The Zeebrugge Operation

HMS Vindictive during the raid. Vindictive was an obsolete Arrogant-class protected cruiser, converted to act as the lead assault ship for the attack on the mole at Zeebrugge. She was fitted with additional armour, ramps for the troops and additional weaponry for fire support.

The blockships at Zeebrugge after the raid. Photographs such as this one, showing the blockships apparently in position, suggested that the operation against the canal had succeeded. However, the practical result was nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.

The Zeebrugge raid. This map shows just how formidable and well defended an objective the mole was, and how it shielded the entrance to the Bruges canal. It also indicates the planned and actual location of the assault ships and the blockships.

The final year of the war saw the Allies gradually overcome the U-boat threat while the naval blockade exerted increasing pressure on Germany, while the military balance on land showed signs of shifting. During 1918, one operation stands out – the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918. Although militarily unsuccessful, it cheered public opinion in Britain and among her allies, and has entered national mythology.

Britain had tried various measures to hinder the U-boats, including those of the Flanders Flotilla. This force and a destroyer flotilla were based at Bruges, reaching the sea via a 13km (8 mile) canal to Zeebrugge or a 18km (11 mile) canal to Ostend. Repeated attempts were made to attack this network, but the base at Bruges was well protected against air attack or bombardment from the land, while the technology of the day made it impossible for attacking aircraft or bombarding warships to achieve the necessary accuracy to destroy the canal lock-gates at the two ports.

The alternative to bombardment was to launch an amphibious raid, but Zeebrugge and Ostend were well defended against any such landing. Both ports had many troops in well prepared defensive positions, as well as batteries of coastal artillery totalling over 30 guns at Zeebrugge and 40 at Ostend. The canal exit at Zeebrugge was further protected by the mole – a stone breakwater, over 1.6km (1 mile) long and some 75m (245ft) across its widest point. As well as helping to create the harbour, this edifice had been turned into a minor fortress, with six large artillery pieces, protected by machine guns and troops in defensive trenches.

Despite the difficulties involved, the importance of hindering the U-boats meant that a series of plans for attacking the Belgian ports was considered. These efforts accelerated when Rear Admiral Roger Keyes joined the Admiralty as Director of Plans in December 1917, bringing to the post the same energy and initiative that had seen him devise the raid into the Heligoland Bight at the beginning of the war. He began to modify previous concepts for a raid. Following his appointment as commander of the Dover Patrol on 1 January 1918, he was given responsibility for planning and leading the operation, which he code-named Operation Z.O.

‘The raiding force left home on22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. As the motley flotilla departed, Keyes signalled “St George for England”.’

The heart of the plan was for a number of old cruisers to be used as blockships, which would be scuttled to obstruct the canal exits into the sea at both Zeebrugge and Ostend; a thick smokescreen would help to cover their approach. However, at Zeebrugge the powerful artillery on the mole was ideally placed to blow the ships out of the water before they could reach their objective. Keyes therefore planned an assault against the mole from a converted cruiser. This element of the plan would primarily be a diversion to allow the blockships to approach the canal, but would also seek to inflict as much damage as possible on the military facilities on the mole. To support the assault an old submarine, filled with explosives, would detonate against the viaduct linking the mole with land, thus preventing the arrival of German reinforcements. Once the blockships had been manoeuvred into position, the forces on the mole would withdraw.

There were some doubts about whether the operation was feasible, but Keyes convinced the Admiralty that it was worth a shot. For the assault troops, he was assigned a battalion of Royal Marines and sought volunteers from among the crews of the Grand Fleet. The main assault ship was to be the old armoured cruiser Vindictive. In addition to her existing pair of 6in guns, she was provided with a formidable arsenal to support the attack, including three howitzers, two flamethrowers, batteries of mortars and several machine guns. She was also fitted with an additional upper deck to allow the assault troops to gain access to the parapet over the mole, which they would reach by specially designed ‘brows’ or ramps. Additional troops were to be carried in two Mersey ferries, Iris and Daffodil, chosen because their shallow draught would allow them to avoid mines, while their double hulls would make them very difficult to sink. They were given additional armour plate and protection against splinters in the form of sandbags and mattresses. Five old cruisers (three for Zeebrugge and two for Ostend) were chosen to act as blockships and were fitted with extra armour and with scuttling charges, as well as rubble and concrete to make them more difficult to remove. Finally, two old submarines, C1 and C3, were filled with explosives for use against the viaduct. The force comprised over 150 ships and some 1800 men.

The attack had to be conducted at high tide and, ideally, on a moonless night; hence there were only a few days each month when it was possible. Even then it would be challenging to get all of the ships to the right places at the right time because of difficulties of navigation in fast tides and shifting sandbanks, and against enemy fire over the final stages. The operation was launched on 11 April, but at a crucial moment the wind changed and blew away the smokescreen. Keyes took the difficult but necessary decision to call it off. One motor boat was lost, its crew being captured by the Germans. On 14 April, Keyes tried a second time, only to be frustrated once again by high seas and winds. Some senior officers felt the operation should now be cancelled as operational surprise had been lost, but Keyes was keen to press on and even dropped the requirement for a moonless night. The raiding force left home once again on 22 April, the eve of St George’s Day. Keyes was not one to overlook a possible reference to the country’s patron saint: as the motley flotilla departed, he signalled ‘St George for England’, to which the captain of Vindictive replied, ‘May we give the dragon’s tail a damned good twist.’

At 10.30pm the ships for the Ostend raid broke away from the main body. About half an hour later, monitors opened fired on the German coastal artillery batteries, while destroyers took up position outside both harbours to prevent German light forces from interfering with the unfolding operation. Shortly after 11pm the flotilla began to generate the smokescreen that was intended to cover the approach into Zeebrugge harbour. At first it succeeded; the German gunners opened fire when they heard engines approaching but could not see their targets.

At around 11.50pm the wind suddenly shifted, blowing away the smokescreen to reveal Vindictive steaming for the mole at a rapidly closing distance of a few hundred metres. The German heavy guns on the mole opened up at point-blank range and although Vindictive returned fire, several of her guns were quickly knocked out and the ship was heavily damaged. Many of the troops onboard were killed, including the naval officer commanding the sailors in the assault party, and both the commanding officer and the second-in-command of the embarked Royal Marines. In an effort to reduce the battering his ship was suffering, her captain shifted course and brought the old cruiser alongside the mole at one minute past midnight on St George’s Day. Unfortunately, although this action saved the ship from further damage, it meant that she came alongside a good 275m (900ft) from the intended spot. It had been hoped that from this location, behind the main defensive trenches, the mole guns could swiftly be stormed. The troops would now be exposed in the middle of the mole. Moreover, it proved difficult to hold the ship in place against a fast tide and lively swell. The grapnels that were to have secured her could not be attached to the mole, and she had to be held in position by Daffodil, which prevented many of the troops on the ferry from landing. The movement of Vindictive, heavy fire from the defenders and damage to the ramps meant that the assault troops got ashore more slowly than was anticipated. Many were killed or wounded before they could disembark. Iris got alongside the mole, but encountered similar problems getting her troops onto it because of the height of the parapet above her deck.

‘At a time when most news seemed bad, the Zeebrugge raid seemed a welcome sign that the Royal Navy was willing and able to conduct an audacious operation against the enemy-held coast.’

One part of the plan did unfold as intended; at about 12.20am the crew of the submarine C3 succeeded in navigating their way through the harbour and rammed the boat into the viaduct. They then disembarked into motor boats, as planned, and withdrew under increasing German fire. As they did so, the explosive-packed submarine detonated, destroying the viaduct and thereby isolating the mole, cutting communications and stranding any reinforcements.

Some assault troops did reach the mole and, despite the loss of most of their commanders, launched a number of spirited if sporadic attacks against the defenders. They came under heavy and effective fire from the garrison, protected in well prepared positions, and also from German destroyers moored on the far side of the mole. They could not reach either the artillery batteries or the other intended objectives; however, the main purpose of the assault was to provide a diversion to assist the blockships, which were the real point of the raid. This they achieved. Although the German guns engaged the blockships as they rounded the mole, their fire began later and was lighter than it would have been without the assault from Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil.

Thetis, the leading blockship, was supposed to enter the canal and then steam three-quarters of a kilometre (half a mile) into it, before ramming the lock-gates. As she approached the canal she was badly damaged by heavy gunfire, and then her propeller became entangled in an anti-submarine net. She became impossible to steer, so her captain detonated the scuttling charges. She sank just short of the canal entrance. However, she had drawn the fire of the German gunners and had cleared the nets, thus easing the approach of the other two blockships. The second, Intrepid, managed to steam into the canal and scuttle herself in the planned position across the channel. Unfortunately Thetis had been instructed only to attack the lock-gates; had Intrepid’s captain shown a little more initiative, he might have tried to ram them himself – though navigating the channel and avoiding the German fire would not have been easy. The third blockship, Iphigenia, also entered the canal, and, despite colliding with Intrepid as she manoeuvred into position, scuttled herself across the channel.

At 12.50am, as the blockships sank and their crews were taken off, the recall signal was sounded on the mole, and Vindictive re-embarked the survivors from the assault parties. As the ships withdrew, Iris was hit hard by the German artillery and the supporting destroyer North Star was sunk.

Casualties were heavy, with over 200 men killed (more than 50 by a single shell that struck Iris as she withdrew) and 400 wounded, with 13 captured. One destroyer and two motor boats were lost

The Ostend operation was simpler in conception, since there was no mole and hence no need or opportunity for a diversionary attack. Here, however, the German defenders were better prepared: the captain of the motor boat captured on 11 April was carrying a copy of the plans, so the Germans had been warned and moved two critical navigation buoys, making the already challenging task of approaching the canal all but impossible. The two intended blockships, Brilliant and Sirius, were both hit repeatedly by German fire, and then Brilliant ran aground. They could go no further so the scuttling charges were detonated, despite the blockships being some distance from the canal. Two later attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to block the canal at Ostend and a third was cancelled. No further attempt was made, largely because the increasing effectiveness of the Channel barrage made it unnecessary.

The British initially believed that the Zeebrugge part of the operation had succeeded: aerial photographs seemed to show Intrepid and Iphigenia lying across the main channel of the canal. In fact, while the blockships caused some initial disruption, the Germans were able to find ways of working around them within a few days and were making full use of the canal by mid-May. This might seem a distinctly modest success in view of the 600 casualties suffered.

The raid, however, was hailed as a triumph – albeit benefiting from considerable embellishment in official accounts. It had an enormously positive effect on morale in the Navy and in the hard-pressed Army, as well as on press and public opinion in Britain and her allies. At a time when most news seemed bad, with the German offensive on the Western Front gaining considerable initial success, the Zeebrugge raid seemed a welcome sign that the Royal Navy was willing and able to conduct an audacious operation against the enemy-held coast. The Admiralty initially baulked at the high number of medals recommended by Keyes – including no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses, the highest British award for valour – but they gave way in the face of his persistence and public acclaim.

The Zeebrugge operation was a bold and ambitious concept that was conducted with enormous determination and courage. There were significant weaknesses in the planning, however: too much improvisation, insufficient attention to important details and perhaps not enough questioning of optimistic assumptions. It seemed to rest on Keyes’s tendency to assume that enthusiasm alone could overcome any difficulty. Nevertheless, even if its military impact was slight, the timely and considerable boost it provided to morale was of great value.

The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley I

Major General Moore had summoned his two brigade commanders to Division Headquarters aboard LPD Fearless early on 8 June to discuss options for the final attack on Stanley. Unlike his staff, Moore had not been so upset about Brigadier Wilson’s surprise move to Fitzroy nearly a week earlier. Risky though it had been, 5 Brigade’s leap forward fixed the enemy’s attention all the more closely on the southern approach to Stanley. The Argentines had been thinking for some time that the British would launch their main assault from a route through Fitzroy, despite reports of British advances to the west of Stanley near Teal Inlet. And to be sure, they did not know that activity to the south had become a frantic struggle to reduce the vulnerability of 2 Para without supplies and supporting arms. Increased activity around Fitzroy further promoted the perception that it would become the springboard for the final attack. Fitzroy was not, however, part of a deception plan to mask a commando attack from the west. Quite the contrary, it was intended to play a significant role in the final attack. Just how prominent that role would be was one of the main issues at Moore’s meeting with his commanders.

The contentious issue at his meeting that day was whether British ground forces would conduct their final assault through the mountains near Stanley on a broad or a narrow front. The broad front in question started with Mount Longdon to the north-west of Stanley and included high ground starting a few miles south of Longdon and extending eastwards to Stanley: Two Sisters, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Sapper Hill. Should Mount Longdon be an objective, then another prominent feature known as Wireless Ridge stood between Mount Longdon and Stanley. In that case, the British would need to take Wireless as well. The narrow option excluded Mount Longdon and Wireless Ridge.

Brigadier Thompson objected to the narrow front option for reasons both tactical and logistical. Since the Argentines were expecting a thrust from the south now more than ever, concentrating the attack into a narrower front from the west and south of Stanley would play into their suspicions. From a logistics standpoint, very importantly, the narrow front option with British forces bypassing Argentine forces on Mount Longdon posed significant risks. For days the Division had been concentrating on getting supplies into the FBMA at Teal Inlet. That area now served as the forward sustainment base for 3 Commando Brigade. Thompson’s 3 Para and 45 Commando had moved east from there several days before and taken the high ground of Mount Estancia and Mount Vernet to the north-west of Longdon. The track from Teal Inlet through a small settlement called Estancia House near Mount Estancia now became the critical ground supply route for his units, regardless of where they were attacking.

Opposition astride this supply route, most notably from Argentine units at Mount Longdon, had to be neutralized in order to ensure continuity of support to 3 Commando Brigade units during the final battle. From a logistics perspective, Thompson’s battle plan enabled interior rather than exterior lines of communication, thereby enabling 3 Commando Brigade to maintain the security of its only ground and helicopter resupply route from the FBMA at Teal Inlet through a distribution point at Estancia House and from there to combat units. The Brigade could not rely on the few available helicopters to move supplies forward from Teal Inlet. Combat units would carry considerable supplies with them, but approach marches would be long, and once fighting started the units would require reliable resupply. During the final battle, helicopters would focus on resupply if possible, but mainly on movement of artillery ammunition and medical evacuation. Mount Longdon, therefore, became a critical objective from Thompson’s perspective, and 3 Commando Brigade had to control it to protect logistics sustainment for the battle for Stanley.

Some at division level clearly did not share all of Thompson’s concerns. While Moore was chairing his meeting aboard Fearless that day, other members of the Division staff and Commando Logistic Regiment were forward at Fitzroy assessing the potential of that area as a sustainment base. Shifting supplies forward from Ajax Bay could shorten distances significantly between the bulk of stocks and combat units, even though there were risks in moving large quantities of supplies that near to Stanley; but getting supplies there was challenging. Distances by sea from the Ajax area were twice as long to Fitzroy as they were to Teal Inlet.

As Moore, Thompson, Wilson and others were discussing tactical and logistical options for the final battle, Argentine observers were, unfortunately, peering down from their observation posts to discover and eventually report the arrival of the LSLs Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad at Fitzroy. Word arrived about the Argentine air attacks as the meeting on Fearless was still in session. The session ended abruptly, and the leaders returned to their units as LFFI shifted its focus to saving lives and restoring order at Fitzroy. Moore had reached no decisions about the plan for a final attack before the hasty adjournment.

By 9 June, as the extent of losses at Fitzroy became fully known, the location’s appeal as a large support area vanished. Planning shifted toward establishing only another FBMA at Fitzroy, this one for 5 Brigade. While staff and units were adjusting to the magnitude of losses, Moore shifted his attention to 3 Commando Brigade as the main effort for the upcoming final battle. When arriving on East Falkland ten days earlier, he had anticipated that his brigades would be beginning the final battle by this time. Now, however, Moore still faced requirements to get artillery and ammunition forward for both brigades to support the attack. Additionally, something had to be done to reconstitute the combat strength of 5 Brigade, given the large number of casualties sustained by 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards and the stocks that had been lost. He would focus deliberately on building up logistics capabilities in forward areas before launching the final assault and on ensuring that logistics remained integrated fully with tactical plans through all phases of the battle plan until his forces captured Stanley.

That day, Moore flew forward to 3 Commando Brigade’s headquarters at Teal Inlet to meet with Thompson and tell him that 3 Commando Brigade would be the Division main effort in an attack that would include Mount Longdon. The plan would contain three phases: during the first phase, 3 Commando Brigade would attack Mount Longdon, Two Sisters, and Mount Harriet; during the second, 3 Commando Brigade would continue its attack to take Wireless Ridge while 5 Brigade attacked Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William; Thompson’s Brigade would then continue the attack in phase three to seize remaining high ground south of Stanley, beginning with Sapper Hill. The hope was that the Argentines would surrender before phase three became necessary.

Thompson’s units had been planning towards this end for some time and hoping for such a decision. To add more punch to his main effort, Moore attached 2 Para back to 3 Commando Brigade. He also attached 5 Brigade’s 1 Welsh Guards, which was augmented now by two companies from 40 Commando, because the approach route for the commando attack on Mount Harriet would cross into its sector. Helicopters would lift the paratroopers from their current location near Fitzroy to an assembly area aside Mount Kent, where they would be in reserve initially. Moore, however, did not let Thompson retain control of the remainder of 40 Commando, which had been providing security around the beachhead since D-Day because of continuing concerns about a possible attack on rear areas. Thompson’s units were prepared and eager to get on with it. They had been forward now for well over a week, and although there had been some skirmishes with Argentines, most of their time had been spent patrolling to determine enemy dispositions and vulnerabilities.

Conditions in forward areas had taken a distinct turn for the worse since commandos had moved away from the San Carlos beachhead, particularly for those units in hills approaching Stanley. Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando probably had been withstanding the worst of it. His men had been patrolling in and around Mount Kent since the end of May and at Mount Challenger since the first days of June. Some of his units had waited several days for their packs to get forward and still longer for resupply of food. Although there remained tons of food and supplies at both Ajax and Teal Inlet, bad weather had complicated efforts to get supplies forward by helicopter. When supplies did arrive, commandos then had to man-pack them further forward at night to unit positions. The dried Arctic rations being provided contained over 5,000 calories but required water and cooking fuel to reconstitute them. Units generally ran short of both; and as a result, men were starting to suffer from diarrhoea and dehydration. Consequently, many relished finding captured enemy rations, because they came with fuel tablets called hexamine for cooking and sometimes with a small bottle of whisky and cigarettes.

As Vaux recalls, ‘Each day brought blizzard, squall and downpour in relentless sequence.’ His commandos would attempt to erect poncho shelters, only to have the fierce winds buffeting the mountains change direction and rip them apart. Only occasionally would the sun break through to provide them with temporary warmth and a chance to dry out clothes. They had come to despise the standard issue military boot that soaked up moisture like a sponge; these boots were now making cases of trench foot a real problem. When packs containing their extra clothing and personal items finally arrived on 7 June, Vaux’s men could hardly contain their enthusiasm: ‘For a brief, carefree spell the atmosphere was reminiscent of opening presents at Christmas, with weather-beaten marines gleefully extracting “dry sox and clean nix”, caches of nutty (chocolate), even the odd battery-powered razor.’

Making matters worse, though, 42 Commando had suffered several casualties when marines stumbled on to Argentine mines as they patrolled areas around Challenger. The difficulty of evacuating these casualties from points of injury to aid stations foreshadowed the difficulties all British units would face during the final battle. At the same time, however, it proved again the wisdom behind the detailed medical training marines and soldiers had received while sailing south from the United Kingdom. One illustrative case in point is that of Marine Mark Curtis of 42 Commando, who was on patrol when he stepped on a mine. Curtis described what happened:

It was at the bottom of a little slope that I stepped on a mine; “Cuth” and the other marine had walked over it. I seemed to be thrown up in the air and fell on my right side. I took the gun off my shoulder and pointed it forward, waiting for someone to fire at us; I still thought it was the ambush. My foot started to feel numb. I tried to feel down but my trousers were all torn round the bottom. The middle of my foot had been blown off; the toes were still there, connected to my shin by a fleshy bit of skin. It looked weird. Half an inch of my heel had been ripped back. That was all there was left – the toes and the back of the heel. “Cuth” shouted, asked what was going on – a bit of heavy language. I told him I’d had my foot blown off, but I didn’t put it quite like that. Everything was quiet then. He crawled over on his hands and knees, looking for mines. He tried to bandage my leg and I gave myself some morphine. You keep it on your dog tag – like a little toothpaste tube with a needle. I couldn’t get the plastic cover off and had to bite it off. I injected myself in the muscle of the thigh. It didn’t seem to have any effect for half an hour; the pain had started after five minutes. “Cuth” picked me up and carried me out.

Medical training and toughness helped Curtis stay alive until his comrades could get him to medical specialists. It took them seven hours to carry him back to the first aid station; from there, it took another eighteen hours to get him to the field hospital. He lost his foot but lived.

Caring for wounded weighed heavily on the minds of many throughout the Land Force. No one doubted there would be casualties. What concerned everyone was the difficulty of getting casualties off the battlefield. Whereas the men were well trained in keeping themselves and their comrades alive until help arrived, the rocky and hilly terrain would make it very difficult for units to extract casualties down the sides of mountains to level locations, from where they could be evacuated further to the rear by helicopter. Making matters worse, hilltop vantage points would enable Argentines to observe helicopters landing and possibly call for fire. Thompson had successfully resisted efforts by the senior doctor at Division to close down 3 Commando Brigade’s small field dressing station at Teal Inlet and to consolidate it with the one being established at Fitzroy to support 5 Brigade, thereby forming one larger divisional field hospital. Although such a proposal seemed advantageous from a resource standpoint, it disregarded the conditions which made evacuation so difficult around the mountains, something which some commanders had come to experience at first hand in recent days. Foggy weather near the mountains surrounding Stanley frequently resulted in conditions that prevented helicopters from flying. Medical evacuation across or around the several mountains separating 3 Commando Brigade units from a Fitzroy field hospital, therefore, became totally contingent upon weather. Of even more immediate concern to combat units was the lack of lightweight but sturdy collapsible stretchers to assist men in carrying casualties from points of injury to locations for treatment or further evacuation. Rocky slopes would make it difficult enough for men to fight their way through Argentine positions, let alone carry stretchers up and men down the slopes under fire. To facilitate casualty evacuation, as well as for forward resupply of ammunition and other critical supplies, units organized ad hoc litter-bearer teams from personnel not directly involved in the fight. The teams would shuttle supplies forward on whatever stretchers they had and carry casualties back.

By this time, another potential problem needed to be solved. Commando Logistic Regiment and its Medical Squadron had been rushing from emergency to emergency since D-Day, as they worked to care for casualties. Lieutenant Colonel Hellberg had found himself under pressure on almost a daily basis from Northwood to release details of those who had been killed or wounded. To control the flow of such sensitive information, he established a Field Records and Reinforcement Holding Unit next to the Red and Green Life Machine, to stay abreast of developments, maintain accurate information about casualties and ensure that notifications to next of kin were completed before divulging any information to others. The Brigade had first implemented this centralized operation during an exercise the previous year. Before the amphibious landings at San Carlos, it had earmarked staffing for this unit for contingency purposes. Some clerks came from parachute battalions and commandos. After the war, 3 Commando Brigade recommended that organizations continue fulfilling these very important but easily overlooked requirements.

Thompson called his commanders together for their ‘O Group’ briefing on 10 June, the day after his meeting with Moore at Teal Inlet. The Commando Brigade plan pivoted on three sequential attacks on the evening of 11 June, beginning in the north with Mount Longdon: 3 Para received the mission to seize that key piece of terrain and prepare to exploit forward on to Wireless Ridge to the east; 45 Commando would attack to defeat enemy forces on Two Sisters directly to the south of Mount Longdon and prepare to exploit forward on to Tumbledown Mountain; and 42 Commando, further south still, would seize Mount Harriet and prepare to follow 45 Commando through Tumbledown to take Mount William. Once the battle started, all units would have to share the single bridge across the Murrell River to shuttle supplies forward. That bridge would remain critical as long as fighting continued, since it enabled the only ground line of communication between 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on the west side of the Murrell River and combat units, whose objectives were on the east side. Brigade objectives were to be taken by first light the next day. Two of the attacks were to be silent in order to achieve surprise, meaning that there would be no artillery preparation. The attack on Mount Harriet would be ‘noisy’ to cover the move of 42 Commando around the flank to hit Argentines from the rear. When artillery fire began, Argentines occupying British objectives would feel the full weight of more than 11,000 rounds of 105mm artillery ammunition now positioned forward for this first phase of the battle. Additionally, some Task Force warships were dedicated to support the units: Avenger would provide naval gunfire for 3 Para; Glamorgan for 45 Commando; Yarmouth for 42 Commando; and Arrow for special forces that would be conducting some small operations closer to Stanley. Together, these four ships had 1400 rounds for their 4.5-inch guns to supplement the artillery on land.

Thompson’s commanders had had plenty of time to think about the missions before them and to develop plans during the final days of the supply build-up. Their units nevertheless faced daunting tasks as they attacked up hill, over generally unfamiliar and rocky terrain, and at night. Although some had experienced skirmishes with Argentines over the past week, this would be the first real fighting for most units since arriving on East Falkland. Meanwhile, 2 Para would remain the Brigade reserve.

As commanders finalized details of their respective portions of the plan, Commando Logistic Regiment at Ajax, in its new role supporting both brigades, and brigade support echelons at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy maintained a constant flow of supplies to forward positions, using the Division’s helicopters in preparation for the final attack. There were about forty helicopters of all types available at the time, including four more Wessexes that arrived at San Carlos on 9 June aboard the RFA support ship Engadine. Hopes of providing scheduled maintenance services to them, as would have been strictly enforced in peacetime, had long since vanished. Now, pilots pushed their helicopters to the limits. The single CH47 Chinook, which had been pressed so hard following the loss of the other heavy-lift helicopters aboard Atlantic Conveyor, flew 109 hours without servicing. Since pilots flew virtually nonstop during the limited daylight hours, checks for leaks and structural cracks became limited to those times when pilots brought their helicopters in for a hot refuel, or at night. Checks at night, made with the aid of low-intensity red-lensed flashlights, were not always capable of detecting serious faults. Nonetheless, the British succeeded in maintaining a near 100 per cent operational rate of their helicopters through to the end of the war. ‘Band-Aid fixes’ became more than a figurative expression for many helicopters, as masking tape was used to cover bullet holes. If something was not damaged severely enough to prevent take-off, pilots took the risk.

The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley II

The British had taken to heart the sobering lessons of Goose Green. Moore was resolved not to start the attack before the required support was in place for his brigades. Expectations for combat units were no different than they had been on D-Day. Each man was to carry two days of supplies and ammunition. All vehicles were to be topped off with fuel. The major difference was the deliberate build-up of artillery ammunition to provide overlapping coverage of fire for battalions. Previously, 2 Para had gone into battle man-packing ammunition and only a portion of its organic mortars. Units would bring all their organic weapons to bear on objectives this time. Additionally, the British would press all of their 105mm artillery batteries into action. The intent was for each battalion to receive support from at least one battery of six guns and possibly from another battery (for a total of twelve guns) at any one time, depending on commitments. Moore directed that there be 500 rounds of ammunition at every gun position, backed up by 500 more rounds per gun in forward support areas at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy. Supplementing the artillery would be naval gunfire and Harrier groundattack aircraft. The Royal Engineers had completed landing platforms and jet refuelling capability at San Carlos on 5 June. Harrier pilots could now stay on station longer to provide support because they did not have to return to ships to refuel as before. The plan was for combat units in brigades to have two days of supply. Each FBMA would have an additional two days’ on hand. Backing them up would be the support area at Ajax Bay, now the sustainment base ashore for all land forces. Commodore Clapp remained prepared to provide additional resupply from ships in Falkland Sound or at sea to the Force Maintenance Area as needed. His LSLs would be pushing supplies from Ajax to the FBMAs at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy on alternating days to keep forward areas well stocked.

