Desert Sabre

In a scene reminiscent of the Second World War or the Arab–Israeli Wars, an American column protected by Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) prepares for the offensive.

A pair of AMX-30 main battle tanks and a truck belonging to the French 6th Light Armoured Division pause outside Al-Salman. The tanks have a sand and olive-green camouflage scheme that does not extend to the road wheels.

This M60A1, serving with the US Marines Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, formed part of Task Force Breach Alpha. The tank is fitted with reactive armour and an M-9 bulldozer kit.

General Schwarzkopf knew that speed was of the essence in the ground war. He had to conduct two envelopments, the first around Kuwait to prevent the Iraqi garrison escaping, and a second much larger one to prevent reinforcements reaching Kuwait. He also needed to secure Kuwait’s vital oilfields as quickly as possible – there were three major areas in the north-east and four to the south. Saddam’s generals planned to use oil as an environmental weapon that would enhance their defences and funnel their enemy’s tanks into predetermined killing zones. Once Schwarzkopf’s attack started, there was every chance that Saddam’s generals would open up the valves in Kuwait’s oilfields to form vast oil lakes and dynamite the oilheads to create seas of fire and choking smoke. This would greatly impede the Coalition’s tanks and jets; it would also hide any Iraqi troops massing for a counter-attack. Oil industry experts anticipated that up to 150 oil wells would be destroyed during the fighting.

Schwarzkopf and his commanders had every reason to be concerned about the fate of Kuwait’s oilfields. Saddam’s generals had in place a massive scorched earth plan that would set fire to over 600 oil wells in the face of Schwarzkopf’s offensive. This would result in the loss of six million barrels of oil a day and billowing smoke rising to over 10,000ft. The oil that was not burned off would create 300 oil lakes holding up to 50 million barrels of oil. The sand, gravel, oil and soot would result in almost 5 per cent of Kuwait covered in a layer of ‘tarcrete’, which would clog up the tracks of Schwarzkopf’s tanks. For good measure the Iraqis also sowed minefields around the oilfields so that firefighters would not be able to reach the blazing wells. This represented an appalling environmental disaster and would create a hellish battlefield straight from Dante’s Inferno.

Schwarzkopf fully understood that his tanks had to dash forward as fast as possible to try to prevent this, but ultimately it would prove to be an impossible task. Even before the ground war commenced in late January, Saddam’s men had sabotaged Kuwait’s main supertanker loading pier, dumping 460 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. They also set fire to the oil wells and storage tanks at Wafra. By mid-February about fifty oil wells were damaged or on fire due to coalition air attacks on Iraqi forces stationed in the oilfields. Then on 16 February, perhaps anticipating the attack, the Iraqis began systematically wrecking hundreds of Kuwaiti oilfields, as well as sinking five oil tankers anchored off the Kuwait coast. It was clear that once the Iraqi Army was being driven from Kuwait, the destruction would only get worse.

Therefore Schwarzkopf’s ground offensive, dubbed Operation Desert Sabre, envisaged an enormous encircling operation that would encompass not only Kuwait but also a vast area of southern Iraq stretching up almost to the city of Basra. Although King Fahd was commander-in-chief SAAF, operational control of all Arab forces came under his nephew, His Royal Highness Lieutenant General Prince Khalid bin Sultan (the son of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Defence Minister). Egyptian and Syrian forces were also committed to the offensive, on the proviso they were not used inside Iraq.

Three commands were deployed on the eastern third of this enormous front. These consisted of the Joint Forces Command North, made up of the units from Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, led by Lieutenant General Prince Khalid bin Sultan, which held the portion of the line east of VII Corps. To the right of these forces was Lieutenant General Walter E. Boomer’s US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which included the 1st (Tiger) Brigade of the Army’s US 2nd Armored Division, as well as the US 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions. On the extreme right Joint Forces Command East, anchoring the line on the Gulf, consisted of units from all six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Like Joint Forces Command North, it was under General Khalid’s command.

The two US Marine divisions, with the US Army’s Tiger Brigade, and coalition forces under Saudi command were to push directly north into Kuwait. These forces would hold the enemy’s tactical and operational forces in place by breaching the Iraqi defences in Kuwait and encircling the Iraqi forces in the heel of Kuwait and Kuwait City. Once Kuwait City was encircled and Iraqi forces were driven out or defeated, the Arab forces would then liberate Kuwait City itself.

To the west the XVIII Airborne Corps was to attack deep into Iraq to control the east–west lines of communication along the strategic Highway 8 and cut off Iraqi forces in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Even further west, the French 6th Light Armoured Division and the US 101st Airborne Division were to conduct a massive western envelopment, with a ground assault to secure the coalition’s left flank and an air assault to establish forward support bases deep in Iraqi territory. The US 24th Infantry Division had the central role of blocking the Euphrates river valley to prevent the escape north of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and then attacking east in coordination with VII Corps to defeat the armour-heavy divisions of the Republican Guard.

In the centre of the coalition line, along the Wadi al-Batin, Brigadier General John H. Tilelli’s US 1st Cavalry Division was to strike north into a concentration of Iraqi divisions, whose commanders remained convinced that the Coalition would use Batin and several other wadis as avenues of attack. In the meantime VII Corps would conduct the main coalition effort, attacking east of XVIII Airborne Corps and west of Wadi al-Batin, driving first north and then east to find and destroy the heart of Saddam’s ground forces, the armour-heavy Republican Guard divisions.

Desert Sabre was unleashed at 0400 hours on 24 February 1991. The Iraqi Army in the KTO knew that Saddam had abandoned them, and many soldiers had little desire to fight for him once the enemy armour came into their sights. The relentless air attacks had already taken a terrible toll on Iraqi morale. Washington assessed that at least 150,000 Iraqi troops had deserted before Desert Sabre even commenced. Two Iraqi divisional commanders subsequently informed their British captors that they had received no orders for almost two weeks.

As instructed, Joint Force Command East (comprising Saudi, Kuwaiti, Omani and UAE forces) pushed towards Kuwait up the coastal route to form the anvil for the American, British and French hammer-blow assault into Iraq, which was to trap the bulk of the Iraqi forces in the KTO. The Saudis came up against the Iraqi 5th Mechanized Division, still recovering from the Khafji encounter, while Commander Marine Central (MARCENT) breached Iraqi defences further inland.

To the far west, as planned, General Mouscardes’s French 6th Light Armoured Division, reinforced by the 2nd Brigade of the US 82nd Airborne Division, advanced to protect the far western flank. The 82nd was bolstered with forty-three M551A1 Sheridan light airborne assault vehicles in its air-droppable tank battalion. The French 4th Dragoon Regiment, normally part of the French 10th Armoured Division, was augmented by elements of the 503rd Combat Tank Regiment. French reconnaissance units consisted of the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Spahis Regiment; both were capable of conducting such offensive operations as they had strong anti-tank capabilities. They consisted of three squadrons equipped with AMX-10RC 6×6 armoured cars, armed with the 105mm gun, plus the Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé (VAB) 4×4 armoured personnel carrier. Both were ideal for the mad dash across the Iraqi desert. None of the newer tracked AMX-10P infantry combat vehicles was deployed to the Gulf. Mouscardes’s men moved to successfully secure the Al-Salman air base. Pushing almost 65km into Iraq, they destroyed the Iraqi 45th Infantry Division, then formed a screen to protect the left flank of the XVIII Airborne Corps assault. Fortunately for the French they suffered few casualties, with only three fatalities in combat.

To their east some 2,000 men of General Peay’s US 101st Airborne Division were moved forward in a massive air-lift involving 400 helicopters. Some 110km inside Iraq they established a forward operating base named Cobra. A further 2,000 men arrived by vehicle, then the division moved to secure vital roads along the Euphrates and Tigris valleys to isolate the Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Meanwhile, XVIII Corps’ US 24th Infantry Division under General McCaffrey, supported by the US 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, raced north to link up with the 101st, and on 25 February swung right to attack the northernmost Iraqi Republican Guard positions. The 3rd Cavalry was the only tank unit equipped with the M1A1 Abrams, and was the first US unit to take on the Iraqis in an engagement on 22 January 1991.

Saddam Hussein, probably realizing that defeat in Kuwait was inevitable, sought to protect his regime, but this hampered his generals. Key units were held back and he was reluctant to risk either the Republican Guard or his air force. In senior circles the Iraqi Army probably understood that it was not to make a last stand in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq, but rather retreat to try to save Saddam’s regime. Saddam may have also underestimated the defensive abilities of the Iraqi Army as a result of the Iran–Iraq War. The Iranian Army had been ill-equipped and poorly trained and led, resulting in appalling casualties for little ground gained. Saddam initially hoped that his forces would inflict unacceptable casualties on the Coalition and score a propaganda coup as well as an early cessation of hostilities.

In the meantime US armoured columns raced to trap the Republican Guard and prevent them escaping northwest towards Baghdad with their armour. Initially the Iraqi commanders thought VII Corps was driving on Kuwait City, not against the Guard itself. The intention had been that the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division would act as the immediate tactical reserve, while the Guard forming the strategic reserve came to the rescue. When the Guard realized what was happening, they desperately attempted to stop VII Corps from breaking through to their rear. Three elite divisions, the Medina, Hammurabi and Tawakalna, deployed by the road running parallel to the Iraqi–Saudi pipeline.

The scene was set for the battle for Kuwait City and the battle of the Basra pocket.

The Basra Pocket

While the Coalition fought to free Kuwait City, up to 800 American tanks from the US VII Corps’ 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment launched attacks on a Republican Guard division inside Iraq, which lost 200 tanks. They then moved forwards and engaged a second division. American Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busters also played a significant role. One Apache alone destroyed eight T-72s, and on 25 February two USAF A-10s destroyed twenty-three Iraqi tanks, including some T-72s, in three close air support missions.

In the envelopment the US M1A1 tanks easily outgunned the Iraqi T-72s, and in a night engagement on 25/26 February the Guards’ Tawakalna Armoured Division was largely destroyed without the loss of a single US tank. The Republican Guard, unable to stem the American armoured tide, tried to retreat, and the next morning a brigade of the Medina Division, supported by a battalion from the 14th Mechanized Division, attempted to protect the withdrawal. The Medina troops found themselves under attack from the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, while the remnants of the Tawakalna were finished off by air attacks.

Caught as they were being loaded onto their tank transporters, the Medina Division’s armoured vehicles were bombed by USAF A-10s and F-16 fighters. Apache attack helicopters caught another eighty T-72 tanks still on their transporters along Route 8. Although not all the roads out of Basra were closed, the Coalition was determined that Iraqi tanks and artillery should not escape. The US VII Corps’ armour also fought the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division 80km to the west of Basra.

The US 24th Mechanized Division, having made a dramatic 150-mile drive northwards to join the US 101st Airborne Division on the Euphrates, now swung to the right to block the Iraqi escape route. The six remaining Republican Guard divisions had been trapped overnight in a swiftly diminishing area of northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, with their northward line of escape largely severed.

On 27 February the US 24th Mechanized Division attacked the Guard’s Hammurabi Armoured Division, the al-Faw and Adnan Infantry Divisions and the remnants of the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division. They fled, with the Nebuchadnezzar Division possibly escaping over the Hawr al-Hammar Lake causeway. The 24th Mechanized Division also captured fifty Republican Guard T-72 tanks as they were fleeing north along a main road near the Euphrates. It was all but over for the Guards.

Six disparate brigades with fewer than 30,000 troops and a few tanks were now struggling back to Basra. The Iraqis agreed to a cease-fire the following day, whilst the British 7th Armoured Brigade moved to cut the road to Basra just north of Kuwait City. However, some troops continued to escape across the Hawr al-Hammar and north from Basra along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway. Brigadier Cordingley, Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, noted, ‘By 28 February it was clear that General Schwarzkopf’s plan to annihilate the Republican Guard with a left hook through Iraq had failed … The majority of the Iraqi soldiers were already on their way back to Baghdad.’

Firmly in control of Iraq’s state media, Saddam had no need to acknowledge this terrible defeat, and instead victory was given as the reason for abiding by the ceasefire. Baghdad Radio announced, ‘The Mother of battles was a clear victory for Iraq … We are happy with the cessation of combat operations as this would preserve our sons’ blood and people’s safety after God made them triumphant with faith against their evil enemies.’

Only a residual Iraqi threat remained by 30 February. Two Iraqi tank brigades were south-west of Basra, another brigade with forty armoured vehicles was to the south and an infantry brigade was on either side of the Hawr al-Hammar Lake. In total, about eight armoured battalions, the remnants of those Iraqi forces deployed in and around Kuwait, were now trapped in the ‘Basra Pocket’. Basra itself lay in ruins, and marshes and wetlands to the west and east made passage impossible.

Despite the cease-fire, the US 24th Division fought elements of the Hammurabi Division again on 2 March after reports that a battalion of T-72 tanks was moving northwards towards it in an effort to escape. The Iraqi armoured column foolishly opened fire and suffered the consequences. The Americans retaliated with Apache attack helicopters and two task forces, destroying 187 armoured vehicles, 34 artillery pieces and 400 trucks. The survivors were forced back into the ‘Basra Pocket’. By this stage Iraq only had about 700 of its 4,500 tanks and 1,000 of its 2,800 APCs left in the KTO and, with organized resistance over, the Iraqis signed the cease-fire on 3 March 1991.

In the wake of Desert Sabre, only the Iraqi Army Air Corps and the Republican Guard Corps secured favour with Saddam Hussein, by swiftly crushing the revolt in the south against his regime and containing the resurgent Kurds in the north. In contrast the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force had fled Desert Storm and remained under a cloud. Subsequently the IrAF found itself grounded by the Coalition’s ceasefire terms, while the army was left face to face with the barrels of the Republican Guard Corps’ remaining tanks. After a brief stand-off, the Iraqi Army opted for the status quo, but its loyalty and competence remained tarnished by its collapse and by the actions of thousands of deserters.

In 1991 the Coalition accounted for just six Iraqi helicopters (one Mi-8, one BO-105 and four unidentified) in the air and another five on the ground. General Schwarzkopf had cause to regret that they did not destroy more. During the ceasefire talks on 3 March 1991 the Iraqis requested that, in light of the damage done to their infrastructure, they be allowed to move government officials around by helicopter. Without fully realizing the consequences, Schwarzkopf agreed not to shoot down ‘any’ helicopters flying over Iraqi territory. Thus, by using his helicopter gunships Saddam was able to crush the rebellion in Iraq’s cities and the southern marshes and Kurdish advances in the north with impunity, despite his defeat in Kuwait.

In hindsight, Schwarzkopf felt that grounding Iraqi helicopters would have made little difference. In his view the Iraqi armour and artillery of the twenty-four remaining divisions, which had never entered the war zone, had a far more devastating impact on the rebels. This was a little disingenuous, for while tanks and artillery were instrumental in crushing the revolts in the predominantly Shia cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf (the scene of Shi’ite unrest in 1977, resulting in 2,000 Shia arrests and another 200,000 being expelled to Iran), in the southern marshes the Republican Guard’s T-72 tanks could not operate off the causeways and artillery was only effective against pre-spotted targets. In fact the Iraqi Army Air Corps played a pivotal role over Iraq’s rebellious cities, the southern marches and the Kurdish mountains.

Over the cities helicopter gunships were used indiscriminately to machine gun and rocket the civilian population in order to break their morale. Although there was no evidence of the use of chemical weapons (Saddam did not want to provoke further coalition intervention so stayed his hand), on at least one occasion residential areas were reportedly sprayed with sulphuric acid. This was corroborated by French military units still in southern Iraq, who treated Iraqi refugees with severe acid burns.

Although the rebellion was mainly a spontaneous outburst by defeated and disaffected troops returning home, its religious Shia basis meant that it was ultimately doomed. America stood by, as a Shia victory would only serve radical Shia Iran, and as a result the rebels did not even receive airdrops of manportable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles with which to fend off Saddam’s helicopters and tanks. The Iraqi military, dominated by the Sunni minority, went about their business unhindered.

After authority had been brutally reasserted in the cities, thousands fled into Iraq’s southern marshes seeking sanctuary. Here the IAAC was even more instrumental in the destruction of those forlorn forces that the West had vaguely hoped would unseat Saddam. IAAC pilots knew what lay in store for them if they failed, as General Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was commanding the operation, warned at least pilot not to return unless he had wiped out some insurgents obstructing a bridge.

The whole operation in the marshes was largely a repeat of March 1984, when Iraqi helicopter gunships mercilessly hunted Iranian troops round the two important Majnoon Island oil facilities. This time they refrained from using mustard gas or any other chemical agents, but once again the unburied dead were left to become carrion for the jackals, and those foolish enough to surrender were shot at point-blank range. The IAAC contributed to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 rebels. Additionally 3,000 Shia clerics were driven from Najaf and fled to the Iranian town of Qom.

In the north the fear of another Halabja was sufficient to scatter the Kurdish population at the first sight of an aircraft. The IrAF and IAAC once more refrained from deploying chemical weapons, but callously contented themselves with dropping flour on the refugees, who instantly panicked. Once more the Iraqi military made use of their helicopters and artillery to eject the lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas from their recent conquests.

