allowed to take off with one Spitfire. I climbed towards E/A, which was making for the coast and held in searchlight beams at 8,000 feet. I positioned myself astern and opened fire at 200 yards and closed to 50 yards with one burst. Observed bullets entering E/A and had my windscreen covered in oil. Broke off to the left and immediately below as E/A spiralled out of beam.

The reconnaissance Heinkel – 5J+GA – was then engaged by Flt Lt Malan and crashed at Springfield Road in Chelmsford, ending up in the Bishop of Chelmsford’s garden at 00:30. Oblt Corpus, Obfw Walter Gross and Fw Walter Vick died in the crash, while Ltn Simon had managed to bale out. He was quickly captured. Malan’s report continued:

Climbed to 12,000 feet towards another E/A held by the searchlights on northerly course. Opened fire at 250 yards, taking good care not to overshoot his time. Gave five 2-second bursts and observed bullets entering all over E/A with slight deflection as he was turning to port. E/A emitted heavy smoke and I observed one parachute open very close. E/A went down in spiral dive. Searchlights and I followed him right down until he crashed in flames near Chelmsford.

As I approached target in each case, I flashed succession of dots on downward recognition light before moving into attack. I did not notice AA fire after I had done this. When following second E/A down, I switched on navigation lights for short time to help establish identity. Gave letter of period only once when returning at 3,000 feet from Chelmsford, when one searchlight searched for me. Cine-camera gun in action.

Raiders were reported in the Mildenhall and Honington areas, a salvo exploding a mile from the latter airfield, and, at 01:20, AA guns at RAF Wattisham opened fire while searchlights at Honington illuminated one Heinkel, whose gunner fired down the beams. At about the same time Flg Off John Petre, flying Spitfire L1032 of 19 Squadron, located a bomber near Newmarket. This was 5J+AM of 4./KG4, which then turned and headed towards RAF Honington. Petre opened fire, seeing smoke issue from a damaged engine, but had to sheer off hard to one side to avoid colliding with another aircraft that appeared alongside – a Blenheim – also firing at the Heinkel. At that moment, searchlights illuminated Petre’s Spitfire, allowing the Heinkel’s gunners to return accurate fire. The Spitfire, hit in the fuel tank, burst into flames. Petre was able to bale out but his face and hands were badly burned. On landing he was rushed to hospital in Bury St Edmunds. Meanwhile, his burning Spitfire hit the roof of Thurston House before crashing in its garden.

The Blenheim (K8687/X) was flown by Sqn Ldr Spike O’Brien of 23 Squadron. He opened fire, seeing smoke gushing from the Heinkel’s starboard engine, but had then lost control and went into a spin. The navigator Plt Off Cuthbert King-Clark – actually a qualified pilot flying to gain operational experience – baled out but was killed instantly when hit by a propeller. O’Brien baled out, landing safely, but the gunner Cpl David Little was killed in the crash. O’Brien reported:

Opened fire on E/A with our rear turret gun from below and in front as it was held by searchlights. The E/A turned to port and dived. I gave him several long bursts with the front guns from 50 to 100 yards range and saw clouds of smoke from the target’s starboard engine and a lesser amount from the port engine. I overshot the E/A and passed very close below and in front of him. My rear gunner put a burst into the cockpit at close range and the E/A disappeared in a diving turn, apparently out of control. I suddenly lost control of my own aircraft, which spun violently to the left. Failing to recover from the spin I ordered my crew to abandon the aircraft and I followed the navigator out of the hatch.

Flt Lt Duke-Woolley later related the story as told to him:

In the gunfight the Heinkel went down, then Spike’s Blenheim went out of control in a spin. At that time, popular opinion among pilots was that no pilot had ever got out of a spinning Blenheim alive, because the only way out was through the top sliding hatch and you then fell through one or other of the airscrews! The new boy (King-Clarke) probably didn’t know that but nevertheless he froze and Spike had to get him out. He undid his seat belt, unplugged his oxygen and pushed him up out of the top hatch while holding his parachute ripcord. He told me afterwards that he felt sick when the lad fell through the airscrew. Spike then had to get out himself. He grasped the wireless aerial behind the hatch, pulled himself up by it and then turned round so that his feet were on the side of the fuselage. Then he kicked outwards as hard as he could. He felt what he thought was the tip of an airscrew blade tap him on his helmet earpiece but luck was with him that night.

The damaged Heinkel crashed at Fleam Dyke near Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire at 01:15. Oblt Joachim von Armin, Fw Wilhelm Maier and Fw Karl Hauck were captured, but Uffz Paul Görsch was killed. Flt Lt Duke-Woolley added an amusing sequel to the account:

Spike parachuted down safely to the outskirts of a village and went to the nearest pub to ring Wittering and ask for transport to fetch him home. He bought a pint and sat down to await transport and began chatting idly to another chap in uniform who was in the room when he arrived. After a while, thinking that the chap’s uniform was a bit unusual, Spike asked him if he was a Pole or a Czech. “Oh no” replied his companion in impeccable English, “I’m a German pilot actually. Just been shot down by one of your chaps.” At this point – so the story goes – Spike sprang to his feet and said. “I arrest you in the name of the King. Anyway, where did you learn English?” To which the German [presumably Oblt von Armin] replied, “That’s all right. I won’t try to get away. In fact, I studied for three years at Cambridge, just down the road. My shout, what’s yours?” So that’s just what they did, sat and had a drink.

Flg Off George Ball of 19 Squadron, in Spitfire K9807, was vectored to the Newmarket area to investigate another intruder, finding 5J+FP of 6./KG4 illuminated by searchlights. He pursued this, closing in to 50 yards, seeing his fire entering the Heinkel as it flew southwards, jettisoning its bombs on the way. The Heinkel, flown by Ltn Hans-Jürgen Bachaus, eventually ditched off Sacketts Gap, Margate, at 02:15. Bachaus and two members of his crew Uffz Theodor Kühn and Uffz Fritz Böck were rescued, but Fw Alfred Reitzig had attempted to bale out but his parachute snagged in the tailplane and he was killed.

One of the last claims on this dramatic night was made by AA gunners at Harwich, who believed they shot down into the sea a departing Heinkel at 01:13. This was probably an aircraft from I Gruppe that returned badly damaged by AA fire. There were no crew casualties. The last of the raiders was recorded crossing the coast at 02.50, releasing its bombs in the Clacton area. An empty house in Salisbury Road received a direct hit. Claims were submitted for 10 Heinkels but this was reduced to five and two probables. In fact, six were lost including the one that belly-landed near Calais. Two others returned damaged. Three Blenheims were also lost to return fire, as was one Spitfire. The commander of 5J+AM, Oblt Joachim von Armin, later reflected:

Until the night of our operation no British night fighter operations were reported. There we did not camouflage our aircraft, flew in at 4,500 metres [15,000 feet], and did not anticipate anything but anti-aircraft gunfire from the ground.

Duxford’s station commander Wg Cdr A. B. Woody Woodhall witnessed the action in which 5J+AM was shot down – and shot down its first assailant, the Spitfire of 19 Squadron:

John Petre’s Spitfire burst into flames and he had baled out. I was an eye witness to all this because it occurred over the aerodrome. My immediate concern was for John and after giving instructions for civil police to be alerted to round up the enemy, I sent search parties out. I next learned that John had been picked up suffering from nasty burns and taken to the nearest hospital. After giving orders that the prisoners when captured were to be placed in the guardroom if unhurt, in the sick quarters if injured, I set off in my car to see how John was faring in hospital.

Dawn was just breaking when I returned to Duxford and I was informed that the civil police had collected the prisoners and were bringing them to the guardroom. I left strict orders that there was to be no fraternizing. When the prisoners they were to be given a meal and cigarettes and left in cells until collected by the security people. I was told that there were two German NCOs in the cells, but that the pilot, an officer, had been taken over to the Officers Mess. I found the German pilot taking his ease in the guest room with a cocktail in hand, chatting to Philip Hunter [CO of 264 Squadron] and several of our pilots. Our boys immediately stood up as I came into the room and said ‘Good morning, sir’ but the Hun, an arrogant young Nazi of about 20, remained lounging in his armchair and insolently eyed me up and down, but not for long. I got him to his feet smartly. Needless to say, I had him transferred to the guardroom cell. The boys thought me very hard-hearted and strict. When I told the boys about how badly John Petre was burnt, I think they understood my anger.

The Manchester Guardian reported:

Three German airmen who lost their lives when their bomber was brought down in an Essex town during Tuesday night’s raid were buried in the town’s cemetery yesterday. Full military honours were paid by officers and men of the RAF and a firing party fired three volleys over the one large grave in which the three coffins covered with Nazi flags were interred. The Bishop of Chelmsford officiated. The Bishop’s wife was one of the mourners. There was a wreath from the RAF and another from girl telephonists of the AFS stationed in the town inscribed ‘When duty calls all must obey.’

At the end of the month Marshall Göring issued a general order regarding the air war against Great Britain. In it he stated:

The Luftwaffe War Command in the fight against England makes it necessary to co-ordinate as closely as possible, with respect to time and targets, the attacks of Luftflotten 2, 3 and 5. Distribution of the duties to the Luftflotten will, therefore, in general be tied to firm targets and firm dates of attack so that not only can the most effective results on important targets be achieved but the well-developed defence forces of the enemy can be split and be faced with the maximum forms of attack.

After the original disposition of the forces has been carried out in its new operational areas, that is after making sure of adequate anti-aircraft and fighter defence, adequate provisioning and an absolutely trouble-free chain of command, then a planned offensive against selected targets can be put in motion to fit in with the overall requirements of the commanders-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.

To save us time as well as ensuring that the forces concerned are ready:

(A) The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces. These attacks under suitable weather conditions, which should allow for surprise, can be carried out individually or in groups by day. The most thorough study of the target and its surrounding area from the map and the parts of the target concerned, that is the vital parts of the target, is a pre-requisite for success. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civil population.

(B) By means of reconnaissance and the engagement of units of smaller size it should be possible to draw out smaller enemy formations and by this means to ascertain the strength and grouping of the enemy defences. The engagement of the Luftwaffe after the initial attacks have been carried out and after all forces are completely battle-worthy has for its objectives:

(C) By attacking the enemy air force, its ground organisations, and its own industry to provide the necessary conditions for a satisfactory overall war against enemy imports, provisions and defence economy, and at the same time provide necessary protection for those territories occupied by ourselves.

(D) By attacking importing harbours and their installations, importing transports and warships to destroy the English system of replenishment. Both tasks must be carried out separately, but must be carried out in co-ordination one with another.

As long as the enemy air force is not defeated the prime requirement for the air force on every possible opportunity by day or by night, in the air or on the ground, without consideration of other tasks.

 

The Opening Round of the Battle of Britain II

The RAF’s Bomber Command showed the desperation of the situation when it issued counter-invasion instructions to its groups:

Now the enemy occupies the western seaboard of Europe, the threat of invasion is very real. If it comes it will be by air and sea preceded by attacks on communications, airfields and naval bases. 2 Group is to be reinforced, at a time to be decided later, by aircraft operating from these stations:

RAF Bassingbourn – 24 Audax and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Cottesmore – 24 Audax and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Upwood – 16 Blenheims and up to 18 Ansons

RAF Wyton – 15 Blenheims

In the event of a landing the Commander’s authority is to have control of 50% of the available effort of the affiliated stations. This call takes authority over all other tasks.

All aircraft not under army control are to attack enemy convoys at sea. If a landing is effected the main body of the convoys at sea may be attacked at places where the landing has been mad, depending on the situation at the time. Enemy forces caught at sea, and craft containing landing parties, are to be primary targets irrespective of enemy warships in the vicinity. If a landing has been affected and it is decided to attack beaches, enemy craft laying off the beaches and stores on them are to be primary targets.

AOC 2 Group added his own instructions to his squadrons:

You must bear in mind that your forces may have to play a most important part in repelling an invasion of this country, and you should be prepared at short notice to divert your squadrons to the attack of the invading enemy force at points of departure and subsequently at sea, and points of landing in this country. To meet the threat of invasion twelve aircraft are to stand by (at each station) every morning at 20 minutes’ notice from twilight to sunrise.

