Operation Thesis

134 squadron operated a mix of Hurricane IIBs and IICs at the time of Thesis. Here ground staff pose on a Mk. IIC piloted by Fg Off W. Wright, seen at bottom right. Note the belt of 20mm ammunition on the shoulder of the standing airman.

Group Captain Max Aitken who masterminded Operation Thesis, the July 1943 air attack on Crete.

The loss of Crete in 1941 meant that the Axis forces had a base threatening the main convoy route between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, thus forcing supplies of men and materiel into the long supply line around the Cape of Good Hope and the Suez Canal.

During June 1942, though, British commandos carried out raids on Cretan airfields, destroying Luftwaffe aircraft and petrol stores. In retaliation, however, the Germans murdered fifty Cretans. A year later, another raid was mounted and resulted in the destruction of yet more enemy aeroplanes but triggered a revenge killing of fifty-two more citizens. It was a murderous act, and one of the `triggers’ for Operation Thesis.

THE REQUIRED TONIC EFFECT

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 the focus of operations shifted away from the Eastern Mediterranean although much thought was given to thwarting German air units based in Greece, Crete and the Dodecanese Islands. Crete was a major problem, especially with strong fighter and bomber forces based there and, importantly, the island’s airfields were being utilised by aircraft transiting from the Greek mainland to Sicily. Operation Thesis was the brainchild of Group Captain Max Aitken. A successful fighter pilot, Aitken had some dozen enemy aircraft to his credit, being posted to HQ Eastern Mediterranean in 1943 to serve in the Fighter Tactics Branch. At his disposal he had a hundred or so Hurricanes with very little to do after the spotlight of war had shifted westwards. Aitken would later write that lack of action ‘resulted in a dangerous psychological situation, which might have a disastrous effect on the morale of the squadrons’.

It was therefore decided by the Air Defence Commander that a large-scale offensive operation employing most of the squadrons in the Command would produce `the required tonic effect’ – and authority for a daylight attack on Crete by all available single-engine aircraft in 219 and 212 Groups, and certain aircraft in 212 (Naval Co-operation) Group, was given by the AOC-in-C. Taking part in such an operation was rendered highly dangerous by the longest sea crossing such a formation had ever undertaken.

A BARRAGE OF `FLAK’

Aitken’s plan was approved, and authority granted for a daylight attack on Crete by all available single-engine aircraft in 212 and 219 Groups and, additionally, certain aircraft in 212 (Naval Co-operation) Group. It was a risky operation, and one that involved the longest sea crossing such a large formation had ever undertaken. The intention was to mount a massed attack aimed at destroying Crete’s wireless transmitter stations and other communications and military establishments. This would be achieved by using eight Martin Baltimore medium bombers from 454 (RAAF) Sqn as the main strike force, plus some ninety Hurricanes from Air Defence Eastern Mediterranean (ADEM) who would hit communications facilities and other targets of opportunity with the operation set for Friday 23 July 1943. On that date, the massed formations left their North African bases comprising thirty six Hurricanes that set off from LG08 at Sidi Barrani, six from 74 Sqn (led by Sqn Ldr J `Spud’ Hayter DFC), six from 451 (RAAF) Sqn (Flt Lt E K Kirkman), six from 238 Squadron (Sqn Ldr H. Cochrane DFC), nine from 335 (Greek) Squadron (Flt Lt G. Pangalos and FLt Lt N Volonakis), and nine from 336 (Greek) Sqn (Flt Lt S. Diamantopoulos). This wave was led to their targets by two Bristol Beaufighters from 227 Sqn as navigator-leaders.

A further fifty four Hurricanes took off from Bu Amud and el-Gamil airstrips, including nine from 123 Sqn (led by Sqn Ldr Ken `Hawkeye’ Lee DFC) nine from 134 Sqn (Sqn Ldr `Stratters’ Stratton DFC), nine from 41 (SAAF) Sqn (Major W. J. B Chapman), nine from 237 Sqn (Sqn Ldr John Walmisley), nine from 94 Sqn (Sqn Ldr A. V. `Darky’ Clowes DFC, DFM) and nine from 7 (SAAF) Sqn, (Major C. Van Vliet DFC). The formation was also guided by 227 Squadron Beaufighters.

Meanwhile, the Baltimores were scheduled to carry out land and shipping strikes against Suda Bay, Heraklion, and other targets of opportunity. Eight bombers, in two box formations of four each, and led by S/Ldr Lionel Folkard in Baltimore AG995, set out on the 230 mile flight. However, as they approached Suda Bay they were greeted by intense flak which disabled the port motor of AG995. Despite serious wounds and damage to the aircraft that had been caused by his own bombs, Folkard managed to force-land on a beach near Heraklion. The crew survived, despite the fact that the Baltimore had skated over mines which were set off with explosions erupting behind the crashing bomber. The badly wounded airmen managed to vacate the smashed-up Baltimore before its bomb load exploded, blowing the aircraft to bits.

`AN INAUSPICIOUS START’

Of the second wave of Baltimores, all four were shot down (FA409, AG869, FA247 and FA224) with only three survivors out of the sixteen crewmen. Three of the Baltimores disappeared without trace, although the crew of the remaining aircraft, FA390/A, had a close call. Flying as No. 2 to Folkard, F/Sgt Ray Akhurst ventured over Maleme airfield at a mere fifty feet and heavy AA fire knocked out the starboard engine and damaged the airframe. The Baltimore struggled back to base at 140mph, despite severe vibration, and with the crew throwing out all they could to lighten the machine. Akhurst had planned to crash-land on a beach near his airfield at Gambut, but found the foreshore littered with debris from a sunken freighter. As he turned back over the sea, so his remaining motor stopped when the aircraft ran out of fuel. With considerable measures of both skill and luck, he managed to ditch in the surf with the aeroplane floating ashore the next day. Empty fuel tanks had provided the necessary buoyancy and allowed for two lucky homing pigeons to be rescued from the wreck. Akhurst received an immediate DFM for his `skilful and determined flying’ but it was little compensation for the unit’s `darkest day’ and one which had decimated the squadron’s flying establishment.

Unfortunately, the Hurricanes fared little better. Ken `Hawkeye’ Lee, of 123 Sqn, a veteran of the Battles of France and Britain, recalled a visit by Aitken to El Adem ahead of the Thesis operation. He addressed the assembled pilots, saying: `Right chaps, tomorrow morning two Beaufighters are going to come over and navigate for you. You are going to fly to Crete at sea level and knock hell out of the place.’ Aitken nominated Lee as Wing Leader, but Lee’s cryptic comment reflected his scepticism as to the wisdom of the operation: `No maps. No photographs. No specific targets. Just go and give them hell.’ It wasn’t an auspicious start.

AIR ARMADA

Lee’s air armada approached the island at low level, releasing their long-range tanks as they reached the coast from where they roared inland and up a picturesque valley. Here, they saw nothing, but as they returned anti- aircraft fire opened up on them. Lee, piloting KZ141, suddenly realised that his trousers were covered in oil and immediately noticed that his oil and engine temperatures were rapidly climbing into the red. As he returned, the Hurricane’s engine cut and he was forced to belly-land in the narrowest of gaps and between two olive trees, a feat the Germans couldn’t believe was deliberate. Lee managed to set off the thermite demolition bomb which destroyed his fighter, but as he scampered away he was knocked flat by a severe blow to his midriff. A German soldier, taking a pot-shot at him, had hit Lee’s webbing belt with the bullet passing through the buckle and out through the ammunition pouch. By rights, he should have died.

Lee was promptly marched off to the nearby village and taken to a group of German army officers who smartly saluted and offered him a late breakfast consisting of omelette and brandy! A squadron commander was a rare catch indeed, and he was duly taken off by staff car to the German HQ at Heraklion and from there to Athens by Junkers 52 where he met other POW survivors of the raid. Two other 123 Sqn Hurricanes had failed to return with Fg Off John Le Mare (RCAF) killed, although West Indian Flt Sgt `Fanny’ Farfan was spirited away by locals, evaded capture and returned to Egypt in September.

238 Sqn, meanwhile, lost two pilots through anti-aircraft fire although both Flt Sgt P. A. George (RAAF) who had been flying KZ130/J and F/Sgt H. Raiment (RNZAF) in HW483/P were made prisoners of war. George survived an offshore ditching but was machine- gunned, fortunately inaccurately, as he swam ashore. The Squadron CO, Sqn Ldr H P Cochrane DFC, piloting HL657/D, was fortunate to get back to base with his badly damaged Hurricane. No 134 Sqn, led by Sqn Ldr W H Stratton DFC, a Battle of France veteran, lost Fg Off `Bill’ Manser (HW299) who apparently made a successful forced-landing but was later reported killed, and Sgt D Horsley (HW372) who also died. Two other flyers from the squadron returned wounded; Fg Off L Lowen in HV905 with a leg wound and Fg Off W H Wright in HW605 who was seriously wounded in the chest.

GREEK UNITS

The two Greek units, both operating from Sidi Barrani, lost four aircraft with only one pilot surviving from these losses. W/O Athanasakis of 336 Squadron, flying BP232, lost a drop tank on take-off, but gallantly if not ill-advisedly chose to continue despite the fact that he must have known he lacked sufficient petrol to return home. His companions alerted him to his predicament, but he pressed on with the mission all the same. Both Greek squadrons attacked the radar station at Ierapetra, in the south- east of Crete and also hit military installations in the face of heavy anti- aircraft fire. Athanasakis reported that his fuel was low and was going to have to land. Wt Off Konstantinos Kokkas, also a Cretan, recalled:

`We hit camps, cars, cannon stations and every military target that was in front of us. Everywhere, though, the anti-aircraft guns responded. We passed through the Agios Nikolaos plain and this is where I heard Athanasakis yelling that he was force-landing.’

Apparently, the Greek flyer crashed near a German patrol that immediately pursued him, although the gallant pilot shot it out with the enemy using his pistol but eventually ran out of ammunition and was subsequently killed. The remaining Hurricanes flew on to Heraklion where they strafed a German camp but lost Wt Off Skantzikas, shot down in KW250 by anti- aircraft fire. Kokkas reported that `the flak was ferocious’ and `I saw a German flag fluttering in a building on my right and sent a burst into it. We were almost touching the windmills and milk-white houses while the Cretans below were throwing their hats into the air, dancing with joy and waving their hands.’ He saw Skantzikas, a former classmate, his aircraft covered in oil, heading for a crash-landing which he survived.