Whilst the IAAC had continued to fly after 1991, in defiance of the cease-fire terms the IrAF resumed operational and training flights with its fixed-wing aircraft in April 1992. The IrAF claimed it was responding to the provocation of an Iranian Air Force attack on an Iranian opposition force’s base east of Baghdad. In response to these violations, and the repressive military operations, the UN imposed two separate no-fly zones in the north and south of the country.

Due to UN sanctions and financial restrictions, the Iraqi Air Force could only manage about a hundred sorties per day, down from 800 in the heyday of the Iran–Iraq War. Residual IrAF capabilities remained in the Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk areas, protecting Saddam from dissidents and the Kurds. Throughout most of the 1990s the IrAF spent much of its time dodging the northern and southern no-fly zones, though at least two fighters (a MiG-23 and a MiG-25) were lost for violating these zones.

Advertisements

Desert Rats

A British Scorpion Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) of the 7th Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, advances east into Kuwait from southern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

A Challenger crew from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards taking a rest during a lull in the fighting. The Challenger’s 120mm gun could knock out enemy tanks at 2,500 yards and beyond, and its excellent thermal sights allowed the crew to fight just as effectively at night. Its Chobham armour was enhanced by the addition of extra armour packs on the front and sides. In the background (left to right) can be seen an FV432 ambulance, an M548 Rapier missile supply vehicle and a Warrior (beyond the garbage truck).

The Basra–Kuwait Highway near Kuwait City after the Iraqis had fled north. In the background are various British armoured personnel carriers, including two ambulances, and in the foreground is a loaded Iraqi ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun.

In mid-January 1991 it was assessed that facing General de la Billiere’s British 1st Armoured Division were seven Iraqi divisions, consisting of the 20th, 21st and 25th Infantry Divisions, with the 6th, 12th and 17th Armoured Divisions and the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division in reserve. By the end of January the Iraqi 16th Infantry Division had joined the front-line forces and the reserves were bolstered by the 26th and 36th Infantry Divisions. On paper this was a formidably daunting force. However, the front-line divisions had no overhead cover and were suffering daily under the air strikes. Nonetheless Britain’s armoured forces were about to become involved in some fierce tank battles.

Just before the start of the ground offensive, coalition Special Forces were sent on Scud missile hunting missions. Aside from the extreme dangers posed by Saddam’s chemical weapons, another particular threat faced by the Coalition’s ground troops was his considerable arsenal of tactical ballistic missiles. These had successfully rained down death and destruction on Iran’s cities during the Iran–Iraq War.

British special operations were the responsibility of the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment and their naval counterparts in the Special Boat Service (SBS). The SAS deployed out of their depot at Hereford, Cyprus and Oman. However, a few SAS members were already in Kuwait, having been assigned to the British Military Assistance Training team advising the Kuwaiti Army at the time of Saddam’s invasion. These men were able to provide invaluable intelligence on the local conditions. Using their well-honed covert tactics, SAS patrols roamed the rear areas in their Landrover Desert Patrol Vehicles (‘Pink Panthers’) and their Longline Light Strike Vehicles. On 7 January 1991 US and British Special Forces raided an Iraqi air defence missile site and made off with a Soviet-manufactured radar system. The SBS cooperated with their American cousins, the US Navy SEALs, who were given responsibility for the Kuwait City area.

Coalition commanders were very aware of the threat posed by Iraqi missiles. Saddam had first fired his Soviet-made Scud-B missiles at Iran in 1982; this culminated six years later in the ‘War of the Cities’, in which both sides lobbed hundreds of missiles at each other. The enormity of this should not be underestimated: Saddam’s bombardment in 1988 caused 8,000 Iranian casualties and drove out a quarter of Tehran’s population. A decade later Iran targeted with missiles Iranian opposition forces that were being sheltered by Saddam.

By the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam still had stocks of Scud-B missiles plus Iraqi modified variants known as the Al-Abbas, Al-Hussein and Al-Hijarah. In the build-up to the war forty-six Iraqi Scuds were fired at Saudi Arabia and another forty-two at Israel. One particular strike against a barracks at Dhahran in Saudi killed twenty-eight members of a US Army unit.

In support of Desert Sabre, Special Forces were tasked with gathering intelligence about the missiles, to vector in air strikes or if necessary destroy Saddam’s missile launchers themselves. The most famous of these was the British SAS mission codenamed Bravo Two Zero. Despite Operation Desert Storm, few of Saddam’s Scud launchers had been destroyed by coalition aircraft; Special Forces and coalition pilots claimed up to hundred launchers destroyed, but this figure was never substantiated.

Meanwhile, as part of Operation Granby, the British 1st Armoured Division, commanded by Major General Rupert Smith, came under the US VII Corps and was part of the great armoured left-hook that attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard formations. Smith’s two brigades (the 4th and 7th, under Brigadiers Christopher Hammerbeck and Patrick Cordingley respectively) were to alternate spearheading the advance. In the vanguard of General Smith’s assault were two armoured reconnaissance units. The British Army had continued its love affair with its cavalry regiments and remained wedded to the concept of reconnaissance by force. Dashing forward across the barren desert landscape, they were to probe the Iraqi defences that had withstood air attack and the preliminary artillery and rocket bombardment. Their highly dangerous job was to draw enemy fire to help locate positions that needed to be neutralized as the division rolled forwards. The firepower of these reconnaissance forces was quite considerable.

The chosen units were the 7th Armoured Brigade’s A Squadron, 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and the divisional formation 16th/5th Queen’s Royal Lancers Regiment. Whilst most countries opted for wheeled vehicles to conduct this role, the British Army had developed a unique family of tracked armoured fighting vehicles known as combat vehicle reconnaissance tracked (CVR(T)s). The two main variants were the FV101 Scorpion and FV107 Scimitar light tanks armed with 76mm and 30mm guns respectively. The headquarter elements were equipped with the anti-tank Striker variant and the Spartan armoured personnel carrier, both based on the Scorpion chassis. Also in support were Sultan command vehicles, Samson recovery vehicles and Samson ambulances, again all of which are Scorpion derivatives.

The light armour was to precede the heavy tank regiments, which consisted of the 7th Armoured Brigade’s Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, reinforced by elements of the 14th/20th King’s Hussars, 17th/21st Lancers and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, and the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars tank regiment, also reinforced by units from the 17th/21st Lancers. The 4th Armoured Brigade’s tank force comprised the 14th/20th Hussars Tank Regiment, reinforced by the Life Guards’ A Squadron and elements of the 4th Tank Regiment. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars had four tank squadrons totalling 57 Challenger tanks and 670 men, while the 14th/20th King’s Hussars had three squadrons with 43 tanks and 650 men. The squadrons each had four tank troops, each with three tanks plus two in the HQ and administration troop.

In 1988 Brigadier Cordingley was given command of the 7th Armoured Brigade, comprising 5,000 men serving with the tank regiments, armoured infantry, artillery, engineers and support services. Two years later, in September 1990, with his force’s strength now increased to 12,000 men, he took his brigade to Saudi Arabia as Britain’s initial ground contribution to the Gulf War. The 7th Armoured Brigade had had an interesting history. In early 1940, when the British Mobile Division became the 7th Armoured Division, the Light Armoured Brigade was slightly confusingly redesignated the 7th Armoured Brigade. Nicknamed the ‘Green Rats’ or the ‘Jungle Rats’ after a deployment to Burma in 1942, the brigade then served in the Middle East before fighting in Italy for the rest of the Second World War. When the 7th Armoured Division (the ‘Desert Rats’) was disbanded in 1958, the 7th Armoured Brigade adopted its insignia and nickname. It formed part of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division when this was formed in 1976. After being briefly converted to Task Force Alpha in the late 1970s, the brigade was reinstated in 1981.

Each of the British armoured brigades had a field regiment with twenty-four 155mm M109A2 self-propelled howitzers, as well as an air defence missile battery with thirty-six Javelins, while divisional support came from the 26th Field Regiment with another twelve M109A2s. The 32nd Heavy Regiment was armed with sixteen M109A2s and twelve 203mm M110A1 self-propelled howitzers, and the 39th Heavy Regiment deployed twelve M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Tactical air support was supplied by the 4th Regiment, Army Air Corps, deployed with twenty-four Lynx AH Mk1 attack helicopters plus twenty-four French-designed but British-built Gazelle AH Mk1 scouts.

Late in the afternoon of 24 February 1991 VII Corps, comprising the main British and American forces, launched the central coalition thrust. The US 1st Infantry Division breached the defences. The battered and bruised Iraqi 48th Infantry Division in the mouth of the breach was estimated to have lost 98 per cent of its tanks – in other words it was wiped out as a fighting force. To the left of MARCENT, the Egyptian–Syrian Joint Force Command North was directed to breach the Iraqi defences in the centre of the Iraqi border. The Egyptian 3rd Mechanized Division spearheaded the advance.

The following day the two brigades of Smith’s British 1st Armoured Division, preceded by Lynx attack helicopters, were to pour through the US 1st Infantry Division’s breach. Swinging to the right, the British were to attack the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division, held in tactical reserve, in order to protect VII Corps’ thrust towards the Republican Guard. This Iraqi division was estimated to number 13,000 men equipped with up to 300 T-55 and T-62 main battle tanks.

At 1515 hours on 25 February the ‘Desert Rats’ of Brigadier Cordingley’s 7th Armoured Brigade, spearheading the British 1st Armoured Division, began to advance into Iraq, passing through the US lines. They were to thrust eastwards into Kuwait. Facing them were elements of the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division, which was now believed to be about 65 per cent combat effective: of its 250 tanks, only 115 remained operational. However, it was anticipated that the Iraqi 12th and 48th Divisions would remain in place, supported by an unidentified Iraqi brigade. It was clear that the going would not be easy.

Attacking a series of objectives codenamed after metals, the brigade destroyed two Iraqi tanks at ‘Copper’, a position believed to be defended by fourteen enemy tanks. The British Challengers’ 120mm guns accounted for at least five further Iraqi T-55s and six APCs. Moving on to ‘Zinc’, a position that was thought to contain an Iraqi brigade with up to a hundred tanks, the 7th Armoured Brigade attacked in the darkness. All the Iraqis could do was fire back at the muzzle flashes as they counter-attacked with almost fifty vehicles. Daybreak revealed another ten Iraqi armoured vehicles knocked out in the desert sands.

On the night of 25/26 February Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck’s British 4th Armoured Brigade was also involved in a confused engagement with about twenty Iraqi tanks for ‘Copper South’. The next day, with the 4th Brigade continuing its advance to the south, the 7th Brigade pressed on and the Iraqis lost another nine T-55s to British gunnery. Meanwhile, Hammerbeck’s 4th Armoured Brigade attacked ‘Brass’, accounting for thirty tanks and almost fifty APCs; in total, it knocked out sixty MBTs and ninety APCs. During Desert Sabre the 1st Armoured Division accounted overall for 200 Iraqi T-62s, 100 AFVs and 100 artillery pieces. British Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters also destroyed at least four T-55s and seven other armoured vehicles, with a number of other probable hits. This said much for the superior British training and firepower.

The Reckoning

Following Operation Desert Storm/Desert Sabre no conclusive body-count was ever issued. Washington estimated that over 100,000 Iraqis were killed and 300,000 wounded, with another 175,000 taken prisoner. However, these figures add up to a total far greater than the number of men originally assessed to be in the KTO. British estimates were much more conservative, with 30,000 Iraqi dead and 100,000 wounded. The air war alone was initially thought to have accounted for 100,000, but when the fighting was over this figure was revised to 10,000. The Iraqis themselves claimed they had lost 20,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in twenty-six days of air attacks. It has also since been estimated that just 10,000 Iraqis were killed during the land offensive. Despite this, a total of 20,000–30,000 dead seems rather high, and a conservative estimate of less than 10,000 remains more likely.

The irony is that, because his forces held their ground during the protracted preliminary air campaign, the ground war, although brief, ensured Saddam Hussein got a favourable cease-fire outcome (i.e. the coalition forces just 240km away did not press on to Baghdad, and he stayed in power). The loyal Republican Guard remained reasonably intact; they had lost their tanks but not their will to fight for Saddam, meaning that he was easily able to crush the Iraqi revolts that took place once the cease-fire was secure. Schwarzkopf admitted that a substantial Iraqi force was still left north of the Tigris–Euphrates Valley, but although it was ‘an infantry army, it’s not an armoured army’.

Indeed, the surviving Iraqi armed forces could still constitute a sizeable army. After the war ended, Saddam still had perhaps 250,000 men under arms, equipped with 1,700 tanks (700 from the KTO and 1,000 still in Iraq), 6,700 APCs (1,400 from the KTO and 5,300 still in Iraq) and almost 800 pieces of artillery (340 from the KTO and 443 still in Iraq). There were seven divisions around Baghdad, plus forces on the Syrian border and about nine divisions on the Turkish border. There were two Republican Guard divisions in Baghdad, perhaps 24,000 men, with another five or so army divisions in the area, comprising another 60,000 men. Although south-western Iraq had been overrun, no Scud missiles were found, leaving an estimated 300 still posing a threat to Israel. For the best part of the next decade the UN Special Commission for Iraq embarked on a wild goose chase hunting for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Desert Sabre was a classic textbook offensive conducted with bravery, verve and professionalism by all those involved. In contrast, the Iraqi Army proved to be a house of cards. The Republican Guard Corps had been an unknown quantity: would they fight and if so how hard? Lieutenant William Ratliff of the US 1st Armored Division summed up the situation in the end: ‘I think we overestimated [the enemy]. We were told the Republican Guard was the best [Saddam] had. We expected better.’

Before the ground offensive, the Coalition’s combined air forces launched a round-the-clock air campaign, targeting Iraqi command and control sites, Scud missile installations, lines of communication, and the Republican Guard tanks and other vehicles. Vitally, air superiority over Kuwait and Iraq was achieved within twenty-four hours of the first air attacks. Some 35,000 air sorties were launched against Iraqi ground forces, of which 5,600 were directed at the Republican Guard.

According to American-derived figures, the Coalition destroyed or captured 5,297 armoured vehicles (3,847 tanks and 1,450 APCs), as well as 2,917 pieces of artillery (see table). One of the highest scores fell to the British 1st Armoured Division, which accounted for 400 tanks, AFVs and artillery pieces. British Army Air Corps’ Lynx helicopters destroyed at least four T-55s and seven other armoured vehicles, with a number of other probable hits. Similarly the US 1st Marine Division claimed about 310 Iraqi tanks in and around Kuwait City. In total, Iraq’s pre-war holdings of 10,687 tanks, APCs and artillery pieces had plummeted to 2,473.

In his account of the Gulf War General de la Billiere wrote:

The rules of the game are that the victor is allowed to keep captured military equipment from the area over which he has advanced … The rest they [7th Brigade] had blown up and destroyed, to prevent the Iraqis getting it. Norman Schwarzkopf and I had issued strict orders to our forces that they were to retrace their routes of advance during the battle and make sure that nothing serviceable was left behind. The operation of identifying, recovering or destroying equipment went on for at least ten days after the end of the war.

The complete destruction of 400–800 military vehicles and pieces of artillery a day seems an impossibility. What is more, this captured equipment lay inside Iraq, and the Iraqis, masters of invention, were able collect some, if not much, of it and restore it or cannibalize it for spare parts. Similarly the 175,000 PoWs were repatriated.

After the ground war came to a close, samples of Iraq’s armoured forces were gathered up for intelligence exploitation, ending up at Britain’s Defence Research Agency at Chertsey, and America’s National Ground Intelligence Centre at Charlottesville and the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Coalition captured numerous Chinese and Soviet armoured vehicle types, including the Chinese Type 69-II with a laser range-finder fitted over the mantlet of the 100mm gun (Iraq is believed to have imported over 1,000 Type 69 and 59 tanks), and Type 653 recovery vehicles (based on the Type 69 chassis).

Some of the more unusual armoured vehicles to be captured in Kuwait included the Soviet BMD-1 airborne combat vehicle and the French Panhard M3 APC. Iraq had only a few BMDs, and why they were deployed to Kuwait is unclear; the M3s, of which France had supplied 200, were veterans of the Iran–Iraq War and by 1990 remaining numbers were uncertain.

Not inconsiderable numbers of artillery pieces were captured. For example, whole batteries of Soviet-supplied 2S3 152mm self-propelled guns were overrun and some M-46 130mm field guns were found abandoned in their sandbagged firing positions. The Coalition also captured Chinese Type 83 152mm and Type 59-1 130mm field guns and Yugoslav-supplied M56 105mm howitzers.

Britain’s Tank Museum acquired a Chinese-built Type 69-II main battle tank, a Chinese Type YW-701 command post vehicle (based on the YW-531 and deployed by regimental and divisional commanders) and several Type YW-750 ambulances (Iraq imported an estimated total of 500 Norinco YW-531 APCs in the early 1980s), as well as a Soviet up-armoured T-55, a BMP and a 2S3 152mm self-propelled gun. (Iraq also fielded the 2S4 240mm self-propelled mortar and 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzer.)

