Kuwaiti A-4s in Desert Storm

The Free Kuwait Air Force was an air force in exile. During Operation Desert Storm, flying nearly 1,400 sorties for one loss. Most of their missions were over Kuwait itself.

A Free Kuwait Air Force A-4KU, armed with 500lb ‘Snakeye’ bombs.

In the early morning of 2 August 1990 Iraqi forces crossed the Kuwaiti border and headed for Kuwait City and the country’s main military bases. Details of the chaos that followed and the valiant efforts of the defenders to hold back the Iraqis have received little recognition. More air combat took place during the invasion than is usually appreciated. Although the Kuwaiti military were not on a state of alert, many of the Air Force’s jets managed to get airborne and encountered Iraqi helicopters at low level over Kuwait City. The pilots of six Mirage F1CK fighters (flown by Nos 18 and 61 Squadrons) claimed the destruction of thirteen Iraqi helicopters between them, mainly Mi-8 ‘Hip’ and SA.330 Puma transports. Using R.550 Magic missiles and 30mm cannon, they shot down some of the heavily laden helicopters as they tried to evade between the buildings and others that tried to escape having dropped off their contingents of special forces troops. One source also says that they also destroyed one MiG-21 and an 11-76 jet transport. The A-4s and the Hawk Mk.61 trainers of No. 12 Squadron attacked Iraq’s armed helicopters (Mi-8s, but possibly also Mi-25 ‘Hinds’) over the city with cannon, and the Skyhawks claimed five kills. Three of these were confirmed, the victorious pilots being Hassan al-Qattan, Ala’a al-Sayegh and Adnan Abdul Rasool. Stories have circulated since 1990 that Skyhawks destroyed airborne Iraqi helicopters with cannon, Sidewinders and even a 5001b bomb. The use of bombs in the air-to-air role is known to have been discussed with the KAF’s American advisors before the war.

Later in the day A-4KUs encountered Iraqi Mig-29s and Mirage FIs, which appeared too late to protect the assault helicopters, but there was no aerial combat between them. Subsequently the A-4s attacked columns of advancing Iraqi troops by day and by night until al-Jabr was overrun. Some missions were said to have been flown from the highway beside the base, which was so narrow that at least two A-4s ran off into the desert while landing but were recovered without damage. It is more likely that the location was the al Abdaliyah highway strip situated to the north west of al-Jabr. Eventually, out of ammunition and low on fuel, the surviving Skyhawks flew to Bahrain on 4 August.

During the Desert Shield build-up to the Gulf War itself, the surviving A-4s and the Mirages were reorganized as the ‘Free Kuwait Air Force’ and based at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where they were maintained by US civilian contractors.

The A-4KUs were notionally Maverick capable but were never equipped with these missiles in service. Known weapons used include Mk 7 cluster bomb dispensers and Mk 82 5001b Snakeye bombs with and without ‘daisy cutter’ fuse extenders. Patriotic slogans such as ‘To Saddam With Love’ and ‘Remember Kuwait’ were sometimes painted on the bombs and dispensers in Arabic. At least one was seen with TERs on the outer pylons carrying ADSID (Air-Delivered Seismic Intrusion Detectors) sensors, as well as a load of Mk 82s on the centreline. ADSID consisted of spike-shaped devices that were dropped in an area where enemy forces might infiltrate. They would transmit a signal when they detected the noise or vibration caused by troops and vehicles. ADSID was used on the A-4s at the request of the US Marines, whose nearest ADSID-capable aircraft were Harriers based in Bahrain, but who wanted to monitor an area of Kuwait.

By the end of September 1990, the airworthy Kuwaiti A-4s were gathered at Khamis Mushait AB in Southern Saudi Arabia for a period of training. In November they were sent to Dharhan alongside other coalition aircraft, including RAF Tornadoes. In the period of Operation Desert Shield up to 16 January 1991, the Kuwaiti A- 4s flew a total of 258 ‘operational’ and 427 support sorties – although what the former were and the actual distinction between the two is unclear.

The Free Kuwait A-4s flew their first mission against Iraqi forces on the morning of 17 January 1991, the first day of operation Desert Storm. The mission went badly and it is said that ten of the eleven A-4s involved dropped their bombs on Saudi territory in error. The eleventh, flown by the squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Muhammed Sultan Mubarak, was shot down at 1030 local time twenty-five nautical miles south of Kuwait City by a radarguided SAM. The location suggests he was attacking his own former base at al-Jabr. Mubarak ejected and was made a prisoner of war and appeared on Iraqi TV three days later. He was not released by 6 March 1991 with the bulk of Coalition prisoners, but is believed to have been freed later.

Published figures say that the twenty-four Free Kuwait A-4s flew 651 missions or 1,361 individual sorties during Desert Storm. After the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the A-4s were put into storage pending the delivery of F/A-18Cs and Ds that had been ordered prior to August 1990. Eventually the majority were sold to Brazil.

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New Guinea Campaigns

After landing 3,000 men unopposed, at Lae on March 8th, the Japanese had little to fear from the allies. It was MacArthur’s obsession with the liberation of the Philippines that was to make New Guinea the lure for thousands of American, Australian and Japanese troops to fight for it’s uninviting jungle. It was a pivotal point for any invasion of the Philippines, it also blocked any invasion of Australia by the Japanese and could sever the America/Australia lifeline if taken by the Japanese. After the Japanese invasion at Buna, MacArthur and the Australian General Blamey often fell out, as the Australian militia fell back before the Japanese onslaught MacArthur felt that the ‘Aussies’ were poor fighters, often retreating before inferior Japanese forces. He lingered under the impression that American troops would do much better. As the Japanese continued their advance over the Owen Stanley mountains towards Port Moresby, the allied situation became desperate, the landings at Guadalcanal had turned into a bloody slogging match of grinding attrition and at the same time the Japanese launched a two pronged attack on Port Moresby.

As General Horii’s troops launched their overland offensive, (on August 24-25th) the Navy landed 2,500 troops at Milne bay. From Milne however, the Japanese had to advance along a single muddy track and soon clashed with the Australians guarding it. During frequent downpours the Japanese launched several night attacks using light tanks, machine guns, grenades and bayonets. Despite their fanatical attacks, the Japanese could make no headway against the determined Aussies and after several days they evacuated their surviving troops. It was during these actions that Maj. General Kenney the new allied air commander made his debut. Despite not achieving much against the Japanese at Milne Bay (the 5th Air Force mistakenly bombed Australian troops) Kenney learned quickly and his innovations and adaptability proved to be very valuable in the harsh jungle airstrips the 5th was forced to operate from.

As the Japanese attack on Milne was being repulsed, more good news arrived. Horii’s attack force had shot it’s bolt during the overland offensive, tired, dispirited by the jungle fighting and with Horii himself drowned while crossing a river, the Japanese fell back under ferocious Aussie counterattacks. MacArthur now struck at Buna, using the 32nd Infantry Division. Everyone expected it be a walk over, basically just ‘mopping up’ stray Japanese troops, instead the men of the 128th Infantry, 32nd Div, walked into a jungle nightmare. Reinforced by fresh troops, the Japanese holding Buna, Sanananda and Gona could not be outflanked as the villages all backed up to the ocean and so the Americans had to advance through swamps and jungle to launch frontal attacks against the dug in Japanese. Japanese infantry would wait in their foxholes until the Americans passed by, then attack them from the rear while machine guns peppered the Americans from the front. Besieged by insects, soaked by frequent downpours and in a kind of combat that they had not been trained for, the 128th stopped dead in its tracks. MacArthur was especially embarrassed because, as reports of cowardice, malingering and inaction filtered back to him, the ‘unreliable’ Australian troops of the 7th Division pressed home their attacks regardless of harsh conditions, small parties of troops crawled through the slime to attack strong-points, destroying each bunker in turn, while living in vile conditions.

In the close quarter fighting the Japanese ravaged the Aussies who kept hammering away at the Japanese positions until they took Gona on the 9th of December. The 7th Division was finished as a fighting force however, battle casualties and malaria had exacted a terrible toll. The Americans on the other hand were still stuck in the swampy morass around Buna and Sananada and on the 29th of November, an irate MacArthur told General Eichelburger to “take Buna or don’t come back alive!” After relieving the hapless General Harding and reinforced by tanks and additional artillery, the 128th finally took Buna on January 2nd, 1943, Sanananda fell 20 days later. As many as 13,000 Japanese troops lost their lives during the fighting and allied casualties were about 8,500 battle casualties (5,698 of them Australians) with another 25,000 cases of malaria.

With his three months of unimaginative attrition warfare, MacArthur had won the airstrip at Buna but wrecked two infantry divisions and exhausted two others in the process. The Americans would get a respite for six months to recover. The Japanese did not allow the weary Australians that luxury.

Isolated and weakly protected, the Australian Airbase at Wau seemed like ripe pickings for the Japanese 18th Army. In January,1943, the 102nd Infantry, 51st Division moved by ship to Lae. Although Lae was within range of the allied planes, an overland attack from safer ports further west was impossible because of the dense jungle. Kenney’s ‘Kids’ struck the Japanese convoy again and again, sinking 2 transports and killing 600 Japanese soldiers, under air attack even as they unloaded at Lae only about one third of the force got ashore and they only had about half of their equipment. Even so, these survivors stuck to their orders and on January 30, an attack on the Aussies defending the airstrip. The attack reached the edge of the airstrip, but the reinforced defenders (some running from the transport planes firing at the Japanese) stopped the attack cold. The survivors fell back to Lae.

The Japanese tried to reinforce Lae and from 2-5 March and, in what became known as ‘The Battle of The Bismarck Sea’ the fifth Air Force threw everything it had at the Japanese convoy. On March 2nd, high level B-17’s and B-24’s sank 1 and damaged 2 more, near Lae, the survivors came under attack from B-25’s of the 13th and 90th squadrons. The crews of the B-25’s had been honing their ‘skip bombing’ skills on a derelict ship in Port Moresby harbor and now their practice was being put to the test. The Japanese air patrols were at 7,000 feet and didn’t even see the B-25’s who came roaring in at wavetop height. The newly acquired ‘skip bombing’ skills were put to deadly effect, they sank 8 transports and 4 destroyers. Of the 6,912 men of the 102nd Infantry, about 3,900 survived, but only about 1,000 oil stained, exhausted officers and men reached Lae. Allied fighters strafed the helpless Japanese in the water (a little enterprise started by the Japanese earlier in the war) it was payback time for many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. The sea turned to bloody froth as sharks swarmed to the feast, allied pilots looked down on hundreds of shattered corpses bobbing about like broken dolls in the bloody swells. This disaster set the seal for the Japanese in New Guinea, from now on the thoroughly demoralized Japanese troops were totally on the defensive, lacking the strength or morale for anything but localized counterattacks.

In an effort to retard the growing allied counteroffensive, the Japanese launched massed air attacks against allied air and shipping around Guadalcanal and New Guinea. 350 naval aircraft attacked in four stages. The inexperienced Japanese pilots gave wildly exagerated reports, claiming 28 transports or warships sunk and 150 allied planes shot down, for only 49 Japanese aircraft lost. In fact the losses were four small ships sunk and twelve aircraft destroyed. A jubilent scheduled a morale raising visit to his front line pilots, but the allies knew the details of the trip after breaking the Japanese code. Orders came from the highest U.S. authority and a flight of P-38 lightnings intercepted and shot down Yamamoto’s plane. So died the great Japanese naval leader who had predicted the defeat of Japan in his ‘sleeping giant’ comments just after Pearl Harbor.

With the death of Yamamoto, so came the death of Japanese hopes for any kind of victory in the South Pacific. The air offensive against Guadalcanal and New Guinea was the last great Japanese air offensive of the South West Pacific area.

The allies next landed at Nassau Bay, after some nigh-time skirmishes the Japanese fled into the jungle. From Nassau Bay, the allies could put pressure on Salamaua, the village that guarded the aproach to Lae, troops were siphoned from Lae to defend Salamaua leaving the Lae garrison vulnerable to flanking attacks from the air and sea. An allied pincer closed on Lae, American troops pushed along the coast from Nassau Bay and Australian troops advanced from Wau. The main Japanese defense was a lone infantry regiment, but in this type of terrain a few determined troops could slow down a force ten times their number. The Americans advancing up the coast had to cross numerous streams, but the Australian line of advance was predictable and the Japanese dug in at various locations. A grueling, 75 day running battle followed, with patrol sized units probing through the undergrowth. Ambush and death awaited the careless or unlucky, in the appalling conditions visibility was often only a few feet into the undergrowth and most deaths were by small arms fire or grenades, emphasizing the close combat conditions.

American losses between the end of June and September 12, when Salamaua fell, were 81 killed and 396 wounded. The Australian Brigade suffered 112 killed, 346 wounded and 12 men missing. Japanese losses were well over 1,000 men. The struggle on New Guinea was fought in some of the worst battle conditions ever encountered, men collapsed from the heat and humidity, soldiers shook constantly from Malaria chills or being drenched in tropical downpours, some simply went mad. The Neuropsychiatric rate for American soldiers was the highest in the South west Pacific theater, 43.94 per 1,000 men. The Japanese soldier had to survive on millet and hard tack. Malnutrition, Amoebic Dysentery, Beri-Beri and Malaria plagued him, rice was an undreamed of luxury, the terrible rations on both sides left the soldiers undernourished and susceptible to uncountable tropical diseases that flourished in the heat and humidity.

The Japanese still had air power on two fronts around the allies, Rabaul and Wewak, Kenney decided to concentrate on Wewak. The distance was to great for allied fighters to escort the bombers and unescorted raids would be suicide, so Kenney had a secret staging base built about 60 miles from Lae. On August 17th, the raid by the 5th Air Force left 100 parked planes destroyed or damaged, a follow up raid the next morning left another 28 Japanese planes wrecked. In two days the Japanese Fourth Air Army had lost three quarters of it’s aircraft. Two weeks later the allies landed just north of Lae, only a few Japanese bombers made any attacks on the beachhead and little damage was done. On September 5th, American Paratroops dropped on Nadzab, twenty miles West of Lae, unchallenged by Japanese aircraft. This move cut of the 51st Division from the rest of Eighteenth Army.

The Japanese had to retreat 50 miles to Finschafen across the 12,000 foot mountain range, of the 8,000 officers and men that started the retreat, about 2,000 were lost in the unforgiving mountains, mostly to starvation. Lt. Gen. Yamada assembled his remaining men on Satelberg ridge which overlooked the entire Finschafen coastline and blocked any further ground push toward Sio.

Australian troops landed at Finschafen on Sept 22nd, after quickly clearing the coastal enclave around the port, they started to push up Satelberg ridge. Against entrenched and fanatical defenders, the Australians soon found themselves embroiled in a series of deadly, small unit combats, that found the 9th Australian Division having to clear isolated pockets of resistance one by one. At least 5,000 Japanese perished, but MacArthur’s expected ‘walkover’ advance was held up for two months.

The allied forces in the Southwest Pacific had increased dramatically, in December, 1942, it was just the 32nd and 41st Infantry Divisions, now there were five divisions, three regimental combat teams, three engineer special brigades, five Australian infantry divisions and three more US divisions on the way. The 5th Air Force had about 1,000 combat aircraft and the 7th fleet increased in size with more transports and landing being added. The Japanese on the other hand, had lost about 3,000 aircraft in the Southwest Pacific and 18th army had suffered about 35,000 casualties, they could not replace these kind of losses.

The jungle that had claimed so many Japanese lives now sheltered them from a concentrated allied ground offensive. Because of the dense jungle, the allies could not mass their overwhelming firepower against any particular stronghold. Of all the allied forces in the area, few actually fought the Japanese, the amount of logistical effort to sustain the allied forces was staggering. To sustain a single infantry regiment in combat required the equivalent of two divisions of supply personnel. Seven out of every eight troops in the area served in support roles, from unloading ships to preventing Malaria, constructing airfields and hauling supplies.

In December, 1943, MacArthur’s forces invaded the southern tip of New Britain, Japanese gunners shot the first wave of the 112th Cavalry to pieces and repulsed the attack. The main force did get ashore, but became bogged down in the swampy ground. On the north side of the island, the attack by the 1st Marine Division ran into similar difficulties, but on a larger scale. An overland advance on Rabaul was impossible. To overcome this obstacle the 126th infantry was shipped from Finschafen to land at Saidor and cut off the Japanese 20th Division who were defending Sio. Again the Japanese were forced to flee through rugged mountains, losing men to starvation and disease all along the trail of retreat.

After an Australian patrol found a complete cypher library for the 20th Division in a stream, Kenney convinced MacArthur that the Japanese had abandoned Los Negros (the largest of the Admiralty Islands, 360 miles from Rabaul) and an invasion force of 1,000 officers and men of the 1st Cavalry Division landed on Los Negros on February 29th. The Japanese were expecting an attack from the opposite direction and were caught by surprise when the 1st landed behind them. Although it was an accident, the good fortune of landing behind the enemy was put to good use and, after some vicious night fighting, the 5th won an impressive victory. Capture of the Admiralties allowed the allies to extend fighter cover beyond Wewak and the decision was taken to make an unprecedented 400 mile leap up the New Guinea coast to Hollandia. The value of the captured cyphers was to make the landing at Hollandia (Operation ‘Reckless’) a masterpiece of planning and ‘Reckless’ would prove to be the turning point in MacArthur’s war against Japan. Through the cyphers it was learned that the planned landing at Hansa Bay would meet strong ground opposition and also the airbase at Hollandia was being ‘beefed up’ to support the land defense of Madang. It was also learned from the cyphers that the land defenses at Hollandia were minimal so ‘Reckless’ was planned and given the go ahead.

Hollandia was still beyond the range of land based fighters, so MacArthur was given three days of carrier fighter support and the invasion of Aitape was planned. By seizing Aitape, land based fighters could support the Hollandia landings and the carrier planes would be used to support the seizing of Aitape. 217 ships transported 80,000 men 1,000 miles to land in three separate areas on Aitape. With the island secure, Kenney was now allowed to crush the aircraft at Hollandia. The Japanese aircrews at Hollandia felt safe from allied aircraft and did not expect the flight of 60 B24’s escorted by P38’s with drop tanks that smashed the airfield at Hollandia on March 30th. Follow up raids demolished nearly all the serviceable Japanese aircraft at Hollandia and never again did the Japanese contest air superiority over New Guinea.

A deception plan kept the Japanese thinking that the next allied landing would be at Hansa Bay, and when the 24th and 41st Infantry Divisions waded ashore at Hollandia they were unopposed. The same thing happened at Aitape, the Japanese Eighteenth Army was isolated in Eastern New Guinea and the Japanese defences had been split.

In order to prevent Adachi’s 18th Army from breaking through the envelopment and also to stop the Japanese defenders from having enough time to regroup and reorganize, the 41st Infantry tried to seize Wadke island and some airstrips at Sarmi on the adjacent New Guinea coast. Wadke was a tough nut to crack, the Japanese had to be winkled out of spider caves, Coconut log bunkers and Coral caves during 2 days of bitter, squad sized actions. Because most of the Japanese defenders had gone to help stave off the Hollandia landings, the Sarmi airfileds were taken with relative ease. In the subsequent push towards Sarmi village, the 6th Division, with the 158th Regimental Combat Team, fought a bitter battle to clear ‘Lone Tree Hill’ of the enemy. The Americans suffered 2,299 casualties (437 killed) while the Japanese had a staggering 4,000 killed.

With all these major operations going on at the same time, the allies now turned their attention to Biak. Biak dominates Geelvink Bay and with it’s capacity for heavy bombers on it’s airstrips it was a powerful lure to MacArthur and Kenney. The 41st Infantry now turned it’s attention to Biak, landing there on May 27th, 1944. Being only 60 miles south of the Equator, the steaming heat combined with sudden Japanese ambushes to make the advance inland very slow indeed. The fighting continued through June and meant that the amphibious fleet along with Kincaid’s 7th fleet were tied up close to Biak and vulnerable to Japanese air and surface attack. The Japanese 16th Cruiser Division tried several attacks on the American ships but thanks to allied code breakers and the 5th Air Force B-25’s, none of them caused any damage and the Japanese lost one Destroyer in the attempts. The Japanese lost about 4,800 men killed defending Biak, American casualties were about 2,800 killed and wounded.

Because the airfields on Biak were not taken on schedule, the allies also attacked the airstrips on Noemfoor island, beginning with a landing on the airfield itself by the 503rd Parachute Regiment. Many Paratroopers had bone-cracking landings as high winds carried them into supply dumps, vehicle parks and wrecked Japanese aircraft. None were actually killed in the jump, but 128 were injured in the jump. 411 Americans were casualties during the battle while about 1,759 Japanese were killed. Although an impressive defensive belt was built around the airstrips, only 3 infantry battalions and 2 under-strength cavalry squadrons guarded the Driniumoor river line. On the night of the 10th of July, 10,000 howling Japanese troops rushed across the shallow Driniumoor and fell upon the vastly outnumbered Americans. Outnumbered and undermanned, the GI’s fired their guns until they were red hot, artillery shells killed and maimed hundreds more Japanese, but the sheer weight of numbers allowed the Japanese to prevail. For a month after, a battle of attrition was waged by small squads of GI’s mopping up the remaining pockets of Japanese. All 10,000 Japanese were killed and about 440 Americans paid the ultimate price. Meanwhile the Australians were advancing towards Wewak in a move that cost them 451 killed while the Japanese lost 7,200! With these horrendous loss ratios (about 23-1 in favor of the allies) the Japanese forces in the South Pacific were chewed up piecemeal and destroyed. About 110,000 Japanese troops died in eastern New Guinea with another 15,000 killed in western New Guinea with another 40,000 isolated there and left to wither on the vine. With the isolation of another 100,000 Japanese troops on New Britain, the totality of the allied victory in the New Guinea campaign came into sharp focus.

The 5th Airforce lost 1374 aircraft from September 1942 to September 1944 and 4,100 airmen killed or missing. 2,000 Australian airmen also lost their lives in the climactic air battles over New Guinea. Before Hollandia it took 20 months and 24,000 allied battle casualties (17,107 being Australian) to advance 900 miles, with another 70,000 Malaria casualties. After Hollandia it took 9,500 casualties (mostly Americans) to leap 1,500 miles in just 100 days. The allies learnt in eastern New Guinea that the terrain dictated the campaign, so in western New Guinea air power and the sea allowed the allies to simply bypass the jungle, seize the coastal enclaves and leave the isolated Japanese troops trapped in the interior, to be decimated by disease and relentless allied pressure.

Martyrdom on the Volga

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In war, it is often glibly said that ‘fortune favours the bold’; whether the bold actually deserve or receive such benefit is seldom questioned. By late December 1942, any last luck had run out for the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as it had done so for the Soviet defenders of Sevastopol six months earlier. Common to these two sieges was the remarkable courage and stoicism of the troops involved. But the results of both battles showed that no amount of risk-taking or individual valour displayed at the tactical level could alter necessarily the overall operational and strategic odds. Nations who send their sons and daughters into overexposed outposts abroad would do well to remember this, as many conflicts since the Second World War, including those in Indo-China, Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated amply.

Manstein dedicated his account of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom on the Volga’ to the ‘German soldiers, who starved, froze and died there’. Noting the unlikelihood of any monument being erected to commemorate their sacrifice, he declared eloquently, ‘the memory of their indescribable suffering, their unparalleled heroism, fidelity, and devotion to duty will live on long after the victors’ cries of triumph have died away and the bereaved, the disillusioned and the bitter at heart have fallen silent’. His moving paean for the dead was prompted by the famous epigram of Simonides, dedicated to the brave Spartans who fell to a man at Thermopylae: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.’

For all their fortitude, was the sacrifice of over 225,000 men from the twenty German and two Rumanian divisions and supporting troops worth it? What had it achieved? The lost battle of Stalingrad resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe for Hitler. Worse than the defeat a year earlier at Moscow, it had far more severe political and military consequences. If the losses of the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies smashed on either side of Stalingrad are included, together with the complete collapse of the Italian Eighth Army on the Upper Don and the subsequent defeat of the Hungarian Second Army in January 1943, then the Soviet winter counter-offensive was nothing less than a strategic disaster for the Axis cause. It showed all interested powers, including Germany’s allies and ‘concerned’ neutrals such as Turkey, that the Third Reich had severely overreached itself and could never hope to win against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the net result of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequent operations in its winter campaign was the removal of the surviving Axis contingents from the Eastern Front and the evacuation of German forces from the Caucasus. Although the Red Army had suffered terrible losses in making these gains, everything Hitler hoped for in Operation BLUE had vanished. His fantasy of crossing over the southern Russian frontier and advancing to the Middle East and Iran remained just that – a vain dream devoid of all reality.

The only operational benefit of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom’ was that it had tied down so many Soviet forces for so long, and that Operation SATURN had been downgraded to LITTLE SATURN. Had the Germans lost Rostov-on-Don, the prime terrain objective of SATURN in December 1942, then Army Group A, and particularly a large chunk of First Panzer Army, could not have escaped destruction. Despite Manstein’s and Zeitzler’s constant urging, Hitler’s permission to start this urgently required withdrawal from the Caucasus (and at this stage only a partial one at that) came characteristically late on 29 December 1942 in ‘response to the insistence of Don Army Group’. None the less, Stalin was unable to inflict in full measure his intended mortal blow on the German Army in the East, the Ostheer. Army Groups A and Don survived to fight another day notwithstanding the grievous loss of Sixth Army, Germany’s strongest. As we shall see, Manstein managed to stabilize the southern wing of the front and the Soviet winter offensive was brought to a halt in March 1943 in spectacular fashion, offering a brief glimpse of victory. Yet nothing could disguise the harsh fact that the destruction of so many Axis forces (the equivalent of no less than fifty-five divisions) in the meantime had ‘fundamentally changed the situation to the detriment of Germany and her allies’. The strategic balance had now shifted in favour of the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

For the German people, moreover, there was no way of disguising the magnitude of the catastrophe at Stalingrad and the psychological blow it represented. Too many soldiers’ letters had reached the homeland for it to be brushed aside as a mere setback. Goebbels had tried to counter anguish and defeatism in his famous speech of 18 February 1943 at the Berlin Sportpalast, declaring ‘total war’. The strategic truth, however, had already been drawn on the battlefield. Marshal Zhukov, even stripping away the bombastic tone of his memoirs, hit the nail on the head when he explained the ‘causes of the German debacle’ and the Soviets’ ‘epoch-making victory’:

[The] failure of all Hitlerite strategic plans for 1942 was due to an underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet State, the indomitable spirit of the people. It also stems from an over-estimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities. [Secondly,] utilization of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, accurate detection of weak points in the enemy defences led to the defeat of the German troops in the operation[s] codenamed URANUS, SMALLER SATURN [and] RING.

Zhukov could not avoid listing a number of other contributory factors, not least the ‘Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils . . . and commanders’, ‘who fostered in soldiers confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield’.

For both sides, there was as much a psychological as any physical turning point. Germany’s offensive operations had culminated. In view of the Soviet superiority, the only option available was to switch to a strategic defence. How aggressively it could be conducted at the operational level would depend on the time, space and forces available, and above all, on the skill of its commanders. As Manstein was soon to show, the Red Army could still be defeated in the field.

In the meantime, the final agony of Stalingrad is briefly told. In the grand scheme of the Second World War, it is tempting to describe the German defeat on the Volga in terms of a ‘decisive point’. Although such vocabulary is valid in any strict, detached, military analysis of campaign, it obscures the irrefutable fact that the battle was a human disaster. Manstein was surely right, therefore, to remind his readers:

The death-struggle of Sixth Army, which began around the turn of the year [1942-43], is a tale of indescribable suffering. It was marked not only by the despair and justified bitterness of the men who had been deceived in their trust, but even more by the steadfastness they displayed in the face of an undeserved and inexorable fate, and by their high degree of bravery, comradeship and devotion to duty, and by their calm resignation and humble faith in God.

None the less, it is perfectly appropriate to examine Hitler’s and Manstein’s decision-making during the last few, debilitating weeks of the Sixth Army: after all, the fate of so many thousands of soldiers rested on their political and military leaders.

By late December 1942, the combat power of the encircled troops in Stalingrad had diminished dramatically. On the 26th, when only 70 tonnes of supplies were flown into the pocket, Paulus reported that ‘bloody losses, cold, and inadequate supplies have recently made serious inroads on divisions’ fighting strength’. Moreover, it was ‘no longer possible to execute [a] break-out unless [a] corridor is cut in advance and [my] Army [is] replenished with men and supplies’. So Paulus was in no doubt as to the nature of the impending disaster. He concluded his report with a plea: ‘radical measures [are] now urgent’. None was available.

Back at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, the mood had turned to one of frustration and resignation for there was nothing now that could save Sixth Army. As Engel recorded, ‘here [is] deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders.’ However unrealistic the prospect, he felt that the army commander ‘could have got out with the bulk of his men, albeit at a high cost in material’. Yet the fact remained that ‘Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.’ In the face of unfolding events he was powerless to change, the Führer had turned ‘very quiet’, and was ‘almost never seen except at daily situation conferences and to receive reports’.

By the end of the year, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been pushed back to its line of departure, then further west still towards Rostov-on-Don. Building on the success of the Stalingrad counter-offensive, the Soviet Middle Don operation had sealed Sixth Army’s fate. As Zhukov noted accurately, the encircled German force ‘had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, and the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.’

On 9 January 1943, following instructions by the supreme command in Moscow, the Soviet Don Front presented Sixth Army with a surrender ultimatum. The demand was summarily rejected the same day by Paulus on Hitler’s orders. Manstein did not defer. Perhaps tilting at the obvious criticism after the war, he went to considerable lengths in his memoirs to explain why, in his view, a capitulation on this date would not have been appropriate. His rather banal comments that, ‘if every Commander-in-Chief were to capitulate as soon as he considered his position hopeless, no one would ever win a war’ and ‘even in situations apparently quite bereft of hope it has often been possible to find a way out in the end’ provided little justification. What mattered far more was the operational rationale for sustaining the struggle in Stalingrad at such high human cost. The critical consideration, therefore, which he stressed repeatedly, was the fate of the entire southern wing of the German Army on the Eastern Front. So Manstein was on safer ground when he stated:

this in turn brings us to the crucial point which justifies Hitler’s order to refuse to capitulate and also barred the Army Group from intervening in favour of such action at that particular time. No matter how futile Sixth Army’s continued resistance might be in the long run, it still had – as long as it could conceivably go on fighting – a decisive role to fulfil in the overall strategic situation. It had to try to tie down the enemy forces opposing it for the longest possible space of time.

Strictly speaking, he was right in his assessment. Sixth Army’s prolonged and heroic stand on the Volga continued to fix seven armies of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, powerful forces which otherwise could have been employed elsewhere to ‘telling effect’. That said, the conduct of war ought never to be reduced to the moves of an elaborate chess game: the humanitarian imperative to end a lost battle and so prevent any further loss of life must at some stage take precedence over military considerations.

Manstein maintained to his deathbed the deeply held conviction that Germany was not doomed to defeat as a result of Stalingrad. One of his central themes in Lost Victories is that it would have been possible to have come to some sort of draw, however illusory that view might now appear. For all his professional military capabilities, Manstein was not a politically astute man. In propounding his solution, he failed to appreciate the utter determination of Stalin and the Soviet people not only to free their sacred Motherland (Rodina), but also to punish the Fascist invaders and render the aggressor incapable of mounting a war of conquest ever again. He also underestimated the strength of feeling against Germany held by the Western Allies, who at the Casablanca conference (14-24 January 1943) had demanded unconditional surrender.

It would be far too simple, however, to dismiss out of hand Manstein’s perspective that ‘in those days it was by no means certain that Germany was bound to lose the war in the military sense’. Accepting that the military is but one instrument of national power, in early 1943 Germany had yet to realize the full potential of its war economy: that would take another year under Albert Speer’s best efforts. Furthermore, despite its huge losses on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht still had considerable reserves of men and equipment, much of it being squandered in the totally futile defence of Tunisia or dissipated to little benefit in other peripheral theatres such as Norway or the Balkans. The fundamental issue Manstein raised was whether a military stalemate could have been brought about, and if, in turn, it would have caused ‘a similar state of affairs in the political field’. He felt a ‘draw’ ‘would have been entirely within the bounds of possibility if the situation on the southern wing of German armies could in some way have been restored’. All his efforts during and following the disaster at Stalingrad were aimed at achieving that one objective – staving off defeat – as opposed to the pursuit of ultimate victory.

In the weeks that followed Sixth Army’s defiant refusal to capitulate, the Soviet forces slowly but surely pushed in the German defence. Operation RING, designed to reduce the pocket, was prosecuted with ruthless ferocity. Throughout this period, bad weather and heavy fighting continued to hinder aerial resupply. Freezing and worn out, German troops fought on: the sapping starvation of the survivors accelerated, as did the appalling suffering of the injured and wounded. Manstein was not immune to the human misery involved, observing that it was but ‘a cruel necessity of war which compelled the [German] Supreme Command to demand that one last sacrifice of the brave troops of Stalingrad’.

Within Stalingrad, the situation worsened steadily and losses mounted alarmingly. The bread ration was cut from 200 to 100 grams a day; after all the horses had been slaughtered, the dogs came next. When the airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak were lost on 12 and 22 January respectively, the inevitable end drew much closer: no supplies in; no wounded out. The start of a series of concentrated Soviet blows to liquidate the German hold of the city centre began on 22 January. On 24 January, Paulus signalled: ‘Fortress can be held for only a few days longer. Troops exhausted and weapons immobilized as a result of non-arrival of supplies. Imminent loss of last airfield will reduce supplies to a minimum. No basis left on which to carry out mission to hold Stalingrad.’ He requested permission to break out in small organized groups. In response, he received a stark message ‘Re break-out: Führer reserves right of final decision.’ It never arrived.

By this late stage, Manstein had realized the futility of any further sacrifice in Stalingrad and pressed Hitler hard to give Paulus permission to enter into surrender negotiations. The Führer refused point-blank. That same day (24 January 1943), the Soviets had broken through the last remaining coherent front and split the German forces in the city into three smaller segments. Within a week, Paulus (promoted to field marshal to encourage him not to fall into the hands of the Russians alive) and his immediate staff had surrendered at their final command post, the Univermag department store in Red Square.

In one of those great ironies of history, it was Colonel Ivan Andreevich Laskin, a hero of the defence of Sevastopol and now chief of staff of the 64th Army, who arranged the cessation of hostilities in Stalingrad. The guns fell silent on 2 February when the last defenders of XI Corps in the northern pocket gave up. No fewer than 90,000 Germans were captured of which only 5,000 came back to their Fatherland. Although the fighting had stopped, cold, disease and malnutrition in Stalingrad was soon replicated in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps; only the very strongest and exceptionally lucky pulled through.

Manstein had done his very best to relieve Stalingrad. When that attempt failed for lack of forces, he felt compelled by military logic, and in accordance with Hitler’s instructions, to require Sixth Army to fight on. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, he had urged the Führer to agree to its surrender when the airlift was broken and when any further resistance was no longer justified on military grounds. Of the German leader’s role, Manstein wrote:

It was certainly to Hitler’s credit that he accepted responsibility unreservedly and made no attempt whatever to find a scapegoat. On the other hand, we are confronted by his regrettable failure to draw any conclusions for the future from a defeat for which his own errors of leadership were to blame.

One consequence of Stalingrad was the temporary loosening of Hitler’s micro-control of operations in early 1943. It led to timely evacuations from the exposed Demyansk and Rzhev salients that forestalled Soviet blows and created much needed reserves. Manstein also exploited this situation in stabilizing the southern wing of the Eastern Front by the end of March. Without gaining sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he would have achieved anything like the fleeting operational success he gained.

Extracting any flexibility from the Führer, however, drained him. His mounting frustration over Hitler’s way of war caused him to consider tendering his resignation on several occasions. When Hitler denied him urgent reinforcements for Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote to Zeitzler on 5 January 1943 asking to be relieved of command:

Should these proposals not be approved and this headquarters continue to be tied down to the same extent as hitherto, I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by my continuing as commander of Army Group Don. In the circumstances it would appear more appropriate to replace me by a sub-directorate of the kind maintained by the Quartermaster-General.

Hitler refused his request. Matters came to a head again towards the end of the month with the Führer’s rejection of his demand to allow Sixth Army to surrender. His principal subordinates again advised him against resignation. His ‘closest collaborator’ Busse, according to Manstein’s account, is recorded saying in late 1942: ‘If I had not kept begging him [Manstein] to stay for the troops’ sake, he’d have chucked the job back at Hitler long ago.’

Notwithstanding his stated desire to step down, Manstein was probably right in his assertion that Hitler would not have accepted his resignation. The Führer tolerated and needed him for another year. The army group commander had further professional ambitions in any case. He knew that he was well qualified to take over from either Zeitzler or Keitel, or to assume overall command of the Eastern Front. This was a view shared by many of Germany’s generals who criticized the conduct of operations. Hermann Balck, for example, commented in his diary on 17 February 1943 that ‘the solution generally desired throughout the Army’ is for ‘Manstein to assume as Commander-in-Chief East’.

Of more enduring interest are Manstein’s comments against military resignation. He concluded that a senior commander ‘is no more able to pack up and go home than any other soldier’. Furthermore, ‘the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician, who is always at liberty to climb off the band-wagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the Government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered.’ True enough for a politician in a democracy, but dictators such as Hitler are not in the habit of standing down: they either die of natural causes or come to a premature, violent end.

In early 1943, Manstein faced fighting some very difficult battles with Hitler in order to prevent any further disintegration on the southern wing as a result of renewed Soviet attacks. He had been wrestling with this problem since his assumption of command. With Stalingrad soon to fall, resolution of this issue became ever more urgent. It all revolved around securing a more coherent command of the Wehrmacht and the Eastern Front.

Twenty-Fourth Tank Corps of 1st Guards Army in the Tatsinskaya Raid, December 1942

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Red Christmas
The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid 1942

On 19 November 1942 Soviet forces launched their carefully prepared counter-offensive against the over-extended German, Rumanian, and Italian forces which had pushed to the frontiers of Asia. By 24 November the Red Army had encircled the German 6th Army, elements of the 4th Panzer Army in Stalingrad itself and to the west, destroyed the 4th Rumanian Army, pushed back the 3rd Rumanian Army to the River Chir and created a gap between the Germany Army Group B in the north and Army Group A in the Caucasus. On the same day Hitler declared that Stalingrad was to be a `fortress’, to maintain its position relying on air resupply which Goering had promised with colossal over-optimism.

This air resupply line presented a clear parallel with the railway lines of former wars. The German forces in the pocket required 600 tonnes of resupply for normal existence with 300 tonnes as the bare minimum. Bad weather, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and fighters combined to prevent even this being attained, the average daily delivery being just over 100 tonnes. From the relative safety of the Germany Army Group, or so the Germans thought, `Don’ aircraft would leave Tatsinskaya airfield, with about 40 kilometres to the next field south of Morozovsk, then another 40 to one south of Chernishkovskiy, and then 150 kilometres over Soviet-held territory to the beleaguered pocket itself.

During the course of the November counter-offensive the Soviet Supreme High Command had initiated plans for a more wide-ranging operation by forces of the South-West Front and the left wing of the Voronezh Front to destroy the enemy on the middle Don and to pursue the offensive towards Kamensk and Rostov. This operation was to be called `Saturn’, and involved the destruction of the 8th Italian Army, the operational group `Hollidt’ and the remnants of the 3rd Rumanian Army. However, the offensive by the Germany Army Group `Don’ with the aim of relieving Stalingrad, which began on 12 December forced the Soviet High Command to revise its plan. Instead of a deep strike against Rostov, the Soviets now planned to send their main forces south east to destroy Army Group `Don’. This was called `Little Saturn’. First and Third Guards Armies of the South-West Front would form two encircling pincers, one striking from south of Verkhny Mamon and the other from Bokovskiy, and converging on Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. Sixth Army of the Voronezh Front (transferred to the SouthWest Front on 19 December) would support the main attack from the west. Tatsinskaya was a target both because of its nature as an air and rail communications centre and because of its position in relation to the forces engaged.

The Middle Don operation began on 16 December. The objective was to destroy the encircled enemy groupings on the southern bank of the Don by day four. The tank and mechanized corps would take the lead in particular 1st Guards Army’s 24th Tank Corps which was given Tatsinskaya as its objective to be taken by 24 December and 25th Tank Corps, targeted on Morozovsk, the other key airfield on the Stalingrad route. These objectives were clearly defined before the offensive, as was that of 6th Army’s 17th Tank Corps, which was to cover the right flank and drive for Kantemirovka. Seventeenth Tank Corps would then continue to the airfield at Millerovo, which it would attack in concert with 18th Tank Corps by 24 December.

Meanwhile, from 12 December, prior to the operation, Soviet Front aviation (17th Air Army) launched attacks on Millerovo and Tatsinskaya airfields and the railroad junction at Likhaya. Immediately before the operation they attacked Tatsinskaya, Morozovsk and the railroad between the latter and Likhaya. Night bombers attacked enemy headquarters and reserves.

First Guards Army was deployed in two echelons for the attack, the three Tank corps (18th, 24th, 25th) forming the second `breakthrough exploitation echelon’. The Tank Corps themselves were also deployed in two echelons before their insertion. Eighteenth and 25th Corps were committed to battle on 17 December and 24th Corps on 18 December. The latter coincided with the collapse of 8th Italian Army two days after the beginning of the Soviet offensive. Twenty-fourth Tank Corps under Major-General Badanov tore into the gap created by the Italian collapse and on towards its distant objective. By 19 December, 17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank and 1st Mechanized Corps were cutting through German support elements and driving south-east in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal routes to the south-west.

German air made strenuous efforts to check the swift advance of 24th and 25th Tank Corps. On 24 December alone the Luftwaffe launched 500 sorties against 25th Tank Corps. By this time, the mobile groups were over 100 kilometres ahead of their supporting infantry, and had covered a total distance of up to 240 kilometres.

Supplies for the Stalingrad pocket were brought into Tatsinskaya by both air and rail. They were stockpiled on the airfield and at the train station. Defending this key point were some 120 men of 62nd infantry division. The Germans had, apparently, realized that Soviet mobile forces might interrupt operations, but requests to move the airlift further west were refused. There were 180 Ju-52 transport planes on the field which, together with the He-111 bombers at the Morozovsk airfield, comprised the entire airflift capability for the Stalingrad pocket. At 0530 on Christmas Eve the tank corps’ artillery opened up with a brief barrage, after which Soviet tanks rushed the airfield.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps launched a concentric attack, – indeed, Marshal Rokossovskiy later commented on the corps’ widespread use of enveloping movements. Fourth Guards and 130 Tank brigades attacked Tatsinskaya from the line of march simultaneously from the north-west, east and south. A tank battalion from 130 brigade attacked the station and destroyed 50 German aircraft with all their fuel. Immediately afterwards, tanks overran the airfield proper from north and south, shooting up aircraft or driving over them. Fifty-fourth Brigade attacked the outskirts of Tatsinskaya town from the west and by the evening of 24 December the German forces surrounded in the area had been destroyed. However, some 124 aircraft managed to take off and a proportion of the Germans got away. Nevertheless, the effect on the already inadequate Stalingrad airlift was noticeable.

The Germans reacted swiftly. On 24 December, even before the airfield and surrounding area was completely in Soviet hands, an advance detachment of 6th Panzer division recaptured the area north of Tatsinskaya. Sixth Panzer closed in, with 11th Panzer and 306 Infantry Division moving in from the east. By 27 December 24th Tank Corps had been encircled, and frantic radio messages in clear calling for 1st Guards Army to come to the rescue of the corps were to no avail. The corps had been refuelled from motor fuel and lubricants captured at the airfield but was dreadfully short of ammunition. An urgent radio message from Badanov on 27 December, and by 2300 hours on the same day Soviet aircraft had dropped 450 artillery shells, 4,500 rounds of rifle and 6,000 of submachine gun ammunition. The official restricted Soviet General Staff deductions from the operation considered that it had only been possible to drop such limited quantities of ammunition because no provision had been made in advance for the resupply of a corps engaged in exploitation of a breakthrough, although `the possibility of fighting in an encirclement had to be expected’.The General Staff went so far as to assert that `had it been possible for the Corps to receive larger quantities of ammunition it would have been quite able to bring into action its 39 T-34 and 19 T-70 tanks and hold out until the arrival of 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps which, by 29 December, had moved into the areas of Kachalin and Lesnoy. 140 By the night of 28 December 24th Tank Corps had no working tanks left and was running out of ammunition. The final hours were savage, the wounded on both sides freezing to death where they fell. Some of the Soviet troops, including general Badanov himself, managed to escape and rejoin their own forces; the rest perished.

Vatutin, commanding the South-West Front, ordered 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to relieve Badanov, but it was too late. However, 24th Tank Corps’ achievement was undeniable. According to Soviet sources, in the ten days (18-27 December) of the operation the Corps killed over 11,000 enemy troops, destroyed 84 tanks and 431 aircraft. It also took 4,800 prisoners although it is not known what the Russians did with them and how, or whether, they were evacuated from the battle zone. The corps was renamed 2nd Guards Tank Corps during the final desperate hours of the fight at Tatsinskaya and on 27 January 1943 received the honorific title `Tatsinskiy’. Its destruction was a tactical reverse for the Russians but the corps was not such a large element of its parent army that its loss was unbearable. `The vacuum created by the loss of Italian 8th Army still existed and the destruction of 24th Tank Corps only eliminated the vanguard of one of the South-Western Front’s advancing armies.’ The corps had been the spearhead of a thrust which, if successful, could have isolated Army Group A which was actually of greater military importance than the Stalingrad airlift. The Germans were also trying to relieve the Stalingrad pocket simultaneously and diverting 48th Panzer Corps against Tatsinskaya left only 57th Panzer to attempt to break the Stalingrad encirclement. The Russians were therefore able to use all their available reserves in the immediate Stalingrad area against the relief attempt. The synergic effect of a Mobile Group penetration and main forces operations is thus emphasized.

On the other hand, the way the Germans dealt with 24th Tank Corps’ penetration is exemplary with a view to countering such deep attack formations in future. First, the Tank Corps (Mobile Group) was isolated from its parent forces (1st Guards Army) and, indeed, from any other OMG-type formations operating in the enemy depth (25th Tank Corps, for example). Next, it was fixed in place while information was obtained about its composition and nature, and simultaneously encircled. Finally, it was eliminated by a series of `well planned, simultaneous and co-ordinated combined arms attacks’. This denied the Soviet commander the opportunity to shift forces to deal with a succession of attacks. These attacks, by their violence and speed, also capitalized on the psychological vulnerability of a force surrounded and cut off in the enemy rear. On the other hand, the fact that they were `deep in a hostile land’ and had `no alternative’, as Sun Tzu realized, almost certainly made the Russians fight harder – until they ran out of ammunition, at any rate.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps was not strongly reinforced with other arms of service: only an extra Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment and Rocket Launcher battalion were attached. Had it been more strongly reinforced with infantry, artillery, engineer, or other specialist units, its ability to fight in the enemy depth would have been enhanced significantly. Substantial, dedicated air support would also have increased its resilience. The need to reinforce deep-penetration formations and increase self reliance was reorganized and acknowledged in the official General Staff deductions from the experience, published in autumn 1943. As well as acknowledging the potential value of air resupply organized in advance, the General Staff noted that most of the corps experienced shortages of motor fuel because the distance between supply bases and advanced mobile formations reached unexpected lengths although the most advanced of all, 24th was able to top up its reserves from the airfield it captured. The General Staff also noted that the Corps’ organic equipment was insufficient for salvaging brokendown transport or fighting vehicles. The experience suggested `the necessity for reinforcing Corps operating far away from and without direct contact with the main forces with salvage companies equipped with powerful tractors’.

The General Staff also drew lessons for the handling in battle and overall composition of mobile groups. In most cases, they had been inserted while the enemy was still holding out and this led to unacceptable casualties: 25th Tank Corps, for example, lost 27 tanks on unreconnoitred minefields. The corps had not been supported by aircraft in the breakthrough phrase: in future, such co-operation should be planned on an army or front scale. When mobile forces were acting in the operational depth, fighter and ground-attack aircraft should be controlled by the Tank or Mechanized Corps commander. The experience also taught that the Tank or Mechanized Corps’ action was bound to achieve more success if their initial successes were exploited and consolidated by infantry. Motorized infantry or cavalry should therefore be organized for this purpose. In order to insure the continuous effectiveness of a thrust throughout the entire depth of the operation, Tank and Mechanized Corps should be merged into one mobile group comprising several corps (not less than two, at least one mechanized and the rest tank) and this group should be committed by echelons – two or even three. It would be more difficult to form and weld together an improvised Headquarters than in the case of infantry, and this suggested that Tank Corps Headquarters should be configured and receive their battle training as component parts of mobile groups. The train of thought leading to larger mobile groups and Tank Armies is clear:

The operation carried out by the South West Front in the Middle Don area serves as an example of such employment of Mobile Groups. The experience has shown that an operation o f this kind can be accomplished only by a group o f Corps placed under a unified command or merged into one Tank Army.

Lam Son 719 (1971)

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U.S. Army Bell AH-1G HueyCobra attack helicopters over Laos.

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This operation was executed by US and South Vietnamese forces against the growingly confident and ingenious forces of the north under the cautious and cunning Giap. The fact that some have considered it a failure does not make it any less instructive with regard to the problems of conducting the air-land battle and the merging of new technology (helicopters) with the clogging terrain and timeless verities of war. The sweating mountain forests on the Vietnam-Laos border imposed a unique character on operations, like any distinctive terrain. General Dave Palmer described the area on the Vietnam-Laos border as a `forbidding verdant fastness over which the communists had wisely and energetically superimposed a superb, in depth defensive system’. The aim of the operation was to destroy the North Vietnamese base area in Laos, especially the numerous logistic installations around Muang Xepon (Tchepone), thus forestalling any North Vietnamese offensive to conquer the northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam. It was a spoiling attack in four phases: first, US forces would seize the approaches inside South Vietnam leading to the Laotian border. Then, the 1st South Vietnamese Corps would attack along highway 9 to Xepon in a series of leap-frogging air assaults and armoured advances. Third, the South Vietnamese forces would carry out search and destroy missions in area 604. Depending on opportunity, the fourth phase was either a withdrawal along highway 9 or further destructive missions in area 611. The operation was named after the defeat of the Chinese invasion in 1427. The operation has been described as one of mid-intensity war, perhaps in recognition of the heavy hand of political restraint which constantly impinged on all the Vietnam fighting. For the first time, South Vietnamese forces were employed on a large scale without American ground forces, who were forbidden to enter Laos, or even any American advisers. On the other hand, the Americans dominated the skies and flew thousands of missions in support. In terms of numbers engaged and casualties, this was undoubtedly an operation of major war, and is particularly interesting as an air-land battle.

The operation began at midnight on 30 January 1971, the Americans firing heavy artillery concentrations from positions inside Vietnam. Meanwhile, military engineers began to make bases abandoned after the 1968 Khe Sanh campaign fit to mount air sorties, and Khe Sanh itself, the American Verdun, was re-opened as a forward base. It was estimated that this would take four days: in fact, it took over a week longer because of weather, mines and unexploded shells. Meanwhile, the operation had to go on and the South Vietnamese ground forces moved into Laos on 8 February.

The shape of the land inevitably channels an approach to Xepon along the Ye Pon river valley. The valley was so narrow that there was hardly room for the leading three armoured squadrons to manoeuvre. Meanwhile, cloud swathed the high ground on either side of the valley, naturally funnelled helicopters into it, and the silver gleam of the river was the most obvious navigation landmark. The North Vietnamese knew this well, and the nineteen anti-aircraft artillery battalions in the area were sited with this in mind, and also around the few obvious helicopter landing sites, which were self-evident amidst the dizzy vista of jungle and mountain. Artillery fire on all likely helicopter landing zones was pre-planned. As a result the Americans came up against much stiffer fire from the ground than they had expected, and helicopter gunships had to be allocated to escort even casualty evacuation helicopters in order to suppress ground fire, reducing their availability for other tasks. When the South Vietnamese forces landed, they were savagely counter-attacked, and one landing zone, 31, was overrun by North Vietnamese T-34 tanks which, seldom having faced heavy ordnance on the other side before, the air-landed forces were ill-equipped to counter. The American Army Aviation commander for the operation concluded that more emphasis needed to be placed on the anti-tank helicopter.

After several weeks of limited success, the South Vietnamese commander abandoned plans for a straight ground advance west of Aloui, and instead set up helicopter bases for an air assault towards Xepon. On 6 March two battalions carried out a desant (a Russian term which summarizes the type of manoeuvre graphically) into landing zone Hope, and in spite of enemy anti-air defences lost only one helicopter out of 120 employed. This and other air assaults were carefully planned, co-ordinating various layers of air elements: strategic bombers raining bombs from miles high, tactical bombers swathing anti-aircraft positions with fire, and helicopters and air-delivered smokescreens to guard the air-mobile infantry as they actually landed.

Meanwhile, general Giap threw everything he could into an attempt to destroy the raiding force: 36,000 North Vietnamese troops including two armoured regiments with T-34 tanks attacked the penetration. In order to escape American bombing, the North Vietnamese hugged the South Vietnamese positions, accepting terrible casualties from their ground fire instead: it is estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 were killed. The ARVN forces accomplished their mission, destroying the support facilities around Xepon before withdrawing. They thus delayed a major North Vietnamese offensive for a year, but two crack divisions, the 1st Division and the Airborne Division, had been terribly mauled in the process. Expert opinion is therefore sharply divided on the success of the operation: one authority considered that the South Vietnamese forces were `routed’: another that they broadly succeeded in their missions and had a major effect in delaying further North Vietnamese advances.

No US troops were involved on the ground, but the Americans provided lavish air support for Lam Son 719. They flew 160,000 air sorties, losing 107 helicopters to enemy fire. There were over 10,000 strikes by tactical fixed-wing aircraft, and the B-52 heavy bombers dropped 46,000 tons of bombs.

Many observers have cited Lam Son 719 as proof that air-mobile operations are too vulnerable to enemy air defence and counter-attack on the ground and could not be carried out in mechanized wars. Yet the loss of 107 helicopters, although high, must be seen in context. Out of 160,000 sorties over nearly two months (the last South Vietnamese troops fell back over the border on 24 March), that is not unacceptable, bearing in mind that war is a horribly expensive, bloody business. The terrain neutralized many of the advantages of the air-mobile force, allowing the defenders to concentrate on known axes of advance. This and low cloud over the land forced the helicopters up, flying at perhaps 1000 metres and more. It is ironic that although in some ways helicopters free military activity from the constraints of terrain, in others they are more dependent on it. Lam Son 719 did not prove conclusively that air-mobile operations are impossible. The operation has many lessons for future war, especially as the North Vietnamese were well provided with organic air defences and artillery, and both the Americans and Russians have studied it in developing their own doctrine for employing the air elements of ground forces. It was the first great air-land battle using helicopters in major war.

Operation BUCKLAND Part I

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THE BRITISH ARMY IN ITALY 1945 (NA 24306) Churchill tanks of 21st Army Tank Brigade cross the River Reno close to a destroyed railway bridge near Bastia, 18 April 1945. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205204783

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The failure of Operation OLIVE to achieve a breakthrough on to the plain of Lombardy and a possible end to the war in Italy in 1944 meant that Allied soldiers suffered a second winter campaign. Such was the nature of this that armour had little part to play and it was spring 1945 before the surviving British armoured division in Italy – 6th – saw action again in its intended role. But that proved a remarkable action as part of what was arguably the best manoeuvre operation by the western Allies of the war. Before then, however, the division, with 78th Division, took part in an attack in the Santerno valley in mid-December that was essentially an infantry operation which failed to gain its objectives but cost 61 Brigade heavily with 220 casualties. Thereafter, until March, 6th Armoured was static and its soldiers saw dismounted action as infantry before being brought down to the low ground behind Eighth Army’s lines to rest, re-organize and re-equip. Their old Shermans were handed in, to be replaced by newer models, mounting a superior 76mm gun while 17-pounder Sherman Fireflies were also issued as well as close support Shermans fitted with 105mm howitzers. While the 76mm gun was a great improvement on the earlier 75mm fitted to the Sherman, the 17-pounder of the Firefly was a huge boost to morale, since tankmen knew that the gun could take on the best of German armour and give the Firefly crew a real fighting chance.

There followed intense training to familiarize the crews with their new equipment and practise close co-operation with infantry. The battlegroup system was already in use with the division’s groups formed from the units of 26 Armoured and 61 Brigades. Unlike the north-west Europe divisions, however, there were only three battlegroups; the divisional reconnaissance regiment, 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry, was held as an armoured reserve while 1 Guards Brigade was also held in reserve, ready, in Murray’s words, ‘to punch holes if required’. Losses had brought changes in the orders of battle of both Guards and 61 Brigades: 10th Rifle Brigade was disbanded on 20 March 1945, its soldiers allocated to 2nd Rifle Brigade in 61 Brigade and its place taken by 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC); in 1 Guards Brigade 2nd Coldstream left on 2 March to join 24 Guards Brigade in place of 5th Grenadiers, who were disbanded, while 1st Welch Regiment took 2nd Coldstream’s place in 1 Guards Brigade.

Eighth Army was now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery, who had succeeded Leese on 1 October 1944. McCreery had commanded X Corps and, briefly, V Corps and had been Alexander’s chief of staff in the Middle East. Before that he had been sent as an armoured adviser to Middle East HQ but, sadly, he and Auchinleck did not get on and he was removed from his post. Before his appointment to Cairo he had commanded 8th Armoured Division and had seen action in France in 1940 commanding 2 Armoured Brigade. Commissioned in 12th (Prince of Wales’s Royal) Lancers in 1915 he was:

one of the most knowledgeable and experienced armoured commanders in the war … He was determined that the Division would be used in an armoured role, but only when the circumstances were favourable … It presupposed breaking out through the infantry when the latter had softened up the opposition and the battle was on the verge of becoming fluid. Such situations are difficult to read and the conclusion we came to was that we would have to be prepared to fight our own way out if needs be. We knew also that there was little likelihood of breaking out on a broad front. It was essential to make our battlegroups as flexible as possible.

Coincidentally, the new commander of Fifth Army, Lucian Truscott, was also a cavalryman and had brought cavalry ‘thinking speed’ to the US infantry, introducing the famous ‘Truscott Trott’ as a divisional commander; his division had the reputation of being the fastest moving in the US Army. Truscott did not share the anti-British bias of his predecessor, Clark, who now commanded 15th Army Group, and found a fellow spirit in McCreery. It was due largely to their co-operation and planning that the final campaign in Italy evolved as it did. Clark, who remained anti-British and, especially, anti-McCreery, although (or possibly because) the latter had served under him as a corps commander, had decided that Eighth Army was no longer an effective fighting formation and that Fifth Army would undertake the final assault. He reckoned without his two army commanders who presented him with a detailed plan that envisaged both formations co-operating in an attack to destroy the German forces in northern Italy. Clark gave his approval to the plan, Operation GRAPESHOT, in which the armies would carry out a double encirclement, a strategy the Germans described as Kiel und Kessel, or ‘wedge and trap’. Eighth Army would launch Operation BUCKLAND on 9 April with the support of the entire Allied air effort until the 12th when Fifth Army would launch Operation CRAFTSMAN.

McCreery planned carefully for BUCKLAND and wrought great changes in Eighth Army while doing so. Although more formations, including I Canadian Corps, had been transferred to north-west Europe, he raised the army’s morale to a high pitch and gave it the tools needed for success. A miniature 79th Armoured Division was created with specialized armoured vehicles: 25 Tank Brigade became B Assault Brigade RAC/RE and then 25 Armoured Engineer Brigade with flame-throwing Churchill Crocodiles, Flail tanks to clear paths through minefields, bridging tanks and tank-dozers (almost 200 specialized AFVs were produced in workshops in Italy) while 9 Armoured Brigade was re-roled to operate amphibious LVTs, or Buffaloes, codenamed Fantails, and Kangaroo APCs. These played critical parts in BUCKLAND.

Prior to the main offensive, commando operations secured the right flank of Eighth Army’s advance by taking islands in Lake Comácchio and the spit of land separating the lake from the Adriatic. Then 167 Brigade of 56th (London) Division crossed Comácchio in Buffaloes to complete the operation by creating a wedge between the Reno river floodbank and the area west of the lake that the Germans had flooded. The Germans may have considered the expanse of water that was Lake Comácchio and the neighbouring inundation an impassable obstacle but McCreery thought otherwise. He had flown over the area and identified a route for Eighth Army’s advance via Argenta, which became known as the Argenta Gap, around which he built his plan. With the commandos and 167 Brigade having achieved their objectives, all was set for the main attack.

For Operation BUCKLAND McCreery had reinforced V Corps to a strength of five divisions, the Italian Gruppo di Combattimento Cremona and 2 Parachute Brigade with 6th Armoured held in reserve until the initial attack reached Argenta. The spearhead of that initial attack was 78th Division which was expanded to include 2 Armoured Brigade, and elements of 9 Armoured and 25 Armoured Engineer Brigades, with infantry riding in Kangaroo APCs manned by 4th Hussars. Leading the division into battle was a breakout force to clear the way for the mobile force, or Kangaroo Army; a reserve force was held for special roles.

On 9 April Eighth Army launched BUCKLAND with over 1,500 artillery pieces and more than 1,000 Allied aircraft hammering the Germans before V Corps crossed its start lines. Before long the Kangaroo Army was racing into action, the Reno was reached and Argenta was cleared by 18 April while Fifth US Army had launched Operation CRAFTSMAN on 14 April. It was time to unleash 6th Armoured Division. Initial progress was slow with the way through Argenta a mass of congestion and streets filled with rubble.

Both 56th and 78th Divisions were using the route to supply their own units at the front and the resulting transport problems were a nightmare. By late afternoon on 19 April, however, the Lothians and 16th/5th Lancers were both passing through the leading infantry with their support groups and preparing to move from Consandolo, ten miles north of Argenta.

Murray had been told by McCreery that reports had been received that Argenta was in British hands but suggested that he confirm this with Keightley. Putting the division on six hours’ notice to move, Murray went to see Keightley who thought the way was clear but Murray then went forward to see Major General Keith Arbuthnott, GOC 78th Division, to confirm this.

Unfortunately the ‘gap’ was even less obvious than we had thought, but two factors decided me in accepting this challenge. In the first place the opposing troops must have had quite a hammering in the previous ten days since the operation commenced and might well be reasonably disorganized. Secondly, we were now within striking distance of the Po, and in this area 6th Armoured Division would have its last chance of fighting an armoured battle. We would never have forgiven ourselves if that fleeting chance had escaped us: it was now or never.

And so the decision was made. Murray’s orders from Keightley were straightforward: pass through 78th Division’s left flank, swing north-eastward, advance to Bondeno, with the divisional left flank along the Reno, and link up with Fifth Army. Once that junction was achieved the destruction of what remained of Tenth and Fourteenth Armies, ‘caught in the noose of Bologna’s defences’, would be complete. According to the CO of 17th/21st Lancers the ‘gap’ was ‘literally only a few yards wide’ but enough to give an armoured division the chance to perform its role. The battlegroups rode to their final battle with enthusiasm.

Operation BUCKLAND Part II

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Eighth Army Boundaries and Plan for Operation BUCKLAND

Battered the Germans may have been but they were still determined to oppose the Allied advance. The first water obstacle met by the advancing armour was the Po morto di Primaro, along which were ensconced elements of 26th Panzer Division. At San Nicolo they showed the Lothians/2nd Rifle Brigade Group that they had lost none of their vigour and did likewise to 16th/5th Lancers/1 KRRC at Traghetto. This was only a temporary setback as the KRRC crossed the river that night to establish a bridgehead into which the Lancers crossed via a Bailey bridge next morning. While the Rifles secured the bridgehead the Lancers probed out to the right, with 17th/21st Lancers on their left. Although advancing over territory suited to anti-tank operations they pushed ahead some four miles beyond Traghetto. The 17th/21st found better going as they were closer to the Reno and by day’s end had drawn ahead of 16th/5th, along whose path many ditches and thickets concealed Panzerfauste parties and some anti-tank guns. Five tanks were knocked out by enemy action. Val ffrench-Blake, CO of the 17th/21st Group, noted that an ‘Air OP plane was ahead of us, and spotted a tank which was destroyed by the “cab-rank” of Rover David – a specially trained Mustang squadron’.

No amount of opposition was to be allowed to slow the advance and McCreery kept close watch on developments, ensuring that the problems of the Gothic Line would not be repeated. Of the army commander, Keightley commented admiringly that McCreery was usually closer to the battle than he was himself. From McCreery ‘pungent and pertinent criticism descended, based on his assessments of the grouping demanded by the terrain’. Thus 1 Guards Brigade entered the battle through 16th/5th Lancers, and the 17th/21st Lancers/7th Rifle Brigade Group resumed their advance at 4.00am on 21 April. By daylight the group had covered another four miles and entered Segni to encounter stout opposition. Although German troops, with some tanks, held the Fossa Cembalina where it meets the Reno they were flushed out by air attacks, and a battlegroup attack allowed sappers to bridge the Fossa with an Ark. (Look at a map of the region and it appears to be flat, perfect country for tanks, but it is crossed by ancient drainage ditches that made excellent anti-tank obstacles. Many roads were raised above the level of the surrounding countryside, making tanks frighteningly conspicuous.)

With Segni consolidated the advance continued. McCreery had decreed that the enemy should be allowed no rest and as the 17th/21st Lancers Group advanced from Segni they fired into buildings to prompt the surrender of many German soldiers. The group seized the bridge near Gallo within ninety minutes of leaving Segni, cutting Highway 64, the Bologna-Ferrara road. Orders then came from HQ 26 Armoured Brigade: