Anzio Beach-head (23 January-2 February) I

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Smoke rises from the German lines during the fight for Anzio, 1944.

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Mark Clark with reporters and troops at Borgo Grappa, May 25, 1944, during the [eventual] linkup of the Cassino and Anzio fronts.

Rome was throbbing with activity on the morning of Sunday 23 January. The peal of bells calling parishioners to mass was lost in the din of shouting German voices and hundreds of vehicle engines. Staff cars, armoured cars, half-tracks, tanks, and trucks all vied for space on the Corso D’Italia heading east, and there was a heady atmosphere in the capital as the Italians witnessed the Germans gripped by surprise. One witness spoke of German-occupied hotel foyers looking like ‘poorly directed mob scenes in provincial operas.’ The news of the landings at Anzio-Nettuno swiftly passed on from various German headquarters to their subordinate commands had also spread quickly amongst Romans after anti-fascist groups had been sent a message by the Allies: ‘Your aunt is ill and about to die.’ It was the code for the Allies having landed close to the capital. Kesselring was so worried that the attack might precipitate a popular uprising that Waffen SS Colonel Eugen Dollmann had been summoned from his boarding house by the Spanish Steps to an emergency meeting at Monte Soratte. Within the hour Dollmann (a liaison officer for General Karl Wolff, the head of the SS in Italy) was standing at Kesselring’s side. Did the Colonel think that the attack would lead to an uprising in the capital? ‘No,’ replied the astute officer, ‘the Romans are not brave enough and will not fight until Alexander’s army is on the city boundary.’ During the day there had been rumours that the Germans were preparing to withdraw from Rome; that the Allies were just a couple of miles away; that the Communists were about to seize power. But there had been no uprising. By the end of the day it was clear that the Allied arrival was not imminent and that the Germans were not leaving. Indeed, a spate of summary roadside executions, and an increase of heavily armed patrols was an obvious challenge to any dissension. The night passed without even the hint of an insurrection, and the following morning Dollmann drove down quiet secondary roads towards Anzio with his dog to see how the battle was progressing. Just outside Campoleone he pulled over by a bedraggled-looking collection of soldiers and spoke to their officer. The Major told him that yesterday morning he had been on convalescent leave in Rome enjoying the sights, and by the evening had been placed in command of 150 soldiers from a VD hospital. Only half possessed rifles, he complained, and several looked like dead men walking. Wherever this unhealthy horde was deployed would be an extremely lean part of the thin field-grey line that was building up around the Allied beachhead. Even so, the Germans used whatever was on offer to create a defensive line for they expected an imminent Allied breakout. As Siegfried Westphal later wrote: ‘an audacious and enterprising formation of enemy troops . . . could have penetrated into the city of Rome itself without having to overcome any serious opposition.’

Far too concerned with defence, neither Rome nor the Alban Hills were troubling Lucas during the first two days of the operation. In some places the Germans had already launched local counter-attacks. The Hermann Goring Panzer Division, for example, lashed out violently against 3rd Division’s 30th Infantry Regiment necessitating the rapid development of defensive positions. The inexperienced replacement Private Norman Mohar was the member of an Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon and had soon found himself in the thick of the action:

The first night I was sent out with booby-traps and mines to lay in ‘No Man’s Land’. ‘NO MAN’S LAND’!! I couldn’t believe that I was only a few hundred feet away from German machine guns. Now and then the Germans would fire flares, which hung for what seemed like hours floating down on a small parachute . . . Sometimes the Jerries would open up with their machine guns at the same time as launching the flares. The German machine gun tracers were only a few feet above the ground.

In well co-ordinated attacks combining German tanks and infantry, General Paul Conrath’s division successfully pushed south of the Mussolini Canal in the darkness, taking most of its bridges. Conrath continued to apply pressure on Truscott’s men throughout 23 January with strong patrols, but the Americans hit back sharply that evening, recovering most of the lost ground. These were tit for tat actions that successfully managed to reacquaint the two formations after their previous encounters in Sicily and at Salerno and were ‘an ominous harbinger of the trial of strength that was shortly to take place.’ On that day there was only a small increase in the size of the beachhead as units consolidated the ground won the previous day. When patrols were pushed out to reconnoitre the ground ahead, however, they invariably reported increased enemy activity. Patrolling was one of the many aspects of soldiering that the 504th US Parachute Infantry Regiment excelled at. Commanded by the blond haired, barrel-chested Colonel Reuben H. Tucker, the 504th were hard men and good soldiers, as Ross Carter declared:

The thing that distinguished us from most other soldiers was our willingness to take chances and risks . . . Each man had supreme faith in his ability to take care of himself whatever the odds. For this reason paratroopers were at times quarrelsome because they could never believe that anybody could beat the hell out of them.

Lieutenant Toland of 2nd Battalion carried out a seven-man patrol on the night of 23 January ‘to look for trouble’. At 2000 hours, dressed in dark clothes with their faces blackened, the men crossed the Mussolini Canal and slipped into No Man’s Land. Deep inside enemy-held territory, a place that they called ‘Jerryland’, they dropped down into a ditch to check a map just as a tank across the road opened fire on the beachhead. Carter wrote of the incident:

The powerful whoosh of the projectile passing overhead set our heads ringing. A hundred yards to the left a truck drove up and unloaded a lot of men who went into the field and began to dig holes about fifty yards from us … a digging German left his group and had the bad luck to pass near the end of our patrol. Casey, tensely coiled like a giant snake, enveloped him, slit his throat with his eleven-inch dagger and silently crouched on the ground.

The patrol made their way back to friendly lines, passing German machine gun teams as they went, their ‘breasts bursting with excitement and thrilling with exultation.’ The experience had left their ‘nerves limp’ and they were so tired that they could ‘do no better than splutter in aimless conversation’, but their information was gratefully received and fitted cleanly into an intelligence picture that spoke of a rapid German response to the landings.

There was no attempt to take Aprilia, Campoleone Station and Cisterna on the second or even the third day despite the evidence that resistance was building. Kesselring later wrote that during this period the defence had been a ‘higgledy-piggledy jumble – units of numerous divisions fighting confusedly side by side’, and so this was the time to seize vital ground. Just a few thousand German troops had arrived on the 23rd, but their number had swollen on 24 January to 40,400. The incoherent force was developing into something capable of giving Lucas a bloody nose. Schlemm had managed to fashion a continuous, though slim, defensive line around the sixteen-mile long, seven-mile deep beachhead. His main line of resistance was centred on Campoleone and Cisterna, but outposts had been pushed five miles further forward for protection. Schlemm’s commanders had developed strong defensive positions utilising all of the advantages that the ground had to offer for tactical advantage. Barns, outbuildings and farmhouses had been fortified and connected by trenches. The armour had been camouflaged and everything was covered by carefully sited artillery. Denis Healey on his third and last day, out of curiosity, decided to drive to the front in his amphibious jeep: ‘But when I got there’, he says, ‘I saw our soldiers in trenches being bombarded and so turned round sharpish and headed back to the beach.’ Healey was convinced by what he had seen that the best opportunity for exploitation had already passed, although back in England The Times headlines proclaimed: ‘LANDING SOUTH OF ROME ESTABLISHED. ALLIED TROOPS SEVERAL MILES INLAND. SERIOUS THREAT TO GERMAN LINES OF COMMUNICATION’. On the following day the newspaper’s claim that the beachhead was ‘being rapidly increased in depth’ was still untrue. The Times seems to have been producing copy based on what it thought should be happening rather than what was actually happening. In reality VI Corps had been caught in an unseemly limbo between attack and defence. Defending the Mussolini Canal on the right (twenty feet wide with thirty feet high banks), was 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, to its left was 3rd Division holding a nine mile front along the west branch of the Mussolini Canal, with Ranger Force taking the American sector along the Lateral Road up to the Via Anziate. 1st Division straddled this important highway and continued the line down the western section of the Lateral Road and then along the mouth of the Moletta River to the sea. In reserve Lucas held the 3rd Brigade of 1st Division, two battalions of 7th US Infantry Regiment and 509th Parachute Battalion. The corps was still awaiting the arrival of a regiment of 45th US Infantry Division and Combat Command A of 1st US Armored Division before the end of the month, and Lucas was not tempted to try anything aggressive until they arrived. Frustration was growing, a feeling that Vaughan-Thomas picked up on as he toured the British front: As D-Day turned into D plus 1, then into D plus 2, a slight unease began to possess the Allied rank and file. The exhilaration of the Great Surprise had worn off. The men could not share the thoughts of the Corps Commander and knew nothing of the factors which had influenced him to consolidate on the Beach-head. They only sensed that for the moment there seemed to be no strong enemy before them.’ Why give the enemy the initiative and waste the initial surprise? Lieutenant William Dugdale of the Grenadier Guards could not understand it:

The only excitement was Lieutenant Michael Hargreaves and his Carrier Platoon who, sent on a recce, drove completely unopposed up the local minor roads to the south west suburbs of Rome. He finally turned round as he thought he could be cut off at a street corner.

Yet Lucas, secreted in his Nettuno headquarters close to the seafront, thought that he was doing rather well bearing in mind Mark Clark’s orders. He noted in his diary on 25 January, the same day that von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army took over command of the beachhead from Schlemm: ‘I am doing my best, but it seems terribly slow. I must keep my feet on the ground and do nothing foolish.’ Something ‘foolish’ might have been a major offensive thrust to the Alban Hills, but on the 25th the agitated VI Corps commander did allow himself an attempt by 1st British Division to take nearby Aprilia, and 3rd Division to advance several miles towards Cisterna.

Aprilia was desirable to Lucas both as a stepping-stone towards the Alban Hills and a defensive anchor. The evacuated town was a potential fortress that sat on a slight rise beside the Via Anziate, dominating the boggy ground surrounding it. The troops called it the ‘Factory’ for although it was a small model Fascist town of two and three storey buildings, the geometric design and tower that rose out of the Fascist headquarters made it look like an industrial site. The attack on the Factory was to be ‘the first warning to the front line soldier that the Anzio adventure had lost its early bloom’. At dawn British armour began moving up the Via Anziate flanked by a marching Guards Brigade, spearheaded by the Grenadiers, stretching back as far as the eye could see. A smattering of local farmers standing on the frosty verge clapped nervously as the troops passed them, whilst Penney and his brigade commanders watched the spectacle from the Flyover. It was to be the last time in the battle of Anzio that it would be a safe place to do such a thing. The Grenadiers continued up the road for a further two miles, then deployed on their start line—the Embankment of the ‘Disused Railway Bed.’ Here they came under increasingly heavy German fire and Lieutenant Michael Hargreaves, the hero of The Rome Patrol’, was killed by one of the first shots fired that day. Their first task was to take Carroceto and to use it as a base from which to assault the Factory. An attempt to enter the village, however, led to the officer of the lead platoon, Lieutenant The Honourable V.S. de R. Canning, being wounded in the head and all of his section commanders, bar one, becoming casualties. It was not until a couple of Shermans provided covering fire that a second platoon managed to infiltrate the village and clear the buildings in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. The preliminary action had already cost the battalion dearly. As the historian of the Grenadier Guards has written: ‘Carroceto was in our hands. With how much less cost could it have been captured two days before!’ The main attack on the Factory began at 1415 hours. Two companies advanced across the open ground assisted by a barrage of smoke, high explosives and a low sun that was glaring in the faces of the defenders. Nevertheless, one of the company commanders was killed leading his men forward, and the other wounded. Sapper Stanley Fennell watched the attack: ‘I cringed at the sight, because I was sitting in an enormous armoured car, and they were completely soft-skinned, as it were. The shells burst amongst them, and they marched steadily forward in the attack … to see them go forward was awe-inspiring.’ The Grenadiers reached the town and immediately began clearing the buildings. It was an unpleasant task, ‘a deadly game of hide-and-seek, of sudden encounters at close quarters and of unexpected stumblings upon well-armed enemies. Shutters and doors had to be smashed in and grenades flung quickly into rooms where the Germans might be hiding, the Guardsmen ducking hurriedly to avoid the flying fragments. In some houses terrified civilians crouched in shallow cellars praying that the fight would sweep past them.’ Slowly the Germans were overwhelmed and the battalion took 111 prisoners that day. One Nazi officer, whilst being led through Carroceto under armed guard, pointed to a Sherman and said in English ‘if I had that, I would be in Rome by now’.

It rained heavily that night, weather which was to undermine the ability of the Allied forces to support VI Corps during the last week of January, and under its cover the Germans prepared to retake the Factory. At dawn on 26 January the panzer grenadiers opened fire on the Grenadiers with machine guns and five self-propelled guns from some large huts a couple of hundred yards to the north-east of the town. There was no infantry attack and the armour was stopped by anti-tank guns and the supporting artillery, but the huts continued to provide cover for the enemy. A platoon from Captain T.S. Hohler’s company was sent to relieve the Germans of the huts, and it succeeded, but two German tanks almost immediately forced its eight survivors out. The battle continued, however, as the Grenadiers’ historian has written:

There was no choice but to attack again, and there were no other troops available than Holder’s company, who by this time were extremely weak, their headquarters having received a direct hit from a shell while the wounded from the first skirmish were being treated inside. Capt. Hohler returned with his new orders, to find that a Guardsman who had been blinded some time previously in the huts, had had his leg blown off while lying on a stretcher; another had lost both legs; and several others, including the Company Sergeant-Major, were also wounded.

Hohler led another attack across the bare, flat ground during which five of his men were killed. But he managed to occupy the huts. Whilst organising his defences a tank opened fire with its machine gun and a stream of bullets smashed through the wooden walls. There were several casualties, including Hohler whose forearm was shattered. Alone and feeling faint he scrambled over to another hut where he joined another wounded man and a Guardsman whose Bren gun had jammed. Through the fug he heard shouting which indicated that the tank was now moving forward and rising gingerly to his feet saw the beast descending through a hole in a wooden panel. By the time he turned round, the German infantry were rounding up his men. The Bren gunner had been caught with his weapon in pieces and was being led away with a Schmeisser jammed into his ribs. Hohler knew that he would be next unless he acted quickly. ‘Captain Hohler rather carefully laid down’, the Battalion War Diary explains, ‘put his steel helmet over his face, turned up his toes, and lay as one dead. The wounded Guardsman was led off as well, but the ruse worked, and Captain Hohler was not disturbed by any German.’ He eventually reached safety, but the enemy retook the huts. The casualties had been heavy, 130 rank and file alone, but the battalion’s determination to hang on to the Factory was undiminished. The Grenadiers’ attention to detail remained as acute as ever, for even as their Commanding Officer lay wounded barking orders, Lieutenant William Dugdale, the junior officer who had been lambasted for his appearance by Alexander on D-Day, received another ticking off: ‘I found Col. Gordon Lennox lying on a mattress in the Factory compound directing the repulse of the counter-attack’, he recalls. As “Left Out of Battle” I was not in battle order or wearing a steel helmet. Col. Gordon Lennox beckoned me over and enquired why I was not properly dressed.’ Within minutes Dugdale was properly dressed and found himself in the front line under a German bombardment. Throughout the remainder of the day the Germans put the Brigade under such heavy artillery fire that it was largely responsible for the 119 casualties Irish Guards lodged at Carroceto. There were some enemy infantry attacks that caused the Grenadiers difficulties on their open right flank, but an advance by Ranger Force and 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion clinically eliminated the problem. The battle had been bloody, but Penney had secured a valuable objective.

The first battles of Carroceto and the Factory became a benchmark for the grisly tussles that were to take place in the Anzio beachhead. Father Brookes, the Irish Guards’ padre, who had served on the Western Front during the First World War, said that 26 January compared unfavourably to any of his wartime experiences. Brookes spent the day at the British Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) that had been established at a Yellow Bungalow close to the Via Anziate between the Flyover and Anzio. It was overwhelmed with wounded and as shells were falling all around, some had to be administered in the relative safety of a drainage ditch. The author of the Irish Guards history, D.J.L. Fitzgerald, a captain at Anzio, later wrote:

The patience and gratitude shown by the wounded men is one of the few things which it is worth being in battle to see. Not only on this occasion, but at all times, the silent courage of maimed, battered, bleeding Irish Guardsmen lying in the open or, if they were lucky, in some muddy ditch, was a living monument to the strength of the human will in the depths of human misery. A man drained of blood gets very cold, there is not much a man with a shattered thigh can do for himself; a man whose chest has been torn to ribbons by shell splinters would like to be moved out of the barrage. But they did not say anything, they didn’t ask for anything; they smiled painfully when the orderlies put a blanket over them or gave them a drink of water and a cigarette, and just shut their eyes for a moment when a shell exploded particularly close.

It was on that day that the field adjacent to the Casualty Clearing Station began to spawn wooden crosses.

Just as the Guards Brigade was blooded at the Factory, 3rd Division was carrying out its attack towards Cisterna. Standing on Route 7 and boasting a road that led to Valmontone on Route 6, the town guarded the supply routes to Tenth Army and so had been incorporated into the German main defences. The battle to move 3rd Division to within striking distance of Cisterna lasted for nearly four days and advanced front line by up to three miles, but ultimately left Truscott’s division another three miles short of the town. During the fighting, one of the most remarkable feats of heroism to be witnessed in the beachhead occurred. The unlikely hero was T/5 Eric G. Gibson, a cook from the US 30th Regiment who often volunteered for combat duties. On 28 January Gibson was part of a squad attack in which he had asked to be lead scout. Leading the men through an irrigation ditch, he almost immediately contacted the enemy:

The squad had proceeded only a few steps when a blast of machinepistol fire opened up from a clump of brush along the ditch bank. Gibson did not even take cover, but ran twenty yards up the ditch, firing his tommy gun from the hip as he went. He poked the gun muzzle into the brush and finished the Germans hidden there. Under a heavy artillery concentration the squad again moved out. Knocked flat under the concussion of one close shell, Gibson had no sooner risen than he was fired upon by a machine pistol and rifle. Again he charged down the ditch, to fire his submachine gun into another pile of brush.

With that threat dealt with Gibson then tackled two machine guns that had opened fire on the squad. He crawled toward the strong point as shells exploded all around him and got to within thirty-five yards before hurling two grenades into the position. Before the second grenade had exploded Gibson leapt up and charged, killing two Germans and capturing another. Quite unperturbed he returned to the ditch and continued in the lead. Within moments he rounded a corner and squad following heard a machine pistol fire followed by Gibson’s tommy gun. Rushing to the scene they found Gibson’s dead body lying beside the two Germans that he had killed. Eric Gibson was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor. The 3rd Division, meanwhile, would have to try again to seize Cisterna. Truscott, who on 24 January had himself been wounded by a shell splinter in his foot, recommended a more concentrated attack on the town as ‘more power was needed’.

Alexander and Clark were also keen to see a more concentrated effort. When they had visited the beachhead on 25 January, they had been satisfied that Lucas was at least beginning to move forward. Both men wanted to see the main German defences broken. Alexander had become increasingly uneasy at Lucas’s lack of movement, and even Mark Clark had been surprised that the VI Corps commander had not put together an early offensive to take Campoleone and Cisterna. Lucas had not stuck his head out too far. He had not stuck it out at all. To calm Lucas’s fears that a major offensive would leave him without a reserve, Clark informed him that the remainder of 45th Division and 1st Armored Division would be sent to the beachhead, along with 168th Brigade of 56th British Infantry Division and First Special Service Force. Lucas was confused and seemed either unwilling or unable to ask Clark the obvious question. Why was the Fifth Army commander pressurising VI Corps into a major offensive? The pressure was not appreciated and that night Lucas confided to his diary: ‘This is the most important thing I have ever tried to do and I will not be stampeded.’ He wanted to continue with his cautious, methodical advance just as originally instructed, rather than launch an impulsively premature strike before the German counter-attack. But if Lucas was under pressure from Alexander and Clark, it should be noted that Alexander was in turn under severe pressure from Churchill. On 26 January the Prime Minister cabled Fifteenth Army Headquarters: ‘I am thinking of your great battle night and day’, and so he was. He had already demanded to be informed why there had been no breakout at Anzio and was told that it was ‘not due to lack of urging from above’. As usual, Brooke was feeling the full force of the Prime Minister’s displeasure, noting in his diary on 28 January: ‘Churchill was full of doubts as to whether Lucas was handling this landing efficiently. I had some job quietening him down again.’ The Prime Minister’s mood was at least partly fuelled by a cable received that same day from Alexander saying that he was also unhappy at Lucas’s efforts. Clark, meanwhile, had been despatched to the beachhead in an attempt ‘to urge General Lucas to initiate aggressive action at once’.

Mark Clark was in a foul mood during the journey to Anzio, and was only to get worse. Initially he had been irritated by reports that the attacks by 1st and 3rd Divisions had proved so ‘challenging’, but by the time that he was nearly killed by an American minesweeper opening fire on his motor-launch, he was furious. One of the shells had hit Clark’s stool and although he was not wounded, there had been casualties amongst the crew. The subsequent meeting with Lucas was frosty, but he thawed a little when presented with the plan for a major attack that was to take place that night, 28-29 January. He was told that 1st Division were to take Campoleone Station, whilst 3rd Division was to seize Cisterna. The meeting broke up amicably, but Lucas still felt compelled to write that night:

Apparently some of the higher levels think I have not advanced with maximum speed. I think more has been accomplished than anyone had a right to expect. This venture was always a desperate one and I could never see much chance for it to succeed, if success means driving the Germans north of Rome. The one factor that has allowed us to get established ashore has been the port of Anzio. Without it our situation by this time would have been desperate with little chance of a build-up to adequate strength. As it is, we are doing well and, in addition to our troops, unloaded over 4,000 tons of supplies yesterday. Had I been able to rush to the high ground around Albano . . . immediately upon landing, nothing would have been accomplished except to weaken my force by that amount because the troops sent, being completely beyond supporting distance, would have been completely destroyed. The only thing to do was what I did. Get a proper beachhead and prepare to hold it. Keep the enemy off balance by a constant advance against him by small units, not committing anything as large as a division until the Corps was ashore and everything was set. Then make a co-ordinated attack to defeat the enemy and seize the objective. Follow this by exploitation. This is what I have been doing, but I had to have troops in to do it with.

Lucas’s preoccupation with resources can clearly be seen in this diary entry, and he certainly could not be criticised for lack of attention to the resupply of the beachhead. It was a sophisticated operation in which a convoy of six LSTs departed from Naples every day on the 100-mile trip to Anzio. Each vessel contained 50 trucks loaded to capacity usually with 60 per cent ammunition, 20 per cent fuel, and 20 per cent rations. These vessels were supplemented each week by 15 LCTs and every ten days by four Liberty ships, loaded with over 9,000 tons of cargo. There had been some poor weather in which ‘Liberty ships lay tossing and the LCTs rolled and pitched continuously’, but it was the Luftwaffe attacks that caused more concern. As the harbour was critical to the Allies, it was an obvious German target. Between 23 January and 3 February whilst Kesselring gathered his ground forces, he massed a substantial bomber force: 140 long range bombers had been moved to Italy from north-west Germany, France and Greece, and the anti-shipping force in the south of France was reinforced by an additional 60 aircraft. Torpedoes, bombs and radio-controlled glider bombs (a general purpose bomb which was rocket-powered and radio-controlled) were all dropped in and around the harbour. The first major raid came on 23 January when the medium bombers launched glider bombs against a Landing Ship Tank. On this occasion their weapons failed to respond to the radio controls, but the anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons and smoke screens failed to deter future attempts. Allied fighter patrols ruled the skies during the day, and so most German bomber raids were launched after darkness. Lucas wrote on 26 January: ‘8.45 p.m. The biggest yet. The Hun’s determined to ruin me and knows that if I lose Anzio harbor I am in a hell of a fix. I went to look at the mess. Trucks are burning and the town is in a shambles, but ships are being unloaded. Casualties have been heavy I am afraid.’ Ross Carter watched the show with grim fascination from the Mussolini Canal: ‘All night the enemy dropped long-burning parachute flares over the harbour’, he wrote. ‘Night after night we watched the awesomely spectacular fireworks and shivered at the sight of burning planes falling to the earth or into the sea.’ The navies soon got the measure of the bombers, however. Commander Roger Hill on HMS Grenville recalls:

With the glider bombs I found that if I started to turn, the bomb would start to follow me, but the bomb had a bigger turning circle than I did and they all missed us. I could see them sort of turning somersaults and landing in the sea and I had people on the Bridge who were spotting the next one that was roaming and when that was finished they left a plane over the top who was obviously taking photographs, so we made a very rude signal to them.

Before long the Task Force 81 destroyers had the means to detect and jam the Luftwaffe’s radio beams. The German pilot prowled the harbour looking for a likely target and then, staying high and clear of the heavy flak that poured from the anti-aircraft guns, released his bomb. From that point on this was a battle of wits between the pilot with his joy-stick trying to guide the bomb onto its target, and the jamming team. Often the navy managed to bring the missiles down into the sea – but not always. Before the end of the month the Germans had sunk the cruiser Spartan – ‘Spartan lies on her side, the bilge just showing . . . For miles the sea is full of blackened, bloated corpses’, the destroyers Janus – sunk in 20 minutes with the loss of its commander and 150 men – Jervis and Plunkett, the minesweeper Prevail, the hospital ship St David, and the troop transporter Samuel Huntington containing 7,181 tons of equipment and materials. But although these losses were disquieting, VI Corps had successfully taken delivery of 68,886 men, 508 artillery pieces and 237 tanks by 29 January, and Lucas was justifiably pleased with this effort.

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Anzio Beach-head (23 January-2 February) II

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Amongst the new arrivals had been the 45th US Infantry Division commanded by Major General William W. Eagles, and 1st US Armored Division commanded by Major General Ernest N. Harmon. Eagles according to Lucas, was a ‘quiet, determined soldier, with broad experience’ whilst Harmon, although also determined and experienced, was far from quiet. Born into poverty in New England and orphaned at the age of ten, this ambitious character was the embodiment of the American Dream. Now in his fiftieth year, Ernest Harmon was a bull of a man who sported two pearl handled revolvers. He lacked tact, but demanded respect, and had been carved from the same granite as Patton. It was without any sense of irony, however, that Lucas welcomed Harmon to the beachhead with the words, ‘Glad to see you. You’re needed here.’ His Combat Command A was just in time for the attack on the night of 28 January and was to support 1st Division’s attack towards Campoleone. On 27 January the Scots Guards had pushed on from the Factory and taken what the officers called ‘Dung Farm’ and the men called something else on account of the smell of rotting animals and manure. From this foul place the Scots were to secure a road between the farm and Campoleone, with the Grenadier Guards attacking on their left. Once this road had been taken 3rd Brigade were to launch an assault to Campoleone Station. Combat Command A was to support the attack by swinging across the Vallelata Ridge west of the Via Anziate and south west of the station. In a secondary but simultaneous attack, two battalions of Ranger Force were to infiltrate Cisterna during the night whilst its third cleared the Conca—Cisterna road in preparation for the main onslaught on the town by 15th Infantry Regiment the following morning. Subsidiary attacks by 7th Infantry Regiment and a company of 30th Infantry Regiment on the left to cut Route 7 north of Cisterna, and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment on the right were to further occupy the enemy defences. If Lucas’s offensive was successful then Tenth Army would, at last, feel the impact of Operation Shingle. By the end of January with 34th Division having managed to create a small bridgehead over the Rapido, and the French 3rd Algerian Division threatening in the hills to the north, Alexander was sensing a breakthrough. By reinforcing Clark with the New Zealand Corps and co-ordinating an attack on the Gustav Line to coincide with the attacks at Anzio, the Fifteenth Army Group commander still hoped to force Kesselring into a withdrawal.

With Clark rubbing in the need for immediate offensive action to Lucas at their meeting on 28 January, it was extremely unfortunate that, even as he spoke, an incident took place in the beachhead which was to lead to the postponing of the attack. That afternoon a party of eight Grenadier officers and three other ranks were driving up the Via Anziate to Dung Farm for an Order Group prior to their attack. Missing the turning to the farm their jeeps had continued up the main road and run into automatic fire and hand grenades from a German outpost. Three officers and a Guardsman were killed, one officer and two Guardsmen wounded and taken prisoner. The four officers that escaped did so courtesy of an incompetent German machine gunner and the pall of smoke that blew across the road from a burning jeep. As a result of the episode both 1st and 3rd Division attacks were postponed for twenty-four hours and the Irish Guards had taken the place of the devastated Grenadiers on the left of the attack. The postponement had been no mere inconvenience. On 29 January another 17,000 German troops arrived taking their total to 71,500 men. Amongst them were 7,000 soldiers from the 26th Panzer Division that reinforced Cisterna.

As von Mackensen’s defences absorbed the newly arrived troops on 29 January, 1st and 3rd Divisions were making the final adjustments for their postponed attack. The weather was atrocious causing Combat Command A to slip and slide their way through difficult country to their jumping off point. Their problems were exacerbated when a German artillery observer spotted their laboured movements, calling down a bombardment. Harmon’s preparations were ruined, the deployment took far longer than he anticipated and continued long after darkness had fallen. There was no reconnaissance, orders were rushed and the whole experience had been thoroughly miserable. To make matters worse a British officer from 2nd Brigade was captured with a set of 1st Division plans after he had got lost and wandered into the German lines. It was a very tense time. Across VI Corps there was at last a feeling that something positive was being done to push forward, but there were also concerns that it had been left too late and the enemy would be waiting for them in numbers. One platoon commander in the Guards Brigade remembers his company commander being uncharacteristically anxious:

He had already been through a great deal during the war, and the constant bombarding that we were suffering played on his nerves. He seemed to tremble, and had definitely developed a stammer, but he got on with his job and ignored it, and so did we. We were all on the edge and knew that it could happen to any one of us at any moment… As I left he put his hand on my shoulder and asked how my feet were -1 had some blisters caused by some new boots – and he gave me a knowing smile saying that I could wear them in by giving Jerry ‘a jolly good kick up the arse’. That evening I made sure that I stayed with the men for as long as possible. They were all nervous and needed reassuring. Some needed a reassuring word, others just a wink, or a smile. I was new to this leadership lark, but I seemed to feel what they needed, and was well aware that I could very well provide the last kindness of their lives. It struck me then that leadership is not about shouting and screaming, it is about empathising, understanding, and motivating – just as my company commander had cleverly done when asking about my rotten boots.

Captain David Williams, a British staff officer in the 1st Division headquarters in the Padiglione Woods, began to feel tense. It had been ‘an exciting, but draining experience’:

My job was to summarise the intelligence that was coming into the headquarters and put it in a report. Although I was not responsible for the quality of the information that I was working with, I still felt a massive weight of responsibility on my shoulders as I had to interpret it . . . Everybody got quite short with each other during 29 January. They were tired, over-worked and under a great deal of strain. We were also working in quite cramped conditions in tents that leaked and were cold. I can remember feeling quite faint during that day and could not understand why. Then it dawned on me. I had not had a meal for nearly 24 hours. I grabbed a ration pack and carried on . . . The worst moment came that night, once the attack had been launched, waiting for the first word on progress – or the lack of it. We had been taught no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. I could not get that out of my head.

At 2300 hours, the Irish and Scots Guards advanced behind a ferocious creeping barrage. The aim was to keep the enemy’s heads down long enough for the infantry to pounce on them unchallenged. A mixture of the dark, smoke and battlefield debris, however, combined to slow the two battalions and they fell quickly behind the protective wall. The attack covered half a mile before the Germans illuminated the battlefield with flares and Very lights. Small groups of Guardsmen could be seen scuttling along in the slowly falling light, to be cut down by German machine gunners. An NCO shouted an order whilst silhouetted by burning scrub and he too was poleaxed. The battalions had walked into a killing bowl. Mesmeric tracers hissed, supply vehicles exploded turning their drivers into charred mummies, shells burst spraying deadly fragments into soft bodies and the wounded screamed. The platoons made an attempt to reach the enemy that were firing from all around them, but the attack quickly became fragmented. The officers tried to bring order to the chaos, but often became casualties themselves whilst leading their men in the face of the German guns. The two commanding officers, Lieutenant Colonel C.A. Montagu-Douglas-Scott of the Irish Guards and Lieutenant Colonel David Wedderburn of the Scots Guards, were both at Dung Farm trying to control the battle through radio links with the companies, but they had difficulty trying to work out what was happening as shells began to tear their headquarters to pieces. The two battalions staggered forward in small unit actions, firing and manoeuvring. It was a messy battle, as one Guardsman recalls:

Such a lack of information, and no cover in those vines. Shells screaming and whirring like mad, vicious witches. Sprays of fire all over the place. Shrapnel like hail. Bullets whizzing from nowhere. And on top of that the bloody rain. We were so cold. Half the soldiers disappeared – mown down, captured, or just fucked off, everything you can imagine.

Gradually the Guards managed to get close enough to their enemy to use their bayonets and grenades in vicious hand-to-hand fighting, but by midnight they only had a tenuous hold on the lateral road either side of the Via Anziate. Digging in as best they could, they managed to hold on to their positions for the rest of the night, but with dawn threatening, armoured support was required if they were not to be overwhelmed. Brigadier Alistair Murray promised tanks to the Scots Guards advising them by radio, Tm going to send up our heavy friends to see what they can do. Stand by!’, but just five Shermans arrived from a weakened 46th Royal Tank Regiment, and there were none for the Irish Guards. One Irish Guardsman wrote that he had been trying to dig a shell scrape for hours to give himself a precious few inches of protection, but mortars and shells constandy interrupted his work. ‘The most frightening moment came just before dawn’, he recalls, ‘when a ruddy great Tiger tank appeared about 150 yards in front of me. We had no weapons to attack it with and so I prayed that the thing would go away and it did. It clanked across the field and disappeared. Some other poor sod had to deal with it.’ Two Tiger tanks engaged the Irish Guards and the situation was becoming critical for them, but just when they needed guidance from battalion headquarters most, radio communication was lost. Radio operator Lance Corporal G. Holwell dismantled his 18 set to try and solve the problem, laying out a plethora of fragile pieces on a ground sheet. Using the thin beam of a shaded torch which attracted fire, he reassembled them and got the radio working again just in time to receive the order to withdraw at 0615 hours. The remnants of the battalion pulled back down the railway line but Holwell was not amongst them, a shell fragment having killed him.

Penney had to strike back at Campoleone quickly, for by dawn on 30 January the Scots Guards were firm but vulnerable around the lateral road. At 0900 the artillery threw down another bombardment and the Irish Guards, supported by a company of King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, again attacked. They pushed through a scene of devastation—smouldering vehicles, destroyed buildings, the wounded crying for help and the dead. The air was acrid with smoke and the smell of cordite. The renewed effort linked up with the Scots Guards and the five Shermans supporting them and together they clattered into the German defences. It was enough to dislodge the tired defenders who retreated back to the embankment below Campoleone Station. The British needed to maintain their momentum and so at 1500 hours 3rd Brigade leapfrogged the exhausted Guards and struck towards the embankment – 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (Dukes) on the left and the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry Regiment (KSLI) on the right. The men screamed and shouted at the enemy as they attacked to give themselves courage, but many fell trying to cross the open ground. Sergeant Ben Wallis recalls the moment when he attacked:

I had never been so frightened. We were all frightened, don’t believe anybody that says he wasn’t. We’d heard the fighting earlier in the day, seen the dead and dying—now it was our turn. I turned to my mate before the off and we shook hands. The order was given to advance, and we walked into bullets, mortar bombs and shells. They were waiting for us, we didn’t stand a chance. My mate, Billy, was killed by a sniper. I was shot through the shoulder and evacuated out. I was lucky as I later heard that out of our platoon – which was about 35 men – only 10 survived.

After two hours the KSLI and Dukes were still short of the embankment. Exposed and vulnerable at the end of a long salient, the battalions did what they could in the growing darkness to dig in. That night 3rd Brigade continued to suffer casualties as Private David Hardy of the Dukes explains:

We were shelled and mortared throughout the hours of darkness, unable to move. I was in a shell hole with another bloke which we managed to deepen a little. Others were in far worse positions and had no real protection. The lads on our left and our right copped it that night.

When one Dukes officer who was contacted on the radio by brigade headquarters and asked about their situation replied, We feel like the lead in the end of a blunt pencil’, he was told not to fret because the armour would force its way through with the next drive forward. The officer was not impressed and said, ‘The bastards said that they would be here today, but I’ve seen nothing of them.’

The attacks that day would have been assisted by strong armoured support, but Harmon made no impact on the battle. Having struggled to get his tanks to the start line immediately prior to the attack on the 29th, he did not begin his advance until seven hours after the infantry. When the tanks, tank destroyers and half-tracks eventually began to move, they were again held up by the terrain and picked off by German anti-tank guns on the Vallelata Ridge directly in front of them. It was a natural tank trap. A number got stranded in irrigation ditches. Harmon tried to help, but only succeeded in diluting his resources:

I ordered an armored wrecker to pull them out. The wrecker was ambushed by the Germans. I sent four more tanks to rescue the wrecker. Then I sent out more tanks after them. Apparently I could learn my first Anzio lesson only the hard way – and the lesson, subsequently very important, was not to send good money after bad. Because I was stubborn, I lost twenty-four tanks while trying to succour four.

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Battle-scarred main road from Anzio to Rome littered with wrecked Allied armor, including an M10 tank destroyer (left) and Sherman M4 tanks — a result of battle between German and Allied forces fighting for control of the Anzio beachhead area, 1944.

One by one the stranded vehicles were destroyed and evacuating crews cruelly picked off by snipers. Harmon’s attack had failed even before it had got going:

Half of me was seething and the other half was shattered. When I moved up to the front line at 8 o’clock that morning, nothing was moving and I was greeted not by rapidly moving armoured fighting vehicles, but by their smouldering wrecks and scores of dead and wounded.

On hearing that Harmon had called off his attack Penney immediately radioed him and said: ‘Would you mind putting some of your tanks on to the Campoleone road so that they might help out my 3rd Brigade in the morning?’ The 1st Armored Commander replied: ‘Show me the way!’, and that night moved 25 light tanks onto the Via Anziate to assist with the attack on Campoleone Station the following morning.

The renewed thrust began at dawn on 31 January, when the 3rd Brigade’s reserve battalion, 2nd Sherwood Foresters Regiment (Foresters), supported by Penney’s tanks, pushed through the Dukes and KSLI and endeavoured to get to the railway embankment. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas watched the attack from the north of Dung Farm:

All we could see were the quick fountains of black smoke thrown up along the railway line, a tank belching fumes from behind the walls of a broken farm and a cloud of white dust hanging over the spot where we imagined the station to be. The Alban Hills seemed startlingly near. The noise ebbed and flowed over the leafless vines, now rising to a general thunder as the guns cracked out on both sides, now dropping to a treacherous lull. Small figures now appeared, popping up from holes in the ground and half crouching they ran. There seemed so few of them . . . We saw them drop out of sight and heard the swift outburst of the machine-gun fire that welcomed them. Were they over the railway line? Was Campoleone ours?

Campoleone was not theirs. The Germans had been reinforced overnight with two extra battalions of infantry, six Mark IV tanks and three 88-mm guns and defended stubbornly. When the attack was put in it was immediately devastated. In just ten minutes 265 Foresters became casualties along with fourteen tanks. Some managed to get to the embankment, but no further. One of the battalion signallers, Sergeant Thomas Middleton, got separated from his colleagues during the attack:

I was alone in my lonely world . . . The noise of the place was incredible, the smell was foul and I could hardly think straight. I moved forward half crouching, half stumbling, I was totally disorientated. I came across one of our boys locked in an embrace with a German, hit by shells whilst grappling with each other. Their entrails smothered the ground. The knowledge that the Germans were in the area put me in a spin. Was I moving towards them or they towards me? Where was the headquarters? I tried to raise someone on the radio but could not hear anything as shells landed around me. I may have been wandering for 5 minutes or 2 hours, I do not know, but I finally found myself back with the battalion. I was told to take up a defensive position and only then did I realise that I had been wandering around without having touched my Sten gun which was still slung over my shoulder.

The remnants of the battalion pulled back, reorganised, and another attempt was made to burst through, but with the same predictable results. The American tank crews were amazed at the stoicism of the British troops. Kenneth Hurley, a loader, later wrote:

From that day on I vowed never to knock the Limeys again, bless their black hearts. The British went on and on, with just their courage, soup bowl helmets and rifles for protection. Crazy, but brave like I’d never seen. ‘Give it up won’t you?’, I thought, ‘for God’s sake don’t try again!’ But they did. A British officer was walking between the tanks, crying out something to his men huddled around. I wanted to shout, ‘You silly bastards, get down!’ It was a different concept, a different attitude. The British lieutenant strolled across the front of my tank, bobbed down out of sight, then waved his swagger stick. They charged, about 20 of them. None returned.

The Sherwood Foresters did not give up and attempt after attempt was made to cross the embankment, but the men just melted away. A desolate Harmon visited the battlefield that morning and later wrote:

There were dead bodies everywhere. I had never seen so many dead men in one place. They lay so close together that I had to step with care. I shouted for the commanding officer. From a foxhole there arose a mud-covered corporal with a handle-bar moustache. He was the highest-ranking officer still alive. He stood stiffly to attention. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked. Well, sir,’ the corporal said, ‘there were a hundred and sixteen of us in our company when we first came up, and there are sixteen of us left. We’re ordered to hold out until sundown, and I think, with a little good fortune, we can manage to do so.’

But the battle did not last until sundown; Penney brought it to a close on Lucas’s orders in the early afternoon. The Sherwood Foresters had started out as 35 officers and 786 other ranks and ended the day with 8 officers and 250 other ranks. The battle had come to a halt on the body-littered embankment before Campoleone. The British attempt to threaten the Alban Hills from the Via Anziate had failed.

Lucas also had to cope with his failure. Campoleone and Cisterna were still in German hands. Both Alexander and Clark were unhappy. There would not now be a push to the Alban Hills and the Gustav Line continued to be supplied. The Fifth Army commander arrived in the beachhead on 30 January and went immediately to his newly established forward headquarters in the grounds of Prince Borghese’s Renaissance palace between Anzio and Nettuno. Lucas was dispirited: ‘Clark is up here and I am afraid intends to stay for several days. His gloomy attitude is certainly bad for me … I have done what I was ordered to do, desperate though it was. I can win if I am let alone but I don’t know whether I can stand the strain of having so many people looking over my shoulder.’ During an edgy meeting the following day, Clark heavily criticised Penney, Truscott and Darby for their plans. Once Clark’s rant was over, Lucas stepped forward and announced that, as corps commander, he had sanctioned the divisional plans and should take any blame for their failure. Ignoring Lucas’s noble gesture, Clark launched into another stinging attack on Darby and Truscott for the way in which they had used the Rangers. It was Truscott’s turn to put up a defence and he replied that as he had been responsible for organising the original Ranger battalion, and that Darby had commanded them through so many battles, nobody understood their capabilities better. Mark Clark turned mutely on his heel and departed, leaving a bitter atmosphere hanging in the air. That evening Lucas wrote:

I don’t blame him for being terribly disappointed. He and those above him thought this landing would shake the Cassino line loose at once but they had no right to think that, because the German is strong in Italy and will give up no ground if he can help it. . . The disasters of the Rangers he apparently blames on Lucian Truscott. He says they were used foolishly … Neither I nor Truscott knew of the organized defensive position they would run into. I told Clark the fault was mine as I had seen the plan of attack and had OK’d it.

Clark, meanwhile, noted:

I have been disappointed for several days by the lack of aggressiveness on the part of the VI Corps. Although it would have been wrong, in my opinion, to attack to capture our final objective on this front, reconnaissance in force with tanks should have been more aggressive to capture Cisterna and Campoleone. Repeatedly I have told Lucas to push vigorously to get those local objectives. He had not insisted on this with the Division Commanders … I have been harsh with Lucas today, much to my regret, but in an effort to energize him to greater effort.

The failure of Lucas’s offensive sent shock waves back to London. On 1 February Alan Brooke wrote despondendy: ‘News from Italy bad and the landing south of Rome is making little progress, mainly due to the lack of initiative in the early stages. I am at present rather doubtful as to how we are to disentangle the situation. Hitler has reacted very strongly and is sending reinforcements fast.’ On the same day Churchill wrote to Alexander: ‘It seems to have been a bad show. Penney and Truscott seem to have done admirably considering what they were facing. Does Lucas have any idea what a mistake he has made?’ There was a very strong feeling now that Lucas had waited far too long to make this push and numerous opportunities had been missed. The VI Corps commander knew that his bosses were frustrated and when Alexander visited him in the beachhead on 1 February, Lucas feared for his command. Lucas recalled that Alexander had been:

. . . kind enough but I am afraid he is not pleased. My head will probably fall in the basket but I have done my best. There were just too many Germans here for me to lick and they could build up faster than I could. As I told Clark yesterday, I was sent on a desperate mission, one where the odds were greatly against success, and I went without saying anything because I was given an order and my opinion was not asked. The condition in which I find myself is much better than I ever anticipated or had any right to expect.

The ‘condition’ in which VI Corps now found itself was having to defend. In a move agreed by Alexander and Clark, Lucas ordered that the new enlarged beachhead should be defended and a ‘final’ defensive position should be developed on the line of the original 24 January beachhead.

By the first days of February, Operation Shingle was foundering. Rather than having the strategic impact that Churchill and Alexander had desired, the two men were left to ponder two vulnerable salients, a narrow British one towards Campoleone and a wider American one towards Cisterna. VI Corps was worse off than before Lucas’s attacks had started. The correspondents sought enlightenment at Lucas’s villa in Nettuno. ‘He sat in his chair’, wrote Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, ‘before the fire, and the light shone on his polished cavalry boots. He had the round face and the greying moustache of a kindly country solicitor. His voice was low and hardly reached the outer circle of the waiting Pressmen. They fired their questions at him, above all Question No 1, “What was our plan on landing and what had happened to it now?” The General looked thoughtful. “Well gendemen, there was some suggestion that we should aim at getting to those hills” – he turned to his G-2 – “What’s the name of them, Joe? But the enemy was now strong, far stronger than we had thought.” There was a long pause, and the firelight played on the waiting audience and flickered up to the dark ceiling. Then the General added quietly, “I’ll tell you what, gendemen. That German is a mighty tough fighter. Yes, a mighty tough fighter.’”

So ended the first phase of the Battle of Anzio. The next phase was to be even more violent, and to introduce it the Germans would launch a series of counter-attacks. The pallid and quiedy spoken Gruenther said of the Germans, ‘You push the accordion a certain distance and it’ll spring back and smack you in the puss. The Germans are building up a lot of spring.’ The enemy now had the initiative. Private James Anderson, a replacement for 30th Infantry Regiment, arrived at Anzio harbour on 1 February as it was under air and artillery fire. ‘I remember plainly’, he recalls, ‘a British officer screaming at us, “What’s the matter with you blokes, do you want to live forever?’”

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

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The constitutional confrontation of King Charles I with Parliament became more serious in early 1641 when the king ordered the arrest of the House’s leaders, then it became outright war in August 1642. Many of the shires were dominated by Puritans, hence sympathetic to Parliament, and when the Scots abandoned the alliance with the king, Charles authorised his supporters to raise money and conscript troops however they could. His strongholds were in Oxford and York, so when the allied Parliamentary and Scottish armies closed in on York in 1644, the king sent a relief army north under his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the dashing son of Frederick of the Palatinate, the ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia. No one was more ‘cavalier’ than Rupert, no one less a ‘Roundhead’. This army represented a combination of the king’s last money and best hopes.

Rupert, whose parents were exiles from their own lands, grew up at the court of William II of Orange. Early demonstrating an ability to master languages, mathematics, and the arts, his military career—notable for his reckless bravery—began at the age of fourteen. He made a good impression on King Charles during a visit to England, after which he had distinguished himself at the 1637 siege of Breda. The next year, serving as an officer in a company of Scottish mercenaries, he was captured by the imperial army and held prisoner for three years in Austria—resisting all efforts to convert him to Catholicism. When the Civil War began, he and his brother Maurice brought a company of Scottish mercenaries to the king’s aid, and Charles gave him the command of the royal cavalry. His dashing leadership inspired the horsemen and almost won the war, but his arrogant manners offended prominent nobles around the king.

Rupert brilliantly marched around the allied position at Marston Moor on 1 July 1644 and disrupted the siege of York, but when he announced to the other officers that the king had ordered him to engage the parliamentary forces in battle and crush them, his hearers were disconcerted—the opposing army outnumbered them by 27,000 to 17,000, and it was led by the Earl of Leven, one of the finest commanders of the age, and Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), an amateur who was proving himself equal to Leven. Rupert, however, insisted that his army contained better soldiers—professionals. That is, they were mercenaries with foreign experience. He also believed that he could catch the enemy coalition dispersed and unready for battle. Rupert’s officers were not sure—there were many experienced men in the enemy ranks, too, especially Campbells who had served in the Swedish army. Moreover, knowing that the king’s advisors usually counselled caution, they spoke against taking rash action now. Still, they gave way to the stronger personality.

Rupert put his men on a forced march to Marston Moor. Although he arrived at the allied camps too late to catch them by surprise and his men were exhausted, he ordered an attack before Leven could pull his scattered units together. At that moment some of his mercenaries refused to fight until they were paid. While Rupert negotiated, Leven put the Scots and Parliamentary forces into a line of battle behind a marsh, then, seeing that Rupert had chosen a strong position opposite him, he stood on the defensive. Not far apart, the two armies waited for reinforcements, watching each other cautiously. Rupert’s reinforcements came in first, fine units from York. Although it was already late in the afternoon, Rupert announced that he would attack immediately. Again, his officers objected—the reinforcements were tired, as were his own men, and it was time for supper. Moreover, the commander of the York troops, James King, Lord Eythin (1589-1652), had long mistrusted Rupert’s love of the wild attack; he spoke for fighting on the morrow. His was not a voice to be dismissed lightly. King had served in the Swedish army from 1609-1636, then in the army of the Landgraf of Hesse. At that time he had fought alongside Prince Rupert and quarrelled with him over tactics, now as then, considering the prince reckless and overly-daring. His counsel prevailed. As both armies began making camp, Rupert left the field, and his troops left their ranks. At that moment Leven ordered an attack. Cromwell was fortunate in that the opposing cavalry commander ignored orders to wait until the Parliamentary horsemen had floundered across the marsh, then been decimated by musketeers, before charging to meet them; unwilling to endure artillery fire longer, he rode through his own infantry, only to founder in the marsh. Cromwell’s Ironsides scattered the disordered royalist cavalry, then swept through the gap in Rupert’s lines and into the rear of the royal army. It helped that some royalist units preferred looting the campsites to fighting, while Cromwell’s men concentrated on winning a victory, then pursuing the beaten enemy.

The traditional mercenary army composed of disparate units, unevenly trained and equipped, was clearly out of date; not even a solid core of officers coming home from the Thirty Years War sufficed to make up for its defects. Subsequently, Cromwell persuaded Parliament to reform the army along the lines of his troops—the ‘New Model Army’. He standardized the composition of regiments of infantry and cavalry, cladding many in red uniforms; the state was henceforth responsible for pay, not the commander; and politicians were excluded from leadership positions. Discipline was emphasised, as was religious fervour. Cromwell’s opponents, especially in Ireland and Scotland, were highly motivated, but they lacked discipline—a trait they would learn too late, but in the future apply effectively on foreign battlefields. It may have been Prince Rupert who first called Cromwell’s cavalrymen ‘Ironsides’, but it was a name that distinguished them from the ‘Roundheads’ who formed the earlier parliamentary armies—enthusiastic but undisciplined warriors.

Rupert continued to inspire and offend, leading his ‘Cavaliers’ to unlikely victories until 1646, when the king surrendered to Leven and made peace with Parliament. Unwisely, however, Charles believed that his bickering enemies were so divided that he could overthrow them one by one. Parliament sought to reduce the danger of renewed war by exiling the men most likely to assist him—most notably Rupert and his brother, Maurice. Rupert went to France, where he served in the English troops fighting for France against Spain; wounded in 1647, he returned to the court in exile, where he quarrelled with the queen’s closest advisors—whose counsel hurried her husband to the block in 1649. As soon as Rupert recovered his health, he led an expedition to Ireland, where he operated more as a pirate than a soldier, then fled ahead of the English navy to Portugal, where he resumed his piratical activities until 1650, when the English fleet trapped his ships in the River Tagus.

In typical heroic fashion, Rupert escaped, to attack English and Spanish ships in the Mediterranean and on the African coast. In 1652 he sailed to the Americas, but found the colonists there reluctant to join the royalist cause—not surprisingly, considering that many Puritans had gone to America as much to escape royalist oppression as to improve their lot. In 1653, after Maurice was lost in a storm, Rupert joined Charles’s court in Paris. He left for Germany in hope of finding employment, but found nothing to do except quarrel with those who should have been his closest friends and allies.

After the Restoration in 1660, Charles II gave Rupert a post in the Navy, where he served honourably in the wars against Holland and made important contributions to the exploration of the New World. His career was a fine example of the ways that personal, family and national ties intertwined with the great events of the times, especially in making nobles into quasi-mercenaries. In Rupert’s case, he was able to make a career as a soldier while serving his family’s interests. Not every exile was so fortunate.

James Butler (1610-88), the Earl of Ormonde

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James Butler (1610-88), the Earl of Ormonde, was among the most prominent royalist leaders who survived to enjoy the Restoration of the Stuarts to the throne. An Anglo-Irish nobleman of Catholic ancestry but Protestant persuasion, he had joined the hard-fisted administration of the Duke of Strafford in 1633, and was deeply involved in the confiscation of Catholic lands and their distribution to English immigrants. When civil war broke out in Ireland in 1641, he successfully held off both Parliamentary and Confederation forces. In 1646 he almost brought the royalists and Catholics together, but was thwarted by the papal legate, Rinuccini, who had brought arms, ammunition and bad advice to Ireland. Frustrated by his feuding allies, Ormonde came to terms with Parliament, saying that he preferred the rule of English rebels to Irish ones.

The execution of Charles I in 1649 put Ormonde back in royalist ranks, this time trying to hold Ireland for Charles II (1630-85). The Catholic Confederation made him their general, but never trusted him. The massacre committed by Cromwell’s besieging forces at Drogheda demoralised Ormonde’s troops momentarily, but left the Irish with another bitter memory of Protestant oppression. In 1650 Ormonde’s Protestant troops deserted en masse to Cromwell; following that, the Catholics rejected him as well, causing him to go into exile at Charles II’s court in France.

Cromwell’s army was no longer composed of psalm-singing Puritans, but of rough conscripts hammered into a truly professional army; he ended the war by using methods that memory and myth burned into Irish consciousness forever. Altogether, 7,500 soldiers were paid in Irish land, the original inhabitants moved west to counties where, as one of Cromwell’s officials put it, there was not enough water to drown a man, nor wood to hang him from, nor dirt to bury him.

Ormonde returned to Ireland in 1661 as Lord Lieutenant, quickly making himself highly unpopular among all factions. His efforts to govern with moderation offended Protestants, his attempt to govern at all offended Catholics. In 1670, a year after being removed from office, he was briefly kidnapped by the infamous Colonel Blood, but managed to escape.

In 1677 Ormonde returned to power, only to be criticised by the Irish for being too harsh and too English, and by the English for being too lenient and too Irish. In 1682 the king enhanced his title to duke, but never again gave him a significant role in the government. Although Charles II allowed Ormonde’s enemies at court to attack him, Ormonde remained loyal to the Stuart monarch. James II’s efforts to put Catholics in positions of authority, was another matter. The earl disagreed, but he died before the contest reached its climax in what Whigs called the Glorious Revolution.

Another Irish soldier who did well was the Protestant Murrough O’Brien (1618-74), whose military career had begun in the Spanish army in Italy. In 1641 he took command of the Protestants in Munster, successfully fending off all opponents. Snubbed by Charles I in 1644, O’Brien went over to the Parliamentary party; reinforced, he ravaged Catholic lands until the execution of the king persuaded him to change sides again. He almost saved the day when Ormonde was routed outside Dublin in 1649, but the desertion of his troops in 1650 doomed his cause. Four years after joining the court of Charles II in exile, he was named the Earl of Inchiquin, then fought in the French armies in Italy and Spain. During these years he converted to Roman Catholicism, a choice that made him unsuitable for high office after the Restoration. He recovered his estates, but aside from leading an expedition to Portugal was never entrusted with military power or administrative duties.

THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH

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BRITISH NAVAL ESCORT AND CONVOY IN MEDITERRANEAN, SEPTEMBER 1941, ON BOARD HMS SHEFFIELD, ESCORTING A MALTA CONVOY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN (OPERATION HALBERD). THE CONVOY GOT THROUGH TO MALTA AFTER BEING ATTACKED BY THREE GROUPS OF ENEMY TORPEDO CARRYING AIRCRAFT HEAVILY ESCORTED BY FIGHTERS IN THE CENTRAL MEDITERRANEAN. 14 ENEMY AIRCRAFT WERE DESTROYED AND HMS NELSON WAS DAMAGED BY AN AERIAL TORPEDO.  

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10th-15th August 1942 – Malta Convoy: Operation ‘Pedestal’ Only five out of fourteen transports had got through to Malta for the loss of one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer sunk, and a carrier and two cruisers badly damaged. But the supplies delivered – and especially “Ohio’s” oil – were enough to sustain Malta as an offensive base at a time critical to the coming Battle of El Alamein.

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More was still needed however, and only two days after “Ohio’s” arrival, “Furious” flew off more Spitfires while submarines continued to make supply trips. 

For 5,000 years, the Mediterranean has been the arena of great sea battles, and in World War Two that historic reputation did not change. When France collapsed in June 1940, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, decided that the time had come when he could, with impunity, join Hitler in the war against the sole remaining member of the Western Allies. From that moment on, the little island of Malta was a highly vulnerable, isolated outpost of the British Empire, and a vital one. Without Malta, the Mediterranean could have been closed to Britain, and her armies in North and East Africa—the only land forces at that time able to engage the enemy—could have been faced with another, and more disastrous, Dunkirk.

The island’s excellent harbour of Valetta, well-established airfield, and central position in the mid-east theatre, gave Malta a strategic importance out of all proportion to her size. The problem was that, even more than Britain, Malta needed a constant flow of imports to survive. She had no resources of oil or solid fuel, and very little grain. Even the forage for the goats which supplied the island’s milk had to be imported. It was essential for what was to become known as “the classic convoy” to be instituted, and for Malta’s reinforcement, codenamed Operation Jaguar, to continue for so long as it was needed.

The nearest British bases were Gibraltar, a thousand miles to the west, and Alexandria, almost as distant in the east. The shipping routes from either direction were threatened by the Axis powers’ air and sea bases in Sardinia and Tunisia to the west, and from Libya to the east, while Malta herself lay under direct threat from bombers based on Sicily, less than a hundred miles away. Malta’s towns and facilities were bombed almost as often as those in southeast England, as were the ships in transit and in harbour. The danger from submarines and torpedo boats in the channel between the island of Pantelleria and the Cape Bon peninsula was particularly great, and all the more so when, as sometimes happened, the major Royal Navy escort vessels—the battleships, aircraft carriers, and heavy cruisers—had to be diverted to fight another battle or meet another threat.

In September 1940, the British Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced by the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, the battleship HMS Valiant and two anti-aircraft cruisers. Furthermore, a squadron of American Martin Maryland aircraft arrived on Malta to carry out reconnaissance flights over Italy. Two months later, Fairey Swordfish aircraft, flying off Illustrious, attacked Taranto harbour with bombs and torpedoes, sank three Italian battleships, damaged another, and destroyed the seaplane base. Then, the Germans took a hand. Fliegerkorps X were sent in from Norway with 300 aircraft—Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, Ju 88 bombers, Me 110 fighter-bombers and Me 109 fighters; ten U-boats were withdrawn from the Atlantic (to Admiral Dönitz’s displeasure) to join the powerful, if variably effective, Italian underwater fleet. On 10 January 1941, Stukas hit Illustrious with six 1,000-pound bombs, and put her out of action; a few days later they did the same to Furious. Both carriers had to be withdrawn to America, for repair in Norfolk, Virginia.

Nevertheless, up to the end of 1941, most merchant ships continued to reach Malta safely, but in 1942 the situation changed. Between February and August, of eighty five merchantmen leaving British ports for Malta, twenty-four were sunk. In June, only two ships out of six that had sailed from the Clyde reached the island, where they were subjected to incessant bombing for the next fifty-four days. Still, the troopers, cargo ships and tankers set out on what was becoming known, not so much as the “classic”, but as the “suicide” convoy.

In July 1942, a typical single cargo unloaded in the Grand Harbour of Valetta, during what was classified as Operation Tiger, consisted of guns and ammunition, cars and lorries, aviation fuel and spare parts for aircraft, wheat, flour and maize, cement, corned beef, and bales of cloth. The ship which carried that particular cargo was one of nine escorted by the battleship HMS Nelson, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and other warships. Each master in the convoy, before sailing, had received this signal from the escort commander, Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville: “For over twelve months Malta has resisted all attacks by the enemy. The gallantry displayed by her garrison and people has aroused admiration throughout the world. To enable this defence to continue it is essential that your ships, with their valuable cargoes, should arrive safely at the Grand Harbour … Remember, everyone, that the watchword is THE CONVOY MUST GO THROUGH.”

As usual, the merchant skippers were told that they must not make smoke, that they must not show lights at night, and that, even in daylight, they must only use the dimmest lamps. If their ships were damaged, they must continue sailing at the best speed they could make. On the way to Gibraltar, they had practised evasive action, turning in unison, for two hours at a time, and every gunner had been given the chance to test his armament.

The Rock was blanketed in a fog when the convoy navigated the Straits of Gibraltar, and it was hard for the masters to maintain formation. The navigation lights of the Port Chalmers, carrying 2,000 tons of aviation petrol in four-gallon cans, were switched on at full power, and the Deucalion, sailing ahead, showed a cluster of cargo landing lights astern. Two days later, at nine-fifteen in the morning, nine aircraft, thought to be Italian, attacked, but no ship was hit. That evening, however, Nelson, Ark Royal and Renown sped away to the northeast, leaving the cruiser Edinburgh and the destroyers to escort the convoy.

Next day before the sun was up, a fleet of enemy torpedo boats attacked, and the escorting warships’ searchlights lit the scene. “We saw an E-boat,” said a merchant skipper, “and the cruiser let go with a broadside. When the spray subsided, the E-boat wasn’t there.” The attacks continued, on and off for thirty-six hours, during which time the seamen slept with their clothes on, if they slept at all, and subsisted on sandwiches and coffee. When they steamed into Valetta, they received the usual enthusiastic welcome from the islanders, crowded on the rocks and ramparts which made the harbour a natural arena, and General Sir William Dobbie, the governor of Malta, boarded every ship to shake the master’s hand. In the fifteen-days it took to unload the cargoes into lighters, the harbour was often under air attack, but the seamen stayed aboard their ships. They had brought in 58,000 tons of supplies, without a vessel lost, and were interested to learn, on the radio from Rome, that Mussolini’s navy and air force claimed to have sunk a total of 70,000 tons.

That convoy may have been the last to reach Malta more or less intact—at least until May 1943, when the Allied armies drove the enemy out of North Africa. Between February and August 1942, of eighty-five merchantmen to set out for Malta, twenty-four were sunk and eleven had to abort the voyage and return to port. In terms of cargo, 43% of 314,690 tons from Britain, and 34% of 296,000 tons from Egypt, were lost. Few oil tankers got through in those months and most of the gasoline was carried by the cargo ships in drums and cans, and once it reached the island it was rapidly dispersed to maximise its survivability.

It was the islanders’ steadfastness throughout the summer of 1942, when they were truly under siege, which earned Malta the George Cross—the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Some of the sharpest action came in August with Operation Pedestal, when a convoy of fourteen ships was two days’ sailing eastward from Gibraltar. It included the Port Chalmers, Deucalion, and the Melbourne Star, all of which had sailed the route in the previous July, and the tanker Ohio carrying 11,000 tons of oil. The convoy’s escort was of a strength which a merchant skipper on the North Atlantic route would only ever see in dreams. It consisted of the battleships Nelson and Rodney, the carriers Victorious, Eagle, Indomitable and Furious (loaded with Spitfires for Malta’s defences), down. It blew me to the other end of the hangar, then the lift at that end copped it and I was thrown all the way back again. I was wearing steel helmet, flash gear and overalls, and I never had a scratch. That was that. Our combat air patrols had put up a terrific fight all day and shot down a lot of enemy aircraft, but now the black balls were out in the signals area, to show we couldn’t fly, and we proceeded to damage control and fire-fighting as we turned for Gibraltar. All the way, this great lump that the bombs had torn out of the carrier’s side from the bow back 120 feet, was stretching out at right angles and making a terrible noise like an aboriginal ‘Didgery-doo’. That was all we could hear until we came into the Straits, and then it was the prisoners-of-war, Italian and German, who were filling up the holds of ships tied alongside, greeting us with shouts of ‘Stuka, Stuka, Stuka.’ We spent a while putting our casualties on board a trawler for an honourable burial at sea.”

On 11 August, a German U-boat, U73, hit the aging Eagle with four torpedoes, and she heeled over, tipping her equally elderly aircraft overboard. One gallant pilot tried to take off on the sloping deck, but his aircraft slipped into the sea. Within seven minutes Eagle had turned over and gone down. Next day it was the turn of Indomitable, from whose deck the Hurricane pilots, waiting to be launched, had watched Eagle’s end. Indomitable was hit by bombs, and could no longer launch nor land her aircraft, but those already airborne landed on the flight deck of Victorious and continued operating. One merchant vessel had been hit, but she was still afloat.

On that day, 12 August, shortly before the battleships, the cruisers and Indomitable had turned back for Gibraltar, torpedoes from Italian submarines damaged two cruisers and sank an anti-aircraft cruiser. The convoy, with the destroyers and remaining cruisers, keeping close to the coast of Tunisia, sailed on to the southeast, and straight into the sights of the German E-boats. Four merchant ships and a cruiser went down. The Luftwaffe bombers, arriving with the dawn on 13 August, sank another merchant ship and damaged three more, including the Deucalion, which later sank. In the course of the day, the tanker Ohio was hit by a torpedo and three times by bombs, the third of which stopped her engines.

The Melbourne Star, meanwhile, with 4,000 tons of petrol, oil and lubricant aboard, plus 1,450 tons of high explosive, had narrowly avoided a collision during the mélée when the Ohio was first hit. Her master, Captain D.R. MacFarlane, found himself leading the convoy as it passed the lighthouse on Cape Bon. Then, he was overtaken by a destroyer, which led him through the minefields before forging on ahead. Having zig-zagged through a bright shower of shells and tracer bullets, MacFarlane regrouped with the convoy astern of Waiwarama, which was hit by a stick of bombs next morning and blew up. The Melbourne Star was showered with debris, and passed through what MacFarlane described as “a sea that was a sheet of fire”. Her paintwork was burned away, and the bottoms of her lifeboats were reduced to charcoal. Thirty-six of her crew, seeing death by drowning as a better option than being burned alive, threw themselves into the sea (twenty-two were later rescued by a destroyer and the limping Ohio). It was not until she had docked in Valetta that a live six-inch shell was discovered, lodged between the deck planks and the steel ceiling of MacFarlane’s day-room. (Sadly, on 2 April 1943, the Melbourne Star was sunk 500 miles southeast of Bermuda by torpedoes from U129 while carrying a load of ammunition from Australia to Britain via the Panama Canal, and there were only four survivors).

On board the Ohio, the crew had somehow got the engines going, and she had rejoined the convoy, steaming at two knots, only to have the tail of a shot-down Stuka fall onto her poop deck. Throughout that morning, bombs exploded all around her; she was hit again, a fire broke out, and her engines stopped for good. The fire was partially extinguished, and she was taken in tow by HMS Rye with HMS Penn and HMS Ledbury on either side. With a great hole in her side, her forecastle awash, and fires breaking out from time to time, she was somehow tugged, pushed, and jostled for the last twenty miles into Valetta harbour. The Royal Navy had lost one cruiser, an anti-aircraft ship and a destroyer, with another cruiser and a carrier damaged. Nine merchantmen were down, five the victims of aircraft, four of E-boats, and 350 merchant seamen had been killed. But the cargoes of the four surviving vessels, and Ohio’s 11,000 tons of oil, marked the end of the siege of Malta, leading to the breaking of the Axis powers in Africa. Like the island, Captain D.W. Mason, master of the Ohio, was awarded the George Cross.

On 19 November 1943, the first convoy reached the Grand Harbour unopposed.

Italy-Naval AAA

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The Ansaldo 65mm/64 was the only new gun project of the wartime Royal Italian Navy.

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The Royal Italian Navy developed radar but, as with the Germans, mainly for gunnery (LA range-finding). The only wartime anti-aircraft gun project (indeed, the only wartime gun project at all) was a new 65mm/64 HA gun intended specifically for the projected conversion of two small cruisers, Etna and Vesuvio, laid down pre-war for Siam, and left incomplete at the end of the war. Each was to have been armed with three twin 135mm/45 LA guns (as in the ‘Capitani Romani’ class) and a total of ten 65mm/64. Twelve were to have been mounted on board the carrier Aquila, left incomplete in 1943. The gun would also have armed ‘Capitani Romani’ class cruisers (a single mount would have replaced each twin 37mm/54). It was begun by the two gun manufacturers (Ansaldo and OTO) in collaboration in 1939 and was nearly ready in 1943. Production was cancelled in the summer of 1943, just before the Italian armistice. Length was originally to have been 56 calibres, increased to 62 calibres and then to 64 calibres. It fired a 4kg (about 8.8lbs) shell at a muzzle velocity of 950ft/sec (3117ft/sec). Originally it had an all-elevation electric loader, but that proved difficult to develop, and before the programme died altogether the gun was to have been hand-loaded. On that basis it could fire about 20 rnds/min. Maximum elevation was 80°.

Wartime anti-aircraft upgrades were limited. Thus the Littorios received a few additional twin 20mm/65 (fourteen rather than the original ten in Littorio and Roma). Other ships received small numbers of additional twin 37mm/54s (two more in the Dorias, to supplement the existing six). Some cruisers had their pre-war twin 13.2mm machine guns replaced by larger numbers of 20mm/65s. Destroyers were more heavily rearmed with 37mm/54s and 20mm/65s. For example, as completed Maestrale class destroyers had four twin 20mm/65s as their sole anti-aircraft weapons. In 1942 Maestrale had another two single 20mm/65s. In 1943 her sister Grecale had a twin 37mm/54 and four single 20mm/65. These short-range weapons were apparently quite effective against low-flying attackers, as the RAF suffered badly from intense anti-aircraft fire in the war to cut the supply line across the Mediterranean.

Effective machine gun range, as estimated in January 1942, was 1500m for the 37mm and 1200m for the 20mm, based on the capability of the predictors (alzi calcolatori and correttori rapidi), which took several tens of seconds to produce solutions. They were considered effective against aircraft flying a straight course, such as torpedo bombers.

During the war, the main Italian fleet encountered only a few air attacks in the open sea (as opposed to attacks in harbour, as at Taranto). Much of the Italian naval effort was devoted to running small convoys to North Africa in support of the Italian and German armies there. The destroyers and smaller ships fought an intense battle against RAF bombers, many of them operating out of Malta. At the same time they had to deal with submarines and with surface striking forces, also based on Malta. In this sense Italian convoy operations were a kind of microcosm of the larger British operations intended to resupply Malta. The Italian convoys generally did not enjoy air support, apart from the indirect effect of attacks on Malta. Neither the Germans nor the Italians ever seem to have developed effective shipboard fighter control, although on occasion their fighters formed a CAP over a convoy. That was probably adequate in view of the limited number of attacking aircraft, although the RAF did mount mixed bomb and torpedo attacks from time to time. In turn, the situation on Malta decided how effectively the convoy route could be squeezed. For example, limited workshop facilities limited the use of aerial torpedoes by strike aircraft operating from Malta. The alternative was masthead bombing. Alexandria suffered similar limitations, particularly after the depot ship Medway, with her torpedo workshops, was lost.

The RAF used low-level tactics from the autumn of 1941 up to the autumn of 1942. Losses were due not only to anti-aircraft fire but also to crashing into the ships’ masts. For example, an RAF Blenheim V crippled a tanker almost inside Tobruk in October 1942, but his wingman crashed after colliding with the ship’s mast. Many of the combat narratives in the official RAF history of the maritime war in the Mediterranean refer both to intense anti-aircraft fire and to heavy losses. Often it is clear that pilots were unable to observe hits due to heavy smoke screens, and the narrative relies heavily on official estimates of how well the pilots did. It is not clear how accurate those estimates, which are far more pessimistic than the pilots’ reports, were.

Initially the British rules for dealing with merchant ships from the air were related to rules for submarines; for example aircraft could not attack at sight, and ships in convoy were not regarded as part of the enemy fleet. Presumably the British hoped to limit enemy air attacks on shipping. In August 1940 the Italians announced that any ships within 30nm of enemy territory would be attacked, and the rules were dramatically relaxed.

At the outset the demand on shipping was limited because the German objective in setting up the Afrika Korps was to stop the British advance into Italian North Africa. Transport across the Mediterranean to Tripoli began in mid-February 1941. In March Hitler ordered a blitzkrieg, which pushed the British out of their conquests in the area. At the same time the Germans attacked in Greece and within a month they occupied Crete. With the loss of Crete, the Admiralty considered that it could no longer use carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its torpedo bombers moved ashore to Malta; by December 1940 a Swordfish squadron (830) was on the island. Until the fall of Greece Swordfish also operated there. However, the Swordfish lacked the range to attack convoys in transit, and by December the Mediterranean and Middle East commanders were asking for longer-range torpedo bombers (Beauforts) to challenge the Axis supply route across the Mediterranean to Tobruk.

The Germans later complained that commitment of their air forces to the offensive in North Africa and also to the Russian campaign opened the convoys to air attack. Convoy losses in February and March 1941 were negligible, but in April and May they amounted to about 32,000 tons each month out of totals of 143,000 and 112,000 tons respectively. The situation was further complicated in that the army in North Africa was soon 1000km from its main port of Tripoli, and Tripoli itself had insufficient capacity. Thus a substantial fraction of the limited transport capacity had to go to repairing the port and to extending the key coastal road. To put the loss figures in perspective, in May 1941 the British Ministry of Economic Warfare estimated that the Axis was getting very short of shipping, because the enemy had nearer 500,000 tons than 1,000,000 tons available, excluding tankers and ships over 10,000 tons (useless for this service). They needed 250,000 tons to supply Albania and Tripoli, 100,000 tons for commercial service in the Adriatic, and 100,000 tons would always be under repair, leaving 100,000 tons for expeditionary warfare (at that time for Greece). Italian successes in getting tonnage across the Mediterranean in the face of British attacks can be attributed both to successful defence and to evasion based on code-breaking; evasion was similarly a vital element in Allied success in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Most of the damage to the Italian convoys during the first half of 1941 was by submarines, as the Swordfish had only limited capability. By this time the British were coming to sea attacks on the convoys as the best way to limit supplies going to North Africa; VCNS said that a successful attack on a ship in transit by an aircraft was worth the effort of fifty aircraft attacking the same cargo once it was ashore. For his part Winston Churchill wanted the largest possible submarine force based at Malta.

Air Staff wanted to use bombers. For the moment it was impossible to base Beauforts at Malta. With so few torpedoes on the island, Blenheim light bombers were sent out again, supplemented by Beaufighters (with IFF so that they could co-operate with ships) to help protect convoys. The Beaufighters operated in detachments of six aircraft at a time, the first six arriving on 27 April 1941 and carrying out their first anti-shipping strike on 1 May against a 3000-ton merchant ship escorted by a destroyer near the Kerkenna Islands. They claimed three hits on the destroyer and one on the merchant ship, both later confirmed as having been sunk. This detachment returned to England on 11 May, to be replaced by a second, which began its attacks on 22 May. A further detachment arrived on 21 May, suffering the first losses (two aircraft) during a 26 May convoy attack. In all, Blenheims of No. 2 Group made thirty-four sorties and attacked fifteen ships, sinking two, seriously damaging five and somewhat damaging another five, at the cost of two aircraft lost and two damaged. Blenheim detachments continued to operate from Malta through at least late 1941. The Blenheims attacked at low level, a very dangerous tactic. Typically Blenheims operated by day, torpedo-armed Swordfish at night. By the end of August 1941, there were thirty-two Blenheims on Malta, together with seven Marylands (typically used for reconnaissance, but now fitted with bomb racks), fifteen Wellingtons and twelve Swordfish. The Blenheims were having increasing trouble due to stronger convoy escorts and also fighter escorts, and AOC Mediterranean (Air Marshal Tedder) wanted to shift to attacks on enemy ports, but the Air Ministry considered it more useful to attack shipping in transit, so it decided to send another Blenheim squadron to Malta (this squadron, No. 18, did not leave for Malta until 10 October). At the time it was estimated that twenty-two ships had been sunk in August, of which submarines sank ten, torpedo bombers five, Blenheims four and heavy bombers (Wellingtons) three in harbour. In 1942 Malta continued to operate as an effective air-striking base but it was gradually choked by heavy enemy attacks (and very limited resupply, due to difficulties in running convoys), which nearly closed it down in March–April 1942.

In June the British air effort had to be cut back as the German- Italian army advanced towards Egypt: only 8500 tons out of 118,000 tons total were damaged or lost. Then British attacks increased, presumably partly because air pressure on Malta was relaxed due to the demands of the Russian campaign. In July, out of 153,000 tons sent out, nearly 20.000 tons were sunk and 7000 tons damaged. In August losses were 36.000 tons sunk and nearly 13,000 tons damaged out of 150,000 tons sent. In September losses were 49,000 tons sunk and nearly 14,000 tons damaged out of 163,000 tons sent out. Losses squeezed the capacity to ship heavy material, particularly vehicles such as tanks. There was no industrial capacity to replace heavy shipping losses. The large convoys could not be sustained, so in October shipping fell to 50,000 tons, of which 18,800 tons were lost and 12,800 tons damaged. Even had all the supplies gone through, they would have been grossly insufficient. In November, shipments fell to 37,000 tons – of which 26,000 tons were sunk and 2100 tons damaged. This was the worst damage ratio of the war, and the remaining 8400 tons was the least which had been delivered to Libya to date. In December only 36,000 tons was despatched, of which 13,000 tons was lost and 4800 tons damaged. These disasters coincided with the opening of a British offensive. Interdiction has always been most effective when the force being starved is also being forced to fight. The British advance into Cyrenaica greatly reduced Axis options to starve Malta, because it improved their prospects for convoy operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Three long-range Wellingtons fitted with ASV radar (sea-search radar) were deployed to Malta towards the end of September 1941 specifically to work with the Royal Navy surface force based at Malta, with the Malta-based naval torpedo bombers (Albacores at this time), and to shadow and attack enemy shipping. These aircraft acted as snoopers.

British anti-ship activity out of Malta was particularly intense in November 1941 in connection with the Crusader offensive in North Africa. It included a 19 November masthead-height attack on a convoy, escorted by one destroyer, by five Blenheims in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire. Three were shot down. At this time the RAF was also flying Wellingtons out of Malta, armed with semi-armour-piercing bombs. One night thirteen of them, working with four Swordfish, attacked a large convoy: five merchant ships escorted by a cruiser and five destroyers. The Swordfish opened with torpedoes (one hitting the cruiser escorting the convoy). The Wellingtons followed at low and medium altitude. No hits could be observed due to the thick smoke screen the convoy generated. The Wellingtons claimed straddles, which might damage the ships, but there was no assessment. One Swordfish failed to return. A particular effort was made to attack enemy ships in harbour, presumably because bombs were more likely to be effective against static ships.

For their part the Germans felt compelled to divert U-boats from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (initially twenty-one, ultimately thirty-six) specifically to deal with the convoys reinforcing Malta. For example, U-boats sank the carriers Ark Royal and Eagle, the latter during the ‘Pedestal’ convoy. By late 1941 it had become far more difficult to run convoys to Malta, and the onset of war in the Far East reduced the British capacity to make up losses in the Mediterranean. During the autumn of 1941 strikes from Malta became less effective both because the Italians learned to route their convoys out of range and because Malta itself was heavily bombed. The see-saw land war in North Africa did not help because bases seized there were too far from the Italian convoy routes for naval torpedo bombers.

The effect of renewed attacks against Malta showed in an improving Italian shipping situation. In January 1942, 60,000 tons were delivered to North Africa without loss. In February only 5000 tons of the 60,000 tons sent that month was lost. In March, 70,000 tons were sent, of which 15,800 tons were damaged and 1000 tons lost. None of these shipments was on the earlier scale, but in April 145,000 tons was sent, of which only 3500 tons was lost. The April shipment was the first and last time that it exceeded demands. At that time Rommel required 12.000 tons each month, but that did not include amassing supplies for any major operation. The more numerous Italian troops fighting alongside Rommel needed about twice the tonnage. With the reduction of air activity on Malta, at the end of March the Italians began to run single ships with heavy AA armament instead of convoys. The situation on Malta improved with the arrival of strong reinforcements of Spitfires in May 1942.

In April the total requirement for the German forces was 32,000 tons, the army taking 14,000 tons of fuel, as well as 1565 vehicles (including thirty-four tanks). May was even better: over 170,000 tons sent out, and only 10,000 tons lost. However, Rommel’s needs were also escalating, because on 26 May he began the offensive which took him to El Alamein. As he advanced, he needed not only convoy traffic across the Mediterranean but also coastal shipping from the main ports in North Africa (Tobruk to Mersa Matruh). Both convoys and coastal shipping were vulnerable to air and surface attack. In June the combination of cross-Mediterranean and coastal shipping depended on a total of about 107.000 tons of shipping, of which about 10,000 tons were lost or damaged.

The improvement in the Axis convoy position seems traceable directly to the worsening situation on Malta, which affected both strike aircraft and submarines based there. The British were well aware of the connection between Malta-based interdiction and the campaign in North Africa, and that explains the very costly convoy operations mounted in June and August 1942 (‘Pedestal’). Air attacks on the Axis convoys through the end of June 1942 were very limited, the bulk of Italian losses being by submarine.

The convoys were, however, still in range of RAF torpedo bombers. The first two Beaufort squadrons were sent out from the United Kingdom at the end of 1941. They began operating from Malta and Egypt early in 1942 (the second squadron soon moved to India). The day-attack Beaufort squadrons benefitted heavily from escort by Beaufighters. These aircraft carried out synchronised attacks after flying from their bases at very low altitude. Beaufighter escorts provided a diversion by strafing escorting destroyers and anti-aircraft ships. Converted Wellington medium bombers intended for night attack were successfully tested early in 1942, one squadron becoming operational by the end of May 1942. A second followed late in 1942. Few Wellingtons were lost.

Convoy losses began to rise in August (figures for July are not given): 114,000 tons despatched, of which 38,000 tons were sunk and 2000 tons damaged. In September 108,000 tons were despatched, of which 23,000 tons were sunk and over 9000 tons damaged. The situation continued to worsen, so that in October of over 96,000 tons sent, 24,000 tons were sunk and 14,000 tons damaged. In November demand exploded, because with the Allied landings in French North Africa, and with the offensive in the east, the Germans and Italians were fighting on two fronts. They made a supreme effort: 178,000 tons were sent out – but Malta was now fully operational, and 31,500 tons were sunk and 25.000 tons damaged. In December, even more was sent: 212,500 tons; but over 68,000 tons were sunk and over 15,000 tons damaged. The damaged ships were all hit in harbour. From August on the weight of the offensive against Axis shipping moved from submarines to bombers. Of the twenty-eight ships sunk in December, thirteen were sunk by air attack. Most of the sinkings by air attack seem to have been by torpedo. Attacks on convoys destroyed a large percentage of the Italian merchant fleet. They also wiped out many of the destroyers and seagoing torpedo boats which might otherwise have screened the Italian battle fleet.

Early British Night-fighters – The Blitz

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Almost all the first batches of Mk I Beaufighters were night fighters. The earliest deliveries had no radar, but in September 1940 one of them was flown to the FIU for trials with one of the first AI.IV installations. By November 1940 AI.IV was standard on production Mk IF aircraft. The installation was good, and a skilled operator could obtain a clear and unambiguous target blip over a range of at least three miles (provided that the aircraft was about three miles above the ground) down to a minimum range of something like 100 feet. This minimum range was closer than with AI Mk III, but it was still too far for certain visual contact in adverse conditions. One of the most important and most difficult skills an AI operator had to acquire was to judge the rate of closure on the target simply by watching the blips. With the Beaufighter there was ample in-flight performance for overtaking any Luftwaffe bomber of 1940, even if the bomber had become frightened and tried to get away. But it was far from simple to guide the pilot with absolute precision, so that he came up astern to visual contact without overshooting or colliding with the bomber from behind. At that time, sudden closing of the throttles on British engines generally resulted in severe backfiring and large gouts of flame from the exhausts. The Hercules was better than most engines in this respect, but still could not equal the German engines, whose direct-injection fuel systems did not suffer from this failing, which at night could mean life or death. The fact that a night fighter needed powerful airbrakes was not then realized, and much later many Beau pilots learned that the best procedure was to keep on plenty of power and drop the landing gear. The Beau’s great strength is reflected in the fact that the gear-down limit was 240 mph IAS, well above any likely indicated speed at around 15,000 feet (the later Mosquito was red-lined at only 180).

It was thus fairly safe for the pilot to go on closing on the target after the AI blip had vanished off the bottom end of the range scale. With practice one could judge just when the range ought to be dropping close to zero, and visual contact by this time ought to be certain. Should the enemy suddenly appear dead in front, a cool pilot could then slow down by lowering his wheels briefly (though this was not realized during the night Blitz). Once in a firing position the pilot, having made certain that his firing-button outer ring was set from ‘Safe’ to ‘Fire’, could open up with devastating armament. The first fifty Beaufighters had four 20 mm Hispano cannon under the nose, ahead of the hatch. Subsequent deliveries added six Brownings in the wings, four on the right and two on the left.

This armament was the heaviest of any RAF fighter in the Second World War, and still sounds impressive today. In the RAF’s hour of desperate need in 1940 it was manna from Heaven to a service that had nothing more powerful than rifle-calibre machine-guns, which were swiftly becoming ineffective as the Germans bolted armour on to their bombers. What amazed the author, even at the time, was that there was no modern British shell-firing cannon. The 20 mm Hispano-Suiza had been designed at the end of First World War. Installed singly between the cylinder blocks of the same company’s fighter engines, it did not matter that it was eight feet long and weighed 109 lb. Also fitting neatly between the cylinder blocks was the 60-round drum of ammunition. Lacking any obvious alternative, a licence for this was obtained at the proverbial ‘eleventh hour’ in 1937, and by 1939 it was coming into production by British MARC Ltd at Grantham. By 1945 a group of British factories had delivered just under 100,000, later versions having a shorter barrel. Fortunately, the British armament experts showed little interest in the mounting on an engine (and to bolt it on a Merlin would have meant major redesign of the reduction gear). Instead, its first British application was to mount four in the nose of the Westland Whirlwind, though this odd fighter was never of any importance. More to the point, one was – with difficulty, turning the gun on its side – mounted in each wing of the Spitfire IB. The first trial installation took place soon after the outbreak of war, and in March 1940 one of the experimental Mk IBs shot down a Do 17 with sixteen rounds. In the Battle of Britain the Mk IB equipped 19 Squadron, though maddening stoppages and other faults persisted. These were gradually cured, and by 1941 the standard Spitfire fighters were of the B type, with two Hispanos and four Brownings (though in the week the prototype Spitfire first flew, in March 1936, designer Mitchell had schemed a version with four Hispanos!).

Wisely, Bristol could see the futility of the four Brownings of the Blenheim fighters, and replaced them in the Beaufighter by four Hispanos. In this aircraft there was no need for the clumsy drum feed, and the Bristol design team devised a superb installation with continuous belt feed from four 240-round magazines. Air Ministry armament experts rejected the scheme, claiming that it would either jam the guns or be wrecked. Bristol then proposed an air-driven servo feed, tested on the fourth Beau in competition with the established French feed using 60-round drums. In French single-seat fighters only one such drum could be fitted, but in the Beau the observer could leave his radar, clamber forward and exchange used drums for fresh ones. As each drum weighed about 100 lb, and the fighter might be pulling g in a tight turn, changing drums was not popular with the observer (the drum racks had sharp edges, too). More time was wasted comparing two further servo-feeds, by Avro and Hydran. Then suddenly, as France fell, two Armée de l’Air officers arrived with drawings of their own newly developed Chatellerault belt feed. It was at once adopted, though it took until September 1941 to get it into production and in service (on the 401st aircraft). So all the Beaufighters in the long winter Blitz had hand-changed 60-round drums. It was only when Bristol studied the French feed that it was realized it was just like their own, original, rejected feed, except that it extracted rounds from the belt by pushing the nose instead of pulling the case. This proved to be a disadvantage, and it was changed to case-pulling, making it identical to the British scheme that could have been on the very first production aircraft!

Beaufighters became operational during September 1940, and during the winter their numbers increased rapidly, reaching 100 that year and 200 in May 1941. Production of AI Mk IV more than kept pace, and the improved radar was retrofitted to most of the early Mk I aircraft that had been delivered without it. A few Mk IV sets were also installed in Blenheims of FIU, and it was one of these, piloted by none other than Ashfield, that scored the second AI night victory on 7 November 1940. Was Ashfield – who was later killed in action – a superman? At first glance, for the whole RAF night-fighter force to have no success at all using AI, while one crew engaged in research scored two victories, does seem to require explanation. There is always an element of luck in being in the right place at the right time, but I think it is fair to describe night fighting as something uniquely difficult. Until it was mastered, neither a GCI controller nor an aircrew could ever say it was in control of the situation. Then, once one or two exceptional crews had begun to work with gifted controllers, the whole thing snowballed.

In November 1940 the Luftwaffe switched its assault from London to Midlands cities. At that time the RAF was just beginning to discover that its night-bomber crews – thanks to failure to practise before the war – were hardly ever able to find their targets. In contrast, the Luftwaffe had foolproof and easily used radio navaids that had been developed during the late 1930s, based on technology related to the Lorenz radio landing aid. Using X-Gerät and Knickebein, a jumpy and unskilled crew could fly direct to any British city and automatically release their ordnance at the correct point in space for a near-direct hit. These precision radio beams had been reported in the notorious ‘Oslo parcel’. British experts foolishly scorned the notion of the Luftwaffe having in service an advanced aid that had not even been thought of by the RAF, but, fortunately, Tizard sent for young Dr R.V. Jones, the infra-red researcher from the Clarendon mentioned previously, and his methodical sleuthing uncovered the unpalatable truth. Not only did this prove that the German radio technology had been seriously underrated – X-Gerät manufacturers’ date-stamps mostly went back to 1938 – but it enabled Britain urgently to set up jammers and even spoof beacons, which caused more than one Heinkel to come to grief. Unfortunately there was one occasion, on 4 November 1940, when for various reasons no jammers were operating. On that night the city of Coventry was devastated.

Riding their fine Beaufighters, the handful of RAF night-fighter crews who had been converted to the type watched the burning cities, and helplessly chased one ‘contact’ after another (they all just seemed to disappear). Even if they had known that the first waves of bombers were following invisible lines in the sky, like transport aircraft flying the American radio range, they could not have accomplished the vital final step of drawing in close enough behind to see the enemy, identify it and shoot it down. Then, on 19 November, one crew did it. It was 604’s John Cunningham and his observer Sergeant J. Phillipson: during a raid on Birmingham they shot down a Ju 88. Chisholm, also of 604 Squadron, wrote, ‘The news was electrifying. For me it meant that the bombers we were sent to chase were really there . . .’ In the minds of the NF crews, the Magic Mirrors, with their overtones of useless trickery, had become AI Mk IV, a system which, placed in the right position by increasingly adept ground control, could – with a modicum of luck – take a good crew to a visual contact. Cunningham quickly gained other successes, became a national hero, and for the rest of his life suffered being called ‘Cat’s Eyes’. Bombers were being shot down at last. With radar unmentionable, a common Ministry of Information cover story at the time was that night-fighter pilots not only wore dark glasses before take-off, to become night adapted (which they certainly did), but also derived abnormal night vision by eating copious quantities of carrots (which most of them did not). Even today there are thousands of the British public who have a lingering image of cat-eyed pilots munching this vegetable.

A vital role in closing the last links in the world’s first night defence system worthy of the name was provided by the GCI stations previously mentioned. It was essential for the ground controller to have an up-to-date (real time) picture of the local situation; a lag of thirty seconds could well make interception impossible. What had been AMRE at Bawdsey, and was now renamed TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment, a pure ‘cover’) at Worth Matravers, played the chief role in creating the GCI radar, with its PPI (plan-position indicator) picture painted by successive sweeps of a rotating radar beam, just as in so many radars today. Some of the GCI team were in the wooden huts on the Dorset coast, and others at the airfield at Christchurch – rather an inconvenient distance on the other side of Bournemouth – where TFU (Telecommunications Flying Unit) kept its growing fleet of night fighters and other trials aircraft. The PPI was swiftly improved until each sweep took sixty-five seconds, instead of the original eight minutes, and reached out to a distance of ninety miles. It could not indicate height, which had to be telephoned in by a CH station.

TRE undertook a crash programme to make the first dozen GCI sets, often using any suitable hardware that was handy, and delivered the first on 16 October 1940, at Durrington, Sussex, where it was operational two days later. The last of this batch was operational by 6 January 1941. Percival Rowe, by then Superintendent of TRE, recalled:

In theory, it looked simple enough to us. All that was needed was for a night fighter to patrol up and down the English Channel until told by R/T from the Worth Matravers GCI station that there was an enemy bomber in a suitable position for interception. Bomber and fighter would then be tracked and their heights assessed. When the fighter had been put on the tail of the bomber by directions from the GCI station, the latter would give the signal ‘Flash weapon’, which would tell the fighter crew that the AI set should be switched on and used to complete the interception. The time was to come when it really was almost as simple as this, but not at Worth Matravers.

The civilian boffins at that establishment were the very first controllers to direct night fighters using the original prototype GCI, but there seemed to be too many problems for a kill to be achieved. Not least of the problems was that, like Chisholm near his home airfield, the night fighters continually got lost. There were three important answers. The first was a regular pattern of bonfires across southern England maintained by the ROC (often at peril to their lives from people who thought the blackout was being sabotaged). The second was the building of the Racons – passive ground radar beacons – which showed up strongly on the fighter’s own AI scopes. The beacons were arranged in a regular checkerboard pattern across southern England, and the fighter observer could always see the blip from at least one and usually from two. By measuring the distances it was possible to get a fair idea of position, refined if necessary by actually plotting with a compass and pencil on a topographic map (not a plotting chart). The third way of solving the navigation problem was to learn to trust the GCI controller who, once the PPI sets were in use, always knew where the fighter was; he could identify it by its IFF signal. If required – and when lost on a dark night one is less concerned about loss of face – the controller could talk the fighter pilot home to his own airfield. To quote Rowe, ‘Once this had been demonstrated, the fighter pilots poured over from Middle Wallop to see the new brand of magic, after which they came to believe that, though they might not know where they were, there was an “eye” on the ground that could watch them and lead them home.’ This again was a fundamental advance in the technology of aviation that today is taken for granted.

This ability to be guided home was especially helpful to the pilots of single-seaters and Defiants, which had nobody on board to help the pilot navigate. With Racons and GCI radar the concept of the AI-equipped single-engined fighter was looked at again, and it was soon realized that AI could be put in the Defiant and the Hurricane after all. Boulton Paul Aircraft were given drawings of the pilot-indication AI Mk V, which had a novel CRT scope with a U-marker around the blip, and the company completed installation drawings for the Defiant on 19 November 1940. The aerials were as in the single-seat scheme of the previous July, with the transmitter on the right wing. The transmitter itself was behind the turret, the receiver, control box and power pack behind the pilot’s seat, the display on the pilot’s left, and the control panel on his right. This pioneer single-engine installation suffered from moisture and bad electrical screening, and for some reason was not cleared for service until August 1941. By this time the radar had become AI.VI, with a wider bandwidth of 188–198 MHz and an added beacon facility. The radar-equipped Defiant IA served with 264 Squadron and later with 96, 125, 256 and 410. The more powerful Defiant Mk II served additionally with 141, which had destroyed an He 111 the previous December without AI, and with 151 and 153 Squadrons.

Having discovered that there was no law of nature forbidding radar in a single-engined aircraft, the Air Staff also fitted AI.VI to twelve Hurricane Is in late 1941. In November 1942 a report on their first year of operational service simply glowed with enthusiasm, especially commenting on their high serviceability and rapid accumulation of flight time, leaving the impartial observer mystified at why it was not done before and not done again.