Planning the “Dash” I

KMS Prinz Eugen

KMS Scharnhorst

Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation ‘Cerberus’, the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine’s greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays.

The two great grey ships appeared off the entrance to the French Atlantic port of Brest just after dawn. They were Germany’s 32,000-ton battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returning from marauding raids against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

They had sailed from Kiel at the beginning of 1941. Evading the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, they had broken through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. For the next two months like gigantic pirates they roamed the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking more than twenty ships totalling over 100,000 tons. It was the first—and last—successful foray by German battleships against Allied merchant shipping in the Second World War. Then in early March they seemed to disappear into Atlantic mists.

At 7 a.m. on 22 March 1941, as sullen French dock workers watched, they tied up at the quai Lannion in Brest. It was nearly a year since France had fallen and the French Naval base had been taken over by German dockyard workers from Wilhelmshaven. They had returned to Brest because they were badly in need of repairs. The two-months’ cruise had revealed serious defects in Scharnhorst’s boilers. The tubes of the super-heaters, especially, had given constant trouble threatening a major breakdown. German dockyard engineers who examined her estimated ten weeks would be needed for repairs. When her Kapitän, Kurt Hoffmann, reported this news to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German Navy in Berlin, the German Admiralty staff were shocked at the extent of the repairs necessary.

Her sister ship Gneisenau was also in need of minor repairs. The refit of both battleships went ahead quickly but no Frenchman was allowed to work on them, for French workmen in the repair depots ashore went as slow as they dared to hold up the work of the German conquerors. Throughout the dockyard and in the town, the inhabitants were not only surly and hostile, but some of them were in touch with French underground agents, who would pass the information about the repairs to Britain.

After the ships’ arrival eight depressing days passed with unceasing rain and frequent false air-raid alarms. Then on the evening of 30 March came the real thing. The wail of sirens was followed by the crash of bombs. The flak gun crews poured up a curtain of fire but their shells could not reach high-flying planes.

Ashore, many officers of the German Naval Staff were killed when the hotel where they were accommodated was hit and caught fire. The ships were undamaged but when the fragments of bombs were examined by German experts next day they made an important discovery. The RAF had dropped 500-lb armour-piercing bombs specially made to crash through the armoured decks of the warships. The Germans then knew that this was no routine dock raid. These bombs were direct evidence that the RAF knew they were there. Now the raids would never cease. They were right. The RAF started to come day and night when weather permitted.

At dawn on 6 April a RAF torpedo-bomber suddenly dived out of the clouds. It was a Coastal Command Beaufort from St. Eval in Cornwall, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, who made a most courageous and determined attack upon Gneisenau. She was tied up to the buoy against a wall at the north end of the harbour, protected by the curving mole. The little hills all around the harbour bristled with clusters of guns and moored near the mole as extra protection were three flak ships.

The battleship’s position appeared to be impregnable. Even if an aircraft managed to deliver a low level attack it would not be able to pull out in time and must crash into the high ground surrounding the harbour.

But Kenneth Campbell dived down to deck level and flew steadily past the blazing muzzles of the flak ships’ guns. He skimmed over the mole and dropped his torpedo at point-blank range towards Gneisenau’s stern. As he did so, the German flak gunners hit him and he crashed in flames into the water.

But he had done his job. Seconds later his torpedo exploded against Gneisenau on the starboard side aft. Water rushed in and she began to list heavily. A salvage vessel which came alongside to pump tons of water from her scuppers had difficulty keeping her from sinking.

The bodies of Campbell and his gallant aircrew, Sgts. Scott, Mullis and Hillman, were fished out of the harbour and brought on board the battleship. Their bodies were draped in flags and placed on the quarterdeck, where a guard of honour was mounted as a mark of respect.

While this chivalrous ceremony was taking place, the salvage crews managed to pump enough water out to right her, since she could not remain in danger at the buoy. RAF spotter planes were now informing the British about every move of the battleships. Another attack like Campbell’s on Gneisenau would probably sink her.

The following morning Gneisenau again entered dry dock where inspection confirmed that Campbell’s torpedo had wrecked the starboard propeller and shaft tunnel. This would need six months to repair. She would be out of action twice as long as Scharnhorst.

When the British heard about Campbell’s heroic act he was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The citation said: “Despising heavy odds Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell went cheerfully and resolutely to his task. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, he displayed valour of the highest order.”

As a result of Campbell’s torpedo both battleships were now due for a long stay so the German Navy decided to put their static fleet to some use. A detachment of a hundred midshipmen were sent from Germany to the Brest battleships to complete their training. They were posted equally to both ships and, as anti-aircraft defence was most vital, this was their main task. It became a brutal battle training for these budding officers. For some it was very short.

On the night of 10 April, the sirens again wailed and the first bomb explosions could be heard above the roar of the flak guns. Suddenly there came a series of tremendous flashes and explosions and a red glow lit up Gneisenau‘s superstructure. She had been hit by three bombs and was on fire. The bombs killed fifty and wounded ninety of her crew, the heaviest casualties being among the flak crews and the young midshipmen. At the time of the raid many of the off-duty midshipmen were in their quarters between decks. Most of them were killed by fragments of other big bombs exploding on the quayside.

As ambulances drew up at the ship’s gangway and long rows of stretcher cases were taken to hospital, Captain Hoffmann went across from Scharnhorst to offer help. He ordered a working-party to fight the fires on the mess decks, but they had to flood one magazine before the fires were controlled and Gneisenau out of danger.

The Germans’ main concern was to conceal the extent of the damage from the French, but each battleship could only make ten coffins, and this meant tiiey would have to call in French carpenters to make many more. When the order was given the news of the German dead spread rapidly among the inhabitants of Brest.

After this they arranged for most of the crews to sleep ashore in barracks, leaving only flak gunners and a duty watch in the ship. This raid also decided the authorities in Berlin to step up the A.A. defences of Brest. They increased the number of 4-inch guns to 150 and smaller flak guns to 1,200, to make a murderous concentration of fire. Also the two battleships were moved closer together. The lock gates were closed and protected by nets against torpedoes fired by either intruding submarines or wave-skimming planes.

In Scharnhorst’s old berth, Hoffmann built a wooden and sheet-iron replica of her on the hull of an old French cruiser, Jeanne d’Arc. Nets hung from the battleships’ masts to the dockside with paint sprayed over them to make them resemble clumps of trees. On the roofs of the Naval College the surviving midshipmen erected wooden huts to make it look like a village.

A network of artificial smoke-generators which could shroud the port under a thick fog within a few minutes was installed around the harbour. This last precaution aroused protests from the Luftwaffe who maintained that the dense smoke would endanger their fighter operations. This artificial fog also nearly caused a collision between the two battleships when they came to leave harbour.

The flak and the fighters gave them protection during the day but in darkness it was a different story. As the RAF’s heavy bombing continued nearly every night it looked as though not only would the ships be damaged but most of their crews endangered. Although many of them were taken at night in lorries to barracks in Brest, many were still being killed ashore so it was decided to move them farther out to avoid the raids.

They were moved at night to La Roche fifteen miles from Brest near the sleepy little Breton town of Landerneau. Both places were on the main line to Paris and the railway was used a lot to move crews about.

Hidden in a small forest of birch trees near Landerneau, barracks were built for the crews of each ship. It was also planned to build extra ones for the crew of another German battleship, Bismarck, due in for a refit after her own Atlantic merchant shipping forays. Outside the dockyard at Brest the large buoys swung at their moorings awaiting her arrival.

While the other two German battleships were being repaired in Brest, Bismarck was sheltering in the German-occupied Norwegian port of Bergen. But on a moonless night—20 May 1941—she slipped out, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. At noon next day, when the news reached the Admiralty in Whitehall, the Home Fleet was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow to intercept the German ships south of the Denmark Straits.

At dawn on 24 May the two German ships were in action with the British fleet, which included the veteran battle-cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales on her maiden voyage. The Royal Navy had the worst of the battle. Hood, hit by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, blew up. Prince of Wales was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the action. But smaller Royal Naval ships still shadowed the fast-steaming Bismarck.

In the afternoon the new aircraft-carrier Victorious was detached from the main force to attack her. When 825 Squadron of Swordfish rose from her flight deck to make a night attack on the German battleship, the leading plane was piloted by Lt.-Cdr. Eugene Esmonde.

At 11:30 p.m., when they were 120 miles from the carrier, Esmonde’s Swordfish squadron sighted Bismarck. Flying 100 feet above the waves in the darkness, they let go their torpedoes from less than 1,000 yards. As they banked away there was a roar followed by a flash and a curling plume of flame.

The Bismarck had been hit amidships.

The torpedo slowed her down, and after a three-day chase the Home Fleet again brought the Bismarck into action. This time she was alone. Four hours before the battle the Prinz Eugen had slipped away. The Bismarck sank under the guns and torpedoes of the Royal Navy.

It was on the night of 7 May that German naval officers at Brest, surreptitiously listening to the B.B.C. news, heard: “At 10:37 G.M.T. the German battleship Bismarck was sunk.”

The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck’s sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.

She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.

The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.

The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as “Stopper,” which covered from Brest to Ushant, “Line SE” from Ushant to Brittany and “Habo” from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as “Jim Crow.”

On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: “Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover.” Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.

At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: “The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns.”

Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: “1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers.”

But Raeder’s principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, “The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible.” This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.

Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the “pocket” battleships—to the Royal Navy’s fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.


Planning the “Dash” II

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941. (C 4109) Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight attack on German warships docked at Brest, France. Two Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF fly towards the dry docks in which the battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU are berthed (right), and over which a smoke screen is rapidly spreading. 18 December 1941 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Raeder, one of the ablest and most professional naval officers Germany has ever produced, nursed his ships like a duck with ducklings. During the fourteen years in which he was its Commander-in-Chief no one had guarded the honour of the German Navy more jealously than he.

When Raeder rejected the Channel plan it was generally felt among the admirals in Berlin that this was the end of the matter. For Hitler trusted Raeder’s judgement and had promoted him to Grand Admiral, second only to Goring as Hitler’s adviser for the prosecution of the war.

It came as a surprise when Admiral Krancke, Raeder’s personal representative on Hitler’s Supreme Staff, was summoned to the Führer’s headquarters and, standing stiffly to attention, listened pale-faced to the tirade of abuse concerning the German capital ships and their officers which Hitler hurled at him.

Hitler, at war with Russia since June, was becoming alarmed at the numerous small British commando raids on the coast of Norway, starting with the Lofotens in March 1941. He considered the Norwegian coastline to be the most vulnerable section of his Western Wall. The news had also reached Hitler that British convoys were bringing tanks, aircraft and guns to the Eastern Front. He decided that Norway, where in any case he had always thought the British intended to open a second front, had now become even more strategically important.

Meanwhile the RAF continued to keep up their non-stop bombing attacks on Brest. A month after Raeder had rejected the Channel plan—on the morning of 1 July—it was Prinz Eugens turn. While she lay alongside the eastern basin of the commercial dock, a RAF bomb smashed the ship’s armour-plating and exploded in the most vulnerable compartments— the plotting room and transmitting station. It killed forty-seven men, including her first officer, Cdr. Otto Stoos, and wounded thirty-two. It also put Prinz Eugen out of action for three months.

On the other hand, Scharnhorst was refitted and on the morning of 23 July left for La Pallice, 250 miles to the south, for trials to test her super-heaters and practise firing her guns. Captain Hoffmann chose the shoal-dotted waters around La Pallice because they afforded the best protection against submarines and he needed only a few patrol boats to keep watch.

A tanker took her place in the dock as a decoy and was covered with netting. To disguise the direction of her departure, the Germans put out false oil trails leading north from Brest. In spite of this careful camouflage, the ever-watchful RAF spotted the move and reported that Scharnhorst was moving south from her berth. Was she about to break out into the Atlantic? As spotter planes watched her, the opinion grew that this might be the long-awaited escape.

Unaware of the British suspicions, the battleship performed perfectly, reaching a speed of thirty knots without difficulty. She returned to La Pallice that evening, expecting to remain there for several days while minor adjustments were made.

Before dark a group of Stirling heavy bombers attacked her and made one direct hit with a heavy armour-piercing bomb. More heavy bomber attacks during the night damaged La Pallice docks. At dawn a RAF photographic reconnaissance plane was over La Pallice. As it revealed little serious damage it was decided to mount the most massive daylight raid on both battleships.

Ninety-nine RAF bombers took off, arriving over the battleships at 2 p.m. Three Flying Fortresses, sixty-three Wellingtons and eighteen Hampdens attacked the Gneisenau in Brest while eight Halifaxes bombed the Scharnhorst in La Pallice.

This was the first time Fortresses, fitted with the new Sperry bombsight for high altitude bombing, had taken part in a raid on the Brest battleships. They had arrived in England just three months before and the attack that hot July afternoon on the German battleships was only their third operation.

Because of the height at which they operated they carried special aircrews—none of them over 24 years old. The pilots of the three Fortresses, Wing-Cdr. Macdougall, Sq. Ldr. MacLaren and Flt.-Lt. Mathieson, were told to concentrate on the Gneisenau. At eight minutes past two they started bombing from a height of 30,000 feet, each aircraft dropping four 1100-lb. bombs which burst on the quays and docks. Although accurate flak was seen following them a thousand feet below they were too high for the German defences. After they had released their bombs three Messerschmitts climbed steeply towards them but the Fortresses turned away and lost them.

At the same time Wing-Cdr. Maw led the low-level British-built bombers down to 6,000 feet, their bombs bursting among the dockyard buildings. Pilot Officer Payne went down to 3,500 feet and as his bombs straddled the Gneisenau both he and his front gunner, Sgt. Wilkinson, were wounded by flak.

The Halifaxes attacked the Scharnhorst at La Pallice from 12,000 feet. She was easily identified by the high-flying bomber pilots from a cloudless sky, and a row of five bombs hit her. Thick smoke began to pour from her as terrific explosions shook the ship. Two bombs exploded on deck, causing a great rent. Yet she was lucky. The three heavy bombs that penetrated the armoured upper deck and smashed through the hull failed to explode, although they caused her to take in 6,000 tons of water.

The ship began to settle with a heavy list. But the efficient repair-parties quickly righted her and the damage was promptly repaired. A signal went to the port authorities for divers, who found the impact with Scharnhorst’s deck had torn the steel off one of the bombs and had helped to prevent it exploding. The holes in Scharnhorst’s hull were soon patched up.

Good luck was still with her for, miraculously, there were no casualties. She returned to Brest at twenty-seven knots.

The autumn of 1941 was the beginning of bad times for the German war machine. Hitler’s blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union was slowing up at die onset of the savage Russian winter. Hitler was personally conducting the campaign from his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, known as Wolf’s Lair.

Since the start of the Russian campaign Admiral Raeder had heard nothing from his preoccupied Führer. But on 17 September, as the Admiral was preparing plans for using his battleships in the Atlantic shipping lanes again, he was summoned to a conference with Hitler at Wolf’s Lair.

Hitler did not want to hear about the Atlantic plan. He was convinced the British were going to invade Norway and interrupted to say, “The Atlantic can be left to the U-boats. Your battleships, all your major units, must be stationed along the Norwegian coast. They can be of some use in guarding Norway against invasion. They will be safer there from air attack than in Brest.”

He called Norway the “zone of destiny.” Hitler, who had referred to himself to Raeder as “a land animal,” said to him, “Battleships are not good for anything. The big guns would be more useful and less vulnerable in emplacements ashore. I have plans for disarming these steel monsters and using them for the defence of the Norwegian coast.”

There was a second conference in November when Hitler produced a marked map of the Norwegian coast with areas shown from which the two battleships and Prinz Eugen could operate against the British. He was impatient with Raeder. What was the major part of German sea power doing bottled up and being bombed in Brest? He ended by inquiring harshly, “What solution does the Navy have?”

To placate him, Raeder brought out a contingency plan by Naval Group West in Paris which had been pigeon-holed. It suggested that, while awaiting completion of repairs to the battleships, an attempt might be made to send Prinz Eugen on a lone dash through the English Channel to a German port. Hitler, who had appeared uninterested, even bored, suddenly looked up and commented, “Why only the Prinz Eugen? Why not all the ships?”

Raeder, who was not expecting even the Prinz Eugen plan to be taken seriously, was astonished. He replied, “A dash through the Channel by a solitary cruiser is a very different matter, mein Führer, from a movement by a whole fleet.”

Hitler was the last person on earth to be put off by such a statement. “The issue of war will be decided in Norway,” he said. “Unless the British are fools they will attack us there.”

As he said this, he looked directly at Raeder and gave the Nazi salute in dismissal. Raeder flew back to Berlin and sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter, Chief of Naval Group West in Paris, asking how soon the battleships could put to sea. He was not displeased when he received a reply that the two battleships would not be ready until December. It was just as well. By then Hitler, obsessed with the Russian front, might have forgotten this hare-brained idea.

At first Raeder tried to gain time saying he must have discussions with his staff. He explained the position to his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, in Berlin and also to Admiral Wagner, head of the Operations Section directing the war at sea, saying, “Hitler wants the ships back in home waters, for he believes there might be an attempt at a British invasion in the Norwegian area.”

As the Berlin naval chiefs studied the basic aspects of the plan their first objection was the state of crew training. The better trained the crews were, the more chance they had of pulling off a daring operation like this. Yet through no fault of Captain Hoffmann and his fellow commanders, the crews’ training and morale was very much below standard. Brest-bound as they were, always under the threatening shadow of the RAF, they were only able to carry out restricted exercises and drills. But the greatest obstacle to the plan would be the need for the strictest secrecy. Except for the most senior officers at Brest, no one could be allowed to know what was to happen. This would mean the crews could not be inspired by their training instructors with a promise of glory.

Yet the more Admiral Wagner studied the Führer’s plan the more he found he was not against the operation. This was because the entire world naval situation had changed suddenly on 6 December 1941, when America had come into the war. He considered the days were now over when the Germans could keep the ships in Brest as a constant Atlantic threat.

In his view, to do this indefinitely would be to invite disaster. The situation seemed quite plain; on one side there were the British with the increasingly destructive power of their bombing raids; but on the other side there was the menacing voice of the Führer. “You will remove the ships where I can employ them in the Norwegian theatre. Otherwise you will give me their guns and I will mount them in shore batteries. Make your choice, meine Herren.”

Was there an alternative to a break-out through the Channel? They could bring the ships north of Britain round by the Iceland route. But in their path in Scapa Flow lurked the might of the British battle fleet which was bound to intercept—and send them to join Bismarck at the bottom.

However, his intelligence reports revealed that the English appeared to have very little in the Channel.

His chief, Admiral Raeder, still did not like the plan. Like First Sea Lord Dudley Pound in the Admiralty in London he feared for his capital ships. If the ships were put out of action by the RAF or Royal Navy, it would be the virtual end of the German Navy as a force. Feeling that the ships would be too like sitting ducks on the narrow waters of the Channel, he told Wagner, “I cannot make this proposal to Hitler that we break through the Channel.”

Wagner argued the risk might have to be taken. He said, “If the ships are dismantled we will present the British with a bloodless victory. The German Navy will never hold up its head again. To concede victory to the enemy without a fight is to sentence the German Navy to death.”

Faced with these views, and the Führer’s fanatic insistence, Raeder began to give way a little—but he was still not convinced.

On 29 December, he had a stormy meeting with Hitler when the Führer persisted in his plan. When Raeder said that, after being in port for so long, his ships could hardly be expected to face the powerful British Home Fleet without some preparation, Hitler once again raved about “the uselessness of the battleships.” He refused even to allow the time for lengthy “shake-down” sea-going exercises and firing practice which Raeder wanted. For as he pointed out quite reasonably, they might easily be bombed and sunk while on these practices.

Raeder flew back to Berlin and passed the whole matter over to Naval Group West in Paris. Although the operation would be under the immediate command of Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax who commanded the Brest ships flying his flag in Scharnhorst, Naval Group West in Paris was responsible for all operational directions.

The Commander-in-Chief of Naval Group West was 59-year-old General-Admiral Alfred Saalwächter. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had an exceptional mind. Although smallish in height, he was regarded in the German Navy as riesengross— “gigantic in stature.”

A Prussian, born at Neusalz on the River Oder, he had been a submarine commander in the First World war, but although he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in 1940, he was no friend of the Führer, with whom, like so many German admirals, he had had differences.

Between wars, Saalwächter had gone round naval ports inspecting establishments and training personnel. He wrote a standard book on naval warfare for the German Navy, Seekriegsanleitung, which became the textbook for all officers.

His headquarters—Naval Group West—were in the Avenue Maréchal Faijolle, near the Bois de Boulogne. It was a large, four-storied mansion of Napoleon III period. The only indications of its naval importance were two striped sentry boxes at the entrance, each with a German sailor in blouse and gaiters carrying a rifle.

Saalwächter had a staff consisting of about fifteen high-ranking naval officers, with several hundred petty officers and technicians. On the upper floors of the mansion were the “cabins” where the staff officers lived and took their meals. In the basement was a big garage with a fleet of staff cars. The drivers were civilians, mostly white Russians. Their leader, ironically enough, had been a Russian admiral in the First World war.

As there were few German troops in metropolitan Paris at that time Saalwächter’s staff led a strange isolated life. They worked so hard they often did not go out for days at a time but they always had seats at the Paris Opera House because their chief liked opera. The only time Saalwächter appeared relaxed was when he was stealing an evening from his headquarters at the Opera.

At the end of 1941 Admiral Otto Ciliax, commander of the Brest squadron, was away on Christmas leave in Germany. He was not due back until the New Year. Ciliax—a product of the German: Naval Academy at Flensburg—was a tall, brusque black-haired man. He was a former captain of the Scharnhorst and was not very popular. He was a notorious martinet and nick-named “The Black Czar.” When a staff officer saluted him and his hand did not travel to his brow with regulation agility, a frown would come on Ciliax’s face as he returned his salute. A little bit later he would send a petty officer over to him with a message, “The Admiral’s compliments, mein kapitän, but he would like to speak with you.” Ciliax would say angrily, “I just wanted to tell you I did not like your salute!” As the Germans put it, he was a “starker Mann!”

Another reason he was not popular was that he could not delegate authority. In Scharnhorst, he and his staff had an admiral’s bridge immediately above Captain Hoffmann’s navigational bridge, and he was several times snubbed for giving orders on the running of the ship literally over the captain’s head.

If Ciliax met an officer whom he did not like the Admiral made him miserable. He suffered from stomach trouble and was frequently in some pain, which may have played a part in his irascibility. But with all his rough mannerisms he had dignity.

His Chief of Staff, the calm 41-year-old, pipe-smoking Captain Hans Jürgen Reinicke, had heard about his reputation before he joined him—so he was prepared. He swallowed what Ciliax said to him in public but later sought him out privately and told him if things continued in this manner he would put in for a. transfer. He had no more trouble and Reinicke became one of the few officers who could handle him.

Planning the “Dash” III

Hans-Jürgen Rudolf REINICKE [centre],  (*10/08/1902†29/01/1978)

On 30 December just after dinner an urgent signal was brought to Reinicke aboard Scharnhorst. It was from Naval Group West in Paris ordering him to report there at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day. As the message said Admiral Ciliax was also being ordered to report in Paris, he realized it was more than a routine matter.

It was too late to catch the evening train to Paris so he took one the next morning. It was evening when he arrived at the Gare Montparnasse and crossed Paris to the Gare de l’Est to meet Admiral Ciliax recalled from home leave in Germany by the same cryptic message from Group West. It was not surprising that Ciliax, never noted for his good temper, came off the train in one of his blacker moods.

“What’s this all about, Reinicke?” he growled more than once. But his Chief of Staff could not enlighten him. They would both have to wait for their appointment next morning.

It was New Year’s Eve. They had a meal, split a bottle of champagne, and went to bed early.

The next morning they went to Group West headquarters and waited in a conference room for Alfred Saalwächter. He soon appeared with Admiral Schniewind, the new operational commander of the German Navy. Saalwächter briskly told Ciliax and Reinicke the news—the Führer wanted the three ships to leave Brest, proceed to their German home ports and then to Norway for operations there.

But Admiral Saalwächter revealed he was worried about the fate of his great ships. After he told them of the Führer’s demands he asked for their frank opinions. He was trying to organize expert opposition to dissuade the Führer. When Ciliax raised many objections against Hitler’s scheme, he told him to go away and put them in writing. After Ciliax had written his detailed objections, Saalwächter forwarded them with his own report to Raeder.

He wrote: “I submit herewith conclusions for the comprehensive scrutiny that has been ordered into the question of the withdrawal of the Brest Group eastwards through the Channel.

“The hazards applicable to a voyage of battleships through the Channel eastwards are summed up at the end of the outline.

“I view these hazards as being very great. I must for this reason alone give an urgent warning against it being carried out.

“On the 12 November I commented that one single surprise move to the west by one or by several battleships was feasible. But conversely, a move eastwards of the battleships is one combined with too great a peril. Subsequent navigation through the Channel would be rendered impossible because the element of surprise would have departed.

“It can be executed only during the period of the longest nights. It must be accompanied by control of the mine situation and air preponderance in the Channel.

“I do not take the view that the new experiences in the East Asian theatre of war can be taken as proof of the uselessness of battleships to abandon our warfare in the Atlantic.

[The sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft.]

Our opponent does not think so, as the unchanged characteristics of his heavy forces show.

“I advocate, as I have always done, the conception that the essential tasks of our battleships lie in the Atlantic.

“Our numerical inferiority affords us opportunities for success only by surprise offensive sorties directed at the enemy’s weak points which are to be found in his long Atlantic supply routes, and not by continually facing with defensive action a greatly superior enemy.

“At this time the best possibilities of success for the Brest Group lie in surprise action against north to south convoys. The Brest Group’s achievements already go to show that the enemy feels and fears this threat and straightaway tries by air attacks to rid himself of it.

“This pressure can only be made permanent if our battleship strength actually goes to sea. Yet even during the long period of repairs the enemy can hardly foretell with exactitude when one or several of the ships are able to pounce. Withdrawal of the Brest Group from the Atlantic means releasing the enemy from this strategic pressure.

“The plan for tying down his heavy naval forces in the Atlantic falls apart. Maintenance of pressure on other theatres of war such as East Asia and the Mediterranean must also stop. A perceptible strengthening of English sea power in East Asia will follow, thereby impeding Japan.

“In addition to actual strategic prizes, there is great prestige for our enemy. On the other hand there would be a great loss of prestige for us which would be made far worse if the ships were lost by the voyage through the Channel. Political consequences very damaging to us and our allies are inevitable.

“If our ships disappear from the Atlantic or from the Atlantic position people would rightly talk about a ‘lost battle’. Naval actions from Norway would not make up for such a move.

“We do not stand there on the Atlantic just for raiding possibilities against the enemy supply routes. We threaten Scotland, Iceland, the North Arctic and Russia.

“In the Norwegian harbours the aerial danger and with it the stresses for the Luftwaffe would hardly be less. The enemy at all times could by choice of place and time have greater superiority. Liaison with any battleships in the Atlantic would be impossible.

“I am convinced that the problem of the Atlantic position as it is at present cannot be gone back upon later. In any case, it is clear that a “bringing back again” of the ships would be enormously difficult.

“Finally, there are indications that if our ships withdrew from the Atlantic after a lost battle, to appear again in home waters and remain there it would be injurious to the psychology of our own ships’ companies, of the entire Navy and of the German people.

“I am therefore convinced that it would now be a very serious mistake by us at this time to withdraw the ships from Brest in their Atlantic position.

“I consider their remaining there, even though with heavy damage and lengthy repair times, is the correct course.

“There remains for consideration only the slight relief of the Luftwaffe which would come about in Brest.

“If the withdrawal plan of the Brest Group to the East is adhered to, then examination might be made as to whether Prinz Eugen should take part. By the cruiser remaining at Brest, at least a portion of the present strategic operations of the Brest Group would remain in being to confront our enemy.

“I submit with this report extracts from three letters of C-in-C of the ships (Ciliax), corresponding to my point of view, which he sent me after the first conference on the matter in Group West.

“Should the question be put through the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht to the Navy: ‘Break-out or Disarm?’ then I would say with a heavy heart that against the ‘Break-out’ with its enormous risks, I would prefer temporary disarmament. For when the fortunes of the day change the ordnance could be restored, whilst a loss of these valuable ships and their crews could only bring damage without benefit.”

It was a gloomy and defeatist document and Hitler was to have none of it. He was concerned that the constant BAF bombing was slowly fraying the fabric of crew morale.

Although unaware of Hitler’s plan and Saalwächter’s strong objections, the BAF bombing of Brest increased in December. And for the first time photographic planes revealed that all three ships seemed to be preparing for sea.

On Christmas Eve the Admiralty ordered seven submarines to form an “iron ring” around the approaches to Brest.

The navigator of Scharnhorst, 42-year-old Helmuth Giessler, was on Christmas leave. When he went off, neither he nor any other naval officers at Brest had any inkling that Hitler was holding a pistol at Baeder’s head demanding the ships leave Brest. At that time not even Admiral Ciliax had the faintest suspicion of their fate.

Giessler came back from his leave on the same day as Vice-Admiral Ciliax returned from the New Year’s Day conference with Admiral Saalwächter at Naval Group West in Paris. That evening Ciliax summoned him to his cabin. As navigating officer of the flagship he was responsible for the whole squadron so he had to be one of the first to be told about the plan. Ciliax informed him in his usual brusque way about the proposed operation. He added crisply, “Consider your needs and requirements, Giessler, and what preparations you consider necessary. You have until morning!”

With these words the Admiral dismissed him. That night Giessler climbed into his bunk but did not get a wink of sleep. He tossed about all night with the information racing through his brain.

A voyage of these great battleships through the narrow English Channel had been so improbable that he had hardly looked at the Channel charts—he had never considered them as waters where the Scharnhorst might sail. Now the problem was how to obtain these charts without arousing gossip and suspicion.

Next morning he called Chief Petty Officer Wehrlich to his cabin and handed him a list. “I require these charts, of the Mediterranean and these charts of Icelandic waters,” he said. “Also these of the West African coast.” He also demanded pilot books of the Mediterranean and everywhere else he could think of. Wehrlich kept bringing so much navigational material that towards the end of the day he could hardly enter his cabin for papers and books. Among this pile of material were his charts of the English Channel. In the middle of all his other requests, Giessler had slipped in a casual order for them.

Giessler had an extra problem. He knew Wehrlich was not experienced enough for the magnitude of his task—but Wehrlich’s predecessor, Lt. Johann Hinrichs was. He was the man he wanted at his side to help plan this vital operation.

He was now the skipper of a fleet of mine-sweeping trawlers, but when Giessler explained the situation to Ciliax, a puzzled Hinrichs received a secret signal posting him back to Scharnhorst. When he arrived Giessler let him into the secret. During those January days they sat together in the navigator’s cabin. Giessler kept muttering to himself “Ach so,” and humming tunelessly as they pored over his charts. They worked out the tides, times of darkness, depth of water, and the complete timetable the ships must try and adhere to hour by hour on the voyage from Brest to Wilhelmshaven.

While Giessler was working out his plan, unknown to him something happened which was to help him. On 2 January, the Royal Navy’s submarine “iron ring” faded away. High submarine losses in the Mediterranean and a bottle-neck in the training programme caused the “subs” to be withdrawn—and surveillance left to the RAE

Yet, as if to confirm Hitler’s attitude, at 8:30 p.m. on 6 January 1942, a RAF bomb burst against the hull of the Gneisenau as she was lying in Number Eight Dock. Several yards of her armour were ripped and two compartments were flooded.

On 12 January, Admirals Raeder, Saalwächter and Ciliax were summoned to Wolfs Lair for the final full-scale conference. Raeder brought his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, while Ciliax was accompanied by Captain Reinicke, his own Chief of Staff, and Saalwächter by his mine expert, Commodore Friedrich Rüge. The. Luftwaffe was represented by Göring’s Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, accompanied by one of Germany’s famous fighter aces, Col. Adolf Galland, who had fought in the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War and was a veteran of the Rattles of France and Britain.

They arrived in a snowstorm at Wolfs Lair. Lt.-General Jodl, Hitler’s personal military adviser, who lived and worked there, described the Führer’s headquarters as “a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp.”

Hitler spent his days in a concrete bunker with a 20-foot thick roof. It was a sealed box with no window and no outlet to the open air. Next door was another similar concrete bunker used by Hitler as his map room, where he stood waiting for them. After giving them the Nazi salute he asked them to be seated round the big conference table.

At Hitler’s request, Raeder opened the session, saying, “The question of the passage of the Brest Group through the Channel has been examined by all agencies concerned. In the light of the Führer’s opinion, the German Fleet’s primary task is to defend the Norwegian coast and ports and, in so doing, it should use its might unsparingly. Since you, mein Führer, informed me that you insist upon the return of the heavy units to their home bases, I suggest that Vice-Admiral Ciliax report on the details of how this operation is to be prepared and carried out, and that Commodore Ruge subsequently report on the necessary mine-sweeping measures, to enable you, mein Führer, to make the final decision afterwards.”

Hitler replied: “The Naval Force at Brest has, above all, the welcome effect of tying up enemy air forces and diverting them from making attacks upon the German homeland. But with our ships at Brest, enemy sea forces are tied up to no greater extent than would be the case if the ships were stationed in Norway. If I could see any chance that the ships might remain undamaged for four to five months and, thereafter, be employed in operations in the Atlantic, I might be more inclined to consider leaving them in Brest.

“Since in my opinion such a development is not to be expected, I am determined to withdraw the ships from Brest to avoid exposing them to chance hits day after day. I fear that there will be a large-scale British-Russian offensive in Norway. I think that if a strong task force of battleships and cruisers, practically the entire German Fleet, were stationed along the Norwegian coast, it could, in conjunction with the German Air Force, make a decisive contribution towards the defence of the area.”

Then it was Ciliax’s turn. “I recommend the necessity of leaving Brest under cover of darkness, taking maximum advantage of the element of surprise, and of passing through the Straits of Dover in the daytime. This will make the most effective use of the means of defence at our disposal.”

Hitler agreed, saying, “I emphasize particularly the surprise to be achieved by having the ships leave after dark.”

Ciliax said, “I must stress emphatically that a very strong destroyer and fighter protection must be provided on the day of the break-through itself from dawn to dusk.”

“I am aware of the decisive role to be played by the Air Force in this enterprise,” replied Hitler and turned to Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, who said, “I do not believe I will be able to provide constant unfailing protection for the ships with the available 250 fighters which cannot possibly be reinforced.”

Even in the presence of the Führer he was exhibiting the Luftwaffe’s traditional reluctance to co-operate with the Navy. But with Hitler’s cold eyes upon him, Jeschonnek hastily promised to draw on the existing night-fighter formation to provide dawn fighter protection.

Hitler then asked for opinions as to the possibility of using the northern route saying, “I do not care which route is selected by the Navy, if only it is successful in getting those ships transferred to Norwegian waters.”

The four Admirals explained that the northern route was not suitable for several reasons. Baeder commented, “The present disposition of enemy forces is against such a move; there are two or three battleships and two aircraft-carriers in the Home Fleet. Moreover, the German air forces would not be able to provide the necessary air cover.”

Commodore Buge, commanding the seaward defences of the occupied French coast, including the mine-sweeping and mine-laying forces, was asked to report. Buge was able to assure Hitler that the menace from mines, always regarded as the main danger to forcing a passage through the Channel, was not as bad as imagined.

Baeder, still unsure of the Luftwaffe’s full support, repeated his demands to the Air Force for a very strong fighter cover. He also asked for attacks on enemy torpedo plane bases in the early morning of the day of the break-through, and possibly a few days earlier.

Lt.-General Jeschonnek replied stiffly, “The constant air cover demanded will leave insufficient aircraft for the heavy air battles that are sure to develop on the day of the breakthrough. We may expect our fighter force to become very inferior in strength—at least during the afternoon. Also our own anti-aircraft personnel are susceptible to fatigue in the afternoon as experience has shown.”

Col. Galland, who was to command the Luftwaffe fighter cover, also offered his opinion, “The strong Spitfire forces at the disposal of the British will render things difficult for the long-range fighters which we are going to employ.”

Raeder remarked that tide and daylight would determine the timing of the operation. That was the reason the date could not be changed. When he asked what should be done in case one or several ships were unable to move on the date set, Hitler decided, “If two battleships are in a position to move, they are to undertake the operation, if necessary without the cruiser. If only one battleship and the cruiser can move, they must do likewise. But in no case should the Prinz Eugen do so alone.”

Then Hitler, cutting through both air and naval objections, said briskly, “The ships must not leave port in the daytime as we are dependent on the element of surprise. This means that they will have to pass through the Dover Straits in the daytime. In view of past experience I do not believe the British capable of making and carrying out lightning decisions.

“This is why I do not think they will be as swift as is assumed by the Naval Staff and the Admiral Commanding Battleships in shifting their bomber and pursuit forces to the south-eastern part of England for an attack on our ships in the Dover Straits.

“Picture what would happen if the situation were reversed!—if a surprise report came in that British battleships have appeared in the Thames estuary and are heading for the Straits of Dover. In my opinion, even we would hardly be able to bring up air pursuit forces and bomber forces swiftly and mediodi-cally.”

He added dramatically, “The situation of the Brest Group is comparable with that of a cancer patient, who is doomed unless he submits to an operation. An operation, even though it might be a drastic one, will offer at least some hope that the patient’s life may yet be saved. The passage of our ships through the Channel would be such an operation. It must therefore be attempted.”

Finally Hitler said, “Nothing can be gained by leaving the ships at Brest. Should the Brest Group manage to escape through the Channel, however, there is a chance that it might be employed to good advantage at a later date. If the ships remain at Brest their ability to tie up enemy air forces may not continue for long. As long as they are in battle-worthy condition they will constitute worthwhile targets, which the enemy will feel obliged to attack. But the moment they are seriously damaged—and this may happen any day—the enemy will discontinue his attacks. In view of all this and in accordance with the suggestion of the C-in-C Navy I decide that the operation is to be prepared as proposed.”

That was it. After the conference Hitler entertained his admirals and generals at dinner in the concrete shelter where he lived. He ate frugally as usual but was more genial than anyone had seen him for a long time. He said, almost jovially, “You will find that this operation will turn out to be our most spectacular naval success of the war.”

He revealed his only doubt—would the Luftwaffe manage it? He realized that Galland with his fighters was the key figure in the operation. Saying good-bye to him he asked quietly, “Do you think they will bring it off?” When Galland assured him he thought they would he dismissed him with a rare smile.

The decision was made. Far from dismantling the great ships the Germans were to fight them through the English Channel in daylight. An attempt like this had not been made by an enemy of England for over three centuries—since the Spanish Armada of 1588.







British coastal assault on St Cast in Brittany in September 1758.

A German map, published in Nuremberg, a major map-making centre, of the British coastal assault on St Cast in Brittany in September 1758. Designed to attack the French privateering base at St Malo, the British had to re-embark with the loss of 750 men in the face of a larger French army. The previous month, there had been a successful attack on the port of Cherbourg and its fortifications had been destroyed. These attacks were mounted in part to take pressure off Britain’s ally, Frederick II, the Great, of Russia, but also to conform to a political agenda focused on demonstrating that the government was pursuing national interests and not simply sending troops to Germany.

Great Britain planned a “descent” (an amphibious demonstration or raid) on Rochefort, a joint operation to overrun the town and burn the shipping in the Charente. The expedition set out on 8 September 1757, Sir John Mordaunt commanding the troops and Sir Edward Hawke the fleet. On 23 September, the Isle d’Aix was taken, but due to dithering by military staff such time was lost that Rochefort became unassailable, and the expedition abandoned the Isle d’Aix, returned to Great Britain on 1 October.

Despite the operational failure and debated strategic success of the descent on Rochefort, William Pitt — who saw purpose in this type of asymmetric enterprise — prepared to continue such operations.  An army was assembled under the command of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough; he was aided by Lord George Sackville. The naval escorts for the expedition were commanded by Anson, Hawke, and Howe. The army landed on 5 June 1758 at Cancalle Bay, proceeded to St. Malo, and burned the shipping in the harbor; the arrival of French relief forces caused the British to avoid a siege, and the troops re-embarked. An attack on Havre de Grace was called off, and the fleet sailed on to Cherbourg; but the weather being bad and provisions low, that too was abandoned, and the expedition returned, having damaged French privateering and provided a further strategic demonstration against the French coast.

Pitt now prepared to send troops into Germany; and both Marlborough and Sackville, disgusted by what they perceived as the futility of the “descents”, obtained commissions in that army. The elderly General Bligh was appointed to command a new “descent”, escorted by Howe. The campaign began propitiously with the Raid on Cherbourg. With the support of the navy to bombard Cherbourg and cover their landing, the army drove off the French force detailed to oppose their landing, captured Cherbourg, and destroyed its fortifications, docks, and shipping.

The troops were re-embarked and the fleet moved them to the Bay of St. Lunaire in Brittany where, on 3 September, they were landed to again operate against St. Malo; however, this action proved impractical. Worsening weather forced the two armies to separate: the ships sailed for the safer anchorage of St. Cast, while the army proceeded overland. The tardiness of Bligh in moving his forces allowed a French force of 10,000 men from Brest to catch up with him and open fire on the re-embarkation troops. A rear-guard of 1,400 under General Dury held off the French while the rest of the army embarked; they could not be saved, 750, including Dury, were killed and the rest captured.

St. Cast Wargame Scenario (French)


de Grasse’s fleet at Chesapeake Bay

The French line (left) and British line (right) do battle.

Formation of fleets: British ships are black, French ships are white. The Middle Ground to the left are the shoals that Graves tacked to avoid.

Auguste fighting at the Battle of the Chesapeake.

In mid-August 1781, Admiral Hood’s fleet was at the northern edge of the Caribbean, looking for the arrival of de Grasse’s, when Hood learned from a messenger ship sent from New York that de Grasse was likely to attack New York. The message said that de Grasse would first go to Newport, join with Barras’s fleet, and then both would attack the British stronghold—so Hood should hasten to New York to help fend them off. Departing the Caribbean for the American coast, on August 25 Hood “made the land a little to the southward of Cape Henry.… Finding no enemy had appeared either in the Chesapeake or Delaware, I proceeded [to] Sandy Hook.”

Forty-eight hours later, de Grasse’s fleet arrived at Chesapeake Bay, with twenty-eight ships of the line, four frigates, and three thousand French soldiers.

A small boat came out to meet the Ville de Paris. Despite seeing its fleur-de-lis flags and its sailors dressed in white, not in British blue, those in the small boat asked where Admiral Rodney could be found. The visitors were conveyed to de Grasse’s cabin where they were informed that they were now prisoners. The banquet they had brought, intended for Rodney, was eaten by the French officers while offering toasts to him. To forestall any Cornwallis exit from the peninsula, de Grasse sent some ships to block the York and James Rivers. Shortly Lafayette’s associate Jean-Joseph Soubadère de Gimat came aboard with news that Rochambeau and Washington were marching down the Atlantic seaboard to link with the fleet.

Those two commanders were just then reaching Philadelphia and a profuse welcome. At Washington’s request, Rochambeau loaned to Robert Morris twenty thousand dollars in specie. The term was short—one month. The French general’s own troops’ wages were waiting on cash that de Grasse was bringing from Cuba and the money that Laurens had carried from Versailles. Morris then gave Rochambeau a gift of flour from his warehouses—perhaps after hearing the bakery-deceit story, which Rochambeau became fond of repeating—and added ten thousand dollars of his own to the twenty thousand for Washington. The thirty thousand dollars enabled the commander to surprise his troops with a month’s pay in hard cash. “This was the first that could be called money, which we had received as wages since the year ’76,” the diarist Joseph Plumb Martin recalled: six French crowns each, paid only to line soldiers, not to officers.

The army’s poverty was reflected in its ragtag appearance as the men marched through Philadelphia in a line two miles long, stirring clouds of dust. Continental officers in handsome uniforms provided a bright contrast, though not as startling as that furnished the next day by the French. After a halt at the outskirts to powder wigs and make white uniforms glisten, the French marchers paraded through Philadelphia, resplendent far beyond the British in the 1777–78 occupation. Lauzun’s Legion, riding on draped steeds, wore the most exciting multicolored garb. The Soissonnais Regiment put on a show of intricate rifle handling.

Washington smiled at the guests during the formal receptions in Philadelphia but was “distressed beyond expression,” he confessed in a letter to Lafayette, at not knowing whether de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay. In moving the land forces toward Virginia, Washington had taken a huge gamble: Should de Grasse not arrive on schedule, or be bested by the British fleet, the American and French armies, rather than Cornwallis’s, might be trapped and the war lost.

By the time Washington reached Philadelphia, his emissary to de Grasse, Duportail, had boarded the Ville de Paris and introduced himself. The admiral was in the process of putting ashore three thousand troops, led by Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon to link up with Lafayette’s forces, which were approaching from Jamestown. Offloading was always a time of peril since the force was not in a good defensive position and therefore was vulnerable. Saint-Simon’s officers were amazed that Cornwallis did not attack. They made haste in the unloading, which stoked de Grasse’s desire to use the combined troops to attack the British immediately.

Not yet, Duportail pleaded, basing his request on a Washington letter that he hand-delivered to de Grasse and likely translated for him on the spot. Washington begged the admiral not only to wait for his and Rochambeau’s arrival before attacking Cornwallis but to detach ships upriver to bring the American and French troops to the Yorktown Peninsula. “I have not hesitated to open my heart to [Duportail] and acquaint him with all my resources and my orders,” de Grasse wrote back, and expressed willingness to wait for a general “whose experience in the profession of arms, knowledge of the country and insight will greatly augment our resources,” but protested that his short time in American waters made it unfeasible to use for transport the vessels needed to block Cornwallis’s supply ships. “Come with the greatest expedition,” Duportail urged Washington in his own letter. “Let us make us[e] of the short stay of the count de grasse here. we have no choice left I thinck, when 27 of line are in Chesapeake, when great americain and French forces are joined we must take Cornwallis or be all dishonored.”

Duportail also wanted Washington to hurry because he feared that de Grasse might flatter Lafayette into an immediate attack. De Grasse did try, telling Lafayette, “I want to contribute everything I can to further your glory and assure you of spending a winter of tranquility [after vanquishing Cornwallis].… With pleasure, I join your admirers.” Lafayette resisted the pressure.

In midmorning on September 5, offloading was continuing when the scout frigate Aigrette signaled a press of sail arriving from the north. De Grasse hoped it was Barras, but as the number of vessels grew, the Aigrette soon signaled that it was the British, with so many ships that de Grasse concluded that both Hood’s and Graves’s squadrons had come after him.

He wanted to sail out in force to meet them. But to do so he had to wait until the Chesapeake Bay tide turned to ebb. The French exit of Chesapeake Bay began at 11:30 a.m., with Bougainville’s flagship leading the vanguard. Although the fleet was anchored in proper three-column formation, it still took several hours for all the ships to exit the relatively narrow channel, which they had to do one by one, and even then de Grasse had to leave behind the four warships positioned to block Cornwallis, along with the eighteen hundred sailors and ninety officers who had been offloading troops. Thus de Grasse’s fleet for this action off the Virginia Capes was smaller than it had been, and shorthanded; and he faced a formidable enemy, in attack formation, that had the weather gage.

*   *   *

At that very same hour, Rochambeau and his retinue were floating down the Delaware River from Philadelphia toward Head of Elk. They had passed Forts Mercer and Mifflin and other important sites of the war. Washington and his retinue had set off overland to meet them at Head of Elk; the commander loved to ride his steed and did not much like being on a boat. As the French approached the town of Chester they saw on the bank an American officer waving wildly at them with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. Nearing, they realized it was Washington. “I never saw a man so thoroughly and openly delighted,” Lauzun recalled. What happened next amazed everyone. Washington, upon conveying to Rochambeau that de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay, enveloped Rochambeau in a full-body embrace. Each general, Closen observed, had reason to be ecstatic, as did the young officers, “burning with the desire to try their strength against the enemy and avid for gloire, as we all were.” There was a sense of everything coming together at last, of a moment to be savored for its melding of American and French hearts and wills in an ultimate conjoint endeavor.

*   *   *

The British fleet facing de Grasse’s was not in as good shape as it first appeared to the spyglasses of the French. When Hood had reached Sandy Hook, he had been insistent on leaving immediately to counter de Grasse, but Graves protested that his New York fleet was not ready to go. His ships were in poor repair and to obtain four hundred able bodies press-gangs had recently had to roust men from their beds. After taking three days to ready his vessels, Graves still left behind five capital ships—and Hood was appalled. At sea it was Graves’s turn to be annoyed, as Hood’s vessels were “the shadow of ships more than substance,” slowing the fleet to three knots per hour. The nineteen ships of the line included only three recent additions, a tenth of the ships the Admiralty had retained in European waters to counter French and Spanish initiatives in the Mediterranean and Dutch ones in the North Sea. By deciding to keep the bulk of British ships in European waters in 1781, a naval historian writes, “The Admiralty had finally sacrificed the parity in naval strength on which the safety of the scattered British army [in America] depended.”

At the start of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, in the early afternoon of September 5, 1781, the British fleet was three miles north of the French, “in a position almost beyond the wildest dreams of a sea-commander,” a naval analyst later wrote, since Graves’s “whole fleet was running down before the wind and his enemy was … working slowly out of harbor. He had only to fall on their van with full force and the day was his.” But standard Admiralty fighting orders decreed that attacking ships had to be in line-ahead formation, a maneuver that took Graves ninety minutes to achieve and that allowed the French to get wholly out of the bay. Only at 3:46 p.m. did Graves give the signal to engage, and shortly issued a different order, with the result that only some British ships, rather than the whole line, were positioned properly.

Both sides then began to blast away.

“Thunder, foam and fire,” Bougainville wrote of that day; “Those few testing moments for which an entire naval officer’s life has been built and for which so many arms have toiled, so much sweat has been poured out in the shipyards to get together all that timber, that iron, those sails.” The foretop bowline of his ship was twice shot off, and sailors repairing it were killed by enemy fire. But his Auguste, while taking sixty-seven casualties, managed to riddle the British Terrible and nearly sank it. The Auguste also put three other British ships out of action.

After ninety minutes had gone by and Graves saw that the French were continuing to advance, he signaled his ships to cease the attack and sail away. By 6:30 p.m. the firing ended for the day. The British ships had suffered more than the French ones, although the French had lost more men. Bougainville had gained new respect for de Grasse, with whom he had been feuding, and de Grasse lauded him, saying, “That’s what I call fighting.” On the British side, Hood became enraged at Graves’s missed opportunities, although analysts also later faulted Hood for dilatoriness in carrying out the commander’s orders.

Through the night the two fleets drifted southeast, in parallel. The morning revealed that the French ships were less damaged than the British. The wind remained negligible, making it impossible for either side to do more than maintain relative positions. On the third day rainsqualls and a British wish to avoid action and complete repairs also resulted in no skirmishes. French naval corporal Simon Pouzoulet marveled in his diary at his commanders’ dexterity in maneuvering for the weather gage, and regretted his ship’s not being close enough to the British to send cannon shot at them. Early on September 8 Graves gave orders to sail to the windward of the French and be ready to attack, but was only able to use the weather gage for a short period, as de Grasse by well-executed maneuvers made Graves cede it. Even so, very little fighting ensued. Another night passed. The next morning, September 9, de Grasse’s men spotted a fleet on the horizon and, thinking it was the British, gave chase. They never caught it, but Graves chased de Grasse, and by day’s end both fleets were nearer to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, than to Cape Henry, Virginia. That allowed the unknown fleet, which was Barras’s, to slip unopposed into the Chesapeake Bay anchorage.

Barras managed this partly because the British did not expect him—they presumed he had already combined with de Grasse and was not sailing independently—but mostly due to his own initiative. With the craftiness imbued in him by a long career in the French navy, where preservation of assets was always highly regarded, and knowing that he carried precious cargo, to avoid encountering the British Barras had chosen a circuitous route. From Newport he sailed east around Long Island, and then due south until he reached a position lateral to Chesapeake Bay, where he turned sharply west and by rapid sailing made it into Chesapeake Bay unopposed. Upon arrival he immediately offloaded the heavy artillery, provisions, and troops from Newport.

Thus, before shots were fired on land at Yorktown, the two French admirals, de Grasse and Barras, had immensely assisted their army brethren’s pursuit of the common objective, the defeat of Cornwallis’s army.

Washington was then in Baltimore, unaware that there had already been a decisive Battle of the Virginia Capes, and also ignorant that Barras had invested the bay. That evening he rode the sixty miles to Mount Vernon, alone but for his personal servant and one aide. He had not been home since May 4, 1775. The next morning he wrote to Lafayette, “I hope you will keep Lord Cornwallis safe, without provisions or forage, until we arrive.”

De Grasse was on his way to the Chesapeake to do just that, having reasoned that the British might lay off the sea action and try to beat him into the anchorage, and not knowing that Barras was already there. A modern French admiral writes that in the seminal Virginia Capes sea battle, while de Grasse was not as aggressive as a Suffren or a Rodney might have been, “la prudence et le sang-froid” (prudence and coolness under fire) had produced the essential victory—complete control of Chesapeake Bay.

Upon de Grasse’s arrival in the bay, Barras, although more senior and entitled to command, graciously yielded it. Appreciative of the gesture, de Grasse quickly did what Washington had wanted but that he had not earlier felt able to oblige: sent ships to fetch French and American troops and matériel, using Barras’s transports and some captured British ones that were able to operate in shallow waters.

The Battle of the Virginia Capes concluded when a Graves reconnaissance frigate reported that the French were all over Chesapeake Bay. The British commanders then agreed, as Graves wrote to London, that due to the enemy’s superior position, the poor condition of the British ships, the impending hurricane season, “and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis,” they must return to New York and refit. With some luck they would return before Cornwallis was starved out and forced to surrender.

Operation Neptune

The KUBAN 1943 (The Wehrmacht last stand in the Caucasus). Illustrated by Steve Noon.

In late February and early March 1943, poor weather prevented any significant operations and movements by either side in the Novorossiysk area.  Towards the end of March, the northern flank of Seventeenth Army was pulled back slightly to improve its positions in the marshy region along the coast of the Azov Sea.  Around this time, Army Group A and Seventeenth Army finalised plans for Operation Neptune, an offensive aimed at destroying the Soviet forces in the Malaya Zemlya beachhead and retaking the area.  The offensive was originally planned for 6 April, although this date was not definitively finalised, as clear weather was required to ensure that strong Luftwaffe forces could be used for close support of the attacking troops, suppression of enemy artillery batteries on the coast road between Novorossiysk and Kabardinka on the eastern shore of Tsemess Bay and prevention of reinforcement and supply of the beachhead by sea.  Aircraft were transferred from the Donbass and southern Ukraine to reinforce Luftflotte 4’s forces for this effort.

The attacking forces would include:

  • 4th Mountain Division: 5 battalions, with 2 mountain artillery battalions, strengthened by additional artillery and army combat engineers.
  • 125th Infantry Division: all available forces, including reinforcement by one assault gun battalion and parts of another from army troops. The force was split into two groups, a northern group with 2 battalions and a southern group with 3 battalions.
  • 73rd Infantry Division: a specially-formed attack group and all artillery.

In order to achieve maximum surprise, the concentration of 4th Mountain Division and the regrouping of 125th and 73rd Infantry Divisions were to take place at night and in small groups, to be completed by 18:00 on 5 April. Additional deception measures included strict traffic control and radio silence, the dissemination of false rumours about an imminent withdrawal from Novorossiysk and unchanged reconnaissance, combat patrol and artillery activity. The attack was to be launched without a preliminary artillery barrage, and if individual assault groups required artillery support, this would only be launched at the jump-off time.

The attack was divided into two phases. In the first phase, 4th Mountain Division and 125th Infantry Division would advance from their concentration areas around Fedotovka and Poklaba Farm, respectively, towards the Myskhako – Stegneyeva Farm road, with 4th Mountain Division taking Myskhako Berg and Myskhako village and 125th Infantry Division clearing the Myskhako Valley and a wooded area to the north of the village. In this first phase, 73rd Infantry Division’s artillery would provide support for the left wing of 125th Infantry Division. Once the first phase had crossed a loop on the Myskhako – Stegneyeva Farm road, 73rd Infantry Division would join in the second phase by attacking south into Stanichka. It was envisaged that the attack would reach so far into the beachhead that the enemy forces would be split into many individual groups that could be destroyed piecemeal.  In particular, the army commander General Ruoff stressed the importance of penetrating as far as possible into the beachhead on the first day to prevent the evacuation or reinforcement of the enemy by sea, although he expressly forbade the setting of specific daily goals.

On 1 April, radio intercepts and ground reconnaissance suggested that the Soviets would launch an attack against the east wing of XXXXIV Corps, perhaps as early as the following day. The army’s war diary acknowledges that this could make the situation “uncomfortable,” but concludes that it was not a reason for specific concern.  The intended start date of 6 April was postponed due to poor weather, as was the first rescheduled date of 10 April.

The offensive was eventually launched at 06:30 on 17 April, after a final one-hour delay caused by heavy fog that prevented air activity.  The 4th Mountain Division’s attack initially broke through the forward positions to the slopes of Myskhako Berg and Teufels Berg, about 1.5 kilometres to the east, but was then held up by strong enemy resistance.  The attack by the northern group of 125th Infantry Division was initially focussed on the Myskhako Valley and high ground to the north and northwest of Myskhako village, and a penetration of about one kilometre was forced. Its left wing broke through the forward positions southwest of the road loop and became involved in heavy fighting in an area around one kilometre west and southeast of Stegneyeva Farm.

Despite the importance of suppressing the enemy artillery on the eastern shore of Tsemess Bay, fire from this area resumed in the early afternoon, aimed primarily at the northern wing of 125th Infantry Division. Combat reports confirmed that the enemy had moved significant forces into the front line in anticipation of the attack, and the heavy fighting for strongly-fortified positions caused considerable losses among the attacking infantry.

In the afternoon, in a discussion among Generals Ruoff, Wetzel (V Corps) and Korten (Luftflotte 4), the possibility of transferring parts of 73rd Infantry Division to 125th Infantry Division to boost the latter’s strength at the key breakthrough positions was discussed. This proposal was ultimately rejected because of the time that the regrouping would take and because it was considered that the most favourable force ratios were in 73rd Infantry Division’s sector, as the Soviets had moved significant forces from the southern parts of Novorossiysk to the Myskhako – Stegneyeva area.

During the night of 17 – 18 April, a Soviet convoy that approached the beachhead was brought under artillery fire, and two vessels were reported to have been set on fire.  The offensive was renewed at 05:30 on 18 April after harassing fire by all available artillery, but again quickly became bogged down by the tenacious Soviet defence and the difficult terrain and did not achieve a decisive early penetration at any point. During the night, the Soviets had moved up the 83rd Marine Infantry Brigade, one of the units that had originally participated in the Malaya Zemlya landing, from the rear to reinforce the defences in the Myskhako Valley.

During the course of the morning, however, 125th Infantry Division succeeded in breaking through in an area to the southeast of Poklaba Farm and taking the northeastern slope of a small hill about one kilometre north of Myskhako village. The attacks by 73rd Infantry Division and 4th Mountain Division, which had not achieved any significant results in the face of the strong Soviet resistance, were halted to allow additional forces to be thrown against the schwerpunkt north of Myskhako. One regiment was transferred from 6th Romanian Cavalry Division, two regiments from 4th Mountain Division and two battalions, along with mortar and assault gun units, from 73rd Infantry Division.

In spite of poor weather, the first Soviet counter-attacks were launched early on the morning of 19 April, in the area of the road loop, preceded by heavy artillery and mortar fire, and through the day further localised counter-thrusts were launched.  On the

German side, the bad weather delayed the redeployment of troops to 125th Infantry Division, but at 11:20 it launched an attack aimed at linking up with a group that had already reached the slopes of Teufels Berg.  After seven hours of bitter fighting, the linkup was finally achieved, but the united assault groups were almost immediately put on the defensive by Soviet counter-attacks from the south and east, supported by artillery fire of an unprecedented intensity.

After defending against numerous local Soviet counterattacks through the night of 19 – 20 April, 125th Infantry Division launched another attempt to take the high ground at 10:30, but this was stopped by further fortified Soviet defensive positions after gains of just a few hundred metres.   Later in the day, General Jaenecke visited the headquarters of both V Corps and 125th Infantry Division. A review of the operation so far revealed that the air and artillery support had not been able to eliminate the Soviet defensive systems, resulting in high casualties among the attacking German infantry. Although 125th Division was urgently calling for new reserves, an expected Soviet attack on XXXXIV Corps’ sector meant that no forces could be pulled from here to support 125th Division’s attack. It was agreed to postpone further attacks until 22 April, so that new reserves could be created by a regrouping of forces.

On 21 April, there were numerous discussions between army and corps commands about the possibility of resuming the attack. The lack of available infantry forces was a constant theme, with losses since the start of the offensive being estimated at 2,741 men. The Chief of the Army General Staff, General Kurt Zeitzler, requested reports from

125th Infantry and 4th Mountain Divisions in order to present them to Hitler that evening. These reports again maintained that a continuation of the attack would only be possible if fresh forces were made available. Another report to Army Group A noted the declining quality of the divisions as a consequence of the shortage of NCOs and a complete lack of any opportunities for training since early 1942.  Another increasing problem for the German command was the situation in the air. In the first few days of the offensive, the Luftwaffe had largely enjoyed air superiority, but by 21 April, aircraft from three newly arriving Soviet air corps were committed, shifting the balance towards the defenders.

On 22 April, V Corps submitted a situation report that concluded that it did not have sufficient forces to continue a concentrated attack against the beachhead, citing the loss of surprise, strengthening enemy air activity and the continuous resupply and reinforcement of the defenders by sea, as well as the lack of its own forces. The total strength of the attacking group was just 13,541 men, out of a combat strength of the whole army of 57,590.  Following a visit by Field Marshal von Kleist, the commander-in-chief of Army Group A on 23 April, Operation Neptune was finally called off two days later.

Even accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it appears clear that Operation Neptune was doomed to failure from the outset. The relatively small, worn-out and poorly-trained assault groups faced a numerically superior defending force that had significantly strengthened its positions in the difficult terrain and was able to continually resupply itself by sea. The increasing Soviet air strength over the area increased the pressure on the attacking Germans infantry, both directly and by allowing the Soviet artillery in the beachhead and on the opposite side of Tsemess Bay to play an increasing role. The war diaries of Seventeenth Army and V Corps around this time make an uncharacteristically high number of references to the weakened state of their forces. The growing disconnect between the plans of the German High Command and the forces in the field is graphically illustrated by an entry in Seventeenth Army’s diary for 21 April. It records, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, a visit by General of Railway Troops Otto Will, who reported on the “grand” plans for the construction of road and railway bridges across the Kerch Strait, with a planned completion date of the railway bridge of 1 August 1944.



Remagen, beschädigte Brücke

“The Rhine. I don’t know what I expected. Another Mississippi, I suppose,” an engineer sergeant told his diary. “The damn thing flows north.” Indeed it did. From Switzerland, where the river was fed by 150 glaciers, to the North Sea, the European father of waters formed an extraordinary moat against invasion from the west. Although it was only the world’s fifteenth-largest river in volume, ranking between the Euphrates and the Rhône, the Rhine was broad, deep, and fast enough that engineers compared any crossing to “a short sea voyage.” “At no place is the river fordable, even at low water,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, and winter floods had been the highest in a quarter century, with currents in some stretches approaching eleven miles an hour. Most of the thirty-one Rhine bridges within Germany had been demolished by men with a rare aptitude for destruction. Thanks to the aerial bombardment of German factories, the river flowed relatively unpolluted for the first time in a generation, but so much wreckage clogged its bed that the Allies could not simply sail upstream from Nijmegen. A “top secret and private” note from Churchill’s office to Beetle Smith likened the difficulties faced by seven Allied armies in catapulting eighty divisions across the river to “another D-Day.”

Plans to jump the Rhine had been drafted even before the Normandy landings. Exhaustive studies examined bank, current, weather, and ice conditions, as well as Roman accounts of erecting a trestle bridge before the birth of Christ, and French records of nineteenth-century pile-driving near Strasbourg. Army engineers in Vicksburg, Mississippi, scrutinized historical hydrology data, aided by intelligence agents in Switzerland and daily gage readings intercepted in German radio broadcasts to river pilots. More than 170 models of the Rhine were built, and a hydraulics laboratory in Grenoble conducted elaborate experiments. A Rhine River Flood Prediction Service opened in January; mindful of the Roer debacle, diplomats pressed the Swiss to protect seven headwater dams with soldiers and artillery.

River-crossing schools on the Loire trained hundreds of outboard-motor operators, pile-driving specialists, and DUKW drivers. A steel mill in Luxembourg extruded 54,000 tons of massive I-beams for bridge building. Boatyards in Florida, Minnesota, and Michigan built hundreds of seventeen-foot plywood craft designed to carry a dozen riflemen and three engineers each; nested and crated in clusters of six, the vessels were whisked to Europe by cargo plane or fast ship. French boatwrights, shown a photograph of a storm boat in January, set to work using blueprints drawn by a naval architect. Trees were felled, plywood milled, and screws and nails fashioned from surplus wire; five weeks after placing the order, the U.S. Army picked up seven hundred boats.

Seagoing landing craft, capable of carrying a Sherman tank or sixty men, sailed from England to Antwerp and up the Albert Canal before being hauled overland to the Rhineland on trailers so enormous that bulldozers led the convoys to knock down any building crimping the roadway. Other big craft for this “inland navy” were trucked three hundred miles from Le Havre; they arrived, a witness reported, “festooned with treetops, telephone wires, and bits of buildings from French villages.”

By early March, forward depots contained 1,100 assault boats, 124 landing craft, 2,500 outboard motors, 5 million board feet of lumber, 6,000 bridge floats, and enough steel and pilings to build more than 60 bridges. Everyone agreed, however, that it would be far simpler to capture one already built.


Just such a bridge still stood fifteen miles south of Bonn at Remagen, an ancient Roman town straddling a road built by Marcus Aurelius. Here the Rhine scoured a curving basalt gorge: to the north, Siegfried had slain his dragon at Drachenfels, bathing in the creature’s blood to become invulnerable; to the south, Julius Caesar built two spans over the river, in 55 and 53 B.C., during his Gallic campaigns. The current bridge had been completed in 1918 and named for General Erich Ludendorff, the progenitor of the final, fatal German offensives on the Western Front in the Great War. More than a thousand feet long and wide enough for two trains to pass abeam, the span featured symmetrical arches resting on four stone piers, with embrasured stone towers at either end. Wooden planks could be laid on the rail tracks to permit motor traffic. On the east bank, the tracks vanished into the Dwarf’s Hole, a tunnel bored through the steep six-hundred-foot hill called the Erpeler Ley. Local aesthetes complained that the bridge marred the dramatic riverscape; they complained more when it drew repeated Allied air attacks, including a January raid that killed three dozen civilians.

Retreating German soldiers had tramped across the Ludendorff in late 1918, and now retreating German soldiers were tramping over it once again, mingling with refugees, livestock, and an occasional hospital train carrying broken boys. A teenage antiaircraft gunner described a snaking procession making for the bridge through Remagen’s jammed streets on Wednesday morning, March 7, “with cannons being pulled by horses, by motor vehicles, and yes, even by soldiers.” Fewer than a thousand defenders remained in the area; most were Volkssturm militia of doubtful martial value, and all fell under a confused, fractured command architecture. Field Marshal Model had promised reinforcements, but none had arrived.

Sixty zinc-lined boxes for explosives had been fitted to the bridge in 1938, linked by cables through heavy conduits to an electrical firing switch inside the rail tunnel. The premature blowing of a bridge near Cologne—apparently triggered by an American bomb—had led to a Führer order that explosive charges would be emplaced only when the enemy was within five miles of a bridge, and igniters were to be withheld until “demolition seems to be unavoidable.” On Wednesday morning, sketchy reports put U.S. Army outriders near the western bluffs above Remagen. Explosives were laid, but Army Group B described the Americans as a thin screening force to mask an Allied thrust toward Bonn and Cologne. Little urgency obtained.

Their enemy was nearer than they knew. On the previous night, March 6, the U.S. III Corps commander, Major General John Millikin, had phoned Major General John W. Leonard, commander of the 9th Armored Division. “Do you see that little black strip of a bridge at Remagen?” Millikin asked as both men squinted at their maps. “If you happen to get that, your name will go down in glory.”

At 8:20 A.M. on this gray, misty Wednesday, a tank-and-infantry task force left Meckenheim, ten miles from the river. Leading the column in the advance guard was Lieutenant Karl H. Timmermann, who had commanded Company A of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion for less than twenty-four hours. Timmermann had been born not far to the southeast, in Frankfurt; his doughboy father had taken a German war bride in 1919 before moving back to Nebraska. In a note scribbled in a Meckenheim cellar, the weary young officer told his wife:

There is no glory in war. Maybe those who have never been in battle find [a] certain glory and glamour that doesn’t exist.… Tell mom that we’ll be on the Rhine tomorrow.

Now Lieutenant Timmermann would prove himself wrong: for a brief, vivid moment glory would be his. Summoned by two waving scouts shortly before one P.M., he hurried forward in his jeep to find a hazy, panoramic view of the Rhine gorge below. “Jesus, look at that,” a sergeant muttered. “Do you know what the hell river that is?” Through field glasses Timmermann watched cows, horses, soldiers, trucks, and civilians cross beneath the bridge arches in a lumbering parade. Just below, white flags and bedsheets flapped from Remagen windowsills. Two locomotives with steam up stood on the far bank.

As three platoons descended through the town, leapfrogging from doorway to doorway, Timmermann bounded past the handsome St. Apollinaris Church and a sign that read, “Citizens and Friends: Preserve Our Parks.” A spatter of German musketry provoked booming return fire from a platoon of new M-26 Pershing tanks, each brandishing a 90mm gun. Tearful Germans pointed to cellars where Volkssturm stragglers crouched in terror. A captured enemy general in an elaborately braided uniform proved upon interrogation to be a railroad station agent.

Shortly before two P.M. a dark geyser of earth and paving stones abruptly blossomed above the western ramp; the blast left a smoking hole thirty feet wide, intended to keep American tanks from gaining the bridge. Heckling gunfire erupted from the Ludendorff towers. Bullets pinged and sparked among the girders. GIs fixed bayonets before darting past the last houses above the river. “I’ll see you on the other side,” the 27th Armored Infantry commander told Timmermann, “and we’ll all have a chicken dinner.… Move on.” Timmermann raked the far bank with his glasses. Tiny figures loped along the shoreline and into the tunnel. “They look like they want to get us on the bridge before they blow it up,” he said.

Barely half a mile away, pandemonium swept the eastern shore. Civilians and shrieking children cowered in the Dwarf’s Hole as billowing smoke from white-phosphorus shells drifted down the tunnel. German soldiers ran this way and that along the bridge ramp, including several engulfed in orange flame from American tank shells chewing up the riverbank and smacking the Erpeler Ley. Three junior officers argued over whether the demolition order should be put in writing. Shouts of “Blow the bridge!” carried across the water, and at length a captain shouted, “Everybody lie down! Open your mouths to protect your eardrums.” He turned the key on the firing switch.

Nothing happened. He turned it again, and again, without effect. A German sergeant sprinted ninety yards onto the bridge, lighted the primer cord by hand, and pelted back to the tunnel, chased by bullets.

With a doleful boom the timber planks rose from the railbed like jackstraws. Dust and black smoke boiled from the piers. The Ludendorff seemed to levitate momentarily as if expending a great sigh, then settled back onto its stone foundations, insulted but intact.

No one would ever be certain why fourteen hundred pounds of explosives failed to detonate properly: faulty charges, faulty blasting caps, perhaps a tank shell that severed the main demolition cable, perhaps, as some averred, a miracle.

Reprieved, Lieutenant Timmermann and his men raced onto the bridge, slashing wires and pitching charges into the water. Four Pershing tanks and a dozen Shermans arrayed on the west bank hammered the eastern tower until riflemen could clear out a German machine-gun nest. Sergeant Alex Drabik of Toledo reached the far bank first, in a zigzagging, stumbling sprint that cost him his helmet. Eight others followed on his heels, including Timmermann.

By late afternoon, Company A had 120 men across. A platoon began to scale the Erpeler Ley, dodging stones rolled down the slope by a flak battery holding the crest. After a single warning shot, five German engineers surrendered in the Dwarf’s Hole; GIs blew apart the master demolition switch with a carbine. A 90mm tank round from across the river smashed through a German locomotive tugging a long string of boxcars, and the train halted with a sharp lurch, a white plume of steam sighing from the firebox. GIs crouched in a ditch as a passenger train from the north pulled into the tiny Erpel station; middle-aged soldiers with rifles spilled onto the platform only to be greeted with mispronounced shouts of “Hände hoch.” A single German guard at the eastern exit of the rail tunnel also was seized, and twenty minutes later two hundred others emerged under a white flag to march in their long leather coats, hands high, across the bridge they had neither saved nor destroyed. Before surrendering, Captain Willi Bratge, the Remagen commandant, told a subordinate to deliver a message to the German high command. “Inform them that the demolition of the bridge was unsuccessful,” Bratge said, “and that the Americans have crossed.”

Night fell, a sodden, moonless night, “dark as a pocket,” as one officer recorded, so dark that engineers felt for the street curbs in Remagen with their feet. Bulldozers slowly filled the crater on the western ramp and three artillery battalions unlimbered. Soldiers ripped lumber from German houses to patch the rail planks. Exhausted drivers napped at their wheels as great knots of convoy traffic converged at the bridge, awaiting orders to cross. By ten P.M. three depleted rifle companies occupied the far shore, thwarting a counterattack by a hundred German engineers and antiaircraft crewmen who were repulsed near the Erpeler Ley while carrying half a ton of explosives.

At last nine Shermans—narrower than the Pershings—crept across at midnight, guided by foot soldiers wearing luminous buttons on their belts. German tracer fire searched the span, usually a few feet too high. “Ominous and nerve-wracking creaking” rose from the bridge, a captain reported, all the more ominous when the tenth vehicle to cross, a tank destroyer, skidded to the right near one of the eastern piers and plunged partway through a hole in the deck. For several hours—“the most harrowing minutes of my life,” one officer acknowledged—the vehicle remained stuck, blocking all traffic. Engineers debated pushing it over the side, or jacking it up, or winching it out, or blowing it to pieces. Just as dawn peeked above the Erpeler Ley, the damnable thing was muscled out and towed away. The desperate effort to deepen the bridgehead resumed apace, through what a Wehrmacht general now called “the inner door to Germany.”