Sadly, two pilots from 335 Squadron were also lost. Flt Sgt Doukas was shot down near the south shore of Mirabello Bay. Although initially reported as a POW he was, in fact, killed. Flt Sgt Laitmer crashed into the sea near Tymbaki, his fate witnessed by a pilot of 238 Sqn. Wt Off Kountouvas reported being attacked by a Junkers 88 south of the island, but escaped unharmed. Interestingly, and despite the mayhem, other pilots reported a `relatively uneventful’ operation! Fg Off Reg Sutton of 451 (RAAF) Squadron, for example, reported that the Sidi Barrani Hurricanes were led in by the two Beaufighters at wave-top height and said of Operation Thesis: `There were no targets where they were supposed to be and where there was not to be any flak, there was bags of it. For the rest, nothing! I fired my guns on the way out for the sake of firing them.’ On their return the squadron found the North African coast hidden by a violent dust storm. Although scheduled to land at Tobruk several Hurricanes had to put down on a road, short of fuel. There was absolutely no visibility over the airfield, but despite two landing accidents in the atrocious conditions nobody was injured.

A SLIPPERY CUSTOMER!

The two Beaufighters leading the el-Gamil Hurricanes were flown by Wg Cdr Russell Mackenzie in EL516/Y and Fg Off `Wally’ McGregor (RNZAF) in JL619/X. The pair intercepted an Arado 196 floatplane at sea level as they neared the coast, with Mackenzie scoring hits although without apparent result and the Arado fleeing at wave height. A short time later another Arado, or perhaps the same one, was attacked but again without result. The slippery customer also appears to have survived a burst from a Hurricane from 94 Sqn.

The twenty-seven Hurricanes from el-Gamil were led by Sqn Ldr `Darky’ Clowes, veteran of the Battles of France and Britain, and his unit, 94 Sqn, approached the island at nought feet at 08.20 hrs, making landfall on the south coast twenty miles from the western tip. The pilots of two aircraft, Sgt W Imrie (KW935/A), and Flt Lt S Whiting (HW738/G), were unable to jettison their long-range tanks but the formation followed the coast until landfall between Maleme and Canea, just east of the islet of Dio and strafed barracks and buildings in the town of Alikianos, a generator and a dam on the River Peatanias and a well- camouflaged camp outside the town. Unfortunately, Sgt Imrie reported he had been hit and crashed among trees on a mountainside to the south-west of Alikianos, his end marked by a mushroom cloud of black smoke.

The squadron flew on, strafing Kastella Selinos on the south coast hitting a wireless transmitter hut before shooting- up a lighthouse on Gavdhos Island and a wireless unit with its accompanying masts. On return it was found that Fg Off Howley’s machine (HL886/R) had slight damage to its airscrew and Fg Off Henderson’s HM118/L had bullet holes in its fuselage. Captain Kirby of 7 (SAAF) Sqn had a close shave when his fighter, KX961, clipped a high-tension cable, damaging the propeller tips and radiator. He returned with a length of cable wrapped round his airscrew but reported: `very little was seen.’

DEBIT AND CREDIT

No 41 (SAAF) Squadron had Lt. W J K Bliss failing to return, whilst their CO, Major Chapman, was hit on a strafing run over Moires near the south coast by a shell that penetrated the port wing root damaging his glycol and oil systems. He nursed the faltering Hurricane back to Bu Amid and although the engine seized up over the airfield he glided in to a safe landing. Lt. Cyril George, from the same squadron, also forced-landed when his engine seized-up due to flak damage. Meanwhile, five other 41 (SAAF) Sqn Hurricanes suffered minor damage. Of the fifty-four fighters which set off from Bu Amid and el-Gamil, eight were lost, with four pilots killed, three POW, one escapee and another two wounded. Three Hurricanes were very badly damaged.

In total, thirteen Hurricanes were lost on the operation with eight pilots killed, four taken prisoner of war and one who evaded capture. To add to this sorry tale, six Baltimores were lost with fourteen crewmen killed and six taken prisoner. Overall, the operation’s losses had minimal return but during the withdrawal cover by Spitfire Vc aircraft of 80 Sqn, Fg Off J C R Waterhouse, piloting JK142, engaged a Junkers 88-D (4U+6K) of 2.(F)/123, shooting it down in flames resulting in the death of Uffz F. Dieroft and his crew.

A CRETAN TRAITOR

Intelligence operatives on the island radioed information back to Cairo on the effectiveness of the operation, including information that three Hurricanes flew low over the village of Souyia, where they encountered machine-gun fire.

They returned and engaged the suspected gun-site, fortuitously killing a Cretan traitor, Tzimanokes, who had betrayed seven British soldiers hiding from the Germans.

At Hag Nikolaos, bombs from the Baltimores fell on an Italian army camp, killing four soldiers, whilst at Ierapetra bombs killed twenty-one military personnel, three civilians and wounded thirty more soldiers. At Pakhiano a motor vessel was unsuccessfully bombed but a strafing attack killed one sailor and wounded two others, including the captain.

POST OPERATIONS

Air Commodore Mark Lax, historian of 454 Squadron (RAAF), was surely right when he described the concept of an attack on Crete as `fundamentally sound’. However, he pinpointed factors that led to failure, including the fact that the planners had forgotten the Allies were operating on double summer time but Axis forces were not. The plan assumed the enemy would be at breakfast and be caught unawares, but breakfast was over when the air armada appeared and the troops back on duty. Secondly, the fighters took some time to form-up and the unfortunate Baltimores arrived first, thus alerting the island’s defences.

Group Captain Aitken, drawing up a post-action report, concluded: `On the face of it, the material damage to the enemy was in no way commensurate with the loss of thirteen Hurricanes and five (sic) Baltimores, together with other aircraft casualties and damage. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the unpalatable medicine administered to the enemy, coupled with the fine tonic effect on 212 and 219 Group, made the operation a success on balance.’ Whether the surviving pilots and aircrew from Operation Thesis shared this rather optimistic assessment might be open to doubt.

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Bocage Fighting – the British Experience Part II

British Sherman Bulldozer

On June 28, a sniper of the “Hitlerjugend” surrenders to British soldiers of the 49th I.D. Photo: IWM

Derrick Watson recorded that Nangle was awarded the MC for this patrol: ‘It raised the morale of A Company and the battalion. Of particular comfort was the discomfiture of Brigade Intelligence when they received the gruesome remains. They were not amused.’ Watson also recalls:

a daring visitor who made the hazardous trip behind a DR from the safety of Rear Echelon to Bn HQ. This was a Private Buggs whose official duties were to bring a load of bumf for the Adjustant to sign. He also brought the post up. He also milked the cows in the neighbourhood. This meant a plentiful supply of milky porridge for breakfast. The Adjutant believed Buggsy should be mentioned in despatches for these duties but the CO said there was no provision in King’s Regulations.

Two sad things happened on 26 June in the bocage campaign. 1st RB lost three officers killed that day from shelling – Major Dorrien Smith, Captain G.S.w. Talbot and Lieutenant James Caesar. And at 0500 it was learned that 4th County of London Yeomanry would soon fight their last battle and were to leave the division, take their tanks to Carpiquet aerodrome and amalgamate with their sister regiment 3rd CLY This would be the end of a long valiant run through the desert and Italy – loaded with battle honours. Their replacement would be the dashing, famous (but recently untried) 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.

By 22 June 1st RB had lost fourteen officers and 163 other ranks in fifteen days of fighting in the bocage. At Le Pont Mulot they received a large draft of reinforcements from the 8th Battalion 60th Rifles.

The 1/5th Queens in late June were positioned on reverse slopes just north of the shattered village of Livry, in an area that was bocage at its worst. The infantry, no longer lorried, living in slit trenches in the rain, suffered a steady drain in casualties from shell and mortar fire and occasionally from snipers. All the time enclosed in the damp prison of the bocage, the lines of sight bounded by a hedge 200 yards away. At night there was the constant anxiety of patrolling through close hedges, which were often mined to pin down or identify an elusive enemy.

These were Derrick Watson’s memories of that time.

Later in the campaign Rex Wingfield wrote:

Waiting for action is frightening but once the battle or the patrol starts, fear vanishes. In battle so much is happening at once, you’re so busy that you haven’t time to be scared, you haven’t even time to think. You do things instinctively. But at night or in some pause in the battle you have got time to think. The mate you saw go down. The tank which ‘brewed up’. The shell which stuck in the ground two feet away and failed to go off. When Ted fell, did he try to break his fall? If he did, it probably meant that he was only wounded, but if he seemed to sag at the neck, knee or ankle you knew what that meant. You look into the dusk. A solitary man is digging a trench. You watch him carefully. If he digs slowly and apathetically you know his mate is dead.

On the last day of June the weary division was pulled out of the line as the American 2nd Armoured took over the sector. June ended with a lot of wet weather and Bill Bellamy recalled ‘always living in thick glutinous mud. This made the simple business of living so much more difficult. The mud got into the bedding because as we huddled together for shelter under the waterproof covers we couldn’t help treading on other people’s bedding in our efforts to reach our own. Cooking became a dreadful chore and nothing ever seemed free from wet and filth.’ Meanwhile Cherbourg had fallen to the Americans on the 24th and 50th Division was battling on the left (eastern) flank and took Tilly, but the enemy still held Hottot.

At Cully near Coulombs on 1 July W.E. Mason with 13th Medium Regiment RA, part of 8 AGRA, which often supported the Desert Rats, recalls:

While I was waiting for the main body of RHQ to arrive I had a chat with some men from the armoured division. They were able to give me some eyewitness accounts of actions against the Germans. The future looked very black after this discussion! We were in an orchard in a hollow and in front of the guns. Consequently found it very noisy especially when we fired a large barrage into Carpiquet aerodrome. [And later:] We had some bad luck at Le Mesnil Patry for Capt. Jones of B Troop and his signaller disappeared into the blue. Capt. Kerr had a nervous breakdown. Capt. Eve of C Troop was buried by a shell and had to be dug out. Capt. Williams the Adjutant had a nervous breakdown and was posted. In the section Dave Cutts injured his foot when riding his motorcycle, Signaller Key had trouble with his ears. Both went to hospital.

Mason and Co. went to a cinema in the village of Marcelet and saw a film with Lana Turner in it, and he and his mate played a game of ‘Spoof’ or ‘Sevens’. His friends Signaller Free and Corporal Shan were accused of looting in Fresnay, but ’Jumbo’ Free talked the Provost Marshal out of a charge! ‘Normandy Stomach’ was a violent form of diarrhoea from which many troops suffered, caused by food infected by flies that had fed on the corpses of the long-dead cows to be seen in every field.

Major B.E.L. Burton of the Queens described the next period, 1–18 July:

We always lived in the open. Houses and barns were used as recreation rooms but all troops slept out. For the most part we leaguered in fields and orchards tucking ourselves away in any available cover. Slit trenches were dug. When the weather was fine and warm it was lovely and very healthy. In wet weather bivouacs had to be improvised out of ground sheets and gas capes but it was not really possible to keep the bedding dry. Food in the early stages consisted of compo packs containing rations for 14 men for a day. Everything was tinned and ready cooked, only requiring heating – contents varied but one got very tired of ‘compo’ after a time. When the ‘build up’ allowed, field service rations including fresh meat, bread and tea were issued instead. There is no doubt that the rations were very good. The cigarette issue averaged fifteen a day. Mail from home came regularly and quickly. The homeward mail at first was slow. Companies went regularly by turns to Bayeux for baths and cinemas. But also we had training infantry with tanks – a careful slow system of co-operation in bocage country.