A plan to use every available aircraft in a last-ditch effort to repel a threatened German invasion was also devised, known as Operation Banquet. An Air Ministry meeting outlined a series of ambitious plans to make use of various aircraft in the event of an invasion, thus the AOC-in-C Training Command was ordered to plan to make the maximum practical number of aircraft available for operations. The overall plan was divided into a number of separate operations that could be enacted independently. Sub-groups of the plan, as envisaged, were: Training (Battle, Audax, Harvard, Hind etc.), Transport (Harrow), 2 Group (Blenheim, Battle), Technical (Wallace) and 6 and 7 Groups (Whitley, Anson, Hereford).

Aircraft allocated under Banquet would, in many cases, lack bombsights, armour for the protection of the crew, defensive guns and self-sealing fuel tanks. While these were to be fitted where possible, RAF instructions were very clear that no aircraft was to be considered unfit for want of such niceties. Anything that could fly and drop bombs would suffice. The air crew would be the experienced instructors as well as those students that had reached ‘a reasonably satisfactory standard of training’.

The most ominous – and potentially suicidal – of the plans was Banquet Light which would see the formation of striking forces composed of Tiger Moth biplanes and other light aircraft of the EFTS. De Havilland put forward plans for converting the Tiger Moth into a bomber by equipping it with eight under-fuselage racks beneath the rear cockpit, each able to carry a 20 lb bomb. As an alternative, the bomb-racks could be installed four on each side beneath the lower wings, this obviated trimming difficulties. The racks had been designed for the military version of the Dragons supplied to Iraq eight years previously. Modification of the relatively small number (16) of Magister trainers were also attempted, but this proved troublesome. Of this idea, Sgt Tom Naylor, Senior NCO Ops Room, recalled:

There was one man [in the Ops Room] with over 1,000 hours flying experience. That was Dudley Mason. He was quickly winkled out and given a different job just before the threat if invasion reached its climax … old Dudley was given a Tiger Moth somewhere down in Surrey, where they were busy welding milk crates under the wings to carry bombs with which to bomb the beaches when the Germans landed. He told me, “The darn thing won’t even fly, never mind carry bombs, with all that garbage on it!”

Another proposed use for the Tiger was the ‘Paraslasher’; fitted with a scythe-like blade intended to cut parachutists’ canopies as they descended to earth. Flight tests proved the idea, but it was not officially adopted. There was also the ‘Human Crop-Sprayer’ version, which had a tank fitted in the front cockpit with powder dispensers located under the wings. The tank would be filled with an extremely poisonous insecticide and probably violating the terms of the Geneva Convention. It was intended that low flying aircraft would dust the German troops as they waded ashore.

The Banquet Light strike force was to be employed in an Army co-operation role, which would likely mean being sent to bomb concentrations of airborne troops or soldiers landing on the beaches. They were to be based at advanced landing grounds around the country including Grangemouth, Inverness, Macmerry, York, Firbeck, Hooton, Hatfield, Snailwell, Bury St Edmunds, Sawbridgeworth, Gatwick, Odiham, Tilshead, Weston Zoyland. The intention was that the two-seater Tiger Moth bombers should be flown solo into an attack at low altitude until the enemy was identified and then climb to 800 feet and dive to 500 feet to release the bombs.

Most of the pilots for Banquet Light were to be students who had not yet graduated. The scheme required that trainee pilots were introduced to bombing at an early stage in their instruction – just in case they needed to go into action immediately. Instructors were told to take every opportunity to carry out practice bombing. However, with no dummy bombs available, training exercises were carried out with the aircraft flown from the front cockpit by instructors and house bricks were thrown over the side from the rear cockpit. It was discovered that the bricks fell faster than a diving Tiger Moth and instructions were given to throw the bricks forcibly away from the aircraft. About 350 aircraft were available. This was not an insignificant force, but the Moths and their inexperienced pilots would have been very vulnerable to enemy aircraft and the plan was widely regarded as virtually suicidal.

Other proposals included Lysanders fitted with twin 20 mm belly-cannon, and another fitted with a four-gun turret in the tail. Both modifications were made and the respective aircraft flew. There already existed a few cannon-armed Hurricanes and Spitfires, although these had proved problematical due to continuous gun stoppages. Undoubtedly, Harvard advanced trainers would have been made available, suitably equipped. By mid-summer, some 24 Masters had been converted to fighters by having the second seat removed along with some of the excessive cockpit glazing, and three. 303 Brownings installed in each wing. Practically everything that could fly would have been thrown into the battle. Consideration was also given to adapting civilian aircraft for Banquet Civil. However, the plan was not thought worthwhile and the idea was dropped.

During the latter part of May, a number of Station Defence Flights were strengthened with the arrival of redundant Gladiators. Manston operated G Flight with K6970, K7928 and K8033; Andover received N5702; Gosport received K6149, K7898 and K7995; RAE Farnborough received K5200; and Prestwick formed a Fighter Flight with N5912 and N5514. Elsewhere, various Station Flights were formed, some with two or three Hurricanes, some with one or two Spitfires. Decoy airfields (known as K-sites) sprang up where cows had previously grazed, and often dummy aircraft, made of wood and fabric, appeared overnight. Even similarly-constructed hangars and other buildings would soon adorn the ‘airfield’. Many hundreds of dummy ‘aircraft’ were produced, representing Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons amongst other types. Elsewhere similar sites were prepared to bamboozle German night bombers, being fields equipped with gooseneck flares, known as Q-sites, to mimic operational airfields.

Those in the know, however, were quietly confident that the one great advantage the RAF had over the Luftwaffe was its embryonic radar system, particularly as its operators gained experience; in fact, the first successful use of radar by ground control to guide an interceptor had occurred on 12 May, when a He111 from 2./LG1 was intercepted near Vlissingen by Blenheim P4834 of A&AEE from Martlesham Heath, crewed by Flt Lt Chris Smith and AC A. Newton. The bomber was damaged and its gunner, Gfr Walter Jenderny, wounded.

Although Britain had acquired an example of the German Enigma coding machine, its use and value during the coming summer months was limited, and had little bearing on the forthcoming battle. AOC Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, appreciated the difficulty of his task:

After the evacuation from Dunkerque [Dunkirk] the pressure on the Fighter Command became less intense, but it by no means disappeared. Hard fighting took place along the coast from Calais to Le Havre to cover the successive evacuations from that coast. Then the centre of gravity shifted to Cherbourg and its neighbourhood, and the Battle of Britain followed on without any appreciable opportunity to rest and reform the units which had borne the brunt of the fighting.

The fall of Belgium and France had increased the danger to the South and West of England, and had necessitated a considerable modification of the original arrangements when bombing attacks could start only from German soil.

As has been explained above, few squadrons were fresh and intact when the Battle began. No sufficient respite has been granted since the conclusion of the Dunkerque fighting to rest the squadrons which had not left the Fighter Command and to rebuild those which had undergone the ordeal of fighting from aerodromes in northern France. These last had been driven from aerodrome to aerodrome, able only to aim at self-preservation from almost continuous attack by bombers and fighters; they were desperately weary and had lost the greater part of their equipment, since aircraft which were unserviceable only from slight defects had to be abandoned.

At the insistence of Prime Minister Churchill, the Air Ministry now asked the Admiralty for the loan of 50 FAA fighter pilots to partially make good losses suffered in France and over Dunkirk. Fighter Command reported its pilot losses as 284 killed, missing or prisoners of war, plus 63 wounded or injured during May and June including those who became casualties due to flying accidents. The Admiralty responded by placing 804 (Sea Gladiators) and newly formed 808 Squadrons under Fighter Command control, although the former remained at Hatston for local defence while the latter, formed on 1 July, was under training at RNAS Worthy Down with a few Skuas, and a dozen Fulmars that were just being introduced into service.

Cecil James at the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry later wrote:

The measures that were taken to increase pilot output during June and July chiefly concerned Flying Training Command. But the earliest important accession of strength, and the more welcome because it came so shortly after the heavy losses in France, was the result of an agreement with the Admiralty for the loan of Fleet Air Arm pilots. The matter was first discussed in the War Cabinet as the Dunkirk evacuation drew to a close; and the Prime Minister instructed the Air and Naval staffs to see whether any naval pilots could be transferred to Fighter Command. He had in mind an allocation of fifty pilots by the end of June.

On 6 June the Admiralty issued instructions for the release of 45 pilots (including seven [sic] RAFVR pilots who had been serving with the Fleet Air Arm), half of them trained, half semi-trained. The Air Ministry, however, asked for half the output of the two flying training schools serving the Fleet Air Arm to be allotted to the RAF, beginning with thirty pilots by the end of June. The Admiralty could not agree on the grounds that the casualties amongst their pilots in April and May had been nearly four times as large as postulated and that, in addition, the war with Italy meant more work for the Fleet Air Arm than had been visualised earlier. Thirty more pilots – making sixty-eight naval pilots in all – were loaned during June; but ten were recalled early in July for service in the Mediterranean; and later in the month the First Lord informed the Secretary of State for Air that no further attachments would be possible. The loans, however, were timely and, considering the Admiralty’s difficulties, substantial.

As it transpired, neither 804 or 808 Squadrons were required for operational duties per se, the FAA’s major contribution being the 27 pilots seconded to RAF squadrons during the coming weeks: Sub-Lt(A) A. G. Blake joined 19 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) G. G. R. Bulmer to 32 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) J. H. C. Sykes, F. Dawson-Paul and G. B. Pudney to 64 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) D. A. Hutchison and T/ Sub-Lt(A) I. J. Wallace to 74 Squadron; Mid(A) M. A. Birrell to 79 Squadron; SubLts(A) D. H. Richards, R. W. M. Walsh, T. V. Worrall and Mid(A) P. R. J. Gilbert to 111 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) I. H. Kestin and F. A. Smith to 145 Squadron; SubLt(A) H. W. Beggs and Mid(A) O. M. Wightman to 151 Squadron; Sub-Lts(A) H. G. K. Bramah, D. M. Jeram and W. J. M. Moss to 213 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) J. C. Carpenter to 229 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A)s R. J. Cork, R. E. Gardner and Mid(A) P. J. Patterson to 242 Squadron; Mid(A) R. F. Bryant to 245 Squadron; Sub-Lt(A) H. laF. Greenshields to 266 Squadron; and Mid(A) P. L. Lennard to 501 Squadron. In addition, Sub-Lt(A) David Marks had been killed while flying a Hurricane of 7 OTU in preparation for his transfer to an RAF squadron. It should be noted that most of these pilots were not considered operational and were sent to RAF OTUs initially for conversion training and a rapid course in fighter tactics. Some did not reach squadrons until late August/early September. Others lasted only a few days and were sent away for further training.

FAA observers, in particular, were occasionally seconded to Bomber and Coastal Commands during this period, and even earlier. With the build-up of invasion barges and other craft in the harbours at Calais and Boulogne, these immediately became a priority target not only for the FAA but also Battle light bombers of Bomber Command, particularly 103, 142 and 150 Squadrons. To assist the RAF crews a number of newly qualified FAA pilots and observers were attached to these units. Others were seconded to fly heavy bombers, mainly Whitleys involved in over-sea flying.

Eight RAFVR fighter pilots who had been seconded to the FAA and were currently undergoing a refresher fighter course at Donibristle with 769(T) Squadron were released to return to Fighter Command; these being Sgt D. K. Ashton to 32 Squadron; Sgt D. Ayres to 600 Squadron; Sgt H. W. Ayre to 266 Squadron; Sgt O. R. Bowerman to 222 Squadron; Sgt E. N. Kelsey to 611 Squadron; Sgt R. O’Donnell to 19 Squadron; Sgt J. Pickering to 64 Squadron; Sgt W. J. Timms to 43 Squadron. Two who had deliberately failed the FAA course – Sgt F. N. Robertson and New Zealander Sgt R. J. Hyde – were already flying Spitfires with 66 Squadron. Another former RN pilot, Plt Off A. R. H. Barton (who had been trained to fly Swordfish) arrived to posting to 32 Squadron following a brief conversion course.

8.1cm Panzerabwehrwerfer L/105

8.1cm PAW L/105

This weapon never saw service.

The weapon was photographed in a German test ground after the war and identified as the 8.1cm PAW L/105; nothing more is known about it. No postwar reports or interrogations have thrown any light on the weapon, and the only related piece of information was discovered during examination of microfilm of Krupp’s ammunition design department drawings. This revealed a single drawing of a hemispherical-based hollow charge shell weighing 3.00kg(6.62lb) and classified as 8.1cm HoL Gr L/3.1 fur PAW. The 8cm PAW 600 was ruled out because the shell was fitted with a driving band-but by the same token could it have been for the PAW L/105 which, although of the correct calibre, was called a werfer, which implied a smoothbore? The PAW L/105 ordnance bore no resemblance to any service weapon. It was obviously built in two pieces, a common German practice that enabled long guns to be made on short lathes, and it appears to have been jacketed. The carriage was an amalgam of service components and specially-made parts; the wheels were those of the 10cm K 18 and the cradle and limber appear to have been taken from the 10cm s FH 18. The whole weapon had a purposeful air, but it would probably have been a cumbersome beast to handle. The gun was disconnected from the recoil system for travelling, doubtless to prevent whip in the barrel, but such a time-consuming manoeuver has no place on an anti-tank gun. On the. available evidence, it seems likely that the 8.1cm PAW was a prototype that was abandoned as too unwieldy; it must, however, have had a formidable performance.

To the Green Fields Beyond I

Mk Vs of the 301st (U.S.) Battalion taking a German trench. October 1918.

In the spring of 1918 a British Army had waited grimly for an attack by forces that it knew would be overwhelming; in the autumn the pendulum had swung and it was Germany’s turn. This time it was not along a single stretch of a few miles but the whole front from Dixmude to the Argonne Forest, some 250 miles in all, that was on the move. From King Albert’s men in the north to Pershing’s in the south blow after blow was falling upon the battered Wehrmacht and nowhere would it be more stunning than on the sector under Sir Douglas Haig.

The mighty Hindenburg Line had as a part of its protection the two canals of St Quentin and the Nord. These had in peacetime carried, as they still do, the big seagoing barges upon which so much of French commerce depends, though in September, 1918, the Canal du Nord was dry. In only two places were there no impossible tank obstacles, along the 4½-mile stretch called Le Grand Souterrain between the villages of Hellicourt and Vendhuille in the north and the thousand-yard-long Le Tronquoy Tunnel just north of St Quentin. The decisive battle opened on 27 September and it lasted for fifteen days. It began on the fronts of Home’s First and Byng’s Third Armies, with a drive across the old Cambrai battlefield towards Bourlon Hill spearheaded by fifty-three tanks, sixteen of them old Mk IVs and the rest Mk Vs. Here it was necessary for them to get over the dried-out canal between Bourlon and Marquion as best they could. It did not look easy, for the canal was 50 feet wide at bottom, 12 feet deep and with banks of 9 feet scarped by German engineers into almost vertical faces. This was Baker-Carr’s parish, with his Brigade supporting the Canadian Corps. Elles was in London, as Tank Representative at the War Office, and his replacement, Colonel Karslake (later of Quetta earthquake fame) came to Baker-Carr’s HQ ‘with the avowed intention of stopping me from wasting tanks on an impossible task’. He got no change from Baker-Carr. His own Reconnaissance Officer, Williams-Ellis, had made some very daring visits on his own and Oswald Birley – famous in another sphere but then First Army’s aerial photograph expert – had agreed that the thing could be done. Karslake retired in a cloud of gloomy prophecies. A plan was proposed ‘by some genius’ that half-a-dozen time-expired tanks should be strengthened and made to serve as a bridge. Baker-Carr, unconvinced, agreed to let it be tried. Not one of them reached the canal, but this did not prevent a colourful account of how ‘the wonderful feat was accomplished’ from appearing in the Press. As things turned out every fighting tank, ‘first one, then another, then two or three at a time, negotiated the “insuperable obstacle” and appeared going strong on the far side.’ The ‘swallow-dive’ learned at Bovington had paid off. Bourlon Wood and Bourlon Village both fell after some hard fighting to the same battalion, ‘G’, which had attacked them at First Cambrai. Two days later, in a dense fog that made it necessary to navigate by compass, more tanks crossed the Canal to the south. The infantry fought their way to the outskirts of Cambrai itself.

On the Fourth Army front, further south, were concentrated most of the still serviceable tanks, about 120 in all. Numbered among them was the United States 301st Battalion whose Mk V and Mk V Stars were in support of 27th (New York) Division. There was not a rat-hole in a canal bank whose existence and location was not known to Fourth Army Intelligence but there was one particularly worrisome factor about the now imminent battle. Three very important positions from which the route of the attackers would be commanded, the Knoll, Quennemont Farm and Bellicourt, had not fallen as expected during the preliminary battles. The original intention had been that the inexperienced American Divisions should not be put in until these features had been secured. Once again Sir Henry Rawlinson was faced with a hard decision and once again he refused to shrink from it. The 27th Division, with its own willing consent, would have to attack the outpost line on 27 September and have it securely in their possession before the main attack began on the 29th. Twelve British tanks were allotted to them. Resistance was strong and the attack failed utterly. The result was that another fearsome decision had to be made. The British artillery was now a superb instrument and the orchestration of barrage plans was as demanding as the scoring of a Beethoven symphony. Small bodies of American troops were known to be somewhere in the zone upon which the barrage must fall, along with many American wounded. If the plan remained unchanged they were in mortal danger; if it were to be tinkered with the barrage would be ineffective. With great courage General Read, the US Corps Commander, accepted that the lesser evil would be to carry on as arranged and let the men lost in front take their chance. Even as it was, the fact that the Germans still held Quennemont and the Knoll meant that the Americans would have to start a thousand yards behind their barrage line and risk being cut up by machine-gun fire as they tried to catch up with it.

The veteran German machine-gunners were presented with unmissable targets and the US troops were laid in swathes, just as the British had been on the Somme. The 301st Tank Battalion moved off to bring them some help. Then came one of the war’s tragedies. During the early days of the March retreat, when rumours of German tanks were running wild, a line of mines – 50 1b mortar bombs filled with ammonal – had been laid exactly in the path they were about to take and had been forgotten. Probably the men who had put the minefield there were all dead. The US tanks, following carefully laid tapes, rolled straight into it. The mines went off in a succession of roars, ten tanks were blown up and many crewmen were killed. So powerful were the explosions that the bottoms of most of the victims were completely torn out. Another milestone in tank history had been passed. The crews that had passed it safely kept going.

Worse was to follow. As the mist lifted, large parties of Germans emerged from the tunnels and began to shoot into the American ranks from behind. The Australians, following up, dealt with them as only the Australians could but so long as Quennemont was untaken the American advance would make no headway. Something had to be done, and done at once. Major Hotblack has appeared before in this story. Even among the brave men of the Tank Corps his reputation was that of d’Artagnan and this was his hour. His position as head of Tank Corps Intelligence gave him no tanks to command but the moment was critical. Hotblack commandeered the two nearest, Mk Vs of the 16th Battalion waiting their turn, and headed through the storm of steel straight for the ridge. The tanks were on their own, no infantry being anywhere near but Hotblack did not hesitate. The pair drove unscathed up the south spur of the Quennemont Ridge, generally regarded as inexpugnable, drove the Germans off it and killed those who did not run. As soon as the German artillery tumbled to what had happened every gun in the neighbourhood was switched on to the two intruders; inevitably both were quickly destroyed. That, however, was by no means the end. Hotblack, partially blinded, with another wounded officer and five or six men brought some captured German machine-guns into action and held the immediate counter-attack at arm’s length. Soon they were joined by an Australian officer, then by an American, each with his orderly, who had come to find out what was happening. The newcomers took a German gun apiece and brought the strength of the garrison to about a dozen. Twice during the previous week the ridge had been held in force but German counter-attacks had pushed the trespassers off. This time a dozen heroes kept them at bay for several hours until the first of the infantry arrived and took over. By that time every man had wounds of some kind to show. With even a part of Quennemont ridge in Allied hands the battle took a turn for the better. One cannot let Major Hotblack simply disappear from the story. His latest wounds, for he had almost as many as Bernard Freyberg, took him out of the remainder of the Kaiser’s War. On 17 April, 1940, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Churchill, picked him to take over command of the troops in Norway. After being briefed at the Admiralty until late at night he set off through the black-out and suffered a stroke whilst on the Duke of York’s Steps. He was not found until next morning and was later boarded out of the Army. A sad end to such a brilliant career.

175 tanks, including those of the unlucky 301st, attacked the Hindenburg Line on Michaelmas Day. 46th (North Midland Territorial) Division of Walter Braithwaite’s IX Corps performed one of the most remarkable feats of arms ever, crossing the Canal at Bellenglise by scrambling down the steep banks, swimming or wading across and then up the other side, driving the Germans before them. This being hardly tank work, the crews had to wait until they could cross the tunnel; that done, they swung south, worked down the far bank and added greatly to the German discomfiture. The armoured cars drove impudently into Bony, on top of the Souterrain, but were soon hustled out again.

Strong though the Hindenburg Line was, it was out of date by September, 1918. General Gouraud, in the last German attacks in Champagne, had demonstrated what a modern defensive system should be. His strength lay in depth, a depth far exceeding that of what the Germans called the Siegfried Stellung. The front lines were lightly held by sacrificial units and easily taken. Only then did the victors realize that these trenches were packed not with men but with land-mines and mustard gas. By the time these novelties had shaken them they found themselves beyond the range of their own artillery and were shot down by companies. The position in front of the British armies was a line in the most literal sense. Once broken there was not much behind.

The breaking, however, looked to be a prodigious task. Immediately to the front lay acres of wire, not in lines but in an ingenious chequerboard system. Behind the wire were deep dug-outs, built as carefully as any housing estate, in which the infantry and machine-gunners could take their rest immune from the heaviest of barrages. To cut the wire sufficiently for infantry to have any chance at all of getting through ought to have taken the British batteries a very long time; they would probably have succeeded in the end but that would only have meant launching unarmoured men through a jungle of torn-up spikes straight on to the waiting machine-guns, whose crews could have remained under cover until the last possible moment. When the works had been constructed the designers had bargained only for such an old-style attack and the tanks captured at Bullecourt had given them no cause to think again. The Mk V, with all its faults, was their undoing. Haig’s plan turned over to the Tank Corps virtually all responsibility for dealing with the wire and a good part of the business of eliminating machine-gunners.

Every tank that could be made serviceable had to take its part. Once their first duty had been carried out the infantry could take over and storm the lightly fortified areas beyond. The Corps performed nobly. Its machines took heavy punishment, but from the standpoint of the Army as a whole it was a sacrifice well worth making. Sir Archibald Montgomery put it rather mildly in The Story of The Fourth Army; ‘September 29th was perhaps the most trying day the tanks had experienced during the hundred days, but they earned the sincere gratitude of the infantry by their never-failing gallantry and self-sacrifice whenever they were called on for assistance.’ It would have been no exaggeration had he said that, lacking them, the task might have proved impossible.

The heaviest burden fell upon those leading the Australian-American Corps, the 4th and 5th Brigades. Only a part of their strength was to be used on the first day, for all experience emphasized the need for reserves to be kept for reinforcing success. It was on the front of 46 Division, however, that the ball opened. The cavalry was under a cloud; one regiment, having decided to pass the night at a place midway between Divisional HQ and an important forward position cut down something like a hundred yards of the three pairs of signal cables which formed the main Divisional route in order to use them as picket lines for their horses.

To the Green Fields Beyond II

A British Whippet tank passing troops in 1918.

Early morning mist had been the curse of British machine-gunners in March but it was a blessing to the Tank Corps in late September. The tanks of 46 Division, sixteen Mk Vs and nine Whippets, got safely across south of Bellicourt before it thinned. With the disappearance of the mist tanks stood out like hedgehogs and the German anti-tank gunners knew their business. One company was, says Montgomery ‘quickly put out of action’. The Divisional historian tells how all five of those attached to 139 Brigade went the same way. Nevertheless some survived. As 138 Brigade came up to the strongly fortified village of Magny-la-Fosse, ‘the tanks played an important part, cutting broad swathes through the wire entanglements, which here and there had been very little damaged by our artillery fire. Wheeling after their passage through the wire, the tanks then proceeded northwards along the line of the trench, and sunken road enfilading them and giving the crews of the machine-guns such a bad time that they fell comparatively easy victims to the Infantry pouring through the gaps in the wire. The tanks, closely followed by the Infantry, then advanced towards the village, and after a little street fighting the resistance of the enemy garrison was overcome.’ This, as Sir Raymond Priestley says, ‘was indeed a breakthrough’. It was, however, the last contribution the tanks were able to make on that sector on Michaelmas Day. As the 32nd Division leapfrogged the 46th their quota of tanks was ‘unfortunately unable to reach their rendezvous in time to take part in the advance and concentrated at Magny ready for the next day’.

Away to the left the most troublesome area was still around the Knoll and Quennemont whose stout defence by the Germans had come near to throwing the whole operation out of gear. The 4th Tank Brigade (including the American 301st Battalion) had been given the special task of mopping-up around these strong-points and its success was very limited. Of thirty-nine machines that crossed the start line, twelve received direct hits, seven became ditched and only one crossed the Bellicourt tunnel. Seven drove to within a hundred yards of Quennemont Farm but all of them were knocked out as the mist rose. Fortunately the Australians were not far behind. At 9 am 5th Division crossed the original American start line led by the tanks of 5th Brigade whose crews were almost honorary Australians. Two of them, closely followed by two infantry battalions expert at working with tanks, approached Bellicourt as the last shreds of mist were dispersing and by skilful co-operation cleared the village. Then, in the clear air of early autumn, the German anti-tank gunners around Nauroy got to work. Ten out of the twelve went down almost at once. Some hours later all four of those working with the 8th Brigade went the same way; of four Mk Vs and eight Whippets attached to 15 Brigade all but three Whippets were put out of action. The air support does not seem to have been conspicuously successful, probably by reason of the smoke expelled The Tank Corps was dwindling as observers watched. New battalions existed in various states of training but none was yet fit for battle. The same old faces were to be seen, though every day more and more dropped out for ever. It was not shortage of machines that was the critical factor now; it was shortage of the men who knew how to use them. The Germans, in spite of wide-spread ‘tankschrecken’, were beginning to get the measure of the Mk V and the Whippet. With their low speed and thin armour – less than ¾ inch against about 6 inches in the later war – they were too vulnerable except in conditions of their own choosing and they relied for survival upon infantry skills that were themselves becoming rarer. Stern and his associates were working frantically and, though they now had every sort of official encouragement, the hour was very late. Neuvy-Pailloux was nowhere near finished. The International Mk VIII, was near to undergoing engine trials in America and the first Medium Bs were coming to the end of the production line in England. Everything henceforth was going to depend upon the speed with which these could be turned out, for otherwise the British Armies in France might waste away before the end came. Already Sir Douglas Haig’s rifle strength had dropped to a figure about equal to that he had taken over from Sir John French nearly three years ago. Far too large a proportion of his infantry consisted of boys whose gristle had not yet set into hard muscle and middle-aged men who had no business to be there. Some Divisions retained nothing but a number to remind people of what they had been. The 50th, for example, was no longer the old Northumberland Territorials. It consisted almost entirely of malarial units brought back from Salonika. There were plenty of others in much the same case. Unless the war could be quickly won the baton would have to pass, as it had passed from France, to America. And the American Army, however brave and willing, was still green. The Germans, though savagely mauled, were falling back upon their own country and their own supplies. Naturally there were weak elements in it but a hard core remained determined to fight it out to the last, as Lee’s men had done in the twilight of the Confederacy.

‘Tankschrecken’ was an important factor. There were occasions when, for want of real tanks, wooden dummies were employed, sometimes on the backs of mules. They brought in a gratifying number of prisoners. On the last day of September twenty tanks fought once more, back again in the old ‘penny-packet’ way that the Corps had hoped had gone for good. No notable success was achieved, largely because the infantry with whom they worked had no experience of the right kind and the tanks were left to fight little private battles on their own. Next day a few were engaged in the assault of Joncourt where, for the first time they put down their own smoke screens. It worked very well. 32nd Division took the village with ease. Incidentally 1 October, 1918, has a place in the history of the Army at large. It was the day on which it adopted the 24-hour clock, advocated by Haig since 1911. It took a little while getting used to saying things like ‘twelve hundred hours’ but it was better than having to learn about metres and litres.

There were no tanks engaged on 2 October but their presence was still felt. Major Freiherr von der Bussche, Ludendorff ’s emissary, made a statement to the party leaders of the Reichstag in Berlin. It was a long statement, treating of all the battle fronts in addition to the west, but only one part of it concerns us. Having announced that the High Command had decided that there was no longer any probability of the Allies suing for peace, he went on to explain why: ‘The enemy has made use of tanks in unexpectedly large numbers. In cases where they have suddenly emerged in huge masses from smoke clouds, our men were completely unnerved. Tanks broke through our foremost lines, making a way for their infantry, reaching our rear and causing local panics, which entirely upset our battle-control. When we were able to locate them our anti-tank guns and our artillery speedily put an end to them. But the mischief had already been done, and solely owing to the success of the tanks we have suffered enormous losses in prisoners, and this has unexpectedly reduced our strength and caused a more speedy wastage of our reserves than we had anticipated. We are not in a position to make use of similar masses of German tanks. Our manufacturers, under the existing pressure, were absolutely unable to supply them in large numbers, without causing other more important things to be neglected. … We can continue this kind of warfare (withdrawal from extensive sectors of the front) for a measurable space of time, we can cause the enemy heavy losses, devastating the country in our retreat, but we cannot win the war.’ Perhaps Sir Douglas’ ‘minor factor’ had not been so minor after all.

The Tank Corps, though worn to a rag, had not yet finished with the German army. On 8 October, when both Third and Fourth Armies attacked again on an eighteen-mile front between Cambrai and St Quentin eighty-two machines could still be found to act as spearhead. This battle saw the second fight of tank against tank, when four captured Mk IVs suddenly put in an appearance. Though they had the advantage of surprise they were soon out-classed. The only German male was killed almost at once by a 6-pdr shell; a female was also sunk by a captured German field gun operated by a tank section commander; the remaining two ran for home as soon as two British females hove into sight. On the following day the general chase began on a thirty-mile front. Cambrai was occupied by the French First Army and, with that, the Hindenburg system had collapsed. 50,000 prisoners were herded into the cages and 600 guns went for salvage.

The German Army was now doing what Major von der Bussche had foreseen, walking slowly home and destroying everything in its path. Once upon a time this would have been the moment to turn loose the horsemen, but it was 1918 and not 1318. They were quite useful carrying messages. A few more light squadrons, Hornets for preference but Whippets at a pinch, could have made retreat into rout; there were none, for the penny had dropped too late. Only painstaking plodding at the speed of a heavily-burdened man on foot was possible. By mid-October the British Army was nearing Le Cateau with its memories of Smith-Dorrien and an August day in 1914. On the 8th another of those milestones had been passed. Major Sasse of the 301st (US) Battalion led his unit from a wireless tank. On reaching Brancourt and seeing nothing of interest he left it and climbed a rickety ladder to the top of the church tower. From that advantageous position he could see, as nobody else could, that a German counter-attack was developing. In proper Tank Corps tradition he dismounted his light machine-gun, took the retreating infantry in hand and stopped the rot. Less traditional was his use of tank-mounted wireless to send out an SOS to the rest of his battalion. Sasse held the village with great bravery until American tanks came to relieve him. His DSO was well earned.

Baker-Carr, in the last month of the war, saw a prophecy fulfilled. His First Brigade being utterly worn out, mechanically and physically, he obtained from Sir Julian Byng a release from all duties until further orders. The same afternoon he was summoned peremptorily to Canadian Corps HQ by General Currie, familiarly known as ‘Guts and Gaiters’. Sir Arthur Currie ‘was a huge man with a vast expanse of pallid, clean-shaven countenance.’ He was in a vile temper and pitched straight into his visitor. He was, ‘to tell the truth, extremely rude to me’. The trouble was this. A Canadian Division, having been ordered to carry out an attack three days thence, had flatly refused to do so unless furnished with tanks. The Divisional General had said, fairly enough, ‘Why should I lose three thousand men when, with tanks, I should only lose three hundred?’ Baker-Carr explained that it was on the Army Commander’s personal order that his tanks were unavailable. Telephone wires grew very hot; eventually Byng told Baker-Carr that he did not want to tell GHQ that a Division refused to fight and asked whether, as a personal favour to himself, the Tank Brigadier could not do something. Such an appeal could not be resisted. A dozen worn-out tanks manned by a dozen worn-out but volunteering crews did what was needed. The Division captured all its objectives at slight cost and published a special order of thanks. But it was just what Sir Beauvoir de L’Isle had prophecied; the day would come when infantry would not play unless the tanks played too.

It is fitting that the last battle of Baker-Carr’s First Brigade should have a part for ‘Uncle’ Harper. Immediately in front ran the River Seile; in some places it was crossed by the help of ‘cribs’, but First Brigade, on its last legs, had none of these. The stream in their path was nothing much but on either bank was an impassable – for tanks – swamp and a furlong beyond was a railway embankment teeming with machine-guns. ‘Uncle’ demanded an immediate tank attack. Baker-Carr agreed to do it, but only on condition that a causeway was first built. ‘But you can’t build a causeway. The Germans are only a couple of hundred yards away.’ Baker-Carr knew how to handle ‘Uncle’ after all these years. ‘No causeway, no tanks, sir. Not one would get across.’ The Corps Engineer was consulted; so was the Army Commander, who sent his Chief Engineer. The upshot of their deliberations was that a causeway could be built but a lot of men would be killed in the building of it. ‘Uncle’ rounded on Baker-Carr. ‘What is it to be, Baker? If we build the causeway, will you guarantee that it is worth the loss of the builders?’ This was reprehensible of ‘Uncle’. When Baker-Carr answered that he could guarantee nothing, but that, with a causeway, he could certainly clean up the railway embankment ‘Uncle’ demanded a straight yes or no. It was not like him to duck out of a decision that had to be his own but by then everybody was dog-tired. The causeway was built, under continuous machine-gun fire. All the Sapper officers were killed or wounded ‘and of the two hundred men who had started but few remained. … Another company of RE was summoned and the causeway finished, but not before the fresh workers also had paid a heavy toll.’ The tanks crossed at dawn, climbed the embankment, turned right and left and wiped out the garrison. ‘Masses of machine-guns were found, in one place seventy guns in the space of half a mile. The infantry, following the tanks at a short interval, suffered almost no loss whatever, and the gallant Sappers, splendidly upholding the traditions of their Corps, had saved hundreds upon hundreds of the lives of their comrades.’ When the First Brigade was finally withdrawn a couple of days later it had exactly two tanks left.

By now the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness was well established. On 19 October thirty-seven tanks helped in an attack north of Le Cateau that began by moonlight and ended in thick mist and poisonous gas clouds. In this unmarked country the tanks proved as useful at smashing down hedges as they had done in flattening wire. The same number ‘chipped in’ on 4 November when an Anglo-French offensive began between Valenciennes and the River Oise. Two supply tanks, unarmed and loaded with bridging materials clanked menacingly towards a German machine-gun emplacement at Landrecies; even these hard men surrendered at the sight of something on caterpillar tracks. The last fight was of five Whippets supporting the 3rd Guards Brigade to the north of the Forest of Mormal. They were about the only ones left.

Figures are seldom animating but some are inescapable. Since 8 August the Tank Corps had fought on thirty-nine days out of the ninety-six. 1993 tanks and armoured cars had been engaged; 887 had been handed over for salvage; only fifteen were quite beyond repair while 214 had been returned to their units. Casualties in men had been grievous. Out of 1500 officers 592 were killed, wounded or prisoner; from an ‘other rank’ strength of 8,000, 2562 had gone the same way. The number of infantry lives they had saved is beyond computation. To put the figures into the hideous perspective of First War losses, the Tank Corps had in ninety-six days suffered less than many an infantry division in a single day on the Somme. To continue such analogies would be futile. Better to leave it there.