Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

The 1983 invasion of Grenada was hailed as an American comeback. But it was nearly a military debacle.

In October 1983, U.S. forces invaded the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada for what was described as the rescue of American citizens.

After three days of combat, American troops secured the island. President Ronald Reagan said of Operation Urgent Fury: “Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.”

In fact, Urgent Fury was a confused, poorly planned, and poorly executed military operation. Prepared in haste, it was crippled by poor joint coordination, equipment failures, and unexpected hard resistance from Grenadian soldiers and their Cuban allies. It was only the quick thinking of the troops on the ground that prevented Urgent Fury from becoming one of America’s greatest military debacles.

Grenada, a one-time British colony, was largely unknown to Americans. On October 13, 1983, the pro-communist Bernard Coar and his Provisional Revolutionary Army (PRA) overthrew the island’s government. Coar jailed the island’s governor-general, Sir Paul Scoon.

On October 22, with the encouragement of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Reagan ordered execution of Operation Urgent Fury to rescue nearly 600 American medical students living on the island.

Joint Operation

Urgent Fury came under the auspices of Admiral Wesley L. McDonald’s Atlantic Command. Because it was a joint operation, missions were largely chosen to make sure each service got a target, even if they were militarily insignificant.

The 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit was charged with assaulting Pearls Airport and the town of Grenville on the island’s east coast.

To the south, two reduced-strength Ranger battalions would take the Point Salines airport. Following the Rangers in at Salines would be elements of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Navy SEALs were tasked with infiltrating the Point Salines Airport, clear it of obstructions, and help an Air Force combat air control team set up beacons to guide the transports bearing the Rangers to the airport. The SEALs were also tasked with rescuing General Governor Scoon.

The Army’s Delta Force was given the questionable mission of capturing Richmond Hill Prison, where the PRA held political prisoners.

D-Day was October 25. H-Hour 0200.

Things went wrong immediately.

SEAL Team Drowns

One of the SEAL teams drowned after parachuting into the sea off Point Salines. Another, with the Air Force team, was swept out to sea after its assault boat swamped and the motor died. They were eventually rescued by a Navy ship.

A second attempt to infiltrate the airport pushed H-Hour back to 0500. That attempt also failed.

As the Rangers approached the airport, they learned of the failure of the SEAL teams. Rather than land, the Rangers would now parachute into the airport.

Failure of navigation equipment on one of the transport planes caused the Rangers further delay, losing them the cover of darkness. It also caused the air drop to take an hour and a half to complete, when it should have taken only minutes.

The Rangers secured the airport and pushed eastward toward True Blue campus, encountering stiff PRA resistance as they advanced. At first, the Rangers couldn’t talk to their supporting Marine Cobra helicopter gunships. Then coordinating targets was hampered because the Rangers and Marines used different maps. At one point, a forward air controller used a mirror to target a house concealing a recoilless rifle.

Meanwhile, a Navy SEAL team became trapped by PRA troops after rescuing Governor-General Scoon. Then-Major General H. Norman Schwarzkopf hastily organized their rescue by helicopter. The operation earned Schwarzkopf an instant appointment as deputy commander of Urgent Fury.

The Rangers secured True Blue campus at about 0800, then learned most of the American students lived at another campus, called Grand Anse, two miles to the north in an area controlled by Cuban and PRA troops

Schwarzkopf organized a hasty assault on Gran Anse. Marine helicopters picked up the Rangers at Point Salines and landed them at Gran Anse behind the enemy’s lines. The raid succeeded in rescuing 224 students without any civilian casualties and only one wounded Ranger.

Disaster at Calivigny

The Ranger’s next objective was Camp Calivigny. The PRA barracks had no strategic value, but was consider an imperative target by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Like so much that came from Washington during Urgent Fury, the orders lead to near disaster.

The first helicopter assault wave, lacking adequate intelligence, overshot the LZ. One suffered damage on landing, and careened into a second. A third crashed into a ditch. Three Rangers were killed and four wounded. The surviving Rangers found the camp deserted.

Poor intelligence led to a similar disaster during the assault on Richmond Hill Prison. Helicopters carrying Delta Force and Rangers were hit with devastating anti-aircraft fire, and turned back.

After three days of fighting and several more of mopping up, official casualties for U.S. troops included 19 dead and 152 wounded. Twenty-four Cubans died in the fighting, and 59 wounded. PRA casualty figures are not known.

Afterward, the planning and execution of Urgent Fury came under attack. Among the critics was Schwarzkopf, who credited the troops with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Even though higher HQ screws it up every way you can possibly screw it up,” the general said, “it is the initiative and valor on the part of small unit leadership that will win for you every time.”

Schwarzkopf learned the lessons of Urgent Fury, and took them with him to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. The price of victory against Saddam Hussein was paid first by the men of Urgent Fury.




Operations Plan No 19

Map showing schematic of proposed German Fleet raid of October 1918 and possible British response.

In early 1918, the future seemed brighter than at any other time during the war. After Russia collapsed in 1917, Germany dictated a peace with Russia in March 1918 and with Romania two months later. These agreements gave Germany direct or indirect control of huge territories on its eastern border and in the Balkans. Thus, the dreams of many annexationists seemed to be coming true. After this victory in the east, the Imperial High Command was also confident that it could risk playing its last card in the west by launching a new offensive, `Operation Michael’, in March 1918. With this offensive, the High Command hoped to gain victory before US troops arrived on the continent and turned the numerical scale in favor of the Allies. Despite great initial success, the offensive finally ended in military disaster and defeat, culminating in the famous `black’ 8 August 1918. Slowly, the German armies, which were exhausted after four years of fighting and whose strength was dwindling at an alarming rate, had to retreat on the Western Front. The Allies proved overwhelming in terms of numbers and, more important, materiel. At last, on 29 September, the Imperial High Command, which had slowly begun to realize that the war was lost and that the army, whose soldiers had already begun a `hidden military strike’, was broken, had no choice but to admit defeat and ask the government to negotiate an armistice.

While a newly appointed coalition government, which even included leading Social Democrats, tried to pave the way for peace, the Supreme Navy Command, which had been established only in August, drew different conclusions from these events. Forced to give up unrestricted submarine warfare in mid-October, its chief, Admiral Scheer, regarded these developments as an almost golden opportunity for a final sortie against the Grand Fleet. Against the background of its nearly complete lack of success during the war, the Supreme Navy Command believed that only a gallant fight could justify the build-up of a powerful new navy after the war. As early as September 1914, Tirpitz had written to his wife: `With regard to the great distress after the end of the war, the navy will be lost in my eyes, if it cannot prove some success at least.’ The fact that the High Seas Fleet was unable to break the British blockade of the North Sea further diminished its reputation among the populace, as well as within the political and military establishment. This nightmare of complete failure had haunted the navy’s leadership throughout the war. Despite great efforts it had been unable to turn the tide.

In October 1918, however, danger was in many ways imminent. Both the end of the war, in which the navy had not proven its right of existence yet, as well as a far-reaching reform of the old system, which had been the basis of the navy’s position within the military establishment and within German society, were now in sight. For the navy, defeat would be even more humiliating. In early October, General Ludendorff, Quartermaster-General of the Imperial High Command, had pointed out to a representative of the Supreme Navy Command that the navy would probably be extradited to Britain and that `it would mainly have to pay the bill’ for defeat.

The Supreme Navy Command was by no means willing to accept this fate. Scheer tried to continue unrestricted submarine warfare for as long as possible, but the Emperor finally ordered its suspension on 21 October. More important, as soon as the opportunity arose, Scheer was determined to fight a final battle against the fleet it had challenged for almost two decades-in vain as it seemed so far.

On 30 September 1918, Scheer had already ordered the High Seas Fleet to assemble on Schillig Roads. This was indeed remarkable, for during the war this meant that a sortie was imminent. Several days later, Trotha, the chief of staff of the High Seas Fleet, put forward a memorandum-significantly called `deliberations in a critical hour’. In this memorandum, Trotha suggested that, `From an honorable fleet-action, even though it was a death-struggle in this war, would arise-unless the German people failed-a new future navy.’ Another high-ranking officer and former chief of staff, Captain Michaelis, also proposed a death sortie, though for different reasons. Since defeat was inevitable, he thought that a success at sea might be a means to achieve a change of mood at home and thus help reach a peace that, while bad, still seemed preferable to a total catastrophe.

Scheer immediately accepted the idea of a final sortie by the High Seas Fleet, for this was the only alternative to a humiliating defeat at the hands of its greatest enemy. Moreover, having grown up, like Trotha, in the Tirpitz tradition, Scheer likely shared the latter’s view that only a navy that had gone down fighting bravely could hope to rise again. To disguise its plans, the Supreme Navy Command informed neither the Chancellor nor the Supreme War Lord, the Emperor. Moreover, the final order for Operations Plan No. 19 was passed orally to the newly appointed C-in-C of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral von Hipper, in order to maintain secrecy and avoid interference either from politicians or the Emperor himself, as had happened so often before.

Some historians have argued in recent years that this motive played only a minor role in launching an attack, which made sense neither militarily nor politically. Instead, they assume that the Supreme Navy Command tried to initiate a coup d’état against the Imperial government, which was to be transformed into an institution responsible to parliament in the future. However, there is no proof that this motive was important when the Supreme Navy Command decided upon its last sortie.

The U-boat campaign had failed, even though, in terms of personal courage, the officers and men in the submarine service achieved incredible results. Between 1914 and 1918, 104 U-boats destroyed 2,888 ships of 6,858,380 tons; 96 UB boats 1,456 ships of 2,289,704 tons; and 73 UC boats 2,042 ships of 2,789,910 tons. In addition, the undersea raiders sent to the bottom 10 battleships, 7 armoured cruisers, 2 large and 4 light cruisers, and 21 destroyers. But the cost ran high: 178 boats were lost to the enemy, and with them 4,744 officers and men.

German naval leaders, who as late as August 19 I 8 had been planning amphibious operations against Kronstadt and Petrograd (Operation Schlussstein), proved surprisingly willing to cease the unrestricted submarine warfare. “The Navy”, Scheer’s planners lustily announced, “does not need an armistice.” In fact, a new bold design had entered their heads: the fleet could be hurled against the combined British and American surface units stationed at Rosyth. Admiral v. Hipper concluded that “an honourable fleet engagement, even if it should become a death struggle”, was preferable to an inglorious and inactive end to the High Sea Fleet. Rear-Admiral von Trotha was equally adamant on this matter, arguing that a fleet encounter was needed “in order to go down with honour”. And Admiral Scheer was not the man to stand in the way of such an adventurous undertaking. “It is impossible that the fleet … remains idle. It must be deployed.” Scheer concluded that the “honour and existence of the Navy” demanded use of the fleet, even if “the course of events cannot thereby be significantly altered”.

Hence, for reasons of honour and future naval building (Zukuntsfiotte), it was decided to launch the entire High Sea Fleet against the enemy in a suicide sortie. It is revealing that on 22 October 1918, Levetzow verbally passed on word of the projected sortie to Hipper. The new head of the Army, General Groener, was not brought into these discussions. Nor were the Kaiser or the chancellor informed of the planned operation; despite this, Germany’s admirals at one point considered taking Wilhelm on board for the final naval assault. Scheer, however, simply did not think it “opportune” to inform political leaders of his designs.

On 24 October 1918, the Supreme Navy Command formally adopted Operations Plan No 19 (O-Befehl Nr 19). It called for one destroyer group to be sent to the Flanders coast and another to the mouth of the Thames, while the High Sea Fleet took battle station in the Hoofden, the North Sea between the Netherlands and Great Britain. Twenty-five U-boats were in position to intercept the British and American surface units in the North Sea. The Grand Fleet, the Germans argued, would rush out of its Scottish anchorages in order to attack the two destroyer “baits”, which thereupon would draw the British and American fleets to Terschelling, a Dutch island in the North Sea, where the naval Armageddon would take place.

