Artist’s rendering of the Colosseum during a naumachiae. The Water Battles at the Colosseum were documented by Ancient Roman writers who recorded that the Colosseum was used for naumachiae (the Greek word for sea warfare) or simulated sea battles.

The greatest structure erected during the age of the Flavian emperors (69-96 A.D.) and arguably the finest architectural achievement in the history of the Roman Empire. The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, but it became known as the Colosseum after a colossal statue of Nero that once stood nearby. Its origins are to be found in the desire of the Emperor VESPASIAN to create for the Romans a stadium of such magnitude as to convince both them and the world of Rome’s return to unquestioned power after the bitter civil war.

Construction began in 72 or 75 A.D. Vespasian chose as the site a large plot between the Caelian and Esquiline hills, near the lake of Stagnum Neronis and the GOLDEN HOUSE OF NERO. His intent was obvious – to transform the old residence of the despot Nero into a public place of joy and entertainment. He succeeded admirably, and his achievement would be supplemented in time by the Baths of Titus, built in order to use up the rest of the Golden House. The work proceeded feverishly and the tale that 30,000 Jews were pressed into service persists. Yet Vespasian did not live to see its completion. Titus took up the task in his reign, but it was Domitian who completed the structure sometime around 81 A.D. The official opening, however, was held on a festal day in 80. Titus presided over the ceremonies, which were followed by a prolonged gladiatorial show lasting for 100 days.

The Colosseum seated at least 45,000 to 55,000 people. Vespasian chose an elliptical shape in honor of the amphitheater of Curio, but this one was larger. There were three principal arcades, the intervals of which were filled with arched corridors, staircases, supporting substructures and finally the seats. Travertine stone was used throughout, although some brick, pumice and concrete proved effective in construction. The stones came from Albulae near Tivoli. The elliptically shaped walls were 620 feet by 507 feet wide at their long and short axes, the outer walls standing 157 feet high. The arena floor stretched 290 feet by 180 feet at its two axes. The dimensions of the Colosseum have changed slightly over the years, as war and disaster took their toll. Eighty arches opened onto the stands, and the columns employed throughout represented the various orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – while the fourth story, the top floor, was set with Corinthian pilasters, installed with iron to hold them securely in place.

The seats were arranged in four different sections on the podium. The bottom seats belonged to the tribunes, senators and members of the Equestrian Order. The second and third sections were for the general citizenry and the lower classes, respectively. The final rows, near the upper arches, were used by the lower classes and many women. All of these public zones bore the name maeniana. Spectators in the upper seats saw clearly not only the games but were shaded by the velaria as well, awnings stretched across the exposed areas of the stadium to cover the public from the sun. The canvas and ropes were the responsibility of a large group of sailors from Misenum, stationed permanently in Rome for this sole purpose.

Every arch had a number corresponding to the tickets issued, and each ticket specifically listed the entrance, row and number of the seat belonging to the holder for that day. There were a number of restricted or specific entrances. Imperial spectators could enter and be escorted to their own box, although Commodus made himself Can underground passage. Routinely, the excited fans took their seats very early in the morning and stayed throughout the day.

The stories told of the games and of the ingenious tricks used to enhance the performances and to entertain the mobs could rarely exaggerate the truth. Two of the most interesting events were the animal spectacles and the famed staged sea battles of Titus, both requiring special architectural devices. In the animal spectacles the cages were arranged so expertly that large groups of beasts could be led directly into the arena. Domitian added to the sublevels of the arena, putting in rooms and hinged trapdoors that allowed for changes of scenery and the logistical requirements of the various displays. As for the sea fights, while Suetonius reports that they were held instead in the artificial lake of Naumachia and not in the amphitheater, Die’s account disagrees. The Colosseum did contain drains for the production of such naval shows, although they were not installed until the reign of Domitian. The abundance of water nearby made the filling of the Colosseum possible, although architecturally stressful. The drains routinely became clogged, causing extensive rot in the surrounding wood. The year 248 A. D. saw the last recorded, sea-oriented spectacle called a naumachia.

A number of other practical features were designed for the comfort of the thousands of spectators. Spouts could send out cool and scented streams of water on hot days, and vomitoria (oversized doors) were found at convenient spots for use by those wishing to relieve themselves of heavy foods. Aside from the statues adorning the arches, the Colosseum was solid, thick and as sturdy as the Empire liked to fancy itself. The structure was Vespasian’s gift to the Romans, whose common saying remains to this day: “When the Colosseum falls, so falls Rome and all the world.”

Although the Colosseum is the most famous Roman amphitheater, nearly 200 others survive archaeologically throughout the former Roman Empire, mostly in its western provinces. Factors of urban topography or available building materials create variations and regional groupings among surviving amphitheaters. Architects in Britain and other northern provinces used turf-and-timber construction – but this cheaper construction material did not lessen the building’s status as a prestige project or a symbol of connection to Rome. Specialized structures to control wild animals appear only in North Africa and sites on the shipping routes from North Africa to Rome, not in the rest of the empire. Thus, the amphitheaters at Capua and Pozzuoli (south of Rome) have extensive subterranean passages and other features for handling animals, while the equally luxurious amphitheaters at Arles and Nîmes do not. In the east, there was less need for purpose-built gladiatorial structures since preexisting theaters and stadia could be adapted to the same purpose. Once again, eastern and western provinces show different forms of adaptation to Roman rule.



Thirty Tyrants

The term “Thirty Tyrants” refers to the usurpers during the reign of Gallienus (253- 268 CE) and appears in the ancient text Historia Augusta, a collection of imperial biographies from Hadrian to Carus, many of which are spurious. The term refers to the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, a group of known historical figures who supported Athens’s enemy Sparta in 404-403 BCE after Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). During the time of Gallienus, the actual number of tyrants was probably 9 with some possible additions but not the 30 mentioned in Historia Augusta. These individuals created dissensions in the empire and allowed for it to be fragmented. Their actions forced Rome to continually expend forces in the field. Their rebellions created social, political, and economic instability not only in the local districts where the rebellions occurred but also throughout the empire. Some of these individuals mentioned did not claim the throne but were involved in fighting the central government. The tyrants were Postumus, Laelianus, Marius, and Victorinus (not a real tyrant), all in Gaul, and Ingenuus, Regalianus, Macrianus Major, Macrianus Minor and his brother Quietus, and Aureolus, all in the Danube region.

In the west, Marcus Cassianius Latinius Postumus seized control of Gaul in 260 and ultimately controlled Gaul, Germania, Hispania, and Britain, which has been called the Gallic Empire. He ruled for 10 years before his troops murdered him. He may have been from the Batavians, a tribe along the Rhine who rose through the ranks. With the defeat and capture of Gallienus’s father Valerian, Postumus was proclaimed emperor, after which he marched on Colonia Agrippinensis and murdered Gallienus’s son Salonius. Postumus set up many of the same accoutrements of the Roman government, including legislative bodies such as a senate and assembly. His coins proclaimed himself as restorer of Gaul. He fought against several Germanic tribes in 262-263, taking the title “Germanicus.” It appears that Postumus did not intend to attack Rome and instead wanted to make Gaul his center. He withstood several attacks from Gallienus and defeated several usurpers. In 269 Postumus defeated Laelianus and tried to prevent his own troops from looting the captured city of Moguntiacum, and for this reason his troops murdered him.

Laelianus, who ruled from early 269 until June, was considered one of the Thirty Tyrants. With the murder of Postumus the troops set up Marius as emperor. He appears to have allowed the troops to sack Moguntiacum, but his rule lasted no more than a few months. Postumus’s praetorian prefect Victorinus had Marius killed while he was in the city of Trier. By this time Gallienus was dead, and although Victorinus was listed among the Thirty Tyrants, he would not properly be seen as one. Victorinus ruled the Gallic Empire from 269 to 271. He continued Postumus’s policy of maintaining Gallic independence. Hispania deserted him for the central government under Claudius Gothicus and was murdered in 271 in Colonia Agrippinensis for supposedly seducing the wife of one of his officers. His son, also named among the Thirty Tyrants, was murdered as well.

In Pannonia, Ingenuus rebelled against Gallienus in 260. Gallienus appointed Ingenuus against the Sarmatians and was successful in repulsing them at the frontier border in 258. He was charged with educating Gallienus’s younger son Cornelius Valerianus, but the boy’s death in 258 aroused suspicion. When Gallienus’s father, Emperor Valerian, was captured by the Persians, the legions in Moesia declared him emperor at Sirmium. Gallienus sent his mobile army from Germany, and Ingenuus was defeated; Ingenuus drowned rather than surrender. Like Ingenuus who rose to power after Valerian’s capture, so too did Regalianus, a soldier supposedly descended from the Dacian king Decebalus, who was promoted by the population in Pannonia to protect them against the Sarmatians. Regalianus was successful in pushing them back in 260 but was soon murdered by his own people.

Another set of usurpers likewise occurred with the defeat of Valerian. Macrianus Major, Valerian’s chief fiscal officer, used his position as head of the treasury to have his sons Macrianus Minor and Quietus proclaimed emperors; Macrianus Major supposedly was not qualified, since he had deformed legs. He was able to secure the eastern frontier from further attacks from the Persians. Macrianus Major left Quietus behind in the east and with Macrianus Minor moved to Thrace. Macrianus Major’s army was defeated by Aureolus, Gallienus’s great cavalry general who had just defeated Ingenuus. Both Macrianus Major and his son Macrianus Minor were killed. Quietus remained in the east, but with the defeat of his father and brother he now lost the support of the provinces to Odaenathus, the king of Palmyra. Quietus fled to Emesa and was besieged and then murdered by the inhabitants.

The final known usurper who in fact lived during Gallienus’s rule was the general Aureolus. Born in Dacia, he enlisted in the military and was supposedly a horse groom. He appears to have risen in the ranks of the cavalry and was noticed by Valerian and Gallienus. Aureolus also appears to have conceived or at least helped conceive the mobile cavalry army that helped Gallienus maintain control of the central core of the empire. Aureolus first achieved success against Ingenuus in 258 in the Battle of Mursa and then achieved success in 261 against Macrianus Major and Macrianus Minor whose army had been increased with survivors from Ingenuus’s and Regalianus’s armies. It appears that Gallienus remained in Gaul to take on Postumus. After pacifying the Danube region, Aureolus accompanied Gallienus against Postumus again. This appears to have resulted in the recapture of Raetia. Supposedly in this campaign Aureolus allowed Postumus to escape, which caused Gallienus to suspect Aureolus of plotting against him. The evidence for this was his demotion to governor of Raetia and the loss of his mobile cavalry army.

With Gallienus in the Danube region facing the Goths, Aureolus invaded Italy and seized Milan; from there he appears to have invited Postumus to enter Italy and become emperor. Aureolus minted coins in favor of Postumus and the loyalty of his cavalry in an attempt to persuade them to come over to him and Postumus. Gallienus moved against Aureolus, while Postumus did not come to his support. Gallienus defeated Aureolus, and he fled to Milan; Gallienus was then murdered by his generals, including the new emperor, Claudius, and Aureolus surrendered to him. Before Claudius could decide his fate, Aureolus was executed by Claudius’s Praetorian Guard, perhaps with Claudius’s permission in order to remove any connection between Aureolus’s rebellion and the assassination of Gallienus.

The other so-called Thirty Tyrants never claimed imperial power. They included Cyriades; Odaenathus and his followers: Septimius Herodianus, his son and coruler of Palmyra; Maeonius, his nephew; and Zenobia, his wife, who would kill Maeonius and take power as the queen of Palmyra. Balista, another of the Thirty Tyrants and the general of Macrianus and Quietus, was killed by Odaenathus. Valens Thessalonicus attempted to suppress Macrianus; he killed Piso, a general sent by Macrianus to assassinate him, but then was hailed as emperor by his troops, only to be murdered in turn by them. Lucius Mussius Aemilianus, the governor of Egypt, supported Macrianus but was defeated by one of Gallienus’s generals and captured and strangled. These known individuals did not necessarily proclaim themselves as emperors. Saturninus, Trebellianus, Herennianus, Timolaus, and Celsus were mere fiction. Zenobia and Victoria, the mother of Victorinus, were also mentioned as members of the Thirty Tyrants even if as women who did not hold power.