At least one vehicle park contained approximately 150–200 mainly Soviet-origin armoured vehicles, including about forty tanks. Amongst the mangled debris were Soviet BMP infantry fighting vehicles, MT-LBs, and T-54 and T-62 tanks. There were other such collections scattered throughout the Iraqi desert, but the numbers seemed to belie the 5,297 claimed. Additionally, there seemed to be a discrepancy in the ratio of tanks to APCs destroyed, with far more tanks claimed.

It is not clear how these figures were derived: it remains uncertain whether they were based on air strike and tank kill claims, or the Coalition simply took an average area and multiplied the debris to create an aggregate total, or they physically counted every single vehicle on the battlefield (which seems unlikely). There was clearly some double-counting by the ground and air forces as they conducted their Battle Damage Assessments, which were largely contradictory throughout the war. Vehicles rounded up for exploitation were numbered or lettered, but again it is not clear if the numbers referred to the overall total, the particular vehicle type totals or were simply shipping numbers.

Naturally, not all Iraq’s destroyed and abandoned AFVs turned out to be the real thing. Saddam’s dummy tanks may have fooled the Coalition’s air forces, but they were also a pathetic symbol of Iraq’s ultimate battlefield weakness. Photo-journalist Gilles Sanssier saw one decoy that was simply a crude corrugated steel sheet rectangle with an oil drum and a pipe forming the turret. The whole thing was draped in a net to give the impression of camouflage. From the air the assumption was that it was a tank – from the ground it was risible.

Remarkably, during the whole of Desert Storm only four M1A1s were disabled and no Challenger 1s were lost to enemy action. The Challengers reportedly accounted for about 300 Iraqi armoured vehicles. The veteran Challenger 1 was replaced by Challenger 2 in 2001, with many of the earlier tanks being sold to Jordan. In March 1991 the US Department of Defense released the following glowing report regarding the performance of the M1A1 Abrams tank:

After 100 hours of offensive operations, the operational readiness rates of both the VII Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps exceeded the Army’s 90 per cent standard. Especially noteworthy was a night move by the 3rd Armored Division covering 200km (120 miles). None of the more than 300 tanks in the division broke down.

Seven separate M1A1 crews reported being hit by T-72 tank rounds. These M1A1s sustained no damage, attesting to the effectiveness of our heavy armour. Other crews reported that the M1A1 thermal sight allowed them to acquire Iraqi T-72s through the smoke from oil well fires and other obscurants. The T-72 did not have the same advantage. This situation gave the Abrams a significant edge in survivability, engagement range and night manoeuvre. Additionally tank crews reported that the M829A1 tank round was extremely effective against the T-72. In sum, the combined performance of the Abrams armour, thermal sight and ammunition attest to the systems’ exceptional lethality and survivability.

Of the 1,955 M1A1 Abrams tanks in theatre, four were disabled and four were damaged but are repairable. No M1A1 crew members were killed by enemy fire in the many tank engagements.

This was clearly a remarkable achievement.

Saddam had made good his threat to burn Kuwait if he was forced from it. In the aftermath of the liberation it was established that 798 wellheads had been detonated, of which 603 caught fire and 45 gushed oil. In addition, there were 100km of oil-filled trenches. Overall 62 million cubic metres of soil was contaminated and over a billion barrels of oil lost. There was both wet and dry oil ground contamination, along with a dreadful crust created by ‘tarcrete’, and scattered everywhere was abandoned ordnance of all shapes and sizes. All of this amounted to some $50 billion worth of damage. It was environmental vandalism on an unprecedented scale.

Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 I

By 1 July 1944 Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model was certain the most easterly line he could try to hold was between Baranovichi and Molodechno. He expected some advantage from earthworks and trenches left there from World War I, but told Hitler he would need several divisions from Army Group North to defend Molodechno. He was worried most about his left flank. Between the Army Group North flank, “nailed down” at Polotsk by Hitler’s orders, and the Third Panzer Army left flank northeast of Minsk, a 50-mile gap had opened. A gap nearly as wide separated the panzer army’s right flank and the Fourth Army short line around Molodechno. Third Panzer Army could be encircled or simply swept away any time the Russians wanted to make the effort, and thereafter the road to Riga and the Baltic coast would be open.

Although Model branded it “a futile experiment,” Hitler insisted that Army Group North hold Polotsk and strike to the southwest from there to regain contact with Third Panzer Army. The Commanding General, Army Group North, Generaloberst Georg Lindemann, reported that with two divisions, all he could spare if his flank had to stay at Polotsk, he could not attack. When on 3 July, after receiving permission to go back a short distance from Polotsk, Lindemann continued to insist he could not attack, Hitler dismissed him and appointed Generaloberst Johannes Friessner in his place.

When the Russians reached Minsk, Army Group Center, judging by past experience, assumed that they had attained their first major objective and, having gone 125 miles, more than their usual limit on one issue of supplies, would pause at least several days to regroup and resupply. The army group was mistaken. The first objective, indeed, had been reached, but the Stavka had ordered the offensive carried west on a broad front without stopping. First Baltic Front was to go toward Dvinsk, Third Belorussian Front to Molodechno and then via Vil’nyus and Lida to the Neman, and First Belorussian Front to Baranovichi and west toward Brest. Second Belorussian Front stayed behind to mop up around Minsk.

The Russians moved faster than Army Group Center could deploy its meager forces even to attempt a stand. Russian troops were through the narrows south and east of Molodechno by 6 July, and the army group reported that they had full freedom of movement toward Vil’nyus. Second Army committed enough troops around Baranovichi to brake the advance a few days, but one panzer division and a Hungarian cavalry division could not stop four Soviet tank corps backed by infantry. Baranovichi fell on 8 July as did Lida, the road and rail junction west of the Nalibocka Forest.

By stretching its front west, Army Group North narrowed the gap to Third Panzer Army to about twenty miles. Friessner was going to attack south with three divisions, but First Baltic Front’s Fourth Shock and Sixth Guards Armies began pressing toward Dvinsk and thus tied down everything on the army group’s flank. Friessner then proposed as a “small solution” to let Sixteenth Army withdraw to the LITHUANIA position, a line being constructed from Kraslava east of Dvinsk to Ostrov; Hitler refused to consider going more than half that distance.

On the 8th Model reported that he could not hold the line Vil’nyus-Lida-Baranovichi—in fact, the attempt had already failed completely. The first town was surrounded and the latter two were lost. Since he did not expect any reinforcements within the next eight days, he could not attempt to stop the Russians anywhere. He asked for an audience with Hitler the next day.

At Führer headquarters, Hitler proposed giving him a panzer division from Germany and two divisions from Army Group North right away, two more later. With these Third Panzer Army was to attack north and close the gap. On the question of the “big solution,” taking Army Group North back to the Riga-Dvinsk-Dvina River line, which was what Model wanted most, Hitler was adamant. Admiral Dönitz, he said, had submitted a report proving such a withdrawal ruinous for the Navy.

For the next several days the Army Group Center front drifted west toward Kaunas, the Neman River, and Bialystok. The help from Army Group North did not come. Friessner could neither release the divisions promised Army Group Center nor attack south himself. Between the Dvina and the Velikaya, Second Baltic Front and the right flank army of Third Baltic Front were engaging Sixteenth Army in a series of vicious and costly battles. South of the Dvina, around Dvinsk, First Baltic Front troops cracked the line in two places.

On 12 July Friessner reported to Hitler that he still proposed to attack south toward Third Panzer Army, but even if the attack succeeded it would have no lasting effect. General Ivan Bagramyan’s armies would keep on going west. Moreover, he could no longer maintain a stable defense anywhere on his own front south of Ostrov. He urged—”if one wants to save the armies of Army Group North”—taking Armeeabteilung Narva back to Reval and from there by sea to Riga, Liepaja, or Memel and withdrawing the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to the line Riga-Kaunas. “I cannot,” Friessner wrote, “reconcile with my conscience not having made every effort in this fateful hour to spare these loyal troops the worst that could befall them and not having found for them an employment that would make it possible to hold the enemy away from the eastern border of our Homeland.” If Hitler could not give him freedom of action he asked to be relieved of his command.

Hitler, who rejected Friessner’s proposal emphatically, had another plan. He intended to give Model five panzer divisions, including the big Hermann Göring Parachute Panzer Division, and have them assembled behind Kaunas to attack and close the gap between the army groups. The OKH operations chief pointed out that the battle was moving too fast; in the time it would take to assemble the divisions, the front would undoubtedly change so greatly that the attack would be impossible.

On 13 July Model reported that he would try to stop the Russians forward of the Kaunas-Neman River-Grodno-Brest line, but he would have to use the fresh panzer divisions to do it. Counting new arrivals expected through 21 July, he would then only have 16 fully combat-worthy divisions against 160 Russian divisions and brigades. In a conference at Führer headquarters in Rastenburg on the 14th, Hitler changed his mind to the extent of giving Model the dual mission of first halting the offensive and then creating an attack force on the north flank.

During the third week of the month the Third Panzer and Fourth Armies managed to come to stop on a line from Ukmerge south past Kaunas and along the Neman to south of Grodno. Second Army, echeloned east, was consolidating as it drew back toward Bialystok. The Ninth Army staff supervised work on a line protecting the East Prussian border and organized blocking detachments to catch stragglers. The army group was beginning to regain its balance.

The Russians, having covered better than 200 miles without a pause, had for the time being outrun their supplies. They were now deep in territory ravaged by recent fighting, and bridges had to be rebuilt and rails relaid. Where there had been time to use it, the Germans’ Schienenwolf (rail wolf), a massive steel plow towed by a locomotive had, as on other similar occasions, turned long stretches of railroad into tangles of twisted rails and broken ties.

The North Flank of Army Group Center and Army Group North 18 July-31 August 1944

A Threat to Army Group North

On the 17th, the day the Russians marched 57,000 German prisoners through the main streets of Moscow to mark the victory in Belorussia, Army Group Center radio monitors intercepted messages to Soviet tank units north of Vil’nyus telling them to attack into the gap between Army Groups Center and North. Another, possibly greater, German disaster seemed to be at hand. Model advised the OKH he could not assemble the projected attack force in time to stop the Soviet armor; Army Group North would have to do it or suffer the consequences.

Army Group North was fully occupied trying to get into the LITHUANIA position, which was beginning to crack at the points where it had been reached. On 16 July Friessner informed Hitler that it was “a marvel” that the Russians had not already sent a force toward Riga to envelop the army group flank. He had nothing to use against them. He was taking one division out of the front at Narva; but it would be fully committed by the 10th; after that he would have no more reserves. “From then on,” he concluded, “that the front will fall apart must be taken into account.”

In a conference with Model and Friessner on 18 July, Hitler ordered the fighting in the gap conducted with mobile forces. He would have two self-propelled assault gun brigades there in four days, and by that time Göring would have strong air units ready to help. The army groups would each supply some infantry and a half dozen or so panzer and self-propelled artillery battalions. Göring, who was present, for once screwed up his courage and remarked that one had to speak out, the only way to get forces was to go back to the Dvina line. Hitler agreed that would be the simplest. But, he contended, it would lose him the Latvian oil, Swedish iron ore, and Finnish nickel; therefore, Army Group North’s mission would be to hold the front where it was “by every means and employing every imaginable improvisation.” Trying for the last time to talk Hitler around, Generaloberst Kurt Zeitzler Chief of Staff, OKH carried his argument to the point of offering his resignation and, finally, reporting himself sick. Hitler countered with an order forbidding officers to relinquish their posts voluntarily.

The Battle Expands to the Flanks

By mid-July, when the frontal advance against Army Group Center began to lose momentum, the Stavka was ready to apply pressure against the flanks. In the north the gap between the Third Panzer and Sixteenth Armies, the “Baltic Gap,” offered a ready-made opportunity. First Baltic Front, given the Second Guards and Fifty-first Armies, which had been moved up from the Crimea, deployed them for a strike west toward Shaulyay and from there north toward Riga.

On the south, Army Group North Ukraine was still strong, by current German standards, but it was not the massive “block” that had been created in May and June. It had lost three panzer and two infantry divisions outright and in exchanges had received several divisions that were not battle tested. In the southern three-quarters of the North Ukraine zone, Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Konev’s First Ukrainian Front had ten armies, three of them tank armies. In the northern quarter First Belorussian Front had three armies, reinforced during the second week of July by a guards army and a tank army transferred from the two southern fronts and the Polish First Army, a token force of four divisions. Apparently using the operation against Army Group Center as a model, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky and Konev had positioned their armies for thrusts in the north toward Brest and Lublin, in the center toward Rava Russkaya and L’vov, and in the south toward Stanislav.

Army Group North Ukraine and the Ninth Army 14 July-15 September 1944

Army Group North Ukraine Broken Through

The Army Group Center disaster mitigated the Army Group North Ukraine command problem somewhat in that it produced a slightly more flexible attitude in the highest headquarters. At the end of June Hitler lifted the “fortified place” designations on Kovel’ and Brody and a week later allowed Fourth Panzer Army to give up Kovel’ and go into a shorter line fifteen miles west of the city. In the second week of July he also allowed the army to straighten a bulge on its right flank around Torchin.

When Fourth Panzer Army started back from Torchin, Konev, hoping to catch the Germans off balance, opened his attack toward Rava Russkaya on 13 July, a day earlier than planned. That move disconcerted both sides. Third Guards Army made a ragged start. The German divisions in motion stopped where they were supposed to, but a division a few miles farther south crumbled and a panzer division ordered to backstop it was slowed by air attacks. Next day Thirteenth Army found the weak spot and worked in deeper.

On 14 July two armies hit the First Panzer Army left flank due east of L’vov. The army had two reserve panzer divisions close behind the front. On the 15th they counterattacked from the south, stopped Thirty-eighth Army, and even drove it back a mile or two. But farther north Sixtieth Army opened a small breach in the German line.

Without waiting for the gaps to be widened, Konev on 16 July committed First Guards Tank Army to the fighting on the Fourth Panzer Army right flank and a day later did the same with Third Guards Tank Army on the First Panzer Army left flank. The two German armies took their flanks back fifteen miles to a switch position named the PRINZ EUGEN, but before that was done the Russians penetrated the new front at the two crucial points. Elsewhere the withdrawal did not shorten the line enough to release troops either to close the gaps or to stop the westward rolling tank columns.

On the 18th Soviet armored spearheads from the north and south met on the Bug River thirty miles west of L’vov. Behind them XIII Corps (five German divisions and the SS Division Galicia), was encircled. During the same day First Guards Tank Army, going toward Rava Russkaya, crossed the Bug near Krystynopol. That night Fourth Panzer Army began taking its whole front back to the Bug. The withdrawal was necessary both because of the breakthrough in the south and because Second Army, its neighbor on the north, was being forced back toward Brest. Fourth Panzer Army reported that it had 20 tanks and 154 self-propelled assault guns in working order; the Russians had between 500 and 600 tanks. The army’s 12 divisions faced 34 Soviet rifle divisions, 2 mechanized corps, and 2 tank corps. The Russians had 10 rifle divisions, 2 cavalry corps, and 4 independent tank regiments in reserve.

After 18 July the whole Army Group North Ukraine front from Stanislav north was in motion. Having waited for Fourth Panzer Army to start toward the Bug, First Belorussian Front began its thrust to Lublin. On the 10th Eighth Guards Army forced its way across the river nearly to Chelm.

That day, First Guards Tank Army, striking between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, reached Rava Russkaya, and Third Guards Tank Army passed north of L’vov, while the newly committed Fourth Tank Army closed up to the city from the east. XIII Corps, encircled forty miles east of L’vov, was drawing its divisions together for an attempt to escape to the south before the right half of the First Panzer Army front was pushed too far west.

On 22 July the Second Army right flank went into the Brest defense ring. Against Fourth Panzer Army Soviet tanks rammed through at Chelm in the morning, covered the forty miles to Lublin by afternoon, and after nightfall 70 enemy tanks and 300 to 400 trucks were reported going northwest past Lublin. Hitler refused to lift the “fortified place” designation, and the 900-man garrison stayed in the city. In the gap between the Fourth and First Panzer Armies, by then thirty miles wide, First Guards Tank Army had an open road to the San River. Fourth Panzer Army told the army group that the only way it could save itself was to withdraw behind the Vistula and San Rivers without delay. During the day XIII Corps staged its breakout attempt, but it had too far to go. Of 30,000 men in the pocket no more than 5,000 escaped. Around L’vov First Panzer Army resisted more strongly than the Russians expected, which probably explains why Konev did not launch his planned thrust toward Stanislav.

The Baltic Gap

By 18 July the increased weight against the adjacent flanks of Army Groups Center and North was also being felt. (Map 29) A captured Soviet officer said that he had seen Second Guards Army moving west toward the Third Panzer Army north flank. Fifth Guards Tank Army, with Thirty-third Army close behind, had closed up to the Third Panzer Army front east of Kaunas and along the Neman River south of the city. Reinhardt, who had a weak panzer division and 4 infantry divisions facing 18 rifle divisions, 3 tank corps, a mechanized corps, and 3 independent tank brigades, reported that he saw no chance of restoring contact with Army Group North and proposed that he be allowed to take back his flank on the north enough at least to get a strong front around Kaunas. Model, having returned from the day’s conference with Hitler, told him the army would have to stay where it was. Stretching the facts slightly, he said Army Group North would take care of closing the gap. He promised Reinhardt the Herman Göring Division.