Execution of Operations Plan No 19 was set for 30 October 1918. With it German naval strategy in desperation returned not only to Tirpitz’s dream of the Entscheidungsschlacht in the southcentral North Sea, “between the Thames and Helgoland”, but also to the conviction of Baudissin, Fischel and Wegener, among others, concerning the need for an offensive in the North Sea in order to force the approaches to the Atlantic Ocean.

Operations Plan No 19, seen in retrospect, was anything but foolproof. In the first place, it is highly doubtful whether the Grand Fleet would have reacted to the advance of the two destroyer flotillas and the submarines in the prescribed manner; British naval leaders had ignored similar German sorties before. Secondly, the expectations which German admirals placed on the U-boats were not sound. By the end of October, only twenty-four submarines were in position and six were heading for their stations. While in the process of heading out to battle stations, seven U-boats were rendered hors de combat owing to mechanical breakdowns, and two were destroyed by the enemy. The weather was also against the submersibles: “Rain and hail showers, hazy, high seas and swell; dismal, stormy November ~weather. No visibility, no possible forward advance, no worthwhile targets for attack could be recognized in the haze.” Finally, the Germans failed to appreciate that apart from Great Britain there was another major sea power involved in the war. In fact, German naval leaders throughout 1917-18 persisted in their claims that United States naval forces as a whole were not worthy of their consideration, and hence paid no attention to the five United States battleships attached to the Grand Fleet, to the three others stationed in Ireland, or to the entire capital-ship strength of thirty-nine units.

Of far greater ultimate effect was the deteriorating internal structure of the Imperial Navy. The naval reorganization of 1I August 1918, which had brought the triumvirate of Scheer, Trotha and Levetzow to the fore, had also caused apprehension concerning planned changes and discharges. Even Admiral v. Hipper noted: “I dread the next few days.” Trotha spoke to Levetzow of “insecurity” and “uneasiness” among commanders and begged for the return of “at least a few leading figures” to the fleet. “We cannot discharge our duties … with only mediocre and bad materiel.” On numerous surface vessels, both captain and first officer had recently been replaced. Nevertheless, when Levetzow asked Trotha on 16 October if he believed that naval personnel could be relied upon for a major sea battle, Trotha “answered without reservation in the affirmative”. This miscalculation was to prove decisive within a fortnight.

The High Sea Fleet, according to Operations Plan No I 9, was to assemble in Schillig Roads on the afternoon of 29 October. Two days before, the crews had already appeared anxious and excited. News had leaked out, especially from Hipper’s eager staff, that a major battle with the British was in the offing. Men in both Kiel and Wilhelmshaven nervously spread the word of a “suicide sortie” planned by the executive officers to save their “honour” at the eleventh hour – a notion not without ample basis.

By the 29th, ratings from the battle-cruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann failed to return to their posts from shore leave. Sailors assembled to demand peace and to cheer Woodrow Wilson. Insubordination quickly spread to the Third Squadron battleships Kaiserin, Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm, and Markgraf as well as to Thuringen and Helgoland in the First Squadron. The Baden’s crew also seemed on the verge of revolt, and the battle-cruisers Moltke and Seydlitz were rendered inoperative because of rebellious sailors, as were the light cruisers Pillau, Regensburg and Strassburg. Only the men on the torpedo-boats and the U-boats remained calm and loyal to their officers.

The disturbances in the fleet on 29 October caught naval leaders off-guard and unprepared. Hipper initially cancelled sailing orders late in the evening of the 29th, but reactivated them later as he was unaware of the extent of the rebellion. Trotha at first agreed that the revolt was only temporary and that discipline could be restored shortly. But when disorder spread on 30 October to Friedrich der Grosse and Konig Albert, the game was up. Hipper now realized that Operations Plan No 19 had been stillborn. “What terrible days lie behind me. I had really not thought that I would return [from battle], and under what circumstances do I return now. Our men have rebelled.”

One of Hipper’s last acts as Chief of the High Sea Fleet was to disperse the rebellious ships, sending the First Squadron to the Elbe, the Third to Kiel, where it surprised an utterly unprepared Admiral Souchon, and the Fourth to Wilhelmshaven. He could hardly have made a more grievous miscalculation. In the various ports along both Baltic and North Sea shores, the sailors incited local uprisings and there found mostly hospitable receptions. Sea battalion soldiers refused to fire on them. Executive officers did not oppose them. A mere four Seeoffiziere were wounded in their efforts on behalf of the Kaiser.

Admiral von Trotha quickly informed Scheer, on 2 November, that the rebellion was a “Bolshevist movement”, but one that was directed against the government rather than against the officer corps. One day later, Trotha met with Levetzow to co-ordinate their stories concerning Operations Plan No 19. It was placed entirely in a defensive light, with stress placed primarily upon the submarines in the North Sea; the anticipated British advance from the north was sold as an attack on the German fatherland. Trotha even visited the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwarts to make quite certain that this official line was properly played up. Not yet knowing of the official line, the State Secretary of the Navy Office, Vice-Admiral von Mann, told the rebellious sailors of the Third Squadron that the sortie against the British had been designed to bring the U-boats home safely.

Admiral Scheer was not quite as inventive. He placed the entire blame for the failure of the operation upon the Social Democrats, and specifically upon the government’s inability in the autumn of 1917 to suppress the USPD. Scheer wrote after the war: “It still appears almost incomprehensible to me: this reversal from certain victory to complete collapse, and [it is] especially degrading that the revolution was planned without haste, and in thorough detail, right under our eyes.” At least the Navy’s liaison officer at Army headquarters, Lieutenant-Commander von Weizsacker, grasped the meaning of the events in the fleet: “We do not even know the state of mind within the naval hierarchy; this has been demonstrated during the planned assault.”

The aftershock of the mutiny continued a long time. Even many months after the revolution and as far away as Scapa Flow, many sailors still hated their officers. For example, on board the battleship Friedrich der Große, the former fleet flagship, men roller-skated on top of officers’ cabins day and night in order to break their nerves. Against this background, it is hardly astonishing that the great majority of the old officers corps regarded the mutiny and the revolution as a stain on the navy’s shield.

In the eyes of the officer corps, the mutineers and their-alleged – political leaders were nothing but `November criminals’, who had stabbed a proud and almost-victorious army and navy in the back. As soon as possible, they were to take revenge for this infamous crime. As early as October 1918, a high-ranking naval officer had written to the chief of staff of the Supreme Navy Command: `Unfortunately, we have been unable to keep the shield shining, which we took over from our ancestors stainless; our sons will have to wash off this stain. They shall work and hate.’ Subsequently, in 1919-20 naval officers conspired against the democratic Weimar Republic. They only failed because the trade unions proclaimed a general strike. Nevertheless, in this respect, the brutality of Scheer’s former chief of staff, Admiral von Levetzow, when fighting demonstrating workers in Kiel in 1920, was only an example of worse developments to come.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a future revenge also included acting against its former wartime enemies. In 1936, when Admiral Beatty, the C-in-C of Britain’s Grand Fleet in the final years of the war, died, Grand-Admiral Raeder refused to comply with the latter’s last wish that the C-in-C of the German Navy take part in his funeral. Thus, Raeder finally made clear that he still had not forgiven Beatty for the order he had signaled to the vessels of the Grand Fleet when the High Seas Fleet was approaching the Firth of Forth in November 1918, `that the enemy was a despicable beast’.

Not surprisingly, when Hitler came to power in 1933, the navy firmly supported his regime. Although he reckoned with a much longer period of peace in order to build up a powerful navy, Raeder left no doubt that the navy fully endorsed Hitler’s plan of establishing German hegemony on the continent and of challenging Britain. More important, still suffering from the traumatic events of November 1918, the navy tried to be more loyal than either the army or the air force. In his memoirs, Raeder admitted that `every officer had sworn a silent oath that there would be no November 1918 in the Navy again’. This refusal to acknowledge either their own shortcomings or the structural problems of Wilhelmine society blinded naval officers to the prerequisites of a modern democratic society. In 1945, the wheel finally came full circle: there could be no doubt that the navy’s leadership also bore responsibility for this second catastrophe in German history in the twentieth century.

The Soviet Counteroffensive in the South 1942

Hitler recognized the threat to the German forces on the long Don front. In fact, he showed more awareness of the problem than either OKH Chief-of-Staff’s Franz Halder or Kurt Zeitzler had. Since mid-August, he had spoken several times of the threat of a major attack across the Don on Rostov, through which ran the lines of communication not only for the Sixth and Fourth Panzer Armies but also Army Group A. Given his fixation on taking Stalingrad, however, he would not allow, much less order, a preemptive retirement from the Don-Volga salient that would allow redistributing the German forces to provide a firm defensive front.

The Germans anticipated a much smaller, less well conducted, less ambitious, and later offensive than the one they confronted. By mid-October, the movement of Soviet troops to the Don front opposite the Third Romanian Army had been reported, but thanks to Soviet security precautions, air reconnaissance could not confirm the account. Hitler nevertheless ordered some Luftwaffe field divisions to back up the Axis allies, a characteristically disastrous idea of Göring’s, designed to avoid transferring men from his overstrength service to the army. Army Group B—saddled with the impossible burden of controlling seven armies, four of which were not German—tried to increase the strength of the German “bolsters” and backed up the Romanians in other ways. It also attempted radio deception measures to try and convince the Soviets that the Don front was stronger than it really was.

Foreign Armies East (German military intelligence) gradually came to admit that an attack was imminent but believed that it would be a limited, local effort. It estimated that the Soviets were capable of launching only one major offensive aimed at Army Group Center. For many years after the war, the Soviets successfully hid that their primary aim in 1942 had not been to trap the Germans at Stalingrad but to destroy the German Ninth Army in the Rzhev salient and, if possible, drive as far west as Smolensk. Foreign Armies East, however, not only underestimated the Soviets’ overall strength and assumed that any attack on the Don front would only be secondary but also thought that it would take place only after the expected offensive against Army Group Center.

Hitler was not so sure. On November 2, he ordered that the bridges the Soviets were building to their long-standing bridgeheads on the Don’s right bank be bombed. On November 3 he ordered the Sixth Panzer Division and two infantry divisions sent from western Europe to take up reserve positions behind the Romanians and Italians. They were still en route when the Soviets struck. Hitler did not expect the Soviets to attack as early as they did. Foreign Armies East slowly and reluctantly increased its estimate of the threat. On November 12, it predicted an attack on the Third Romanian Army but believed that it would be merely a “salient cut” designed to sever the railroad to Stalingrad and force the Germans to leave the city and not be part of a double envelopment to trap them.

The Soviet buildup had been far more massive than the Germans supposed. A huge force was assembled under the Southwest, Don, and Stalingrad Fronts: 1,050,000 men, 900 tanks, 13,500 guns (not counting antiaircraft guns or 50mm infantry mortars), and 1,114 planes. They outnumbered the German and Romanian forces at least two to one in planes, tanks, guns, and men and far more in the attack sectors. On November 19, the Soviets struck, coordinating tanks, infantry, and artillery far more smoothly than the Germans had seen before. Along most of the front, the Soviets hit the thinly spread, poorly armed Romanian Third and Fourth Armies, which had weak artillery and few effective antitank weapons. The Third Army was supported only by a German close-support group that comprised a Panzergrenadier battalion, an antitank company, and a few heavy artillery pieces. Many Romanians fled after the preliminary bombardment, even before the Soviet tanks and infantry advanced. The only reserve nearby, XLVIII Panzer Corps, consisted of two weak divisions—the Twenty-second Panzer Division and the First Romanian Armored Division (the latter had only obsolete Czech tanks.) Worse, many of their tanks were immobilized after mice had eaten their electrical insulation.

On November 23, the Soviet spearheads met in the Axis rear, cutting the Sixth Army’s supply line and line of retreat. On the one hand, the Soviets vastly underestimated their success. They thought that they had trapped a force of 85,000-95,000 men; instead, more than 250,000 men were caught. On the other hand, the Soviets overestimated the mobility and striking power of the encircled German units.

Hitler realized the situation was serious. On November 20, he ordered the immediate formation of Army Group Don to take over the threatened portion of Army Group B’s front. Instead of awarding command to Antonescu, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein took command, and his Eleventh Army headquarters, pieced out with some German-Romanian liaison staffs, supplied his headquarters staff. Manstein was Hitler’s best general but not his favorite. He was an icy Junker, whose personality and social class did not appeal to the führer; and—worse—Hitler was almost certainly aware that the field marshal’s great-grandfather was Jewish. He was respected but not liked by men of his own background. Nevertheless, Manstein, who had played the central role in devising the plan that had brought victory in the west in 1940, also played a central role in greatly prolonging the life of Hitler’s empire.

But it took nearly a week for Manstein’s command apparatus to move from the Leningrad area (where it had been stymied in an attempt to take the city) to the south. The following day, Hitler finally appointed a commander for Army Group A, Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist, who had commanded First Panzer Army. He and Manstein would be fired on the same day in March 1944. Meanwhile, Hitler rejected having the Sixth Army retreat, regardless of the danger of a “temporary” encirclement in its present position. Field Marshal Maximilian von Weichs and Sixth Army CO Gen. Friedrich Paulus concluded on November 23 that the Sixth Army must break out quickly. Luftwaffe South CO Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen concurred. He stressed that the army could not be supplied by air. Weichs specifically declared that the Luftwaffe could not provide even a tenth of the Sixth Army’s needs. Zeitzler backed their assertions. Some evidence indicates that Hitler briefly wavered and nearly authorized a breakout, but the pandering of the OKW generals Keitel and Jodl undermined any reconsideration on his part. Further, the Luftwaffe chief of staff Gen. Hans Jeschonnek appears to have assured Hitler on November 20 that Stalingrad could be adequately supplied by air if and when it was cut off, although he may have meant to refer to only a temporarily brief encirclement. Worse, Göring backed Jeschonnek without any qualifications whatever. When the conscience-stricken Luftwaffe chief of staff realized that he had blundered in his assurances, Göring forbade him to warn Hitler. He even stopped Jeschonnek from pointing out that the Luftwaffe’s standard 250- and 1,000-kilogram air supply containers were named after the size of the bombs they replaced, not the weight of their own contents, and that they carried only two-thirds of the weight of those bombs.

Manstein also undermined the united front of the ground commanders. Reaching south Russia on November 24, he disagreed with Weichs’s pessimism. Apparently arrogantly confident in his own ability, he may have actually believed that he could relieve the Sixth Army while it remained in place and could restore the front completely; however, he soon became more realistic, especially after conferring with Richthofen. Man-stein rejected an immediate breakout, though, in favor of a relief operation to start in early December. His decision played straight into Hitler’s hands, and the latter fixedly determined that the Sixth Army should stay in place for relief.

Writer Alan Clark suggested an alternative interpretation: the field marshal had privately concluded that Hitler would not allow an immediate breakout in any case, but in the context of a planned relief effort, a breakout might be arranged later. Moreover, Manstein may have actually recognized, as his colleagues did not, that an early breakout attempt would probably lead to disaster. It was not simply the Sixth Army but the whole German southern front—particularly Army Group A, out on a limb in the Caucasus—that was at stake. Further, the Soviet ring around the Sixth Army was so tight, and Sixth Army was in such bad shape, that an immediate breakout attempt would probably lead to its being largely destroyed. Even if part of the panzer and motorized elements reached the German lines, that would not compensate for releasing the besieging Soviet forces, which would quickly finish off the German southern wing. The Sixth Army must stay at Stalingrad to pin down the Soviets, even at the grave risk of total destruction. Its only hope was to hold out as long as possible so that an orderly relief effort and breakout might be prepared. If Manstein thought this way at the time, however, he never directly admitted it, although he alluded to these ideas in his memoir. Such an admission would have been unpopular in postwar Germany, where Stalingrad had become an emotional symbol and many were anxious to heap all responsibility for the destruction of the Sixth Army on Hitler alone.

The chance of a successful early breakout in November 1942 was slight. The Sixth Army’s supply situation had been so dire even before the Soviets attacked that it hardly could have stayed on the Volga during the winter. Living a hand-to-mouth existence at the end of its long supply line, it had hardly any fuel on hand and not enough to support a desperate effort to crash through the Soviet ring. Paulus’s vacillations, and his submission to Hitler’s will despite the urging of several subordinates, suggest that he realized this situation.

Fortunately for the Germans, the Soviets cautiously concentrated an overwhelming portion of their forces on insuring against the overestimated threat of a breakout. They were determined to destroy the encircled German force, whatever prizes beckoned elsewhere, and did not exploit the Stalingrad breakthrough to the southwest as much as they might have. The Germans were able to form a defensive front west of the Don on the Chir River while preparing a relief effort. Manstein thought that the Soviets, by better coordinating their forces, could have smashed the Chir front.

Meanwhile, the Soviets readied a second major offensive in the south. In Operation Saturn the Southwest and Voronezh Fronts would attack the Italians. In its original form, the plan was to encircle the Italian Army and the whole Army Group Don, reach Rostov, and cut off Army Group A.

In the meantime, the Germans’ airlift and relief attempt for Stalingrad failed. Richthofen, saddled with the responsibility for the air supply effort, calculated that delivering the estimated absolute minimum of 300 tons of supplies a day—although the Sixth Army really needed 500 tons daily— required 150 Junkers 52 transports landing in Stalingrad each day. But because bad weather would often prevent all operations and many planes would not be working at any given time, he really needed 800. The whole Luftwaffe had only 750 Junkers 52s and half of them were in the Mediterranean. Using some civilian airliners and converting some bombers and long-range reconnaissance planes enabled Richthofen to assemble a fleet of 500 planes; however, many were unsuitable for the job. Moreover, Stalingrad had only one fully equipped airfield, with five more barely usable landing strips. The terrible weather and Soviet fighters took a steady toll on the transports. Some space was wasted on unnecessary supplies, and the airlift never approached the minimum level of deliveries needed.

The relief effort by LVII Panzer Corps was seriously delayed from an original starting date of December 8 to December 11, and it was never strong enough on the ground or had sufficient air support. Two of the three panzer divisions allotted to it were weak. Manstein decided that an attack across the Chir, the point nearest the Sixth Army, was too obvious, so the Germans launched the attack from south of the Don. It took the Soviets by surprise, but it meant that the panzers had a longer way to go. A huge truck convoy hauling 3,000 tons of supplies and some tractors slated to pull Sixth Army’s otherwise immobilized artillery trailed the panzers. The attack made slow progress. It reached the Myshkova River thirty-five miles from the pocket and stuck. Only Soviet over-caution may have prevented its envelopment and destruction.

Hitler still refused to let the Sixth Army break out if that meant giving up its position. Paulus again refused to act without Hitler’s authority, and the Sixth Army was perhaps too weak to strike out successfully. When the Soviets pushed the relief force back, the Sixth Army was doomed.

Despite its failure, the relief attempt—along with the disastrous misfire of the Soviets’ Mars offensive against Army Group Center (begun November 25, it petered out in early December after the Red Army suffered enormous losses)—may have led the Soviet command on December 13 to curtail its plans for the next offensive in the south. Operation Saturn was scaled down to Little Saturn and involved a shallower envelopment whose pincers would meet well north of the Black Sea coast. Rostov would have to be reached in two bites, not one. The offensive began on December 16 and crashed through the Italians, who were supported only by one German infantry division, two battalions from another, and a weak panzer division in reserve. The Soviets failed to break through the sector to the south, but the Germans’ situation was soon desperate. The forward fields for the airlift were overrun, and it became obvious that the issue was now how to get the German forces out of the Caucasus before they were isolated.

Had the Soviets reached Rostov or the coast further west, the early defeat of Germany would have been likely. On December 28, Hitler, barely in time, allowed a (gradual) withdrawal from the Caucasus. He insisted, however, that part of Army Group A fall back into a bridgehead on the Kuban Peninsula, and from there, he hoped, a new offensive against the Caucasus oil fields would be launched in 1943. By then, the Soviets planned Operation Don, or a bigger Saturn—involving the South Front (the renamed Stalingrad Front), Southwest Front, and Transcaucasus Front—to reach Rostov and trap the Fourth Panzer Army and Army Group A.

The Germans were helped by the fact that the Stalingrad garrison continued to pin down considerable Soviet forces, and the Soviets insisted on attacking into the perimeter. The Sixth Army did not surrender completely until February 2. Only a few thousand men survived to return to Germany.

Meanwhile, Manstein directed a skillful retreat and delaying action. In a great “castling movement,” as his aide described it, the First Panzer Army fell back behind the Fourth Panzer Army and was switched around to face north and northwest. He was hampered not only by Army Group A’s late start but also by the sluggishness of its commander Kleist. The Germans blocked multiple threats to the Rostov bottleneck through which they had to retreat. In the last stages, the route was so crowded that some German units marched over the frozen Sea of Azov instead of lining up to cross the Don bridges at Rostov. The Germans fell back to the line of the Mius River in the south while the Voronezh Front, supported by Bryansk and Southwest Fronts, attacked the remaining parts of Army Group B’s front on the northern Don—the Hungarian Second Army and the German Second Army—on January 14. The Soviets tore a 200-mile wide gap in the front and retook Kharkov and the Donetz industrial area. They then advanced steadily toward the Dnieper crossings and the isthmus to the Crimea.

The Soviets, however, were too widespread, exhausted, and at the end of a lengthy supply line. Manstein, meanwhile, had skillfully assembled strong forces on either side of the gap. On February 14, with effective support from Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4, Manstein launched a counteroffensive that smashed four Soviet armies, recaptured Kharkov, and by March 18, largely restored the line from which the German armies had departed in June 1942.

Nevertheless, the Germans in the east had been permanently lamed. The Sixth Army, or more than 250,000 men, had been lost, and with it four allied Axis armies.

The Stalingrad disaster was a particular shock to German morale. The Nazis had already noted, with disquiet, the public’s willingness for a compromise peace with Stalin (although some of the Nazis shared that inclination). For most of 1943, German morale was low. Paradoxically it recovered a bit after the Germans rode out Italy’s surrender without a spectacular disaster. The Axis allies proceeded to look for the exits. Mussolini already wanted a separate peace with the Soviets. Other Italians, Fascist or not, and all but a few people in the Axis satellites wanted peace with the West.

The Stalingrad-Caucasus campaign was the military turning point of the war in the east. Yet that campaign had had little, if any, chance of success in the first place. Even had the Germans taken the Caucasus oil fields intact, they would not have been able to ship their products back to Germany. The campaign itself demonstrated that German hopes had no foundation in logistics. As George Blau observed, the Germans’ problem of transporting supplies could only have been solved had they complemented the few railroad lines in southern Russia with a tremendous trucking and airlift effort. But the Germans lacked the necessary trucks, transport planes, and gasoline, and their repair facilities were inadequate. “From the outset, there was actually not the slightest hope that the supply services would be capable of keeping up with an advance to the Volga and beyond the Caucasus.” Thus Williamson Murray concluded that the 1942 campaigns in both Russia and the Mediterranean were the “last spasmodic advances of Nazi military power, there was no prospect of achieving a decisive strategic victory.”

Indeed, the Germans could not have held Stalingrad even had they captured it. The lack of supplies for the Sixth Army hopelessly prejudiced its chances for survival even if Hitler had been more reasonable about its withdrawal. That the Germans enjoyed such an initial success as they did was mainly owed to Soviet blunders in the spring.

Advance to Tunis 1942

First Army’s advance on Tunis: 24th to 30th November 1942.

Algiers is 500 miles as the crow flies from Tunis which could be reached either by sea or by two tortuous mountain roads running through the length of the Atlas mountains. There was a French railway as well, but the chances of it working effectively for some weeks were not high. General Anderson, whose task it was to seize Tunis with his embryonic First British Army, started his advance eastwards before the cease-fire. The only forces at his disposal were Major-General Evelegh’s 78th (Br) Division with the 11th and 36th (Br) Brigades on light assault scales, and Colonel R. A. Hull’s `Blade Force’ consisting of the 17/21st Lancers’ Regimental Group from 6th (Br) Armoured Division reinforced with a squadron of armoured cars, a battery each of Field artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, a company of motor infantry and a troop of sappers. The 17/21st Lancers themselves were equipped with a mixture of obsolescent `Crusaders’ and `Valentines’. He could also call on certain British Commando and us Ranger units, and one British and one American parachute battalion.

Anderson planned to work his way eastwards along the coast with amphibious landings until he reached Bone, and then to advance overland, using whatever transport he could acquire from the local French authorities to turn the Germans out of Tunis and Bizerta. Brigadier Kent-Lemon’s 36th (Br) Brigade landed at Bougie unopposed on 11 November, but a heavy surf on the beaches prevented the occupation of the airfield near Djidjelli and stopped any fuel being brought ashore although the local French Air Force Commander was ready to welcome Allied fighter aircraft. In the interval between landings at Bougie and the eventual establishment of fighters on Djidjelli on 13 November, there was no proper fighter cover over the port. Axis torpedo aircraft sunk three valuable assault ships – the Cathay, Awatea and Karanga and damaged the monitor Roberts. It was a costly lesson in failure to ensure adequate air cover – a lesson which was repeated all too often in the next few weeks. And, at sea, Axis submarines began to take a mounting toll of Allied shipping, sinking the liners Viceroy of India and Nieuvo Zeeland off the Algerian coast.

Bone was occupied like Bougie without French opposition, and Anderson started to push Evelegh’s two brigades and `Blade Force’ eastwards; Kent Lemon’s 36 Brigade advancing along the north coast road through Tebarka to Djebel Aboid, aiming for Bizerta; Cass’s 11th Brigade taking the inland route to Souk-el-Arba, Medjez el Bab and Tebourba, aiming for Tunis; and `Blade Force’ following up part by rail and part by road to support Cass. The 1st British Parachute Battalion landed unopposed at Souk el Arba airfield on 16 November, and Colonel Raffs 509 (US) Parachute Infantry, which had suffered so heavily at Oran, was dropped at Youks-les-Bains in Central Tunisia to help the local French forces secure the southern flank of Anderson’s drive on Tunis.

Realising how slender Anderson’s forces were, Eisenhower ordered as many us troops as possible forward from Oran. He met with considerable frustration from the keen but inexperienced American staff officers. He recalls:

In the office when I arrived was Brigadier General Lunsford E. Oliver, commander of Combat Command `B’, a portion of the us 1st Armoured Division. He had made a reconnaissance of the front, had determined that railway communications were inadequate to get him to the battle area promptly, and was seeking permission to march a part of his command in half-tracks over the 700 miles between Oran and Souk-el-Arba. The Staff Officer to whom he was appealing was well informed as to the characteristics of the half-track and refused, permission on the ground that the march would consume half the useful life of the vehicle.

The young Staff Officer was not to blame for this extraordinary attitude. He had been trained assiduously, through the years of peace, in the eternal need for economy, for avoiding waste … He had not yet accepted the essential harshness of war; he did not yet realise that the word is synonymous with waste, nor did he understand that every positive action requires expenditure . . .(Eisenhower; page 132).

Oliver was given his authority at once on Eisenhower’s orders, but the incident was symptomatic of the twilight atmosphere between the habits of peace and the ruthlessness of war which reigned amongst the American Staffs at this time. No-one expected much to happen in French North Africa for three months, by which time all the paraphernalia of a great base area would have been established and the force would be ready to advance eastwards. Even Oliver’s Combat Command `B’, as it rattled forward through the Atlas mountains on its way to Souk-el-Arba, had a holiday spirit about it. The British war correspondent, David Divine, who was travelling with it, could not help admiring their supreme confidence in themselves and their equipment. The strip cartoon notion of the heroics of war had been confirmed in their minds by their success at Oran.

The first actions on land occurred on 17 November when German battlegroups probing westwards clashed with the British advance-guards. Kent Lemon’s 36th Brigade fought a sharp engagement with 11th Parachute Engineer Regiment on the north coast road in which both sides suffered substantial losses. Next day the 1st (Br) Parachute Battalion destroyed a German armoured reconnaissance force near Sidi Nsir. The main fighting, however, occurred at Medjez-el-Bab on 19 November when Nehring attempted to force Barre out of his neutrality by issuing him an ultimatum at 4 am which had to be complied within three hours. At 7 am dive bombers attacked Medjez and the 5th German Parachute Regiment tried to storm Barre’s positions but was beaten off. The French stood their ground all day and in the evening withdrew to Oued Zarga covered by 1st (Br) Parachute Battalion and an American battery equipped with British 25-pounder guns.

Evelegh’s plan for his advance on Tunis was not a happy one. It committed all the old British faults of advancing on too wide a front with forces out of supporting distance of each other, and of tanks being used in unsuitable country with too few infantry in support. He envisaged a two-phase advance: First, the occupation of the line Mateur-Tebourba; and then the advance on Tunis and Bizerta. Kent Lemon would continue on the north coast road aiming for Mateur; Cass would retake Medjez and then advance on Tebourba; and Hull’s `Blade Force’, reinforced by 1st Battalion 1st (US) Armoured Regiment in `Honeys’ would push through the hills in between. All three columns would be supported by detachments of American artillery and tanks.

Little went right with Evelegh’s advance. Kent Lemon was badly ambushed between Djebels Azag and Adjred – later known as `Green’ and `Bald’ Hills. After three days hard fighting he was forced to give up, and `Green’ and `Bald’ hills became the front line of the northern sector for most of the campaign. Cass was just as unsuccessful. His attack on Medjez was repulsed with loss. `Blade Force’, however, had an unexpected success. Major Barlow’s company of Honey Tanks from 1st (US) Armoured Regiment reconnoitering ahead crushed several German outposts, by-passed others, and he found himself overlooking Djedeida airfield on which the Luftwaffe were bombing up flights of Stukas which had just returned from attacking `Blade Forces’ main columns. Barlow’s 17 light tanks swept onto the airfield destroying 20 aircraft, shooting up buildings, fuel dumps and ammunition, and successfully withdrawing at dusk with the loss of only two men killed, and one tank destroyed and its crew captured. News of this encounter had an immediate and unexpected effect. Nehring became unjustifiably alarmed, believing that strong Allied tank forces were within nine miles of Tunis with little to stop them reaching the city. He ordered the immediate evacuation of Medjez and the concentration of all Axis troops for the close defence of the Tunis and Bizerta bridgeheads.

Nehring’s uncharacteristic loss of nerve was short-lived, but it lasted long enough to enable Cass’s 11th Brigade to occupy Medjez, and, after handing its defence over to Barre’s Frenchmen, to advance and seize Tebourba on 27 November. Subsequent attempts by British infantry, supported by American artillery and Grant tanks, to capture Djedeida and its bridge over the Medjerda River failed in the teeth of resolute German opposition which came not only from the ground but increasingly from the air. Luftwaffe aircraft from airfields in Sicily as well as Tunisia began round-the-clock dive-bombing and ground straffing to save the German bridgehead. Air attacks, which had been persistent throughout Evelegh’s advance, rose to a crescendo during the last three days of November. Evelegh was forced to concede defeat and recommended to Anderson that he should pause to allow the Allied Air Forces to improve his air cover and to await the arrival of the rest of Oliver’s CC `B’ and the 1st (Br) Guards Brigade, which were on their way eastwards from Oran and Algiers. The first British attempt to reach Tunis had been stopped by the combined efforts of Nehring’s troops and Kesselring’s aircraft.

The weakness of Allied air cover stemmed from four planning mistakes. Firstly, like the Army, the Air Force units had been despatched on `Torch’ with the lightest possible scales of men and equipment. They did not have the servicing capacity to support the sortie rate demanded by the naval and army commanders. Serviceability of aircraft dropped alarmingly, leaving some fighter squadrons with less than half their aircraft. Secondly, the Allies lacked airfields from which to support Anderson’s forces in Tunisia. The only all-weather field was at Bone, 120 miles from the front. The other fair-weather strips were at Souk-el-Arba, 60 miles from Tebourba; at Youks-les-Bains, 140 miles away; and at Canrobert, 165 miles away. In contrast the Axis were operating off all-weather fields at Tunis and Bizerta, only 20 miles away, with some forward strips less than 5 miles from the front. Thirdly, and most regrettably, few of the lessons in Army/Air co-operation, learnt in the Western Desert, were really appreciated in the Eastern Air Command which had been set up by men more familiar with the Battle of Britain and the night bombing of Germany than operating in close conjunction with land forces. Moreover, RAF communications, radars and fighter direction systems brought in with the assault convoys were inadequate for the distances involved, and the rudimentary nature of local French communications made matters worse. Command and control in the Eastern Air Command can only be described as chaotic. Army/Air Headquarters were not co-located, and there were far too few Forward Air Controllers. And fourthly, lack of an overall air command for `Torch’ began to be felt. Although the Eastern and Western Air Commands were not dissimilar in strength, the sorties flown during the period 22-30 November speak for themselves. The RAF flew 1,710 sorties, losing 45 aircraft; while the XII (us) Air Force flew 180, losing 7 aircraft. The Luftwaffe flew 1,084 sorties, losing 63 aircraft. The Italians probably flew about half the German total. But whereas the bulk of the Luftwaffe’s effort was against the Allied troops advancing towards Tunis and Bizerta, the RAF’s effort was absorbed flying fighter cover over the ports of Algiers, Bougie and Bone, and over Allied shipping off the Algerian coast, and in bombing Axis shipping and airfields around Tunis and Bizerta to slow down the flow of Axis reinforcements. There was little effort left over to support of Anderson’s soldiers who saw nothing but ground-straffing Axis aircraft. When Allied planes did appear, there was no certainty that they would strike Axis targets. There were several regrettable incidents of British and American aircraft attacking friendly columns, in spite of the display of large white stars on Allied vehicles.

Anderson accepted Evelegh’s plea for a pause at Tebourba, but he did not hold the initiative. Kesselring had arrived in Tunis with orders from Hitler to drive the Allies back into Algeria. He was highly critical of Nehring’s withdrawal from Medjez, and ordered him to mount an immediate counter-offensive with Fischer’s 10th Panzer Division to retake Tebourba and to drive the British out of Medjez and back into the hills.

11th Brigade and `Blade Force’ held tolerably good defensive positions around Tebourba. 2nd Hampshires were dug in on a low ridge overlooking Djedeida, backed up by 1st Surreys which had companies on the dominating feature of Djebel Maiana and at El Bathan Bridge over the Medjerda south of the town. `Blade Force’ less the 17th/21st Lancers was on the Chuigi Pass to the north. Cass’s reserve consisted of 17th/21st Lancers and 5th Northamptons at the Tebourba Gap west of the town where the road to Medjez squeezes between the river and the mountain spurs. 2nd Battalion 13th (us) Armoured Regiment with Grants was in support of the Surreys.

An “African’ Tiger

Fischer’s Counterattack

Fischer’s plan was a typical German encircling operation. He organised four groups. Group `Koch’, consisting of 10 companies of parachute and regular infantry with artillery and anti-tank detachments, was to mount a holding attack along the south bank of the Medjerda to the El Bathan Bridge and later to the Tebourba Gap. The main attack would come from the direction of Mateur in the north and would aim at destroying `Blade Force’ – the main armoured threat to Tunis. This attack would be carried out by two armoured groups: Group Luder with 20 tanks from due north; and Group Hudel with 40 tanks from the north east. Once these groups were engaged, the fourth group, called Group `Djedeida’, made up of scratch reinforcement battalions and supported by a few `Tigers’ would attack the Hampshires to clear them away from the airfield.

Fischer’s plan went remarkably smoothly despite the improvised nature of his force and the poor communications available to him. Most of the success was due to his own personal drive. Group Luder attacked at 0745 on 1 December and drew `Blade Force’s’ attention northwards. The supply echelons were being got away when Group Hudel, led by Fischer himself, struck `Blade Force’ from the east, dispersing it and sending it reeling back to the Tebourba Gap. The 17th/21st Lancers moved north to cover the withdrawal, but lost five Crusaders in the process. They fell back to a covering position just north west of Tebourba to protect the supply route through the Tebourba Gap. Concentrated British and American artillery fire brought Luder and Hudel to a halt before they could reach this vital road link to Medjez.

As soon as the German armoured thrust was spent, Fischer moved to Group `Djedeida’ and started its attack on the Hampshires. Group `Djedeida’ exasperated him with its incompetence. Even with the support of the `Tigers’, he could make little impression on the Hampshires’ defence. By nightfall, 11th Brigade’s positions were still intact, but `Blade Force’ had suffered heavily. During the night attempts were made to co-ordinate the actions of British and American tank units to oppose Luder and Hudel when daylight came. Lack of compatible communications made these efforts largely abortive. The main body of Combat Command `B’ under General Oliver was, however, approaching from Medjez and it was Evelegh’s intention that it should relieve `Blade Force’ at the Tebourba Gap on 2 December while Cass held onto Tebourba.

2 December was a disappointing day for both sides. Fischer had the greatest difficulty in forcing Group `Djedeida’ to face the Hampshires, but continual dive-bombing and steady losses from shell fire so weakened the battalion that Cass had to withdraw it to Djebel Maiana. Several ill co-ordinated attempts were made by allied tank units to attack the Luder and Hudel Groups. Attacks were made without properly co-ordinated artillery support and in piece-meal fashion because close liaison proved difficult in such a mixed force. Instead of letting the Germans run onto concealed tanks and anti-tank guns, the Allies threw away their numerical advantage by attacking the Germans who were waiting for them. The arrival of Brigadier General Robinett, Commander of 13th (us) Armoured Regiment helped to stem the pointless loss of tanks. Cass and he agreed to act defensively until better co-ordination could be achieved. Nevertheless, the second day of the Battle of Djedeida ended ominously for the Allies. Even if the Germans did give up and withdraw, Allied tank and infantry losses had been so heavy that they would not be able to resume their drive on Tunis immediately. The Luftwaffe’s attacks showed no signs of slackening and were beginning to affect morale. The Allies would have been even more worried had they known that part of 10th Panzer Division’s 86th Panzer Grenadier Regiment had landed in Tunis that day and was being rushed forward to join Group `Djedeida’ during the night of 2/3 December.

Fighting on 3 December resulted in an unmistakable German victory. The Luder/Hudel Group managed to narrow, though not actually cut, the Allied supply route through the Tebourba Gap. Group Koch was stopped from interfering with this route from south of the river by the arrival of the 6th (us) Armoured Infantry on the Djebel El Guissa on the south bank. Fischer’s main effort came from the `Djedeida’ Group, reinforced by his own Panzer Grenadiers and heavily supported by Luftwaffe dive-bombing. He attacked Djebel Maiana about 10 am and eventually wrested it from the Hampshires and Surreys. Repeated British counter attacks came tantalizingly near regaining the feature. Towards evening the Germans made a decisive break through along the river on the south side of the position. Almost out of ammunition and in danger of being cut off the British infantry withdrew, evacuating Tebourba and trying to save their heavier equipment by using an unmade track near the river. This broke up and forced them to abandon most of their vehicles and guns, the men making their way back on foot in small groups to the Tebourba Gap. The Hampshires arrived at little over 200 strong and the Surreys about 340. Had it not been for the timely arrival of Oliver’s Combat Command `B’, Fischer would have been able to take Medjez-el-Bab, as Kesselring had ordered, without further ado.

Eisenhower, reporting the Allied rebuff at Djedeida to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, placed responsibility for the failure to reach Tunis on inadequacy in the air:

We have gone beyond the sustainable limit of air capabilities in support of ground forces in a pell-mell race for Tunisia . . . the scale of possible support is insufficient to keep down the hostile straffing and dive-bombing which is largely responsible for breaking up all attempted advances by ground forces.(Mediterranean Theatre: page 320).

But Eisenhower knew that the Combined Chiefs of Staff would not accept the defeat at Djedeida, nor the inadequacy of Allied air-cover as reasons for giving up. After discussions with Anderson he set 9 December as the target date for resuming the Allied offensive.

A Ride Too Far 1863

4 R

“Keep to your Sabers, Men”: J.E.B. Stuart’s Charge at Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate cavalry prepared a last desperate charge on the Union lines at Gettysburg.

The Confederate cavalry held the high ground at Cress’s Ridge overlooking the York Turnpike, but quick-moving Union cavalry blocked the roads back to Gettysburg.

Stuart’s ride (shown with a red dotted line) during the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 3, 1863

The Confederacy needed a dramatic victory. There had been some serious losses in the west, but the larger Union Army had been kept at bay in Virginia. What was needed in June 1863 was a victory that showed that the South could not only defend itself but could take the war into the North. They needed to show that they had some chance of actually winning the war, not just holding on longer. This would provide the impetus for England and France to recognize them as a nation. Then the European navies would break the Union blockade, and it would be a whole new war. Robert E. Lee’s decision to take the Army of Virginia north into Pennsylvania was a political, not a military, one. But this one mistake started a series of events that had the opposite effect. It ultimately doomed the Confederate cause because of very uncharacteristic mistakes he made near a small town named Gettysburg.

The mistake came about because the Gray Ghost, irregular cavalry commander John Mosby, sneaked into the center of the Union Army and came away with a copy of their current plans. What the plans showed was that there were gaps in the Union positions that could be exploited by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry. This took place at the beginning of what was one of Lee’s most audacious maneuvers: invading Pennsylvania. It was the job of Civil War cavalry to protect the supply lines of their army and disguise (cover) its movements. At the same time, they had to disrupt the supplies and report the movements of the enemy forces. While the Union cavalry had markedly improved, because of their confidence and courage the Confederate mounted army was still a very dominant force.

Unquestionably one of the most daring leaders of the Southern cause was J. E. B. (Jeb) Stuart. Time and again his raids and other exploits had earned him accolades from his commanders and respect from both sides of the war. Mosby finished his formal report to Lee on what he had found with the recommendation that the best way to protect Lee’s communications was to assail Hooker’s own supply lines. (General Joe Hooker was then in command of the Army of the Potomac.) In response, Stuart presented a plan to General Lee that involved a raid by a large part of his command, effectively a majority of the cavalry of the Army of Virginia. They would move behind the Yankee forces and to nearby Washington, D.C. Stuart was sure that this would, as it had in the past, create a panic that forced most of the Union horses to pull back and chase him, and likely force thousands of blue-clad infantry who might otherwise face Lee to stand on the defensive to protect the Union capital.

A lot of people blame the absence of Stuart’s cavalry before and for the first days of Gettysburg for there being a battle there at all. In the recriminations after the war, some said that Stuart was more interested in headlines and raiding than in doing his job. This was not really the case. Stuart’s plan to ride around much of the Union Army appealed to Lee, who sent General Longstreet, Stuart’s direct commander, a note expressing his conditional approval. This order from Lee read that if Stuart could get across the Potomac River without alerting the Federals to Lee’s plan to strike North into the Shenandoah Valley, he should do so. While the Confederate cavalry was waiting to cross into Pennsylvania, Stuart received orders to that effect from Robert E. Lee on June 23. These read in part:

If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with the three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountain tomorrow night, cross at Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Fredericktown.

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops.

The result of this order was that Stuart and most of his cavalry were missing for the first days of the Battle of Gettysburg. As a consequence, Lee had virtually no intelligence as to the location of the Army of the Potomac before the battle. But Stuart was not AWOL, gallivanting on his own; he was in obedience to Lee’s direct order. So mistake number one has to be Lee’s willingness to send off most of his horsemen just as he was beginning to move into hostile territory. His intent in doing so, distraction and forcing the withdrawal of Union troops to defend against the raiders, was valid. Whether that was more important than the less glorious role of gathering intelligence is what we are judging here. Since the real goal of moving North was to demonstrate to the European nations the strength and viability of the Confederacy, the publicity of such a raid combined with a victory against a portion of the Union Army would have been doubly beneficial. So perhaps this was a worthy risk, but the devil is in the details.

Stuart actually left behind more than half of his mounted command. The risk came from the fact that with nearly half the mounted strength of his army gone, Lee had just enough horsemen to cover his own movements. He did not have enough to also maintain reliable information on the many Union corps that were moving, under Hooker and then Meade, to intercept his army.

After taking some time to gather the 2,000 horsemen who would accompany him on the raid, Stuart crossed the Potomac where ordered to and passed through the Bull Run Mountains. Then things began to go wrong. At the town of Haymarket, Confederate scouts discovered Hancock’s entire infantry corps moving north. At this point, there was no choice: Stuart’s mounted force had to avoid the much larger infantry corps. So on June 26, Stuart ordered his entire force to go south, which resulted in being behind the entire Army of the Potomac. This also meant that a large part of the Union Army was between him and Lee. Communications with the Army of Virginia became, at best, difficult.

Then things began to slow down for Stuart’s normally rapidly moving horsemen. Troops in this period carried few supplies. This was particularly true of cavalry. Simply put, horses eat a lot. They had to purchase, or take, virtually all the food, grain, and so on they needed from local sources. Living off the land normally allowed cavalry to move much more quickly because they were without the slow supply wagons to hold them back. The dark side of this equation was that it meant Stuart’s force had very few supplies with it, and virtually no feed for their horses. The countryside they rode through had already been picked clean by the Union Army just days before. There was no more grain or fodder of any sort at the farms the raiders passed near. This lack of fodder meant that on June 27 Stuart’s cavalry lost several hours to grazing and foraging. On some earlier raids, Stuart’s cavalry had moved as much as fifty miles per day, but now in two days they had moved a total of only thirty-five miles and much of it in an unplanned direction that took them farther away from the Army of Virginia. More important, Lee had begun to move north, and Stuart’s raiders no longer had any way to even know where their main army was located. Stuart could not report what he saw to Lee because he didn’t know where General Lee was located. In fact, a messenger sent to Lee on the twenty-eighth, with the intelligence Stuart had gained thus far, never was able to deliver the information.

Because of the need to again cross the Potomac unobserved, Stuart’s force next had to use an inferior and dangerous crossing known as Rowser’s Ford. At this point, the river was nearly a mile wide and chest deep on the horses. It took a good portion of the night of the twenty-seventh before the crossing was completed.

It was late in the morning of June 28 before the exhausted Southern horsemen were again moving. Later that day, they reached Rockville, which created the consternation Stuart desired by being only fifteen miles from Washington, D.C. There the Confederates spent the day paroling more than 400 captives while resting and feeding men and horses. After a twenty-mile night march on June 29, one of Stuart’s Confederate brigades under Fitz Lee began tearing up the B&O Railroad tracks. Since the Union Army moved most of its supplies by rail, this was also a slow but very effective action. The loss of the railroad diminished both the supplies and reinforcements that could be sent to Meade, who had by then taken over from Hooker as Union commander. A train of 125 supply-laden wagons, a real prize, was next captured intact. These seem to have been new wagons in great condition by later accounts. They were piled high with all sorts of supplies Lee could use. The wagons were added to the cavalry column. These spoils of war were too good to pass up but also had the effect of slowing Stuart.

On that same day, Early and some Union cavalry were camped in a small town named Gettysburg. Unaware that the entire Union Army had marched north and were near, Lee had ordered his separated divisions to gather in that same Pennsylvania town.

After he had captured the supply wagons, Stuart’s entire column overcame the stiff resistance of a small Union force at the town of Westminster and camped for the night to take advantage of the plentiful supplies stored there. Neither Stuart nor Lee knew where the other Southern commander was. More important, without enough cavalry to scout for him, Lee was just learning that the entire Army of the Potomac was nearby.

By this time there were several columns of Union cavalry hunting for the raiders, and one was encountered at the city of Hanover. The Union force was driven from the town, then countercharged and chased the foremost Confederate troopers back onto their main column. That Union countercharge was then stopped. Stuart formed a defensive line on a nearby hilltop. Here both cavalry forces sat until Stuart was able to send the captured wagons safely ahead. The Confederates then slipped away. The next day, July 1, Stuart turned north and camped near the town of Dover. From there, he sent out two troops of riders hoping to locate Lee. One of these rode toward Gettysburg, the others toward Shippensburg.

This was on the first day of what is now called the Battle of Gettysburg.

Stuart left Dover later in the day and in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, encountered stiff resistance from a brigade of Union infantry commanded by William “Baldy” Smith. The Confederate commander called on the infantry to surrender and threatened to bombard the town with his horse-drawn cannon. Smith replied, “Shell away.” So the Confederate horsemen did. The fighting at Carlisle continued late into the night, with Smith refusing yet another demand to surrender.

The next day, the troopers he had sent to Gettysburg found Stuart and passed on Lee’s order that he hurry with his entire column to join the battle there. It was now in its second day. On July 2, Stuart led his already exhausted riders toward Gettysburg.

Eight very active days after separating Stuart’s brigades, he rejoined the Army of Virginia. Having been forced away twice, the raid had taken much longer than expected. Lee’s first words were “Stuart, where have you been?”

The Confederate Army lost the Battle of Gettysburg, and with it, virtually all hope of winning the American Civil War. Would Lee have fought that battle there if he had been given good intelligence as to the position of the Union Army? Would Lee have won if he had instead retreated and fought the defensive battle he had told his commanders earlier that he desired? There is no way to tell. What is certain is that Lee allowing his “eyes and ears” to be absent at such a vital time meant that both armies blundered into the Battle of Gettysburg. That need not have been the case. And Stuart’s mistake of turning away and moving slowly out of contact for several extra days meant that his cavalry could not be there for Lee when they were needed. There were a lot of other mistakes made by both sides at Gettysburg during the battle, but these two mistakes, Lee’s order and Stuart’s detours, combined to ensure the battle itself happened. And after Gettysburg, the Confederacy was never again able to do more than slow its inevitable defeat.

Operation Totalize I

Tank crews from 4th Canadian Armoured Division gathered together south of Caen, at Vaucelles, Colombelles and Fleury, where these soldiers were photographed.

Excerpt from a rare Allied map prepared for Operation Spring, accurately detailing the German positions on both sides of the road leading from Caen to Falaise. From north to south, note the strong positions north-west of Garcelles-Secqueville, east of the main road. Rocquancourt appears to the west. A pencil inscription indicates the general direction along the axis of the main road. Further ahead, just before Cintheaux, a network of tunnels is marked on the map. The Allies knew the Germans’ ability to use such an underground network to come up behind their opponents, as the grenadiers from the Hohenstaufen had previously done in the area around May-sur-Orne. A network of trenches can also be seen in an arc around Hautmesnil. In the north-east corner (top right), note that the woods have been cut down and that the convoy shelter pits were sheltered by the opposite slope between Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil and Conteville.

This American map shows the 12th Army Group’s plan of attack on 8 August 1944. Even before the end of the German offensive at Mortain, the First US Army were ordered to advance on Domfront and Flers to join XXX (British) Corps which was advancing, with great difficultly, to Condé-sur-Noireau as part of Operation Bluecoat. Meanwhile, the Third US Army was ordered to circle behind the German Army, towards Alençon and Argentan, and join the II Canadian Corps, who had been ordered to take Falaise.

On 25 and 26 July 1944, the First US Army finally achieved the ‘Breakout’; the breakthrough along the Normandy front following Operation Cobra. The group then chased the Germans towards Coutances and Avranches, so as to not allow them to reconstitute a cohesive front. On its right, the Third US Army entered the line to advance on Brittany (to the west), and to the Loire region (to the east), on the back of the Normandy front. To aid this push on the German front, XXX Corps, supported to the west by VIII Corps (starting from the Caumont-l’Eventé salient), launched the ‘Bluecoat’ offensive through the rugged and difficult bocage [farmland criss-crossed by dense hedgerows, trees and sunken roads, which is typically associated with the Normandy landscape], which made any progress slow.

In order to try and cut the Allied forces in two Hitler launched Operation Lüttich, which involved a German counter-attack near the American positions at Mortain. However, because the attacked needed armoured units, these had to be removed from other areas along the front, thus weakening those areas in question. On 7 August 1944, 145 panzers were launched in this counter-attack and headed far to the west before having to retreat hastily following the failure of the offensive, which had unfortunately been launched just as II Canadian Corps was launching Operation Totalize in the area around Falaise. These 147 tanks would be sorely missed in the face of this new Allied offensive. South of Caen, where the 9.SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen and 1.SS-Panzer-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler had heroically resisted Operation Spring by holding onto the impregnable May-sur-Orne, the Troteval farm and Tilly-la-Campagne (names which now resounded in glory for the German Army), two weak divisions relieved the following panzer units; the 271.Infanterie-Division relieved the Hohenstaufen in order to deal with Operation Bluecoat, and the 89.Infanterie-Division relieved the Leibstandarte to participate in the counter attack at Mortain. The situation was in the Allies’ favour, especially as the Americans were now advancing towards the south of the Normandy front. It was now time for Montgomery to re-launch the attack on Falaise after the successive failures of Operations Goodwood and Spring. A carpet of bombs should be enough to settle the fate of the German support points, before the advance to the south could begin…

Beyond the former line of support points along the German front, the RN178 road runs straight towards Falaise over a gently undulating terrain of wheat fields. There are almost no obstacles, except for a few villages grouped together, small woods and bushes, but there are no hedges, as in the bocage. It is, therefore, an ideal ground for Allied armoured columns. However, there is a negative counterpart to all these advantages: the open terrain also favours the longest range of the German 88 guns, which were quite numerous in the sector, as well as the twenty Tiger tanks available in the area.

For Montgomery, the German sector located to the south of Caen remained of decisive importance, in spite of the failures of Operation Goodwood to the east of the town, then of Operation Spring to the south of it. He insisted on its importance in his directive of 6 August 1944, describing it as the ‘hinge’ of the German front. The situation for the German command would be particularly critical if the positions on either side of the road leading to Falaise, or even the town itself fell, ‘… tomorrow or during the next two days …’. Thus, the First Canadian Army decided to launch an offensive for the night of 7-8 August, with the aim of seizing Falaise. The offensive would be called Operation Totalize.

The operation was conceived following Montgomery’s M-516 directive of 4 August, which ordered the Canadian Army to launch a major offensive in the direction of Falaise from the area south of Caen:

[The] Purpose of the operation: a) The breakthrough of the enemy’s positions south and south-east of Caen. Gain as much ground as possible in the direction of Falaise in order to cut the enemy forces now facing the Second Army and hinder their retreat to the east, or make it impossible. (b) In general, destroy the enemy’s personnel and equipment in preparation for a possible extension of success.

The II Canadian Corps were to carry out this new offensive. After being strengthened since Operation Goodwood, at the beginning of August, it comprised of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the 33rd British Armoured Brigade and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. It also needed strong air support. The corps would launch its attack across the area from La Hogue to May-sur-Orne, then pass through Tilly-la-Campagne, following the main line of the German front. However, the Allied Command believed that the Germans were expecting an attack in this sector, which was indeed the case, and so as a preliminary to this operation, the plan was to establish a bridgehead on the Orne, on the back of the German front line.

The main attack would be launched in three phases:

First phase: two infantry divisions (2nd Canadian ID and 51st British ID) would attack at night, without preliminary aerial support, in order to break through the German positions between La Hogue and Fontenay-le-Marmion.

Second phase: the withdrawal position between Saint-Sylvain and Hautmesnil would be broken through by an armoured division (4th Canadian Armoured Division) and an infantry division (3rd Canadian Infantry Division). This attack would be supported, during the day, by all medium and heavy bombers, as well as fighter-bombers, with heavy artillery available.

Third phase: this would be led by two armoured divisions, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Their mission would be to widen the gap after phase two and then take the high ground to the north and north-west of Potigny (Hills 183 and 195). They would then try to maintain contact with the German troops.

Since the departure of 1.SS-Panzer-Division LAH for the Mortain sector, only two German infantry divisions opposed this powerful Canadian corps, which comprised of two divisions and two armoured brigades, as well as three infantry divisions. On 5 August, the 89.Infanterie-Division arrived to relieve the LAH, and was now facing the area from La Hogue to the Orne, north-west of Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. The 271.Infanterie-Division took up position along the eastern bank of the Orne, within the narrowing front, having relieved the Hohenstaufen. Like the 89.Infanterie-Division, its position lined up along the river, facing the eastern bank, up to 2 kilometres north of Thury-Harcourt, although the positions only really constituted a succession of support points. This area was under the control of the I.SS-Panzer-Korps and the only available reserves consisted of elements from the 12.SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend, although this division was also intended to be involved in the counter-attack on Mortain. This meant that the 89.Infanterie-Division would be on its own, with no panzers, against the Canadian Corps’ offensive . For now, these elements from the Hitlerjugend were using panzers from the Kampfgruppe Wünsche, which included the schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 and its powerful Tiger tanks.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

As discussed above, the operation would be preceded by establishing a bridgehead to the rear of the German front, and would be launched from the west bank of the Orne. This possibility was afforded to the Allies thanks to the withdrawal of the Panzerarmee to the west of the Orne and the abandonment of Hill 112 in order to shrink the front and reserve forces. Thus, two divisions from XII Corps, the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division and the 59th Infantry Division, which had followed the retreating German infantry divisions, were able to seize the bridges in the Evrecy and Avenay sectors. These two divisions were then ordered to build bridgeheads east of the Orne. The operation would take place in four phases:

First phase – The 59th Infantry Division would establish a bridgehead on the Orne, near Brieux, 5.5 kilometres north of Thury-Harcourt, with tank support provided by the 107th Battalion Royal Armoured Corps.

Second phase – The 53rd Infantry Division would then take over the bridgehead.

Third phase – The 59th Infantry Division would then establish a bridgehead near Thury-Harcourt, take Hill 205, 1 kilometre west of Meslay, and Hill 192, to the south-east of the former.

Forth phase – If the 59th Infantry Division were able to advance from the bridgehead established near Thury-Harcourt, the 53rd Infantry Division would cross it and push on to Falaise. If Hills 205 and 192 were not taken by the 59th Infantry Division, the 53rd Infantry Division would take them instead, before continuing to Falaise.

At 18:40 on 6 August, the British soldiers from XII Corps released artificial smoke in the Thury-Harcourt and Grimbosq sectors. During the night of 6-7 August, the artillery sent a rain of fire down on the German sector for two hours, before the 176th Infantry Brigade (59th ID) managed to cross the steep bank of the Orne, near Grimbosq, and to the south of it town, supported by the 107th RAC (tank battalion). On the afternoon of 7 August, two tank companies advanced across the river and then west of Brieux, on the eastern shore, towards Lower Grimbosq, in order to support the infantry. Meanwhile, in the morning, the battalion of fusiliers from the 271.Infanterie-Division had led a counter-attack to reduce the Grimbosq bridgehead, but was pushed back at the cost of many casualties for the Germans. The same would happen again following a second counter-attack.

The British were now firmly established on the eastern shore, supported by two tank companies, as elements from the 271.Infanterie-Division were unable to repel this already powerful force. As a result, the German commander-in-chief sent in the Kampfgruppe Wünsche in a counterattack. This particular Kampfgruppe was made up of staff from SS-Panzer-Regiment 12, the staff from the regiment’s 1st Battalion, with the 3rd Company (Panther) and 8th Company (Panzer IV), a company from schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 (Tiger), and the grenadiers of 1./26 and III./26 (minus its staff and a company).

The situation became critical during the day, and the British bridgehead strengthened from Lasseray (1 kilometre north of Grimbosq) via Grimbosq (to the east of the village) and Brieux (to the east) to the south of the locality, where the destroyed bridge over the Orne and the crossing point were located. The forward British elements had by now reached the forest of Grimbosq, as the front held by the 271.Infanterie-Division was several kilometres wide. Engaging the Kampfgruppe Wünsche now became a priority. However, during its march to the combat zone it was attacked by fifty-four bombers. Its Flak guns fired back immediately, damaging thirty-six, indeed so much so that some of the planes would not return to England.

The III./26 was sent in to clear out the Grimbosq Wood, allowing the rest of the Kampfgruppe to attack from the south and south-west of the forest. It was supported by the Hitlerjugend’s 3rd artillery group of (III./SS-AR.12). The Kampfgruppe attacked at 21:00 and made good progress, as panzers and infantry penetrated into Grimbosq and Brieux. The southern branch of the attack, with elements from the I./26, advanced to the bridge at le Bas de Grimbosq, according to the report by SS-Unterscharführer Förster, who was in position with two Russian guns (‘Ratschbumm’) from the 4./26’s tank section. However, he was forced to destroy them once all of the shells had been fired. At the end of a violent battle, twenty-eight tanks were destroyed, two of them by III./26, but the counter-attack’s initial success was soon stopped by the intervention of the British artillery. British observers could look out over the area from Hill 162, west of Goupillières, as Grimbosq is only 100-120 metres above sea level on the eastern shore. The grenadiers had to dig in and the German artillery was unable to see the Orne Valley and the crossing points. The panzers suffered under the terrible effects of the artillery, which caused the death of SS-Untersturmführer Alban, as reported by a veteran of SS-Panzer-Regiment 12’s 3.Panzer-Kompanie, SS-Sturmmann Hermann Linke, who recounted the battle near Grimbosq as the panzers were forced to retreat to more favourable positions:

It was in the late afternoon of 7 August. We were driving down a lane in the forest. Gradually, the wood thinned. But what we saw next was no longer a forest. Only tree stumps remained. All of the trees had been ripped apart by the artillery to a depth of about 200 metres. Outside of the forest was a large orchard. There too, there was not a tree that had not been shredded by artillery fire. We took up position at the edge of the wood. The Orne River flowed down in the valley, about 800 metres from us.

The attack started in the evening, together with the infantry. As the panzers’ engines were starting up, the enemy artillery fire resumed. The barrages were getting louder and stronger, and soon we could no longer see the grenadiers. Suddenly, the panzer on our left took a hit and caught fire immediately. On our right was SS-Untersturmführer Alban’s panzer. My commander, SS-Oberscharführer Mende suddenly said, ‘Alban has left his panzer and is leaping from one panzer to another. He must be crazy to leave his vehicle during this artillery barrage’. Alban shouted, ‘Disengage!’ He probably did not want to transmit this order by radio.

Then there was a terrible bang. A shell exploded right beside our panzer and we all immediately thought of SS-Untersturmführer Alban. Mende said to the driver, ‘Drive back slowly, maybe we can give Alban some cover that way.’ But we could not see him, and so Mende then gave the order to move forward again, hoping to catch sight of Alban. That’s when we saw him. He was leaning against a tree trunk, dead. I had never been a hero, but now I had to get out. I jumped towards the dead body of my platoon commander and secured his pay-book and other papers he had with him.

The enemy had observed our movements and concentrated his fire on us. The fire was so heavy that we were unable to take the body of our commander with us. In order not to get knocked out ourselves, we had to pull out as quickly as possible. By carrying the order to disengage in person, Alban had probably saved all of our lives and sacrificed his own. He was a brave soldier and a shining example for his men.

SS-Unterscharführer Heinz Freiberg was another veteran from the Panzer-Regiment. He reports that another platoon commander from 3./12 (Panther), SS-Untersturmführer Bogensperger was killed not too far away. Under such conditions, the German Command decided to continue the attack the next day in order to destroy the bridgehead. However, during the night, the British reorganised themselves so that they would be able to hold the bridgehead whatever happened. As a result, the new German counter-attack on 8 August would also fail. The fighting around Grimbosq resulted in a total loss of 122 men for Kampfgruppe Wünsche, including 24 killed, 91 wounded and 7 missing. SS-Panzer-Regiment 12 would lose 3 officers (including Alban and Bogensperger), 1 non-commissioned officer and 6 men (killed), while another 6 officers and 8 men were wounded. A total of 9 Panther tanks would be lost. Casualties from I./26 included 2 sub-officers and 48 men, while III./26 lost 7 men (killed) with 3 non-commissioned officers and 17 men wounded, and 7 men missing. The III./SS-AR 12 would lose a warrant officer. For their part, the British lost 28 tanks.

Operation Totalize II

Map showing the fighting that took place for the Grimbosq Bridgehead.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

On 6 August, 176th Brigade, 59th Division, crossed the Orne near Bas de Brieux (near Grimbosq). The 271.ID fought fiercely, but the English were able establish a bridgehead. Kampfgruppe Wünsche counter-attacked on 7 and 8 August with Panther tanks and Tigers from 2nd Company.

However, the intervention of the 271.Infanterie-Division and Kampfgruppe Wünsche at the bridgehead prevented the 89.Infanterie-Division collapsing of its left flank. Despite their bridgehead, the British would remain temporarily blocked, unable to extend it, and this decisive action remained limited within the context of Operation Totalize.

However, at the time of the fighting, at 21:40 on 7 August, Heeresgruppe B ordered the transfer of the Hitlerjugend Division to reinforce the Panzergruppe, who were fighting next to the 7th Army. The transfer operations were activated and Kampfgruppe Wünsche was to follow at 10:00 on 8 August, after the destruction of the Grimbosq bridgehead. But two hours after the order arrived, at 19:45 on 7 August, SS-Brigadeführer Kraemer told the Panzerarmee that shelling was taking place in the Bretteville-sur-Laize sector and between Boulon and Grimbosq. Meanwhile, violent Allied artillery fire was falling on the German front line, which was the sign of an imminent offensive, and Kraemer requested that the Hitlerjugend Division remained at the disposal of I.SS-Panzer-Korps. It would eventually stay in the sector and thus play an important role in Operation Totalize.

The 12.SS-Panzer-Division was no longer at full strength, having suffered casualties following two months of heavy fighting, and some of its elements had been detached to the west (Kampfgruppe Olboeter). It currently comprised of Kampfgruppe Wünsche (as we have seen), which gathered all available panzers, Panthers at the Grimbosq bridgehead;, thirty-nine Panzer IVs, and around twenty Tigers (2nd and 3rd companies of SS Panzer-Abteilung 101), three grenadier battalions (I./25, I./26, III./26) and artillery (SS-Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 12 and SS-Werfer-Abteilung 12).

On I./SS-Panzer-Korps’ right flank, to the east, the 272.Infanterie-Division would play an intermittent role against the left flank of the Allied offensive. But overall, the balance of power was very much in II Canadian Corps’ favour, which launched 60,000 men and more than 600 tanks into battle, meaning the odds were about three to one for men, and ten to one for tanks.

The 12 Manitoba Dragoons

This was the II Canadian Corps reconnaissance group and was launched into battle on 9 August 1944. 13 August was a black day for this unit, when nine vehicles were destroyed. C Squadron was in contact with elements of the 51st Infantry Highland Division in the Saint-Sylvain area. The unit would then participate in the closing of the Falaise Pocket.

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division saw action in the French Campaign (1939-1940), during which many of its number were taken prisoner. Reconstituted in Great Britain, it went on to serve in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and then in Sicily (1942-1943), before being repatriated to England to begin training for the Normandy Invasion. Its first elements landed on Gold Beach in the evening of 6 June, before taking part in Operation Epsom. From 7 August it was attached to the II Canadian Corps, with whom it fought during Operation Totalize.

The Canadian Corps

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division provided the other armed force of the offensive, and was part of the 1st Canadian Army and II Canadian Corps, commanded by Major General George Kitching. It was created in Canada in 1942 and transferred to Great Britain from the autumn of 1943. It landed in Normandy in the last week of July 1944, taking over from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on the night of 30-31 July. By 2 August it was already advancing towards Tilly-la-Campagne, although it failed to capture this position, and then came to a halt at La Hogue on 5 August. However, it was now preparing for the new operation and was comprised of an armoured brigade, as well as an infantry brigade.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 29th Reconnaissance Regiment, The South Alberta Regiment.

– The 4th Armoured Brigade aligned the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General’s Foot Guards), the 22nd Armoured Regiment (The Canadian Grenadier Guards), the 28th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Regiment) and a motorised infantry battalion attached to The Lake Superior Regiment.

– The 10th Infantry Brigade aligned The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, The Algonquin Regiment, and The Argyll and Sutherland Regiment (Princess Louise’s).

– It also included artillery from the 15th and 23rd Field Artillery Regiments, 5th Anti-Tank Regiment and the 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In addition, engineering support was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Engineers and communication and information was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Signals.

Two Canadian infantry divisions would also join the offensive.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was under the command of Major General Charles Foulkes. Born on 3 January 1903, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1926, made captain by 1930, lieutenant colonel in 1940, brigadier in September 1942, then finally major general in 1944, when he took command of division on 11 January.

– Its 1st Infantry Brigade (4th Brigade), aligned The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and The Essex Scottish Regiment.

– Its 2nd Infantry Brigade (5th Brigade) aligned The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve and The Calgary Highlanders.

– Its 3rd Infantry Brigade (6th Brigade) aligned Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada and The South Saskatchewan Regiment.

Reconnaissance was provided by the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) and artillery was provided by the 4th, 5th and 6th Field Artillery Regiments, the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the Toronto Scottish Regiment (machine guns and mortars), the 2nd Canadian Divisional Engineers and the 2nd Canadian Divisional Signals.

The division was formed at Aldershot in 1940 and participated in the landing attempt at Dieppe in August 1942. It landed in Normandy in the first week of July 1944, attached to the II Canadian Corps with the 51st ID, and took part in Operation Atlantic from 18 July onwards. It then unsuccessfully attacked the Verrieres ridge on 20 and 21 July, before taking part in Operation Spring from the 25th. The Black Watch had lost 324 men after finally taking Verrieres, but now remained stuck at May-sur-Orne, Saint-André-sur-Orne and Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. However, all this meant that the men knew the area well.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major General R.F.L. Keller, had been fighting in the Battle of Normandy since 6 June 1944. It was formed on 20 May 1940 and was chosen in July 1943 as the first Canadian division to land in Normandy. It fought bravely in the fighting to the west of Caen against the Hitlerjugend, and was the first to enter the city on 9 July. It was attached to the II Canadian Corp as of 11 July, along with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. It proceeded to participate in Operation Atlantic on the 18th and Operation Spring on the 25th, before finally being relieved by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on the night of 30-31 July and being sent to the rear to recuperate. On 7 July it was recalled in order to participate in Operation Totalize and would be in action on the night of 9-10 July.

– Its 7th Brigade comprised of The Royal Winnipeg Rifle Regiment (The Winnipegs), The Regina Rifle Regiment (the Reginas) and the 1st Battalion The Canadian Scottish Regiment.

– Its 8th Brigade comprised of The Queen’s Own Rifle of Canada, Le Régiment de la Chaudière and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

– Its 9th Brigade comprised of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI), The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (Glens or SDG) and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Novas or NNSH).

Reconnaissance was provided by the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars) and artillery by the 12th, 13th and 14th Régiments, the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and the 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

The Canadian Corps also included the 51st (Highland) Division, a British unit, which was commanded by Major General Tom Gordon Rennie. He had been injured on 12 June while in charge of the 3rd Infantry Division, and then took over command of 51st Division on 26 July following the dismissal of Major General C. Bullen Smith. The division comprised of three battalions of the Black Watch, a regiment that had first been created in 1740.

– Its 152nd Brigade comprised of the 2nd and 5th Battalions The Seaforth Highlanders, and the 5th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

– Its 153rd Brigade aligned the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, and the 1st and 5th/7th Battalions The Gordon Highlanders.

– Finally, its 154th Brigade was made up of the 1st and 7th Battalions The Black Watch, and the 7th Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The German forces opposing the offensive

The 89.Infantrerie-Division would bear the bulk of the offensive. The unit had been formed in January 1944 in Bergen near Celle, in northern Germany, as a division of the 25th wave, and trained in Norway from March to June. It was commanded (from February to September 1944) by Generalleutnant Conrad Oskar Heinrichs. In June, it was ordered to join the western front and four trains arrived at Le Havre and in the Amiens sector on 26 June, although by this time the rest of the trains carrying the men had not yet reached the OB West. Like the 84.ID and 85.ID (which would also see combat in Normandy), the division was low on numbers, with only 8,000-8,500 men. In fact, it comprised of only two infantry regiments; the Grenadier-Regiment 1058 and the Grenadier-Regiment 1056. Its artillery regiment (189) comprised of three groups and it also had an anti-tank group (Panzerjäger-Abteilung 189) with a single battery, and a battalion of fusiliers, the Füsilier-Battalion 189. On 3 August, it was placed under the authority of I.SS-Panzer-Korps and the next day its units were approaching the front. The Grenadier-Regiment 1056 was already in the Falaise/Bretteville-sur-Laize area, along with III./Artillerie-Regiment 189 and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 189. The Füsilier-Bataillon 189 and II./Artillerie-Regiment 189 were near Thiberville, while I./Artillerie-Regiment 189 was still south of Lisieux (according to OB West I Nr. 6450/44 g.Kdos, 4.8.44, T311, R28, F7035148). The division was in line by 6 August, reinforced by 13 Sturmpanzer IVs, which had been provisionally detached from Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 (from OB West Ia Nr. 6526/44 g Kdos 6.8.44, TR 311, R28, F7035220 and Pz.Gr.West Ia Nr. 801/44, g.Kdos, 7.8.44, Nachtrag zur Tagesmeldung 6.8, T313, R420, F8714118).

On the left flank was the 271.Infanterie-Division, which had been formed in November 1943 in the centre of Germany, from the former staff of the 137.ID and a large number of soldiers from this division, which had been dissolved after two years of fighting on the Eastern front. It took the number of an old 271.ID, which had been formed at the beginning of the summer of 1940 in Wehrkreis (military region) V and was made up of elderly soldiers who were to be sent to France in case the country continued to resist. As the campaign in France only lasted six weeks, the division was dissolved and its number was reassigned to a new division formed in Wehrkreis XIII. It completed its training in Holland and then joined the Montpellier sector, in the South of France. It quickly reached full strength, having just 119 men on 1 April 1944, but 11,617 men plus 1,004 Hiwis (volunteers from the USSR) by 19 June. It had 330 machine guns and 72 sub-machine guns, 58 8 cm mortars, 19 7.5 cm infantry guns, 6 15 cm heavy infantry guns, 32 10.5 cm howitzers, 22 7.5 cm Pak guns, 188 motorcycles, 158 light vehicles, 164 trucks, 38 self-propelled vehicles and 4,484 horses! It comprised of three infantry regiments; the GR 977, 978 and 979. The Artillery-Regiment 271 (four groups) had 3-4 guns for the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th and 11th batteries. The 12th had 3 guns, the others 4 (Anlagen zum KTB Nr.2 LVIII, Pz.Korps Ia, Gliederung 271. New Div.I.7.44, T314, R1496, F000963). The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 271 was a single company (Panzerjäger-Kompanie). The division was sent to the Normandy front at the end of June, embarking from Lyon on 1 July. It headed first for Rouen, because at the time, the plan was to send it to the Pas-de-Calais. Then, on the night of 13-14 July, its first elements (II./GR 979 and Panzer-Kompanie) arrived in the area north of Thury-Harcourt. On 15 July, 47 trains were scheduled to leave and 23 of them arrived with men. Three days later, the following elements arrived: II./GR.978, 3., 8. and 9./AR 271 at Livarot, II./AR 271, 13e and 14./GR 979 at Falaise, the Pionier-Bataillon 271, III./AR 271 (partially) were at Bernay, the 1st and 2nd batteries of AR 271 were at Brionne, most of the IV./AR 271 was at Chartres, I./GR 978 and the 7th battery of AR 271 were in Houdan, while the I./GR 971 was in Rouen. On 23 July, the bulk of the division took over from the 10.SS-Panzer-Division Frundsberg in the sector of Hill 112, west of the Orne. The other elements arrived the following day, but part of the units were still in the Livarot/Saint-Pierre-sur-Dive/Mézidon sector. Then, during the retreat to shorten the front line, the 271.ID moved to hold the eastern bank of the Orne between the left flank of the 89.ID and Thury-Harcourt, relieving the 9.SS-Panzer-Division. This was its position on the eve of Operation Totalize. From December 1943 to October 1944, the division was commanded by Generallutnant Paul Danhauser.

Sturmpanzer IV ‘Brumbär’ (sd.Kfz. 166)

Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 was the only unit to have been equipped with Sturmpanzer IVs during the Battle of Normandy, and had short 15 cm howitzers mounted on an armoured cockpit on a Panzer IV chassis. Although the gun’s low speed made it ineffective against tanks, it was otherwise useful against fixed targets. The battalion comprised of three companies of fourteen vehicles each and three others for the command company. Its organisation was similar to that of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 216, which saw action at the Battle of Kursk. This unit was first stationed in the Reich (at Grafenwöhr), and on 24 June 1944 received orders to join the Normandy front, reaching the area around Condé-sur-Noireau/Le Bény-Bocage and Vire on 18 July. However, it did not appear to have all of its allocated panzers and it would only be used sparingly. On 21 July, its 2nd Company was in the 21.Panzer-Division’s sector and was attached to the division two days later. On 24 July it comprised of eleven Sturmpanzer IVs, with two in repair. On 29 July it was attached to the 1.SS-Panzer-Division LAH. The next day, it lined up nine panzers, with two in repair. On 30 July, 3rd Company was transferred from the II.SS-Panzer-Korps to the LXXIV Korps. On 6 August, thirten Sturmpanzer IVs from this battalion were with the 89.Infanterie-Division (Pz.Gr.West Ia Nr. 853/44 g. Kdos, 10.8.44, Nachtragzur Tagesmeldung 9.8., T313, R420, F87141177). On 9 August, ten of these panzers were in action with the Hitlerjugend and only one with the 89.ID. On the 10th, only five were operational with the HJ, and the situation was the same the following day. On 11 August, 1st Company was attached to the 271.Infanterie-Division (Pz AOK 5 Ia Nr 899 /44g. Kdos, 12.8.44, Nachtrag zur Tagesmeldung 11.8., T313, R420, F87141187). According to a report of 16 August, the battalion’s losses from 1-15 August were ten killed, thirty-five wounded and twelve missing. Out of 772 men, 69 were missing. A total of seventeen Sturmpanzer IVs were combat ready, but fourteen were under repair (predicted to be ready in less than three weeks). The battalion’s tanks would see action equally between the 89.ID and the HJ, as the two units fought side by side.

An anti-aircraft Crusader III AA MK3 TANK from the 1st Polish Armoured Regiment. Note the letters ‘PL’ for Poland and the number 51 for the unit.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division

The 1st Polish Armoured Division was commanded by Major General Stanislaw Maczek, who had been a colonel in the 10th (Motorised) Cavalry Brigade in Poland as early as October 1937 (the brigade had been formed in the spring of 1937). After fighting in Poland, the brigade retreated to Hungary and the men headed for France at the end of October 1939. Following the defeat of France, many of its members made their way to Britain, where the idea of reconstituting a Polish armoured unit quickly re-emerged, thanks to the efforts of General Sikorski. The remnants of the 10th Brigade settled in Scotland, establishing its headquarters at Forfar. Due to their travels throughout Europe, German propaganda described the brigade’s men on the radio as ‘General Sikorski’s tourists’. However, they would eventually prove to be very formidable opponents and the decision to regroup them in an English armoured division, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, was taken on 25 February 1942 on the orders of General Sikorski.

Even after intensive training, its numbers were still inadequate as there were too many older soldiers. The division was inspected by Marshal Montgomery on 13 March 1944 and a month later, on 13 April, General Eisenhower’s inspection prompted more sympathy among the Poles. By the time of Operation Overlord, the division comprised of 885 officers, and 15,210 non-commissioned officers and men. Its resources included a reconnaissance unit, an armoured brigade, a detached infantry brigade, divisional artillery, and engineering and service units, just as any other British division.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 10th Polish Mounted Rifles, equipped with Cromwell tanks and commanded by Major Maciejewski.

– The 10th Polish Armoured (Cavalry) Brigade was commanded by Colonel T. Majewski, with Major Marian Czarnecki as his Chief of Staff. It was known as the ‘Schwarze Brigade’ (Black Brigade) by the Germans, in reference to the colour of the uniforms worn by the tank crews. The men also wore black berets, unlike their British counterparts, who wore khaki ones. The brigade, commanded by Colonel Wladislawdec, was equipped with Sherman tanks and included the 1st Polish Armoured Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Stefanewicz (its regimental insignia bore the coat of arms of Saint-Nicholas); the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment; the 24th Polish Lancers Regiment and the 10th Polish Dragoons Regiment.

– The 3rd Polish Infantry Brigade, or 3rd Rifle Brigade, included the 1st Polish (Highland) Battalion; the 8th Polish Battalion (or 8th Rifle Battalion); the 9th Polish Battalion (or 9th Rifle Battalion), which was known as Flanders, and the 1st Polish Independent HMG Squadron.

– The division’s artillery was provided by the 1st Polish Motorised Artillery Regiment; the 2nd Polish Motorised Artillery Regiment; the 1st Polish Anti-Tank Regiment, and the 1st Polish Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

– Other units included the Engineers (10th and 11th sappers), as well as medical services, military courts, reserve squadrons etc.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division joined the front only shortly before Operation Totalize, on 30 July 1944. Edward Podyma was originally from Poland, but had been living in Normandy, near Potigny, where a large Polish community had settled in the area in the 1920s, due to the iron mines:

How did I find myself in this war? I received mobilization orders from the Polish Army (in France) on 11 June 1940, more than two months before my eighteenth birthday. I first had to go to a recruiting centre in Coëtquidan, 45 kilometres south-west of Rennes. In June 1940, the situation escalated quickly and there was no alternative but to defend our cause. Those who choose to continue the struggle headed for England. After four years of training in Scotland we were eager to see some action, but we didn’t land on the Normandy coast until 30 July 1944, at Courseulles-sur-Mer.

Other units, especially the armoured ones, disembarked at Arromanches. The division gathered to the south of Bayeux before finally setting out for the front on 6 August. Besides Corporal Podyma, other Poles from the Potigny area included Michal Kuc, who had arrived in Normandy in 1924 and worked as a miner in Saint-Rémy-sur-Orne. He was now the driver for the brigade commander, Major Wladislawdec’s tank. Meanwhile, Stephan Barylak, who had arrived in France at the age of seven, had also been signed up in Coetquidan before travelling to England. In April 1942 he was incorporated into the 24th Lancers. All three men worried about their families, and whether or not they would encounter them during this offensive, especially when destiny saw fit to bring them so close to the Polish colony of Potigny.