Further Reading Drinkwater, John F. 1987. The Gallic Empire: Separatism and Continuity in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, A. D. 260-274. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Hitler’s Last Struggle





Gatow Airfield 1945 Post-War.

Most in Hitler’s inner circle expected the Führer to flee Berlin before the Soviets managed to encircle the ruined city. As the Red Army closed in on Berlin, Hitler’s personal pilot Hans Baur, promoted by Hitler on 30 January 1945 to SS-Gruppenführer, frantically tried to preserve the F.d.F aircraft for the expected escape south to Berchtesgaden. Standing by in Pöcking, near Passau in Lower Bavaria, was a brand new aircraft for Hitler’s exclusive use that would be the perfect getaway vehicle from the ruins of the Thousand Year Reich.

On 26 November 1943 Hitler had attended a demonstration of new Luftwaffe aircraft types at Insterburg in East Prussia. One aircraft in particular had caught his eye. The giant Junkers Ju 290 was a long-range transport, maritime patrol aircraft and heavy bomber first introduced into Luftwaffe service in August 1942 to replace the slower and smaller Condor. With a crew of nine, the Ju 290 was 28.64m long with a wingspan of 42m. Capable of a maximum speed of 440km/h it had a range of 6,150km and a maximum service ceiling of 6,000m. Hitler asked Göring for one to be assigned to the F.d.F. for his personal use. The Ju 290 had proved to be an excellent maritime patrol aircraft and transport, seeing service at Stalingrad and in Tunisia.

The aircraft destined for Hitler’s squadron was a former maritime reconnaissance aircraft that had been extensively refitted. A Ju 290A-7, it was given the code KRzLW. Hitler’s passenger cabin was protected by 12mm of armour plating and 50mm thick bulletproof glass. As on his main Condor, a special parachute seat and escape hatch was fitted.

The plane was ready for Hitler’s use from February 1945, just as the situation around Berlin was turning very bad. Baur was able to visit Pöcking and test-flew the new plane once. If Hitler, Eva Braun and the inner circle were going to escape death or capture in Berlin, the Ju 290 was going to be their salvation. It had the range to carry them to a neutral country like Spain and Baur prepared for what he thought would be an inevitable final rescue mission. Even if Hitler did not leave Germany at this point, most felt certain that he would nonetheless flee Berlin for Berchtesgaden and continue to direct the war from his mountaintop hideout in Bavaria. But Hitler had no intention of leaving the capital and instead continued to use both the partially wrecked Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker to direct the resistance to Stalin’s encroaching Soviet juggernaut. Baur was left frustrated and increasingly concerned for the safety of the remaining aircraft that made up the F.d.F.

The Führerbunker had its genesis in air raid shelters built under and adjoined to buildings on Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse in 1935. When the New Reich Chancellery complex was completed in January 1939 it included more air raid shelters. One was the Vorbunker, or Upper Bunker.

Architect Leonhard Gall submitted plans in 1935 for a large reception hall-cum-ballroom to be added to the Old Reich Chancellery. Completed in 1936, the Vorbunker had a roof that was 1.6m thick, the bunker’s thick walls partially supporting the weight of the large reception hall overhead.

There were two entrances into the Vorbunker; one from the Foreign Ministry garden and the other from the New Reich Chancellery. Both led to a reinforced steel gas-proof door leading to a set of small rooms. On the left was the Water Supplies/Boiler Room, to the right the Airfilters Room. Moving forward there was a middle Dining Area with a Kitchen to the left, which was where Hitler’s cook/dietician Frau Constanze Manziarly prepared the Führer’s meals. There was also a well-stocked Wine Store. To the right of the Dining Area was the Personnel/Guard Quarters. Moving forward again, there was a Conference Room in the middle and on the left two rooms that originally housed Hitler’s physician Dr Theodor Morell and, following his departure in April 1945, Dr Goebbels’ wife Magda and her six young children. To the right of the Conference Room was a room used for guest quarters, two storerooms and then a stairway set at right angles connecting to the Führerbunker that was 2.5m lower than the Vorbunker and west-southwest of it. Steel doors could close off the Vorbunker and Führerbunker from one another and the SS closely guarded all entrances and exits.

Hitler’s Führerbunker, or Lower Bunker, was built in 1942–43, 8.5m beneath the Old Reich Chancellery Garden 120m north of the New Chancellery at a cost of 1.4 million Reichsmarks. It was deep enough to withstand the largest bombs that were being dropped by the British and Americans over the city.

Designed by the architectural firm Hochtief under Albert Speer’s supervision, the Führerbunker was one of about twenty bunkers and air raid shelters used by Hitler’s inner circle, bodyguards and military commanders in the region of the Reich Chancellery. Many cellars in the surrounding buildings were also utilised as auxiliary bunkers during the Battle of Berlin.

The Führerbunker suffered from noise caused by the steady running of aeration ventilators twenty-four hours a day and also had a problem with cool moisture on the walls, as Berlin has a high ground water level.

Entry into the Führerbunker was via the Vorbunker, passing down the dogleg staircase, which led to a guarded door giving access to a long Hall/Lounge, where RSD and SS-Begleitkommando sentries checked identity papers before permitting entry to the Führerbunker proper. This was through double steel gas-proof doors set into the bunker’s 2.2m thick protective wall. The Führerbunker was divided along a central corridor that gave access to an emergency exit staircase at the far end that led up to the surface in the Reich Chancellery Garden. This corridor was divided into two long rooms. The first of these on entering the Führerbunker was the Corridor/Lounge. A door on the left led to the Toilets and Electricity Switch Room. From the Toilets a connecting door led to the Bathroom/Dressing Room with Eva Braun’s Bedroom on the right of the Bathroom. A door connected the Bathroom with Hitler’s Sitting Room. To the right of this room was Hitler’s Study, dominated by a large painting of King Frederick the Great that Hitler would spend much time staring at as the Soviets fought their way into Berlin’s suburbs, hoping that he could emulate Frederick and turn back the Bolshevik horde with some final grand military gesture. A door connected Hitler’s Sitting Room with Hitler’s Bedroom. A door on the right of Hitler’s Study led back into the central corridor, this section called the Conference Room. The last three rooms on the left of the Führerbunker were not connected to Hitler’s suite and consisted of the Map Room where Hitler held most of his military situation conferences during the last weeks of the war, the Cloakroom and a Ventilation Room.

The left side of the Führerbunker consisted, moving from the staircase connecting it with the Vorbunker to the emergency exit to the Reich Chancellery Gardens, of a series of rooms. First was the Generator/Ventilation Plant Room. This was connected to the Telephone Switchboard Room where SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch of the SS-Begleitkommando worked, Martin Bormann’s Office and the Guard Room. Hitler’s loyal valet SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge lived here. Next were two rooms: Goebbels’ Office and the Doctor’s Room. The last two rooms on the right of the central Conference Room were Goebbels’ Bedroom and the Doctor’s Quarters. Parts of the two bunkers were carpeted and one section of this material was recently discovered in a British regimental archive. It reveals that the carpet had a pattern of yellow flowers and blue leaves on a fawn background. The rooms were furnished with expensive pieces taken from the Reich Chancellery above and there were several framed oil paintings on the walls. But the interior, in keeping with Hitler’s other field headquarters, could not be described as anything other than Spartan and functional.

By mid-April the end was fast approaching on all fronts for Hitler’s Germany. On 11 April US forces had crossed the River Elbe placing them only 100km west of Berlin. British and Canadian forces had crossed the Rhine and were pushing into the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany. On 18 April Army Group B, the last major German formation west of Berlin, was surrounded and surrendered with the loss of 325,000 men. In Italy, the Allies’ Spring Offensive had seen their forces cross the River Po and push German forces into the foothills of the Alps. But the greatest threat came from the east where Stalin was poised to unleash hell.

On 16 April the Red Army commenced the operation to capture Berlin, assaulting the Seelow Heights, the last significant German defence line east of the city. The fighting was fierce, the Soviets suffering heavy casualties, but by the 19th they had broken through and there was now no longer a proper defence position left to protect the city.

On 20 April, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery came in range of the Berlin suburbs and opened fire. By the next evening T-34 tanks had arrived on the outskirts. As the Red Army began to close a ring around Berlin and started to fight through the city suburbs in several directions aiming for the nearby Reichstag building, efforts were taken to increase the protection afforded to the Reich Chancellery and the Führerbunker. On 22 April 1945 Kampfgruppe Mohnke (Battle Group Mohnke) was formed out of all available elite guard units from across Berlin and sent to defend the government quarter, Sector Z (Citadel), from the Soviets. Its commander, 34-year-old SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke had been one of the founding members of the SSStabswache (Staff Guard) in Berlin in 1934. A highly decorated Waffen-SS field commander, by 1945 Mohnke commanded the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division (LSSAH). He had been wounded in Hungary and whilst recovering in Berlin was appointed by Hitler to command the defence of Sector Z.

Kampfgruppe Mohnke consisted of several units. SS-Wachbataillon I, the section of the LSSAH that was retained in Berlin on ceremonial guard and security duties when the rest of the LSSAH was sent to the Western Front, numbered about 800 men. On 15 April, one regiment of two battalions had been formed out of the remaining Wachbataillon troops, reinforced by other SS and Wehrmacht stragglers. It was placed under the command of SS-Standartenführer Anhalt until he was killed-inaction on 24 April. SS-Sturmbannführer Herbert Kaschula then assumed command. SS-Hauptsturmführer Mrugalla commanded its I Battalion while SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Schäfer led the II Battalion.

Another unit, SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Ausbildungs-und Ersatz Bataillon I under 32-year-old SS-Sturmbannführer Arthur Klingermeyer, was brought in from Spreenhagen. In January 1945 this unit consisted of twelve companies. On 15 April two battalions under Klingermeyer had been transferred to Berlin. Both battalions were later merged together and given some reservist reinforcements. There was the LSSAH Flak Kompanie and the 800-man SS-Begleitkommando under SS-Sturmbannführer Franz Schädle and the usual RSD close-protection detachment.

Finally, there were 600 men from the Begleit-Bataillon Reichsführer-SS. This special unit had been formed in May 1941 as Himmler’s personal escort and most had remained in Berlin after Himmler left the capital. They were part of the larger 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS then currently fighting in Austria.

Further troops within the Citadel sector included the remains of the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division der SS Charlemagne, consisting of approximately sixty French SS under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Gustav Krukenberg, who would fall back on the sector and take command of the remnants of the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division Nordland on 27 April. There were also stragglers and small units from various Wehrmacht, SS, Volkssturm (Home Guard), Hitler Youth and Kriegsmarine units that were also pushed or fell back into Defence Sector Z.

By 22 April the Germans defending Berlin were outnumbered virtually 10-1. German units had been severely degraded and worn down by almost continuous fighting since the start of the Soviet spring offensive. Some 100,000 Volkssturm, mostly consisting of older men above military age, plus some Hitler Youth and foreign SS volunteers, were backing up the regular troops in the hopeless defence. With virtually no tanks, limited artillery and no viable Luftwaffe over the capital, the defence of Berlin would not last for long.

Hitler grasped at anything that he thought might turn the tide. When he observed the vulnerability of one of the Soviet flanks he gave orders for SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s Army Detachment to counterattack, refusing to accept that Steiner’s forces were severely depleted and simply not up to the task. When Hitler discovered at the afternoon situation conference on 22 April that Steiner had failed to attack he suffered a complete mental collapse, and once he stopped screaming declared to his shocked audience that the war was lost. Later that day Hitler consulted SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr Werner Haase on the best method to kill oneself. Haase suggested that he bite down on a cyanide capsule whilst simultaneously shooting himself in the head.

Hitler’s pilot, SS-Gruppenführer Baur, spent most of his days organising last-minute flights out of the doomed city for certain VIPs aboard the handful of serviceable transport aircraft.

This movement of key personnel was codenamed Operation ‘Seraglio’. Konteadmiral Hans von Puttkammer, Hitler’s naval aide, was ordered to destroy all of Hitler’s personal papers at the Berghof. Hitler’s personal Condor, CEzIB, carried the Puttkamer party south from Berlin’s Gatow Airport to Neubiberg near Munich. Among the passengers was Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodor Morell, who carried an army footlocker containing all of Hitler’s medical records.

On 21 April Grossadmiral Karl Dönitz’s personal Condor, GCzSJ, was pressed into service on a secret mission. The aircraft had just returned from a hazardous sortie to evacuate Spanish diplomats and some important German passengers from Berlin to Munich. Hitler had decided to send more non-essential staff out of Berlin to Berchtesgaden. GCzSJ touched down at Tempelhof, which was by then under fire, and met three black cars. Leading the group was NSKK-Gruppenführer Albert Bormann, brother of Hitler’s much-feared secretary Martin Bormann. Accompanying him were his family, servants and twenty-five former occupants of the Berlin Führerbunker.

The plane was soon airborne and the pilot ducked into thick cloud cover to avoid Soviet fighters and flak. Near Dresden the Condor again came under Soviet anti-aircraft fire. Shell fragments struck the cockpit, shattering some of the instrument displays. One engine was knocked out but they made it intact to Neubiberg Airfield near Munich.

Albert Speer’s Condor, TAzMR, had been destroyed in a bombing raid and on 21 April his personal pilot, Major Erich Adam, had flown Heinkel He 111 transport TQzMU to Neubiberg. As the flak-damaged Condor GCzSJ carrying Albert Bormann and party came in to land at Neubiberg’s blacked out airfield the pilot, Hauptmann Husslein, suddenly saw Major Adam’s Heinkel 111 sitting on the runway directly ahead. The Condor’s brakes were engaged so hard that all four landing gear tires blew out, but a terrible ground collision was narrowly avoided.

Railways of WWII Part I

A Deutsche Reichsbahn BR 52 locomotive at work during war time.

The period between the two wars marked the true beginning of the motorized age. While before the First World War the ownership of automobiles had been confined to a small affluent minority and the railways still carried the bulk of freight even for short journeys, by the outbreak of the Second World War this had changed completely. Cars were commonplace and the lorry had become the transport of choice for many kinds of freight carriage. Coupled with the development of air transport, the railways were expected to play a much lesser role in the Second World War than in the First World War. The growing competition from air and road had restricted railway investment during the interwar years in all the combatant nations. While there had been improvements to signalling and rolling stock, many of the world’s railways, largely built in the nineteenth century, were in desperate need of modernization and refurbishment, but little had been forthcoming because of the expectation that the car and the lorry would be the key to meeting future transport needs.

This assumption neglected a crucial advantage that railways had over motor transport – they used coal, still in most countries in plentiful supply even after the conflict broke out, while oil, frequently dependent on shipping, would become scarce. Neither Germany nor Britain had oil, and even the US was not self-sufficient, and therefore railways regained their place as the key mode of transport during the war precisely because they used old technology, still mostly based on coal, and had not been modernized. Fortunately, for the most part the railways were still serviceable and the networks still dense as the days of widespread closures would not start until after the Second World War.

Their role was, though, not the same as in the First World War. The Second World War was not a railway war in the way that the conflicts of the previous three quarters of a century had been because of the existence of the alternatives to rail transport and the development of more sophisticated weaponry. It was far more mobile as entrenched positions were now too vulnerable from the air and tanks to be sustained for long periods. Even when positions became fixed, railways were no longer needed to bring supplies right to the front, as trucks could do the job over short distances. Artillery was self-propelling or could be towed, reducing the need to carry it on trains. Nevertheless, the role of the railways remained central to the logistical needs of the combatants, because they were still unrivalled for the transport of heavy loads and for journeys of, say, more than 200 miles. Railways were still the workhorses, often unsung, of the logistics of war and where no lines were available, or as in Russia were insufficient, supply bottlenecks invariably developed. Roads had greatly improved in the quarter of a century since the First World War, but away from the main routes were still primitive. There were no motorways apart from the German Autobahnen, and even main highways were easily blocked by marching troops, as the Germans found to their cost when invading Russia. Cars and lorries now provided much of the basic transport needs for shorter trips, but to a large extent they replaced the horse rather than the railway. The railways were, therefore, again a crucial aspect of the conflict and their role, while often unappreciated, can hardly be overestimated. Even many of the fortresses of the Maginot Line, the series of concrete fortifications that were designed to protect France against German invasion, were supplied from depots up to thirty-five miles behind the line by 60cm railways, which went right into the larger ones.

As in the First World War, there was a long build-up during which the expectation of a conflict grew. German resentment about the settlement at the end of the First World War had led to Hitler’s rise to power and the country’s rearmament. Once Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, war appeared inevitable despite Neville Chamberlain’s infamous trip to Munich, and arrangements for a likely conflict began to be made across Europe. While there was no equivalent of the Schlieffen Plan, there had been considerable logistical preparation on both sides in the 1930s. In Britain, the railways were not in a particularly good shape as competition from motor transport had begun to erode their market, while they were still required by government regulation to provide a universal service to all, which was expensive and often unremunerative. There had been insufficient investment in the interwar period and the railways had belatedly started a campaign for a ‘square deal’ just before the war in an effort to be relieved of their ‘common carrier’ obligations, which required them to transport any goods offered to them, from small parcels to lifeboats and circuses. Preparations for war had started as early as 1937 with, in that British way, the establishment of a committee to examine what protection and precautions were needed for the railway in the event of a war. Grants were made by the government to the Big Four railway companies, which had been created in the aftermath of the First World War, and London Transport to build up supplies of material to permit rapid repairs, to improve telegraph equipment, to develop lighting systems that could not be seen by aircraft and, interestingly, for preparations to move all four company headquarters out of London. Lighting was a particular obsession of the war planners and tests were even carried out early in 1939 to investigate whether it was possible to continue running services under blackout conditions. In 1938, work started on a public evacuation plan from the cities which was completed just two months before the outbreak of war. The scheme, which envisaged running 4,000 special trains, involved not only moving thousands of vulnerable people out of the cities, but also Britain’s cultural heritage in the British Museum, the Tate and other buildings was to be conveyed to a remote destination in Wales, where the artefacts were to be housed in specially adapted disused mines.

As in 1914, it was envisaged that a government committee consisting of senior railway managers would take over the railways as soon as war broke out. Again, the British railways excelled in the early stages of the war when they were called upon to deal with the expected huge increase in demand. On the very day that war was announced, 3 September 1939, huge numbers of people flocked to the railways – foreigners anxious to get home, holidaymakers cutting short their vacations, colonial civil servants heading for ships from Liverpool to get back to their postings. This was quickly followed by the evacuation of 1.3 million children and other vulnerable people out of London and a number of big cities. Ambulance trains which had been fitted out during the build-up to war were now used to ferry hospital patients from London and other major cities to safer locations. The first contingent of the British Expeditionary Force, 158,000 strong, was despatched to France over the next few weeks with a minimum of fuss. This time, realizing that there would be greatly increased demands on the railway, about half the normal train service was cancelled but again there was a great reluctance on the part of the British people to obey the injunctions not to travel. The pinnacle of the British railways’ efforts in the early stages of the war was the unexpected task of having to cope with the rapid influx of 338,000 evacuees, many of whom were injured, from Dunkirk in May 1940. Virtually the whole of the Southern Railway network was reorganized to cope with the arrivals, with, for example, one line being devoted solely to stabling rolling stock in readiness to pick up the passengers.

The Dunkirk debacle was the nearest the war got to the British mainland, which meant that again the railways were not involved in front-line combat but on the Continent they played their now traditional role as the core of the logistics of war, a function which Hitler had fatally failed to grasp. Hitler was a car fanatic who understood their technology and how the engines worked, and had consequently focussed his country’s transport infrastructure effort on the Autobahnen, the world’s first motorways, rather than on building up the capacity of the railways. That was understandable given that it was very much in keeping with the Zeitgeist as railways were seen as an old-fashioned technology and the National Socialist emphasis on modernization naturally led them to embrace motor cars. The National Socialists did build innovatory diesel trains like the streamlined 100 mph Fliegende Hamburger (‘Flying Hamburger’), but it was the Volkswagen Beetle and the white Autobahnen which were their showpieces.

This emphasis on rubber rather than steel tyres would severely constrain Germany’s war effort. Worse, Hitler compounded the error by focussing on the roads rather than on the vehicles which were needed to run on them. Yet it was the railways which kept the German economy functioning. According to a study of the German economy before and during the war, ‘the dependence on transportation was multifaceted and self-reinforcing. It was the very heart of the Reich’s military might.’ And it was the railways which were at the heart of the system, as they carried 90 per cent of the coal that was the basis of the nation’s industrial output and 75 per cent of all freight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not surprisingly, the Eisenbahntruppen could not cope with the scale of their task and were beset by a host of difficulties. Undermanned and lacking requisite skills, they failed to carry out conversions and repairs thoroughly, tending only to provide the tracks without installing such vital equipment as platforms, workshops and engine sheds. They were forced to travel by road but were not given the priority they needed because the officers of the combat regiments did not understand the importance of their task. Changing the gauge was a slow and cumbersome job and proved to be the major obstacle for the efficiency of the lines of communication. While captured wagons could be adapted to standard gauge, it was impossible to convert locomotives and therefore, effectively, the Germans were always having to contend with two separate railway systems. At the point of change of gauge, which was advanced into Russia as quickly as possible and therefore had to be moved frequently, huge bottlenecks built up, at times delaying loads for two or three days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the winter, therefore, all three prongs of the German advance were at a standstill far short of their objectives, and with little likelihood of achieving them. The Germans had to adapt to a war of attrition, for which they were not prepared, and which ultimately would be their undoing. As van Creveld concludes, ‘the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the largest military operation of all time, and the logistic problems involved of an order of magnitude that staggers the imagination’.9 Yet, although the means at the disposal of the Wehrmacht were modest, the Germans came closer to their aims than might have been expected, which van Creveld attributes ‘less to the excellence of the preparations than to the determination of troops and commanders to give their all’, making do with whatever means were made available to them. Indeed, during the initial phase of the attack, the supply shortages were greatly alleviated by the armies living off the land in the traditional manner, but once the frost set in, the conditions not only made transportation more difficult but the required level of supplies increased greatly. The most notorious failing was the lack of provision for winter coats and other cold-weather equipment for the troops advancing on Moscow, which resulted in thousands of men, fighting in their summer gear, freezing to death in the cold. There is much debate among historians as to whether this equipment was available or not, but van Creveld is convinced this is irrelevant because there were no means to deliver it: ‘The railroads, hopelessly inadequate to prepare the offensive on Moscow and to sustain it after it had started, were in no state to tackle the additional task of bringing up winter equipment.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last-ditch attack on Moscow coincided with another turning point, as it took place a few days before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, which propelled the US into the war. America was quickly put on a war footing and despite the fact that the country had embraced the automobile age more firmly than any other, the railroads were at the heart of their transportation system, carrying virtually all war traffic, both goods and personnel. During the Second World War, the American railroads carried 90 per cent of military freight and 97 per cent of all organized military passenger movements. In other words, railways were still very much the dominant form of transport. The President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was well aware of this and within days of Pearl Harbor created the Office of Defense Transportation to co-ordinate all transport facilities and war traffic. This time the US railroads were determined not to suffer the humiliation of being taken over, as had happened in the First World War, and responded by complying with all the federal government’s demands. Such co-operation was essential as the railroads were in a state of decline owing to the Depression and competition from motor transport. Compared with 1916, the railroad companies’ rolling stock had been reduced by a third, although, on the positive side, locomotives were more powerful than a quarter of a century before and the surviving network was in better shape thanks to improved signalling and maintenance. With petrol and, particularly, rubber for tyres in short supply, the railroads were the only form of long-distance transport available.

During the four years of American involvement in the Second World War, the railroads carried 44 million troops in 114,000 special trains, twice the monthly average during the First World War. More freight, too, was carried than in the previous war and the railways also had to cope with a huge influx of civilian passengers, with the result that 1944 was the all-time record for the railroads with almost a billion passenger journeys. Yet, thanks to much better co-ordination by the railroads and the fact that both Pacific and Atlantic seaports were used, there were none of the bottlenecks which had forced the government to take over the railroads in the First World War. All this was made possible by the more efficient use of the system facilitated by co-operation rather than competition and, according to a military analyst, because the railroad companies had adhered to Haupt’s rules of wartime railway operation: ‘There was a general observance of the vital doctrine “no car shall be loaded without positive assurance that it can and will be promptly unloaded at destination”.’ Not surprisingly, the railroad companies enjoyed a boom in profits thanks to this extra traffic, but after 1945 they reverted to the cut-throat competition which had characterized their pre-war behaviour and soon found themselves back in the financial mire. They did, though, get a big thank-you from the military. General Brehon Somervell, the commander of the US Army Service Forces, later wrote about the vital role of the railroads: ‘The American railroads can take the greatest pride in their contribution to our victory. Without that contribution the war would have been prolonged for many months and even our ultimate success would have been jeopardized. The prolongation of the war would have meant the loss of thousands of additional lives…’

In Britain, after the excitement of the early evacuations and Dunkirk the railways settled down to a pattern of overuse that had typified their performance in the First World War. This time, however, matters were made worse because, right from the outset, the peacetime passenger train service was cut back in order to prioritize military movements and frequent air attacks on the rail network disrupted operations even further. The reduction in services meant that the remaining ones were overcrowded as, despite the injunctions not to travel, there was a desperate desire to do so and there was little alternative to rail given the strictness of the petrol rationing system. Travelling on the railways during the war was an increasingly grim experience owing to the delays and overcrowding, and there was not even any recourse to luxury for the more affluent as first class was soon abolished to allow for better use of the available space, followed towards the end of the war by the cessation of all restaurant car services. The latter had, in any case, been losing money during blackouts as an official report delicately explained: ‘It was also discovered on the restoration of the lighting after the termination of the warning that certain passengers found it convenient to leave the dining cars during such periods and thus relieve the dining car attendant of the necessity of making out their bills.’ Nor was it only the price of meals that was lost. The Blitz spirit did not preclude the odd bit of pilfering and the London, Midland & Scottish had to change the lighting system on its Glasgow trains because the cost of maintenance was soaring as a result of the theft of bulbs at the rate of 50,000 per year. Passengers were distinctly unruly in other ways, too, frequently lifting up the blackout blinds for a view out of the window, despite the dangers from air attack. The government’s propaganda machine created an irritating priggish cartoon character called Billy Brown, who featured in several poster campaigns with horrible homilies, such as, in an effort to stop people removing the netting from railway windows:

I trust you’ll pardon my correction,

That stuff is there for your protection

Graffiti artists frequently added the lines:

Thank you for your information

but I can’t see the bloody station

Oddly, at other times, the public was so incensed about lights showing on railways that misguided vigilante groups threatened to remove signalling equipment from the lineside, prompting the authorities to issue a warning for them not to do so because of the potential dire consequences. Despite the deprivations of war, the authorities did find time to make sure that passengers on the Royal Train did not suffer inconvenience as train drivers were instructed, in the event of an air raid, to ensure that they stopped with ‘care being taken to see that the train is not suddenly brought to a stand’ so that there were no royal bumps.

The British railways were, as in the First World War, hampered by labour shortages. This time, unlike in 1914, the government had made the railways a ‘reserved occupation’ but nevertheless 60,000 railwaymen still signed up, many to join the railway regiments which were vital in repairing and maintaining lines that were essential for supplying the Army. In the First World War, there had been much debate and hesitation over employing women, who hitherto had rarely worked in the railways, but eventually more than 33,000 were taken on to fill a variety of jobs ranging from ticket collection to guard duty, though they were banned from driving trains and kept out of supervisory and managerial jobs. This time there was no debate about filling the gaps left by the men, and women were recruited in far greater numbers, with more than 100,000 employed by 1943, a sixth of the workforce.

Railways of WWII Part II

Under the Whyte notation for the classification of steam locomotives, 2-8-2 represents the wheel arrangement of two leading wheels on one axle, usually in a leading truck, eight powered and coupled driving wheels on four axles and two trailing wheels on one axle, usually in a trailing truck. This configuration of steam locomotive is most often referred to as a Mikado, frequently shortened to Mike.

At times it was also referred to on some railroads in the United States of America as the McAdoo Mikado and, during the Second World War, the MacArthur.

All the difficulties of overuse that beset the rail network in the First World War were compounded by the bombing raids, notably the initial Blitz, which ran for a year from June 1940 until the invasion of Russia diverted the Luftwaffe, and the flying bomb attacks towards the end of the war in 1944-5. During the Blitz, although industrial centres around Britain such as Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle were all bombed heavily at various times, the Southern Railway bore the brunt of the attacks, with a third of them aimed at the area it covered. According to the railway historian Ernest Carter, the most bombed station was the East End station of Poplar near the London docks, which endured 1,200 high-explosive bombs, 50,000 incendiary devices and fifty-two rocket attacks, although presumably that vast total includes ordnance which fell on the surrounding area. As a consequence of the Blitz, Londoners flocked to the Underground to protect themselves, and after initially banning people from sleeping there, the government relented and Tube stations became ‘the best shelters of them all’, though they took a few hits, notably at Bank, Balham and Bounds Green, and the worst disaster was caused by a stampede in the station shelter at Bethnal Green.

Given the labour shortages, air raids, extra military traffic and overcrowding, delays on the railways were legion, measured in hours rather than minutes. Trains were initially stopped once the air raid sirens sounded but the authorities realized this caused chaos and put more people at risk, and consequently decided to allow traffic to continue at reduced speeds. It was not so much direct damage from bombs that resulted in delays but the rule which specified that any unexploded ordnance within 400 yards of a railway line resulted in the cessation of all traffic. Interestingly, in 1944, in order for the invasion of France not to be delayed in the face of anticipated heavy enemy attacks, the government relaxed rules about trains passing unexploded bombs so as not to hold up the service but kept this decision secret from the public.

One of the reasons for the small number of accidents caused by bombing was that the air raid warning system in fact worked very well and not many German planes managed to get through unnoticed. There were remarkably few instances of trains being involved in major derailments because of damage to the tracks, although in general the accident rate on the railways rose as a result of the blackout conditions that required, for example, signals to be at just 6 per cent of their normal brightness. Because so little information was given out, the public did not know what was happening on the railways or why particular rules were being enforced, and consequently ‘the railways were subjected to much unfair, unwarranted and unjustifiable opprobrium at the time, both by the public and the press’. The government body which ran the railways, the Railway Executive Committee, was driven to publish a poster with doggerel explaining its dilemma over information that began:

In peace-time railways could explain

When fog or ice held up your train

But now the country’s waging war

To tell you why’s against the law…

The overall burden on the railways proved to be far greater than in the First World War, but this time it was Norfolk, rather than Scotland, where there was most extra traffic, because of the 150 bomber airfields sited there thanks to the county’s proximity to Germany. The Southern Railway was inevitably the most heavily used of the four railway companies as it served the Channel ports, and its heavy density of lines gave flexibility by allowing diversionary routes when lines were damaged or overcrowded. Indeed, one calculation suggests there were no fewer than 136 different ways to reach Dover and Folkestone from the London area on the tracks of the Southern Railway. However, virtually every railway in the country was used in some respect for military purposes and as in the First World War many duplicate routes suddenly became essential supply lines. Most bizarrely, the tiny Romney, Hythe Dymchurch Railway, a thirteen-mile-long railway built in the late 1920s to the tiny 15in gauge on the Kent coast, was requisitioned and fitted with an armoured train 21 sporting anti-tank rifles and machine guns, and was intensively used to carry supplies for the war effort, notably equipment for the pipeline under the ocean (PLUTO) which was vital in keeping the Normandy invasion force functioning until the French ports could be reopened. While a dozen armoured trains patrolled the Channel coast until 1943, after which an invasion was deemed unlikely, at Dover rail-mounted 9.2in guns were regularly hauled to a siding to lob a few shells half-heartedly over the Channel in the forlorn hope of hitting the corresponding German guns near Calais.

Another unusual line in the south-east which saw particularly heavy use, principally for training purposes, was the Longmoor Military Railway in Surrey, originally opened before the First World War and known until 1935 as the Woolmer Instructional Railway. During the First World War it was used to train thousands of railway troops and in 1916 a 60cm railway was installed because of the wider use of such railways on the front. At its peak, it had seventy miles of line and sidings, with, deliberately, a vast array of types of locomotive to offer a varied experience to the trainees. While it continued to be operational throughout the interwar period, usage increased enormously in the run-up to the Second World War. Indeed, the Army built numerous similar railways around the country both for training purposes and to carry ammunition and explosives. The largest was the Bicester Military Railway, and other notable ones included a narrow-gauge railway serving the explosives storehouses at Eastriggs near Carlisle, and the notorious line at the ammunition dump in the Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, where there was a huge explosion in July 1945.

Paradoxically the Germans never targeted the railway network itself in a systematic way believing, perhaps, that this would be ineffective. That view was strengthened by the remarkable recovery in Coventry, the subject of one of the Luftwaffe’s earliest major raids in November 1940. Although the city suffered devastation from an attack by more than 500 bombers, and while railway property suffered no fewer than 122 hits, the lines were operational again within a week, some within two days. According to an analysis of the German bombing campaign against Britain, ‘very few direct attacks were made with the railways as a definite target’, and while indiscriminate bombing raids caused damage, ‘they made no large concentrated attack on a strategical junction or marshalling yard in this country’. One theory, though seemingly unlikely, is that the Germans were reluctant to destroy the railway system as they would need it if they invaded. More likely, they did not have the resources or the ability to target the railway system specifically as it proved remarkably difficult to target a thin line of tracks without a guidance device. The Allies would come up against this problem in the later stages of the war, when attacks on the French rail network did not prevent the Germans bringing in reinforcements to resist the Allied advance after D-Day. As John Westwood concludes: ‘It is significant that the unaimed flying bomb of 1944 was as likely to cause serious railway damage as the aimed bomb of 1940.’ Indeed, by chance, the first V2, the more sophisticated version of the rockets aimed at Britain in the final stages of the war, happened to strike a railway line at Bethnal Green in the East End and several other rockets caused damage to railway property, including one which hit the track in front of a Kent Coast express, resulting in the death of several passengers.

Railways throughout the theatre of conflict were a target for attacks, especially by sabotage. It was a major tactic of the French Resistance, which from early 1943 began to launch daily attacks against the railways to prevent German movements. By the autumn of that year, around twenty acts of sabotage per day were being recorded, seriously hampering the Germans’ ability to move supplies around the country. There were notable examples elsewhere in parts of Europe under occupation by the Germans. In Greece, virtually the whole 1,350-mile railway system was wrecked by sabotage. In November 1942, partisans, with help from British paratroopers, blew up a series of three viaducts on the main Athens-Thessaloniki line, which helped inspire far wider resistance to the German invasion. The most spectacular part of this concerted wave of destruction was to the Gorgopotamus Viaduct as its 70ft spans crashed into the gorge below, but the most troublesome for the Germans proved to be the Asopos Viaduct, which was repaired by forced labour. However, the Polish and Greek labourers had deliberately undermined the foundations, and when the first locomotive was driven over the bridge, its central pier collapsed, ensuring the line was out of action for a further two months. Yugoslavia, which was invaded at the same time as Greece, also saw similar levels of railway sabotage by guerrilla forces and by the end of the war no line in the country was functioning. Even the Jersey islanders got in on the sabotage act, though only on a minor scale. The Jersey railways had been closed during the interwar period, but when the Germans invaded the island they reopened and extended the railways for military use while banning the local populace from travelling on them. The Jersey railways thus became the only part of the British rail network to be taken over by the Germans, and according to a history of the railways in the Second World War, ‘islander involvement was confined to children placing stones on the tracks and inflicting a series of minor derailments that interrupted operations briefly’.

Despite all these attacks, there were no railway accidents on the scale of the three involving troops in the First World War, although there was one tragedy in Italy which was indirectly caused by wartime conditions. On the night of 2 March 1944, a freight train was carrying more than 400 people travelling illegally from Naples to a market town where fresh produce was on sale. The train struggled to climb up a steep incline in a tunnel out of the small Eboli station because of the weight of passengers and stalled, slowly releasing deadly carbon monoxide gas. Nearly all the passengers died, but, as with the enormous First World War disasters, the precise number is unknown because the disaster was kept secret at the time.

While the destruction of railways and rail equipment was a recurring feature of the Second World War, so were the construction of new lines and the expansion of existing ones for strategic purposes. The most impressive achievement was the expansion and refurbishment of the railways of the Arabian Gulf, in Iraq and Iran, which became a vital part of the war effort. In Iraq, the main line through the country had been cut in several places between Basra and Baghdad during the German-backed attempt by the Prime Minister, Rashid Ali, to oust the British. British forces arrived in Basra in May 1941 and Royal Engineers began the task of repairing the line, moving slowly northwards towards Baghdad and then up to Mosul supported by an armoured train. They eventually secured the whole railway, which connected with Turkey and Syria, for the British once more, effectively balking German plans to move further eastwards to reach the oilfields. More important strategically was gaining control of the Trans-Persian (Trans-Iranian) Railway, which had been finally completed by the Shah of Persia just as war broke out. Persia had tried to stay neutral in the war, but the need to guarantee oil supplies in the face of the German advances eastwards on both sides of the Mediterranean led the Allies to occupy the country in August 1941 with little resistance and to install a new leader, the son of the previous Shah, who had been supportive of the Axis (and who in turn would be ousted in 1979 by the Ayatollahs). The 865-mile Trans-Persian Railway was an obvious means to supply the Russian war effort while avoiding the perilous shipping route from the North Sea to Murmansk. With the roads being totally inadequate, the railway through Persia and on to Soviet-controlled Azerbaijan was the only viable alternative option. The line, however, was inadequate for the needs of the Allies and a huge improvement programme was immediately set in motion. Ironically, the only locomotives were of German manufacture but soon both British and American engines were brought to the line, which, along with most of the other rail equipment, had to be transported 15,000 miles across the world around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Gulf. The very fact that the Allies were prepared to go to so much effort to establish this supply route demonstrated its vital importance. It was not easy. Whole new port facilities had to be installed on the Shatt al Arab waterway and connected to the line by a new extension built over marshes in the full heat of the summer. The Trans-Persian had been one of the most ambitious railway schemes ever built, with a single-track line crossing swathes of desert, then climbing up and through both the Luristan and Elburz mountain ranges to reach a height of 7,000 feet with steep gradients and no fewer than 144 tunnels. New sidings, marshalling yards and, most important, numerous passing places were built with remarkable speed and the water supply, always a problem, greatly improved. Running conditions were virtually unique. On the same trip temperatures in the desert could reach 50°C while on the mountains they could plunge to 20 below freezing. Conditions were so harsh that the tenders of the imported locomotives had to be painted white to prevent the water inside becoming too hot for the engine to function.

Once the supply trains started rolling, they needed protection, especially in the bandit-infested mountain sections, where Indian troops had to be placed on permanent patrol duty and every train had armed guards. While initially the line was operated by the British, with many British drivers, the Americans soon took over, bringing with them diesel engines requisitioned from US railroads. These were more powerful and suitable for the steep sections in tunnels where steam locomotives often struggled to climb, putting the crews at risk of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide fumes. Another hazard was colliding with camels, which derailed at least one steam engine at full speed. The tremendous efforts to create this line of communication proved, however, worthwhile. The capacity of the railway had been just 200 tons per day, but thanks to the improvement it carried 5 million tons through to the Russians in under three years, a 25-fold increase on what would have been possible previously.

Lines were constructed elsewhere in the Middle East and in many parts of Europe during the war, but the most infamous line built in the war was the Burma-Siam railway. Soon after the Japanese captured Malaya and Burma in 1942 they decided to improve communication between the two countries as there were no adequate road or railway links. To build the 300-mile line through mountainous terrain and jungle, the Japanese drew on a labour force amounting to more than 250,000, most of whom were local people press-ganged into work but also including 61,000 British troops captured when the Japanese overran Singapore. The line, which was designed to link the Burmese and Siamese (now Thai) railway networks, was built simultaneously from both ends, Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Siam, and was completed at breakneck speed in just sixteen months at a terrible human cost. The conditions on what became known as the Death Railway were so appalling that disease, starvation rations, lack of sanitation and the brutal behaviour of the Japanese and Korean overseers resulted in more than 100,000 workers perishing, including a quarter of the Allied prisoners. Similar suffering, but on a far smaller scale, occurred on the puppet Vichy government’s short-lived project in 1941-2 to revive the scheme to build a Trans-Sahara railway that was intended to connect Dakar in Senegal with the Mediterranean. Prisoners, mostly foreign nationals who had the bad luck of being stranded in Dakar when the Vichy government took over, were forced to build the first section but the project was thankfully soon abandoned when its sheer unreality became apparent.

The death rate on the Burma railway was particularly high in the final stages of construction as the Japanese were desperate for the line to be completed. Robert Hardie, a doctor who was captured at Singapore and wrote a book about his time as a prisoner, described how even sick men were made to work extremely long hours: ‘They are being worked very hard and very savagely [on the railway] – from 7.30 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day. Unfit men just collapse if they are sent up.’ All that on just seven ounces of rice per day, often with no vegetables, let alone meat.

When the line opened in October 1943, it was a vital part of the Japanese line of communication because the Burma front had become a key supply route when the Japanese lost control of the South China Sea. It would not be until the following year that the Allies re-established a foothold in Burma and the capture of the Myitkynia station allowed them to use the railway to advance towards the Japanese. According to Ernest Carter, the lack of roads meant that many cars and lorries were adapted for railway use: ‘As soon as they came on the line, American engineers fitted flanged wheels to a couple of army jeeps and put them at each end of half a dozen wagons to form a push-pull train.’ He even reports that one of the commanders of the British forces, General Francis Festing, was seen to be driving his own jeep along the track ahead of his men. After the war, most of the railway was quickly abandoned as it was in poor condition, though a section of about eighty miles was brought up to standard and remains in use today.

On the other side of the Burmese front, there was much railway activity, too. To counter the threat of the Japanese advancing towards India and possibly through Bengal to the port of Chittagong, the Allies needed to strengthen the supply line to the Chinese, under Chiang Kai-shek, who were fighting with the Allies. The principal supply route from Calcutta was cumbersome and slow, a 600-mile-long railway that had been built to serve the tea plantations of Assam. A standard-gauge railway struck north to Parbatipur on the foothills of the Himalayas, and then a metre-gauge line continued across Eastern Bengal to the banks of the Brahmaputra river, where there was only a ferry to connect with another narrow-gauge railway, which wound up the valley to Dimapur, the supply base in the north-eastern corner of Assam. The Allied forces in China were supplied by an airlift over the Himalayas from airfields close to the north-east end of the railway. According to the historian of the line, John Thomas, ‘the fate of India and to a degree the British Empire depended on this slender line of communication’, which was inevitably slow given that goods had to be manhandled three times between the various modes of transportation.

To speed the flow of goods on the line, 400 British railway troops were brought over in early 1943, followed at the start of 1944 by ten times that number of Americans. By improving the line and building passing loops to accommodate the massive trains of 120 wagons pulled by imported locomotives, the capacity of the railway increased more than tenfold, from just 600 to 7,000 tons per day. Relations between the British, the Americans and the Indians were, however, not always cordial as the Americans tended to view the railway as solely a military operation, whereas the British, intending to stay in India after the war, were keen also to retain it for civilian use, while the Indians tried to insist that the regular ‘mail train’ should take precedence over the military traffic. Cultural differences caused numerous difficulties: ‘An American officer commanding a troop train pulled the communication cord as his train was leaving Sealdah main station in Calcutta because there was no toilet paper on board.’ The Americans tended to commandeer the best coaches for use in sidings as offices for their control staff. Moreover, the military controllers of the line cut corners, resulting in a tenfold increase in accidents with smashed wagons and broken locomotives littering the side of the track. To compound the difficulties, disease severely reduced the effectiveness of the imported railway troops, and there were frequent attacks on the trains from the guerrilla army of the Indian resistance movement. The sabotage was easy but effective. According to Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Mains, an officer who helped protect the railway, ‘the modus operandi was extremely simple and the only tool required was a long handled spanner… The wreckers would merely remove one or more fishplates [the connecting plates holding lengths of rail together], usually on a curve, and the centrifugal force generated by the trains would distort the track and derailment followed.’ Nevertheless, despite all these difficulties, and the fact that a proposed bridge over the Brahmaputra river was never completed, the supply route proved successful, and was essential in the construction of a series of new roads through the mountains to replace the airlifts.

It was not only railway lines that were hastily constructed in the war. Britain, the US and Germany all produced vast quantities of standard locomotives, mostly based on pre-war freight designs. These ‘Austerity’ locomotives were designed in a minimalist style to ensure they were cheap and efficient to build. More than 6,700 of the basic German Kriegslok were produced as they had the advantage of only taking 8,000 man-hours to build, a third of the time that their more sophisticated predecessors required. After the start of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler recognized the need for more locomotives and demanded that 15,000 be constructed, and Hermann Göring decreed that locomotive production should, with the oil industry, have priority over all other armament projects. The US produced nearly 800 locomotives of a type designed by the Corps of Engineers that came to be known as ‘MacArthur’ and these were despatched to several theatres of the war, notably Normandy after the D-Day landings, and also saw service in Africa, India, Burma and even Australia. In Britain, the War Department built and owned over a thousand ‘Austerity’ locos and a clutch of shunting locomotives, many of which were transferred to British Railways in the 1950s, but, as with the German war locomotives, others ended up all over the world.

Hitler liked technology and expended much effort, fruitless as it turned out, on developing the V1 and V2 rockets that were launched towards Britain in the final stages of the war, but he was also obsessed with producing guns that could destroy enemy positions from a great distance. Inevitably, these had to be rail-mounted and in 1941 Germany constructed two enormous 800mm guns intended for use against Gibraltar, but Franco would not allow them to cross Spanish territory. Instead, one was despatched to the Crimea, where it helped to destroy the fortifications of the naval base at Sevastopol, which, as a result, was soon abandoned by the Russians. It was, though, an impractical piece of artillery since it required 1,400 men and two 110-ton cranes to assemble. To spread its huge weight of 1,350 tons, it had to be supported on forty axles, and as with so much ultra-heavy artillery the resources devoted to building it far outweighed its value. It arrived at Sevastopol right at the end of the ten-month siege, required a purpose-built railway network, fired only forty-eight rounds and needed massive amounts of maintenance to keep it operational. Not surprisingly, after this modest record, there is no confirmation that it was ever used again, though there is some evidence of it being fired against the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

While railways across the various theatres were, as we have seen, put to intensive use, the preparations for the Normandy landings of D-Day, 6 June 1944, provided the railways with their sternest test. In Britain, these had been going on for several months, hampered by the need to retain a high level of secrecy. Britain’s railways, already overworked, went into overdrive, and a series of tiny stations in the south-west with wonderfully quaint names straight out of The Titfield Thunderbolt like Dinton, Tisbury, Woodbury and Bridstowe, which in normal times barely saw a handful of passengers in a day, suddenly became major rail centres as supplies were stockpiled and US troops despatched to remote corners of the country for training. By March 1944, special trains were already being run and by the beginning of June there had been over 30,000 such services, concentrated in the southern part of Britain. In the month after the start of the landings, Britain’s railways had the busiest period in their history, with 600 extra troop, freight and ambulance trains per day, all concentrated on the Channel ports. The Midland South Western Junction Railway from Cirencester and Swindon to Andover, for example, a single-track line cutting across the Downs, did a heroic job of carrying far more traffic than ever before, like countless other similar railways which had largely fallen into virtual disuse in peacetime.

Once the soldiers reached the other side of the Channel, they had to re-create a railway network almost from scratch. Already the importance of re-establishing railways to support an invasion force had been acknowledged by the Americans, who within two days of landing in Sicily in July 1943 had a team of railway troops beginning work on reconstructing wrecked lines, a pattern that was followed as the Americans progressed up through Italy. The Germans had taken over the French railways, which had been nationalized just before the war, in 1940, having deliberately avoided damaging them during the invasion as they were aware of their future usefulness. After the invasion of France, the railways were operated under German control by French railwaymen and became a centre of resistance since railway workers could travel without suspicion, enabling them to garner information and carry messages. Most famously, messengers were regularly carried in and out of Vichy France, which controlled the southern part of the country, in the tender water tank of the locomotive used to haul the special train of the collaborationist president between Paris and Vichy.

There was much passive resistance, too, as the French railway workers could easily amend paperwork or lose documentation to ensure that freight was sent to the wrong destination. There were all kinds of ways of delaying services. Locomotives were run directly into the pit of a turntable, or allowed to run out of steam, or coal was dumped on the tracks instead of the furnace. It was only in 1943 that the active sabotage mentioned above started being carried out both by Resistance guerrillas and railway workers themselves. In the countryside, trains were easily derailed, while inside railway installations more sophisticated disruption was carried out to disable trains. The Germans took to escorting their key services with armoured trains carrying troops who, like Trotsky’s Red Army, could chase down any members of the Resistance who had stopped the train. The smooth operation of the French railways was further hindered by the despatch of tens of thousands of railway workers to replace German railwaymen sent to the front.

In 1944, as D-Day approached, sabotage and derailments were co-ordinated from London to ensure there was maximum disruption to German efforts to resist the landings. The French railways were systematically bombed while the Resistance was instructed to supplement the destruction. Because of the difficulties of targeting railway installations without destroying the towns adjoining them, bombing was mainly confined to marshalling yards and major junctions while the Resistance was charged with immobilizing the French locomotive stock and destroying vital bridges. This division of tasks not only ensured the thorough wrecking of the railway network, but saved many urban areas, notably large swathes of central Paris surrounding the stations, from being damaged: ‘Instead, a few well-informed, brave railwaymen, supplied with moderate quantities of explosives, were able to paralyse rail traffic in the Paris area.’ The Germans were greatly hampered by this destruction, which continued after D-Day with the Resistance carefully targeting its attacks in order to prevent reinforcements reaching Normandy.

Consequently, when the Allies landed in June 1944, there was effectively no railway system in France and a map of the railways as they were on D-Day shows a series of short lines with no semblance of a network and virtually every river crossing destroyed. In retreating, the Germans were particularly thorough at wrecking any lines that the Resistance and the Allied bombers had left intact, using a device called a router (pronounced as in grouter), a huge hook mounted on a flat wagon and dragged along by a train, ripping up and breaking the middle of the sleepers. It was, in truth, little more than a more powerful version of the devices employed to similar effect in the American Civil War nearly a century previously, but much more effective and quick. More complex parts of the railway, such as junctions and crossovers, were simply blown up.

The Allies, however, needed the railways and a process of reconstruction started as soon as they landed. Within a month, a rail line was in operation from Cherbourg to Carentan, thirty-one miles away, and reconstruction took place so near to the front lines that on occasion the unfortunate railway troops found themselves being shelled by the enemy and had to beat a hasty retreat. River crossings where the bridges had invariably been blown presented the greatest obstacle and temporary structures were quickly strung across the water. On the Seine, for example, a bridge together with a quarter of a mile of new railway was laid in just fourteen days at Le Manoir, near Pont de l’Arche. This temporary line opened on 22 September and was the railway route supplying forces operating in the north for the next two months, even though it could not withstand the weight of locomotives, with the result that wagons had to be propelled over it by hand.

There was no time to install signalling on the reconstructed lines, which meant that the heavy traffic attracted onto them had to be controlled by a primitive system of ‘permissive working’ involving flags and boards, rather like the early railways of the middle of the nineteenth century. Inevitably there were frequent accidents caused by drivers bemused by the system. In order to make up for the lack of sufficient railways, a kind of rail system on rubber tyres was set up to bring supplies rapidly from the Channel ports to the front. Called the Red Ball Express, it involved, at its peak, 6,000 trucks that were given sole access to two routes between Cherbourg and Chartres, principally to carry POL – petrol, oil, lubricants – for the army in eastern France, which had far outrun its supply line. It operated through a strict set of rules: drivers could not exceed 25 mph, no overtaking was allowed and at ten minutes before every hour the entire convoy was to stop for a rest. Broken-down trucks were simply pushed aside to await repair. In other words, the system had all the characteristics, even the name, of a rail service, except that it was operated by trucks. The 165-mile-long Red Ball Express was, for a couple of months, a vital part of the line of communication carrying up to 12,500 tonnes per day, but it became self-defeating as the armies progressed east since the trucks consumed so much fuel themselves. While Red Ball was recognized as a remarkably efficient operation, the massive resources it consumed highlighted the limitations of lorry transport for long-distance haulage. The lack of road capacity and the shortage of lorries ensured rail was still the only viable mode to supply such massive military movements, as an analysis of transport in the Second World War explained: ‘The advance of the armies was thus retarded because only rail transport could provide the needed volume of supply.’ Gradually, as lines were repaired, more freight was transferred to the railways, with banners on the front of the engine proclaiming ‘Toot Sweet’, a corruption of the French tout de suite, in order to ensure they received priority.

The railways played a vital role in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major set-piece confrontation of the war and a clash that turned into one of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front. Fought principally in the Ardennes forests of south-eastern Belgium, it was the last major counter-offensive by the Germans and raged for five weeks as 1944 turned into 1945 with both sides being hamstrung by continuing supply difficulties that were compounded by the severe wintry conditions. The Germans were so short of fuel that anything that could not be transported directly to the front by rail was put on horse-drawn wagons. The Allies had been forced to pause in their advance towards Germany while the railways were repaired and supplies became available from the port of Antwerp, which had been reclaimed by the Allies in November but took a month to become operational. The Germans saw this as an opportunity to counter-attack, using the poor weather as cover since they had all but lost the battle in the air. The Americans, taken by surprise as a result of the Germans’ ban on radio communications, were forced to shift troops around with great haste. Fortunately, there was a railway line available and within forty-eight hours of the attack four divisions of the 3rd Army had been moved across the front into the south flank of the bulge to support General Patton’s counter-offensive. According to the military historian Van Fleet, ‘this feat was achieved against the handicap of heavy snow which had to be cleared by hand shovelling and against enemy air opposition. Ammunition was delivered sometimes right to the guns by rail.’

While the French railways had been wrecked by a combination of the Resistance and Allied aircraft, the Allies had to rely on attacks from the air to destroy the German ones and that showed how difficult it was to wreck railways without the availability of precision-guided munitions. The Germans had, however, the advantage that they had been on a war footing throughout the 1930s and therefore their railway system was far better able to withstand attacks than those of Britain or France. This was made apparent by a post-war visit to Germany by civil defence officers keen to learn the lessons of the conflict, presumably in anticipation of another one. The strict British officialese language in the report, published in 1947, cannot disguise the deep-set jealousy and even awe of the officials at the thoroughness of the German preparations to protect their railways during the war. The report provides, too, an insight into how well the Germans coped with their logistical problems until the concerted efforts of the Allies put the German transport system out of commission. The officers were particularly impressed by ‘the large number of alternative routes available and the generous nature of the facilities provided and the spaciousness of the layouts on running lines at junctions in passenger stations and goods depots and marshalling yards’. In order to recover quickly after an attack, huge stockpiles of materials had been stored around the country. Bridges, retaining walls, signal boxes, stations, and railway offices had all been built to resist bomb damage and the officers noted that many of these were still standing, showing signs that they had withstood attacks. Whereas British railway workers struggled in their goods yards in the dark – and were killed by the score as a result in accidents, ‘the Germans were able to keep lighting at their yards and stations far longer than in the UK because radar gave them better warning of impending attacks’. The German railways, the Deutsche Reichsbahn, were also able to withstand the early Allied bombing attacks because the raids were highly concentrated but did not last long and tended to be switched from area to area after a few nights. Therefore the railways could be suspended for a short time and then trains temporarily diverted to alternative routes. Consequently, ‘a shutdown of services for more than a temporary period of say from 2-3 days was rarely necessary, owing to the existence of so many alternative goods stations and yards’. The one error, admitted by the officers’ German hosts, was that there were not enough triangular junctions – such junctions can continue functioning even if part of them are destroyed – and their conventional junctions proved to be a weak point in the system.

The basic premise on which the German railways operated was that the ‘show must go on’. Train operation was maintained until considerable numbers of enemy aircraft were in the immediate vicinity. Attacks by single aircraft were generally ignored as maintenance of traffic flow was considered to justify the slight risk. Trains in main-line stations were ordered to leave as soon as possible after an attack began as they were less vulnerable on tracks in the open air.

After attacks, huge resources of manpower, including prisoners and forced slave labour, were thrown at the repair work, and all railway personnel were expected to report for immediate duty. At Hamm, for example, which suffered more than 1,300 hits in a raid on the night of 22 April 1944 (inevitably nicknamed the Hamm and Egg run), 6,000 workers were commandeered almost immediately. A through-track was restored within twenty-four hours of the attack and by the end of six weeks, with the workforce increased to nearly 10,000, the yard, which had been specifically targeted in the raid, was working almost to full capacity.

One clever tactic used across Germany throughout the war was to install railway camouflage: fake bomb craters were dug and flimsy artificial bridges were flung across rivers while mounds of earth and debris were left scattered to suggest that repairs had not been carried out. Decoy targets were provided at a number of less important yards and were deliberately lit to attract the bombers away from more significant areas. Another brilliant innovation which helped the speedy recovery of the railways was the mobile signal box. The Germans built 300 of these boxes, which were despatched with great speed on express passenger trains as soon as damage was reported. They resembled ordinary freight wagons and, placed on sleepers, could be set up within just five hours of their arrival.

The post-war visiting British civil defence officers concluded that ‘the German railway was never, as a whole, short of motive power, rolling stock, materials or manpower, until 1943 when the destruction was enormous. Even then in many instances, the shortages were often due to the administrative breakdown and to distributional problems rather than to any lack of material as such.’ The Germans had created vast numbers of spare marshalling yards, so that alternatives could easily be used should one be destroyed, and that was to prove essential in keeping the railways moving once the air attacks intensified. Nor were the railways in the beginning a specific target but rather they were ‘incidental to the main attack’. It was only from April 1944, when the bombing was directed specifically against railway installations as part of the plan to disrupt communications prior to invasion, that the ability of the system to function began to be seriously undermined: ‘The situation became such that no repair organisation could restore working sufficiently so as to enable the German railway to carry that quantity of traffic and to deliver it with the speed necessary to maintain industrial production and a successful army in the field.’

All of this explains one of the mysteries of the war – why it took so much effort to destroy the German communication systems from the air. According to an American analysis of the effect of bombing on Germany’s economy, ‘it took 9,000 aircraft in Operation Clarion to knock out about three quarters of German production of railway trucks between the spring of 1944 and March 1945.’ On the other hand, it required massive diversion of German resources to provide both the air defence and operational staff to keep the railways running. Right at the end of the war, in 1945, the British started using massive ‘Tallboy’ bombs, weighing up to 10 tons, to destroy railway infrastructure such as tunnels and viaducts, and had these been available earlier, the bombing campaign might have taken its toll more quickly.

On the other hand, the transportation system might have done even better, as suggested in a contemporary report by the Daily Telegraph, which in September 1944 highlighted Hitler’s mistake in favouring roads: ‘Up to the present there has been no actual breakdown of the German railway system. But it is very clear that in the last, the crucial, phase of the war, Hitler is suffering the consequences of one of his less spectacular but most important miscalculations. He has at his disposal the finest road system any country ever possessed – but he lacks the petrol to use it.’ Moreover, the motorways had been funded by profits from the German railways, and the Daily Telegraph concluded: ‘If all the gigantic expenditure of money and effort which went into the building of the great trunk roads had been allotted instead to the railways, they would at least have started the war at the highest pitch of efficiency and they might still be highly efficient today.’ Hitler, in other words, might have resisted longer had he focussed more on the railways and less on building roads for which he did not have sufficient vehicles or fuel.

If, as demonstrated above, the efficiency of the railways was key to the German war effort, it was also essential for carrying out the greatest crime of the Second World War, the despatch of millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to the concentration and death camps. Just as war could not have been conducted on such a huge scale without the railways, the sheer number and speed of the deportations would have been quite impossible through road transport alone. The railways not only enabled vastly greater numbers to be transported, but since the victims were locked into freight railway wagons, the Germans needed far less manpower to supervise and transport them, which was a crucial factor in enabling so many people to be carried in a relatively short period of time. Not only did the method of transport save manpower and trucks, but crucially fuel, which was ever in short supply for the German war effort. It was telling that there were bigger arguments within the German leadership over the transport needs required to carry out the policy than there were over its morality.

The first trains, in October 1941, between Germany and Poland (and further east to Riga), were principally to move German Jews out of Germany into ghettos where the previous inhabitants had been eliminated. The despatch of Jews direct to Auschwitz and the other death camps for extermination began in the spring of 1942 and the flow intensified over the next two years and then began to slow after the Allies landed in northern France, although the last recorded train was in March 1945. The deportations were carried out on an industrial scale and in an extremely calculated manner. For the most part, freight wagons were used, though in places where the Germans were keen to maintain the myth that the Jews were simply being ‘resettled in the east’, the victims travelled in third-class carriages. Cruelly, most of the deportees were forced to buy a one-way ticket, with children being charged half fare.

In order to carry out the transportation of the victims, basic calculations had to be made by the railway authorities in order to ensure that the camps received the number of people that could be ‘processed’ – mostly, of course, murdered on arrival. Each freight wagon could accommodate fifty people but they were usually filled with 100 or even 150, with the result that many people died before reaching the camps. No food or water was provided, and only a bucket as a latrine, and since the wagons had no protection from the heat or cold, conditions soon became intolerable whatever the weather conditions outside. In order for the trains to proceed reasonably quickly once they were on the main line, they were limited to fifty-five wagons each. The average journey time was more than four days as the trains were given the least priority and consequently were frequently stabled in sidings for days at a time while freight and troop services were allowed to pass through. The longest journey involved a train of Jews from Corfu, who were transferred to a train on the mainland which then took eighteen days to reach its destination. By the time it reached the camp, there were only corpses on board. The total number of people transported in the trains, as ascertained from the detailed records kept by the German and Polish state railway companies, was about 8 million, packed into 1,600 trains.

The deportations would not have been possible without the co-operation of the various countries’ rail companies, notably the French state railway, SNCF, but also its counterparts in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there were severe recriminations against these companies after the war. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, 200,000 German railway employees alone were involved in the deportations and ‘10,000 to 20,000 were responsible for mass murders but were never prosecuted’.

As this grim crime demonstrates, as with all aspects of its operation, the Deutsche Reichsbahn was nothing if not efficient. Its remarkable ability to survive the Allied onslaught for so long meant that its ultimate collapse was all the more devastating. The redundancy built into the German railways before the war, with much deliberate duplication of facilities, and the priority given to maintaining the coal supply, which was the lifeblood of the system, ensured that the railways had continued functioning far beyond expectations throughout the conflict. Because they had managed to survive so long under such difficult circumstances, when they finally did collapse, virtually the whole system fell apart with frightening speed. The Germans hastened the process by destroying lines in front of the invading forces, notably blowing up all the bridges across the Rhine, with the exception of the Remagen bridge captured in March 1945, which was only partly destroyed, leaving it able to carry wagons, though not locomotives, until it collapsed ten days later. The first replacement bridge over the Rhine at Wessel was completed in ten days and within a month it was carrying nearly fifty trains per day. The destruction of the German railways, nevertheless, was again a handicap to the Allied invaders and slowed their progress on numerous occasions. From beginning to end, therefore, the railways or the lack of them played an important part in the progress of the Second World War. Surprisingly, despite the growing sophistication of aircraft and missiles, the railways would still play a part in several conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century.


Mani, the third-century Persian founder of the Manichaean religion, listed the four empire of the world as he knew it: Sileos (China?), Rome, Persia, and Aksum. Based at its capital city of the same name, Aksum had emerged from obscurity (the first mention of Aksum ca be found in Claudius Ptolemy’s work) to empire in barely a century. In the fourth century Aksum’s most famous emperor, Ezana (303-350), would expand the empire’s borders and influence even farther through a series of conquests, made in the name of his new religion: Christianity. Aksum was thus one of the first two nations to convert, after Rome.


The second-century reference to Aksum mentions Adulis, a port on the Red Sea, and the primary source of the kingdom’s wealth. Trough it flowed the goods of Africa, Arabia, and even India, linking these places with the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean and Persia. Yet this coveted commercial role was not without competition: for centuries it had been played by the Sabaeans, a Semitic people whose kingdom of Saba (the Biblical Sheba) operated on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Mani’s assessment of Aksum as a mighty empire corresponds with Aksum’s third-century conquest of Saba, followed in the fourth century by Emperor Ezana’s western conquests of a people called the Noba and the kingdom of Meröe, the successor state of ancient Kush.

To control these distant regions, the Aksumite emperors established tributary kingdoms, collecting tribute and demanding submission from their leaders, and settled their most warlike loyal tribes among the border regions. Such precautions did not always produce the necessary results, however; each new emperor might have to spend some time reestablishing his control over his fractious subjects. Even at the height of Aksum’s power from the fourth through sixth centuries ad, the extent of Aksum’s direct control is debatable: during the interminable wars of South Arabia, the Himyar people conquered Saba in the fifth century and although the Aksum emperors continued to call themselves kings “of Aksum and of Saba and of Himyar,” for some time it was the Himyar who exercised real control over the peninsula, at least until Aksum sent another conquering army in 525.



The army was divided into sarawit. Sarawit were groups. They could have been named after districts or ethnic designation. Each sarawit was under a general called a nagast. The army was called upon when needed. Aksumite army numbers have been noted at its lowest number 3,000 , to 100,000 at its highest, account of Aksumite army size varies.

The capital had a standing army that served guard duties in the palace, treasury, and as the king’s personal body guard.

Aksumite warriors fought with iron spears. They were re-known for being spear throwers. They also fought with round shields. Shields could have been made from buffalo hide. They also did battle with a “broad-blade, flat-ended sword” secured behind the back. Other weapons included poniards or iron knives, “tanged spear-heads.”

Aksumite army made use of pack animals to transport items on the battle field. The donkey was made use of. In desert warfare, Aksum made use of camels. Elephants might have also been used in battle.

Aksum had a fleet of ships that guarded the Red Sea ports. Aksumite ships were put together by rope fibers. It did not use iron nails to bind wood. Ships sailed as far away as India and possibly China.

By the first century c. e., the powerful state of Aksum, centered in the Tigrayan highlands, emerged as the dominant player in the commercial contest, but Aksum acted more as a monitor over a feudal system of trade than as a monolithic state. Aksumite Ethiopians gradually expanded their dominance over the southwestern littoral of the Red Sea, attempting to dominate even the caravan trade to the north. They also established a considerable presence on the Arabian side of the Red Sea. Trade with the Roman Empire was considerable, and with the success of Christianity in that empire, it was only a matter of time before Aksumites also began to embrace the Christian faith in the third and fourth centuries. Tradition maintains that during the fourth century Christianity was more firmly established by the shipwrecked Syrian Frumentius (fl. c. fourth century). Frumentius later became bishop and successfully evangelized much of the Aksumite kingdom, which maintained a largely peaceful domination of Ethiopia and neighboring regions until its displacement from the Arabian coast by Persians in the mid-sixth century. The Aksumite kingdom was further weakened in the seventh and eighth centuries by the spread of Islam throughout Arabia, into North Africa, and along the lowland regions of the Eritrean and Somali coasts. The Aksumite Empire, deprived of its links to the Mediterranean and to lucrative trade, could no longer maintain large armies, nor rely on seabased or caravan trade. In growing isolation from the rest of the world, the Aksumites moved south into the mountainous interior of the Abyssinian highlands, where they dominated Agau-speaking agriculturalists, assimilating much of the local population through intermarriage, cultural transplantation, and religious conversion. Still, Agau-speaking peoples fought back in peripheral areas that the centralized but by now weakened Aksumite state could not control during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

By then, however, less than seventy-five years remained before Persia invaded Arabia, and in the seventh and eighth centuries Aksum’s power vanished for good in the face of the Arabian invasions (previously, the aggression had been the other way around-an Aksumite army attacked Mecca itself in 570). These invaders carried Islam across the whole of Northern Africa and established deep cultural ties there with the Muslim Middle East; but in the former kingdom of Aksum, Christianity-in the Egyptian form called Coptic-retained its followers, and indeed still does.

Switzerland WWII – Military Deterrence

WWII Swiss M°18/40 Rifleman.


Physical map of Switzerland.

Prior to 1940 the Swiss military publicly relied on its well-advertised capacity to muster in arms over 10 percent of the population in well-prepared border positions, to defend its internationally guaranteed neutrality against all comers. But in reality, since the rise of nation-states the military safety of tiny Switzerland has depended on the willingness of a neighboring power to rush its army into Switzerland to help block another neighboring power from using Switzerland for its own ends. Thus in World War I the Swiss held off the Germans by the prospect that they would call in the French, and held off the French by the prospect that they would call in the Germans. When World War II began, the Swiss feared Germany exclusively. But they hoped that France, and even Italy, would know enough and be potent enough to help safeguard their own Swiss flanks. When France fell and Italy joined Germany, Switzerland was quite unexpectedly thrown back on its own military resources.

At most these military resources could make Germany’s price of conquest too heavy to pay. And that depended on the extent to which Switzerland could maximize the value of its three military assets: Alpine terrain, the Gotthard and Simplon tunnels, and the Swiss soldier’s historic bloody-mindedness. But exploiting Alpine terrain to the maximum essentially meant sacrificing half the country and more than two-thirds of the population. Holding hostage the tunnels and the country’s infrastructure meant destroying the Swiss people’s livelihood. Making the most of the Swiss soldier’s penchant to fight to the death meant firing up the population’s martial spirit, which many influential Swiss believed was already provoking Germany.

On various occasions Germany’s Wehrmacht estimated that defeating the Swiss army would take three to six days—about as long as it had taken to defeat the Belgian army—and require nine to twelve divisions, including four armored. The reason for this confidence was that the Swiss army had not changed since World War I. A modern force could easily negate its trenches and machine guns spread out along the northern plateau. But the German High Command added one qualification: The Swiss army must not be allowed to retreat in good order southward into the Alps. Once ensconced in the mountain valleys, the Swiss would be nearly impossible to dig out.

For its part, the Swiss army reached the same conclusions, which led it to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the northern plateau into the southern Alpine valleys. While the military logic of this national redoubt was self-evident, its political logic was much less so. After all, redeploying meant abandoning at least two-thirds of the population, including the families of the soldiers, to Nazi occupation. On the other hand, if the army remained deployed on the plateau it would be defeated anyway, and the whole country occupied. But while no Swiss wanted to leave the country’s major cities open to occupation, no German wanted to see the Swiss army holed up in the Alps, cutting off the vital Simplon and Gotthard tunnels to the Mediterranean and threatening guerrilla warfare. Thus the Swiss adopted a military strategy that threatened to accept grievous losses in order to deter the enemy. But of course most deterrence strategies aim to avoid being put to the ultimate test. Military deterrence is usually a shield for and an adjunct to other policies that mean to avoid war. This was the case in Switzerland.


The illusion that the Great War had ended wars faded more quickly in Switzerland than elsewhere. As we will see, Adolf Hitler was much less a mystery to the Swiss, especially to the German-speaking majority, than to other nations. Nor was the idea of rearmament as shocking to the Swiss as to other Europeans and to Americans. In addition, while other countries were cursed with bad leadership during the 1930s, the Swiss drew some unusually good cards, including Rudolf Minger, who became head of the Federal Military Department in 1930. In the first two years after Hitler came to power, Minger raised the defense budget from about 95 million francs to about 130 million. In 1935 he went beyond the budget process, directly to the public, proposing an issue of defense bonds worth 235 million francs and campaigning for direct purchase by the public. The Swiss people responded by buying 335 million francs’ worth of the bonds. By 1939 another 171 million was added. By referendum, the Swiss agreed to lengthen military retraining and to extend the age of military obligation for the lower ranks to sixty. So, on the eve of World War II, a nation of 4.2 million people stood ready to field an army of 440,000 men backed by a corps of 150,000 armed volunteers over sixty or under eighteen years of age, and another 600,000 civilian auxiliaries.

By the outbreak of war, new weapons were beginning to come into service. But, like most other armies that had not guessed the character of modern, mechanized warfare, the Swiss had not bought wisely. The Swiss, like most everyone else, envisaged a replay of World War I.

The combined air corps and anti-aircraft corps had bought fifty excellent German ME 109 air superiority fighters. But because the General Staff was blind to the use of aircraft to support ground operations, Switzerland had bought no bombers and no ground attack aircraft, like the Stuka. As for anti-aircraft artillery, the Swiss had four Vickers and four Schneider 75 mm guns, plus thirty-four modern Oerlikon 20 mm weapons. The mission of the combined air and anti-aircraft forces was to protect Swiss airspace and Swiss airfields, but if the ME 109s had tried to fight for air superiority, they would have been swept from the skies by sheer numbers. More likely, they would have been destroyed before ever leaving their undefended airfields. Forty-two AA guns were obviously insufficient for defending airfields or anything else.

Moreover, the ground forces were not equipped for modern warfare. Each battalion had only one infantry cannon that could be used against tanks, plus just two grenade launchers. Obviously, the idea of armored warfare had not crossed Swiss planners’ minds. The war for which they had planned would have consisted of shooting oncoming infantry from border trenches. To that end there were sixteen thousand machine guns, four hundred French 75-mm field guns, entirely horse-drawn, and only fifteen 120-mm guns. In addition, there were various small caliber mountain guns. The only motorization for the infantry came from commandeered civilian vehicles (a maximum of 15,000 taken away from the civilian economy) plus 50,000 horses taken away from agriculture. Pictures from that time show rows of machine guns hitched to a variety of taxicabs and family sedans, smartly lined up. The Swiss cavalry rode horses.

The strength of the army lay in its 440,000 men, organized in six infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, and a half-dozen brigades, and in the good, deep fortifications and trenches the Swiss had built along the borders. About one-fifth of the army would occupy these positions, while the rest would wait close behind the German and French borders ready to rush to wherever the attacker might be. The earthworks would absorb the enemy’s artillery fire, the defenders’ machine guns would take their toll, and the main army field divisions’ counterattacks, including those by the horse cavalry, would keep the enemy out of the country—until help could arrive.

The first news of the German campaign in Poland showed all this to be a pipe dream. The German armored spearheads had sliced through the kind of army that Switzerland had. The intellectual process by which the Swiss adapted to their new circumstances is of more than historical interest.

On August 30, 1939, the Swiss parliament activated the wartime post of “general” and entrusted it to Henri Guisan. The new general instantly complained that there was no plan for operations. But no strictly operational plan could fit the Swiss army for the circumstances in which events were plunging it. Guisan’s first response was to pull the army back from the strictly artificial border fortifications to ones resting on terrain features.

Contrary to the belief of those who do not look at maps, Switzerland has only its back to the Alps. The roof of Europe shields Switzerland only from the south and the east—that is, from Italy and substantially from Austria as well. From the west—that is, from France—Switzerland is moderately accessible through the Rhône valley and across the hills of the Jura. But the north and northeast of Switzerland, bordering on Germany, are open, rolling plateaus crossed by gentle rivers and lakes. Three-fourths of the Swiss people are located in these accessible regions, as well as the preponderance of their industry and agriculture. This non-Alpine Swiss terrain is better for defensive tactics than northern France—but it is also pretty good tank country. By contrast, the steep valleys of the Alps are natural fortresses. Of course, only one-fourth of the Swiss people live there. In sum, Switzerland’s terrain can be useful for defense, but only to the extent that the defenders can exploit it under any given technological conditions and against a given kind of opponent.

A glance at the map of Switzerland shows that a nearly straight line of rivers and lakes roughly parallels the northern border, from the Rhine at Sargans in the east, following the Wallensee, Linth, Zurich Lake, and Limmat almost to the Gempen plateau above the Rhine near Basel in the northwest. Guisan ordered most of the army to pull back behind these waters and dig in, while keeping the border troops in place. But this new plan left some 20 percent of the country open to occupation, including Basel and Schaffhausen, and put the biggest city, Zurich, right on the front line. It also meant that the costly border positions would henceforth be useful only to slow the enemy a bit.

The general’s arrangements for help from France would turn out worse. Conventional wisdom had it that the only strategic choice facing Swiss military commanders was whether to deploy the preponderance of forces in the north (against Germany) or in the west (against France). Like most of his countrymen, Guisan never had any doubt that the threat came from Germany. But the country’s formal neutrality, as well as the presence of high-ranking officers who would have been happier if the threat had come from the other direction, obliged Guisan to act formally as if he were dispassionate about his basic strategic choice. Hence he had to plan with the French in secrecy. Guisan was personally acquainted with top French officers such as Gamelin, Georges, and De Lattre, with whom he had toured the Maginot Line. As go-betweens he used Major Samuel Gonard, who had studied at the Ecole de Guerre in Paris and who traveled there often as a civilian lawyer, as well as Major Samuel Barbey, a novelist who also had good connections in the French army.

The result was an informal but nevertheless written agreement by which the French army would provide artillery fire support to the northwest end of the Swiss army position on the Gempen plateau, and move its own troops there directly to back up the Swiss. The Swiss actually improved roads leading onto the plateau and built revetments for heavy artillery for the French army’s eventual use, effectively linking the Maginot Line to the Swiss fortifications. In addition, elements of the French 7th (later the 45th) Army corps would cross the border near Geneva and move northeast. For the sake of symmetry in case of discovery, Guisan began secret exploratory talks with Germany through Major Hans Berly, who had good contacts in the Wehrmacht. But these never resulted in concrete plans.

Joint planning with France turned out to be a source of trouble rather than help because France itself fell quickly to the German onslaught, and the records of the Swiss negotiations fell into German hands—among a carload of government documents abandoned by the French and recovered by the Germans at Charité Sur Loire on June 16, 1940. The Swiss worried that Germany would use their breach as a legal reason for disregarding their neutrality. But they need not have worried. If Germany had wanted to invade, a jury-rigged pretext such as the staged border incident with Poland in August 1939 would have been enough. More worrisome was Switzerland’s basic military predicament.

By April 1940 the fall of Norway and Denmark showed that German armies could move just as efficiently across water and against Western armies as they had against Poland. No sooner had Germany’s attack on France begun on May 10, 1940, than the mismatch between the German and Swiss armies became glaring. In Belgium, en route to France, the Germans opened the way for their mobile forces with parachute troops and saboteurs. German paratroopers could drop onto Swiss fortresses bereft of air cover or air defense as easily as they had on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, mistakenly assumed impregnable. Coordinated ground attacks would then overwhelm them. Could the Germans punch through the new Swiss army position on the Sargans-based line? Without antitank weapons, Swiss infantry positions couldn’t prevent breaches. And if Swiss troops behaved like other armies, they would panic once the formidable German columns came near. In fact, as France was falling, tens of thousands of Swiss civilians piled mattresses atop their cars and headed for the mountains, pro-Nazi groups were strutting, and no prominent politician could be found to rally the country. In sum, no army can fight without means or hope.

Invasion of the Sea Peoples




Sherden Pirates

They were a group of sea-roving marauders on the Mediterranean coast during the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B. C. E.). In the Nineteenth Dynasty, they began raiding the Egyptian Delta. A stela from TANIS stated: “none were able to stand before them.” RAMESSES III (r. 1194-1163 B. C. E.) defeated the Sherden Pirates and incorporated them into his military forces. Carrying round shields and large swords, some of these buccaneers became Ramesses III’s personal guards. They received land grants in repayment. Rameses II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) also fought the Sherden Pirates.

Sea Peoples

They were a confederation of various groups who were active as pirates and marauders in the Ramessid Period, the Nineteenth Dynasty (1307-1196 B. C. E.) and the Twentieth Dynasty (1196-1070 B. C. E.). RAMESSES II (r. 1290-1224 B. C. E.) sought a pact with the HITTITE ruler HATTUSILIS III, in defense against these wide-ranging attackers, and MERENPTAH (r. 1224-1214 B. C. E.) faced one contingent of them during his reign. The actual listing of the Sea Peoples, however, dates to RAMESSES III (r. 1194-1163 B. C. E.), who destroyed them.

The Sea Peoples recorded on the walls of MEDINET HABU at THEBES include the Ekwesh, believed to be Greek Achaeans; Teresh, Anatolian sailors, possibly the Tyrrhenians; Lukka, an Anatolian coastal people; Sherdana, probably a group of Sardinians; Shekelesh, identified as members of the Sicilian Siculi; Peleset, from Crete and the ancestors of the Philistines. Others not identified with certainty were the Kizzuwatna, Arzawa, Zakala, Alasiya, Tjeker, and Denyen. The MESHWESH, Libyans who were always active in Egypt’s Delta, were also listed.

Originally some of the groups had fortified cities and worked copper mines. Displaced, the Sea Peoples conquered CYPRUS and blockaded Syrian ports. They began their first campaigns near their homelands. The Mycenean Greeks repulsed them, but other nations, including the Hittites, endured their aggression.

In Ramesses III’s eighth regnal year, the Sea Peoples had attacked Cilicia, CARCHEMISH, Palestine, Arzawa, CYPRUS, Amurru, and the HITTITES and had arrived in the Delta region with the Libyans. These marauders came in carts, bringing their entire families to the invasion. They wore kilts and headdresses of feathers or pleated stiffened cloths and they carried spears, short swords, and round shields. The Great HARRIS PAPYRUS adds other details.

Ramesses III met the Sea Peoples who were entering Egypt as migrants, not as marauders. Crop failures in the eastern Mediterranean region caused these nomads to destroy entire cities in their movement. They sought the safety of the Nile, and Ramesses III had to repel land and sea assaults. He moved defensive units to the eastern border and fortified the Nile branches in the Delta. By allowing the Sea Peoples to enter certain Nile branches and then moving floating islands and debris behind them, Ramesses III trapped entire contingents and annihilated them. Others he took as prisoners and forced them into his armed forces or made them slaves.

Egypt withstood their assaults, but the Sea Peoples changed the political matrix of the Mediterranean. One group that managed to escape Ramesses III’s assaults were called the Peleset. These are believed to have been the Philistines documented in Palestine. Some records indicate that the Peleset, or Philistines, were sent into Palestine to control the area there for Egypt.