A considerable amount of ammunition had already been shifted forward to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy by the time the exact plan of attack became clear. Before the build-up was complete, Commando Logistic Regiment would move over 1,000 tons of ammunition to each location, almost exclusively by sea. A Sea King helicopter, after all, could carry only about sixty rounds of 105mm ammunition per lift. Helicopters became indispensable, however, in moving ammunition from the forward support areas to gun positions. It was a slow process. And it became slower still at times, when units on the ground tried to retain slings and nets for their own use after receiving ammunition and other supplies. The British had not deployed with as much sling-load equipment as they would have liked. The frustrations among logisticians of not getting sling-load items back would continue as attacks started and it became necessary to relocate both guns and ammunition.

By the time the build-up was complete, Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had both become hubs of activity. Forward arming and refuelling points had been established at each location to eliminate the need for helicopters to return to San Carlos. Local settlements pressed their equipment into service to help soldiers. Before long, tractors and Volvo tracked vehicles, which had become the most desirable means to move supplies, had churned the peat into seas of mud. By 11 June, the now famous Red and Green Life Machine, which had taken considerable pride in its inter-service medical teams, had largely disbanded to relocate medical troops and surgical teams to Teal Inlet and Fitzroy so that increased lifesaving care and surgical capabilities would be far forward to care for casualties. Only a single surgical team remained at Ajax. The hospital ship Uganda would come close to shore in the final days, as a precaution, to receive casualties if required.

Support plans for the two brigades were based on comparable principles. The bulk of 3 Commando Brigade stocks would remain at Teal Inlet under control of the Commander, Transport Squadron from Commando Logistic Regiment. From there, supplies would move, either by Rigid Raider boat or four-wheel drive/tracked vehicles further east to a distribution point at Estancia House, where approximately sixty tons of supplies were stashed and camouflaged before the attack commenced. Combat unit support echelons, split between the Teal Inlet support base and the Estancia distribution point, would provide supplies to their respective units from the distribution point. Together, they would transport supplies by whatever means they could overland from the distribution point, using the single-width muddy track. Helicopters would supplement unit efforts whenever possible, bringing casualties back from aid posts to field surgical teams on return flights. The bulk of stocks for 5 Brigade remained at Fitzroy under control of the Commander, 81 Ordnance, who had further assistance from a small command post from Commando Logistic Regiment. He and battalion quartermasters from 5 Brigade units would then coordinate movement of supplies to a distribution point at Bluff Cove, the initial location of the Scots Guards. From there, they would take supplies forward to unit locations. The intent was to move supplies between Fitzroy and Bluff Cove both by land and sea. The bridge crossing the inlet and connecting the settlement and distribution point, however, still was under repair from damage caused by Argentine explosives. Rough seas in coming days also would limit the use of landing craft to transport supplies to the distribution point. These situations necessitated greater reliance on helicopters to shift supplies forward from Fitzroy. Both 5 Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade units obtained supplies from the distribution point. Logisticians would attempt to orchestrate the throughput of supplies by helicopter, direct from the forward support base to units or gun positions, based on helicopter availability and weather.

Rapier air defences were in place and operational at both forward support base locations by this time, but the Argentines did not take action to disrupt the final build-up, either by air or on the ground. Argentine pilots attempted to attack 3 Commando Brigade’s distribution point at Estancia House on a couple of occasions, but they failed to find targets because of the camouflage commandos had erected. Although Argentine pilots had inflicted heavy losses on the British Task Force during the past month, serious threats to British ground forces, except that during 2 Para’s fight at Goose Green, failed to materialize. Argentine leaders never employed forces on the ground to disrupt the initial British build-up in the San Carlos anchorage after the June 8 air attacks at Fitzroy, or now, as logisticians laboured to get supplies to forward areas.

Argentina’s hopes of defeating the British, in fact, had vanished. Some simply had not realized it. They had started with more than a two-to-one numerical advantage in ground forces. Now both sides had about 9,000 soldiers getting ready to confront each other. Argentina’s Junta had foregone many opportunities. Its ability to inflict further damage now was significantly less than it had been. Naval vessels remained berthed in mainland ports after the intimidating and costly loss of General Belgrano a month before. Since then, Argentina had lost nearly a hundred planes in attempts to break through British air defences. It was becoming clear that the prize they had snatched so effortlessly from a reinforced platoon of marines on 2 April was now in jeopardy. Menendez had sent his chief of staff to the mainland on 8 June, the same day that Argentine pilots set back the British at Fitzroy, to ask Galtieri to make some move at the British rear area still at San Carlos. When Galtieri refused, Menendez urged him to accept the terms of UN Resolution 502 demanding an immediate withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands, but Galtieri again refused. Now Menendez’s troops, still largely facing south in and around Stanley, were about to feel the full strength of Moore’s two combat brigades and the supporting arms of the entire British Task Force. The assault would start with ferocity when 3 Commando Brigade units attacked in rapid succession not from the south but from the west.

It had taken the British a little over two months to get to this point, at a cost of a half dozen ships lost and many more damaged, a dozen planes and helicopters downed, and a couple hundred lives. The efforts of every person in the Task Force had focused on setting the stage for the battle for Stanley, which the British had regarded from early on as the centre of gravity in winning the war. Those involved in logistics operations at Ascension Island or in the United Kingdom were probably unaware of that, or of what was about to transpire. Shipbuilders, stock handlers and lorry drivers back in England; frustrated cargo handlers sweltering in the heat of Ascension Island; pilots and ground crews who had kept tankers and resupply planes in the air; crews on a hundred ships both commercial and military; and countless logisticians working in and out of their specialties throughout the theatre – all had contributed to a line of communication that now stretched from distribution points at Estancia House and Bluff Cove 8,000 miles back to the United Kingdom to make the battle possible. It had not been easy getting this far, and their jobs were not yet done, but there was no doubt that they had contributed immeasurably to the British victory that was about to arrive.

From vantage points away from the Falklands, and decades after the war, the short-lived ground war provides the impression that the British victory was not only swift but also easy. This could not be further from the truth. The British would reach their planned objectives, but not without heroic fighting. Thus 3 Commando Brigade would not be ready to exploit their first successes uniformly across the front; nor would 5 Brigade be ready to begin its attack in the second phase of the Division’s plan to take Tumbledown Mountain and Mount William. The attack by 3 Para on Mount Longdon provides an illustration of the difficulties that 3 Commando Brigade units faced the night of 11/12 June both in terms of tactics and logistics. The fight for control of Mount Longdon would become the costliest ground engagement of the war.

Lieutenant Colonel Hew Pike’s plan for taking Mount Longdon was simple yet challenging, and it took into full account the terrain and anticipated enemy positions. Because there was a large minefield to the south of Mount Longdon, it would not be possible for his units to outflank the Argentines from that direction without taking considerable risks. The mountain’s summit, on the west side, provided a commanding view of the surrounding open ground for several thousand metres, both to the west, from where the British would attack under cover of darkness, and to the east, where the British would have to clear Argentines from fighting positions extending eastward to Wireless Ridge. Because the terrain surrounding Longdon was open, paratroopers could become exposed once fighting started, particularly if the Argentines were able to illuminate the area. The British believed that the Argentines were holding the summit and the north ridge of Mount Longdon. Pike planned to dedicate a company to take each of these areas, to hold his third company in reserve to assist as needed and to be prepared to exploit successes. The support company would establish a base of fire from the west/north-west to support attacking infantry companies with mortars, machineguns and MILAN missiles. Pike’s paratroopers would be going up against men from the enemy’s 7th Regiment, which was known to be holding Wireless Ridge as well. The fight for Mount Longdon was anticipated to be a tough one. After action reports indicated that the paratroopers confronted strong defences manned by a company and reinforced by engineers, snipers and machine-gun crews. The fight for the summit proved to be the fiercest.

Logistics support for 3 Para’s attack was organized with both a forward and rear element. The unit’s regimental aid post was likewise split into forward and rear aid stations to provide for continuous care to casualties. The forward logistics element was to travel with the support company on foot as it moved to establish its fire support base. It consisted of stretcher-bearers, who carried ammunition forward atop stretchers, and the forward aid station under control of the Regimental Medical Officer. The rear logistics element, under control of the battalion’s executive Officer, had the benefit of five tracked Volvo vehicles, three civilian tractors with trailers and four civilian Land Rovers. They would carry the bulk of additional ammunition and supplies as well as the rear aid station, which included an extra doctor as well as medical specialists and supplies. The vehicles would not go forward until the fight was underway, so that 3 Para’s approach march and attack could remain silent. Complicating matters for 3 Para’s rear element as well as for others in 3 Commando Brigade, however, was the lone bridge over the Murrell River. The vehicles of 3 Para could not cross the bridge until 45 Commando, the unit to its immediate south that would attack Two Sisters just 2km from Mount Longdon, had crossed its start line as well. Thompson had prescribed precise times for his units to cross their start lines to sequence the Brigade attack properly: 3 Para, to be exact, was scheduled to cross its start line at 2001 hrs that evening, followed by 45 Commando at 2100 hrs.12 Getting the rear element forward did not seem to be a problem. Men had to carry their heavy loads 5km or more over the rough East Falkland terrain in the dark just to get from assembly areas to start lines. From start lines, they had several more kilometres to go to find the enemy. Needless to say, a lot could happen to cause plans to unravel and to delay support from getting across the bridge.

The bulk of Pike’s support was not only contingent upon 45 Commando crossing its start line. If 45 Commando’s attack on Two Sisters did not go favourably, then that also could affect 3 Para’s ability to get its rear logistics element forward, since Argentine defenders on Two Sisters would be close enough to observe it and call for fire. Likewise, if 3 Para’s attack on Mount Longdon did not go as planned, Argentine defenders there would remain in overwatch positions to do the same to 45 Commando’s rear element. The two units were clearly dependent upon each other for both timeliness and success. As so often happens on battlefields, friction disrupted plans and timetables, but it did not stop British success that evening.

Pike’s paratroopers forded the Murrell River and crossed their start line only a few minutes behind schedule. As companies started toward their objectives in the dark, their paths inadvertently crossed, creating some confusion; and then, less than an hour after units crossed the start line, a platoon leader stepped on an anti-personnel mine. The explosion ended 3 Para’s hopes of a silent approach and attack. Within minutes, as the support company and the forward logistics element were still en route to their positions, the fight was underway and 3 Para started taking casualties. Fighting would continue throughout the night as paratroopers fought up the craggy slopes of Mount Longdon, often exposed by illumination rounds fired by Argentine artillery. Meanwhile, 3 Para’s rear logistics element was experiencing significant delays getting across the Murrell Bridge. One of the companies from Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Whitehead’s 45 Commando did not reach its start line for the attack on Two Sisters until 2300 hrs, two hours later than scheduled, which eventually altered that commando’s plan for attacking in the south. The delay now meant that 3 Para’s rear logistics element could not get across the Murrell River until well after midnight. By then, 3 Para had been fighting for over three hours. When the rear portion of the regimental aid post managed to join its forward counterpart at the base of Mount Longdon after midnight, the battalion was in dire need of medical support and supplies. Two company medical assistants had already been killed on the mountain as they tried to help the wounded.

The battalion had designated a landing site just to the west of the Murrell Bridge for helicopters to pick up casualties in need of evacuation to 3 Commando Brigade’s field dressing station at Teal Inlet. The forward aid post had been treating casualties for some time before the rear aid post arrived with the vehicles needed to get casualties to the helicopter-landing site. Before first light, approximately twenty casualties had been evacuated by vehicles from the regimental aid post at the base of Mount Longdon to the landing site, from where they were transported to Teal Inlet, initially in reconnaissance helicopters fitted with night vision devices for flying in the dark. Each brigade had been allocated Wessex helicopters specifically to assist in evacuation of casualties. They could call these helicopters forward now, using their own radio nets and without coordinating with a higher headquarters, a different procedure from that which had plagued 3 Commando Brigade during the Goose Green fight. Regrettably, the Wessex helicopters were not equipped for flying at night. By first light, when these and other helicopters without night-flight capabilities could be used, a backlog of casualties awaited evacuation at the landing site.

None of the helicopters providing evacuation from the battlefield to field dressing stations were configured with equipment or personnel to provide continuous medical treatment for casualties. The British had no pure medical evacuation helicopters with them. The light helicopters like Gazelles and Scouts flew patients in rear compartments from which seats had been removed. Space was so restricted that stretchers would not fit. As was the case when they hurriedly came to the aid of 5 Brigade following air attacks at Fitzroy, British helicopter pilots landed, took on casualties wherever they could and flew them as directly as possible to the nearest dressing station. Air crewmen did whatever possible to look after casualties en route. Not being trained medics, though, they could render little assistance. Fortunately, distances to field dressing stations at both Teal Inlet and Fitzroy were less than 20km, even from the most distant of objectives. (The bodies of those less fortunate who had been killed outright or who had died from wounds were isolated from the injured and, as time permitted, normally evacuated on vehicles heading overland to rear areas.) Evading artillery fire became a challenge in itself for helicopter pilots, as Argentine field artillery observers atop surrounding hills spotted them in the daylight and called for fire. Consequently, the sighting of British helicopters landing to evacuate casualties often prompted shelling from Argentine artillery able to range the Mount Longdon area from Stanley.

By late morning, having fought all night over the crags and through the rocky crevasses of Mount Longdon in, around and through positions that Argentines had been preparing for over a month, the paratroopers had won. But 3 Para now found itself the target of well-planned and discouragingly accurate artillery and mortar fire, making it difficult to exploit their hard-fought success toward Wireless Ridge. The battalion did not receive the order to continue the attack that day. Had they received it, it is likely that they would have advanced further only with difficulty and after some reconstitution. The fight to take Mount Longdon had cost 3 Para seventeen lives and over forty wounded. Holding on to it for the next forty-eight hours would cost them another six lives, as paratroopers fell victim to continuing Argentine artillery attacks. Some of them, as commonly cited in reports following the war, were stretcher-bearers and other medical personnel trying to evacuate or treat the wounded. The after action report of 3 Para following the war reveals the difficulty units faced getting the wounded further to the rear: of the twenty-three paratroopers who died taking or consolidating their position on Mount Longdon, eighteen lost their lives before arriving at the regimental aid post. Given the remarkable medical training the unit received aboard ship when en route to the Falklands, which gave individuals the confidence and ability to take care of themselves and others on the battlefield, the experience of 3 Para on Mount Longdon accentuates the difficulty of extracting casualties from points of injury to locations for further treatment or evacuation, even when the distance to those locations is only a matter of several hundred metres. The battalion’s forward medical station was located against the rocky base of Longdon, just a short walk from the summit on a normal day, perhaps. That evening, it probably seemed like miles away.

The Battle for Mountains Surrounding Stanley III

Fights on adjacent mountains had progressed to quicker conclusions than on Mount Longdon that evening, and losses were considerably less. Men in 45 Commando preparing to attack the adjacent Two Sisters witnessed the fierce Fighting underway to their north, as did the Argentines they were about to assault. Lieutenant Colonel Whitehead, the commander of 45 Commando, had planned the attack on Two Sisters so that one of his companies would attack first to seize the high ground on the western slope, thereby fixing the enemy’s attention on that direction. Once on the high ground there, that company would provide a base of fire for the commando’s main effort, consisting of two companies attacking from the north-west. The company that was to initiate the attack, however, was the same one that failed to reach its start line until three hours after the appointed time, thereby delaying logistical elements of 3 Para from crossing the Murrell River Bridge. The men in that company had been struggling under the weight of MILAN missile launchers and dozens of missiles to reach their start line at the appointed time. The unit had planned for a three-hour approach march. Instead it took them twice as long to traverse the rough Falklands terrain in the dark with their loads. When the company arrived around 2300 hrs, Whitehead opted to have his companies attack simultaneously. They did so to very good effect. Within a little over four hours, his men had fought their way up the western slope of Two Sisters and cleared Argentines from positions extending eastwards on Two Sisters toward Tumbledown. Artillery fire from both sides was heavy during the attack. The commandos confronted preplanned Argentine artillery fire, just like that which paratroopers on Mount Longdon were experiencing, once they overran enemy positions. Argentine indirect fire had a particularly devastating effect on the commandos, though. Four men died during the taking of Two Sisters, all felled by Argentine artillery or mortar bombardments. Ten others were wounded throughout the Fighting that night.

The success of Lieutenant Colonel Nick Vaux’s 42 Commando on Mount Harriet, 2km to the south of Two Sisters, was no less impressive. After spending nearly two weeks patrolling and battling the elements, men from 42 Commando implemented a bold plan to outflank the Argentine defenders. His units planned to cross their start line at 2030 hrs. Vaux had received permission from Thompson to forego a silent attack by using preparatory artillery fire on enemy positions on the mountain to distract the Argentines from his real intentions. As that was being implemented, one of his companies was to create a diversion to the west of Mount Harriet as his other two, having skirted the mountain to the south on a long approach march, attacked from the east into the enemy rear. The distance from its assembly area near Mount Challenger to the start line east of Mount Harriet in the Welsh Guards sector was 7km. It would seem like twice that distance, though, because the route crossed several long stone runs, slowing movement considerably and making it difficult to keep quiet. To ensure men would have back-up supplies during the attack, the commando formed a 34-man ‘portage troop’ from its headquarters company to carry ammunition and critical equipment and to be prepared to backhaul any casualties. The ad hoc transport troop consisted of administrative specialists, cooks and whoever else was available and not otherwise directly involved in the Fighting. During 42 Commando’s Fight for Mount Harriet, this human supply train trailed the two companies in the south by about an hour to get in position to support Vaux’s main effort. During that approach march, commando companies would cross 5 Brigade’s boundary before turning north to attack objectives on Mount Harriet. Accordingly, it was agreed beforehand that a reconnaissance platoon from the Welsh Guards would secure the start line for the marines and guide them initially on their final approach. The guardsmen were not at the appointed place for the link-up, though, which delayed the attack for over an hour. Nonetheless, Vaux’s plan worked to perfection. The diversionary attack from the west fixed Argentine attention, while the other two companies surprised defences from the rear. By daylight, after eight hours of Fighting, 42 Commando had seized its objective at the loss of only a single commando and the wounding of twenty others. In attacking from the east, Vaux’s men had cut off the escape route of the surprised defenders. As a direct result, they captured 300 prisoners from the defending Argentine 4th Infantry Regiment, including its commanding Officer.

By daylight, 3 Commando Brigade had secured all of its objectives. Units had received sustained and exceptionally effective naval gunfire from Woodward’s Battle Group. The destroyer Glamorgan and frigates Yarmouth and Avenger fired hundreds of high explosive rounds in support of the ground attacks. Unfortunately, the support was not given without significant cost. As some commandos were Fighting up the slopes of the mountains, they witnessed a land-based Exocet missile fired from the outskirts of Stanley slam into the side of Glamorgan. Although the ship survived, a dozen sailors did not and another dozen were wounded. She became the final ship casualty suffered by the Royal Navy. Woodward had been concerned for some time about his ships being vulnerable to land-based Exocets. His concerns proved to be valid. An hour later, the Royal Air Force completed its seventh Black Buck bombing run. Although all twenty-one bombs missed their intended targets, there can be no doubt that the impacts rattled the nerves of Argentines in Stanley, particularly amidst the reports that Longdon, Two Sisters and Harriet had fallen to the British.

Thompson decided not to have his commanders exploit their hard fought successes by continuing the attack toward their secondary objectives, feeling that they would become unnecessarily exposed if attacking in daylight. The brigade also needed to re-stock gun lines with ammunition. He had relocated his reserve battalion, 2 Para, from its previous area near Mount Kent to Mount Longdon during the night. After a 15km march with equipment, paratroopers were soon digging in on the western side of Mount Longdon. It became clear soon after daylight, though, that Argentines, particularly those atop Tumbledown Mountain, had not only spotted the 3 Commando Brigade units but were able to bring effective mortar and artillery fire upon them. Accordingly, Thompson ordered his units to consolidate near their objectives and prepare for possible counter-attacks. Although there are some indications that the Argentine Army’s central command post in Stanley ordered several counter-attacks for that day, none materialized. That provided units with the opportunity to evacuate their casualties from the three mountains and get their support echelons forward with needed resupply. Additionally, it permitted helicopter pilots to start the time-consuming process of relocating artillery batteries for the next phase of the battle and re-stocking gun lines with ammunition from back-up stocks at Teal Inlet.

Major General Moore had monitored the 3 Commando Brigade engagements closely from the small forward headquarters he had established at Fitzroy. He had hoped to continue attacks without interruption on to Tumbledown Mountain, Mount William and Wireless Ridge, thereby hastening a situation in which Argentines would be forced to surrender. Meanwhile, 5 Brigade had sought an extension so that they could complete plans for attack and the forward stocking of artillery ammunition, which Moore granted. For the next day, efforts refocused on shifting equipment and supplies for the next phase of the battle, and on taking care of immediate unit requirements. All available helicopters laboured to replenish ammunition for artillery batteries dispersed throughout the battle area. Limitations on cargo loads went by the wayside, as they had done so often over the past several weeks. As one pilot put it, ‘We just kept pulling at the stick to see if the aircraft would come up. If not, we threw off a box and tried again.’ Because brigade support bases at Teal Inlet and Fitzroy had established helicopter arming and refuelling locations by this time, pilots did not have to fly the hundred miles to Ajax and back for fuel, as they had so many times the week before during the initial forward build-up.

Supplies moved forward on the surface as well, particularly from 3 Commando Brigade’s units in the north, since they had consumed considerable amounts of small arms ammunition and other supplies during their Fights. The Brigade’s support base at Teal Inlet continued to move supplies forward to the distribution point at Estancia both by vehicle and Rigid Raider boat. From there, unit support echelons picked up supplies and transported them to forward locations along the single track crossing the Murrell Bridge. While resupply by ground was underway, the bridge over the Murrell River collapsed under the weight of an armoured recovery vehicle laden with ammunition, thereby closing 3 Commando Brigade’s only land supply route. Royal Engineers had been labouring in previous days to repair the bridge across the inlet connecting 5 Brigade’s supply base at Fitzroy with its distribution point at Bluff Cove. Now, they focused on this new problem in the north. The engineers built an air-portable bridge at Fitzroy to replace the one damaged across the Murrell River and flew it there by Chinook to reopen 3 Commando Brigade’s supply route.

With the local populace continuing to provide tractors and manpower to shuttle supplies, units were again poised to resume the offensive. Argentine pilots made two last attempts during the final hours of preparation to disrupt British plans, but they were not successful. In the first attempt, during the day of 13 June, Skyhawks attacked the 3 Commando Brigade headquarters near Mount Kent and 2 Para at its new position near Mount Longdon; they damaged three helicopters but produced no additional British casualties. Then, later that night, Harriers intercepted Argentine planes attempting another raid, downing one of them.

The plan for the next phase would get 5 Brigade into the ground war for the first time. The 2 Scots Guards would start it off by attacking an estimated two companies from the 5th Marine Battalion, reputed to be the best Argentine unit in the Falklands, on Tumbledown Mountain. Assuming success by the Guards, the 1/7 Gurkhas would follow to attack Mount William. In the north, 2 Para, still operating under the command and control of 3 Commando Brigade, would assault Wireless Ridge. With these three objectives taken, the Division would then continue attacking Argentine forces into Stanley. If it became necessary, responsibility for taking the town would shift to Thompson. He intended another multi-phase attack. It would start with 3 Para securing areas around the old racecourse on the west side of Stanley. Then 45 Commando would seize Sapper Hill and pass through 42 Commando to secure areas immediately to the south of Stanley. The Welsh Guards would revert back to his control and secure areas to the south-east of the capital, cutting off access to the airport. The British would now have surrounded Stanley to force a surrender, hopefully without having to Fight in the town itself and put civilians at risk.

Brigadier Wilson issued orders to his three battalions on the afternoon of 12 June. The timing and success of the fight for Tumbledown affected the other attacks. Argentine forces on that mountain would be able to influence action on the adjacent Mount William and on Wireless Ridge, just a few kilometres north. If the Scots Guards did not achieve their objectives by daylight, then 2 Para on Wireless Ridge would be exposed and vulnerable to Argentine marines remaining on Tumbledown. The Argentines had viewed Tumbledown from the start as a key to the defence of Stanley because it so dominated other surrounding hills. Accordingly, they had prepared a stiff defensive network on the mountain and littered approach routes with mines. The British had little hope of avoiding the full force of Argentine defences. The north face of the mountain yielded sharp drop-offs, significantly limiting any approach from that side. Other Argentine defenders on Mount William to the east protected that flank and maintained observation over the more open terrain to the south of Tumbledown. All this enabled the Argentines to concentrate their defences in the west and south. Consequently, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Scott, commander of 2 Scots Guards, planned to attack Tumbledown directly from the west, with three of his companies passing through each other as the fight progressed to maintain momentum in reaching the top of Tumbledown. His reconnaissance platoon reinforced with a troop of two Scorpions and two Scimitars would create a diversionary attack to the south on the most likely approach route. He had not received much intelligence about Argentine battle positions, though. The diversion would start at 1900 hrs on13 June, with the main attack commencing two hours later. British artillery, naval gunfire and Harriers pounded Tumbledown on the day of the attack.

When the diversion started, the platoon of slightly more than thirty guardsmen initially had difficulty locating the enemy. Once they did, they encountered fierce resistance from Argentines in dozens of bunkers designed to block any approach to Stanley from the south. Before the engagement was over, they were fighting for their lives as they struggled to withdraw, eventually finding themselves in a minefield, where Argentines then tried to target them with artillery fire. What was intended as a diversion had proven very costly. Two were killed; a dozen were wounded. One of the Scorpion armoured vehicles from the Blues and Royals hit an anti-tank mine and had to be abandoned. The next day, sappers would discover fifty-seven mines embedded in the ground near the Scorpion as they tried to recover the vehicle.

As this platoon was trying desperately to extricate itself from the minefield, the main attack commenced from the west. The guardsmen reached their first objective without much contact. Then, as the second phase began and companies started passing forward, they encountered heavy defences sheltered by rocks and crags to the top of Tumbledown. The Scots Guards did not reach the summit until 0600 hrs, at which time they faced more Argentines fiercely resisting from other fighting positions. Finally, after ten hours of tough combat, much of it at close quarters, the Scots Guards gained control of Tumbledown. Lieutenant Colonel Scott had ordered his men not to wear their helmets during the attack, although they carried them on their packs for the expected artillery fire that would follow when they reached their objectives – his thought being that wearing the more distinctive berets would help morale and also aid in identification. At least one of his platoon commanders sustained serious head wounds during the fighting. It is perhaps surprising that many others did not. Although aid stations were echeloned, getting the wounded down the mountainside so that they could be treated and evacuated plagued the guardsmen just as it had the commandos two nights previous. They would lose two more to mortar fire as men tried to retrieve their wounded comrades after the Argentines had fled. Nine men lost their lives; another forty-three were wounded. Fully half of all those killed or wounded were Officers, warrant Officers or noncommissioned Officers, a clear testament to these having led from the front. This fight had been a tough one, too.

Meanwhile, the men of 1/7 Gurkha Rifles had been freezing as they waited in an area west of Tumbledown throughout the night for word that the Scots Guards had taken their objectives. The plan had been for them to pass through the guardsmen after Tumbledown was secure. Although they had been without ration resupply for two days, the proud Gurkhas remained poised to start their advance toward Mount William. The duration of the Scots Guards’ attack meant, however, that if they waited much longer they would be attacking Mount William in daylight. Therefore Wilson ordered them to move out on a different route. They were circling Tumbledown under cliffs to the north when they encountered a minefield. An Argentine forward observer detected the formation and called for fire support, which injured eight of the Gurkhas. As fighting waned on Tumbledown and daylight approached, they finally reached the east side of Tumbledown and prepared to assault William, only to discover most Argentines had already fled. After brief skirmishes resulting in no further casualties, they soon were atop Mount William. After the war, their commander showed his good humour by crediting his men with the collapse of the defences:

Our boys were not just ‘disappointed’ at not hitting the enemy, they were livid, but it is some consolation that we heard later from several sources (rarely admitted in the press) that it was our arrival on the battlefield from the north in the way that we did that caused the final collapse. I am not too confident that that is so, but we certainly contributed to the rout. The Argies were scared stupid of the Gurkhas and the former’s rapid disappearance from the battlefield was probably the best, and certainly the most nicely timed decision of their war.

By this time, 2 Para had overwhelmed the Argentines on Wireless Ridge. The paratroopers had learned many lessons from their fight at Goose Green, where, through no fault of their own, they did not have the benefit of much supporting fire. Lieutenant Colonel David Chaundler could now enjoy an extensive artillery preparation to precede his attacking soldiers. Unlike his predecessor H. Jones at Goose Green, he had two batteries of artillery with thousands of rounds to support his battalion for this fight. The attack by 2 Para would be ‘noisy’, with preparatory fire starting before men crossed their start lines. In addition to the artillery, the frigate Ambuscade with her 4.5-inch guns, all of the battalion’s organic mortars, support platoons with bunker-busting MILAN missiles and machine guns, and armoured vehicles would support the attack, which was planned in four phases. Companies would start their attacks from positions north of Wireless and, after reaching first objectives, turn eastwards and continue attacking from the west over the ridge. Preparatory fire pounded Argentine positions as paratroopers started crossing start lines just after 2100 hrs on 13 June. One account indicates that the artillery fired so much ammunition during the paratroopers’ attack that helicopters fitted with night vision devices had to keep ammunition flowing between forward supply points and gun lines; and that, as the fight progressed to the top of the ridge, the tanks of the Blues and Royals had to go back to rear supply points themselves to replenish the large quantities of ammunition they had expended. The barrage of fire demoralized Argentine defenders. Soon they were abandoning positions in an attempt to survive, often leaving their equipment in place. Although companies faced some resistance, the combination of heavy supporting fire and an aggressive ground attack soon overcame Argentine defences. As paratroopers succeeded in closing ranks, the remaining defenders broke and ran. When the fighting ended, 2 Para had suffered three killed and eleven wounded. Estimates of Argentine casualties were 25 killed and 125 wounded, the vast majority by the effective supporting fire.

The last shots of the war would come on Sapper Hill. With Tumbledown and William now secure, Wilson ordered Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Rickett, the commander of 1 Welsh Guards, to attack and secure that piece of ground. Two companies from 40 Commando reinforced Rickett’s battalion. Helicopters moved them to two different landing zones in the vicinity of Sapper Hill. Those landing at the first found themselves on a tract of land surrounded by minefields. Helicopters erroneously landed others too far to the east in full view of the few Argentine defenders still on the hill. Three Argentines were killed in a brief firefight. The rest quickly abandoned their positions and fled toward Stanley. The Welsh Guards and commandos had secured Sapper Hill despite the errant landings. The fighting was over.

By daylight, British units started to see Argentines retreating in disarray throughout the battlefields. Their attacks clearly had succeeded in overthrowing defences and creating near panic in Argentine ranks, despite the heroic resistance of some. Although some British artillery batteries were now down to just a few rounds, they would not need to hurry to re-stock gun lines. Those who could view the ground stretching from surrounding hilltops to Stanley realized that the fighting was over. Before long, hundreds of Argentine soldiers were dropping their weapons, discarding other equipment and fleeing towards the capital.

For the inhabitants of Stanley, it had been a terrifying four days. Most had fled for safety to makeshift bunkers in basements, crawl spaces, under porches or in other protected areas. Although they knew the battle for the mountains was underway, they had no idea how it was going. Argentine 155mm artillery rattled their houses as it fired large shells toward the mountains at the advancing British. The sounds of battle had become deafening. The mountains, quite visible from many places in Stanley on clear days, now were obscured by smoke and dust from the constant shelling by the opposing forces. Argentines had taken up positions in and around houses and buildings as well as on rooftops in Stanley. British Harriers had become a common sight for residents as pilots flew nearly nonstop trying to destroy or soften up Argentine positions. Naval gunfire had been pounding areas around the town to eliminate other key defences. Unfortunately, errant British shells also struck some houses in the town, killing three residents.

It had not been easy for either the military or the people of Stanley. For the British Task Force, the two months since they had departed the United Kingdom had been especially difficult. Hundreds on both sides had lost their lives or been wounded. Still more wounded waited on mountain slopes to be treated and evacuated. Now, as victors, the British were about to transition to one of the most difficult phases in war – when fighting men have to work to implement a disciplined peace in a community ravaged by war. They had the advantage of knowing that the citizens of Stanley would welcome their arrival; but those same citizens also needed their help, as did thousands of defeated and dejected Argentines. The transition and ultimate return to normalcy in Stanley would bring additional challenges and concerns for the war-weary British and, in particular, for the men of logistics and support units.

HITLER’S LAST TRIUMPH I

In just five weeks of bitter fighting during the summer of 1944, Rokossovsky’s troops stormed over 450 miles and were within reach of Warsaw. The Polish capital looked a tempting prize for Stalin as a culmination of Operation Bagration’s remarkable success, but his summer offensive was beginning to lose momentum. Rokossovsky’s 1st Byelorussian Front was at the very limit of its supply lines; ammunition and rations were exhausted, as were his men.

Rokossovsky, at this stage, enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in infantry and 5:1 in armour and artillery. He had at his disposal nine armies: one tank army, two tank corps, three cavalry corps, one motorised corps and two air armies. Against this, Field Marshal Walter Model’s 2nd Army could muster barely five under-strength panzer divisions and one infantry division, while the battered 9th Army had just two divisions and two brigades of infantry.

In many ways, Hitler’s defence of Warsaw echoed that of Minsk. The eastern approaches of the Polish capital were protected by a 50-mile ring of strongpoints. The only difference was that, this time, Model had sufficient mobile reserves with which to parry Rokossovsky’s armoured thrusts. He had gathered his wits and, more importantly, sufficient men with which to thwart Rokossovsky’s oncoming tide. Model’s defences coalesced around his panzer divisions with around 450 tanks and self-propelled guns. Over the next week, things would start to go badly wrong for Rokossovsky and his men would experience their first major setback.

Rokossovsky’s Lublin–Brest Offensive was conducted from 18 July to 2 August 1944 as a follow-up to Bagration and to support General I.S. Konev’s Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive by tying down German forces in central eastern Poland. It culminated in the major tank Battle of Radzymin. To the north of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, Rokossovsky’s 8th Guards, 47th and 69th Armies supported by the 2nd Tank Army, and the Polish 1st Army struck from the Kovel area toward Lublin and Warsaw, thereby making Army Group North Ukraine’s position untenable.

It seemed appropriate to Stalin that eastern Poland should be liberated as part of Byelorussia, as that is how Hitler had treated it. For administrative purposes, parts of German-occupied Poland had been lumped in with western Byelorussia. When Hitler divided prostrate Poland with Stalin in 1939, he also annexed the region south-west of East Prussia (Wartheland) to the Reich, while the Reichkommissariate of ‘Ostland’ (an area incorporating Minsk and the Baltic States) and ‘Ukraine’ governed parts of eastern Poland, and the ‘rump’ in the middle was run as the Generalgouvernement.

In mid-1944 north of Warsaw, Model turned to Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen-SS for assistance in stabilising the front. The remnants of the 1st SS and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions had been shipped west after their mauling in the Kamenets–Podolsk pocket to re-equip and prepare for the anticipated Anglo-American landings in France. However, the tough 3rd SS and 5th SS Panzer Divisions remained in Romania and Poland rearming.

The 3rd SS was notified to move north as early as 25 June, but the disruption to the rail networks and roads meant that it took two weeks to get to north-eastern Poland. Arriving on 7 July, it found the Red Amy was already striking toward the Polish city of Grodno, threatening the southern flank of Army Group Centre’s 4th Army and the northern flank of the 2nd Army.

Deployed to Grodno, the 3rd SS were given the task of creating a defensive line for the 4th Army to retire behind. Spectacularly, the division held off 400 Soviet tanks for eleven days before withdrawing south-west toward Warsaw. Joined by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division at Siedlce, 50 miles east of the Polish capital, they held the Red Army for almost a week from 24 July, keeping open an escape corridor for the 2nd Army as it fled toward the Vistula. Three days later, the Red Army threw almost 500 tanks to the south and by 29 July it was at the very suburbs of Warsaw.

The 5th SS arrived in western Warsaw on 27 July and trundled through the troubled city to take up positions to the east. The next day, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to occupy Praga, Warsaw’s suburbs on the eastern bank of the Vistula, during 5–8 August, and to establish a number of bridgeheads over the river to the south of the city.

As instructed, the Soviet 2nd Tank Army and 8th Tank Corps attacked westward along the Warsaw–Lublin road toward Praga. About 40 miles south-east of Warsaw, in the Garwolin area, the 2nd Tank was opposed by two advanced battalions of Genera Fritz Franek’s 10,800-strong 73rd Infantry Division. Holding the north bank of the Swidra River, they were backed up by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division 12 miles east of Praga.

In addition, four panzer divisions (3rd SS, 5th SS, 4th and 19th Panzer) which were poised to counter-attack now defended the approaches to the Polish capital. The men of 19th Panzer were veterans of the Eastern Front, having fought on the central and southern sectors from June 1941 to June 1944, before being shipped to the Netherlands for a refit. Hasso Krappe, an officer with 19th Panzer, recalled the fighting around Warsaw, ‘Over the next two weeks the battles centred on the region north of Warsaw [between the Bug, Narev and Vistula], and on the Varka, which has gone down in military history as the “Magnushev Bridgehead”.’

Franek’s division had endured a rough time during its career, having taken part in the invasions of Poland, the Low Countries, France and Greece before entering the Soviet Union via Romania. It fought at Nikolayev, Cherson, Sevastopol and the Kuban bridgehead. Suffering heavy losses near Melitopol, the 73rd Infantry was withdrawn only to be trapped by the Red Army in Sevastopol in May 1944 and re-formed in June in Hungary under Franek.

Franek’s men and the Hermann Göring bore the brunt of the powerful attacks launched by two Soviet Tank Corps. Garwolin was partially captured during the night of 27/28 July and the 73rd fell back. Despite the presence of elements of 19th Panzer and the Hermann Göring, by noon on 29 July the Soviet 8th Tank Corps had secured Kołbiel and Siennica. About 26 miles from Warsaw at Minsk Mazowiecki, Lieutenant General N.D. Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps broke the German defences, and at Zielonka, General Franek and some of his staff were captured.

Brest-Litovsk fell to Rokossovsky on 28 July and with his troops at Garwolin, three German divisions tried to escape toward Siedlce, south-east of Warsaw. They were surrounded between Biała and the river and crushed, with 15,000 killed and just 2,000 captured. In Moscow, Stalin and his commanders were very pleased with Rokossovsky’s efforts and on 29 July he was nominated a Marshal of the Soviet Union.

Captured German documents showed that the 5th SS Reconnaissance Unit was deployed near Minsk Mazowiecki; units of the Hermann Göring and the 73rd Infantry were holding the Cechowa and Otwock sector of Warsaw’s outer defences; 19th Panzer was defending the approaches to Praga and the 3rd SS were in the Okuniew and Pustelnik suburban areas.

When the 2nd Tank Army’s 16th Tank Corps struck toward Otwock along the Lublin road, the 19th Panzer counter-attacked with forty panzers and an infantry regiment but were unable to hold, and by the evening the Soviets were a mere 15 miles from Warsaw. They were now poised to assault the key defences of Okuniew. The 8th Tank Corps opened the attack, only to be stalled by determined German air and artillery fire.

In the meantime Vedeneev, bypassing German defences, drove them from Wołomin and Radzymin, just 12 miles north-east of Warsaw, where he took up defensive positions along the Dluga River. Having outstretched his supply lines and outrun the rest of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army, Vedeneev was in a dangerously exposed position. The 39th Panzer Corps was in the area and the panzer divisions were coming together in the direction of Radzymin-Wołomin.

Rokossovsky’s forces were quick to react to this threat and attempted to alleviate the pressure on Vedeneev with a diversionary attack. At dawn on 31 July, followed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, the Soviet 8th Tank Corps threw themselves at the Germans who fell back toward Okuniew. The 5th SS counter-attacked in a westerly direction with fifty panzers from Stanislawów, in an effort to link up with the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer, who were fighting a tank battle with the Soviets at Okuniew and Ossow.

The 5th SS were repulsed and on the evening of 31 July the Soviets took Okuniew, but could not budge the enemy from their strongpoint at Osos. North of the Soviet 8th Tank Corps, the 3rd Tank remained unsupported and, like the 16th Corps, endured a day of heavy attacks from German armour, artillery and infantry. The commander of the Soviet 2nd Army was in an impossible position; his units were enduring heavy casualties; he was short of supplies and his rear was under threat.

Rokossovsky simply could not fulfil his orders to break though the German defences and enter Praga by 8 August – it was simply not possible. On 1 August, at 1610 hrs he ordered the attack to be broken off just as Model launched his major counter-attack. On 2 August, all Red Army forces that were assaulting Warsaw were redirected. The 28th, 47th and 65th Armies were sent northwards to seize the undefended town of Wyszków and the Liwiec River Line. Crucially, this left the 2nd Tank Army without infantry support. This situation was compounded when the 69th Army was ordered to halt while the 8th Guards Army under Vasily Chuikov ceased the assault, to await a German attack from the direction of Garwolin.

Model began to probe the weak spot in Rokossovsky’s line between Praga and Siedlce. His intention was to hit the Soviets in the flank and the rear, and soon, to the north-east of Warsaw, the 39th Panzer Corps was counter-attacking the 3rd Tank Corps and forcing it back to Wołomin. The 3rd SS, Hermann Göring and 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions struck south into the exposed Soviet columns.

The Hermann Göring’s 1st Armoured Paratroop Regiment launched their attack from Praga toward Wołomin on 31 July, heralding the much larger effort to halt the Red Army in its steps before Warsaw. From the south-west, along the Warsaw–Wyszków road attacking toward Radzymin, came the 19th Panzer, while from Wyszków the 4th Panzer acted in support.

The next day, from Węgrów pushing toward Wołomin, came the panzers of the 5th SS. At the same time the 3rd SS was launched into the fray from Siedlce toward Stanislawów with the intention of trapping those Soviet units on the north-eastern bank of the Dluga. General Nikolaus von Vormann, appointed by Guderian to command the 9th Army and bringing up reinforcements from the 2nd Army’s reserves, also launched a counter-attack. Using men of the 5th SS and 3rd SS attacking from the forests to the east of Michałów, he drove the Soviet 8th Tank Corps from Okuniew at 2100 hrs on 1 August and linked up with 39th Panzer Corps from the west.

By 2 August, the 19th followed by 4th Panzer were in Radzymin and the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was thrown back toward Wołomin. The following day, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division rolled into Wołomin. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, Vedeneev was completely trapped. Attempts by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps to reach him failed with the former suffering serious casualties in the attempt.

After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was surrounded; 3,000 men were killed and another 6,000 captured. The Red Army also lost 425 of the 808 tanks and self-propelled guns they had begun the battle with on 18 July. By noon on 5 August the Germans had ceased their counter-attack and the battle for the Praga approaches had come to an end. Two German divisions had to be transferred south to deal with the Soviet threat there.

Vedeneev’s corps was destroyed and the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps had taken heavy losses. The exhausted Soviet 2nd Tank Army handed over its positions and withdrew to lick its wounds.

Post-war Communist propagandists cited the Battle of Radzymin as evidence that the German counter-attack prevented the Red Army from helping the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin clearly did not hold Vedeneev responsible. He remained in charge and the 3rd Tank Corps was honoured by being designated the 9th Guards Tank Corps in November 1944. It was not until 25 August that Rokossovsky would inform Stalin that he was ready to have another go at Warsaw.

After such heavy fighting north-east of the Polish capital, it is easy to see why Stalin saw the Polish Home Army’s Warsaw Rising as of little consequence to the overall strategic scheme of things. General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowsky, commander of the underground Polish Home Army, ordered his men to rise up against the German occupation of Warsaw on 1 August. Two days later, Stanislaus Mikołajczyk, who had been appointed prime minister by the exiled Polish government in London, gained an audience with Stalin in the hope of getting help for the Warsaw Rising. Stalin showed little faith in the Home Army’s fighting capabilities:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are even short of riles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government has ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this, their forces are not up to that task.

Rokossovsky was ordered to go over to the defensive and watched the Germans systemically crush the Poles for two whole months. Likewise, the Red Air Force, which was just 100 miles away, did very little. At Kraków, the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Wehrmacht garrison was 30,000 strong, twice that of Warsaw, which had a much bigger population. In addition, there were some 10,000 armed German administrators in the city. As a result, there was no secondary Home Army rising in Kraków.

Just 12.5 miles south of Warsaw, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army crossed the Vistula on 1 August at Magnuszew. He held onto his tiny bridgehead despite determined counter-attacks. By the 8th, the bridgehead contained three Soviet corps. Holding the northern shoulder of the bridgehead and preventing the Soviets from expanding it was a Volksgrenadier Brigade and a battalion of panzers, while to the south were the 17th Infantry Division.

General Zygmunt Berling’s Soviet-trained Polish 1st Army had reinforced Rokossovsky during the spring of 1944. This was, in fact, the second Polish army to be formed in the Soviet Union and was the military wing of the so-called Union of Polish Patriots, which had come into being with Stalin’s approval in 1943. The earlier army of General Władysław Anders had managed to slip Stalin’s grasp in 1942, getting itself redeployed to fight with the British in the Middle East and Italy.

Berling was ordered to cross the Vistula at Puławy on 31 July on a wide front to support other elements of the Soviet 69th and 8th Guards Armies crossing near Magnuszew. Two Polish divisions gained the west bank on 1 and 2 August, but by the 4th they had suffered 1,000 casualties and were ordered to withdraw. They were then assigned to protect the northern part of the Magnuszew bridgehead.

When Berling joined Rokossovsky he had 104,000 men under arms, comprising five infantry divisions, a tank brigade, four artillery brigades and an air wing. Many recruits who were former POWs from 1939 saw it as a way of getting home, although Stalin kept them on a tight political leash. Berling, like Rokossovsky, was a career soldier having served with the Austrian and Polish armies. The fact that Stalin had spared him and that he had not stayed with Anders made him appear a turncoat to many of his countrymen. Berling was also given the onerous task of endorsing Stalin’s lie that Hitler had perpetrated the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest.

When Poland was partitioned by Stalin and Hitler under the Non-Aggression Pact, 130,000 Polish officers and men immediately fell into the hands of the Red Army (although, in total, some 250,000 soldiers were eventually moved into the Soviet Union as POWs). Stalin had a long memory and a score to settle with the Poles (in 1920 they had defeated the Red Army), and he also wanted to destroy the basis for any future opposition to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, which would act as a buffer against post-war Germany. Stalin had acted swiftly and brutally.

He rounded up every Polish officer in his part of pre-war Poland (now the western Ukraine and western Belorussia) and in early 1940 he ruthlessly organised their slaughter. In April–May 1940, 15,000 Polish officers and policemen were evacuated from camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostachkov and turned over to the NKVD in the Smolensk, Kharkov and Kalinin regions. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Polish government in exile signed an agreement with Moscow – the provisions included raising a Polish army in the Soviet Union. However, of the 15,000 Polish officers held by the Soviets, only 350–400 reported for duty. Like the kulaks and Red Army officers before them, the Polish officer class had been ruthlessly butchered.

Stalin’s duplicity in his treatment of Poland and the Polish Army knew no bounds. In December 1941, Generals Wladyslaw Sikorski and Anders plus the Polish ambassador met with Stalin to discuss the whereabouts of approximately 4,000 named Polish officers who had been deported to Soviet prisons and labour camps. Stalin initially claimed rather disingenuously that they had escaped to Manchuria. He then changed tack, suggesting they had been released, adding, ‘I want you to know that the Soviet government has not the slightest reason to retain even one Pole’. What he meant was ‘even one living Pole’.

Hitler announced that he had found the mass grave of up to 4,000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, in April 1943. The Germans continued to dig, unearthing an estimated 10,000 bodies, and Hitler set up a Committee of Inquiry which ‘proved’ the Poles had been shot in 1940 by Stalin’s NKVD. The Soviets dismissed the claim as propaganda, calling it ‘revolting and slanderous fabrications’.

Hitler’s discovery had strained Soviet–Polish relations even further, allowing Stalin to undermine the validity of the Polish government in exile in London as a prelude to establishing a Communist government in Warsaw. As far as Stalin was concerned, Poland came within his sphere of influence and he had every intention of it remaining so. On retaking Smolensk, Stalin set up his own commission which stated categorically that the men had been killed in 1941 while road-building for the Germans.

HITLER’S LAST TRIUMPH II

On the morning of 2 August 1944, Rokossovsky went to view the Polish capital and got a good indication of the Polish Home Army’s efforts, recalling:

Together with a group of officers I was visiting the 2nd Tank Army, which was fighting on that sector of the front. From our observation point, which had been set up at the top of a tall factory chimney, we could see Warsaw. The city was covered in clouds of smoke. Here and there houses were burning. Bombs and shells were exploding. Everything indicated that a battle was in progress.

Why did Rokossovsky not try for a bridgehead at Warsaw if the Red Army had established footholds at Magnuszew, Puławy and on the upper Vistula near Sandomierz? To have done so would have been far tougher than in the Radom region, way to the south. Sandomierz had cost them dearly, plus Stalin saw Warsaw as anchoring the Germans’ line on the Narev and Bobr and, in turn, East Prussia and knew they would fight bitterly to defend this. Without the Baltic States secured, Hitler could strike from East Prussia against the flank and rear of the Red Army once it was advancing beyond the Vistula.

Also, by now Rokossovsky was facing twenty-two enemy divisions, this included four security divisions in the Warsaw suburbs, three Hungarian divisions on the Vistula, south of Warsaw, and the remains of six or seven divisions which had escaped from the chaos of Belostok and Brest-Lotovsk. At least eight divisions were identified fighting to the north of Siedlce, amongst them two panzer and three SS panzer or panzergrenadier divisions. Stalin was waiting in the wings with his own Polish government and armed forces.

Marshal Zhukov blamed Polish leader Bor-Komorowski for a lack of co-operation with the Red Army:

As was established later, neither the command of the Front [Rokossovsky] nor that of Poland’s 1st Army [Berling] had been informed in advance by Bor-Komorowski, the leader of the uprising, about forthcoming events in Warsaw. Nor did he make any attempt to co-ordinate the insurgents’ actions with those of the 1st Byelorussian Front. The Soviet Command learned about the uprising after the event from local residents who had crossed the Vistula. The Stavka had not been informed in advance either.

In light of Rokossovsky’s efforts to the north-east and south-east of Warsaw in the face of the tough Waffen-SS, this is largely true.

In Warsaw, General Reiner Stahel’s 12,000-strong garrison included 5,000 regular troops, 4,000 Luftwaffe personnel (over a quarter of whom were manning the air defences) and the 2,000-strong Warsaw security regiment. Wehrmacht forces in the immediate area numbered up to 16,000 men, with another 90,000 further afield. Army Group Centre was to have a limited role in fighting the Warsaw Rising. General Vormann, commanding the 9th Army, sent 1,000 men to Praga to help hold the Poniatowski Bridge. An additional three battalions were also sent to help to assist the Hermann Göring Division in clearing a way through the city to the Kierbedz Bridge.

With the Wehrmacht fully tied up fending off Soviet attacks, it was left to the reviled SS to stamp out the Polish rising, involving military police units and SS troops under SS-Standartenführer Paul Geibel supported by factory and rail guards. Geibel also managed to scrounge four Tiger tanks, a Panther tank, four medium tanks and an assault gun off the 5th SS to strengthen his forces. A motley battle group under SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, supported by thirty-seven assault guns and a company of heavy tanks, was also assembled to crush the Polish Home Army in Warsaw.

SS reinforcements included SS-Brigadeführer Bratislav Kaminski’s hated Russian National Liberation Army Brigade. Kaminski supported SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s Anti-Partisan Brigade. This consisted of two battalions of criminals, three battalions of former Soviet POWs, two companies of gendarmes, a police platoon and an artillery battery. Additionally, Colonel Wilhelm Schmidt supplied men drawn from his 603rd Regiment and a grenadier and police battalion.

All the forces in Warsaw were placed under SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had been overseeing the construction of defences on the Vistula near Gdańsk. He was the nemesis of partisan forces in the east. Von dem Bach-Zelewski was soon to find that both Kaminski and Dirlewanger’s men were atrociously disciplined. Their brutality in Warsaw was to horrify even the battle-hardened SS, and von dem Bach-Zelewski thought they were the lowest of the low, remarking, ‘The fighting value of these Cossacks was, as usual in such a collection of people without a fatherland, very poor. They had a great liking for alcohol and other excesses and had no interest in military discipline.’

On 5 August 1944, Dirlewanger and Kaminski’s troops counter-attacked the brave Polish Home Army. For two days, they ran amok. After the war, the German officers involved disingenuously laid the blame firmly on the shoulders of Kaminski and Dirlewanger.

On 19 August the Polish Home Army’s efforts to fight its way through to those forces trapped in the Old Town came to nothing and it was clear they would have to be evacuated to the city centre and Żoliborz district. About 2,500 fighters withdrew via the sewers, leaving behind their badly wounded. It was now only a matter of time before the SS crushed resistance in the city centre and cleared resistance between the Poniatowski and Kierbedz Bridges.

To ward off a wider encircling movement by the Red Army to the north, Model deployed the 4th SS Panzer Corps with the 3rd SS and 5th SS moving into blocking positions. From 14 August, the Soviets attacked for a week but the SS successfully held off fifteen rifle divisions and two tank corps. Also in mid-August, Model relinquished his command of Army Group Centre and hastened to France to take charge from Günther von Kluge in a vain attempt to avert the unfolding German defeat in Normandy.

Stalin’s great offensive that had commenced in Byelorussia on 23 June 1944 had all but ended by 29 August. By the 26th, the 3rd SS had been forced back to Praga, but a counter-attack by them on 11 September thwarted another attempt to link up with the Polish Home Army. It was the 3rd SS and 5th SS who had the dubious honour, along with Stalin, of consigning Warsaw to two months of bloody agony.

From 13 September, the Red Air Force spent two weeks conducting 2,000 supply sorties to the insurgents. The supplies were modest, including 505 anti-tank rifles, nearly 1,500 sub-machine guns and 130 tons of food, medicine and explosives. By the time Berling’s Polish 1st Army was committed for the battle for Praga, time was running out, with Żoliborz under attack by elements of the 25th Panzer Division and just 400 insurgents left holding a narrow strip of the river.

Berling recklessly threw his men over the river at Czerniaków, but tragically could make no headway against determined German resistance. He landed three groups on the banks of the Czerniaków and Powiśle areas and made contacts with Home Army forces on the night of 14/15 September. His men on the eastern shore attempted several more landings over the next four days, but during 15–23 September those who had got over suffered heavy casualties and lost their boats and river-crossing equipment.

On 22 September, Berling’s men were ordered back across the Vistula for a second time. There was hardly any Red Army support and out of the 3,000 men who made it across just 900 got back to the eastern shores, two-thirds of whom were seriously wounded. In total, Berling’s Polish 1st Army losses amounted to 5,660 killed, missing or wounded, trying to aid the Warsaw Uprising.

After sixty-two days of fighting, and having lost 15,000 dead and 25,000 wounded, the Polish Home Army surrendered in Warsaw on 2 October. Up to 200,000 civilians had been killed in the needless orgy of destruction. After the surrender, 15,000 members of the Home Army were disarmed and sent to POW camps in Germany, while up to 6,000 fighters slipped back into the population with the intention of continuing the fight. However, the vengeful Himmler expelled the rest of the civilian population and ordered the city be flattened.

Crushing the Poles had been a pointless exercise which cost Hitler 10,000 dead, 9,000 wounded and 7,000 missing. It was clear from the fatalities outnumbering the wounded that no quarter had been given. However, German morale was given a much-needed boost, which had them believing their feat of arms, rather than Stalin, had halted Rokossovsky at the very gates of Warsaw.

Rokossovsky would not occupy the Polish capital for another six weeks, leaving Hitler triumphant before Warsaw. It was to be his last real victory of the war.

At the height of the fighting on the Eastern Front in 1944, 63 per cent of Hitler’s divisions and 70 per cent of his manpower were tied up fighting Stalin’s Red Army. It also accounted for 57 per cent of all his panzers and assault guns, 71 per cent of all guns and mortars and 51 per cent of all operational aircraft. The other two active fronts in France and Italy accounted for just 30–35 per cent of Hitler’s total combat strength.

Despite holding the Red Army before Warsaw and crushing the Polish rising, it was hard to see how Hitler’s Wehrmacht could survive the twin calamities of Byelorussia and Normandy. The enormous loss of manpower urgently needed addressing. While German industry worked wonders reconstituting the shattered panzer formations thanks to Albert Speer’s weapons factories, new infantry divisions were also desperately required. In autumn 1944, Hitler ordered the creation of almost eighty Volksgrenadier divisions. These had fewer infantry battalions and heavy weapons than regular infantry divisions, but issuing them with more sub-machine guns and assault rifles than usual compensated for this.

Initially thirty-five skeleton divisions were refitted and another fifteen new ones created. To the OKW’s displeasure, for propaganda purposes Hitler insisted on naming them Volksgrenadiers (People’s Grenadiers) and placing them under the auspices of the SS. The German Replacement Army was soon gathering men from disbanded army units and convalescing in hospitals, as well as surplus Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel. Old men and teenagers previously considered unsuitable were also rapidly conscripted.

There was constant competition between the army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe for resources that created a wholly unnecessary duplication of effort. The OKW would have preferred that all available men were used as combat replacements for existing army units, rather than creating new ones. The army had struggled to gain control of Göring’s twenty-two weak Luftwaffe field divisions in late 1943. By which time the damage was done, as they were standing units and the men could not be transferred. Himmler’s Waffen-SS controlled another thirty-eight elite divisions, which operated outside the army’s chain of command.

The creation of the Volksgrenadier units caused Allied intelligence some confusion, as Hitler’s home guard was known as the Volkssturm. This resulted in the firepower of the Volksgrenadier divisions being greatly underestimated. They were sent to fight on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. However, fifteen divisions were assigned to Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. Guderian would rather have seen them and the re-formed panzer divisions all sent east to hold the Oder, but it was not to be.

2 JULY 1942 – ROMMEL TRIES AGAIN Part II

As the story reached the bemused but doubting Germans, British bombers and British tanks added to the woes of the men in ‘The Hotbox’, and Pienaar was reported to have called Auchinleck and said that if he was to be treated as an enemy he could take Alexandria within 48 hours.

A heavy bombardment hit the South Africans in ‘The Hotbox’ at 4.00pm, and at 4.20pm 30 tanks and infantry of 21st Panzer advanced from Deir el Shein under cover of smoke. Artillery and machine-gun fire from ‘The Hotbox’ and from Robcol on Ruweisat Ridge brought them to a halt, and 1st Armoured Division’s artillery gave support. The Germans tried again at 6.00pm and again at 7.20pm, with 90th Light joining in from the north west. Just before last light both the South African brigadier and brigade major were wounded, and a new crisis developed.

We come here to a parting of the ways between the contemporary written record in the form of the divisional war diary, and events as they were remembered by Dorman Smith

1st Brigade now came under command of what the official South African history calls ‘a makeshift staff’ of a battalion commander and an intelligence officer, who ‘clamoured’ for permission to withdraw, though the divisional war diary says only that at 10.00pm they asked for tanks to help ward off a threatened enemy attack. Pienaar, equally concerned, called up the 30th Corps commander, Norrie, and told him the brigade’s flank was wide open and its position untenable unless flank protection from armour could be provided or some armour placed under command. He said bluntly that if help was not forthcoming he would pull the brigade back. He would not, he said, allow it to be overrun.

An unsympathetic Norrie said tanks couldn’t be provided, and he saw no need to withdraw the brigade. Pienaar thereupon moved up the ladder to Dorman Smith, and from him to Auchinleck. Diplomatically, Auchinleck said he would talk it over with Norrie, and for the moment that was that. Not that it was of any comfort to the temporary 1st Brigade commander, anxiously waiting in the desert, who kept asking Pienaar for a decision, pointing out that if a withdrawal was to be carried out it should be done at night, rather than in daylight.

Around midnight Norrie came back on the line with what to him might have seemed a good compromise; 1st Brigade could be pulled back and placed in reserve, but another unit would be put in its place. At this implied slur Pienaar bridled and said that if this was to be done he would regard it as a sign of a lack of confidence and he would be forced to ask to be relieved of his command. All he wanted, he said, were some tanks or, failing this, permission to move the brigade to a position further back.

Midnight is the time when decisions are made by attrition, and a weary Norrie said Pienaar could use his discretion as to where he moved 1st Brigade, but that in any case a column of the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery would be put in its place, or just to the rear of where it had been. Pienaar pulled back 1st Brigade to a less hazardous position. At dawn South African armoured cars took a look at the old 1st Brigade positions, found some 90th Light men there and took them prisoner. At 9.30am the 3rd RHA column moved into The Hotbox, but not for long. After receiving 30 minutes’ heavy shelling, it withdrew and settled down in a position to the south and a little to the rear of 2nd Brigade, where it continued to suffer from enemy shelling. South African honour was satisfied.

Dorman Smith remembered the incident differently. As he later told the story, Pienaar rang him late at night and said he intended to withdraw his division to avoid encirclement. Dorman Smith told him in no uncertain terms that he would have to stay where he was, and Auchinleck added the weight of his authority to this. Later, according to Dorman Smith, he spoke with Norrie, who said he had had a similar conversation with Pienaar.

It would have to be said that the South African version of events is more likely to be accurate, and accords with what actually happened, and the Dorman Smith version is mentioned only because it has gained some currency. Either Dorman Smith’s memory is at fault – and an instance of this occurs later – or at this late hour of the night the tired Dorman Smith simply misunderstood what Pienaar was saying. And for that matter, Pienaar may not have been entirely clear in his request. If it was a misunderstanding it was another of July’s small tragedies, because the incident further undermined confidence in the South Africans, who were left to fight in their static position all month, and when plans were made for the hoped for pursuit of the Axis forces they were assigned the sedentary task of staying behind to man the Alamein positions.

All in all it turned out to be much ado about nothing, but it was a pointer to the cross-currents and personality conflicts that bedevilled the Eighth Army right up to the closing days of the ‘old’ army.

So, looking at all that, how can it be said that one army had attacked another without the defenders really noticing, particularly when it is remembered that 1st Armoured Division and Royal Artillery had been going hammer and tongs with the panzers on Ruweisat Ridge from late afternoon? The short answer may be that despite some fairly violent exchanges, the German thrusts may have had the appearance of probing rather than attacking.

Consider the conditions, with heat haze and dust obscuring observation and objects swimming into and out of view.

In the far north the Italians were supposed to attack the west face of the Alamein Box, but the South Africans saw no great concentration of troops, merely groups who disappeared when fired on.

In the area of 90th Light’s dawn attack, troops of two South African brigades would be standing to as the sky became light behind them and in a few minutes had flooded the desert with the full glare of day. Not much heat haze yet but probably a fair amount of dust, and out of the dust emerges some enemy transport. Nothing massive. Not the menacing force covering half the desert that usually precedes a German attack. Just a largish gaggle of trucks. As the shells fall among them, the enemy lorries turn about and disappear again. Then figures of men are seen. Shell bursts balloon around them and the Vickers guns chatter, and the figures disappear, too. After a while, the British artillery, denied visible targets, gives up.

Though the air force is fairly busy, shuttling back and forth across the sky and creating havoc at unseen targets somewhere west, the rest of the day is fairly quiet until around 3.30pm, when incoming shells suddenly begin to blossom. The South Africans become watchful and wait. Outgoing shells moan overhead with a hollow roar, the sound diminishing in comforting reassurance that each projectile is aimed the other way. Dust begins to rise out there and moving figures are seen. The eager Vickers gunners let go a few belts. The Hotbox receives a pasting from shell fire, but no tanks or infantry advance towards them.

Further south, British guns and tanks sight the familiar outline of panzer turrets – ten, twenty, maybe forty of them, not the usual hordes that intimidate the infantry and terrorise rear echelons. Turret covers clang shut and the single band radio communication network buzzes with orders, requests and information. Everyone can hear so everyone knows what’s happening. And then it’s all on. Solid shot flies, bouncing off hulls or plunging a white hot lance through toughened steel and into explosively receptive shell racks and petrol tanks. A tank glows and smokes as the men inside cook, and then a blast tosses off a turret, which falls to the ground beside the blackened hull like some grotesque, huge egg cup. Other crews are luckier. Their tank slews and stops, and they know they’ve lost a track. The hatch is thrown open and they clamber out with frantic haste, and run for dear life.

There’s something odd here, though. The Jerries don’t seem as aggressive as usual, not quite as pushy, not really wanting to come through. They usually fight as though they own the place. They don’t seem to be trying too hard today.

And then at last the sun goes, a red ball that slips with visible haste behind the western horizon obscured by the dust of battle. There’s little twilight and no cool of the evening, just a rush from day to night as though darkness, the only decency left, should not be delayed.

Tanks still burn, and occasionally there’s an eruption from within. The survivors move away and form into laager and signal their supply columns to bring up more fuel and ammunition.

And what was it all about? Where were the Jerries going, if anywhere? Were they just testing, looking for a weak spot?

At his spartan headquarters, Auchinleck writes a review of the day’s events, and tells London that ‘the expected attack had not developed by last light though some enemy tanks were seen’. And the truth is that the German thrust was not what the Eighth Army was used to.

Timid infantry and tentative armour were not the stamp of the German army, not the bold assault expected of a general reaching for Cairo.

Rommel’s perception was rather different and his optimism less assured.

He wrote of the British falling back in the south and then launching a heavy counter-attack on his open flank, and of ‘violent defensive fighting’. He still hadn’t given up, but his orders for the next day, 3 July, were more restrained. He instructed his army to attack from daybreak to 10.00am to seek out weak points – an order to probe and search. Not his style at all, though he did not abandon his southern encirclement plan and he ordered Ariete and Trieste to carry out the drive to attack 13th Corps in the rear. But if there had been little of 13th Corps in the first place, there was even less now as the Eighth Army, preparing for the next day, carried out some minor reorganisation. The Indians in their remote outpost at Naqb Abu Dweis in the far south were doing no good there and were totally exposed. Auchinleck sent them back to Qarat el Himeimat to reorganise as a battle group under 5th Indian Division. He felt, also, that Kaponga Box might now become a liability, and the New Zealanders were instructed to withdraw, leaving a battle group to hold out for another day to destroy the defences and stores. Some of the brigade pulled back under cover of darkness, leaving two battalions in charge. Auchinleck wanted 6th Brigade infantry sent back to the New Zealand base camp at Maadi because under his battle group policy he considered them ‘surplus’. But a cautious Inglis decided to keep them with the division until the situation became clearer.

One day remained in this first attempt by Rommel to break through the Alamein defences – a day in which the pattern of battle changed ominously for Rommel, hopefully for Auchinleck.

It was on this day, 2 July, that it had been planned to despatch the first troop convoy from Taranto to Alexandria to make secure the Axis occupation of Egypt.

THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD I

8 September 1941–27 January 1944

The Siege of Leningrad, the Soviet Union’s second largest city, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges in the history of warfare. This lengthy blockade was undertaken by Army Group North, the Spanish Blue Division and the Finnish Army between 1941 and 1944, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 700,000 civilians.

Leningrad was a vital city in the Soviet Union. By 1940, it had a population of 2.54 million, making it the fourth largest city in Europe. Its factories produced about 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s entire industrial output, including much of its high-quality steel and the new KV-1 heavy tank.

As war in Europe approached, Stalin resolved to safeguard Leningrad by pushing the Soviet Union’s vulnerable border areas back as far as possible from the city. After Finland refused to sell part of the Karelian Isthmus adjoining the Leningrad Military District, the Red Army seized the land by force between November 1939 and March 1940. Next, Stalin moved against the pro-German Baltic republics, and in June 1940, Soviet troops marched into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. After this, Stalin moved three armies with 440,000 troops into the former Baltic States in an effort to secure Leningrad against any threats from the west.

Leningrad was not identified as a major target in the planning for Operation Barbarossa. However, Hitler was adamant that it should receive equal priority with Moscow and Kiev on the axes of advance. It lay in the path of Army Group North, led by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, which consisted of the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies and General Erich Hoepner’s 4th Panzer Group, totalling 475,000 troops in 28 divisions.

In the opening days of Barbarossa, Leningrad’s ability to defend itself was seriously compromised. The Soviet forces in the Baltic States were badly defeated in the first 18 days, with most of their tanks and aircraft lost. Some 30,000 civilian volunteers in Leningrad were employed to help build defensive fieldwork on the approaches to the city, and 160,000 recruits were organized into eight people’s militia divisions in July. These divisions fought a successful delay on the Luga River that stopped Army Group North’s headlong advance towards Leningrad for nearly a month. By the time the Germans finally overwhelmed the Luga Line on 16 August, Leningrad’s defenders had built a series of dense fortified lines on the south-west approaches to the city.

However, the German advance shifted eastwards, severing the Leningrad–Moscow rail line at Chudovo on 20 August. With Soviet forces in retreat, von Leeb dispatched XXXIX Army Corps to encircle Leningrad from the south-east while massing the rest of Army Group North for a direct assault on the city.

By 2 September 1941, Finnish forces had advanced to the 1939 borders between Finland and the Soviet Union. On 4 September, German artillery began shelling Leningrad, and four days later the city was entirely surrounded by Army Group North. The German encirclement trapped four armies – the 8th, 23rd, 42nd and 55th – inside the city and the nearby Oranienbaum salient, with a total of 20 divisions and over 300,000 troops. There were about 30 days’ food reserves on hand in the city, but this was further reduced when the Luftwaffe bombed the Badaev food warehouses on 8 September.

General Georgy Zhukov, newly appointed commander of the Leningrad Front, arrived on 9 September as General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XXXXI Army Corps began to assault the outer defences of the city. On 16 September, the German XXXVIII Army Corps reached the Gulf of Finland, and the following day, the German 1st Panzer Division managed to approach to within 12km of the city. Zhukov launched a 16-day counter-offensive westward towards Siniavino beginning on 10 September, but this failed to take its objective and casualties were heavy.

On 8 November 1941, in an effort to eliminate the final Soviet links to the encircled city by severing the rail lines that supported the Lake Ladoga barge traffic, the Germans captured Tikhvin. Without this rail junction, the food situation in the city became critical. However, 11 days later a Soviet counter-attack led by 4th Army was launched and it was retaken on 9 December; the Germans, threatened by encirclement, withdrew west.

Meanwhile, on 22 November 1941, the first major Soviet truck convoy managed to cross Lake Ladoga on an ice road and bring some relief to Leningrad. The civilian death toll continued to rise: during the last four months of 1941, German artillery fired over 30,000 rounds into Leningrad, which, in addition to air raids, killed about 4,000 civilians.

On 6 January 1942, the newly established Soviet Volkhov Front launched the Lyuban winter counter-offensive aimed at breaking the blockade. In March, the Soviet 2nd Shock Army was cut off in the Volkhov swamps by German forces.

The Soviets launched a series of failed offensives against the Siniavino Heights over the summer of 1942, but it was not until 18 January 1943 that the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and 67th Army linked up north of Siniavino, establishing a small land corridor into Leningrad. On 15 September 1943, the XXX Guards Rifle Corps finally captured the Heights.

Army Group North watched anxiously. Occupying a relatively inactive front, it had been neglected during most of 1942, had not fully replaced its losses of the previous winter, and was committed to a static defense that might be attacked at any of a number of critical points. Around Leningrad, particularly at the “bottleneck”—the narrow tie-in to Lake Ladoga—Army Group North functioned as the main support of German strategy in northern Europe. If the hold on Leningrad were broken, Germany would, in the long run, lose control of the Baltic Sea. Finland would then be isolated; the iron ore shipping from Sweden would be in danger; and the all-important submarine training program would be seriously handicapped.

In the 16 months they had held the “bottleneck” the Germans had built a tight network of defenses in the swampy terrain and had converted Schlüsselburg, several small settlements, and scattered patches of woods into fortified strongpoints. But, with only six to eight miles between fronts, one facing west and the other east, the defenders had little room to maneuver. The Russians had found highly instructive their experience in the summer, and in the intervening months had rehearsed every tactic and maneuver for taking each individual German position. This method the Germans themselves had used in 1940 to train for the assaults on the Belgian forts.

The attack on the “bottleneck” began on 12 January. Sixty-seventh Army, its troops wearing spiked shoes to help them climb the frozen river bank, struck across the ice on the Neva River while Second Shock Army, on the east, threw five divisions against a 4-mile stretch of the German line. Methodically, the Russians chopped their way through, and by the end of the first week had taken Schlüsselburg and opened a corridor to Leningrad along the lake shore. Thereafter, in fighting that lasted until the first week of April, the two Soviet fronts made little headway. When the fighting ended, they held a strip 6 miles wide, all of it within range of German artillery. When the battle ended, Army Group North claimed a defensive victory, but its hold on the second city of the Soviet Union was not as tight as before.

In the summer of 1943 the Army Group North zone, by comparison with the other army group zones, was quiet. In a battle that flared up toward the end of July around Mga, Leningrad Front’s performance fell far below that of the commands operating against Army Groups Center and South. The front-line strengths of the opposing forces in the Army Group North zone were almost equal. The army group had 710,000 men. Leningrad, Volkhov, Northwest, and Kalinin Fronts, the latter straddling the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary, had 734,000 men. For the future, however, Army Group North also had to reckon with some half a million reserves echeloned in depth behind the northern fronts. In artillery the two sides were about equal, but again the Russians were known to have substantial reserves. In mid-July Army Group North had 49 tanks, 40 fit for combat. The Russians had 209 tanks at the front and an estimated 843 in reserve. By 15 September Army Group North had 7 tanks still serviceable. In the last six months of 1943, First Air Force, which was responsible for air operations in the army group zone, flew just half as many sorties as its Russian opponents.

During August air reconnaissance detected increasing enemy activity off both Army Group North flanks. A rise in the number of boats making the short but extremely hazardous trip in the Gulf of Finland between Leningrad and the Oranienbaum pocket indicated that the Russians might soon attempt to break out and unite the pocket with the front around Leningrad. In the south Kalinin Front, under Yeremenko, began a build-up opposite the Army Group North-Army Group Center boundary. To meet those and other possible threats, the army group created a ready reserve by drawing five infantry divisions out of the front. In the first and second weeks of September the OKH ordered two of the reserve divisions transferred to Army Group South.

On 19 September, in conjunction with the Army Group Center withdrawal to the PANTHER position, Army Group North took over XXXXIII Corps, the northernmost corps of Army Group Center. That transfer brought the army group three divisions, forty-eight more miles of front, and responsibility for defending two important railroad and road centers, Nevel and Novosokol’niki. By late September no one doubted that the Russians were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the North-Center boundary. That area of forests, lakes, and swamps, and of poor roads even by Russian standards, heavily infested by strong partisan bands, had long been one of the weakest links in the Eastern Front. During the 1941 winter offensive the Russians had there carved out the giant Toropets salient, and in the 1942-43 winter campaign they had encircled and captured Velikiye Luki and nearly taken Novosokol’niki. Compared with the losses elsewhere, particularly after Stalingrad, these were mere pinpricks; but there always was a chance that the Stavka might one day try the big solution, a thrust between the flanks of the two army groups to the Gulf of Riga.

In the second week of September 1943 Army Group North had begun work on the PANTHER position, its share of the East Wall. The north half of the PANTHER position was laid behind natural obstacles, the Narva River, Lake Peipus, and Lake Pskov. The south half was not so favorably situated. It had to be stretched east somewhat to cover two major road and rail centers, Pskov and Ostrov, and the tie-in to Army Group Center had to be moved west after the Nevel breakthrough. Nevertheless, when it was occupied it would reduce the army group frontage by 25 percent, and, unlike most of the East Wall, it had by late 1943 actually begun to take on the appearance of a fortified line. A 50,000-man construction force had improved the communications lines back to Riga and Dvinsk and had built 6,000 bunkers, 800 of them concrete, laid 125 miles of barbed wire entanglements, and dug 25 miles each of trenches and tank traps. During November and December building material rolled in at a rate of over 100 carloads a day.

In September the army group staff had begun detailed planning for Operation BLAU, the withdrawal to the PANTHER position. The staff estimated that the million tons of grain and potatoes, half a million cattle and sheep, and military supplies and other material, including telephone wire and railroad track to be moved behind the PANTHER line, would amount to 4,000 trainloads. The withdrawal itself would be facilitated by the network of alternate positions that in the preceding two years had been built as far back as the Luga River. The 900,000 civilians living in the evacuation zone, particularly the men who could, if they were left behind, be drafted into the Soviet Army, raised problems. The first attempts, in early October, to march the civilians out in the customary treks produced so much confusion, misery, and hostility that Küchler ordered the rear area commands to adopt less onerous methods. Thereafter they singled out the adults who would be useful to the Soviet Union as workers or soldiers and evacuated most of them by train. During the last three months of the year the shipments of goods and people went ahead while the armies worked at getting their artillery and heavy equipment, much of which was sited in permanent emplacements, ready to be moved. At the end of the year, having transported 250,000 civilians into Latvia and Lithuania, the army group could not find quarters for any more and called a halt to that part of the evacuation.

The army group staff believed that logically BLAU should begin in mid-January and be completed shortly before the spring thaw, in about the same fashion as Army Group Center had executed BÜFFEL the year before, but on 22 December the chief of staff told the armies that Hitler would probably not order BLAU unless another Soviet offensive forced him to. At the moment, Hitler’s opinion was that the Russians had lost so many men in the fighting in the Ukraine that they might not try another big offensive anywhere before the spring of 1944.

Toward the end of the month it appeared, in fact, that Hitler might be right. The bulge on the Army Group North right flank was worrisome, but the Stavka had shifted the weight of the offensive to Vitebsk, for the time being at least. In the Oranienbaum pocket and around Leningrad the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had been ready to attack since November, but with the trouble at Nevel out of the way the army group was less concerned than it had been. Intelligence reports from Eighteenth Army indicated that the units in the Oranienbaum pocket, in particular, had been strengthened; and boat traffic between Leningrad and Oranienbaum had been usually heavy during the fall, continuing until some boats were trapped in ice. On the other hand, almost no new units had appeared, and Leningrad Front seemed to be depending for its reinforcements on the Leningrad population. While an offensive sometime in January appeared a near certainty, the longer Eighteenth Army’s intelligence officers looked the closer they came to convincing themselves it would be cut in the modest pattern of the three earlier offensives around Leningrad.

On 29 December the OKH ordered Küchler to transfer to Army Group South one of his best divisions, the 1st Infantry Division which Eighteenth Army was depending on to backstop some of its less reliable units in the Oranienbaum-Leningrad sector. When Küchler called to protest, Zeitzler told him he would not need the division; Hitler intended to execute Operation BLAU after all and would tell him so personally the next day. During the noon conference in the Führer headquarters on 30 December, Küchler, expecting to receive his orders, reported on the state of the PANTHER position and the time he would need to complete BLAU. In passing, he remarked that he had talked to Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, who “naturally” had asked for his army to stay where it was even though he lost 1st Infantry Division. To a question from Hitler, Küchler replied that the Eighteenth Army front was well fortified, almost too well, in fact, since the army did not have enough troops to man it completely. Hitler then terminated the conference without mentioning Operation BLAU.

Küchler did not fully realize what had happened until the next day, after an order had come in to transfer another good division to Army Group South. Zeitzler told the army group chief of staff that Hitler had begun to falter in his decision as soon as Küchler made the remark about Lindemann’s wanting to keep his army where it was. He thought it would take at least a week to talk Hitler around again. By day’s end the chief of staff had a memorandum marshaling the arguments for BLAU ready for Küchler to sign, but that was scarcely enough. Lindemann would have to be persuaded to reverse himself, since in such instances if in almost no others Hitler always took the word of the man on the spot.

On 4 January—by then a third division was on its way to Army Group South—Küchler went to Eighteenth Army headquarters and, citing the necessity to husband the army group’s forces, almost pleaded with Lindemann to reconsider. Lindemann replied that his corps, division, and troop commanders in the most threatened sectors were confident they could weather the attack. After that, none of the army group’s arguments counted for much. Hitler told Zeitzler he was only doing what Küchler wanted. Nor could Küchler and his staff draw any comfort from the knowledge that Lindemann was probably motivated mainly by a desire to draw attention to himself—as a senior army commander he had never had so good an opportunity to show what he could do directly under the eyes of the Führer. No less disquieting for the army group was the knowledge that it was committed to repeating an error which had already been made too often in the Ukraine. To the operations chief at OKH the chief of staff said the army group was marching to disaster with its eyes open, putting forces into positions which in the long run could not be held.