Scots Guards Fighting Through the Bocage by Terence Cuneo.

Action of the right flank, 3rd Battalion Scots Guards during the advance from Caumont to Les Loges, Normandy, 30th July 1944. Commanding the Churchill tank, Lochinvar is Lt Robert Runcie later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rex Wingfield with 1/6th Queens later noted:

We had never seen inside of a tank before, so we climbed into the Cromwell. The turret was very small, packed with guns, amongst odd food and of course cigarettes. Only dwarfs could find room to move in there. The crew must be contortionists or deformed. On a Cromwell sit between the turret and the exhaust in the middle. Too near the turret, the wireless static, words of command and loading would drown out noise of incoming shell or mortar bomb. In that case lie flat in the middle as shells burst up and outwards.

He reckoned Sherman Fireflies were difficult to climb and lodge on.

Of that seventeen-day rest period Bill Bellamy, 8th Hussars, wrote later:

The weather started to improve and we spent our days training with 131st Queens Brigade in the art of infantry/tank co-operation. Most of them hated tanks, considering them to be noisy, smelly, absolute giveaways to their positions and a large target which drew enemy fire. Despite this we got on very well together and forged a degree of understanding which was to prove very valuable in the months ahead. During the period of our stay at Jerusalem we set up a Squadron Officers Mess and brought the mess three-tonner up from Echelon. It was a great benefit to us all, as we learned to talk about our ideas, experiences and problems under relaxed conditions.

Bellamy also met officers from 5th RHA and 1st RB with whom the 8th Hussars often found themselves in the same Battle Group.

On July 1st a sad and gory episode took place [recalled Leslie Gosling, 3rd RHA]. We were just about to hand over to 2nd US Armoured Division. ‘M’ Battery was firing intensive scale; we thought we were pretty slick and could have 3 or 4 rounds per gun in flight at the same time. The 25-pounder gun breech was knocked open before full recoil and the next round slammed in. Unfortunately the No. 4 was poised to reload, but holding a round with a defective 117 fuse, the breech struck the cap and a premature detonation resulted. One man only of the six-man detachment survived and he lost a leg at the thigh. The rest were splattered, and it was not until the next morning that the No. 1’s head was seen suspended in the trees above.

During this time out of the line Trooper W. Hewison, 1st RTR, one evening (3 July) ‘heard pipes playing tonight – went over dozens of fields to find them. At last saw a lone piper pacing back and forward – a captain of the CLYs. Whilst I was there he played a lament, a Strathspey and a march. I asked him to play “Mushlochy Bridge” and he did. I’m sure if I ever go to Hades I’ll find a Scotsman playing a reel round the Devil.’ Later, on the 13th, ‘New CO [Lt-Col E.H. Gibbon, as Col Carver had been promoted to command 4th Armoured Bd] had a shufti at the ranks and grinned inanely all the time but doesn’t seem a bad bloke. Came into Len Dauncey’s crew as a lap gunner.’ The regiment was in laager for a fortnight. On the 17th ‘Big push going in today or tomorrow. 8 Corps & 12 Corps in the line with 30 Corps in reserve. The Geordies say they will be in Paris in a week. I wonder.’

Until 17 July the division remained in the orchards around Jerusalem between Bayeux and Tilly. In this uneventful period many officer changes were made among the senior officers. Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Mason took over command of 1/6th Queens and Lieutenant-Colonel M.F.P. Lloyd assumed command of 1/7th Queens. Brigadier E.C. Pepper from the Bedfordshire and Herts became OC 131st Queens Brigade, LieutenantColonel J.B. Ashworth OC 1/5th Queens. Many reinforcements – 2nd and 3rd ‘flights’ – arrived for the depleted Queens battalions, but they remained well under strength.

1 Assault Brigade, 79th Armoured Division, could not draw reinforcements for AVRE crews from the usual Royal Engineer channels, a specialized training and reinforcement unit was deemed necessary, especially in the light of the casualty rates amongst the AVRE crews. To meet this need, 557 Squadron was withdrawn from 42nd Assault Regiment and reformed as 557th Assault Training Regiment. However, it did not move to France with the regiment but remained in Britain and moved to Parham in Sussex, close to Arundel. Lieutenant Colonel R. P. G. Anderson, previously of 6th Assault Regiment, was appointed to command the new training regiment. At much the same time, assault squadrons were each reduced in strength by one troop to three troops while the number of AVREs dropped from twenty-six to twenty in each squadron.

However, there were some demands for assault engineer support and the brigade history notes that

During the mopping up operations in the area of Tully-sur-Seulles and Villers Bocage, ‘Dustbins’ were used for a new type of demolition – creating gaps in the ‘bocage banks’ which divided the small fields and which gave such excellent cover to the defending German guns and tanks. Except for the plain between Caen and Falaise, Normandy was difficult tank country, as the heavy bocage banks and numerous ditches provided good natural anti-tank obstacles, and the dense hedgerows on top of the banks gave good concealment for well placed anti-tank guns.

Scottish mercenaries in Russia

Scots in Swedish Thirty Years’ War service.

In October 1605, having embarked on his war with Poland in Livonia, Karl IX of Sweden sought Robert and James Spense assistance in the recruitment of soldiers. The use of merchants as middlemen or agents in recruitment was an established practice – they had contacts, access to transport and, most importantly, financial resources at their disposal. Recruitment also took place through the agency of military officers. Both merchants and officers were expected to carry out the task at their own expense against later reimbursement and employment. The king had already employed a Colonel Thomas Uggleby (Ogilvie) in 1602 to secure Scottish troops and in January 1607 Robert Kinnaird was sent from Sweden to the North-East, to the Gordon country, to raise 200 horsemen. Through Spens, Karl wanted 1,600 foot soldiers and 600 cavalry, a levy that had to be undertaken with the approval of the British monarch. James Spens’s reward would be the sum of 1,600 thaler for every 300 men and the rank of colonel in command of his recruits. It was an enticing prospect but the recruitment of such a large number of men presented Spens with considerable difficulties; after two years and no sign of them, Karl obviously began to wonder what was going on and, a few days after despatching Robert Kinnaird in 1607, wrote to Spens to express the hope that he would arrive in the spring with the troops. When May came and there was still no sign of soldiers, Karl had to send another letter, following it later in the year with similar ones to Thomas Karr and William Stewart. The latter styled himself ‘of Egilsay’ and was the brother of the Earl of Orkney. A 1609 commission from him to Captain John Urry appoints the latter to be in command of a company of 200 infantry in Karl’s service.

It is difficult to pin down how much a recruiter might hope to gain personally through his activities in raising men; some profit could be expected but this could be conceived as reward in the form of status or war plunder rather than in cash. The Swedish government between 1620 and 1630 laid down a rate for recruitment of 8 riksdaler per man, a sum that fell to 6 in 1631 and dropped to 4 in the following few years. As a riksdaler had an exchange value varying from 4 to 5 shillings sterling, the recruiter therefore could expect to have a sum of up to £2 per man to carry out what he had agreed to do. This sum included the provision of food and drink for recruits, probably some clothing too, and their transport costs across the North Sea, as well as a handout when a man signed on. In his study of recruitment for Sweden in the 1620s, J.A. Fallon calculated that it cost 6s 8d to ship a man from Scotland to the Elbe, and that two weeks’ food and drink for a recruit cost 9s 4d. Fallon suggested that 4s would have been handed to the newly signed-on recruit – hence the ‘dollar’ in the saying about the chief of Mackay. These expenses add up to £1. Fallon suggested that a recruiting captain might typically expect a payment of £1 per recruit. It is possible that the difference between the captain’s outlay and the overall sum afforded by the riksdaler–pound exchange rate went into the recruiting agent’s coffers, as we must accept that there would always have been the temptation among agents to minimise expenses and redirect a little cash into their own pockets. They also faced a fine if the numbers they attracted fell short of the total they had promised to bring in.

Spens was now running up against serious problems in fulfilling his side of the bargain with Karl IX, perhaps partly from difficulties with finance and shipping but also because James was loathe to allow so many men to go abroad to serve the Swedish flag, worried they might be deployed against his own brother-in-law, the King of Denmark. Karl IX sent a pair of falcons to James in August 1609 with a letter designed to allay the canny king’s suspicions, a gift the latter reciprocated with a book. To further Karl’s aims, Spens came over from Sweden in December 1609 with what amounted to a delegation of several Scottish officers that included Samuel Cockburn, who held the rank of colonel and had been in Swedish service since 1598.

The recruitment drive paid off at last but the numbers amounted to only a fraction of what Karl had first sought. Three hundred arrived in Sweden in January 1610, and further contingents were recruited in Ireland and England. In March 1610 the council noted a request from captains Johnne Borthuik and Andro Rentoun, who had received no reimbursement from Stockholm for the 4,000 merks and 300 riksdaler they had raised for the recruiting and shipping of men for Swedish service and who were now seeking the council to ask James to raise the matter with Karl on their behalf. The soldiers joined the Swedish forces in Russia, in time to be present at the defeat at Klushino on 4 July 1610 and were among the men who sat out the battle in response to the Polish commanders’ promises. James Spens, although nominally the senior officer, was not present in the field, and any blame, however slight, that may have come his way after the levies deserted to the Polish side did not prevent him from continuing a successful diplomatic career, not only as ambassador from the Stuart monarch to Sweden but also, at various times, to Denmark, the Dutch Republic, Danzig and Brandenburg.

Karl IX recaptured parts of Livonia during 1607 but in the spring of 1609 Chodkiwiecz began a campaign to strike at the enemy bridgeheads on the coast. An attempt to take Dynemunt at the mouth of the Dvina failed and he switched his attention to the port of Parnawa at the northern end of the Gulf of Riga, taking advantage of late-season frosts to ease movement through the swamps and forests. The defenders knew the enemy was at their door but remained unaware that the threat came from the main Polish–Lithuanian army and not bands of marauders. Chodkiwiecz ordered his men to the attack during the night of 16 March before Swedish reinforcements could arrive from Reval. In this battle Scots fought on both sides. On the Polish side were a company of Scottish mercenaries and 14 Scots sappers, while some 155 Scots under Captain John Clark were members of the Swedish garrison. Under fire the sappers, under the direction of two French engineers, managed to insert a bomb under the south gate of the town, which destroyed this section of the defences and allowed the Poles to burst in. The garrison retreated to the castle but after a short time surrendered. John Clark and his Scots then changed sides, a common practice during this period.

Chodkiwiecz’s and Karl’s armies marched and fought each other around the shores of the gulf during all 1609. Mansfeld, who had escaped from the catastrophe at Kircholm, returned to the fray at the head of an 8,000-strong army that included some Scots along with French, Swedish and Dutch. Riga and Parnawa endured sieges again as the combatants struggled for control of the lands around the gulf until, late in 1609, the Swedes were finally forced to surrender. By this time a former enemy of both sides had entered the contest: Russia.

A violent and confused struggle for power ensued in Russia after Ivan the Terrible’s death in 1584, a struggle out of which Boris Godunov emerged as victor and tsar in 1598. Among the Scots in his service were two captains, Robert Dunbar and David Gilbert, both of whom entered Russia in 1600 or 1601. Of Dunbar we know little beyond his name and rank. One historian described Gilbert as ‘an international scoundrel’, a judgement that could just as easily be ascribed to many mercenaries of his ilk. A challenge to Godunov’s regime emerged from Poland in 1601 in the person of a defrocked priest who claimed to be the grandson of Ivan. This man, who is known to history as the first False Dmitri, launched a campaign in the direction of Moscow with the support of some Poles and disaffected Russians. Gudonov’s army defeated Dmitri’s force but Gudonov himself died in April 1605, giving Dmitri and the rebellious boyars a second chance to seize power. At this time David Gilbert was serving as a member of Dmitri’s bodyguard, a unit made up entirely of foreign mercenaries, some three hundred English, French and Scots, deemed more trustworthy than native Russians. Moscow now entered a phase in its history remembered as the Time of Troubles. Dmitri himself was assassinated by boyars less than a year after his coronation, and the crown was awarded to Vasily Szujski. This new tsar was equally unable to bring order out of the Russian chaos and he too was challenged by rebels who gathered under the banner of another pretender, the second False Dmitri. Meanwhile Gilbert appears to have returned to Scotland, as in July 1607 the Privy Council granted a warrant to a man of his name as one ‘being laitlie imployit be the king of Swadene to levey and tak up ane company of gentilmen to pas to Swadane’. The company sailed from Leith that summer. Among them was a man called Robert Carr, a consummate horseman and possibly from the Borders. Back in Russia in 1608, possibly through a transfer of allegiance of the first Dmitri’s bodyguard when his Polish widow, Marina Mniszek, married the second Dmitri, David Gilbert found himself in the retinue of the latter and, before long, charged with treason. Perhaps this had something to do with the Swedish connection in the Privy Council minute. Only the intercession of the Polish wife saved Gilbert from a judicial drowning in the River Oka to the south-east of Moscow. After this narrow brush with Russian justice, Gilbert clearly thought it was time to make himself scarce and switched his allegiance to Poland.

The Time of Troubles tempted Russia’s neighbours to interfere in her affairs. Mercenaries also smelled an opportunity and several Scots officers in command of Germans passed east through Prussia, pillaging the country there. In February 1609 Vasily Szujski formed an alliance with Sweden, and in response the Polish king, Sigismund Vasa, sent his army into Russian territory to begin a siege of Smolensk in September. Surrounded by the pine forests from whose resin it takes its name, Smolensk marked the highest navigable point on the Dnieper River and the site of the portage to the Dvina and the Baltic. Strongly defended and well supplied, it held out over the winter, tying down the Commonwealth forces before its walls.

Vasily mobilised his army to relieve the city on the western fringes of his realm, and Karl IX lent him Swedish troops under the command of Jacob de la Gardie, the son of the commander with the first name of Pontus at Wesenberg. The combined Swedish–Russian army advanced towards Smolensk in the summer of 1610. Sigismund Vasa learned of the approaching enemy through a group of disaffected Russian boyars and, on 6 June, a section of the Commonwealth army was detached under the command of Hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski to intercept them. Although Zolkiewski’s force was heavily outnumbered, he held the advantage of surprise and at dawn on 24 June his men swooped to entrap 8,000 Russians in the village of Carowa-Zajmiszcze. Leaving enough troops to convince the Russians they were still surrounded, he led most of his force on a two-day march through wet weather to meet the main body of Vasily’s army. Zolkiewski now learned that there was dissension in the Russian camp between the native troops and the mercenaries and cleverly exploited this by letting the latter know through his network of agents that he was offering the foreign soldiers a bounty and a safe passage home for not fighting. De la Gardie discovered the subterfuge and quelled any mutiny but the seeds of temptation had been sown among the discontented mercenaries.

The two armies almost blundered past each other. Zolkiewski’s troops moving through the forests in the night found themselves near the enemy but were not ready to give battle and were unable to take advantage of the surprise encounter. Vasily now deployed his army in entrenched positions on open ground near the village of Klushino, between the forest and a river. The Swedes and Russians, including the mercenaries under de la Gardie, numbered 35,000, the Commonwealth troops less than 7,000. Nevertheless, Zolkiewski attacked, sending in his waves of hussars with lances and flaming torches before dawn on 4 July. Time and again the Polish cavalry hurled themselves with pistol, carbine and lance against the Russians, who defended well until a Russian cavalry counterattack failed and melted into a confused retreat that spread panic among the other Russian ranks. Robert Carr was riding with the Swedish–Russian horse, but we do not know if he took part in this key moment in the struggle. A rout ensued, with the Polish cavalry chasing and cutting down the fleeing enemy. De la Gardie’s mercenaries, deployed on the left of the Russian front line in strong redoubts, conducted themselves well, but they were weakened by dissension. One report, by Zolkiewski himself, states that the Scots and English among them chose not to fight and remained in their camp in the forest until they could surrender to the Commonwealth troops. These men agreed either to join the enemy or go home after pledging not to take up arms against the Commonwealth again. Carr returned to England in 1619 but it has been suggested he went back to Russia and founded a family with the surname of Kar.

In the wake of his defeat in the field, Vasily was overthrown. The way was now open for the Poles to occupy Moscow and they stayed in the Kremlin for the next two years. Smolensk also fell after a long siege. The Polish occupation was brought to an end by the emergence of a strong leader among the Russians; Mikhail Romanov was only sixteen years old when he was elected tsar in 1613 but he proved himself capable of regaining the lost territories. Gilbert campaigned with the Polish army in Russian territory but unfortunately fell into enemy hands and was taken back to Moscow, where he languished in fetters for three years. Again he escaped capital punishment when Sir John Merrick, ambassador to Tsar Mikhail from James VI, successfully interceded for his life. One may have forgiven Gilbert for concluding he had seen enough of Russia but, in 1618, with one of his sons, he returned and probably died there. Tsar Mikhail proved to be as fond of employing mercenaries as his predecessors had been: during his rule the number of foreign officers in Russian service rose to over four hundred, presenting the Scots with more opportunities to find service on the distant fringes of Europe.

GERMAN PARATROOPERS ON SICILY

A German Fallschirmjäger Regiment in Sicily August 1943.

Oberstleutnant Heilmann in Sicily.

It was not until noon on 11 July that Student received orders to move the 1. Fallschirmjäger-Division to Italy that afternoon. Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, the division commander, flew with his battle staff to the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief South at Frascati, near Rome.

A short while later, Oberstleutnant Heilmann’s FJR 3 started out from Avignon and Tarascon for Italy. The second lift consisted of the airborne machine-gun battalion and the division’s airborne engineers. The third lift was Oberst Walther’s FJR 4 and the division’s antitank battalion. The final lift was composed of FJR 1 and the airborne artillery battalion.

When FJR 3 approached the airfield at Rome to land, Generalleutnant Heidrich was already there. He greeted Oberst Heilmann with a powerful hand shake: “Good to see you, Heilmann. Despite the delay, I still think it’s possible to throw the enemy back into the sea.”

Heidrich then turned to the commander of the signals company, who had just landed with his men, and briefed him on the necessity of establishing a command and control apparatus on Sicily in the shortest time possible.

On the morning of 12 July, as the paratroopers of FJR 3 were in the process of loading their weapons and equipment on the He 111’s, an advance party was already flying to the island. It consisted of Hauptmann Stangenberg, an officer on the divisional staff, Oberst i.G. Beelitz, the operations officer at the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief South, and Hauptmann Specht, the division’s logistics officer.

While that He 111 flew directly to Sicily, the He 111’s of the paratroopers had to make an intermediate stop at Pompligiano near Naples for refueling. The refueling mission there was not without its problems. The day before, the airfield had been bombed and transformed into a wasteland. The refueling was delayed by hours and the regiment was unable to continue its flight to Sicily until the afternoon.

It was exactly 1815 hours, when the first jump horns sounded in the aircraft. Oberstleutnant Heilmann leapt out of the aircraft with determination and soon more than 1,400 parachutes could be seen deployed over the broad wheat fields at Catania. The regiment landed without enemy interference to the south of a line running from Stazione di Passo to Martino. Due to the heavy breeze that was blowing, there were some jump injuries. The regiment was able to jump so close together that Heilmann was able to assemble his regiment in the space of 45 minutes.

Heilmann ordered his men to head south to link up with the vehicles that were waiting for them.

They marched in the direction of Lentini and established contact there at 2000 hours with Kampfgruppe Schmalz of the “Hermann Göring” Division. Oberst Schmalz briefed the senior commanders of the paratroopers on the situation. That night, Heilmann had his men take up positions in a line running between Carlentini and the Mediterranean. The II./FJR 3 was sent by Heilmann to Francofonte, where it was to close the gap between Kampfgruppe Schmalz and its parent division.

While all that was happening, the situation on the island had reached crisis proportions.

While the defensive fighting was raging in the sector of the three paratrooper battalions that had been inserted and Kampfgruppe Schmalz, the airborne division’s machine-gun battalion had landed at Catania during the afternoon of 13 July. Major Schmid, the commander, immediately went to Schmalz’s command post. At the same time, Hauptmann Laun led the battalion towards Primasole, where it rested in an orange tree orchard, taking up concealed positions from the air.

Also landing at the airfield at Catania was the division’s antitank battalion. Two of the aircraft that had just landed fell victim to a bombing run by Flying Fortresses. The Gigant transporters were destroyed, along with all of the equipment and weapons they had on board, decisively weakening the division’s antitank forces.

The division’s signals company, under the command of Oberleutnant Fassel, was dispatched to safeguard Catania’s harbor as soon as it landed, since the Italian garrison had disappeared.

Stalin’s Turkish Bluff

Towards the end of his life, the slavishly loyal Molotov admitted that his boss made one big mistake. Stalin had got almost everything right in decades of power, he said, except with regard to Turkey in 1946. There he had miscalculated badly, and the Soviets and Americans nearly stumbled into a war neither of them wanted. It was avoided only by the alert action of a British spy.

During August and September, the Paris Peace Conference became increasingly ill-tempered. The delegates were tetchy. At one of their first meetings Ernest Bevin had likened Molotov to Hitler; the Soviet luminary (who had actually met Hitler) first looked shocked, then sneered and turned his back on the British Foreign Secretary. Bevin apologised but the encounter festered. Bevin had loathed communists since they had tried to penetrate his beloved Transport and General Workers’ Union and some sections of the Labour Party in the Twenties and Thirties, and seldom hid his feelings. In Paris he said, ‘Molotov is like a communist in a local Labour Party. Treat him badly and he makes the most of his grievance and if you treat him well he only puts his price up and abuses you afterwards.’

Behind the scenes, the Soviets were trying to bully the Turkish Government into granting them military bases on the Bosphorus – a key Russian objective since Tsarist times – and free access for warships through the Hellespont. Immediately after the war, Stalin had demanded joint ownership with the Turks of the small towns of Kars and Ardahan in north-eastern Turkey. They had been conquered by Russia in the reign of Catherine the Great, but were ceded back to Turkey by Lenin in 1921, when the Bolsheviks were preoccupied with the Russian Civil War. The Turks refused and at Potsdam the Americans and the British had backed them. The Soviets could have access through the Straits but no bases.

Stalin would not give up. There were 200,000 Soviet troops in Bulgaria and 75,000 in Romania. He calculated that if he exerted enough pressure on the Turks they would give in to Soviet demands and the Western Allies would accept it as a fait accompli.

Molotov for once disagreed with the Vozhd. ‘The West won’t accept it. It is a step too far,’ he told Stalin; as he said later, ‘It was always an ill-timed and unrealistic thing . . . but Stalin insisted and [ordered me] to go ahead and push for joint ownership.’

The Turks approached the Americans for help. Convinced that the Soviets were preparing to invade Turkey, Truman saw this as a major test of his tougher ‘containment’ policy. In the Oval office on the morning of Thursday 15 August, he met the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of Central Intelligence, and Dean Acheson, standing in for the Secretary of State, Byrnes, who was in Paris. The generals and the intelligence chief reported that there was no obvious sign of Soviet troop movements in the Balkans, but this was far more a political than a military matter. Acheson had not urged a strong line in the Iran crisis six months earlier; instead, he had recommended leaving the Russians a graceful exit route. This time, however, he was unequivocal. ‘It is a vital American interest to deter the Soviets,’ he told the President. ‘And it can only be done if the Soviets are persuaded that the United States is prepared to meet their aggression with force of arms.’

Truman agreed almost at once. He ordered the immediate dispatch of a fleet to the Mediterranean. The Pentagon had the previous year begun work on Operation Pincher, a plan for war in the Middle East, but it had been left in abeyance. The President wanted the plan looked at carefully once again.

He asked Acheson to approach the British and ask them to allow American B-29s, armed with atom bombs, to use bases in England. He also said he would pursue Acheson’s policy ‘to the end’. Acheson said later that Truman had made his decisions so quickly that one of the generals asked him whether he entirely understood the implications. Truman reached into his desk, pulled out a large and well-worn wall map of the world, and began to lecture the room about the historic importance of the Middle East from ancient times. ‘We might as well find out if the Russians are bent on world conquest now as in five or ten years,’ he declared.

Four days later, 19 August, the State Department told Molotov emphatically that the ‘defence of the Straits is a matter best left to Turkey’. Soviet ships could pass through peacefully, but if there was any threat or attack intended to secure Soviet bases in Turkey it would be ‘subject to UN Security Council action’. The implication was that the US would go to Turkey’s defence.

Tension was increased the same day when the US heard that the Yugoslavs had shot down an unarmed US Army C-47 transport plane, killing its five-man crew. The plane was just two miles into Yugoslavian air space and the attack came without warning. It was coincidence, entirely unplanned, and had nothing to do with the Russians, but the President and the State Department were sceptical. Many in the administration saw Tito as a stalking horse for Stalin and did not believe rumours of an imminent split in the communist ‘camp’. Immediately the news of the downed plane came through, Eisenhower, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, cautioned against over-reacting. It wasn’t a crisis, he said. He told the Defense Department he didn’t think that the shooting down of a transport plane was a cause for war.

Later that night, Acheson summoned the new British Ambassador in Washington, the recently ennobled Lord Inverchapel – who, as Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, had been Ambassador to Moscow until a few weeks previously – to the State Department. He reported Truman’s comment that he would see the matter through ‘to the end.’ The Ambassador asked if the US was prepared to go to war. Acheson looked grave and replied that, ‘The President fully realised the seriousness of the issue and was prepared to act accordingly.’

In Washington they waited for the next step. Molotov explained, ‘It is good we retreated in time or . . . there would have been joint aggression against us.’ The Soviets climbed down two days later and withdrew their demands for bases. Molotov said they had ‘over-reached’ and intriguingly added, ‘Intelligence may have prevented the outbreak of war.’

It was in fact the Soviet agent Donald Maclean, part of the Cambridge spy ring, who had prevented it. Maclean was then First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington. He knew about the conversation between his boss, Lord Inverchapel, and Acheson, and read the cable the Ambassador had sent back to London highlighting Truman’s comment that he would see the matter ‘through to the end’. He urgently passed the information to Moscow.

Stalin had never intended to provoke a war. As Molotov said, he was ‘probing’ to see exactly how far the West would go, in line with Lenin’s dictum: ‘You probe with bayonets. When you feel soft flesh, push further. If you meet resistance, feel steel, you withdraw and think again.’ Now Stalin had a better understanding of the Americans – or thought he had.

The crisis did not change Molotov’s view of spies. He relied on them extensively. As one KGB agent who was seconded from ‘the organs’ to work with him recalled, ‘We were stretched to the limit with the demands he made . . . Molotov flew into rages when he felt he was not sufficiently informed. “Why”, he once roared, “why are there no documents?”’

Molotov distrusted everybody; it was a cast of mind among the Soviet chieftains. But he reserved special suspicion for spies. ‘One cannot rely on intelligence officers. One can listen to them, but it is necessary to check up on them. Intelligence officers can lead you to a very dangerous position . . . there are . . . [among them] many provocateurs here there and everywhere.’

President Truman saw the Turkey crisis as a bloodless victory, a vindication of the policy of ‘containment’. The Russians perceived it differently – they were never intending to attack the Turks anyway. The end result, though, was that Stalin’s ‘probe’ into Turkey used up much of his political capital in the US and in Europe. He was never given the benefit of the doubt again; there would soon be American military bases in Turkey, right along the USSR’s southern border – and the hand of cold warriors in Washington who were recommending a firm hand against the Russians was strengthened.

Operation Pincher

Regardless of any protests in the West, Stalin’s suppression of Eastern Europe continued apace. In March 1946 alone the Soviet Ministry of the Interior recorded that ‘8,360 bandits were liquidated’ in the Ukraine, while in the Baltic Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia nearly 100,000 people were deported to gulags ‘forever’. Even as the packed cattle trucks of ‘bandits, nationalists and others’ trundled eastwards, Stalin launched his own verbal repost to Churchill’s Missouri speech, denouncing him as ‘a firebrand of war’. But Churchill’s views were no longer seen by the US as either extreme or as an impediment to better relations with Stalin. Just days before Churchill had delivered his Fulton speech, the US JWPC had finalised their Operation Pincher war plans. US policy was turning full circle in its attitude to the Soviet Union:

It is wise to emphasise the importance of being so prepared militarily and of showing such firmness and resolution that the Soviet Union will not, through miscalculation of American intentions, push to the point that results in war.

The US draft plan for their own Unthinkable war estimated that in the spring of 1946 the Soviets had fifty-one divisions in Germany and Austria, fifty divisions in the near or Middle East and twenty divisions in Hungary and Yugoslavia. This force of 121 divisions was supported by a central reserve of 152 divisions in the homeland, and a total of 87 divisions of pro-Soviet forces within the satellite states of Eastern Europe. A Soviet attack would most likely sweep across Western Europe and seize the channel ports and the Low Countries in little more than a month. Simultaneous attacks would be launched into Italy as well as the Middle East. In the midst of such overwhelming force (again, an estimate of three to one in favour of Soviet infantry), it was recommended that US troops would retreat into Spain or Italy to avoid being decimated by the Red Army on the continent. It was conceivable that the Red Army would even carry the invasion into Spain in an attempt to block the western Mediterranean, in which case US forces would swiftly withdraw and retreat to Britain. While Britain was considered a valuable base, Germany, Austria, France and the Low Countries would be sacrificed. Retreating Allied forces would also move across to the Middle East to bolster defences around the vital Suez Canal Zone. It was no surprise that the US chiefs of staff now accepted that an essential object of Stalinist policy was to ‘dominate the world’.

There would be a fight-back by the West, of course, but not until the Red Army had swept through Western Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran; in the Far East, South Korea and Manchuria would also fall. Although Pincher did not go into further detail, the US and her Allies would launch devastating air attacks from remaining bases in Britain, Egypt and India, no doubt deploying their growing stock of atomic bombs, though the use of such weapons was still not seen as a ‘war winner’. Meanwhile the US Navy would seek to blockade the Soviet Union and destroy her naval fleets, as attempts were eventually made to recover Western Europe by a southerly thrust via the Mediterranean.

One old festering wound in Europe that looked like it could precipitate Operation Pincher was the dispute between Tito and the West over the Venezia Giulia region. It was also this scare that brought together the US and British Joint Chiefs of Staff for their first planning sessions for a Third World War. The first British Unthinkable plan, involving the attack on Soviet forces on 1 July 1945, had not been discussed beyond the tight circle of the prime minister, his Joint Chiefs and their Joint Planners. Similarly, the highly sensitive US Pincher plan was initially confined to the US Joint Chiefs, their Joint Planners and the commander-in-chief. But on 30 August 1946 Field Marshal Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland Wilson, representing the British Joint Chiefs, attended a lunch with his American counterparts. Reporting back to his JCS committee, Wilson was able to reassure them that at least both sets of chiefs were alert to the risk of an armed clash in Venezia Giulia, which could pull in both power blocs, whether they wanted war or not. There was agreement that in the event of a conflict in the Venezia region it was pointless having a plan for large reinforcements to be sent into the territory, since the fight would swiftly spread into central Europe. Poland, no longer seen as the tripwire by late 1946, would nevertheless find herself at the very centre of military activity.

Ironically, the US chiefs were now discussing all the scenarios that Churchill had foreseen 18 months before, when formulating his plan for Unthinkable. President Truman had even appointed a Special Counsel, Clark Clifford, to report on the growing Soviet menace, concluding that Stalin believed ‘a prolonged peace’ between the Marxist and capitalist societies was impossible and the only outcome was war. At a top-level meeting between the US and Britain, even the new US chief of staff, General Eisenhower, was talking the Unthinkable talk of establishing Allied ‘bridgeheads’ in Europe. In the face of any Soviet onslaught he advocated withdrawing forces to bridgeheads in the Low Countries. As Churchill had earlier recommended, this would deny the enemy the use of bases from which to launch rocket attacks at Britain, as well as offering the Allies a short line of communication back to Britain. The UK would be of huge strategic value for the Allied air forces, though the Americans noted that longer airstrips would be required in British bases to enable more B–29 squadrons to be accommodated. The Naval representative also argued for a reoccupation of Iceland to broaden the reach of naval forces.

So, with a consensus reached, the meeting broke up, but not before it was agreed that the utmost secrecy should be imposed on the Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff outline plan, and that no one beyond the level of the chiefs and their immediate planners should be allowed access. The US chiefs were most keen to drive on and agree a command organisation for the US and Britain in the event of Soviet aggression, which they saw as ‘imminent’. However, it was not long before other senior British commanders became involved in the plans. On 16 September Field Marshal Montgomery, supposedly on a private visit to the United States, met with General Eisenhower and President Truman to discuss the war plan options for the West. Cabling Prime Minister Attlee to advise him of developments, Montgomery referred to the highly sensitive plan and stressed it was ‘Personal and Eyes only for PM’. ‘So far as I am aware, no (repeat) no one here knows anything about matter.’ Montgomery was keen to add, ‘all agree that secrecy is vital.’ To cover their trips to meet US Joint Planning Staff, the British planners used the excuse of researching for a ‘report on the strategical lessons of the recent war’. There was even concern within the British camp that the amply proportioned ‘Jumbo’ Wilson might have presented a large silhouette on board the yacht where he met with US chiefs. Furthermore, it was questioned whether British planners should wear ‘uniform or mufti’ when meeting with their American counterparts. Fortunately, the idea of ‘cocktail parties’ for visiting teams was hastily dispensed with.

Yet it seemed that the tight security in the US was now unravelling. The British were horrified to learn that the secretaries to the US War Department and Navy Department were also aware of the plan and it was only a matter of time before operatives in the US State Department heard of the details. British security operatives may well have been aware of the leaks to the Soviets from within the State Department and feared the worst. Attlee certainly did. Confiding to Field Marshal Wilson, he stated ‘the issues now raised are of the utmost importance and potential value, but any leakage would have the gravest consequences.’

During October 1946 the Canadian war planners were also introduced to the operation and a representative met with British and US planners for further meetings in London. Discussions included the intended bridgeheads and the capacity of Naval forces to evacuate US and British troops from mainland Europe, should the Red Army advance to the West. There was also the pressing problem of renewed Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey, as well as the issue of ‘standardisation’ of weapons and equipment between the US, Britain and Canada.

Operation Pincher went through a number of modifications during the summer of 1946, and the US Joint Planners ensured that it remained relevant, but it still excluded specific reference to the use of atomic bombs by the strategic bomber force. As with Unthinkable the planners made little attempt to project beyond the initial stages of a conflict, since there were just too many variables. One of the constant worries remained the issue of demobilisation. For with peace came a great desire for ‘bringing the boys home’ as soon as possible and for reducing the huge cost of a vast army. Consequently, by June 1946 the US armed forces, which had numbered more than 12 million at the end of the war, were reduced to fewer than 3 million. Secretary of State James Byrnes was frustrated with the whole process, ‘The people who yelled loudest for me to adopt a firm attitude towards Russia,’ he moaned, ‘then yelled even louder for the rapid demobilisation of the Army.’ So formidable was the strength of Soviet armour and infantry that once US troop reductions were underway, the planners concluded that Allied land forces would not be strong enough to drive into the Soviet interior for at least three years. Allied air power offered the only hope of victory, by employing massive strikes against ‘the industrial heart of Russia’.

It was unrealistic to believe that the Soviet Union could be threatened with oblivion in 1946. Even by the autumn of that year the US only possessed nine atomic bombs. There were two Mark III Fat Boys earmarked for testing off the US mainland, and seven Mark IIIs were held in secure housings on the mainland. They could only be delivered to the Soviet Union by the Silver Plate B–29, suitably modified to hold the weapon in place, but there was a lack of properly trained aircrews, as well as bomb assembly teams. Furthermore, scientists were returning to civilian life and the production of both uranium and plutonium was falling. However, production would be dramatically increased in the next few years, so that by the time of the first Soviet atomic test in 1949, the US would have a stockpile of some 400 atomic bombs. Despite the comfort of atomic superiority, senior commanders in the West were in no doubt about the consequences of an imminent world war. ‘My part in the next war,’ wrote Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, ‘will be to be destroyed by it.’

While Britain and the US faced up to the Soviet Union, Poland, as a cause, had slipped off the list of priorities. During Christmas Eve 1946 the ‘Polish Sixteen’, who had been the hope of a future liberated Poland, were languishing in various Soviet prisons. One of the most prominent leaders, General Okulicki, passed his last hours in Moscow’s Butyrka Prison. His disappearance, together with other leading members of the Polish underground, in April 1945, had done much to increase the climate of fear surrounding Soviet intentions. He was either murdered by the NKVD or died as a result of his hunger strike; it has been estimated that between 1944 and 1947 some 50,000 Poles, including many members of the AK, were deported to the Soviet gulags. In the spring of 1946 the US Joint Chiefs declared that the Soviet Union was giving the highest priority to ‘building up their war potential and that of their satellites so as to be able to defeat the Western democracies’. To combat Soviet plans for ‘eventual world domination’, the West would also have to provide military and economic aid to frontline states, such as Greece, Turkey and Iran.

So the post-war Western governments continued their stand-off with the Soviet Union, a situation that became known as the Cold War. The 1947 elections in Poland were duly rigged and a communist government was returned. But the Polish government-in-exile in London continued its existence, despite the worldwide recognition of the communist puppet government in Poland. In fact, showing all the old stoicism, the London Poles continued their existence until 1991, when the old presidential seals were finally handed over to the first post-communist government in Warsaw. Throughout the late 1940s the Cold War festered with intermittent crises erupting, such as the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviets attempted to cut off Western access to Berlin. The West arranged an airlift of supplies to lift the ‘siege’ and, in 1949, the Soviets backed down. It was, however, a momentous year for other reasons – the Soviet Union developed its own atomic capability and the balance of power shifted again.

Operation Unthinkable might have been just another quiet footnote in the story of the Cold War, but in 1954 there was a bizarre incident involving Churchill and Montgomery that threatened to expose the whole plan. In a low-key speech at his Woodford constituency, Churchill suddenly announced that in 1945 he had ordered Field Marshal Montgomery to preserve captured German weapons and to be ready to reissue those arms to ‘German soldiers whom we should have to work with if the Soviet advance continued’. An intrigued press tackled Montgomery for his comments and there ensued a wrangle over whether or not Churchill had ever formally issued the order. The Soviet press immediately seized on his comments, attacking ‘Churchill’s crusade’, and there were critical articles in the British and the US press. The Chicago Tribune attacked Churchill and his wartime policy with headlines that screamed ‘Folly on Olympian Scale’. The whole episode blew up out of nowhere but more rational observers wondered why, at the height of the Cold War, the prime minister would casually disclose such controversial plans to attack the Soviet Union. Major-General Sir Edward Spears was wheeled out in defence of Churchill. ‘The whole thing is absurd,’ he countered. ‘The Times is behaving as if Sir Winston had called in Hitler for help against Russia. Hitler was out of business.’ But the prime minister still had to calm the storm by admitting that he could find no telegram in his records and that he must have issued a verbal order to Montgomery. Privately he confessed, ‘I made a goose of myself at Woodford.’

The Balkans and Italy 1943-44

British support for the resistance in Yugoslavia had thus far troubled the Wehrmacht little. Although up to thirty Axis divisions had been engaged in internal security operations in the Yugoslav mountains, including Italian, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Croat (Ustashi) formations, only twelve were German, most of a military value too low to permit their employment on the major battlefronts. Even after the British had definitively transferred their sponsorship of Yugoslav resistance in December 1943 from the royalist Chetniks to Tito’s communist guerrillas, who then numbered over 100,000, the Germans were able to keep the resistance forces constantly on the move, forcing them to migrate from Bosnia to Montenegro and then back again during the campaigning season of 1943 and in the process inflicting 20,000 casualties on their troops, as well as untold suffering on the rural population. The capitulation of Italy in September 1943 had eased Tito’s situation. It brought him large quantities of surrendered arms and equipment and even allowed him to take control of much of the area relinquished by the Italians, including the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic islands. However, as long as the Germans continued to isolate the Partisans from direct contact with external regular forces, the rules of guerrilla warfare applied: Tito had a strong nuisance value but an insignificant strategic effect on Germany’s lines of communication with Greece and the areas from which it drew essential supplies of minerals.

In the autumn of 1944, however, Germany’s position in the Balkans began to weaken, so threatening to elevate Tito from the role of nuisance to menace. Hitler’s Balkan satellites, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, had been brought into the war on his side by a combination of threat and inducement. Hitler could no longer offer inducement, while the principal threat to these states’ welfare and sovereignty was now prescribed by the Red Army, which between March and August had reconquered the western Ukraine and advanced to the foothills of the Carpathians, southern Europe’s natural frontier with the Russian lands. Much earlier in the year the satellites had begun to think better of their alliance with Hitler. Antonescu, the ruler of Romania, had been in touch with the Western Allies since March; his Foreign Minister had even attempted to draw Mussolini into a scheme for making a separate peace as early as May 1943. Bulgaria – whose staunchly pro-German King Boris died by poisoning on 24 August 1943 – had made approaches to London and Washington in January 1944 and then placed its hopes in coming to an understanding with Stalin. Hungary, which had benefited so greatly at Romania’s expense by the Vienna Award of August 1940, was meanwhile playing its own game: Kallay, the Prime Minister, had made contact with the West in September 1943 with the aim of arranging through them a surrender to the Russians, while the chief of staff suggested to Keitel, head of OKW, that the Carpathians be defended by Hungarian troops only – a device intended to keep not so much German as Romanian troops off the national territory.

Even while the German troops were in full retreat in Italy and the Russians were advancing irresistibly to the Carpathians, Hitler could deal with Hungary. He had easily put down a revolt in the puppet state of Slovakia, raised by dissident soldiers in July when they imminently but over-optimistically expected the arrival of the Red Army on their doorstep. In March he had quelled the Hungarians’ initial display of independence by requiring Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian dictator, to dismiss Kallay and grant Germany full control of the Hungarian economy and communications system and rights of free movement into and through the country by the Wehrmacht. Horthy’s dismissal of his pro-German cabinet on 29 August alerted Hitler to the revived danger of Hungary’s defection. When on 15 October, therefore, Horthy revealed to the German embassy in Budapest that he had signed an armistice with Russia, German sympathisers in Horthy’s Arrow Cross party and in the army were ready to take control of the government. Horthy was isolated in his residence, where he was persuaded to deliver himself into German hands after Skorzeny, the rescuer of Mussolini, had kidnapped his son as a hostage.

The occupation of Hungary, though smoothly achieved, could not at that stage halt the unravelling of the Balkan skein. Hungary had ultimately been driven into opening negotiations with the Russians because it feared, quite correctly, that Romania might otherwise make its own deal with Stalin and secure the return of Transylvania, which it had been forced to cede to Horthy under the Vienna Award. However, it was Hungary that had been forestalled; as soon as the Red Army crossed the Dniester from the Ukraine on 20 August, King Michael had had Antonescu arrested, thus provoking Hitler to order the bombing of Bucharest on 23 August and so allowing Romania to declare war on Germany next day. This change of sides forced the German Sixth Army (reconstituted since Stalingrad) into precipitate retreat towards the passes of the Carpathians. Few of its 200,000 men escaped. Bulgaria, into which they might have fled southward, was now closed to them because on 5 September the government had opened negotiations with the Russians (with whom it had never been at war) and promptly turned its army against Hitler. In Romania, reported Friesner, the commander of the Sixth Army, ‘there’s no longer any general staff and nothing but chaos, everyone, from general to clerk, has got a rifle and is fighting to the last bullet.’

The defection of Romania immediately entailed the loss of access to the Ploesti oilfields, fear of which had so deeply influenced Hitler’s strategic decision-making throughout the war. It was that fear which, in large measure, had driven him to take control of the Balkans in the first place, to contemplate the attack on Russia, and to hold the Crimea long after it was militarily sound to do so. Now that the synthetic oil plants which had subsequently come on stream within Germany had been brought under disabling attack by the US Eighth Air Force, the loss of Ploesti was doubly disastrous. However, Hitler could not hope to recover them by counter-attack, for not only did the Russian Ukrainian Fronts which entered Romania on its defection enormously outnumber his own local forces; the simultaneous defection of Bulgaria put the German forces in Greece at risk also and on 18 October they evacuated the country and began a difficult withdrawal through the Macedonian mountains into southern Yugoslavia. Tolbukhin, commanding the Third Ukrainian Front, entered Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, on 4 October, having made his way there through Romania and Bulgaria. The 350,000 Germans under the command of General Löhr’s Army Group E thus had to make their escape from Greece past the flank of a menacing Soviet concentration, through mountain valleys infested with Tito’s Partisans and overflown by the Allied air forces operating across the Adriatic from their bases in Italy.

The security of the other German forces – Army Group F – in what remained to Hitler of his Balkan occupation area now closely depended upon Kesselring’s ability to defend northern Italy. Should it fall, Allied Armies Italy would be free both to strike eastward through the ‘gaps’, notably the Ljubljana gap which led into northern Yugoslavia and so towards Hungary, and also to launch major amphibious operations from the northern Italian ports across the Adriatic, as the commanders of Land Forces Adriatic, supported by the Balkan Air Force (established at Bari in June 1944), had already begun to do on a small scale. At a meeting with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944, Churchill concluded a remarkable, if largely unenforceable, agreement advocating ‘proportions of influence’ between Russia and Britain in the Balkans. Unlike the Americans, Churchill continued to be fascinated by the opportunities that a Balkan venture offered. In the event it was not Allied scheming but German force allocation that decided the issue. By the time the Fifth and Eighth Armies reached the Gothic Line, their strength stood at only twenty-one divisions, while that of the German Tenth and Fourteenth, thanks to the transfer of five fresh formations and the manpower for three others, had increased to twenty-six. Although the Gothic Line was eighty miles longer than the Winter Position, it was backed by an excellent lateral road, the old Roman Emilian Way from Bologna to Rimini, which allowed reinforcements to be sped from one point of danger to the other, and on the Adriatic coast was backed by no fewer than thirteen rivers flowing to the sea, each of which formed a major military obstacle.

This terrain and the onset of Italy’s autumn rains now ensured that Kesselring’s hold on northern Italy, if not the whole of the Gothic Line itself, could not be broken. Alexander, correctly assessing that the route towards the great open plain of the river Po was more easily negotiable on the right than on the left, secretly had transferred the bulk of the Eighth Army to the Adriatic coast during August. On 25 August it attacked, broke the Gothic Line and advanced to within ten miles of Rimini before being halted on the Couca river. While it paused to regroup, Vietinghoff, commanding the Fourteenth Army, rushed reinforcements along the Emilian Way to check its advance. The British renewed the offensive on 12 September but were fiercely opposed; the 1st Armoured Division lost so many of its tanks that it had to be withdrawn from offensive operations. In order to divert enemy strength from the British front, Alexander ordered Clark to open his own offensive on the opposite coast on 17 September, through the much less promising territory north of Pisa. So narrow is the coastal plain there, dominated by heights reminiscent of Cassino, that it made very slow progress. During October and into November, as rains turned the whole battlefield into a slough and raised rivers in unbridgeable spate, the campaign dragged on, while ground was won in miles and lives lost in thousands. The Eighth Army lost 14,000 killed and wounded in the autumn fighting on the Adriatic coast, the Canadians bearing the heaviest share, for they were in the forefront. The Canadian II Corps took Ravenna on 5 December and pushed onwards to reach the Senio river by 4 January 1945. The Fifth Army, attacking through the mountains of the centre, reached to within nine miles of Bologna by 23 October; but it had also lost very heavily – over 15,000 killed and wounded – and was confronted by terrain even more difficult than that on the Eighth Army’s front. So weakened was it that a surprise German offensive in December won back some of the ground it had captured in September north of Pisa.

Losses, terrain and winter weather determined that at Christmas 1944 the campaign in Italy came to a halt. It had been a gruelling passage of fighting, almost from the first optimistic weeks of landing and the easy advances south of Rome sixteen months earlier. The spectacular beauty of Italy, natural and man-made, its scenery of crags and mountain-top villages, ruined castles and fast-flowing rivers, threatened danger at every turn to soldiers bent on conquest. The painters whose landscapes had delighted European collectors had left warnings to any general with a sharp eye of how difficult an advance across the topography they depicted must be to an army, particularly a modern army encumbered with artillery and wheeled and tracked vehicles. Salvator Rosa’s savage mountain landscapes and battle scenes spoke for themselves. Claude Lorrain’s deceptively serene vistas of gentle plains and blue distances were equally imbued with menace; painted from points of dominance that an artillery officer would automatically choose as his observation post, they demonstrate at a glance how easily and regularly ground can be commanded by the defender in Italy and what a wealth of obstacles – streams, lakes, free-standing hills, mountain spurs and abrupt defiles – the countryside offers. The engineers were the consistent heroes of the campaign in Italy in 1943-4; it was they who rebuilt under fire the blown bridges the Allied armies encountered at five- or ten-mile intervals in the course of their advance up the peninsula, who dismantled the demolition charges and booby traps the Germans strewed in their wake, who bulldozed a way through the ruined towns which straddled the north-south roads, who cleared the harbours choked by the destruction of battle. The infantry too proved heroic: no campaign in the west cost the infantry more than Italy, in lives lost and wounds suffered in bitter small-scale fighting around strongpoints at the Winter Position, the Anzio perimeter and the Gothic Line. Such losses were shared equally by the Allies and the Germans, as were the natural hardships of the campaign, above all the bleakness of the Italian winter. As S. Bidwell and D. Graham put it in their history of the campaign: ‘A post on some craggy knife-edge would be held by four or five men . . . if one of them were wounded he would have to remain with the squad or find his own way down the mountain to an aid post . . . if he stayed he was a burden to his friends and would freeze to death or die from loss of blood. If he tried to find his way down the mountain it was all too easy . . . to rest in a sheltered spot . . . or lose his way . . . and die of exposure.’ Many of the Germans of the 1st Parachute Division who held Cassino so tenaciously must have come to such an end; many, too, of the Americans, British, Indians, South Africans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Poles, Frenchmen and (later) Brazilians who opposed them there and at the Gothic Line.

Losses and hardships were made the more difficult to bear, particularly by the Allies, because of the campaign’s marginality. The Germans knew that they were holding the enemy at arm’s length from the southern borders of the Reich. The Allies, after D-Day, were denied any sense of fighting a decisive campaign. At best they were sustaining the threat to the ‘soft underbelly’ (Churchill’s phrase) of Hitler’s Europe, at worst merely tying down enemy divisions. Mark Clark, commander of the Fifth Army and, under Alexander, of Allied Armies Italy, sustained his sense of personal mission throughout. Convinced of his greatness as a general, he drove his subordinates hard, and his frustration at the deliberation of British methods poisoned relations between the staffs of the Fifth and Eighth Armies – a deplorable but undeniable ingredient of the campaign. More junior commanders and the common soldiers were sustained, once the spirit of resistance to German occupation had taken root among the Italians, by the emotions of fighting a war of liberation. No great vision of victory drew them onward, however, as it did their comrades who landed in France. Their war was not a crusade but, in almost every respect, an old-fashioned one of strategic diversion on the maritime flank of a continental enemy, the ‘Peninsular War’ of 1939-45. That they were continuing to fight it so hard when winter brought the campaigning season to an end at Christmas 1944 was a tribute to their sense of purpose and stoutness of heart.

 

England Invaded by the Dutch: The Conquest that Never Was! Part I

Unknown 17th Century Dutch Artist, Embarkation of William III, Prince of Orange, at Helvoetsluis, c. 1688-99, oil on canvas, Royal Collection

The Fame of the Intended Invasion from Holland, was spread all over the Nation, & most Men were preparing for the Generall Insurrection which ensu’d, when I was obliged to go to London to settle my accounts, in October 1688, & had not continu’d there above 3 weeks, before the News came of the Dutch Fleet’s being sail’d to the Westward, & seen off the Isle of Wight.

The assault on the supposedly impregnable sovereign territory came out of the blue – the slickest feat of naval planning and execution ever to have been witnessed in Europe.

On 1 November 1688 (new style), Prince William of Orange, elected ruler or Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, and husband of the English King James II’s eldest daughter, Mary Stuart, embarked upon a seaborne invasion of the British Isles. His invasion force consisted of an astounding five hundred ships, an army of more than twenty thousand highly trained professional troops, and a further twenty thousand mariners and support staff. As a naval and military undertaking, the sheer scale, temerity and bold ambition of the venture captured the European imagination for years afterwards. The exact numbers of the invading forces were a matter of dispute and deliberate exaggeration (and have remained so ever since), but there was no uncertainty at all about William of Orange’s intentions – this was a redoubtable force, and it was headed for the English coast.

Rumours of dramatic action against the increasingly absolutist behaviour of James II had been circulating for months. As early as May, John Evelyn recorded anxiously in his diary:

The Hollanders did now al’arme his Majestie with their fleete, so well prepar’d & out before we were in any readinesse, or had any considerable number to have encountered them had there been occasion, to the great reproch of the nation.

Reliable intelligence on Dutch naval and troop movements was unusually hard to come by. Some snippets of information, though, had leaked out. There was talk that troops were on the move on the Dutch borders. There were anxious whispers that France was making preparations to come to the assistance of the Catholic English regime (what Evelyn refers to as ‘the Popery of the King’ was increasingly an issue). Right up to the moment when William’s fleet left the shelter of the Dutch coastline and headed out across open water, northern Europe was awash with unsubstantiated rumour and hearsay, anecdote and false alarm. Once the assault was under way, there was talk of little else.

The joint naval and military operation was on an unprecedented scale. Its meticulous organisation astonished political observers. There had initially been some suggestion that the build-up of troops in the Low Countries was in preparation for a land engagement with the French. It was then rumoured that the Dutch might send these forces to help prevent an imminent French invasion of the Palatinate. But by the time the size of the operation became clear in the middle of October there could be no doubt as to its destination or its purpose. The Dutch, reported the stunned English ambassador at The Hague, intended ‘an absolute conquest’ of England.

‘Never was so great a design executed in so short a time. All things as soon as they were ordered were got to be so quickly ready that we were amazed at the dispatch,’ wrote one of those involved in the secret planning, while the English ambassador at The Hague warned that ‘such a preparation was never heard of in these parts of the world’. Not only the foreign diplomats at The Hague but all Europe was astounded by the unusual speed and efficiency with which the Dutch state – which historians generally like to describe as one of the less well-organised in seventeenth-century Europe – assembled so enormously complicated an expedition.

William, it slowly emerged, had started to build up his army in the first half of 1688, without consulting the Dutch government – the States General. His closest and most trusted favourites, Hans Willem Bentinck and Everard van Weede van Dijkveld, had shuttled clandestinely around Europe for months securing backing from those known to be sympathetic to the Protestant cause, and negotiating supporting troops and financial loans. Between June and October they surreptitiously assembled a massive force of well-trained, well-paid and experienced soldiers drawn from right across Protestant Europe. They also made arrangements for troops from neighbouring territories to move into place to fill the gap left on the European mainland, to defend the Dutch borders against possible French attack once William had switched his best troops to the English campaign.

The uncertainty and swirling rumours seem to have paralysed the English administration. By mid-September the diarist John Evelyn, on a visit to James II’s court in London, ‘found [it] in the uttmost consternation upon report of the Pr: of Oranges landing, which put White-hall into so panic a feare, that I could hardly believe it possible to find such a change’. He also reported ‘the whole Nation disaffected, & in apprehensions’. The King himself was suffering from recurrent nosebleeds (a sign of raised blood pressure, perhaps). Strategically, over a period of months, the combination of extreme secrecy, rumour and false alarm sapped English morale.

The Dutch government was not consulted officially until well into September (and the French ambassador got wind of this through his ‘intelligencers’ – undercover agents – only days later). On 8 October William had let it be known in Holland that his invasion – if it took place – was to be both an intervention on behalf of the Dutch state, to prevent James II from forming an anti-Dutch Catholic alliance with France, and a bid to secure his own and his wife’s dynastic interests. The States General were finally asked for, and gave, their approval, on the understanding that ‘His said Highness has decided to start the said matter upon His Highnesse’s and Her Royal Highnesse’s own names, and to make use of the States’ power only as auxiliary.’

What the Dutch States General could and did provide was additional financing for the campaign (which they would later require to be repaid from the English exchequer of King William III). In spite of the Prince’s personal wealth, there was still a significant shortfall in the ready money needed for so large a naval and military undertaking. The States General placed at William’s disposal 4 million guilders, out of taxation income earmarked for defence of their land borders. A further 2 million guilders was raised in loans from sympathetic financiers (chief among them the Sephardic Jewish banker Francisco Lopes Suasso).

On 1 November, driven onward at speed by a strong easterly wind, a vast Dutch fleet left its sheltered harbour at Hellevoetsluis and sailed out into open waters. At a signal from William of Orange the great gathering of ships organised itself into a prearranged formation, ‘stretching the whole fleet in a line, from Dover to Calais, twenty-five deep’. The Dutch began their mission, ‘colours flying’, the fleet ‘in its greatest splendour’, ‘a vast mass of sail stretching as far as the eye could see, the warships on either flank simultaneously thundering their guns in salute as they passed in full view of Dover Castle on one side and the French garrison at Calais on the other’. As the great flotilla proceeded magnificently on its way, the Dutch regiments stood in full parade formation on the deck, with ‘trumpets and drums playing various tunes to rejoice [their] hearts … for above three hours’.

In his diary for the day, Constantijn Huygens junior, * William of Orange’s Dutch secretary, recorded how, the morning after they set sail: ‘We arrived between Dover and Calais, and at midday, as we passed along the Channel, we could see distinctly the high white cliffs of England, but the coast of France could be seen only faintly.’ Constantijn junior, and the other children of the distinguished statesman, connoisseur, poet and musician Sir Constantijn Huygens, together with their father, will be important witnesses and guides as the present book unfolds.

Poised between England and Holland (like other members of his family he was an outstanding linguist, whose English and French were as fluent as his native Dutch), Constantijn junior was equally at home in the élite circles of either country. Like his father and his younger brother, the scientist Christiaan Huygens, he moved easily between countries, his international experience proving invaluable to his princely employer.

From the very start, the Dutch fleet achieved its key strategic aim, creating an unforgettable spectacle, inducing a feeling of shock and awe in onlookers on either shore. The iconic image of its offensive sortie into the English Channel was commemorated in countless contemporary paintings and engravings, still to be found today, on display or in store, in galleries on both sides of the Narrow Seas. As the seventeenth-century armada made its way along the Channel, crowds gathered on the clifftops of the south of England to watch it pass. It was reported that the procession of ships had taken six hours to clear the ‘straits’.

The departure from Holland and arrival in England of this great fleet had been contrived with exceptional care, down to the very last detail. As the foremost historian of this period of Anglo–Dutch relations puts it, ‘The boldest enterprise ever undertaken by the Republic of the United Netherlands was stage-managed with exquisite artistry.’ The expedition comprised fifty-three warships, of which thirty-two were ‘capital ships’ designed for combat – thirteen with between sixty and sixty-eight guns, seven with between fifty and fifty-six, and twelve with between forty and forty-eight – the rest escort ships. There were ten fireships and about four hundred other vessels to transport troops, supplies and horses. The army was made up of 10,692 regular infantry and 3,660 regular cavalry, plus gunners of the artillery train and five thousand gentleman volunteers – expatriate Englishmen, Huguenots and other sympathisers. On top of this there were 9,142 crew members and a further ten thousand men on board the transport vessels. William’s plan was that this spectacular floating combination of forces and resources should avoid naval engagement at all costs. Like the D-Day landings, this was a huge feat of transportation, rather than a navy seeking a sea battle.

The munitions, equipment and supplies with which the expeditionary force was provided were formidable, and state-of-the-art. According to one eyewitness (who, as usual, may have slightly exaggerated the numbers), the fleet carried a total of seven thousand horses – mounts for the 3,660 cavalry officers, the Prince, his entourage and the officer and gentleman volunteers, and draught horses for the carts carrying provisions and ammunition. Further draught animals were needed to pull the fifty artillery pieces.

Every possible eventuality had been anticipated. Special equipment for the venture had been manufactured covertly in Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Intelligencers reported in the months preceding the invasion that the Dutch government had ordered ‘at Utrecht the making of severall thousand of pairs of pistols and carabins’, while Amsterdam ‘has undertaken to furnish 3,000 saddles’, and ‘they are also night and day employed at The Hague in making bombs, cuirasses and stinkpotts’. There were ‘muskets, pikes of all sorts, bandoliers, swords, pistols, saddles, boots, bridles and other necessaries to mount horsemen; pickaxes, wheelbarrows and other instruments to raise ground’, and ‘boats covered with leather to pass over rivers and lakes’. The fleet carried a mobile smithy for shoeing horses and repairing weapons, ten thousand pairs of spare boots, a printing press, and a large quantity of printing paper. Additional vessels were hired at Amsterdam to transport hay, provisions, etc. The wind, Constantijn Huygens recorded in his diary for the day after the fleet set sail, was steadily easterly, and the weather good.

The one decision that had not been taken by William and his advisers in advance was whether the fleet would aim to make landfall in the north of England, in Yorkshire, or in the south-west (in either case avoiding the English army, which was massed in the south-east). Pragmatically, and to perplex English intelligence, it was decided to leave that choice to the prevailing winds. In the event, the wind, which had blown ferociously from the west for almost three weeks previously, battering the Dutch coast and thwarting William’s attempt to launch his attack in mid-October, swung round suddenly (some said providentially) in the final days of October.

Responding to the favourable wind, the invasion fleet proceeded in the direction of the English coast, headed towards Harwich, as if to make landfall in Yorkshire. Having sailed just past Harwich, however, William of Orange, commander-in-chief in person of this mighty flotilla, gave new orders for it to proceed instead south-westwards, to take full advantage of the ever-strengthening easterly wind. The English war fleet, trapped in the Thames estuary by the same wind, watched William’s armada go by twice, helpless to follow and engage until it was too late.

The vast Dutch fleet sailed past the Hampshire coast at speed, barely managing to avoid being swept past Torbay, the last port capable of receiving it. It arrived there on 3 November, English style. Since the Northern Provinces, along with the rest of Continental Europe (but not England), used the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar, this corresponded to 13 November (new style) – the day before William of Orange’s birthday. Many in his entourage urged him to take advantage of that propitious day to launch his invasion of England. To the Dutch the choice of date would have had enormous ‘good luck’ significance.

To the English, whose support had to be won by every propaganda means possible, the coincidence of dates would have been entirely lost. For as far as they were concerned, on what the Dutch considered to be William’s birthday, the anniversary was still ten days away. Prince William and his fleet lay to off the English coast for two more days, and then landed. On 5 November 1688 (according to the English calendar) William began disembarking his troops on the coast of Devon.

Thus it was (once again, ‘providentially’) that the landing took place on the anniversary of another great triumph of English Protestantism over the hostile forces of Catholicism – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The convenient match with the familiar date meant that Catholic threats were opportunely on people’s minds. Those who had witnessed the Spanish Armada approaching a hundred years earlier, in 1588, had continued to talk about its fearful appearance for the rest of their lives. Now, a century after that failed attempt at conquering Britain from the sea, a Dutch fleet somewhere around four times the size of the Armada successfully made landfall on English soil, bent on conquest. The frigate Den Briel, carrying William, flew the colours of the Prince and Princess of Orange. Its banner was emblazoned with the motto – announcing the Prince’s justification for his offensive action – ‘For Liberty and the Protestant Religion’. Beneath these words was the motto of the house of Orange, ‘Je maintiendrai’ – ‘I will persevere’.