During the next three days, while Fifth Tank Army increased its threat to Kaunas by working its way into several bridgeheads on the Neman, Second Guards Army moved west into the Baltic Gap and began pushing the Third Panzer Army flank south. By 22 July the flank division, trying to hold off six guards rifle divisions, was beginning to fall apart, and the gap had opened to a width of thirty-six miles. During the day Second Guards Army’s advance elements reached Panevezhis, forty miles behind the Third Panzer Army front. The army was down to a combat effective strength of 13,850 men, but Model again refused a request to go back. As far as reinforcements were concerned, he told Reinhardt, the army would have to withstand the “drought” for two or three more days.

Sixteenth Army, meanwhile, had completed its withdrawal into the LITHUANIA position on 19 July but had not been able to stop the Russians there. On the 22d Friessner ordered the army back another five to ten miles, which meant giving up its northern anchor at Pskov. To Hitler he sent word there was no other way of holding the army together; the new line also would not hold, and then he would have to go back again. Soon, he added, the front would lose its Pskov Lake-Lake Peipus tie-in, and getting behind the Dvina would then become a “question of life or death” for the whole army group.

Attentat!—Guderian—Schörner

In the Führer headquarters on 20 July the Attentat (attempted assassination) against Hitler had taken place. A time-bomb had injured all nineteen of the officers at the afternoon situation conference, three of them fatally, and had demolished the building in which the meeting was being held; but Hitler had escaped with minor burns, bruises, and an ear injury. In the first few hours after the explosion, a widespread anti-Hitler conspiracy centered in the Army and reaching into the highest command echelons, especially the Army General Staff, came to light. It was quickly smashed, and before the day was out Hitler had placed new men in a number of key posts. The most significant change as far as the Eastern Front was concerned was Guderian’s appointment as Acting Chief of Staff, OKH.

Guderian got the appointment by default. In fact, Hitler’s first choice was General der Infanterie Walter Buhle, who was among those wounded in the assassination attempt, and now could not assume the post until he had recovered. Hitler never completely forgave a general who had once failed him, but on 20 July 1944 Guderian was perhaps the only general in the OKH not under direct suspicion. Although his motives were not entirely clear, Guderian had been the officer who, in Berlin on the afternoon of the assassination attempt, had turned back the tank battalion drawn up to take the SS headquarters on the Fehrbelliner Platz. He had, moreover, lately been full of ideas for winning the war, and he had not attempted to dissemble his low opinion of the field generalship on the Eastern Front since the time he had been relieved of command there. His recent charges of defeatism in the General Staff made it appear unlikely that he had been a member of the conspiracy.

On his appointment, Guderian moved swiftly to give fresh evidence of loyalty to the Führer and to dissociate himself from his predecessors. In an order to all General Staff officers, he demanded of them an “exemplary [Nazi] attitude” on political questions and that publicly. Those who could not comply were to request to be removed from the General Staff. “In order to ease the transition to, for them, possibly new lines of thought,” he directed further, that all General Staff officers were to be given opportunities to hear political lectures and were to be detailed to National Socialist leadership discussions.

On his first day in his new post Guderian demonstrated how he proposed to conduct the war on the Eastern Front. When the Army Group North chief of staff told him Friessner was convinced the course Hitler was following would lose him the Baltic States and the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies to boot, Guderian dismissed the statement with a sneer, saying he expected “General Friessner will be man enough to give the necessary orders [to surrender] in the event of a catastrophe.”

After Friessner sent in his 22 July report his hours in command of Army Group North were numbered. The next day, at Guderian’s behest, Friessner and Schörner traded commands. Guderian told Model he was confident Schörner would “put things in order” at Army Group North. It was time, he added, also to stiffen the Army Group North Ukraine command’s backbone.

Schörner went to Army Group North with a special patent from Hitler giving him command authority over all combat forces of the three Wehrmacht branches, the Waffen-SS, and the party and civil offices in the Baltic States. Unusual as such sweeping power was, substantively it did not amount to much. It placed at Schörner’s disposal a few thousand men who could be committed in the gap on the army group’s south flank; otherwise, its main effect was to underscore Hitler’s determination to hold what was left of the Baltic States.

Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 II

“The thrust is the best parry”

Worried by the threatening developments the day before on his front and flanks, Model, early on 23 July, predicted that the Russians would strike via L’vov to the San River, thrust past Lublin to Warsaw, encircle Second Army at Brest, advance on East Prussia across the Bialystok-Grodno line and by way of Kaunas, and attack past the army group left flank via Shaulyay to Memel or Riga. During the day Model’s concern, particularly for his south flank, grew to alarm as the Russians moved north rapidly between the Vistula and the Bug toward Siedlce, the main road junction between Warsaw and Brest. In the late afternoon, after several of his reports had gone unanswered, Model called to tell the Operations Branch, OKH, it was “no use sitting on one’s hands, there could be only one decision and that was to retreat to the Vistula-San line.” The branch chief replied that he agreed, but Guderian wanted to set a different objective. Later the army group chief of staff talked to Guderian, who quickly took up a proposal to create a strong tank force around Siedlce but would not hear of giving up any of the most threatened points. “We must take the offensive everywhere!” he demanded, “To retreat any farther is absolutely not tolerable.”

Before daylight the next morning Guderian had completed a directive which was issued over Hitler’s signature. Army Groups North and North Ukraine were to halt where they were and start attacking to close the gaps. Army Group Center was to create a solid front on the line Kaunas-Bialystok-Brest and assemble strong forces on both its flanks. These would strike north and south to restore contact with the neighboring army groups. All three army groups were promised reinforcements. The directive ended with the aphorism “The thrust is the best parry” (der Hieb ist die beste Parade). After reading the directive Model’s chief of staff told the OKH operations chief it would be seven days before the army groups would get any sizable reinforcements—in that time much could happen.

During the last week in the month the Soviet armies rolled west through the shattered German front. On 24 July First Panzer Army still held L’vov and its front to the south, but behind the panzer army’s flank, 50 miles west of L’vov, First Tank Army, Third Guards Tank Army, and the Cavalry-Mechanized Group Baranov had four tank and mechanized corps closing to the San River on the stretch between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. That day Fourth Panzer Army fell back 25 miles to a 40-mile front on the Wieprz River southeast of Lublin; off both its flanks the Russians tore open the front for a distance of 65 miles in the south and 55 miles in the north. Second Army had drawn its three right flank corps back to form a horizontal V with the point at Brest. Behind the army a Second Tank Army spearhead reached the outskirts of Siedlce at nightfall on the 24th, and during the day Forty-seventh and Seventieth Armies had turned in against the south flank.

To defend Siedlce, Warsaw, and the Vistula south to Pulawy, Model, on the 24th, returned Headquarters, Ninth Army, to the front and gave it the Hermann Göring Division, the SS Totenkopf Division, and two infantry divisions, the latter three divisions still in transit. From the long columns coming west across the Vistula, the army began screening out what troops it could. In Warsaw it expected an uprising any day.

The next day Fourth Tank Army crossed the San between Jaroslaw and Przemysl. To try to stop that thrust, Army Group North Ukraine, on orders from the OKH, took two divisions from Fourth Panzer Army and gave the army permission to withdraw to the Vistula. In the Ninth Army sector Rokossovskiy’s armor pierced a thin screening line around the Vistula crossings at Deblin and Pulawy and reached the east bank of the river.

Morning air reconnaissance on the 26th reported 1,400 Soviet trucks and tanks heading north past Deblin on the Warsaw road. At the same time, on the Army Group Center north flank reconnaissance planes located “endless” motorized columns moving west out of Panevezhis behind Third Panzer Army. During the day Second Army declared it could not hold Brest any longer, but Hitler and Guderian refused a decision until after midnight, by which time the corps in and around the city were virtually encircled.

In two more days First Panzer Army lost L’vov and fell back to the southwest toward the Carpathians. Fourth Panzer Army went behind the Vistula and beat off several attempts to carry the pursuit across the river. Ninth Army threw all the forces it could muster east of Warsaw to defend the city, hold Siedlce, and keep open a route to the west for the divisions coming out of Brest. South of Pulawy two Soviet platoons crossed the Vistula and created a bridgehead; Ninth Army noted that the Russians were expert at building on such small beginnings.

In the gap between Army Groups Center and North, Bagramyan’s motorized columns passed through Shaulyay, turned north, covered the fifty miles to Jelgava, and cut the last rail line to Army Group North. In a desperate attempt to slow that advance, Third Panzer Army dispatched one panzer division on a thrust toward Panevezhis. Hitler wanted two more divisions put in, but they could only have come from the front on the Neman, where the army was already losing its struggle to hold Kaunas.

The 29th brought Army Group Center fresh troubles. Nine rifle divisions and two guards tank corps hit the Third Panzer Army right flank on the Neman front south of Kaunas. Rokossovsky’s armor drove north past Warsaw, cutting the road and rail connections between the Ninth and Second Armies and setting the stage for converging attacks on Warsaw from the southeast, east, and north.

On the 30th the Third Panzer Army flank collapsed, the Russians advanced to Mariampol, twenty miles from the East Prussian border, and could have gone even farther had they so desired. Between Mariampol and Kaunas the front was shattered. In Kaunas and in the World War I fortifications east of the city two divisions were in danger of being ground to pieces as the enemy swung in behind them from the south. Model told Reinhardt that the army group could not grant permission to give up the city and it was useless to ask the OKH. Reinhardt replied, “Very well, if that is how things stand, I will save my troops”; at ten minutes after midnight he ordered the corps holding Kaunas to retreat to the Nevayazha River ten miles to the west.

On the Warsaw approaches during the day Second Tank Army came within seven miles of the city on the southeast and took Wolomin eight miles to the northeast. In the city shooting erupted in numerous places. In the San-Vistula triangle First Tank Army stabbed past Fourth Army and headed northwest toward an open stretch of the Vistula on both sides of Baranow. Off the tank army’s south flank the OKH gave the Headquarters, Seventeenth Army, command of two and a half divisions to try to plug the gap between Fourth Army and First Panzer Army.

On the last day of the month elements of a guards mechanized corps reached the Gulf of Riga west of Riga. Forty miles south of Warsaw Eighth Guards Army took a small bridgehead near Magnuszew. Between the Fourth and Seventeenth Armies, First Tank Army began taking its armor across the Vistula at Baranow. That day, too, for the first time, the offensive faltered: Bagramyan did not move to expand his handhold on the Baltic; apparently short of gasoline, the tanks attacking toward Warsaw suddenly slowed almost to a stop; a German counterattack west from Siedlce began to make progress; and General Ivan Danilovich Chernyakovsky did not take advantage of the opening between Mariampol and Kaunas.

At midnight on 31 July Hitler reviewed the total German situation in a long, erratic, monologue delivered to Jodl and a handful of other officers. The news from the West was also grim: there the Allies were breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula, and on the 31st U.S. First Army had passed Avranches. Nevertheless, the most immediate danger, Hitler said, was in the East, because if the fighting reached into Upper Silesia or East Prussia, the psychological effects in Germany would be severe. As it was, the retreat was arousing apprehension in Finland and the Balkan countries, and Turkey was on the verge of abandoning its neutrality. What was needed was to stabilize the front and, possibly, win a battle or two to restore German prestige.

The deeper problem, as Hitler saw it, was “this human, this moral crisis,” in other words, the recently revealed officers’ conspiracy against him; he went on:

“In the final analysis, what can we expect of a front . . . . if one now sees that in the rear the most important posts were occupied by downright destructionists, not defeatists but destructionists. One does not even know how long they have been conspiring with the enemy or with those people over there [Seydlitz’s League of German Officers]. In a year or two the Russians have not become that much better; we have become worse because we have that outfit over there constantly spreading poison by means of the General Staff, the Quartermaster General, the Chief of Communications, and so on. If we overcome this moral crisis . . . in my opinion we will be able to set things right in the East.”

Fifteen new grenadier divisions and ten panzer brigades being set up, he predicted, would be enough to stabilize the Eastern Front. Being pushed into a relatively narrow space, he thought, was not entirely bad; it reduced the Army’s need for manpower-consuming service and support organizations.

The Recovery

In predicting that the front could be stabilized, Hitler came close to the mark. In fact, even his expressed wish for a victory or two was about to be partially gratified. Model was keeping his forces in hand, and he was gradually gaining strength. Having advanced, in some instances more than 150 miles, the Soviet armies were again getting ahead of their supplies. The flood had reached its crest. It would do more damage; but in places it could also be dammed and diverted.

Crosscurrents

On 1 August Third Panzer Army, not yet recovered from the beating it had taken between Kaunas and Mariampol, shifted the right half of its front into the East Prussia defense position. Third Belorussian Front, following close, cut through this last line forward of German territory in three places and took Vilkavishkis, ten miles east of the border. The general commanding the corps in the weakened sector warned that the Russians could be in East Prussia in another day.

The panzer army staff, set up in Schlossberg on the west side of the border, found being in an “orderly little German city almost incomprehensible after three years on Soviet soil.” But Reinhardt was shaken, almost horrified, when he discovered that the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, who was also civil defense commissioner for East Prussia, had not so much as established a plan for evacuating women and children from the areas closest to the front. The army group chief of staff said that he had been protesting daily and had been ignored; apparently Koch was carrying out a Führer directive.

In Warsaw on 1 August the Polish Armia Krajowa (Home Army), under General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski, staged an insurrection. The Poles were trained and well-armed. They moved quickly to take over the heart of the city and the through streets, but the key points the insurgents needed to establish contact with the Russians, the four Vistula bridges and Praga, the suburb on the east bank, stayed in German hands. Worse yet for the insurgents, south of Wolomin the Hermann Göring Division, 19th Panzer Division, and SS Wiking Division closed in behind the III Tank Corps, which after sweeping north past Warsaw had slowed to a near stop on 31 July. In the next two or three days, while the German divisions set about destroying III Tank Corps, Second Tank Army shifted its effort away from Warsaw and began to concentrate on enlarging the bridgehead at Magnuszew, thirty-five miles to the south.

Stalin was obviously not interested in helping the insurgents achieve their objectives: a share in liberating the Polish capital and, based on that, a claim to a stronger voice in the post-war settlement for Premier Stanislaw Mikolajczyk’s British-and-American-supported exile government. On 22 July the Soviet Union had established in Lublin the hand-picked Polish Committee of National Liberation, which as one of its first official acts came out wholeheartedly in favor of the Soviet-proposed border on the old Curzon Line, the main point of contention between the Soviet Union and the Mikolajczyk government. That Mikolajczyk was then in Moscow (he had arrived on 30 July) negotiating for a free and independent Poland added urgency to the revolt but at the same time reduced the insurgents in Soviet eyes to the status of inconvenient political pawns.

Army Group North Ukraine on 1 August was in the second day of a counterattack, which had originally aimed at clearing the entire San-Vistula triangle, but which had been reduced before it started to an attempt to cut off the First Tank Army elements that had crossed the Vistula at Baranow. Although Seventeenth Army and Fourth Panzer Army both gained ground, they did not slow or, for that matter, much disturb Konev’s thrust across the Vistula. A dozen large pontoon ferries, capable of floating up to sixty tons, were transporting troops, tanks, equipment, and supplies of Third Guards Tank and Thirteenth Armies across the river. By the end of the day Fourth Panzer Army had gone as far as it could. The next afternoon the army group had to call a halt altogether. The divisions were needed west of the river where First Tank Army, backed by Third Guards Tank Army and Thirteenth Army, had forces strong enough to strike, if it chose, north toward Radom or southwest toward Krakow.

On the night of 3 August Model sent Hitler a cautiously optimistic report. Army Group Center, he said, had set up a continuous front from south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the Vistula near Pulawy. It was thin—on the 420 miles of front thirty-nine German divisions and brigades faced an estimated third of the total Soviet strength—but it seemed that the time had come when the army group could hold its own, react deliberately, and start planning to take the initiative itself. Model proposed to take the 19th Panzer Division and the Hermann Göring Division behind the Vistula to seal off the Magnuszew bridgehead, to move a panzer division into the Tilsit area to support the Army Group North flank, and to use the Grossdeutschland Division, coming from Army Group South Ukraine, to counterattack at Vilkavishkis. He planned to free two panzer divisions by letting Second Army and the right flank of Fourth Army withdraw toward the Narew River. With luck, he thought, these missions could be completed by 15 August. After that, he could assemble six panzer divisions on the north flank and attack to regain contact with Army Group North.

For a change, fortune half-favored the Germans. The Hermann Göring Division and the 15th Panzer Division boxed in the Magnuszew bridgehead. Against the promise of a replacement in a week or so, Model gave up the panzer division he had expected to station near Tilsit. The division went to Army Group North Ukraine where Konev, after relinquishing the left half of his front to the reconstituted Headquarters, Fourth Ukrainian Front, under General Polkovnik Ivan Y. Petrov, was now also pushing Fourth Tank Army into the Baranow bridgehead. The bridgehead continued to expand like a growing boil but not as rapidly as might have been expected considering the inequality of the opposing forces.

In the second week of the month three grenadier divisions and two panzer brigades arrived at Army Group Center. On 9 August the Grossdeutschland Division attacked south of Vilkavishkis. Through their agents the Russians were forewarned. They were ready with heavy air support and two fresh divisions. This opposition blunted the German attack somewhat, but the Grossdeutschland Division took Vilkavishkis, even though it could not completely eliminate the salient north of the town before it was taken out and sent north on 10 August.

A Corridor to Army Group North

In the first week of August the most urgent question was whether help could be brought to Army Group North before it collapsed completely. On 6 August Schörner told Hitler that his front would hold until Army Group Center had restored contact, provided “not too much time elapsed” in the interval; his troops were exhausted, and the Russians were relentlessly driving them back by pouring in troops, often 14-year-old boys and old men, at every weak point on the long, thickly forested front. To Guderian he said that if Army Group Center could not attack soon, all that was left was to retreat south and go back to a line Riga-Shaulyay-Kaunas, and even that was becoming more difficult every day.

On 10 August Third Baltic and Second Baltic Fronts launched massive air and artillery-supported assaults against Eighteenth Army below Pskov Lake and north of the Dvina. They broke through in both places on the first day. Having no reserves worth mentioning, Schörner applied his talent for wringing the last drop of effort out of the troops. To one of the division commanders he sent the message: “Generalleutnant Charles de Beaulieu is to be told that he is to restore his own and his division’s honor by a courageous deed or I will chase him out in disgrace. Furthermore, he is to report by 2100 which commanders he has had shot or is having shot for cowardice.” From the Commanding General, Eighteenth Army, he demanded “Draconian intervention” and “ruthlessness to the point of brutality.”

To boost morale in Schörner’s command, the Air Force sent the Stuka squadron commanded by Major Hans Rudel, the famous Panzerknacker (tank cracker), who a few days before had chalked up his 300th Soviet tank destroyed by dive bombing. Hitler sent word on the 12th that Army Group Center would attack two days earlier than planned. From Königsberg the OKH had a grenadier division airlifted to Eighteenth Army.

Army Group Center began the relief operation on 16 August. Two panzer corps, neither fully assembled, jumped off west and north of Shaulyay. Simultaneously, Third Belorussian Front threw the Fifth, Thirty-third, and Eleventh Guards Armies against Third Panzer Army’s right flank and retook Vilkavishkis. During the day Model received an order appointing him to command the Western Theater. Reinhardt, the senior army commander, took command of the army group, and Generaloberst Erhard Raus replaced him as Commanding General, Third Panzer Army.

The next day, while the offensive on the north flank rolled ahead, Chernyakovsky’s thrust reached the East Prussian border northwest of Vilkavishkis. One platoon, wiped out before the day’s end, crossed the border and for the first time carried the war to German soil. In the next two days the Russians came perilously close to breaking into East Prussia.

On the extreme north flank of Third Panzer Army two panzer brigades, with artillery support from the cruiser Prinz Eugen standing offshore in the Gulf of Riga, on the 10th took Tukums and made contact with Army Group North. On orders from the OKH, the brigades were immediately put aboard trains in Riga and dispatched to the front below Lake Peipus. The next day Third Panzer Army took a firmer foothold along the coast from Tukums east and dispatched a truck column with supplies for Army Group North. On the East Prussian border the army’s front was weak and beginning to waver, but the Russians were by then concentrating entirely on the north and did not make the bid to enter German territory. Reinhardt told Guderian during the day that to expand the corridor and get control of the railroad to Army Group North through Jelgava would take too long. He recommended evacuating Army Group North. Guderian replied that he himself agreed but that Hitler refused on political grounds. The offensive continued through 27 August, when Hitler ordered a panzer division transferred to Army Group North.

At the end, the contact with Army Group North was still restricted to an 18-mile-wide coastal corridor. For the time being that was enough. On the last day of the month the Second and Third Baltic Fronts suddenly went over to the defensive.

The Battle Subsides

Throughout the zones of Army Groups Center and North Ukraine, the Soviet offensive, as the month ended, trailed off into random swirls and eddies. After taking Sandomierz on 18 August First Ukrainian Front gradually shifted to the defensive even though it had four full armies, three of them tank armies, jammed into its Vistula bridgehead. North of Warsaw First Belorussian Front had harried Second Army mercilessly as it withdrew toward the Narew, and in the first week of September, when the army went behind the river, took sizable bridgeheads at Serock and Rozan. But for more than two weeks Rokossovsky evinced no interest in the bridgehead around Warsaw, which Ninth Army was left holding after Second Army withdrew.

In Warsaw at the turn of the month the uprising seemed to be nearing its end. One reason why the insurgents had held out as long as they did was that the Germans had been unable and unwilling to employ regular troops in the house-to-house fighting. They had brought up various remote-controlled demolition vehicles, rocket projectors, and artillery—including a 24-inch howitzer—and had turned the operations against the insurgents over to General von dem Bach-Zelewski and SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth. The units engaged were mostly SS and police and included such oddments as the Kaminski Brigade and the Dirlewanger Brigade. As a consequence, the fighting was carried on at an unprecedented level of viciousness without commensurate tactical results.

On 2 September Polish resistance in the city center collapsed and 50,000 civilians passed through the German lines. On the 9th Bor-Komorowski sent out two officer parliamentaries, and the Germans offered prisoner of war treatment for the members of the Armia Krajowa. The next day, in a lukewarm effort to keep the uprising alive, the Soviet Forty-seventh Army attacked the Warsaw bridgehead, and the Poles did not reply to the German offer. Under the attack, the 73d Infantry Division, a hastily rebuilt Crimea division, collapsed and in another two days Ninth Army had to give up the bridgehead, evacuate Praga, and destroy the Vistula bridges. The success apparently was bigger than the Stavka had wanted; on the 14th, even though 100 U.S. 4-motored bombers flew a support mission for the insurgents, the fighting subsided. Until 10 September the Soviet Government had refused to open its airfields to American planes flying supplies to the insurgents. On 18 September American planes flew a shuttle mission, but the areas under insurgent control were by then too small for accurate drops and a second planned mission had to be canceled.

During the night of 16-17 September Polish First Army, its Soviet support limited to artillery fire from the east bank, staged crossings into Warsaw. The Soviet account claims that half a dozen battalions of a planned three-division force were put across. The German estimates put the strength at no more than a few companies, and Ninth Army observed that the whole operation became dormant on the second day. The Poles who had crossed were evacuated on 23 September. On the 26th Bor-Komorowski sent parliamentaries a second time, and on 2 October his representatives signed the capitulation.

The psychological reverberations of the summer’s disasters continued after the battles died down. In September Reinhardt wrote Guderian that rumors in Germany concerning Busch’s alleged disgrace, demotion, suicide, and even desertion were undermining the nation’s confidence in Army Group Center. He asked that Busch be given some sort of public token of the Führer’s continuing esteem. In the first week of October, Busch was permitted to give an address at the funeral of Hitler’s chief adjutant, Schmundt, who had died of wounds he received on 20 July. If that restored public confidence, it was certainly no mark of Hitler’s renewed faith either in Busch or in the generals as a class. He had already placed Busch on the select list of generals who were not to be considered for future assignments as army or army group commanders. After most of the eighteen generals captured by the Russians during the retreat joined the Soviet-sponsored League of German Officers, Hitler also decreed that henceforth none of the higher decorations were to be awarded to Army Group Center officers.

Where Hitler saw treason in high places, others saw more widespread, more virulent, more disabling maladies: the fear of being encircled and captured and the fear of being wounded and abandoned. The German soldier was being pursued by the specters of Stalingrad, Cherkassy, and the Crimea. Once, he could not even imagine the ultimate disaster—now he expected it.

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part I

Allied air power lights the flame of Operation TORCH

As axis forces retreated from El Alamein westwards across Lybya, the sea off Algiers harbour on 9 November 1942 was covered with a forest of ships. Small boats and landing craft were shuttling back and forth with troops, tanks, vehicles, and other equipment and supplies of war. High above the ships a Ju88 reconnaissance bomber probed daringly into the Allies’ airspace. Two Spitfires quickly found the enemy intruder, and sent it into a smoking dive into the waves. The fighters’ interception would prove to be too late.

As twilight gathered later that day, three waves of Ju88s and Heinkel He111s began their bombing runs over the anchored invasion fleet and above Maison Blanche airfield. Spitfires from No. 81 Squadron RAF and Hurricanes from No. 43 Squadron RAF scrambled to intercept. More Spitfires from No. 242 Squadron RAF, who were escorting two B-17 bombers flying US General Mark Clark from Gibraltar across to Algiers, were also called on to attack the enemy raiders.

The Luftwaffe bombers were soon in disarray. Pilots of 242 Squadron claimed their first victories, Sergeant Mallinson an He111, Pilot Officer Goulding and Sergeant Watling a Ju88 each, while Flight Lieutenant Benham and Pilot Officer Mather shared a Ju88 kill. Five other pilots claimed half-kills and damages on the German aircraft.

Squadron Leader ‘Ras’ Berry, Commander of 81 Squadron, and his section shot down an He111 over Maison Blanche airfield, and fellow pilot, Canadian Flight Lieutenant James Walker, did the same for a Ju88. Having achieved two previous victories in the skies of UK and Russia, it was Walker’s third kill, and perhaps a unique record in those three theatres of air warfare.

#

The Spitfires’ engagement with the Ju88s came a day after Allied landings in North-West Africa.

At around midnight on 7/8 November 1942, Operation TORCH, the first major Allied operation of the Second World War invaded Morocco and Algeria. Only a few days after the start of the third battle at El Alamein on 26 October, the Anglo-American invasion fleets had sailed from the east coast of USA and the west coast of Scotland. The enormous task force was in excess of 100 ships, and over 107,000 troops.

Although the battle of Stalingrad was an immense distance from the Middle East, the German Army’s struggle to overcome the Russians’ stubborn and desperate defence was not immune to the impact of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein, nor to the Operation TORCH invasion. Despite their defeats on the Russian Front, the Germans felt forced to transfer their Luftflotte II (Air Fleet) to Italy and Tunisia. If Rommel, or any others in Hitler’s Reich, still harboured dreams of dominating the Mediterranean, and occupying the oilfields of the Gulf, Iraq and Persia, they were now collapsing.

Operation TORCH was made up of three invasion fleets – the Western, Central and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, commanded by Major General Patton, and under the protection of the US Navy, sailed from east coast USA to land at Casablanca. US Navy aircraft carriers, off Casablanca and Oran, provided the air cover with ship-borne fighters. The Central Task Force, with some British but predominantly American troops, set out from Britain under the command of Major General Fredendall, heading for the port of Oran on the north-west Algerian coast.

The US Army’s Twelfth Air Force, commanded by the already legendary Brigadier General Jimmy Doolittle, also provided air cover for the Oran-bound fleet. General Doolittle had commanded the first US air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor, when B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from aircraft carriers, without sufficient fuel to return. After releasing their bombloads over Japan, the B-25s flew on westwards to land at friendly bases in China.

The closest landing to the Tunisian border, by a convoy despatched from the Clyde in Scotland, was to be made by the Eastern Task Force. Although it carried a small number of US troops with designated officers to assist negotiations with the Vichy French authorities, this invasion force comprised elements of the British First Army under command of Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson. While the Royal Navy escorted both the Oran and Algiers invasion fleets, air support for the Algiers landings was provided by the RAF Eastern Command. To strengthen air support at Algiers, on 6 November two Desert Air Force [DAF] squadrons, the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron RAF and the torpedo-carrying Wellington bombers of No. 221 Squadron RAF, flew from Egypt to Malta.

One of those pilots in 221 Squadron was Australian Flying Officer William ‘Bill’ Stocks from Sydney. After a period in the Empire Training Scheme in Canada, Bill had arrived in Britain in November 1941 and, after training on Wellington bombers, in April 1942 he joined No. 221 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. In one anti-shipping operation with 221 Squadron, at a height of around 500 feet, Stocks made two severe hits on an enemy vessel. In another interdiction flight his wireless transmitter, rear turret and petrol gauges became unserviceable. Despite great difficulties he continued and completed the operation successfully. In what seems so typical of so many bomber pilots, Stocks’ leadership, coolness and efficiency would in due course see him become a squadron leader in No. 28 Squadron RAF, and be awarded the DFC.

Despite the widest dispersal of troop landings over 130 miles north and south of Casablanca, General Patton’s US Western Task Force encountered the stiffest resistance. The Vichy French were alert to the invasion. At approximately 0700 on 8 November their naval air force, Aeronavale, had their Dewoitine fighters strafing the landing beaches. However, in three days the Vichy French lost 119 aircraft out of 200, as well as having their airfields put out of action. The US Army Air Forces lost only forty-four aircraft out of 164, and all the US Navy aircraft carriers remained intact. Early on 11 November the French Commander in Casablanca surrendered and signed an armistice.

At Oran in Algeria at 0100, also on 8 November, the US 1st Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions went ashore. Before dawn the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, HM Ships Furious, Biter and Dasher, launched ten Seafires, eight Albacore torpedo-bombers, and twelve Sea Hurricanes. During 8 and 9 November considerable air combat ensued with the Aeronavale over Oran’s la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

This provided cover for American tanks to capture Tafaraoui on 9 November, which then enabled a Hurricane squadron and some Spitfires from the RAF’s 31 Fighter Group to fly in from Gibraltar. When one Spitfire was shot down on its landing approach by a Dewoitine fighter, a quick response claimed three of the French fighters. The surviving French aircraft at la Senia took off and escaped to Morocco.

Later, when the Tafaraoui airfield came under fire from an approaching column of the French Foreign Legion and its artillery battery, the Spitfires were again called up. Their strafing attack blew up a truck carrying troops, spattering one Spitfire with body parts, and causing the French to withdraw quickly. By the end of the day on 9 November the French authorities declared a cease-fire to end any threat to the la Senia and Tafaraoui airfields.

#

Farther east along the coast near to Algiers, also in the early hours of 8 November, the troop landings of the British First Army went ahead. Operation TORCH gambled on a land spearhead that in the main comprised only 11 and 36 Brigades of the 78th Battleaxe Division, some light tank units of Blade Force, and an American field artillery battalion. The task force, under command of 78th Division, was being used in an urgent but risky drive to occupy Tunis.

While all three landings were equally important in order to occupy northwest Africa, in the short term those at Algiers were critical. A proposal to land farther east at Tunis had been rejected because of the threat of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica attacks from their bases in Sicily. Yet the immediate goal of the Allies’ ground forces was to squeeze the Axis armies in a pincer movement between Operation TORCH and Montgomery’s Eighth Army. A rapid advance was planned to gain control quickly of the major port of Tunis before German forces could be landed there, and before the start of winter and the rainy season in late December.

The decision not to land at Tunis itself, or even the Algerian port of Bone near the Tunisian border, was driven by a fear of enemy air attack. Axis bombers based in Sicily could easily reach both Bone and Tunis with fighter escorts, whereas the British and American air forces could offer little support to any landings there. Even after air bases were established at Algiers and Bone, Allied fighter aircraft would be at the extremity of their range to reach Tunis, which would allow little time over the battlefield to support ground forces. In the event the capability of the Germans to react quickly and transport well-equipped troops, tanks, guns and aircraft to Tunis, was grossly underestimated by the Allies.

At the moment of the landings, there were no garrison troops in Tunis, and the German and Italian High Commands were taken completely by surprise. But Axis reaction was swift, and effectively assisted by the conduct of Admiral Esteva, the French Resident-General. The first German troops arrived by air at El Aouina airfield, near Tunis, on November 9, only a day after the Allied landings.

They seized the key points of the two cities; they executed or imprisoned the known and suspected Allied sympathizers; they took over the ports of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes and the inland town of Kairouan. Within a week there were 5,000 front-line troops in and around Tunis and Bizerte; they had tanks; and they were still flying in Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters.

The landings at Algiers were not only the most crucial to the Operation TORCH strategy. They were the most risky, and no-one knew what the Vichy French authorities would do. The French possessed dangerous squadrons of both fighters and bombers at their Algiers airfields of Blida and Maison Blanche. In addition, while the Allied ships and troops were going ashore, they would be within range of Luftwaffe bombers.

When a French Douglas DB-7 bomber from the Blida air force base threatened the invasion fleet, two Seafire fighters from the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable shot it down. Successive flights of Martlet fighters from HMS Victorious then attacked Blida airfield in waves, shooting up aircraft on the ground and those attempting to take off. Around 0830, when the Blida air base signalled its surrender, naval fliers landed and took control.

Luckily bad weather had kept many French aircraft grounded, such as fifty Dewoitine fighters, and six Potez bombers, preventing them from causing mayhem amongst the invading forces. The French Air Force base of Maison Blanche, where there had been no order to hold fire, was captured by 0900. Apart from a failed attempt to capture Algiers harbour, troop landings along the coastal beaches went well. Many Vichy French army units had been ordered not to resist.

During the morning of 8 November Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron RAF, and Spitfires of 81 and 242 Squadrons RAF, flew from Gibraltar and landed at Maison Blanche. But, as the day neared its end, a Luftwaffe raid of fifteen Junkers Ju88 bombers attacked the ships off Algiers, damaging three Seafires on a carrier.

