OPERATION BERTRAM – THE COVER PLAN FOR EL ALAMEIN I

In 1940 the War Office established the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in Surrey. It was the preserve of a mixed bag of individuals including Hugh Cott, a distinguished Cambridge zoologist who applied the coloration found on animal skins to guns and tanks. From the art world there was the Surrealist artist and friend of Picasso, Roland Penrose, who wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage. Penrose’s party trick was successfully to hide his lover, the acclaimed American model, photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller, in a garden, naked, camouflaged from prying eyes with body paint and netting. He reasoned that if he could hide a naked woman in a garden full of people, anything could be hidden.

Perhaps the most famous of the British camoufleurs was the popular stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. Following the publication of his memoirs in 1949, Maskelyne has long been seen as the leading light in the deception world. However, the truth about the ‘war magician’ appears somewhat less fantastic under scrutiny. Maskelyne arrived in Cairo on 10 March 1941 as part of a detachment of 12 camouflage officers sent to work with Barkas. He spent much of his time performing magic shows for entertainment purposes and later went on to work for the escape and evasion department MI9, where he helped in devising concealed escape devices for POWs.

Maskelyne’s actual involvement in military deception appears to have been a bit of a sham. Curiously enough, people appeared much more confident with the dummy vehicles when they were told they had been devised by a well-known illusionist. It also appears that Dudley Clarke encouraged Maskelyne’s boasting to some extent, because it diverted attention away from A Force and himself. Somewhat ironically, then, Maskelyne’s main contribution to deception may have been to provide a cloak behind which others could work in secret.

Maskelyne’s more limited role is also suggested by the artist Julian Trevelyan, a fellow graduate from Farnham. An interesting character in his own right, Trevelyan was a member of the British Surrealist movement and before the war had experimented with injections of hallucinogenic synthetic Mescalin crystals, an experience which led him to exclaim: ‘I have been given the key of the universe.’ His feet firmly back on the ground, Trevelyan was sent from the United Kingdom on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East to witness the deceptions being carried out there by Barkas’s department.

In March 1942 Trevelyan visited Tobruk and then went to Barkas’s Camouflage Training and Development Centre at Helwan near Cairo. He was generally impressed with what he saw, except perhaps with a dummy railhead complete with dummy rolling stock and station, which he claimed that the Germans complimented by dropping a wooden bomb on. Having witnessed the hand of Barkas at work, the artist remarked: ‘It is thanks to Barkas, principally, that the formidable technique of deception has been elaborated. You cannot hide anything in the desert; all you can do is to disguise it as something else. Thus tanks become trucks overnight, and of course trucks become tanks, and the enemy is left guessing at our real strength and intentions.’

Returning to the situation at El Alamein, Barkas followed Auchinleck’s orders to congregate his dummies behind the main lines and was overjoyed that he, for the first time, received the magic words ‘operational priority’ to assist him. Operation Sentinel saw the land between El Alamein and Cairo become dotted with camps, complete with smoke rising from cookhouses and incinerators. Canteens were set up with dummy vehicles parked outside while their imaginary drivers were inside enjoying an equally notional ‘brew’. To thicken the defensive positions, the craftsmen at Barkas’s school at Helwan developed a wide range of decoys, including batteries of field guns that could be stowed inside a single truck. Within three weeks of starting the build up Barkas was simulating enough activity to indicate the presence of two fresh motorized divisions in close reserve to the main line.

After his failure to break through the Alamein line Rommel was forced onto the defensive. With an impatient Prime Minister anxiously watching proceedings, the British made their preparations for a counter-attack scheduled for 23 October. To cover this attack, two cover plans were developed, Operations Treatment and Bertram.

Shortly after Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army on 13 August he held his first meeting with Colonel Dudley Clarke and was given an appraisal of his command’s activities, which centred on maintaining a notional threat against Crete. Montgomery did not disapprove of Dudley Clarke’s tactics; in fact he endorsed them. When planning the counter-offensive, in addition to the notional threat against Crete, Montgomery wanted A Force to use its intelligence channels to make the Germans believe the start date, or D-Day, for the forthcoming Allied desert counter-offensive would be 6 November, two weeks later than actually planned. This A Force ruse was codenamed Treatment.

At the time, Dudley Clarke was heavily involved with the planning for Operation Torch. In October he was called to attend a meeting with the London Controlling Section, which was set up to ensure Anglo-American cooperation in deception once the US forces began operating in North Africa. As he would be away from Egypt at the crucial time, Clarke handed over management of Treatment to his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Noël Wild.
Having been acquainted with him for some time before the war, in April 1942 Clarke had poached Wild from his job as a staff officer at GHQ Cairo. The circumstances of his recruitment were somewhat irregular. One evening Major Wild went to a Cairo hotel to cash a cheque and was ambushed by the A Force chief, who bought him drinks to celebrate Wild’s promotion to lieutenant colonel as Clarke’s deputy. When Wild enquired what the promotion entailed, and what exactly Clarke did, he was met with evasive replies. The only certainty was that Clarke wanted someone he knew and trusted in the post.

After a night’s sleep Wild accepted the position and was indoctrinated into the weird and wonderful world of A Force. By the time of Treatment, Wild was well enough versed in its techniques to use the A Force channels to hint that there were no plans to commit to a major offensive against Rommel. As long as German forces continued to advance into the Caucasus through the Soviet Union, the British were said to be apprehensive about their rear. Instead, Montgomery’s sole purpose was to use the lull in the fighting to train and test his troops for future operations. According to information sent out by the Cheese network, if there was going to be any major British attack it would be against Crete. This information was taken so seriously that Hitler ordered the island’s garrison to be strengthened on 23 September. He reiterated this order on 21 October, just two days before the British offensive was due to open.

To divert attention away from the last week of October, a conference was scheduled in Tehran. In attendance would be the British Commanders-in-Chief Middle East, PAIFORCE (Persia and Iraq) and India. This conference was scheduled for 26 October, three days after D-Day. In Egypt the last week of October was left open for officers to take leave and many had hotel rooms booked in their names.

The tactical counterpart to Treatment was codenamed Bertram and was given to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Richardson to devise and implement. An engineer by training, Richardson had only recently joined the planning staff of Eighth Army HQ after having spent a year with SOE in Cairo. Privately he was dismissive of the dummy tanks Auchinleck had used in Sentinel as a ‘pathetic last resort’. Richardson was sceptical about the chances of fooling the Germans, in particular the Luftwaffe and its photo-reconnaissance interpreters.

Richardson was summoned by Montgomery’s chief of staff, Freddie de Guingand, and received the outline of the British plan, which was a direct assault along the coastal road, on the right of the British position. He was then told to go away and come up with a suitable cover plan that would conceal the intention of the offensive for as long as possible, and when that was no longer possible, to mislead the enemy over the date and sector in which the attack was to be made.

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering the situation from Rommel’s point of view, Richardson thought that the German field marshal might ‘buy’ the suggestion of a British attack from the south, as it was the sort of tactic he might resort to himself. The other thing Richardson had to consider was how to persuade Rommel the attack was not going to be delivered on 23 October, as was the case. The preparations for the battle were so vast that Richardson supposed they could only stall the enemy’s thinking by about ten days. The way he proposed to do this was ingenious. His idea was to construct a dummy pipeline bringing water to the southern flank. German reconnaissance would no doubt spot this pipeline and, by gauging the speed with which it was being constructed, they would be able to project the date on which the British would be ready to begin their operations. This date would be set at ten days after D-Day. Richardson took the plans to de Guingand, who approved them, and passed them on to Monty for his final endorsement.

With official approval granted, Richardson needed someone actually to implement the plans. Richardson was aware of A Force’s existence, probably through de Guingand, who had until recently been the Director of Military Intelligence in GHQ Cairo. However, Richardson was reluctant to use A Force because he believed Clarke’s work was so ‘stratospheric and secret’ it was best to keep well out of it. Instead Richardson used GHQ’s Camouflage Department under Barkas.

On 17 September Barkas and his deputy, Major Tony Ayrton, were invited to de Guingand’s caravan and warned that what they were about to hear was top secret. The Chief Engineer of the Eighth Army was about to make a number of bulldozed tracks running from an assembly area codenamed Martello towards the front line, running parallel with the coast road and railway. Shortly afterwards large concentrations of vehicles and tanks would begin concentrating at Martello along with vast quantities of stores and munitions. Beyond Martello, but about five miles behind the front line, a great number of field guns would be marshalled at an area codenamed Cannibal 1. These would then be moved closer to the front line to deliver an opening barrage from positions directly behind the front line codenamed Cannibal 2. De Guingand wanted to know if the Camouflage Department was able to assist with the following objectives:
1.   To conceal the preparations in the north.
2.   To suggest that an attack was to be mounted in the south.
3.   When the preparations in the north could not be concealed, to minimize their scale.
4.   To make the rate of build up appear slower than it actually was, so that the enemy would believe there were still two or three days before the attack commenced.

Although sobered when told he had about a month to achieve all this, Barkas was inwardly jubilant that at last Camouflage was about to make a ‘campaign swaying’ contribution.
Barkas and Ayrton left the caravan to formulate their plan and took a stroll along the beach where their voices were drowned out from prying ears by the waves breaking on the shore. Two hours later, having typed up an appreciation and report on the subject, they went back to de Guingand, offering to suggest

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering that two armoured brigade groups were concentrating to the south. When Montgomery’s reply was delivered a few days later, Barkas was told to make provision for an entire phantom armoured corps in the south.

This entailed making 400 dummy Grant tanks and at least 1,750 transport vehicles and guns. Barkas was given ample resources, including three complete pioneer companies, a transport company and a POW unit. While he masterminded production of the material and devices, Barkas charged Ayrton and his colleague, the former Punch illustrator Brian Robb, with the actual deception work on the battlefield.

 

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OPERATION BERTRAM – THE COVER PLAN FOR EL ALAMEIN II

The deception scheme was composed of a number of separate plans, their component parts coming together to form a veritable symphony of deceit. The first problem was the approach tracks that were bulldozed from Martello to the front line. Although there was absolutely no hope of hiding their existence from the Luftwaffe, their purpose could be concealed. Ayrton went up in an aircraft to enact the role of a German reconnaissance pilot taking photographs. Ayrton’s solution to the problem of the tracks was ingenious. He called in at the Chief Engineer’s with annotated aerial photographs and suggested that rather than starting at Martello and driving directly to the front, the bulldozers should complete only patches of the track and join them together only much closer to D-Day.

More solutions were found to disguise the stores. Over 3,000 tons of stores had to be hidden at El Alamein train station, about five miles behind the front line. This included 600 tons of supplies, 2,000 tons of petrol, oil and lubricants and 420 tons of engineer stores. A similar amount required concealment at a second station about 15 miles to the east. In the forward area the most pressing problem was finding suitable storage for the cans of petrol. Ayrton and Robb found that there were about a hundred sections of slit-trenches in the area, all of which were lined with masonry. Supposing that these trenches were already well known to Germans from reconnaissance photographs, it was decided to line the trenches with a single course of petrol cans on each side. This slight reduction in the width of the trenches did not appear to change the shadows cast by the trenches, so 2,000 tons of fuel was successfully stored overnight. Confirmation of their success came when British air observers were sent out to locate the new fuel dumps and failed.

The food supplies arrived at the dumping ground in trucks by night. The trucks were met by guides and led to pre-arranged unloading sites in the open, featureless piece of terrain. As they were unloaded, the stores were stacked in such a way that they resembled three-ton trucks covered by camouflage netting. Further stores were stacked under the apron of the net, with the remaining boxes stacked and hidden under soldiers’ tents. To complete the illusion of a park of thin-skinned vehicles, a small unit of soldiers was moved into the area to animate it and real trucks were diverted to drive through it to create tracks and demonstrate the sort of activities associated with a vehicle park. Similar arrangements were made for the concealment of ammunition and other military stores close to the rail stations at El Alamein and also further back.

The British offensive was to be opened by an enormous barrage of around 400 25-pounder field guns. These guns had to be hidden at their assembly point and then again at their barrage positions. It was not simply a case of hiding the guns, but also their limbers and the distinctively shaped quad tractors used to transport them. It was found that by backing the limber up to the gun and rigging a canvas dummy vehicle over the top with the limber and gun’s wheels protruding, the effect was to produce a convincing three-ton truck. In turn the quads had a rectangular tent put over the back of them to make them also appear as trucks. Each gun crew was then trained in making the transformation from assembly area (Cannibal 1) to the barrage point (Cannibal 2) – the codename Cannibal deriving from the way the dummy ‘swallowed’ the thing it was protecting. When the time came to move the guns into position, the transition occurred at night and the gun crews had their tents and covers in place before the sun came up.

As for the Martello staging area, the problem was collecting hundreds of armoured vehicles in an area just 12 x 8 miles (19 x 13km). Since there was no way of hiding such an assembly, it was decided to fill up the Martello area with as many thin-skinned vehicles and dummies as quickly as possible. The Germans would no doubt notice this concentration area, but because nothing appeared to be happening there, they would come to ignore it.

Meanwhile, each tank that was destined to arrive at Martello was assigned a special point where it would be concealed. Each tank was provided with a ‘sunshield’, an invention that Barkas attributed to Wavell, who had earlier shown him a sketch of a tank with a canopy over it. The idea was that each tank would have a quickly detachable cover to make it look like a truck. In all, 772 ‘sunshields’ were issued before El Alamein. The tank crews were trained how to use them and then taken up to Martello and shown their hiding place in advance. On the night of 20–21 October Xth Armoured Corps began moving from its staging area to Martello. On arrival the crews had their ‘sunshields’ rigged before first light. Back at the staging area, the track marks were obliterated, the empty fuel cans were collected and a dummy tank was erected where the real tank had previously stood. From the point of view of German photo-reconnaissance, nothing had changed since the previous day, except the arrival of more trucks in an already busy assembly area behind the British lines.

The main focus of the build up in the south, where Montgomery wanted Rommel to think the attack was coming from, began on 26 September with the start of the dummy water pipeline codenamed Diamond. A five-mile-long section of trench was dug and a ‘pipeline’ laid parallel to it. The actual ‘pipeline’ was constructed from crushed, empty petrol cans laid along the ground in a line. Overnight the trench would be filled in and the ‘pipeline’ gathered up to be reused in the next section of trench. Dummy pump houses were built at three points along the line, complete with overhead tanks and can filling stations. To add further credence to the illusion, these areas were populated by dummy vehicles and mannequins of soldiers.

To the east of Diamond, an area codenamed Brian (after Brian Robb) was set aside for the build up of dummy stores. Despite a sandstorm and the unexpected arrival of a horde of British tanks on field manoeuvres, two days before D-Day Barkas’s men had created what appeared to be a huge stockpile of stores.

With the real artillery hidden to the north dummy batteries were set up at the eastern end of what was codenamed the Munassib Depression. This area was chosen for the site of a series of dummy gun batteries, which were set up on 15 October. They were camouflaged exactly the same way a genuine battery would be hidden, but after a few days the camouflage was allowed to lapse so that the Germans would realize the guns were dummies. Shortly after D-Day, the dummy field guns in Munassib were replaced with the genuine items, much to the surprise of a column of German armour which decided to probe against what it thought was a harmless decoy position.

Last, but by no means least, at the opening of the battle a non-existent amphibious landing was staged behind German lines between El Daba and Sidi Abd el Rahman. This operation saw the use of sonic deception – where battle sounds were played over loudspeakers mounted on fast motor torpedo boats operating just off shore. This technique was still in its early stages, but had been pioneered by GSI(d) almost a year earlier. Barkas was not overly impressed with sonic deception, complaining that the recordings of gunfire sounded like dustbins being struck. However, better amplification was being developed by movie companies in the United States and so the ruse would be used again later in the war.

The night of 23 October was clear and brightly illuminated by a full moon. At 9.40pm, the calm was ruptured by the detonation of hundreds of British field guns. For 15 minutes, just short of a thousand British guns pounded the German batteries in front of them. There was a five-minute pause before the barrage recommenced at 10pm, this time targeting German forward positions. Behind the barrage Allied infantry began advancing through the Axis minefields.

At the opening of the battle Rommel was not in Egypt. He had been in poor health since August and had returned to Germany in September on leave. On 3 October he was presented with his field marshal’s baton in Berlin and declared that he was at the gateway to Egypt and had no intention of being flung back.

His understudy was General Georg Stumme. On the night of 23 October Stumme and his chief signals officer went forward on a reconnaissance towards the British lines. It was an ill-chosen adventure moments before the opening of the British attack. In the opening barrage the signals officer was killed by machine-gun fire and Stumme suffered a heart attack. He was unused to the climate in North Africa and had been overworking: the shock of the barrage and the close proximity of the signals officer’s death finished him off. It was some time before he was missed and the body recovered. Meanwhile in Berlin it was a full 24 hours before the seriousness of the situation was realized and Hitler ordered Rommel to return and resume command.

With the charismatic field marshal missing for the first 48 hours of the battle and overwhelming Allied superiority, the end result of El Alamein was never really in doubt. The Axis troops fought hard but were gradually worn down in a battle of attrition. When a renewed offensive began on 2 November Rommel realized the game was up. Despite being told to stand and fight by Hitler, by 4 November the Afrika Korps began to retreat to the west. Four days later the Torch landings began.

The victory at El Alamein is often described as the turning point of the war against the Nazis, or, as Churchill put it, ‘the end of the beginning’. Along with the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad on 31 January 1943, El Alamein marked a point in the war when the balance swayed in favour of the Allies, and one on which all future successes were built.

Although one might speculate that the German defeat was down to a lack of air superiority, a lack of operational intelligence, the inferiority of their numbers and the disruption of their supplies, the success of Treatment and Bertram cannot be overlooked. Barkas modestly and rightly noted that none of his colleagues was ‘so foolish’ as to think that El Alamein had been won ‘by conjuring tricks, with stick, string and canvas’ and attributed the success to the bravery of the fighting men. However, in a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November Churchill acknowledged the importance of ‘surprise and strategy’ in the battle:

By a marvellous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert. The enemy suspected – indeed, knew – that an attack was impending, but when and where and how it was coming was hidden from him. The Xth Corps, which he had seen from the air exercising fifty miles in the rear, moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulacrum of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its points of attack. The enemy suspected that the attack was impending, but did not know how, when or where, and above all he had no idea of the scale upon which he was to be assaulted.

For the first time on a large scale, the planning of a cover for an operation involving camouflage, decoys, bogus signals traffic and double agents, had been successfully achieved. With varying degrees of success, this same recipe would now be applied to every major Allied operation in the build up to the Normandy invasion in 1944.

ZEITZLER AND PLAN ZITADELLE

As Chief of the Army General Staff (O.K.H), General Kurt Zeitzler was very much the prime mover of Zitadelle, being permitted by Hitler to draft the documentation and oversee its detailed planning. Although initially very much the vocal champion of the offensive, he was concerned about the continuing delays. By June, he began to express public doubts about continuing with Zitadelle.

Three days later, convinced that events in the East no longer required his presence, Hitler gave the order to close down Werewolf, his Russian headquarters at Vinnitsa in the western Ukraine, and return to Rastenburg. The flight to East Prussia was made via Smolensk and the headquarters of Army Group Centre, where Hitler, with Zeitzler in tow, arrived shortly after midday on 13 March, to confer with Field Marshal von Kluge. In expectation of gaining some insight into the Führer’s thinking on the expected wide-ranging summer offensive, von Kluge and his staff expressed surprise at the seeming modesty of his aspirations. When asked about his intentions for the coming campaign, Hitler revealed that there would be no offensive campaign in the summer of 1943. The Ostheer would hold the line and conduct merely limited operations in support of that objective.

The primary purpose of his visit however, was not to discuss strategy but to assess the progress of the step-by-step retreat of Colonel General Walter Model’s Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. The retreat was reaching its climax and the Ninth Army’s availability for employment in the proposed early, limited summer offensive, was the key to its execution and success. Hitler, until little more than a month before, had been consistently stubborn in his refusal to abandon this most forward German position on the road to Moscow. Its retention continued to pose a symbolic, if not an actual threat to the Soviet capital, which lay just 112 miles to the east. As such, the Rzhev salient maintained the fiction that a future German assault on Moscow remained a possibility. Although the Red Army had been most vigorous in its attempts to destroy the salient throughout 1942, the very skilful German defence of the position had stood as a rock in the face of numerous bloody and abortive Soviet assaults. Despite the losses inflicted on the Red Army, the Rzhev salient nevertheless tied down very extensive German forces at a time when demands for manpower from other sectors dictated that it should be abandoned to allow the front line to be shortened, permitting those divisions deployed therein to be released and made available for employment elsewhere. Such had been the constant refrain of Zeitzler in the weeks following the encirclement of Sixth Army. Hitler, unsurprisingly, would have none of it, until in the days following von Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad, events fortuitously conspired to permit Zeitzler to get his way, by putting to the Führer an offer that given the circumstances, he could hardly refuse.

With the beginning of the New Year and even before the end at Stalingrad, the Army Chief of Staff had privately concluded that the Ostheer would have little choice but to adopt a strategic defensive in the East in 1943. He also realised that the general weakness of the Wehrmacht precluded the adoption of a purely passive defence that would grant the ever-growing Red Army the luxury of assaulting the German line at any time and point. Whereas Hitler was prepared to ridicule and dismiss the increasingly pessimistic intelligence summaries of the Fremde Heer Ost, Zeitzler viewed the dispassionate reports of Colonel Gehlen’s department about the Red Army’s burgeoning military strength with growing alarm. It forecast that by the spring of 1943 Soviet manpower would total some 5.7 million combatants deployed in 62 armies, three tank armies and 28 armoured and mechanized corps. This in turn would translate into some 400 infantry divisions, 194 infantry brigades and 48 mechanised brigades. At this time it was estimated Soviet industry was producing about 1,500 tanks per month – once again an underestimate – to which would need to be added the growing numbers of armoured fighting vehicles being delivered by the Allies through the Lend-Lease programme.

Zeitzler concluded that the only solution lay in the execution of a limited offensive by the Ostheer, the purpose of which – through the destruction of large numbers of Soviet formations – would be to neutralise the Red Army sufficiently to stabilize the Eastern Front for the remainder of the summer. Mindful that OKW already had designs on ‘his’ mobile formations in the event of an Allied landing in Europe, it was imperative that such an operation be launched as early as possible before they were inevitably pulled out for service in the West. Already convinced in his own mind that only an offensive solution, albeit limited, could resolve the impasse in the East, Zeitzler was present at Rastenburg on 6 February when von Manstein obligingly volunteered his own tentative ‘forehand’ proposal for the same.

Given his daily proximity to Hitler, Zeitzler was party to the wider factors impinging on the Führer’s thinking in a way that the Field Marshal was not. Sensitive to Hitler’s own predilection for offensive solutions and mindful of the German leader’s continuing loss of confidence in the wake of Stalingrad, the Chief of Staff of the Army was prompted to exploit his own present high standing and seize the opportunity offered by these discussions to kill two birds with one stone.

With von Manstein’s departure, Zeitzler pointed out to Hitler the twin advantages that would accrue from withdrawing the Ninth Army from the Rzhev salient. Not only would it shorten the front line, thereby making the new one more economical to defend, but in addition, the one army command, five general commands and twenty-one divisions, including three panzer and two motorised infantry thus released would form an operational reserve. This could be drawn upon for employment in the limited offensive ‘forehand’ option outlined by the Field Marshal, to be directed at some as yet unspecified sector of the Soviet front, in the late spring/early summer. This was a horse trade Hitler could both understand, and to which he could assent. So taken was he with the possibilities opened up by Zeitzler’s proposal that the order for the withdrawal of Ninth Army and elements of Fourth Army from the Rzhev salient was sanctioned by him that very night, but on the strict proviso that the forces released be retained as an operational reserve for future offensive employment.

Enacting long prepared plans to address such an order, the systematic withdrawal of the 250,000 men of the Ninth Army thus began in conditions of the greatest secrecy on 1 March. When Hitler arrived at Zaporozhye to confer with von Manstein on the 10th, Operation Buffel was still underway and moving towards a successful conclusion. In the meantime, it had also become apparent that halting the Soviet Central Front in its westward advance along the Sumy-Rylsk line at the end of February had served to generate a huge Soviet salient projecting deeply into Army Group Centre’s position. This provided the Red Army with a superb jumping-off point for future offensive operations. It was not lost on either Hitler or Zeitzler that the numerous Soviet forces now deeply echeloned within the position and being reinforced by other units flowing into the salient on a daily basis, was creating the optimum target for the limited and early offensive they wished to launch against the Red Army. Furthermore, the formations of Ninth Army – which by the 25 March would include fifteen infantry, three panzer and two motorized infantry divisions – along with the SS Cavalry division, redeploying into the sector of 2nd Panzer Army and earmarked for the planned ‘forehand’ operation, was now ideally placed to provide the strike force against the northern neck of this salient.

Thus, by 10 March, Hitler and Zeitzler had already agreed in principle to the destruction of the Kursk salient as being the primary focus of early German offensive action once the dry weather returned and the mobile formations had been rested and refitted. On this occasion, Hitler took an uncharacteristic back seat in the actual planning of the operation, devolving oversight of it and the drawing up of the necessary directives to Zeitzler. The continuing loss of nerve he had suffered in consequence of the Stalingrad débâcle had resulted in his willingness to defer to the advice of the professional military, and Zeitzler was more than happy to embrace the opportunity. So the primary force behind the planning for the operation was the Army Chief of Staff. General Warlimont of the OKW was later to observe how Zeitzler certainly viewed Zitadelle – at least in this early period – as very much his offensive.

In addition to those other factors that prompted Zeitzler to embrace the ‘forehand option’, he was all too aware that there were many in the senior ranks of the army who still regarded him as a relative parvenu. Many believed that he was promoted above his station, and held none of the advantages of seniority, experience or authority of his highly-regarded predecessor, General Franz Halder. There was a strong sense following his appointment on 24 September 1942 that Zietzler was very much Hitler’s man, having been selected because he would be a willing and pliable instrument in executing the latter’s will with respect to the conduct of the war in the East. Certainly his initial address to his staff officers at OKH – where he demanded that they must ‘believe in the Führer and in his method of command’ – seemed to bear out this perception. In his first year of office it was apparent that ‘he enjoyed Hitler’s confidence, but not necessarily that of his own general staff subordinates or of the army groups in the East, for he tended to be a mouthpiece and telephonic link between them and the Führer’. That being said, he was no mere poodle, as there is ample documentary evidence to show that when push came to shove he could, and did stand up to Hitler, thereby gaining his respect. It is against this backdrop that we should understand his advocacy for Zitadelle. Its successful execution would clearly do much to enhance his credibility in the eyes of those senior army commanders in the East who at present still nursed doubts about his capacity to exercise the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

This is not to say that Hitler was divorced from the planning process, as has been implied elsewhere. It is clear that both men were in frequent discussions between 6 February and 13 March, and that Operational Order No.5, presented by Zeitzler to Hitler for his signature on his return to Rastenburg – while produced by Zeitzler and thus reflective of his own agenda – was nevertheless thoroughly in accord with Hitler’s own wishes and desires.

OPERATION AERIAL (SOUTHERN SECTOR) I

Troop evacuation on SS Guinean during Operation Aerial.

Ports utilised during the evacuation of British and Allied forces, 15–25 June 1940, under the codename Operation Aerial.

During Operation Aerial [or Ariel] , Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith had two tasks at the ports in the southern sector. As well as rescuing a large number of British, Polish and Czechoslovakian troops, he also had the job of trying to stop the French Atlantic fleet from being surrendered to the Germans.

About 85,000 Polish troops had been deployed to France, under the command of General Władysław Sikorski, and were still in the process of being established as fighting formations when the Battle of France erupted. This army was partially destroyed during the hostilities, but over 24,000 men would be evacuated to the United Kingdom where they would form a Polish Free Army.

Similarly, the Czech army in exile in France formed a division consisting of about 5,000 men, commanded by General Rudolf Viest. During the battle this unit was involved in heavy fighting, but most of its personnel were evacuated to reform in Britain as the 1st Czechoslovak Mixed Brigade Group.

In the first instance, it seems that Dunbar-Nasmith was not completely aware of the urgency of the situation and his first action was to send senior naval officers to Brest and Saint-Nazaire on 16 June to begin the process of evacuating stores and equipment. This he thought would take about a week to complete. In Britain the War Office had a clearer picture of what was happening, and he was ordered to begin the evacuation of troops immediately.

The evacuation from Brest occurred between 16 and 17 June, during which a total of 28,145 British and 4,439 Allied personnel were rescued. This included a large number from the RAF, mainly ground crews of the Advanced Air Striking Force. There was very little interference from the Luftwaffe, who carried out no heavy air raids against the port during the extraction process.

Churchill was worried that the French Atlantic Fleet, which was anchored at Brest, would ultimately fall into enemy hands and had ordered Dunbar-Nasmith to do all he could to persuade the French naval commanders to sail to Britain. However, at 16:00 on 17 June most of this armada set sail for French North African ports such as Casablanca and Dakar, with only a small number steering a course for Britain.

The evacuation from Saint-Nazaire did not go as smoothly as at some of the other ports and certainly drew more attention from the Luftwaffe. Saint-Nazaire is situated at the mouth of the River Loire, which is subject to very strong currents so the larger ships had to wait along the shore at Quiberon Bay before moving to the port to pick up evacuees or otherwise have them ferried and boarded offshore. Fifty miles up the river is the port city of Nantes, from where Dunbar-Nasmith was led to believe that somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 Allied troops were evacuating to Saint-Nazaire, hoping to be evacuated, but he had no idea of when they were expected to arrive.

Lifting this number of men would be a huge undertaking. Dunbar-Nasmith accordingly assembled an impressive rescue force consisting mainly of the destroyers HMS Havelock, HMS Wolverine and HMS Beagle; the passenger liners MV Georgic, SS Duchess of York, RMS Franconia and RMS Lancastria; the Polish ships MS Batory and MS Sobieski; and several commercial cargo ships. Waiting at anchor in Quiberon Bay these ships were very vulnerable to air attack, but British fighter aircraft managed to restrict the Luftwaffe to minelaying. However, this in itself caused delays because special ships fitted out as minesweepers would have to sweep and clear the channels of mines before the evacuation ships could move.

The evacuation started on 16 June when MV Georgic, HMS Duchess of York and the two Polish ships sailed to the port and lifted 16,000 troops before taking them to Plymouth. During the hours of darkness, ships continued to load equipment from the harbour, and two further destroyers, HMS Highlander and HMS Vanoc, arrived to lend a hand.

Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No. 73 Squadron flew their last sorties from their base at Nantes before flying off to southern England. Unserviceable Hurricanes were burned by their ground crews, who then made their way towards Saint-Nazaire to be evacuated aboard the ill-fated liner RMS Lancastria.

The Lancastria was built on the River Clyde by William Beardmore and Company for Anchor Line, a subsidiary of Cunard. She was launched in 1920 and was originally called the RMS Tyrrhenia. Designed to carry 2,200 people, including three passenger classes and a crew of 375, she made her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Quebec City in June 1922. In 1924 she was refitted for two classes, renamed Lancastria and sailed scheduled routes between Liverpool and New York until 1932, after which she was employed as a cruise ship. She was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport as a troopship in October 1939 and became His Majesty’s Transport (HMT) Lancastria.

On 13 June 1940 she was in Liverpool in readiness for dry-docking and essential repairs, including the removal of 1,400 tons of surplus oil fuel. Her crew had been given shore leave although her chief officer, Harry Grattidge, remained with the ship for the initial stages of dry-docking. Around midday he went to the Cunard office, where he was instructed to recall the crew immediately because the ship had to set sail at midnight. Remarkably, all but three of the crew returned to the ship in time, although naturally the repairs had not been implemented.

The Lancastria first sailed to Plymouth under the command of Captain Rudolph Sharp and from there, accompanied by another of Cunard’s requisitioned ships, the RMS Franconia, set off for Brest with orders to proceed to Quiberon Bay. Approaching their final destination the Franconia was attacked by a single Junkers Ju88 bomber, which caused sufficient damage for her to be returned to Liverpool.

Later that day the Lancastria was ordered to a spot roughly five nautical miles south of Chémoulin Point and nine nautical miles west of Saint-Nazaire, where she arrived early in the morning of 17 June. Here she was loaded with men while at anchorage, with the evacuees being ferried out to her in tugs, tenders and other small craft.

Nobody knows how many people were onboard the ship, but by mid-afternoon on 17 June, estimates vary from around 4,000 to an incredible 9,000; the general consensus is 6,000 plus. Captain Sharp had been instructed by the Admiralty to disregard the limits set down under international law and to load as many men as possible. For a ship that could only comfortably support 2,200, we can only imagine how cramped it must have been, particularly on the upper decks, where men would have occupied every available space.

What is known is that there was a varied group of people on board. As well as RAF personnel there were many of Major-General de Fonblanque’s lines of communication troops and men of the Beauman Division. There were certainly Royal Army Service Corps and Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps troops on board. There were also many civilians, such as embassy staff and employees of Fairey Aviation of Belgium (Avions Fairey), the Belgian-based subsidiary of the British Fairey Aviation company that built aircraft for the Belgian government. Its workers had been evacuated to France in order to relocate to British aircraft factories and had ended up at Saint-Nazaire, from where they were taken out to the Lancastria.

The Lancastria was only one of a number of ships in the area, which soon drew the attention of the Luftwaffe. At around 13:50 aircraft attacked and hit the nearby 20,000-ton Orient liner SS Oronsay. Although a bomb hit her bridge, destroying her compass and all her navigating equipment, she survived the attack and fortunately there were no fatalities.

The Lancastria was by now fully loaded and was given the all-clear to depart, but unfortunately the Royal Navy had no spare destroyers to provide her with an escort. Captain Sharp, concerned about the possibility of being a target for German submarines if she set sail alone, decided to wait for the Oronsay to accompany her along with the first available escort destroyer.

While the ship waited a further air raid began, and consequently, at around 15:48, she received four direct hits from Junkers Ju88s belonging to Kampfgeschwader 30. This caused the ship to list, first to starboard and then to port, before she finally rolled over and sank, all within the space of twenty minutes.

The sea where the ship went down was covered with leaking oil including the 1,400 tons that had not been removed in Liverpool, much of which was now burning on the surface. Many of the survivors drowned or were choked by the smoke. The ship only carried 2,000 lifejackets and it is probable that some of these would not have been accessed in time. German aircraft also flew over the scene repeatedly, strafing the men in the water with machine guns and using tracer bullets to light up more of the oil slick.

The actual air raid finished at approximately 16:30 and a number of both French and British vessels came to pick up survivors. For instance, the trawler HMS Cambridgeshire, which was the first vessel to arrive, took on board around 900, most of which were then transferred to the steam merchant ship John Holt. There were 2,447 survivors in total but the number of those who died is unknown. Over the years The Lancastria Association, established to preserve the memory of those who perished, has researched a list of 1,738 people who were known to have been killed. However the real figure is unquestionably much higher than that: modern estimates range from between 3,000 and 5,800 fatalities, which would represent the biggest loss of life in British maritime history.

The seriously wounded were taken to Saint-Nazaire for medical treatment but most of those whom were rescued were ferried back to Plymouth. The destroyers HMS Beagle and HMS Havelock took 600 and 460 respectively; the John Holt carried 829; the tanker Cymbula another 252; and the liner RMS Oronsay 1,557. Lesser numbers were also evacuated in other ships.

Coming amidst the news of so many unfolding disasters, Winston Churchill initially forbade newspaper editors to publish the story, and consequently the sinking did not become common knowledge in Britain for a number of years. The families of those who were known to have perished were simply told that their loved ones died fighting with the BEF in France. Churchill intended to lift the ban after a few days but the disaster was quickly followed by the French surrender, the fear of invasion and the start of the Battle of Britain. Under the intense pressure of these momentous occasions Churchill forgot to lift the ban until he was reminded of it again later in the war.

Later, on the night of 17 June, HMS Cambridgeshire was ordered to evacuate the commander-in-chief of the BEF, Alan Brooke and his staff. Because the ship had been involved in the rescue of men from the Lancastria, there were no rafts or lifejackets onboard and the decks were strewn with discarded clothing. The ship sailed from Saint-Nazaire at 15:00 on 18 June and arrived in Plymouth late on the afternoon of the following day, having acted as an escort to a convoy of evacuation ships en route.

After the sinking of the Lancastria the evacuation from Saint-Nazaire continued, with a convoy of ten ships lifting 23,000 men just after dawn on 18 June; this left only 4,000 still to be evacuated. However, the next part of the operation became slightly frantic as Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that the Germans were about to storm the port. At 11:00 a.m. that same day, further ships picked up the last 4,000 men but failed to retrieve a large amount of military equipment and supplies in their haste to escape.

OPERATION AERIAL (SOUTHERN SECTOR) II

THE SINKING OF THE CUNARD LINER SS LANCASTRIA OFF ST NAZAIRE

On 17 June the Lancastria, pleasure cruiser of peacetime, had taken her full complement of British troops and civilians aboard from the evacuation port of St Nazaire when three Luftwaffe aircraft attacked and sank her.

The next day the Germans had still not arrived, but Dunbar-Nasmith was led to believe that some 8,000 Polish soldiers had reached the port. Seven transport ships and six destroyers were accordingly sent to pick these men up but they could only find 2,000. These men represented the final evacuation from Saint-Nazaire. In total, 57,235 troops had been rescued, 54,411 of which were British, with most of the others being Polish.

Further south, the final place due for evacuation in accordance with Operation Aerial was La Pallice, the commercial deepwater port of the city of La Rochelle. Unfortunately, when the senior naval officer reached here on 16 June, he discovered quantities of soldiers waiting to be lifted but no transports, as all of the ships he had been promised had been sent to Brest and Saint-Nazaire instead. He decided to requisition some cargo ships that he found in the harbour and embarked the troops on these, although again all their vehicles and equipment were left behind. This convoy eventually got away safely on 18 June.

On two occasions after La Pallice had been cleared, Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that further troops had reached the port. Twice he ordered ships to fetch them away. On 19 June around 4,000 Polish troops were embarked, but the following day very few men were found. As well as the Poles, 2,303 British soldiers were also rescued from La Pallice. This marked the end of Operation Aerial as it had originally been planned; but by now things had moved on again and there were stories of more troops gathering even further south.

The ships that were left empty at La Pallice and therefore not required were sent further south again to Bordeaux, which nestled along the River Gironde. There were now practically no British troops left in France but there were embassy and consular staffs to be brought away, as well as considerable numbers of Polish and Czech troops and British and foreign civilians desperate to leave France before the German conquest was complete.

The first British ships arrived in the Gironde estuary on 16 June. These were the cruiser HMS Arethusa and the destroyer HMS Berkeley. They carried the senior naval officers given the task of directing these final rounds of evacuations. After delivering her passengers, the Arethusa was stationed off Bordeaux to act as a radio and communications centre. The next day all British and some Allied shipping in the port was ordered to make their way to England, while the embarkation of Czech and Polish troops and civilians began. Similar traffic continued through the next two days, with several thousand souls evacuated.

On 19 June the destroyer HMS Berkeley took aboard the various embassy and consular staffs that had made their way to Bordeaux and transferred them to the Arethusa. The Berkeley was then relieved by the cruiser HMS Galatea and sailed back to Plymouth with the president of Poland, Władysław Raczkiewicz, and many of his ministers and a number of other important dignitaries on board. Embarkation of Allied troops and civilians continued meanwhile from Le Verdon-sur-Mer, at the mouth of the River Gironde, where a large contingent of 6,000 Polish troops had arrived.

The operation continued to stretch further south where the Polish ships MS Batory and MS Sobieski and the liners MV Ettrick and SS Arandora Star went to Bayonne, where between 19 and 20 June they rescued roughly 9,000 men. These ships then continued on to Saint Jean-de-Luz, very close to the border with Spain, where poor weather delayed the start of the evacuation until 24 June. The British ambassador to France, Sir Ronald Campbell, stayed with the French government, which had moved from Paris to Bordeaux, until 23 June, then made his way to Arcachon before finally being evacuated from Saint Jean-de-Luz.

On the political front, Paul Reynaud had resigned as prime minister of France on 16 June, in the belief that he had lost the support of his Cabinet. He was succeeded by Marshal of France Philippe Pétain, who delivered a radio address to the French people announcing his intention to seek an armistice with Nazi Germany. At 18:36 on 22 June the French effectively surrendered, when they signed the armistice near Compiègne, which would take effect after midnight on 25 June. Signatories for Germany included Wilhelm Keitel, the commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, while those on the French side were more junior, such as General Charles Huntziger. This agreement established a German occupation zone in northern and western France that encompassed all English Channel and Atlantic ports. Italy also received a small zone in the south-east, and an unoccupied zone would be governed by the newly formed Vichy government led by Philippe Pétain which, though officially neutral, was generally aligned with the Nazis.

When Hitler received word from the French government that they wished to negotiate an armistice, he symbolically selected the Compiègne Forest as the site for the negotiations, as this was the site of the 1918 armistice ending the First World War. Hitler considered this location to be the ultimate revenge for Germany over France. With that said, in the final sentence of the preamble the drafters inserted the following: ‘Germany does not have the intention to use the armistice conditions and armistice negotiations as a form of humiliation against such a valiant opponent.’ Furthermore, in Article 3, Clause 2, the drafters stated that their intention was not to heavily occupy France after the cessation of hostilities.

So, on 21 June 1940, in the very same railway carriage in which the 1918 armistice had been signed, which had been retrieved from a museum and placed on the precise spot where it was located in 1918, Hitler sat in the same chair in which Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat when he faced the representatives of the defeated German Empire. After listening to the reading of the preamble, Hitler left the carriage, just as Foch had done in 1918, leaving the negotiations to the high command of the armed forces, namely Keitel. The negotiations lasted one day, until the evening of 22 June 1940. General Huntziger had to discuss the terms by telephone with the French government representatives in Bordeaux, mainly with the newly nominated defence minister, General Maxime Weygand.

Soon news of the armistice had reached the French authorities in the various ports, who informed the British that all evacuations must end at noon on 25 June. Despite this, the last troopship did not leave until 14:30 on that day after a total of 19,000 military personnel, mostly Polish troops, were rescued from Bayonne and Saint Jean-de-Luz.

In defiance of French instructions, a final set of evacuations took place from ports along the Mediterranean coast of France, including Sète, from 24 and 26 June. From here, another 10,000 troops, mostly Polish and Czechoslovakian, as well as a few civilian refugees embarked for Gibraltar before moving on to England. One of the Czech soldiers was Franta Belsky, who prior to the war had been an art student in London, as he recalled:

I had just started at the Central School of Art in London and hearing that a Czechoslovak army was being formed in France, I trotted off to the embassy and joined up – I was eighteen. We were impatient for the first transport to go and I waited and sculpted and had time to take my entrance to the Royal College of Art before we left.

We crossed the Channel with British troops but as civilians – oh, those eggs and bacon served to them. We entrained at Le Havre for a journey across chaotic France, taking five days and four nights. We kept stopping all the way and I kept asking the railwaymen for coloured chalks and started decorating the front of the engine, gradually down the sides of the train: with a panorama of the Prague castle, slogans, songs, fighting soldiers.

On arrival at the depot camp in Agde (a concentration camp built for the Spanish Civil War Republican refugees) I was called to the education officer: would I like to stay as the resident artist? ‘Sir, I came to fight; kindly send me to a unit’, was my reply. I still designed a few field post stamps and badges before getting to a battery of First World War horse drawn 75’s.

We were idealistic students, all lumped together under ex-Foreign Legion NCOs. We decided to ask for a transfer to a new crack anti-tank battery. We lived to see the Fall of France – the sister battery had eleven survivors. Cut off from everywhere except the Southern ports my lot made for Sète. Rumours abounded that we were going to Africa, to the Foreign Legion – we would have gone anywhere.

Back in London, unknown to us, the exiled president Edvard Beneš asked Churchill for help. Instantly he diverted cargo ships to pick us up, take us to Gibraltar and from there to England, where we landed five weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. We entered the British Army, swore allegiance to The King and regrouped in Cholmondeley Park.

After the war Franta Belsky became a notable sculptor, Among his most important works is the Royal Air Force Memorial in Prague, which celebrates Czechs who served with the RAF during the war.

Collectively, operations Cycle and Aerial accounted for the rescue of 191,870 military personnel. This figure comprised 144,171 British, 18,246 French, 24,352 Polish, 4,938 Czechs and 163 Belgians; also rescued were 310 artillery guns, 2,292 vehicles, and 1,800 tons of stores. However, most equipment, especially tanks and other heavy vehicles, had to be left behind. When combined with Operation Dynamo, a total of 558,032 men were rescued from the French ports.

Although the BEF had now been completely evacuated and all British forces had been returned home, there was still one pressing issue which Churchill felt he had to deal with. Although the French army had surrendered, its navy, one of the greatest in the world, remained intact. Churchill was still fearful that its ships would be delivered up to the Nazis, even though their commander, Admiral François Darlan, insisted that they would not. However, Churchill was not prepared to take the gamble and tried to convince his War Cabinet that attacking the French fleet was their best course of action. The Cabinet was not convinced as they still considered France to be a friendly power. Churchill demanded that the French fleet either surrendered to Britain, or sailed to British ports. Darlan refused, and Churchill finally got the backing of his War Cabinet and ordered an attack on the French ships.

On 3 July the British surrounded the French fleet at the port of Mers-el-Kebir outside Oran in Algeria. Churchill sent Darlan a message to sail his ships to Britain or the USA, or to scuttle them within six hours. The French showed the British an order they had received from Darlan instructing them to sail the ships to the USA if the Germans broke the armistice and demanded them.

Meanwhile, the British intercepted a message from the Vichy government ordering French reinforcements to move urgently to Oran. Churchill was through playing games and ordered the attack to his commanders. An hour and a half later the British attacked. In less than ten minutes, 1,297 French personnel were dead and three battleships were sunk. One battleship and five destroyers managed to escape.

While the French were furious over these events, the reaction in England was the exact opposite. The day after the attack Churchill went to the House of Commons to explain why he had ordered it. For the first time since taking office as prime minister, Churchill received a unanimous standing ovation.

Britain now stood completely alone, with only her Commonwealth partners to lend support. The Germans were positioned all along the French Atlantic and Channel coasts, and Hitler ordered his military chiefs to draw up plans for the invasion of the country belonging to his one undefeated enemy. For the people of Great Britain the darkest days were still ahead, as Churchill announced to the nation:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.

Wolfe’s Deception 1759

Over time, most western European countries engaged in wars with one another, forming assorted alliances, settling old scores, and always looking for ways to gain wealth, power, and land. Fought on North American soil, the French and Indian War (1756–1763) pitted the British against the French and their Native American allies in an extension of hostilities between the two nations that also played out in Europe and on the high seas.

The British wanted to drive the French from North America. After many successes by the French forces in the Ohio Valley and in Canada, the tide of the war changed when William Pitt became England’s new secretary of state and adapted English battlefield tactics to fit the New World terrain and environment. In addition, some of the Native American tribes changed sides and fought with the British. The French found themselves with two outposts: Fort Carillon (later called Ticonderoga), in upstate New York, and the city fortress of Québec. When Carillon fell to British forces, Pitt’s men turned their attention to Québec, an “almost impregnable fortress” on the cliffs of the St. Lawrence River.

The generals in charge of both armies were highly decorated soldiers. General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, a career soldier, commanded the French troops in the fortress. His opponent, General James Wolfe, was fresh from an inspired victory over the French at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, off Canada’s Atlantic coast.

The armies were evenly matched with about 4,500 to 4,800 soldiers each. The French, however, had several advantages. First, they were stationed safely within the walls of the city, perched on a fifty-foot cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Second, the weather favored the French, who believed that they could wait out the British. With winter approaching, threatening to ice over the river, the British would not be able to keep their ships in the water much longer. And with the British ships gone, supplies would again flow freely to the garrison at Québec. Wolfe knew he had to do something to draw Montcalm from the fortress. If he could meet the French army on an open field, he believed that his highly trained, veteran army would easily defeat the French, who were mostly militia forces.

In Wolfe’s first attempt to draw the French out, he landed his troops at Point Levis, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, opposite Québec. He began a bombardment of the fortress, hoping that it would force the French to leave. Although “most of the lower town was destroyed, Montcalm would not be drawn Wolfe’s next effort also failed to achieve the result he wanted. He landed some troops upriver of Québec, hoping that this would draw troops from the garrison. Montcalm did send out six hundred men, but only to guard the paths from the river to the fortress. With French soldiers now protecting the paths, Wolfe’s men would never be able to reach the top of the cliffs.

Then British scouts returned with news. There was a small French camp at Anse-au-Foulon, about a mile and a half west of the city. With this intelligence, Wolfe believed that he could now use a deception strategy sometimes called “uproar east, attack west” to lure the French into a battle that would be their undoing.

He ordered Admiral Charles Saunders to move the British fleet to a position opposite one of Montcalm’s main camps east of the city. The fleet needed to give the impression that it was preparing for an attack. Montcalm fell for the demonstration deception, moving troops to guard against a British assault from that point in the river.

In the meantime, Wolfe launched his main action. He sent a small “band of eager volunteers” ashore near Anse-au-Foulon and eliminated the soldiers encamped there. Now one of the roads to the heights near Québec was open, and Wolfe brought as many troops as possible up it. Before long, he found the open field he had been hoping for: a farmer’s field just west of Québec that would become known as the Plains of Abraham. In the early morning, he deployed 3,300 regular soldiers in two lines that stretched across the field for a little more than half a mile. His instructions to his men were emphatic: do not fire until the French are within forty paces. This time the French did come. Alerted by a French soldier who had escaped the assault at the camp, Montcalm marched his troops to face the British on the Plains of Abraham. As one historian wrote, “It was a time to defend not to attack. . . . But Montcalm did exactly what Wolfe wanted.” He put his undisciplined soldiers against the professional soldiers of King George.

The British held their fire as the French approached. Wolfe had ordered his men to charge their muskets with two balls each in preparation for the engagement. Some of the French soldiers fired random shots. Then the British line launched a withering volley, instantly cutting down many of the French soldiers. The British soldiers stepped forward a few paces before unleashing another deadly volley at the stunned enemy. The British pressed on, firing as they advanced. More French fell. The army was “disintegrating, falling back in disorder into the town.” Wolfe’s success came at a high price: both he and Montcalm were mortally wounded in the battle. Wolfe died on the battlefield; Montcalm died in Québec that night.

The fall of Québec was the turning point in the French and Indian War, and it was Wolfe’s deception that gave the British the opportunity they needed to defeat the French. One historian calls it “one of the most momentous battles in world history” because it drove the French from the territory that was to become Canada and “produced the political circumstances in which the United States of America emerged.”

Oilfields of Borneo – 1942

“Pacific Offensive, 1942: • Sergeant-Major, Infantry; Borneo, January 1942 • Superior Private, Infantry; Java, DEI, March 1942 • Seaman 2nd Class paratrooper, 1st (Yokosuka) Special Landing Unit; Celebes, DEI, January 1942”, Stephen Andrew

As the oilfields of Borneo – and two weeks later, the oil fields of Sumatra – would fulfill a strategic objective on the Japanese Southern Road, other moves made on the Dutch East Indies chessboard were designed to address tactical concerns. As the Japanese closed in on Java and Sumatra, the Dutch, who had barely defended Borneo, were concentrating their resources, just as General Arthur Ernest Percival intended to do with his British Commonwealth assets in Singapore.

Just as IJA and IJN airpower was keeping pace with Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army on the Malay Peninsula, moving into abandoned RAF bases closer and closer to the front, the tactical plan for the ultimate battle in the Dutch East Indies required a network of airfields on other islands which were closer to Java and Sumatra. One such island was the major Dutch East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) to the east of Borneo and due south of the Philippines.

Offshore, the Celebes operation was supported by a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka which included the cruiser Jintsu, his flagship, ten destroyers, two seaplane tenders, and several minesweepers. An additional covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi included the cruisers Nachi, Haguro, and Myoko, and two destroyers. They were all part of the growing IJN presence in the nearly 3 million square miles of Dutch East Indies waters.

The IJN surface fleet in this area was divided generally into two operating groups. The Western Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commander of the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Fleet, was tasked with operations in the South China Sea, and had supported the campaign in Malaya and Singapore. The Eastern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, conducted operations from eastern Borneo, east through Celebes, Ambon, Timor, and eastward to New Guinea.

Operations ashore in Celebes were conducted entirely by the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces, and occurred simultaneously with the IJA and IJN landings on Tarakan. This ground action, which was a brief one that history treats almost as a footnote to the Borneo operations, is notable for including the first Japanese airborne operation in Southeast Asia. The latter was a precursor to tactics that were to be revisited a month later in Sumatra.

Under the command of Captain Kunizo Mori, 2,500 men of the 1st and 2nd Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces conducted the initial amphibious landings near the northern Celebes cities of Manado (also spelled Menado) and Kema before dawn on January 11, overwhelming the outnumbered KNIL defenders.

Meanwhile, staging out of Davao, 28 transport variants of the Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber carried more than 300 paratroopers from the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to a drop zone behind the invasion beaches. Landing at about 9:30 am on January 11, the paratroopers surprised the Dutch defenders, and began an assault on the airfield at Langoan and the seaplane base at Kakas.

The unexpected attack from above certainly reminded the Dutch troops of the use by the Germans of airborne troops in the conquest of their home country in May 1940. Indeed, Japanese tactical planners in both the IJA and IJN had made note of the successful use of German Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers, as a spearhead during the Wehrmacht spring offensive of 1940, and had begun training their own airborne troops. Germany’s capture of the entire island of Crete, solely by airborne troops, in May 1941, must have been especially noteworthy as the Japanese planners pondered the island-studded map of the Southern Road. In retrospect, it is a wonder that the tactic was not employed on a wider scale.

A second airborne attack by the 1st Yokosuka on January 12 brought additional landing forces to Celebes, and assured the capture of the Langoan airfield. Though some of the Dutch troops managed to hide out in the mountains for about a month, northern Celebes was secured by the middle of the month.

With this, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd Sasebo headed south. Just as Sakaguchi had leapfrogged down the Borneo coast from Tarakan to Balikpapan, Mori embarked from Manado and headed for Kendari, at the southeast corner of Celebes. His Special Naval Landing Forces, aboard six transports, were escorted by a task force commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, which included the cruiser Nagara, his flagship, eight destroyers, and support ships. As with the task force that had supported Mori at Manado, Kubo’s contingent was part of the IJN Eastern Force.

Mori went ashore under cover of darkness on the night of January 23–24, the same night that Sakaguchi had landed at Balikpapan. Within 24 hours, the defenders had been overcome, and the Japanese were in control of the strategically important airfield at Kendari.

Capturing airfields was a priority second only to the petroleum facilities in the Dutch East Indies, for they brought land-based Japanese fighters and bombers incrementally closer to future battlefields farther south on the Southern Road. The air base at Kendari was destined to be one of the most important. Centrally located within the Dutch East Indies, it would be an important refueling stop. It was also the base of operations for the devastating air attack on Darwin, Australia, which would terrify the land down under three weeks later.

Just as the airfields on Celebes were part of the Sumatra and Java strategy, other Dutch islands far to the east hosted airfields that would be useful in operations against Dutch- and Australian-administered New Guinea, which were scheduled for April. Centrally located between Celebes and New Guinea was 299-square-mile Ambon Island, part of the Molucca (now Maluku) Archipelago, 500 miles east of Celebes, 1,600 miles east of Palembang, and 250 miles west of New Guinea. The strategic importance of Ambon and the substantial, paved airfield at Laha on the island had been lost on neither the Dutch nor the Australians. They had agreed to jointly reinforce the island, but the first contingent of RAAF Hudson bombers had not touched down at Laha until December 7, 1941, less than 24 hours before the general outbreak of hostilities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Australians also sent troops, but they had few to spare. As we have seen, three of the four infantry divisions which comprised the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were in North Africa helping the British fight the German Afrika Korps. Most of the 8th Division, except the 23rd Brigade, was helping the British defend Malaya.

The one brigade held back was given the precarious and impossible task of the forward defense of Australia itself. It was divided into what were known as the “Bird Forces,” having been given what the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historical factsheet colorfully describes as “ominously non-predatory names.” Forward defense of Australia meant outposts on islands north of that country and east of Malaya which were astride important sea lanes between Japanese-held territory and Australia. It was Gull Force that was dispatched to Ambon, while Sparrow Force went to Timor, and Lark Force went to New Britain, far to the east.

Each of the Bird Forces was essentially a single battalion, roughly a thousand or fewer infantrymen, reinforced with artillery and support troops. Deployed in 1941 before the full weight of the immense Japanese offensive had been experienced, each was sent to do a job that should have been done by a force a dozen times larger.

Deploying about ten days after Pearl Harbor, the 1,100-man Gull Force, centered on the 2/21st Battalion of the AIF, arrived on Ambon, joining a Dutch garrison on the island that consisted of the poorly trained 2,800-man KNIL Molucca Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kapitz. Gull Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Roach, but he was replaced on January 16 by Lieutenant Colonel John Scott, who was no stranger to amphibious operations, having participated in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Scott arrived to find his new command in pitiful condition, with malaria and other diseases rampant in the equatorial heat, which still swelters in January.

Both USN and Koninklijk Marine flying boats operated out of Ambon, flying patrol missions, as well as frequent evacuations of civilians, but they were pulled out in mid-January, against the backdrop of increasing Japanese air attacks. Air defense of Ambon consisted of a few Brewster Buffaloes, which rose to meet IJN seaplane bombers that began visiting Ambon early in January at the same time as the offensive against northern Borneo.

The Buffaloes held their own for a while, but they were no match for the carrier-based IJN Zeros that first appeared over the island on January 24, the same day as the invasions of Balikpapan and Kendari. For the Ambon operation, the IJN brought in the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, both of which had been part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force. At Ambon, they targeted Dutch and Australian aircraft, compelling Wavell to make the decision to pull out the last of the Allied aircraft to preserve them to fight another day. When the invasion fleet was sighted at dusk on January 30, the Allied ground troops knew they would have to face the enemy with no air cover.

The fact that the IJN had used seaplanes and carrier-based aircraft to conduct operations against Ambon is, in itself, an illustration of why the Japanese needed to have airfields at locations across the sprawling Indies.

The remainder of the naval escort for the ten transport ships of the invasion fleet to which the Hiryu and Soryu were attached was largely the same contingent that had supported operations against Manado on January 11. Commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, this force was comprised of his flagship, the cruiser Jintsu, as well as eight destroyers and support vessels. The same covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi that had supported Tanaka at Kendari also accompanied him to Ambon.

As in Borneo, the ground operation at Ambon was to be a joint operation between the IJA and the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. The latter contingent included 820 men from the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, while the IJA contingent of approximately 4,500 men was centered on the 228th Infantry Regiment, one of three regiments in the 38th Division, which had taken part in the conquest of Hong Kong. This joint force was known as the Ito Detachment and commanded by Major General Takeo Ito, who had commanded the entire 38th Division at Hong Kong, and who operated at Ambon under the banner of the division’s headquarters.

The first wave of IJA Ito Detachment came ashore during the night of January 30–31, with the IJN landing forces in the north, and the 288th mainly in the south. Ambon is nearly bisected by Ambon Bay, which cuts into the island from the southeast. The southern part contains the major population centers, while Laha airfield was across the bay on the northern part. Most of the defenders were located in these areas, but the initial Japanese landings were on the lightly defended north, and the least-defended area on the south side, well away from coastal guns guarding the entrance to Ambon Bay. Of course, established beachheads can be expanded more easily than landing troops under fire.

During January 31, the Japanese moved rapidly, reaching Australian-defended Laha from the north, and capturing Ambon City in the south by around 4:00 pm.

As the Allies shifted troops to face the landings, they left holes in their lines, which were exploited by the Japanese. A second wave of Ito Detachment troops came ashore at Passo (also written in some accounts as Paso) at the neck of the Laitimor Peninsula, effectively cutting the island in two. At the same time, the Japanese also snipped the telephone line which was the only way that the Allied troops could communicate with one another. The absence of communications isolated the various units and created confusion.

Kapitz ordered his men to continue fighting, which they did. However, shortly after midnight, the Japanese captured Kapitz, who had moved his headquarters close to Passo. For most of February 1, the action involved an Allied withdrawal, away from Passo and Ambon City, toward the southeast tip of the Laitimor Peninsula. These troops, with Colonel Scott still in command, had their backs to the Banda Sea, and realized that their position was essentially hopeless.

As this was ongoing, Admiral Tanaka ordered his minesweepers into Ambon Bay to clear the mines laid by the Koninklijke Marine, before they withdrew from Ambon earlier in January. This was in preparation for landing additional troops inside the bay. However, much to the immense joy of the troops fighting for their lives on the peninsula, one of the minesweepers struck a mine, blew up, and sank. Another was damaged.

Nevertheless, the jubilation that the Allied troops enjoyed at this juncture was certainly qualified by the pounding that was being dished out to them in the form of offshore naval gunfire and air attacks from the air wings aboard the Hiryu and Soryu. Throughout February 1, the naval bombardment also fell on the Australian and Dutch troops that were still trying to defend the airfield across the bay at Laha. On the morning of February 2, having encircled Laha, the landing troops, under Commander Kunito Hatakeyama, launched a ferocious assault aimed at dislodging the defenders. At around 10:00 am, Major Mark Newbury, commanding the joint force at Laha, decided that any further resistance would waste lives in an impossible situation, and ordered his men to surrender. Scott surrendered the defenders of the Laitimor Peninsula on February 3. About 30 Australian Diggers managed to successfully escape Ambon by canoe.

Newbury’s hopes of saving lives by his surrender were darkened when, over the ensuing two weeks, Hatakeyama randomly murdered around 300 prisoners at Laha. Newbury himself was killed on February 6. Scott survived the war as a POW, although most of the troops who surrendered on Ambon died in captivity. In 1946, witnesses and makeshift graves were located, and Hatakeyama was tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.