On the ground at the Maison Blanche air base, relations between Allied forces and the Vichy French were tense. British troops stood guard over parked French fighter planes. The newly landed Hurricanes and Spitfires remained on the tarmac for lack of fuel. Cold and hungry, their pilots huddled by their planes facing a Tunisian winter’s night.

Next day, 9 November, fighters of both 43 and 81 Squadrons had enough fuel left in their tanks to scramble against another Luftwaffe raid and were joined by Spitfires of 242 Squadron, already aloft, to disrupt and fight off the German bombers. When the fighter pilots returned to Maison Blanche their combat stress was no doubt quickly forgotten when the first food since their earlier arrival from Gibraltar was awaiting them.

The decisive impact of Allied air power in support of the Operation TORCH landings has not been well recognized. Even with a large number of inexperienced pilots, within two days Allied air forces had overwhelmed their French counterparts across Morocco and Algeria. Most important of all, the airfields at Maison Blanche and Blida near Algiers, and soon after at Bone, the closest to the Tunisian border, were captured with little damage. French ground forces, with their air support eliminated, and their leaders in disarray with conflicting loyalties, were left with no options. Allied forces were pouring in by air and sea. On 13 November General Eisenhower reached a final agreement with French authorities in Algeria under Admiral Darlan and hostilities came to an end.

The Royal Navy aircraft-carriers lost a total of forty-five aircraft over Oran and Algiers – fifteen Sea Hurricanes, eight Martlets, eight Albacores, two Fulmars and at least twelve Seafires. Despite a large number of inexperienced pilots, they had destroyed or driven the Vichy Air Force from the skies. Allied air power was clearly a huge factor not only in protecting the invasion fleets and troop landings, but also in gaining air superiority to force the early ceasefire by Vichy French Authorities.

Although it was not known at the time, the early successes in Morocco and Algeria had a consequence. By the end of November there would be some 20,000 Axis troops in Tunis, specifically the 334th Infantry Division, the Italian 1st Division, and 10th Panzer Division. The Germans continued building up and, on 8 December, General von Arnim arrived in Tunis to take command of their forces which, on that date, were designated the Fifth Panzer Army. Perhaps the German reaction to Operation TORCH had been foreseen by the Allies as a possibility, but with a hope that it would not happen so fast.

In contrast, the Allies’ initial attacking force from 78th Division with the two brigade groups and Blade Force to make the first thrust at Tunis totalled only 12,300 men. It was recognized as a gamble. With air bases close to Tunis, as anticipated the Luftwaffe quickly established air superiority in Tunisian airspace. It meant that Allied ground forces came under regular attack from enemy fighters and dive-bombers.

#

Unlike the Desert Air Force (DAF), which had been based in Egypt, and had experience in extending its supply lines and moving to temporary airfields with Eighth Army, the air force squadrons sent from the USA and Britain to support Operation TORCH had to be self-sufficient on arrival. In comparison, the Germans were flying in ground forces and aircraft from Sicily, only about 100 miles distant from Tunis, to all-weather airfields close to the port of Bizerte and the Tunisian capital, such as Blida and Maison Blanche.

In early-December winter rain and mud made many dirt airfields inoperable. To support the army’s advances with air support and get within range of Tunis, Allied squadrons had to make use of temporary landing grounds and often had to roll out a dirt strip themselves. As the British First Army moved to within striking distance of Tunis, their closest operable air base was 114 miles to the rear at Bone. This meant that Spitfires were at the limit of their range, resulting in restricted patrol time over Tunis and German positions before having to turn for home.

RAF photo reconnaissance flights on 12 November revealed at least 120 Luftwaffe aircraft at Tunisian airfields, including forty Stukas and some Fw190s at Bizerte and Tunis. The Focke-Wulf Fw190 was fast, with a maximum speed above 380mph, well-armed and, apart from the Spitfire, superior at that time to other Allied fighters in North Africa. In addition there were some 270 German bombers based in Sicily and Sardinia that were raiding Algiers every night.

Basing themselves at first at the Maison Blanche airfield outside Algiers, the Spitfire pilots of No. 154 Squadron RAF, led by New Zealander Squadron Leader Don Carlson, quickly made their name known. On 15 November Carlson shot down a Ju88 bomber. Adding this to his four victories with 74 Squadron in 1941 it made Carlson one of the first Spitfire ‘aces’ over North Africa. In their first two weeks, 154 Squadron claimed nineteen Luftwaffe bombers shot down, and nine more at least hit and damaged.

In mid-November 81 and 111 RAF Squadrons, with Spitfires, were able to move farther east to Bone, 275 miles from Algiers but only fifty miles from the Tunisian border. The Bone airfield, not much more than a landing ground, had been captured on 12 November by 300 British paratroopers, flown in by C-47 transports of the USAAF 64th Group. Next day more C-47s brought in anti-aircraft guns and fuel, which enabled the escorting P-38 Lightning fighters to land and base themselves at Bone. The airfield was very basic and under continual bombing and strafing attacks from the Luftwaffe bases at Bizerte.

For the Spitfire pilots the arrival of winter rain, together with the Spitfire Mk VC’s inferior performance to the Bf109, made the life or death struggle in the air even worse. The fight for supremacy of the skies was a tenacious struggle which would have profound consequences for the armies on the ground.

On 14 November Canadian Flying Officer Harry Fenwick of 81 Squadron RAF began a momentous five days of dogfights when he was shot up by a Bf109. Luckily, he managed a forced landing with a leg wound. On 16 November he was back in the air, first inflicting damage on a 109, only to be shot up himself again by another 109. Once more he found a way to return safely to base. The next day he made his first kill with a Macchi 202 and on 18 November his revenge was complete when he shot down a Bf109.

Although two Spitfires at any one time were required to be in constant patrol over the Bone airfield, and two more fuelled with pilots in the cockpit ready to go, not all Axis air raids could be countered. Soon after arriving at Bone on 19 November, No. 72 Squadron RAF lost eight Spitfires to a bombing and strafing attack by twelve Bf109s.10 On 20 November thirty Ju88s bombed Maison Blanche airfield heavily, destroying the RAF reconnaissance aircraft.

On patrol on 28 November over an Allied convoy near Algiers, Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ Chambers of 154 Squadron sighted five Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero aircraft, which were beginning a bombing run at the ships. Chambers closed with the SM.79s from behind and above. One by one he picked them off, to send four spiralling into the sea. Out of ammunition and his plane damaged, Chambers broke away. Flying Officer Alan Aikman shot down the remaining bomber, so that in this engagement both pilots reached their fifth victory and became Spitfire aces.

On 3 December, close to Tebourba and Djedeida and about twenty miles from Tunis, 78th Division was being driven back by German Panzers. Over the battle area Pilot Officer ‘Robbie’ Robertson of 72 Squadron spotted some approaching Fw190 fighter-bombers. Diving to attack them he was shot at mistakenly by an American P-38 Lightning fighter. Despite the friendly fire Robertson shot down an Fw190 for his fifth victory. His success in becoming an ace seemed to continue on 18 December when he accounted for another Bf109. Soon after on the same sortie he took a hit from a cannon shell in the cockpit.

A splinter penetrated one of Robertson’s eyes, leaving him bleeding and half-blinded. Somehow, Robertson kept control of the Spitfire to make a forced landing, but he lost the eye to finish him as a fighter pilot. Yet Robertson and the other pilots of 72 Squadron had taken a toll of the Axis air forces. In four weeks the squadron had racked up a score of twenty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, and another eight damaged or worse.

On 6 December Flying Officer Fenwick, with fellow Canadian James Waller, shared a kill of an Italian Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II fighter. Fenwick then shot down a Bf109 of his own. These two victories took both Canadians to ace status.14 Every sortie could end in a life or death struggle, with the incidence of death or maiming of aircrew increasing on both sides. A pilot could become an ace one day, and then be dead or invalided out on the next.

#

It is a common but false perception that the Tunisian campaign was fought in the desert. In fact, the major part of the fighting took place in the mountains and valleys of northern Tunisia. Much of it was in the cold and rain of winter, and the icy winds of the Atlas Mountains. The bad weather also disrupted the Allies’ longer range bombers, which were using airfields even farther away in Algiers.

Unaware of the enemy’s gathering strength, by 27 November leading elements of 78th Division and Blade Force had advanced down the Medjerda River valley, through the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab to Tebourba. They were literally within sight of Tunis, no more hills could be seen, only a flat plain less than twenty miles wide lay between them and the Tunisian capital. Major General Evelegh, the 78th Division commander, hoped to be reinforced very quickly and even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day.

Before noon on 28 November such thoughts were gone when 10th Panzer Division counter-attacked with some fifty tanks. Also the Luftwaffe’s near freedom of the skies at this time enabled their Stuka dive-bombers to hit troops of the spearhead 11 Brigade of 78th Division at will. As well as defending their build-up in and around Tunis, the Germans were also intent on driving the Allies back beyond Medjez. Although by 4 December the superior German armour with unchecked air support sent the Allies reeling back from Tebourba, a week of stubborn resistance by 78th Division, and the American forces, gave First Army time to withdraw, and consolidate stronger forces at Medjez el Bab.

In response to the Army’s desperate plea for urgent air support, on 4 December Wing Commander H.G. Malcolm led off ten Bisley light bombers of No. 18 Squadron RAF, in daylight without any fighter escort, to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield. They were intercepted and also outnumbered by Bf109s. The ten Bisleys, obsolete, slow and poorly armed, were all lost. It was an illustration of the many selfless efforts by Allied airmen to stem the German ground onslaught. Wing Commander Malcolm received the posthumous award of the VC.

A lack of forward airfields, and almost non-existent co-operation processes between the Army and RAF spelled disaster. That same day, 4 December, twelve other Allied aircraft were lost, five P-38 Lightnings, a Boston bomber and six Spitfires destroyed on the ground. To add to the Allies’ setbacks, on 6 December the rains came. ‘It rained for three days and three nights,’ said Cyril Ray the official historian of 78th Division. ‘There was no cover for the men and the slit trenches filled with liquid mud.’

Despite the Tebourba setback the Allies regathered in Medjez and planned another assault on Tunis. Political pressure intensified and the festive season was ignored. The offensive was to resume on the night of 23 December 1942 with a plan to capture Djebel el Ahmera, a mountainous ridge some six miles north of Medjez, known as Longstop Hill. Until it was seized nothing could move down the valley to attack Tunis.

The torrential rain swamped airfields, grounding planes. At times the mud was too heavy for even mules to move supplies. The Tunis offensive was cancelled. Even so it was decided that an attack on Longstop Hill must go ahead. During the night of 23 December and all of the next day, Christmas Eve, the Coldstream Guards and the US 18th Infantry Division fought in waves to gain Longstop’s peak. And like the ebb and flow of the tides, they first gained the summit, lost it, recaptured it, and lost it again. On Christmas morning, after the second German counter-attack, the Allies withdrew to Medjez with over 500 casualties, and another bitter, and costly defeat.

This failure to take Longstop Hill, combined with the rain and mud, brought the Allied advance to a shuddering halt. To add to that was the lack of close air support. It all meant that any further move on Tunis was impracticable. The forced back down from the plan to capture Tunis and the nearby port of Bizerte before the end of December meant that Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika, which was retreating across Libya to Tunisia from the pursuing Eighth Army, was likely to join up with von Arnim’s growing Fifth Panzer Army. The only option was for the Allies to build up their strength during the winter.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part II


Acting Wing Commander Colin Gray, the top scoring New Zealand pilot with 27 kills, pictured with his Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IX EN 520 (FL-A) at Souk-el-Khemis, Tunisia while commanding No 81 Squadron, Royal Air Force in North Africa. c. May 1943

Air Vice Marshal Tedder knew that the Allies must first win the air war before a spring offensive on the ground could succeed. In their gamble to capture Tunis by the end of December 1942, the Allies’ lack of air superiority in Tunisia had been a major contributory factor in the failure. Or in the converse perspective, if the Allies had enjoyed air superiority, the outcome may well have been different.

The battle for air superiority also now had to be fought and won on two fronts, over Tunisia and the Libyan desert. The DAF was continually on the move in step with Eighth Army, from one isolated desert airstrip to another. While the Allies had lengthening supply lines and temporary airfields, the Axis had permanent airfields in Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. To undermine this advantage, air power and interdiction were seen as the key by choking off the enemy’s supply routes, whether by sea freight or air transport across the Mediterranean.

DAF to the rescue of French forces at Ksar Rhilane

Dust swirled in the wake of the German armoured columns. They comprised two groups of Panzers, half-tracks and support trucks as they powered across the desert. It was 10 March 1943 near Ksar Rhilane in southern Tunisia and General von Arnim had sent the Panzer force racing to intercept the Free French forces of General Leclerc. The French had recently driven across the desert from Lake Chad to join General Montgomery’s Eighth Army in a ‘left hook’ to outflank and help break the Axis defences on the Mareth Line. At about this time the combined Axis forces in Tunisia, now designated Heeresgruppe Afrika/Gruppo d’Armate Africa (Army Group Africa), were put under the command of von Arnim. He was desperate to prevent a link up of the British First Army of Operation TORCH with Eighth Army, which was pressing hard against the German-Italian Panzer Army (previously Panzer-armee Afrika) in the south of Tunisia.

Above the lines of German armour and motor transport, Pilot Officer Arthur Dawkins, of No. 450 Squadron RAAF, eased his Kittyhawk fighter-bomber around to survey the burning vehicles, which his bombs had just struck. He peered through the murk of smoke and dust for more targets which he could strafe. Then one of the trucks coming up in his flight path suddenly blew up in an immense explosion, enveloping him in a fog of black smoke, dirt and debris. It must have been an ammunition truck, he thought. Dawkins fought to keep control, feeling the plane being dragged down. Emerging again into bright sunlight, he was astonished to see, wrapped around one of his wings, a length of a truck’s canvas tarpaulin. The base airfield at Nefatia some fifteen miles away, at once seemed much further distant.

Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, twelve each from Nos 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF, were bombing and shooting up the German armoured columns, while escorting Spitfires chased off some Stuka dive-bombers, which were heading for the French. Five attacks were made on the German forces, three by Kittybombers and two by Hurricane fighters of No. 6 Squadron RAF, known as the ‘Flying Can-openers’ due to their use of 40mm-cannon-armed tank-busting Hurricane IIDs (each Hurricane carried two 40mm cannon under its wings). The 250lb wing bombs, and the 500lb bombs under the fuselages of the Kittyhawks, together with the heavy cannon strafing of the Hurricanes, destroyed fifteen vehicles, and damaged others which were driven away by enemy recovery teams during the night. Despite losing six aircraft the fighter-bomber operation was a great success.

#

In northern Tunisia during January and February 1943 the Allies’ front lines, which in late December 1942 had been pushed back to the south from the edge of Tunis, remained entrenched close to Medjez-el-Bab in the Medjerda valley. In the face of the German offensive pressure, a lack of air support, and the onset of winter rain and mud, any renewed attack on Tunis had been postponed until spring. The rain turned many roads into quagmires, making them impassable for wheeled transport. The result was that the Medjez el Bab sector of the front became a salient protruding into Axis-held territory. A stalemate set in as both sides tested each other’s lines while rebuilding.

Into January 1943 the Allied infantry companies had spread out into widely dispersed positions and taken on reinforcements in tough patrolling engagements. By being able to use local airfields near Bizerte and Tunis, the Luftwaffe exploited their air superiority in air-to-ground attacks, which meant that the infantry were often restricted to patrolling at night. German fighters had free range to fly through the valleys, attacking any vehicles or movement. General von Arnim repeatedly initiated attacks, sending in his troops and tanks to break through First Army’s lines. In winter temperatures, which could drop to freezing, and even snow in the high hills, Allied troops spent many days and nights in cold, wet and hastily-dug trenches. Mountains and strongpoints were continually fought over, gained, lost, and regained, with no significant advance.

#

On 3 February 1943 Wing Commander Hugh Dundas DFC arrived at Souk el Khemis in northern Tunisia to take up a temporary position as commander of the Spitfire squadrons of 324 Wing RAF. Dundas was still only twenty-two years old, a decorated veteran fighter pilot of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and more than sixty missions over northern France with the legendary Douglas Bader. He was startled, as all pilots were at first, to see the airfields of bulldozed mud, and the primitive living conditions faced by squadrons and their pilots:

The Spitfires were operating off strips of wire matting, laid on top of rushes which in turn had been laid on the mud. The strips were between 800 and 1,000 yards long and only 25 yards wide. They were connected with the squadron dispersal areas by more strips of matting, laid in narrow lanes. A pilot who put a wheel off the runway while landing – and it was all too easy to do so when coming down in a gusty cross wind – was certain to capsize his plane. Alongside these makeshift airfields the squadrons’ officers and ground crews lived and ate in tents.

Hugh Dundas was from Barnborough in South Yorkshire and, on leaving school, first learned to fly in the Auxiliary Air Force. In May 1940, at only twenty years of age, he was in combat in the skies over Dunkirk and a few months later he was flying his Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. In those intense days of continual fighter dogfights he was shot down, cheating death by baling out just before the aircraft hit the ground. Once out of hospital he flew again in that aerial struggle for Britain’s skies, and in more than sixty sorties in Bader’s squadron over France in 1941, before his posting to Tunisia in early-1943.

By mid-February 1943, Axis aircraft strength in the Mediterranean region had risen to around 1,570, of which approximately 300 were based in Tunisia. Poor maintenance and supply difficulties, however, meant that only 50 per cent were generally serviceable for operations at any time. By contrast RAF Middle East, with under 1,000 aircraft, enjoyed a typical 75 per cent rate of availability. In addition Allied air forces were expanding rapidly.

On Eisenhower’s instigation in early February all Allied air forces, including the USAAF across North Africa, were placed under the command of Acting Air Marshal Tedder, as AOC-in-C Mediterranean. In a series of discussions and meetings in Algiers, Eisenhower and Tedder had found a meeting of minds, for a working relationship and in their views of the role of air power. Tedder was appointed as Deputy to Eisenhower, and AVM Coningham took over as AOC Tactical Air Forces in North Africa. Tedder put great emphasis on maintenance and supply, which he saw as the essential backbone of air power.

Once Tripoli had been captured by Eighth Army on 23 January, RAF Middle East moved its whole maintenance and supply organization from Egypt to the Libyan capital. Maintenance and supply services, together with mobility and improvisation, were seen as integral and fundamental to maintaining the strike power of aircraft and their aircrew. The Axis air forces, on the other hand, suffered from supply shortages of every kind, particularly fuel, causing a lack of flexibility and an overall reduced number of sorties.

A major cause of Axis supply difficulties, as they had been for Rommel in the lead up to El Alamein, was the interdiction of Axis air routes and shipping by Allied aircraft. A typical example was provided by the two RAAF Squadrons, No. 454 flying Baltimores and No. 459 flying Hudsons, in the eastern Mediterranean. During March 459 Squadron undertook ninety convoy support sorties mainly at night, typically taking off soon after midnight, and 454 Squadron commenced operations against U-boats and E-boats.

#

In the first weeks of 1943, although the Allies continued to pour troops, guns and supplies into Algeria and feed them through to Tunisia, there was some disarray and indecision at the highest levels in London and Washington. In January Churchill and Roosevelt met in Casablanca, appointed General Alexander to command all Allied land forces in North Africa (18 Army Group) and as deputy to Eisenhower, and reaffirmed their resolve to win the Tunisian campaign.

There was a mixture of optimism and belief that it was only a matter of time before they would defeat the Axis forces by pinning them between Montgomery’s Eighth Army and the Anglo-American forces of Operation TORCH. However, no-one could foretell how long it would take, or at what cost. The invasions contemplated by the Allies for Italy and north-west Europe rested upon first defeating the Axis powers in North Africa. There was fear of the Tunisian campaign dragging on and on. Under some criticism and pressure by the political leaders and high commands in London and Washington, Eisenhower made a brave statement to Churchill and Roosevelt by promising victory in Tunisia by mid-May 1943.

Whilst the Allied commands planned and reorganized during January, their fear of being bogged down in Tunisia threatened to become a nightmare. For Rommel and his German-Italian Panzer Army, with their long, controlled retreat across Libya and then into southern Tunisia behind them, had already begun to combine with General von Arnim’s forces in the north. Rommel established strong defences on the Mareth Line, which had been built in the south by the French to guard against Italian attacks, to fend off Eighth Army. He was also intent on preventing the Americans from advancing from the Atlas Mountains in the south-west, and driving a wedge between his Panzer force, and von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army in the north.

On 8 February Rommel met with von Arnim and Field Marshal Kesselring, who was in command of all German forces in the Mediterranean, and convinced them that the best strategy was a drive to the west to destroy the main Allied supply bases, at Tebessa in Algeria, and le Kef farther north-west inside Tunisia. Kesselring wanted to push the Allies back into Algeria, but Rommel and von Arnim agreed between them that it could only be a limited action. Rommel wanted time to focus on defence of the Mareth Line against Eighth Army.

At Sidi Bou Zid on the evening of 13/14 February 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions launched Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND (Spring Wind). This was a surprise night attack through the rocky terrain of the Faid Pass, previously thought to be unsuitable for tanks.4 In two days, 14 and 15 February, they surrounded and then inflicted a crushing defeat on the US 2nd Armored Division, which lost 100 tanks, 88 half-tracks and artillery, and some 1,600 casualties.

On 20 February 1943, after driving US forces into flight from Sbeitla, 10th Panzer Division then drove the Americans back some twenty-four miles west of Kasserine town itself, and gained control of the Kasserine Pass. Over the next three days, on mountainous roads threading through the western dorsal towards Tebessa and le Kef, the German Panzers with superior guns and tactics blasted their way forward through poorly-prepared American and British positions. By the close of 22 February at a height of 3,300 feet they were close to taking Thala, and only forty miles from le Kef.

The obvious and only option for an immediate counter was to turn to the DAF. As it always seemed to be, it was ready to respond. In day and night attacks DAF bombed Luftwaffe forward airfields, supply dumps, and troop concentrations on the Mareth Line and near Gabes. First Army began to move some forces down from the north to assist the Americans, and RAF wings in northern Tunisia sent fighter patrols to the area to counter Luftwaffe raids.

Wing Commander Dundas’ 324 Wing was one of those ordered into these operations in support of US forces. Like all new pilots on arrival from UK, he faced an intense learning period in regard to both the climate and an unknown geographical terrain. Despite this, Dundas felt the need to quickly lead a two-squadron operation on one of these patrols. Once in the air he soon had some regrets that he had not prepared more thoroughly.

As Dundas led the formation of twenty-four Spitfires to the south, they flew into rain squalls and broken storm clouds, which hid the tops of mountains. Seeing the terrain for the first time, he found it hard to pick out the landmarks recommended at the pre-flight briefing. Their orders were to keep the ground under observation, so he had to resist the urge to climb to a safer altitude.

Aware that he must not make a mistake, which could be disastrous in the conditions, he dismissed a fleeting temptation to turn back. Dundas knew that such a decision would undermine his credibility so soon in his command. He kept going and they reached the designated patrol line without encountering any enemy aircraft. He turned the group around to the north on the homeward return leg, and into even worse weather.

Because of the mountains and the weather, radio contact with their base was disrupted. Even if a reliable communication could be made, Dundas also recognized that his fellow pilots would be expecting him to lead them home without having to resort to a request for a homeward bearing. He found himself praying to a higher authority that he was leading the group on the correct course. At last they emerged from the clouds to see the landing strips of Souk el Khemis ahead. By the time he had taxied to a stop, and switched off the engine, Dundas felt drained, as if he had survived a ferocious dogfight with an enemy fighter.

Through those mountains below the patrolling Spitfires, Rommel’s Panzers pressed on relentlessly, brushing aside inexperienced American troops. Once through the Kasserine Pass their Panzers were within one day’s easy downhill drive to le Kef, the Allies’ major supply base. Despite American and British troops fiercely contesting the approach to Thala, the Allied command expected Rommel to launch the final attack on the morning of 23 February, and there was little confidence that it could be resisted. Then there would be nothing to stop the Panzers devouring the flat terrain all the way to le Kef. However, despite Kesselring flying to the front to urge them on, Rommel’s advice to pull back was accepted.

The Panzer columns had thinned themselves out in three separate thrusts. They lacked the strength to stretch out further without hope of reinforcements of men and supplies, and their extended columns were now running short of fuel. In the hours before dawn on 23 February Rommel turned the Panzers around, and returned to his defensive positions on the Mareth Line. Clearly the bombing by DAF of German bases and supply lines, and a counter-attack by the British 6th Armoured Division, added fuel to Rommel’s fear of an attack by Eighth Army on his rear.

The flexibility, mobility and high serviceability of the DAF maintained by their ground crews, brought ever increasing capability for close co-operation with the army. In addition by March 1943 the numerical strength of the Desert Air Force over the Axis air forces, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica, had grown even greater.

DAF had become a unique mix of the Allies’ national air forces. Both air crew and ground support airmen from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, were to be found across the DAF squadrons. Postings and transfers increasingly ignored individual and national preferences, and responded to the demands of the front-line squadrons to replace casualties and meet operational demands.

In the Mareth area in March 1943 the main DAF groups, wings and other formations comprised:

Ptable

Although the Germans withdrew from Kasserine back to Gafsa, their Operation FRÜHLINGSWIND had inflicted a series of major battle defeats on the Americans, who lost more than 6,000 men dead or wounded, and another 3,000 taken prisoner out of 30,000.

Despite many brave Allied attempts to halt the Panzers, the Germans suffered fewer than 1,000 casualties, and only 201 dead. The Allies were lucky to narrowly avoid a strategic defeat, and their main supply depots at Tebessa and le Kef remained intact. Nevertheless, there was to be no respite elsewhere.

On 3 March a recce flight over the Mareth Line by 239 Wing’s 450 Squadron reported a build-up of German armour. Ignoring his supply shortages, Rommel did not intend to rely solely on static defence. Although the Luftwaffe had been unable to mount a preceding bombardment, on 6 March, supported by Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Me210 fighter bombers transferred from Sicily, German armour attacked Eighth Army at Medenine.

Acting upon the DAF reconnaissance information, Eighth Army’s artillery was prepared, and positioned ready for the Axis thrust. First sandstorms, then cloud cover restricted overall air activity, but eight times on 6 March alone, DAF Kittybombers in three-squadron formations with Spitfire escorts, struck at the attacking Panzers. The combination of artillery pounding, and DAF’s aerial bombing inflicted heavy losses on the German armoured columns, and forced the enemy’s withdrawal. On 9 March an ill and exhausted Rommel, worn down from the constant attacks by Eighth Army in the long retreat from Alamein, flew home to Germany to recover. Von Arnim was forced to place all Axis forces onto a defensive footing. With hindsight it seems to have been a tipping point.

As a cover for Eighth Army’s preparation to undertake a left flanking offensive around the Mareth Line, the Allies’ Free French Force under General Leclerc began moving to the north from Ksar Rhilane. Early on 10 March they were threatened by approaching columns of German armour, supported by both Luftwaffe fighters and dive-bombers. Cloud cover had restricted DAF patrols and reconnaissance, but an enemy move against the French had been anticipated, and some squadrons were already briefed and on standby.

Once a signal was received from the French of the approaching German attack, squadrons scrambled into a combined DAF response. The preparations for Montgomery’s ‘left hook’, a contingency plan to outflank the Mareth Line if it was needed, could only be protected by air power. Waves of DAF fighters and fighter-bombers rushed to the rescue. Kittyhawks and Spitfires, including the Kittyhawk of Pilot Officer Dawkins in 450 Squadron RAAF, forced the German armour to turn back and withdraw from their attack on the French at Ksar Rhilane. It was a remarkably successful intervention by fighter-bombers, which would have far-reaching implications for air power tactics and strategy into the future.

Yet the Mareth Line still held up a frontal offensive by Eighth Army. The fortified Mareth Line followed the northern edge of the Oued Zigzaou wadi for about thirty miles across the narrow coastal plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. However, there was the possibility of a way around this Tunisian equivalent of the Maginot Line. Based upon information provided by the French, some patrols by Eighth Army’s Long Range Desert Group had confirmed that the Tebaga Gap, a valley between the Chott el Fejaj salt lake and the Matmata Hills, was a viable route around the Mareth Line for troops and armoured columns experienced to desert conditions. To outflank the German defences, Montgomery decided to plan another version of his renowned ‘left hook’ tactic, and attempt to send a strong, armoured force onto these narrow mountain tracks to the west.

Fighter-bombers lay on an ‘air blitz’ at El Hamma

In early March 1943 Flight Lieutenant Neville Duke of No. 92 Squadron, 244 Wing RAF, who was already an ace from 1942 with eight victories, claimed six more, as the struggle by DAF to assert superiority over Axis air forces continued. On 1 March 1943 Duke shot down two Macchi C.202s, and claimed four more victories within a week. At times it seemed that every squadron’s operation culminated in a clash of the opposing fighters.

On every sortie each pilot faced a private battle, a battle against fear. And at the end of each day, if he had won that private battle, and also a battle against an enemy aircraft, he knew that there was no end to it. There was both physical and mental strain building continually for every pilot. A night’s good sleep free from nightmares reliving the aerial combat, or a day or two off, could alleviate the physical fatigue. The mental stress for many fighter pilots often built day after day, no matter what. Every man had a breaking point at some indeterminate point, where time away for recovery was the only option. Of course, to get that opportunity he had to survive long enough. Up to this time Duke had done just that, and much more.

Neville Duke, from Tonbridge in Kent, was twenty-one years old. Throughout his schooldays he had been an aviation enthusiast, and intended to apply for an RAF Short Service Commission once he was eighteen. This he did in June 1940 and in April 1941 joined 92 Squadron RAF, where he gained invaluable experience flying as No. 2 to Wing Commander A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO DFC. Duke was first posted to Egypt in November 1941, where he joined No. 112 Squadron RAF flying P-40 Tomahawks. After 161 sorties and 220 operational hours, he was ordered to take up instructor duties for a rest and recovery period, before, in November 1942, he gained a posting back to his original 92 Squadron, then based in Gambut, Egypt.

On 19 and 20 March 244 Wing flew escort cover in close support for the fighter-bombers supporting Eighth Army as it moved into its offensives at El Hamma and Medenine. A few days later Duke and his fellow pilots were delighted when 244 Wing received twelve Spitfire Mark IXs, including six for the Polish Fighter Team of No. 145 Squadron RAF, and four for Duke’s 92 Squadron. It was well timed, not only to support Eighth Army trying to break the Mareth Line, but also to counter the arrival of the Focke-Wulf Fw190. Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, who had been appointed to succeed Coningham on 30 January, had persuaded the RAF in the UK to send out some of these latest Spitfires. The Spitfire Mk IX had a top speed of 408mph, a faster climb rate and a higher service ceiling than the Fw190. They outclassed the German fighters, whose pilots believed that DAF had been more widely re-equipped with Mk IX Spitfires.

Broadhurst by this time had also under his command two American fighter groups, 57th and 79th, both equipped with Warhawk fighters, the American name for the P-40, plus a bomber group with the B-25 Mitchell light bomber. Broadhurst persuaded the two fighter groups, approximately equivalent to RAF wings, to integrate their operations with the Desert Air Force under his command. For the Mareth air battles, because of the Americans’ relative inexperience of air fighting or ground attack, a typical operational formation was half a squadron of Australian pilots in their RAAF Kittyhawks leading half a squadron of American pilots in Warhawks.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Beaufighter MkX RAF 144Sqn Sqt PG Fletcher Tunisia 1943

Tunisia and the End in Africa, November 1942-May 1943 Part III

In the mountains of northern Tunisia First Army continued its fight to gain control of the eastern dorsals of the Atlas range. They were still suffering from enemy bombing and strafing, since the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica were flying readily from local airfields around Tunis. During the day Bf109 fighters and Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers often careered through the valleys, seemingly at little more than tree-top height, shooting up transport and anything that moved.

In contrast, in the south, because of DAF forcing the German armour to turn back and withdraw from Ksar Rhilane, the next day, 11 March, the French were able to move up to their positions. From the Mareth Line 2nd New Zealand Division with other forces went westwards also without suffering any enemy strikes, despite the many miles of redeploying traffic, which would have been easily observed by Axis positions in the hills. The increasing dominance of DAF, due to its ability to operate from hastily prepared airfields close behind Eighth Army’s front lines, was allowing the repositioning of ground troops with impunity. It was a significant advantage over Axis forces, and meant that Eighth Army’s plans for an attack outflanking the Mareth Line, through the Matmata Hills, were falling into place.

After the success of DAF at Ksar Rhilane, it was agreed that the US Twelfth Air Force and No. 242 Group RAF from Algeria and Tunisia, would concentrate on bombing German air fields round the clock. DAF would confine itself to close support of Eighth Army, and its offensive against the Mareth Line, through a western out-flanking ‘left-hook’ tactic, to the west as well as a direct assault in the east.

During the night of 19/20 March, 50th (Northumbrian Division) and 23 Armoured Brigade of XXX Corps began to move up for the frontal attack on the Mareth Line’s formidable defences in the Wadi Zigzaou near the coast. Simultaneously 200 tanks and 27,000 troops of the New Zealand Division and 8 Armoured Brigade began the left hook around the south-west end of the line. When the French built the Mareth Line defences they thought the terrain of this area to be too difficult for any sizeable force to negotiate. The Free French on 19 March had taken positions across the Wadi el Outio, north of Ksar Rhilane, so that overnight on 19/20 March the New Zealanders skirted south and west around the Mareth Line, and then began to head north towards the Tebaga Gap.

As Axis forces in response reacted to hurry west to meet the outflanking threat, on the evening of 20/21 March Eighth Army mounted a frontal attack on the eastern end of the Mareth Line. In support DAF commenced the ‘shuttle service’ bombing by light bombers on 21 March around Mareth. During the day fighter-bombers went out on armed reconnaissance searching for targets of opportunity, and the tank-buster Hurricanes of DAF’s No. 6 Squadron did their work again claiming thirty-two hits on enemy vehicles.

When Eighth Army’s 50th Division had to pull back to the south side of the Wadi Zigzaou on 23 March they had suffered very heavy casualties with some brigades down by a third. Montgomery ordered 1st Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealand Division, transferring the main impetus to his left hook.

Having seen that Axis forces were being fully drawn into battle in the east, Montgomery ordered the left flank attack to press forward towards El Hamma. If successful this left hook would reach behind the Mareth Line, and force the Axis General Messe to pull back all his troops to the north. As the first attack on the eastern sector of the Mareth Line struggled to make a breakthrough, the 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions moved to the west to bolster Montgomery’s ‘left-hook’ tactic. The Luftwaffe, hammered by the bombing campaign against its airfields, was unable to attack the miles and miles of dusty columns. It confirmed that the Allies had gained air superiority, which allowed Eighth Army to redeploy its forces without fear of Luftwaffe attacks.

The problem with the ‘left-hook’ strategy was that Axis forces were entrenched in strong positions at El Hamma, in the Tebaga Gap’s confined approach. Eighth Army’s tanks would be vulnerable to the German 88mm guns, which were well dug-in, and lethal against armour. A direct frontal attack by Eighth Army could be a disaster.

The New Zealanders were held up by very strong Axis positions which comprised extensive minefields and dug-in artillery, in a 6,000-yard-wide defile code-named the ‘Plum’. The ‘Plum’ defile ran between Djebel Melaba on the north edge of the Matmata Hills and Djebel Tebaga, and Axis forces had also made use of a Roman wall which crossed the valley.

First Armoured Division began to follow the track now marked by the New Zealanders. It wound its way through the edges of the Matmata Hills for some 200 miles, and it would take two days. Meanwhile the New Zealanders called for DAF air support. At the same time there were concerns that the firepower of 1st Armoured when it arrived would be insufficient, and General Messe could reinforce Axis positions further in the meantime. Montgomery and Broadhurst agreed in principle to DAF mounting a ground attack operation to blast a way through the ‘Plum’, later to be referred to as the El Hamma Line (or ‘Mareth switch-line’). An Army-Air conference on 24 March agreed that, instead of light bombers in formation attacks, fighter-bombers and strafing attacks would be used in front of the ground attack.

The DAF success in attacking Axis armour at Ksar Rhilane must have impressed Eighth Army’s planners. For the first time it was decided that the full DAF attack role would change. Instead of their typical tactics of strikes against supply columns and dumps, airfields and troop concentrations, DAF fighter-bombers would fly sorties in close collaboration with Eighth Army’s ground attack. The plan was for the Kittyhawk fighter-bombers to go in low, bombing and strafing enemy lines, in the direct path of, and ahead of the 2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian and 1st Armoured Divisions. In terrain so favourable for the defenders, it was really the only hope for Montgomery’s plan to succeed.

The reasoning for using the fighter-bombers was based upon a number of factors, including the light bomber crews not knowing the new battle area, and that the effectiveness of pattern bombing against dug-in targets was doubted. It was thought that the fighter-bombers would be better at pinpointing enemy positions, and their use would allow the light bombers to continue with their night-bombing raids in the east. Perhaps the most influential factor was that Broadhurst wanted the fighter-bombers, with their bombs and cannon, to lay on a ‘low flying blitz’.

The modification of fighters so that they could carry bombs, either under their fuselage or wings, in a fighter-bomber role, was a recent development. It was controversial, with conflicting arguments for and against. Flying with 450 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF at this time was Flight Lieutenant Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath from a rural area in New South Wales, Australia. Kierath was one of a number of pilots who had flown a Kittyhawk in a fighter-bomber role, known as a Kittybomber, in the action at Ksar Rhilane. The first trial of a Kittyhawk in such a role had been undertaken in early 1942 by a fellow Australian, Clive Caldwell, a fighter ace with No. 112 Squadron RAF. On 24 March 1943, the lives of the spearhead troops, and the turning of the Mareth Line, depended upon the likes of Rusty Kierath and other flyers in DAF to deliver the cutting edge of the new air – ground support tactic.

Besides tactical considerations on the ground, there were unavoidable strategic reasons for mounting an air blitz. Having been unable to break the Mareth Line near the coast in a frontal attack, to try again there invited further defeat and heavy losses. The only other possible way was through the defile at El Hamma. Yet the Axis had been able to reinforce its defences to make the El Hamma gap just as unattractive. To sustain its supply needs Eighth Army must break through, keep moving forward, and reach the main port of Sfax farther up the coast to open up easier access to shipping cargoes.

The El Hamma strongpoint sat in a funnel of a valley, with German gun positions on the hills either side, and protected by mines and countless dry river beds. DAF was being called upon to destroy the trap.

The proposed plan for an ‘air blitz’ by DAF in support of Eighth Army caused a reaction from AVM Coningham, who was now AOC-in-C of Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF). NATAF comprised the Desert Air Force, XXII Air Support Command and the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF). Coningham was resistant to committing fighters to major ground attack operations. It was against established RAF doctrine, because of the risk of losing large numbers of fighters, and consequently air superiority. Coningham sent his senior air staff to remonstrate with Broadhurst, who was not deterred. Backed by Montgomery, Broadhurst got his way.

Immediately after the Army-Air conference on 24 March, fighter-bombers and the tank-destroyer Hurricanes attacked the enemy’s tanks and transport, which were confronting the New Zealanders. Also more detailed planning for the ‘air blitz’ to break the El Hamma Line of the Axis forces got under way at once. With the stalemate at Mareth, the Axis 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions, already at El Hamma, could be reinforced by 10th and 15th Panzer. The principal elements of the air support plan drawn up for the El Hamma blitz were:

25/26 March: Night raid bombing on Axis HQs and telephone centres to keep the enemy awake and confused.

26 March 1530: Attacks on tank concentrations first by Hurricanes of the tank-buster No. 6 Squadron, followed by two squadrons of fighter-bombers.

26 March 1600: A creeping artillery barrage behind which 8 Armoured Brigade and New Zealand infantry would begin to advance.

The creeping barrage would create an advancing bomb-line. From sixteen fighter-bomber squadrons available for the operation, two squadrons at a time would bomb and strafe the enemy positions in front of the bomb-line for more than two hours continuously.

On the ground a large letter E marked the infantry’s start line, with red and blue smoke next to it. As the troops moved forward they would indicate their positions with yellow smoke. Although this would be of use to enemy artillery in the valley’s hillsides, there was a real concern to avoid the blitz hitting Allied troops. The New Zealanders provided locations of Axis gun positions, which Allied artillery would target regularly with smoke shells to further help strafing and dive-bombing by DAF fighters.

The ‘air blitz’ plan called for continuous strikes by Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, commencing thirty minutes before the Army ground attack, to be maintained in two-squadron formations at a time for two hours. Could this revolutionary new tactic work? To break the Mareth Line the ‘left hook’ attack of Eighth Army must succeed. If the new DAF tactics did not achieve the planned effect, the ground attack would almost certainly be repelled. If it failed, it would take a more drawn-out offensive to drive the Axis forces back from the Mareth Line. General Eisenhower’s commitment to London and Washington to defeat Axis forces in Tunisia by May 1943 and subsequent plans for the invasion of Sicily would be in tatters.

To assist the DAF bombing runs, smoke and army vehicles were deployed on the ground approaches: red and blue smoke for the start point, trucks drawn up in the form of code letters for DAF pilots, yellow smoke for Eighth Army positions, and white smoke shells bursting onto enemy positions. The first ever experiment of Army/Air wireless communication was instigated, using selected flight lieutenants with radios sitting in armoured cars in the front lines.

On the morning of 26 March dust storms allowed the New Zealand troops and 1st Armoured Division, to concentrate for the attack with good cover against enemy observers. At 1530, in a late change, an unscheduled wave of light bombers of 3 Wing SAAF pattern-bombed enemy positions. When the dust and smoke from this raid cleared the anti-tank Hurricanes of 6 Squadron went in against 21st Panzer. Despite intense flak no aircraft were lost.

At 1600, as planned, the creeping barrage began, with smoke shells targeted as indicators on Axis gun positions. Then the waves of Kittybombers began their attacks, about 400 aircraft continuously over more than two hours. Squadrons would first drop their bombs on enemy positions, then dive down again to strafe with cannon and machine guns. By the end of the onslaught 21st Panzer and 164th Infantry Divisions had suffered significant losses of artillery guns and ‘soft skinned’ vehicles, as against thirteen Kittybombers lost.

Over 24 to 26 March, day and night, DAF light bomber strikes had pounded Axis positions again and again south of El Hamma. On the afternoon of 26 March, despite serviceability constraints brought on by those two days of low-flying, DAF threw in 412 sorties in pattern-bombing against enemy telephone communications. Before the German troops could begin to re-organize, DAF fighter-bombers struck again, bombing and strafing at low level. The DAF bombing campaign, culminating in the fighter-bomber attack, fully achieved its aim of keeping the enemy’s heads down before the ground attack.

At the end of the air blitz 8 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand infantry drove through the enemy minefields and defensive positions. First Armoured Division carried out a considerable advance in the hours of darkness, to ensure that the valley’s natural features could not be used to mount an ambush on the tanks. Over the next two days Axis forces fought rearguard actions, until they could retreat north with 15th Panzer from Mareth. As well as destroying large numbers of guns, tanks and other transport and imposing a toll of dead and wounded, by 28 March the Allies had taken 700 prisoners. The combined DAF and artillery blitz had turned the Mareth Line, and the Axis troops could hold no longer.

DAF lost seventeen Kittybombers in the operation, out of some 400. To achieve the major success of breaking the Mareth Line at El Hamma it was an acceptable loss. Those who were involved had no doubts about the worth of this innovative use of air support. Yet Broadhurst’s decision to use fighter-bombers was still criticized in higher circles. Perhaps most important was the demonstration it gave of how fighter-bombers in close army-air support, where circumstances were favourable for their use, could change the tide of battle on the ground.

By late-March and early-April 1943 the rains began to lessen. Planning and preparations were underway again for the spring offensive to take Tunis. With temperatures on some days around a maximum of 25–28°C, it allowed the bringing forward of more troops and supplies.

At the same time as the First Army infantry fought in the Oued Zarga mountains in the north, in the south on 7 April the first forward detachments of General Montgomery’s Eighth Army made contact with leading patrols of II US Corps. The Allied pincer movement was beginning to close in on the Axis forces. Speed was now critical on all fronts to exploit the encirclement, and prevent the enemy from controlling his retreat and withdrawing his forces to Italy.

#

The struggle for air supremacy in early-April continued unabated. DAF squadrons began to come within range of RAF airfields in Tunisia, and all Allied air forces were put under the unified command of AVM Coningham. Every avenue was being explored to strengthen air superiority and Wing Commander Dundas of 324 Wing was presented with orders to undertake a bizarre mission. At the Bou Saada oasis in the desert, some 250 miles south of Algiers, a Vichy French air force unit remained isolated. They had been resisting all entreaties to collaborate with the Allies. Besides the opportunity to add another wing-size group to Allied air power, there was a demand to eliminate any threat they might pose. As the Allies ratcheted up the pressure on the Axis, and closed on Tunis, the last thing they needed was a rogue strike on their rear areas by some disgruntled Vichy French flyers.

Dundas’ orders were to fly down to Bou Saada and talk the French CO into joining the Allies. He was to offer them the temptation of being re-equipped with Spitfire fighters. For a long flight over desert and the Atlas Mountains, and to guard against one of them having to make a forced landing for engine trouble or some other unforeseeable event, he took with him a Canadian, Jimmie Grey, commander of No. 243 Squadron RAF. In their two Spitfires they finally located the landing strip, close to an oasis settlement. The green palms and white of the houses and Foreign Legion fort sparkled in the sunset against the surrounding desert. As they descended Dundas saw a figure emerge from a tent and peer skywards:

I told Jimmie to go on circling while I landed and taxied in. I would call him if I wanted him to follow. With great caution – and a little trepidation – I landed and taxied over to the tent. The man I had seen ran towards me, waving and smiling. I called Jimmie and told him to come down. Our one man reception committee was a young lieutenant in the French Air Force. He was evidently astonished to see us, but he was courteous and friendly.

So as to portray his authority to negotiate Dundas introduced himself to the young French lieutenant as a lieutenant colonel, accompanied by Commander Grey. The young French officer was astounded that they had attained such senior ranks at their youthful age and was very envious. He then drove Dundas and Grey to his HQ where they met the French commander, a major well into middle age. Without enquiring the reason for their visit, he invited Dundas and Grey to dine with him and other senior French officers. During the dinner the focal point of the conversation was the Spitfire fighter, and their desire to get into the action.

Maybe it was the wine working on me, but I decided that they were the sort of people we wanted with us, and I told their CO that I was authorized to offer them the opportunity to come and fight alongside us in the final liberation of Tunisia from the ‘sale Boche’. This information aroused great enthusiasm – maybe the wine was working on them too …

Next day Dundas and Grey made an uneventful return flight to their home base but without gaining any clear indication from the French commander of his intentions. Further communications took place at a senior level between the Free French authorities and the Allies and, in due course, the French airmen from Bou Saada joined the Allied cause. They duly got their Spitfires and were flying operations in the final battle for Tunis.

Despite the growing evidence that Allied air power was winning the air war, for the troops on the ground, to most of whom the air force was an unseen hand, it was not at all clear where and when a final victory in Tunisia would come. The problem remained: how and where could the Allies break through to close the trap? In the far north, on the coastal approaches to Bizerte, the Americans were held up at mountain strongpoints such as Green Hill and Bald Hill. In the south the armoured strength of Eighth Army after the breakthrough at El Hamma had become neutralized by Axis defences in the hills around Enfidaville to the south of Tunis.

In the central north, in the Medjerda river valley, there seemed to have been little change since December. North of Medjez el Bab the Germans were immoveable. On ridges such as Djebel Bou Aoukaz and Longstop Hill, they stubbornly endured every attack by the Allies’ First Army. With the terrain favouring the enemy’s defences, the fear was that for some months yet the Axis could grind out a lengthy war of attrition before they succumbed.

Interdiction, an air blitz and a ‘No Fly Zone’ to take Tunis

High above the island of Malta, Australian Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae of 104 Squadron RAF wrestled with the controls of a twin-engined Wellington bomber. He was taking off to raid Sicily’s capital and major port of Palermo. In gusty winds and low cloud, groaning and creaking in its slow climb, the bomber dropped then surged upwards. Bill recalled that:

Shortly after take-off we ran into turbulent cloud. Our course was over the sea on the east of Sicily, then a turn west through the straits of Messina and along the northern Sicilian coast to Palermo.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bill McRae was working for the Bank of New South Wales in the UK. As there were no Australian forces in Britain, he first joined the Royal Artillery before transferring to the RAF to train as a pilot. On completion of his training he had flown the new Wellington Mk VIII torpedo-bomber to Cairo, and later he was posted to Malta. On that night bombing raid to Palermo, despite the increasingly poor weather, Bill was aware of the pressure to get the job done.

As we approached the north coast of Sicily, the cloud cleared and we were able to identify some islands, and work out the bombing run. We circled off the coast at 10,000 feet until ‘blitz’ time, then hugged the shoreline towards the target, Palermo Harbour.

I began to lose height down to 8,000 feet, and increased speed to 160 knots. With the nose down I had a good view, and saw a ship moored at the wharves. At first there was not a lot of flak. We had no trouble in identifying the target and let the bombs go in one stick.

Then I opened the throttles, and with the engines screaming at maximum revs, did a steep climbing turn, trying to get through the flak bursts, which were now targeting the aircraft. When we were back to 8,000 feet, I eased back on the throttles, and pushed the nose down to level off.

Both engines suddenly cut out. In that instant, it seemed that time stood still. It flashed through my mind that we had been hit. Then, after a couple of seconds, the engines picked up.

As usual, when getting clear of a target, Bill found his mouth had gone completely dry. In another operation for McRae and his crew, to cut off German supplies, the target was the port of Sfax in Tunisia.

We took off in daylight, at 1700 hours, and I was delighted to be at the controls of a Wellington, which I was very familiar with from our Egypt based operations. We flew south low over the sea and then turned 90 degrees right towards our target. It was dark as we neared Sfax, and we were able to pin point our position on some islands to the east of the town. We had climbed to 6,500 feet and Ian had obtained the wind for the bombing run. The weather was clear and the buildings in the port were easy to identify.

As we began our run in exactly on the ‘blitz’ time, another aircraft dropped a string of flares. Ian did a couple of bombing runs, and with no guns firing at us, he thought he was back home on a training exercise. Turning over the sea for another run, with the light from the flares we spotted a ship a few miles off shore. We circled round to line up on it but the flares went out. We had our own flares, but Ernie found there were problems with their ripcords not working, which should pull off a cap, and arm the flare. I even took the laces out of my desert boots, and sent them back to Ernie to see if that would help. He launched three more, but none of them lit up.

That ship had a lucky escape. We returned to Sfax and got rid of the remaining bombs. On the way home the aircraft ran like a bird. It seems she must have known it was her last trip, as she went missing the next night along with its pilot, my good friend Flight Sergeant Iremonger, and crew.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa