United States Invasion of Panama


A U.S. Marine Corps LAV-25 in Panama.


Tactical map of Operation Just Cause showing major points of attack.

(Operation Just Cause) (1989)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Manuel Antonio Noriega, the president of Panama, and his Panamanian Defense Force vs. the United States


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: In a climate of deteriorating relations between the United States and Panama’s dictator, the United States supported an alternative Panamanian government, then invaded the nation to arrest Noriega on drug-trafficking charges.

OUTCOME: Noriega was apprehended, brought to the United States for trial, convicted, and imprisoned.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: U. S. forces, 24,000; unspecified number of Panama Defense Force (PDF) troops

CASUALTIES: United States, 19 killed, 303 wounded; PDF, 314 killed, 124 wounded, 5,313 taken prisoner; numerous collateral civilian casualties

The 1989 invasion of Panama was unique in American military history as an act of war essentially directed against an individual, Manuel Antonio Noriega (b. 1938), the president of Panama. In 1988, Noriega had been indicted by a U. S. federal grand jury for drug trafficking. Following this, the administrations of both Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) used economic and diplomatic sanctions to pressure the dictator into resigning. When these failed, the United States, in the spring of 1989, deployed additional marine units and army and air force units to U. S. installations in Panama. Noriega failed to take the hint. In October 1989, a coup attempt against Noriega by members of the Panamanian army was put down by troops loyal to him. This failure was followed by several incidents of harassment against U. S. citizens and then by Noriega’s issuance of a “declaration against the United States.” Shortly after this call to arms, Panamanian soldiers killed an off-duty U. S. Army officer. The events precipitated, on December 19, 1989, the U. S.-sanctioned creation of an alternative government for Panama, led by President Gullermo Endara (b. 1936), who was sworn in by a Panamanian judge at a U. S. military base. Early the next morning, December 20, Operation Just Cause began.

It began when U. S. F-117 stealth fighters bombed the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) barracks. The raid was the combat debut of the new fighter, and Operation Just Cause would also serve as the maiden battle of the army’s innovative light infantry and special operations forces, which had been trained specifically for such operations. The army would be responsible for the major aspects of the operation, but among the 24,000 troops, navy SEALs, air force personnel, and Air National Guard units also participated.

The object of the operation was to capture Noriega. Marines were assigned to guard the entrances to the Panama Canal and other U. S. defense sites located in the Canal Zone. Rangers and other special task forces were dropped by Apache attack helicopters over key points in the Canal Zone. Troops aboard M-113 armored personnel carriers emerged from Fort Sherman and rode through the streets of Panama City, engaging whatever PDF units they encountered. The Rangers, reinforced by marines, moved toward the central Canal Zone, pausing to attack the Commandancia, headquarters of Noriega and the PDF. Simultaneously, other task forces guarded the western entrances of the Panama Canal opposite Balboa and Panama City as well as other U. S. defense sites located in the Canal Zone. These forces were assigned to block the PDF from infiltrating the Canal Zone and from moving reinforcements from Panama City. American units also took and held Torrijos International Airport, the Bridge of the Americas, and Rio Hato airfield, 90 miles south of Panama City. Another task force secured all U. S. military bases, and yet another was assigned to free prisoners taken by the PDF. Air force and Air National Guard units provided continuous close-air support for the ground troops.

For the first time in its history, the Panama Canal was closed; it would reopen on December 21. Fighting continued for five days, house to house, as marines conducted a manhunt for PDF troops as well as for Noriega, who had disappeared. In the meantime, a special civil-affairs Rangers battalion was airlifted to Panama City to assist President Endara in establishing order. The civil-affairs Rangers also went about creating a new police force, the Panama Public Force, to preserve civil order after U. S. troops withdrew.

By this time, the United States had learned that Noriega had sought refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, but was refused sanctuary. Not until January 1990 was he located, arrested, and transported to the United States for trial, which began in Miami in the fall of 1991. Witnesses testified that Noriega had laundered Colombian drug money in Panama and had used his country as a clearinghouse for cocaine on its way to the United States. On April 10, 1992, Noriega was convicted on eight counts of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. He was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. For the first time in history, the United States had captured, tried, convicted, and punished a head of state for criminal wrongdoing.

Further reading: Thomas Donnelly, Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama (New York: Lexington Books, 1991); Malcolm McConnell, Just Cause: The Real Story of America’s High-Tech Invasion of Panama (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991).



Rees’s 19 Division, the first to cross, was also the first to achieve its object:

The recapture of Mandalay.

The 4/4 Gurkhas had taken the summit of Mandalay Hill, but in the subterranean chambers bored in the hillside the Japanese defenders survived and came out to snipe at the attackers who were waiting for them to emerge, thumbs ready to press the buttons of vigilant machine guns. It was the engineers who solved the problem, and in a particularly gruesome way. Under the surface of this hill, with its temples dedicated to an ideal of tranquility and non-violence, they burst open the concrete casings with explosive, poured petrol through the gaps and then fired Very lights into them. Anti-tank projectiles were used to blow down steel doors, through which petrol drums were rolled and exploded with grenades. This ghastly inferno was the key to victory. By 12 March, Mandalay Hill was clear. It would have been cleared earlier, the Indian Army Official History states, but ‘Major-General Rees had decided not to bomb the sacred places, the pagodas, though [a] lot of machine-gun fire was poured on the garrison from the air. Rees had served in Mandalay as a young officer, and no doubt knew its importance as a religious centre. But the casuistically distinction between aerial bombardment and explosives igniting petrol drums is not easy to follow. Or perhaps the purpose was aesthetic rather than moral: when Compton Mackenzie toured Mandalay in 1947 in preparation for his Indian Army History, a Gurkha battalion commander explained to him the difficulties of removing the Japanese without destroying the hill, and, he commented, he could wish that ‘the Americans had always been as scrupulous in Italy. ..I could not help contrasting the lot of Mandalay Hill with that of Cassino.

Fort Dufferin was next. 5.5 inch howitzers breached the walls, Thunderbolts bombed the bridge on the south side of the moat, 8/12 Frontier Force Regiment and 1/6 Gurkhas probed the approaches. But the Japanese reacted strongly. Their guns stopped the tanks accompanying the Gurkhas and the attack came to a halt. For several days the British guns continued to pound the walls, but the 50-foot earth ramparts behind them simply absorbed the shells.

Rees then decided to use a tactic remarkably similar to those of the Japanese ninja, the silent, invisible killers of samurai fiction. ‘Exercise Duffy’, as it was called, was meant to achieve a secret entry into the fort, to establish a foothold which could then be exploited. Rees was insistent that it was to be inexpensive in terms of casualties:

“The operation I intend is one of surprise; a silent start and rapid seizing of the bridgehead, NOT the forcing of an entry at all costs by bludgeon methods. If the surprise operation at reasonably light cost is not possible owing to enemy vigilance and preparations, then it will not be pressed home at all costs.”

The operation was entrusted to 1/15 Punjab and 8/12 Frontier Force of 64 Brigade (Flewett). They were to leave behind their steel helmets and change their boots for rubber-soled shoes. They would be brought to the walls in the darkness by engineers manning assault boats, with scaling ladders at the ready, and six man-pack flame-throwers and a machine-gun company would augment their firepower when the attack went in, which was at 10 pm on 17 March. They reached the north-east and north-west corners of the Fort in the darkness, but as they made for the breaches the guns had opened, the Japanese opened fire, sinking one of the boats. In the early hours of the 18th, a platoon which had a foothold on the railway bridge in the north-west corner (the railway ran right through the west side of the Fort) was met by automatic fire and driven back. The flame- throwers never got near enough to be of use. Realizing that any of his men caught on the walls by the morning light would be mercilessly shot down, Rees called off the attack at 3.30 am.

After the failure of ‘Exercise Duffy’, the battering began again. The RAF bombed the north wall, to little purpose, and 6-inch howitzers made seventeen more breaches in the north and east walls, on the theory that the Japanese could only man a small number of breaches and in the end would not be able to defend them all. B25s used skip-bombing with 2000lb bombs, the kind of thing that had been used against the Mohne Dam. The result was a 15-foot hole in the wall, and nothing more.3 Rees described for ” the BBC, again, a typical day’s assault on the Fort in the earlier phase -10 March-:

“Let’s get under cover. The Frontier Force are attacking Mandalay Fort now. You can probably hear the noise of the shelling, mortaring, shooting. I’m fairly close to the walls myself, standing, looking half round a concrete wall. Our chaps are advancing steadily, bunching a little more than I’d like to see them. They’re going very well. The tanks are advancing, firing very hard at the walls. You can see where our medium guns, firing direct, have made breaches in the walls of the fort. You can see the bullets flicking the ground just ahead of me. I think actually they’re our own tank bullets. The tank Besa’s co-axial firing just ahead of the infantry, smothering the operation. I can see one of our infantry running across now, just near the fort wall.

I’ll get my glasses on. I can see the breach, but there’s a big moat, this side. I can now see some of our leading infantry. They’ve just doubled to behind a concrete shelter which the sappers have built before the war, because we’re standing now in the sapper lines just north of Mandalay Fort, actually called Fort Dufferin, with a palace in- side.

Tremendous lot of noise going on. A whole lot of smoke now, near the wall itself, which is a very good thing for our infantry. I’m not quite sure which of the firing is the enemy firing. I can see some of our infantry running round the tanks. Not always a wise thing to stand near a tank. Now I can see more of our infantry going across now, they’re running across near the tanks, they’re in slouch hats, Australian hats, Gurkha hats, very clear to see.

Rees’s instructions from the Corps Commander to avoid unnecessary damage to Mandalay were proving increasingly difficult to observe. Slim was confident the Fort could be bypassed, and considered its capture to be a matter of news value rather than military advantage. Rees did not want a repetition of the stalemate at Myitkyina, and sought desperately for ways of substituting cunning for the bludgeon of artillery and air strikes. ‘Duffy’ had failed, but he remembered that, as the Governor of Burma’s Military

Secretary in pre-war days, he had explored the Fort and discovered a culvert which went beneath the moat. He decided to find it again, and an assault unit was got ready to follow a Burmese who knew the plan of the Mandalay sewers. Sappers found that it was possible to approach the Fort from underneath, as they waded through the sewers, up to their thighs in mud.

It would have been a nauseatingly filthy attack. Happily, it was not necessary. In the early afternoon of 20 March, after yet another air-strike had taken place, four Anglo-Burmans – civilian prisoners held by the Japanese – carrying a white flag and a Union Jack came out of the north gate. Already harassed by the incursion of 17 Division into Central Burma, and not wishing to see the morale of his troops deteriorate, the GOC 15 . Army, Katamura, relaxed his order to the defenders. 51 and 60 Infantry Regiments were ordered to put in a final attack on 19 Indian Division and then withdraw. The order was given on 18 March. 60 Regiment occupied the Government Farms Buildings area (called in the Japanese texts ‘the Agricultural College’) on the south edge of the city. During the night of 19 March, the main body of 15 Division withdrew from Mandalay. They were as well informed as Rees: they came out through a drain under the moat.

Slim was at Monywa when the news came through. Air Vice-Marshal Vincent at once detailed a Sentinel light plane from the L5 detachment of 194 Squadron, RAF, to fly him into Mandalay to take the salute at the victory parade, escorted by two Spitfires.

2 British Division got in on the act; but only just. Brigadier Michael West, of 5 Brigade, had been told to link up with his opposite number from 19 Division in Mandalay, and he drove up on 21 March, taking Colonel White, the Commanding Officer of the Dorsets, with him, a troop of Grant tanks, and some armoured carriers. There was no one at the crossroads rendezvous, except a puzzled military policeman, who sent them on to the Fort. They drove through the shambles of the city -White was oppressed by its air of desolation -past the ruins of King Thibaw’s Palace, and on to the parade ground where they found 19 Division drawn up on the site of Government House, in the presence of Slim, Messervy, and three divisional commanders. ‘It was perhaps most fitting’, White wrote later, ‘that the Dorsets gate-crashed this party to represent the 2nd Division, as we and the troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guards with us were the only troops of the Division to fight in Mandalay itself.’ All the more appropriate since the Dorsets wore the battle honour’ Ava’ for the Burma War of 1824-6, during which they had not entered Mandalay. By another odd coincidence, the fourth Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, who was with a Field Broadcasting Unit, was killed in an ambush between Ava and Fort Dufferin on 23 March.3 The flag was hoisted over Fort Dufferin, as soon as 72 Brigade went in, by Rees himself – according to Slim – or by a gunner of 134 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery -according to the Official History. The ceremony was repeated by Slim at the formal parade to make sure everyone realized that more than one division had collaborated in the capture: ‘The capture of Mandalay had been as much the result of operations at Meiktila and elsewhere as of those around the city itself. Every one of my divisions had played its part; it was an Army victory. I thought it would be good for everyone to have that fact demonstrated.’

From: Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War 1941-1945. London: Phoenix Press, 1984. ISBN: 1 84212 260 6. Pb. 686p. Illus. Maps. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pages 420-24.



After about 6 weeks of fighting on the bridgehead the pressure began to ease, as our Division in the South began “breaking out” of its bridgehead and the enemy began to retreat towards Mandalay. First, the shelling eased off somewhat. Then night attacks became less ferocious and we began aggressively patrolling. They had constructed strong bunker positions around our perimeter and the Indian Airforce attacked these with varying success.

From dead Japanese we gathered notebooks and written messages and these were sent to Divisional H.Q where they were interpreted by C.I.S.D.I.C. personnel. These were Japanese Americans who were loaned to us. One such message from a Japanese Sergeant killed on our wire said “tonight we attack the hated British for the last time – tonight we die, this is glorious!”

Then we started to move South. This time, of course, on the East side of the Irrawaddy. The advance was pretty horrible in Teak forest where the undergrowth had been burnt and we trudged through deep ash. We moved in two echelons, each with its artillery so that one could support the other.

Madaya was the next big town before Mandalay. The Japs had fought here too. There were mines and booby-traps everywhere for the unwary. We were constantly involved with Japanese stragglers and worse, enemy suicide patrols. Bill Minto, our quartermaster, was involved in quite a battle when ambushed bringing forward our rations with Peter Sibree. He was awarded a Military Cross for his action. Bill Minto never failed us, feeding the battalion under the most trying circumstances.

Thoughts were always for a rest but not for us. Transport became available and we were carried towards Mandalay. Mandalay Hill eventually hove into sight; a very beautiful one but to any attacking infantry soldier, a daunting one.

The hill, covered with temples and shrines dominated, everything. It was obvious when we de-bussed and marched towards the battle area that the Division was not having it all its own way.

Several of our tanks had been knocked out and were burning before the hill. As we arrived the Baluch Regiment were retreating, having been given a bloody-nose. The Recce. Regt. named “Stiletto Force” was stuck around the lower part of the Hill and were pinned down.

We, the 4/4, spread out in what is called “extended order” over a large area and watched feeling vaguely sorry for the troops at the “sharp end”. It was always thus. We were actually lying in an area of cultivated land on which delicious tomatoes were growing. They were the Italian type of tomato and I had never seen them before. We gorged ourselves, as we watched the battle ahead.

The Jap occasionally sent over the odd shell but in the main he concentrated on those troops actually attacking.

A hare, an animal, which I don’t think I ever saw before in Burma, was suddenly put up and began to dash through our position towards the enemy. Gurkhas are like children when something like this happens, particularly when “Shikar” (game) is concerned. There were shouts of excitement and laughter as attempts to catch the poor thing were made. Eventually, it was caught and tossed into the air amid great shouts of “shabash”! All this time the battle raged.

Orders were then given for the Royal Berkshires, with us in support, to make a frontal attack supported by tanks. The General intervened and Col. MacKay our C.O. asked for us to lead and tackle the Hill with a night attack. Hamish, having served in Burma, knew the area well and his plea was accepted.

Our plan was to march at night by compass bearing to the army rifle-butts that lay to the East of the Hill. From here, we would make our assault at night. As the Intelligence Officer in charge of navigation, it was my responsibility to get us there. The intelligence section were well trained at this, but it was always dodgy because they had to be near the leading scouts to guide them.

The battalion started off with our mules but we ran into trouble because we were unable to cross a number of chaungs (canals) quietly enough. At one point we could hear the enemy shouting on the Hill and they were too close for comfort.

It was decided to send the mules back and go onto a ‘man-pack’ basis. This is not pleasant as it means that very heavy weights; ammunition, mortars, bombs etc. had to be carried by men, who would shortly be required to climb a very steep hill, to attack the Japanese who were waiting for them. B Company were sent back with the mules.

Fortunately for me, A Company arrived exactly on target, formed a strong base and sent out patrols.

It was D Company’s turn to lead and C prepared to follow in support. The attack started at 3.00 am and D started off. Fighting started almost immediately and A Company’s base was attacked at the same time. The Japs were driven off with heavy losses.

As dawn broke there was a shout of “Ayo Gurkhali” as they stormed the summit and David Hine, the gunner O.P. with them, directed excellent and accurate fire on the Defenders. It was a tremendous battle; Khukris bayonets and hand-grenades before the hill was ours.

As usual they immediately counter-attacked and sustained losses.

Some Japs took up positions in the many temples and barrels of petrol were rolled down slopes and fired with phosphorus grenades. The Royal Berkshires took over the mopping-up of those who survived our assault.

We carried on fighting around the hill and actually suffered greater casualties than we did in taking the hill.

The moated Fort Dufferin lay at the foot of the hill and contained a beautiful palace. I am glad that I saw this building before it was destroyed. Whether the Japs, the RAF or our gunners did the damage is not known but it was soon reduced to rubble.

The capture of the Hill was a battle honour for the Fourth Gurkha Rifles and together with the fact that we were the first to cross the Irrawaddy caused the General to describe us as a “magnificent battalion” in the despatches. There is a memorial on the Hill to the 4/4 G.R casualties (see photograph).

Lt. Col John Masters, a famous author after the war, a 4th Gurkha in it; was the G.I. of 19 Indian Division. The G.I. is the principal staff officer and is the General’s chief planner and advisor.

In his book “The Road Past Mandalay” he tells the story of the battle for the hill as follows:-

“The lion-like bulk of Mandalay Hill climbed over the southern horizon. Rising nearly a thousand feet above the plain, the spine of it is covered from end to end by temples, linked by a covered stairway. Under the temples lie cellars and dwellings and storage rooms. The Japanese held the whole complex, in strength, and from it their artillery observers directed a heavy gunfire on to our leading troops.

Pete and I spent an unpleasant hour under its western slope on two successive days. Every movement, particularly of vehicles, drew prompt and accurate fire from 105s and 155s. On our first visit a shell made a direct hit on a jeep twenty feet from us. After picking ourselves up we ran forward to help the man lying there beside the burning wreckage, but he was dead, incredibly shrunk so that I thought it must be a child; but it was a mangled mess of adult humanity, an Indian sepoy, red flesh thrown anyhow into torn green trousers. A dozen more shells were on their way and we left him.

We could make no further advance until we took Mandalay Hill. The general allotted the task to 98 Brigade, and they to the Royal Berkshires. But the 4th Battalion of the 4th Gurkhas was in that brigade, and its commanding officer came forward to protest. Hamish Mackay, very quiet and shy-seeming, in reality full of fire and fey humour, pointed out that he knew the area well having been seconded to the Burma Rifles from 1937 to 1942. Hamish thought he could take the hill with his battalion, that night, using little known paths of approach. The orders were changed, and Hamish was given his head.

On the night of March 10-11 (again, our Regimental Day), the battalion went up to the assault, led by Subadar Damarsing and Jemadar Aiman. All night they fought up the steep, up the long stairway and along the flanks of the ridge. At dawn they took the summit. An hour later Pete and I stood on the highest point of Mandalay Hill, looking down into the city and into the palace of the ancient kings of Burma. Once they had been spacious beautiful, with avenues of shady trees; now three and a half years of war had battered them, and columns of dust rose in the streets where our shells fell, and half the houses had no roofs, and to the south acres of corrugated iron, which had once been a warehouse or factory, glittered dully in the early sun. The Irrawaddy ran wide and yellow on our right and immediately below us the old splendour still lived in the brilliant white of the pagodas climbing down the ridge towards the moat and the wall of the fortress.

We stood, so to speak on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars, and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete. The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.

A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs. Their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway. Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through the brain five yards from me. Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Verey light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and Japanese rolled out into the open, on fire, but firing. Our machine-gunners pressed their thumb-pieces. The Japanese fell, burning. We blew in huge steel doors with PIATs (bazookas), rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets. Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from the flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten alive by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot – to face the moat and thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.

Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5.5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000 pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.

We found a municipal employee who knew where the sewers led out of the fort, and prepared an assault party. All the while the infantry fought in the brick and stone rubble of the burning city, among corpses of children and dead dogs and the universal sheets of corrugated-iron. The night the sewer assault was to go in the Japanese withdrew from Mandalay. Next morning coal-black Madrassi sappers blew in the main gate, and Pete walked in, surrounded by a cheering, yelling mob of a dozen races. Just as Pete – but not his superiors – had planned, the ‘Dagger’ Division had taken Mandalay. At the same time Jumbo Morris took Maymyo. Jumbo Morris was commander of 62 Brigade.”

Subadar Damarsing, Jemadar Aiman and Capt. David Hine were all awarded military crosses. Col. Hamish Mackay was given another bar to his D.S.O.

As Mandalay fell to 19 Indian Division, 2 British Division and 5 Indian Division crossed the Irrawaddy to the South of the town and so began the destruction of the Japanese in Burma.

‘Bring England to its knees’ I

Operation “Sea Lion” – Invading England In 1940? [Part One]

In their urgent preparations against invasion during the last weeks of May 1940, the British military and civil authorities laboured under a profound delusion. At this time, the Germans had no detailed plans whatsoever to invade England. When the Chiefs of Staff warned on 28 May that ‘an attack is imminent’ they were mistaken. All the energies of the Wehrmacht were concentrated on the defeat of France and the Low Countries. Operations across the Channel by sea or air had never come under serious consideration before the western offensive was launched on 10 May.

The lack of any comprehensive German strategy for invasion reflected Hitler’s own ambivalence towards England, which oscillated between hatred and admiration. On one hand he saw Britain as potentially the biggest obstacle to his dreams of European domination. On the other, he cherished a deep respect for Britain’s achievements, especially in building her empire and defeating her continental enemies, and was inclined to see the British establishment, including the class system, Oxbridge and the elite public schools, as a bulwark against Bolshevism. On one occasion, the German army’s chief of staff General Franz Halder entered the Führer’s office to find him happily leafing through a copy of the Illustrated London News. Hitler looked up from the magazine and said, ‘That we have to make war against such personages, isn’t it a pity?’ Mixed with this high regard for Britain’s record was his belief, so characteristic of his racially fixated ideology, that the Anglo-Saxon people were essentially of the same ethnic stock as the Germans.

Apart from his contradictory attitudes towards British nationhood, there were two more practical factors that had prevented him developing any invasion plan during the first nine months of the war. One was his lack of interest in naval policy. Filled with visions of conquest by land to expand the Lebensraum, or living space, for the German people, he treated the army and the Luftwaffe as far greater military priorities than the Kriegsmarine. On a personal level, Hitler felt little attraction to nautical activities. Forests and mountains were where he liked to relax, not by the sea, which he regarded as alien, even intimidating territory. ‘On land I feel like a lion but at sea I am a coward,’ he once admitted. Just as importantly, he believed that Britain would capitulate if France were defeated. With the Reich all-powerful on the continent, he did not see any reason why the war would continue since Britain’s cause would have become so hopeless. The collapse of France would force the British government to seek terms. Indeed, one of the key goals of the western offensive, he said, was ‘to bring England to its knees’.

According to Hitler, if Britain refused to surrender in the event of France’s collapse, then she could be strangled into submission by cutting off her supplies, making invasion unnecessary. He told a conference of his commanders in May 1939, ‘Britain can be blockaded from western France at close quarters by the Luftwaffe, while the Navy with their submarines can extend the range of the blockade.’

When the commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, met Hitler on 23 September 1939 to discuss naval operations in the West, the Führer again made no reference to any amphibious landings on the English coast, urging instead an aggressive naval blockade if the war continued against France and Britain. ‘The quicker the start and the more brutal, the quicker the effect and the shorter the war,’ he told Raeder. Nevertheless, for all Hitler’s indifference, Raeder recognised that the Reich might well have to mount an invasion.

Ambitious, eccentric and puritanical, the grand admiral was also methodical and well organised. What he feared was a sudden demand from Hitler or the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff for the provision of an invasion fleet, complete with troop transports and convoy protection. Although the possibility of invasion might seem remote, Raeder felt he should be prepared for it, particularly since, throughout the autumn of 1939, Hitler was plotting an assault on France, code-named Case Yellow. As Raeder later wrote of the preliminary analysis by the naval war staff:

It was clear to us that studies should be made in case developments of the war suddenly presented us with a new twist to the English problem … Although the British people had been haunted from the first by the spectre of invasion, there had been not the slightest thought of this on the German side. It was only natural, however, that this problem would one day be given attention by the armed forces command, and I wanted to have some soundly reasoned particulars on hand when that time came, so that the thinking could at least begin on a firm basis. The Navy would be the first of the armed forces to be concerned with an invasion, since it would be a question of overseas transport on a colossal scale.

To carry out this technical study, on 15 November Raeder appointed a small team under Rear Admiral Otto Schniewind. The naval planners went to work with speed rather than enthusiasm. Within a fortnight they had produced the tentative outline of an invasion scheme, code-named Study Red, which envisaged a landing area about 60 miles wide on the southern English coast between Portland in Dorset and Yarmouth. The attacking force, which was to number only 7,500 men carried in about fifteen ships, could theoretically embark from the French Channel ports if they had been seized, but that would leave it highly exposed to enemy fire, as well as depriving it of the element of surprise. Therefore, said the planners, embarkation from Germany would be preferable, despite the longer sea route, although an alternative would be to use Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Study Red was essentially pessimistic, with a strong emphasis on the difficulties that any invading force would encounter, such as the strength of British coastal artillery, the mobility of defensive British troops, the threat from Royal Navy submarines, the large amount of shipping required and, above all, the need to establish air superiority over the RAF. As the naval planners pointed out, the paradox was that if all the conditions were achieved to make an invasion possible, especially the defeat of the RAF and the Royal Navy, then Britain would have already been beaten: ‘thus a landing, followed by occupation, will scarcely be necessary.’

This negativity was important, setting the tone for the naval staff’s attitude towards Operation Sea Lion. Throughout the summer of 1940, Raeder and his senior officers remained highly dubious about the whole enterprise, always pushing for a postponement in the invasion or the use of an alternative strategy to subjugate England. Halder noted in his diary on 30 July 1940 after one unproductive conference, ‘The navy in all probability will not provide us this autumn with the means for a successful invasion.’ However, the army was more bullish, as was shown when Schniewind sent his Study Red to the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH), the supreme command of the German army under Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch.

In late 1939, having received the naval plan, von Brauchitsch ordered a counter-study to be conducted by one of his officers, Helmuth Stieff, who was renowned for his organisational skills, although Hitler disliked him, calling him ‘a poisonous little dwarf’. Adopting a more optimistic, less hesitant approach than the naval staff, Stieff drew up an invasion plan, code-named Study North-West, which proposed a series of landings, not on the southern coast, but on the East Anglian shoreline between the Thames Estuary and the Wash. Speed and surprise were the scheme’s key elements. The proposed initial assault would be made up of three or four infantry divisions, along with the 7th Parachute Division, followed by a second wave of two panzer divisions and one motorised division. There would also be a diversionary attack by two divisions north of the Humber to draw British troops away from Norfolk and Suffolk. As the first two invasion strikes moved inland from the coast, a third wave of troops would be landed in East Anglia to ensure the defeat of the British army and to help cut off London from the rest of the country. In contrast to the small invasion force proposed by the Kriegsmarine, Stieff’s plan involved roughly 100,000 men.

The response to his proposal demonstrated the serious lack of unity within the top echelons of the German military, something that was to hinder the preparations for Sea Lion in the months ahead. Raeder’s staff regarded the OKH scheme as completely unrealistic, both in scale and in geography.

As they explained in their reply of 8 January 1940, they believed that the East Anglian ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth were too small for major unloading operations, as well as being heavily defended by the Royal Navy. Moreover, the idea of a diversionary operation in the north would only further weaken the Kriegsmarine’s already limited resources. Indeed, the fleet stipulated in Stieff’s plan far exceeded German maritime strength. ‘The transport required for the forces specified by the General Staff amounts to 400 medium-sized steamers, with in addition a large collection of auxiliary vessels of the most varied nature, some of which must first be constructed.’ The Kriegsmarine estimated that it would probably take a year for such construction work. What made the OKH plan even less feasible, declared Raeder’s staff, was the power of the Royal Navy. ‘The British Home fleet will always be able to appear in greater strength than our own fleet, if the will is there.’

Just as dismissive of Stieff’s scheme was the Luftwaffe, headed by the gargantuan, egocentric figure of Herman Goering. Even more than the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe was always averse to the concept of invasion, partly because Goering, an ideological believer in the pivotal influence of modern air power, thought that his own force could single-handedly overwhelm Britain. This same attitude prevailed in December 1939, when the Luftwaffe staff responded to Stieff’s scheme: ‘The planned operation can only be considered under conditions of absolute air superiority, and even then only if surprise is ensured.’ In conclusion, the Luftwaffe argued that ‘a combined operation with a landing in England as its object must be rejected. It would only be the last act of a war against England which had already taken a victorious course, as otherwise the conditions required for the success of a combined operation do not exist.’

‘Bring England to its knees’ II

In the month following the Norway campaign of April 1940, the speed of the German advance through the Low Countries and France revived the concept of a British invasion. By 20 May the panzer force led by General Heinz Guderian, the pioneering tank commander and one of the architects of blitzkrieg warfare, had reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme. This remarkable dash to the English Channel had brought German troops within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. Concerned that the Führer, fired by his success on land, might impulsively want to send his victorious divisions across the sea, Raeder sought a private meeting with him. As he later explained: ‘The time had come when I had to raise the question of an invasion with Hitler. I was afraid that otherwise some irresponsible person would make the obvious suggestion to invade. Hitler would take up the idea, and the Kriegsmarine would then suddenly find itself faced with an insurmountable problem.’ Hitler agreed to Raeder’s request. The next day the grand admiral travelled to the Felsennest (or ‘rocky eyrie’), the Führer’s remote, craggy headquarters in the Eifel mountain range of western Germany.

Some of Hitler’s generals remember him as hesitant and anxious at this time. As Halder wrote in his diary for 16 May, ‘An unpleasant day. The Führer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would rather pull the reins on us.’ In another entry, Halder recorded that Hitler ‘rages and screams that we are about to ruin the whole campaign and that we are leading up to defeat’.

At the meeting, Raeder set out his deep reservations about the possibility of invading England, stressing the strength of the Royal Navy, the lack of open ports and the need for absolute command of the air. He also put forward another argument that had not previously been aired. ‘The diversion of a huge percentage of Germany’s ocean, coastal and river shipping for transport of the invasion troops, I pointed out, would greatly impair Germany’s domestic economy.’ Adopting a non-committal, almost indifferent attitude, Hitler seemed to accept this, telling the grand admiral that once France had fallen, he would strangle England through the submarine war and aerial bombardment. It was wise to get ready for a long war, the Führer said, although he believed that England ‘would soon come round to peace’. To Raeder’s relief, he ordered that no preparations for an invasion should be made for the time being.

At the very moment when the Felsennest meeting was under way, in England invasion fever was reaching new levels of intensity, as reflected in the surge of recruits to the LDV, the round-up of enemy aliens, the creation of makeshift roadblocks, the establishment of coastal batteries and the spread of barbed wire across the beaches. Little did the British military staff and politicians know that the idea of invasion was far from the Führer’s mind, which was then wholly focused not on a future campaign in Britain but the present one in France. To Hitler, so aggressive yet so paranoid, the sheer speed of the German attack brought its own dangers and doubts. From his deliberations with a few of his generals emerged one of the most extraordinary decisions of the early war, one that was to have a huge influence over Britain’s ability to survive.

By 21 May, with the leading German units surrounding them at the coast, the British Expeditionary Force was isolated and facing defeat. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville noted in his diary, ‘The situation in France is extraordinary. Owing to the rapid advance of armoured troops, the Germans are in many places behind the Allied lines,’ adding ominously, ‘Preparations are being made for the evacuation of the BEF in case of necessity.’ Ironside, in his last week as Chief of the Imperial Staff, thought that the only hope was for the BEF to counter-attack by moving southwards. However, during a visit to see General Gort, the commander of the BEF, he was disturbed by the lack of fighting spirit among the French, writing in his diary on 21 May, ‘Situation desperate … God help the BEF, brought to this state by the incompetence of the French.’

On that same day, due to the Allies’ disorganisation and poor communications, a planned major counter-offensive against the Germans fizzled out after a brave strike near the north-eastern French town of Arras by two divisions and a tank brigade under Major General Harold Franklyn. But the Germans soon regrouped, forcing the BEF into headlong retreat towards the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk. Trapped in the northernmost corner of France, short of supplies and air cover, Gort’s force looked doomed as the panzer divisions seized the port of Boulogne on 23 May just south of Calais, thereby depriving the Royal Navy of a vital facility for any evacuation. ‘I cannot see that we have any hope of getting the BEF out,’ wrote Ironside that night, an opinion shared by Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the Commander of II Corps, who recorded, ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now and the end cannot be far away.’

Yet just as disaster appeared to be inevitable, the British were to be given a glimmer of hope by Hitler and some of his generals, who were suddenly gripped by uncertainty. That evening, Generals Heinz Guderian and Paul von Kleist were leading their panzer forces in a blitzkrieg-style pursuit of the BEF towards Dunkirk when they suddenly received an order from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the head of Army Group A, to halt for thirty-six hours. Guderian was furious, believing that a chance to annihilate the BEF was being thrown away. After the war, he wrote, ‘My repeated protests went unheard. On the contrary, the cursed order became repeated. The order allowed the British army to escape for if we could have continued our rush on Dunkirk, we would have probably been there before the British.’

Von Rundstedt’s decision was driven by concerns about overextended supply lines, the strain on the panzer divisions, the risk of exposing his divisions at the rear and the need to conserve his armour for the final push south against the French. His stop order was endorsed by Hitler, who visited Army Group A headquarters the following morning, 24 May.

After the war, it became common among the surviving German generals to heap all the blame on Hitler for the move. He had acted entirely against their wishes, they said, which just indicated how poor he was as a military strategist. General Wilhelm von Thoma, head of the tank section, said that he ‘begged for permission to let the tanks push on’, but his appeals were fruitless because of the Führer’s influence. As he wrote in 1950, ‘You can never talk to a fool. Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.’ The panzer commander von Kleist, who was just 18 miles from Dunkirk when the stop order was issued, argued that the BEF were able to reach Dunkirk ‘only with the personal help of Hitler’. Similarly the operations officer of Army Group A, General Günther Blumentritt, claimed that ‘Hitler was quite alone in his decision to give the order to stop.’ Senior officers, said Blumentritt, ‘remonstrated strongly but in vain’.

Two vital factors played on Hitler’s mind. The first was the role of the Luftwaffe, whose chief Hermann Goering was Hitler’s closest ally. Revelling in his pre-eminence but jealous of the army’s success in France, he told his leader that, rather than put the German armoured divisions at further risk, given the soft terrain around Dunkirk, the job of annihilating the BEF should be given to the Luftwaffe. The British, he claimed, would be easy prey for his fighters and bombers, declaring grandly, ‘The great mission of the Luftwaffe is imminent: to wipe out the British in northern France. All the army has to do is occupy.’

Hitler’s willingness to indulge Goering’s vanity was partly driven by the second, more political, reason for the stop order, one that highlighted his ambivalence towards the war against Britain. Believing that the British government was anxious to reach a peace deal, he was reluctant to waste his valuable armour in the treacherous Flanders marshes in what he perceived as a pointless fight. Whether the BEF surrendered in the Pas de Calais or returned to Britain as the bedraggled remnant of an army, he was certain that Churchill would have to negotiate terms once France fell, telling his generals at one point, ‘It’s always good to let a broken army return home to show the civilian population what a beating they’ve had.’

On a deeper level, because of his respect for Britain, for a moment he lacked the ruthlessness that he usually showed towards his enemies. Blumentritt later claimed that he and his planning staff had been amazed at their leader’s attitude on 23 May. ‘He astonished us by speaking of his admiration for the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence and of the civilisation that Britain had brought to the world.’ This was also the recollection of von Rundstedt, who said that, at their Charleville meeting, Hitler had explained his hopes to ‘make an earlier peace with the England’ by letting the BEF escape. According to the general’s testimony, written in 1949 with the benefit of hindsight, the Führer said, ‘The British empire could not be destroyed even in 100 years. England must only keep her hands off the European continent and return our colonies to us.’

Whatever its justification, the order had a crucial impact on the BEF’s chances of survival. By the time it was lifted on 26 May and the German tanks began to move again, much of Lord Gort’s force had managed to reach Dunkirk. Added assistance was given to the retreat by the heroic resistance put up by the British garrison at Calais, where units of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the 30th Motor Brigade under Brigadier Claude Nicholson tied up a large number of panzers and troops. Essentially, Nicholson’s brave band was sacrificed in order to protect the BEF, since he was instructed by Churchill not to withdraw but to fight to the bitter end. General Pug Ismay, Churchill’s aide, witnessed the prime minister’s anguish at this moment. ‘It is a terrible thing to condemn a body of splendid men to death or captivity. The decision affected us all very deeply, especially perhaps Churchill. He was unusually silent during dinner that evening, and he ate and drank with evident distaste. As we rose from the table, he said, “I feel physically sick.” ’

That same evening, as the first Germans came within artillery range of the British and French troops now based in Dunkirk, the War Cabinet agreed to order the start of the evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo. The following morning Churchill wrote to Gort, his letter revealing his sense of foreboding. ‘At this solemn moment, I cannot help sending you my good wishes. No one can tell you how it will go. But anything is better than being cooped up and starved out.’ It seemed a forlorn hope at the beginning of Dynamo that many of the BEF troops would indeed be rescued from Dunkirk. Ironside predicted that no more than 30,000 would be saved, little more than a tenth of the entire BEF.

Nor were spirits high among the exhausted and surrounded British troops, their mood darkened by what they perceived to be the lack of air cover, although in reality the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command were engaged in ferocious aerial battles with the Luftwaffe high in the sky over northern France. Sandy Frederick, serving in the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, left a vivid description of his struggle to reach Dunkirk aboard his unit’s Bren gun carrier: ‘It was frightening to be under air attack. We didn’t seem to have any defence. We were in a real panic. There was no control whatsoever. Wrecks of British vehicles were everywhere. We were getting fired on from every side. By now I had about 20 men hanging on to my Bren carrier as we retreated.’

For Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the commander of II Corps, the scenes of chaos on the road to Dunkirk were all too indicative of the madness that gripped France as she faced collapse under the German onslaught. Passing through a heavily bombed town, he came across a group of inmates from a mental asylum that had been demolished. ‘With catastrophe on all sides, bombarded by rumours of every description, flooded by refugees and a demoralized French army, and now on top of it all lunatics in brown corduroy suits standing at the side of the road, grinning at one with an inane smile, a flow of saliva running from the corner of their mouths and dripping noses! Had it not been that by then one’s senses were numbed with the magnitude of the catastrophe that surrounded one, the situation would have been unbearable.’

Brooke’s sense of despair would have been all the greater had he known that, at the very moment the BEF was trying to reach safety, back in London a faction within the heart of the British government was plotting to give up the fight and negotiate a settlement with the Reich. For all the retrospective condemnation heaped on him by some of his generals, Hitler had been partially correct: there was indeed one very senior British politician who was all too anxious to reach a peace deal. Convinced that the BEF was lost, that the triumph of Germany was inevitable and that Churchill was hopelessly deluded, this self-styled realist believed that the continuation of war would ultimately destroy the empire. The retreat to Dunkirk was his opportunity to strike. While the British troops hoped for salvation, one of their political masters plotted surrender. And it took all of Churchill’s skill and determination to outmanoeuvre him.


Konrad I: A Hasty Surprise Part I

The early start date of the offensive was prompted by the Germans’ selection of a risky plan for the operation, but it forced the launching of the operation before the forces for it had fully assembled. By the start of the offensive, only 32% (28 of 87 trains) of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking had arrived; 66% (51 of 77 trains) of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf; and 40% (20 of 46 trains) of the 96th Infantry Division. The 711th Infantry Division hadn’t even started unloading in the designated area. The assembly of all these divisions wasn’t completed until 8 January 1945.

Going over to the offensive before completing the assembly of forces worsened the already less than lustrous condition of the SS formations. Despite the exertions of the Third Reich’s military industry that was tottering on the edge of collapse, Wiking and Totenkopf were experiencing a shortage of the most necessary combat equipment. There was a problem even with machine guns: Of the 1,191 light machine guns according to TO&E [table of organization and equipment], Totenkopf had only 536. Of the authorized 1,011 tracked vehicles, Wiking had 442, and only 658 of the 921 ordinary trucks. This made the panzer grenadier regiments of the divisions more like motorized regiments. According to the system of assessing mobility in the Wehrmacht, as expressed in percentages, Wiking had a relatively low indicator of less than 50%. On its part, Totenkopf had extremely few armored halftracks – much fewer than it had possessed at Kursk.

The preparation of Operation Konrad within a compressed period of time led to the fact that the German panzer forces already present in Hungary were only minimally involved in the first relief attack. In addition to the freshly arriving units of the IV SS Panzer Corps, only Kampfgruppe von Pape, which had been defending in the area within the bend in the Danube, went on the attack. At that moment, its roster included the bulk of the 271st Volksgrenadier Division, the elements of Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle that remained outside of the Budapest pocket, the 208th Panzer Battalion (31 Pz. IV and 17 JgPz IV/70(A)), which had been sent from the Supreme Command Reserve, and two of the three kampfgruppen (from the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions) that were available in December. The German kampfgruppen consisted of a panzer battalion, a motorized infantry battalion equipped with halftracks, and the self-propelled howitzers (the Hummel 150mm and Wespe 105mm) of the artillery regiment. They were less vulnerable against artillery blocking fire than soft-skinned vehicles or dismounted infantry, and as a result of this were able to penetrate deeply into the enemy’s defenses.

The bulk of the German panzer divisions already in Hungary had become widely scattered on both sides of the Danube River and were thus unable to be used quickly as a unified force for the relief attack. The main forces of the 3rd and 6th Panzer Divisions were still on the north side of the Danube River, while the 1st and 23rd Panzer Divisions were defending at Székesfehérvár and at Mór.

The haste in putting together the counteroffensive was not simply an idle whim of the German high command, since every hour was working to the favor of the Soviet defenders of the outer ring of encirclement. On the eve of the New Year of 1945, feverish preparations for the next round of battle were being made by both sides. The defensive battle at Balaton was fundamentally different from that at Kursk in the summer of 1943. The Soviet troops literally had only several days for improving their positions on the outer ring of Budapest’s encirclement.

At 19.00 on 30 December 1944, the commander of the Soviet 4th Guards Army G.F. Zakharov gave his subordinate troops both defensive and offensive tasks. A German-held salient had formed in the center of the 4th Guards Army’s front lines at Mór, out of which the Germans might be able to develop an offensive into the rear of the defending Soviet units north and south of that town. General Zakharov issued an order for an attack in the first days of 1945 to pinch off this salient at its base. However, the primary assignment of the Army’s rifle corps was defensive. Before 1 January 1945, the 4th Guards Army went on the defensive on a sector of 160 kilometers (including the bank of Lake Balaton). The 31st Guards Rifle Corps was given a sector of 48 kilometers, the 68th Rifle Corps – 18 kilometers, the 20th Guards Rifle Corps – 24 kilometers, the 135th Rifle Corps – 16 kilometers, and the 21st Guards Rifle Corps – 20 kilometers, as well as approximately 35 kilometers of the southern shoreline of Lake Balaton. The average numerical strength of a rifle division of the 4th Guards Army was 5,386 men. Of the 4th Guards Army’s 14 rifle divisions, 11 had a numerical strength of between 5,000 and 6,000 men, which was barely half of their table strength. Such a situation was typical for the Red Army in 1945. The struggle against the remnants of the defeated German and Hungarian units in the forests of the Vértes Hills was absorbing additional troops and equipment. The Axis remnants were attacking Soviet rear echelon units and even headquarters. This also made the situation in Hungary substantially different from that at Kursk in 1943.

However, the January fighting at Balaton also unquestionably had aspects that made it similar to other Soviet defensive battles of the war. An inability to surmise the enemy’s plans was common for many Soviet defensive operations. The January fighting in Hungary was no exception. The 4th Guards Army was deployed with a greater density of force closer to its left flank, in the area of Székesfehérvár. It was here that the reserve 41st Guards Rifle Division and 7th Mechanized Corps (77 tanks and 25 self-propelled guns) were deployed, together with other reinforcements. The 4th Guards Army’s headquarters was also in Székesfehérvár. Given the terrain, this is unsurprising – a German counterattack in the area of Székesfehérvár appeared more logical. The 31st Guards Rifle Corps was defending on the right flank of the 4th Guards Army. As a consequence of the fact that the forces of the neighboring 2nd Ukrainian Front on the right were somewhat lagging behind the 3rd Ukrainian Front, part of this rifle corps had to be detached in order to defend the banks of the Danube. A regiment of the 4th Guards Rifle Division was positioned here with its front oriented to the north. The 34th and 80th Guards Rifle Divisions were holding the rest of the Corps’ sector with their fronts facing the west. The 80th Guards Rifle Division, which was positioned on the axis of the IV SS Panzer Corps’ main attack, had gone over to the defensive only at 20.00 30 December 1944. The division’s units were unable to dig even one continuous trench line in the rocky soil.

The objective factors, related to the weakness of the Soviet defenders’ positions, were made worse by subjective factors. Afterward, in Order No. 11 of 14 January 1945, the commander of the 4th Guards Army pointed to serious shortcomings in the preparation of the 80th Guards Rifle Division’s defensive set-up: “The Tavares – Agostyán highway, which was thought to have been mined, was in fact not mined; the mines were lying non-emplaced on the roadside, and subsequently they were found and disarmed by the enemy without difficulty.”1 Most likely, the lack of defensive preparations was simply due to the fact that no one believed the enemy would attack and everyone looked upon defensive measures with indifference. Moreover, the Vértes Hills gave natural benefits to any defender.

The presence of the 18th Tank Corps, which had been pulled back into the reserve and which was directly subordinate to Front headquarters, somewhat offset the dangerous situation on the right flank of the 4th Guards Army. This Corps had suffered relatively light losses in the course of the December offensive and had retained its strike capabilities. On 31 December 1944 it numbered 110 T-34 tanks, as well as 18 ISU-122 and 15 SU-85 self-propelled guns. The 18th Tank Corps was in readiness to counter both attempts by the Budapest garrison to break out and any possible German counterattack against the outer encirclement ring. One of its brigades (the 170th Tank Brigade) was still at the front near Dunaalmási at the start of Operation Konrad. It had been left there with the aim of supporting the infantry in the storming of that town.

The 18th Tank Corps was not the only mobile formation at the call of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s command. General I.N. Russianov’s 1st Guards Mechanized Corps had been sent to Hungary from the Stavka Reserve. This corps started its history as the 100th Rifle Division, which had distinguished itself in the first days of the war in the combat for Minsk and for this reason became the 1st Guards Rifle Division. In 1942 it was re-formed into a mechanized corps. In 1943, the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps took part in the battles for the Donbass, Zaporozh’e and Kirovograd. After this it was withdrawn to Poltava into the Stavka Reserve, where it spent the next 13 months refitting. On 8 December 1944, at a directive from the Red Army’s General Staff the corps began loading aboard trains, which departed for the front one after another. Situated in reserve, the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps was fully staffed with officers and men. By December 1944, this mechanized corps could have been boldly called “Siberian” – 70% of its personnel were Siberians, who had managed to receive excellent tactical training as infantry. In contrast, its tanks had arrived not long before the departure to the front, and there hadn’t been time to conduct joint training with them. The tanks that reached Russianov’s formation were not standard-issue – the corps was equipped with American Sherman tanks that had been received through Lend-Lease. This at first caused certain problems for the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps’ repair teams, which had been trained on T-34 tanks. Russianov’s corps also had three self-propelled artillery regiments equipped with the latest SU-100 tank destroyers. The 1st Guards Mechanized Corps began unloading from the trains on 24 December 1944, the very same day that Hitler ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps to be sent to Budapest. The arrival of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps and the three SU-100 regiments can be considered as a reaction of the Soviet high command to the German commitment of several panzer divisions into the fighting in Hungary in November – December 1944.

The 46th Army became one more actor in the pending drama, though it was still lurking offstage. The main forces of General Shlemin’s army were besieging Buda; however, a number of its formations had been pulled out of the front line and in the process they effectively became a reserve for the defense of the outer ring of encirclement. Its 86th Guards Rifle Division was in a defensive posture south of Esztergom [called Gran by the Germans] with its front facing the east. In the event of a breakout by the Germans and Hungarians from Budapest, it was to block their path. In addition, the 46th Army’s 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps (31 tanks and 13 self-propelled guns) was also now in reserve. It had also received the assignment to block any breakout from Budapest, if such an event took place. Finally, the 49th Guards Rifle Division was engaged in mopping up the forests lying to the west of the encircled Hungarian capital. These three formations hadn’t been drawn into the assault on Budapest, which meant it wasn’t necessary to lose time to disengage them from combat.

By the second half of the war, a so-called “air army”, which included fighters, ground attack aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, artillery observation airplanes and bombers that operated in support of one or another front, had become standard in the Red Army. Accordingly, in addition to the all-arms armies, an air army was subordinate to each front’s headquarters, but its precise composition varied according to the importance and nature of the tasks facing the ground troops. The composition of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s 17th Air Army as of 1 January 1945 was characterized by the following numbers (the figure to the left of the slash shows operational aircraft, while the number to the right of it shows aircraft under repair at the time):

La-5 fighters: 79/15

Iak-3 and Iak-9 fighters: 202/13

Il-2 ground attack aircraft: 345/27

B-3 (A-20 Boston) bombers: 98/13

Po-2 night bombers: 94/3

Pe-2 reconnaissance aircraft: 12/2

Iak-9 reconnaissance aircraft: 2/6

Il-2 artillery spotters: 17/4

Iak-9 artillery spotters: 12/0

Thus, the 17th Air Army as of 1 January 1945 had a total of 861 operational aircraft.

According to both its numbers and composition, the 17th Air Army could be characterized as an air army designated for operations on a secondary axis. Air armies on key directions had two or three times the number of aircraft. In addition, the 17th Air Army had no Pe-2 dive bombers at all, not to mention any of the powerful Tu-2 twin-engine bombers, which were comparable to the German Ju-88. Domestically-produced bombers were partially replaced by Lend-Lease Bostons. These weren’t bad aircraft, but they were unable to dive bomb.

The comparatively small 17th Air Army becomes even more lackluster when compared to the enemy’s air force. Despite the attention that Hitler had focused on Hungary, the German Luftflotte [Air Fleet] 4 that was operational on the German southern flank was not the largest. On 10 January 1945, of the four Luftwaffe air fleets in the east (1, 4, 5 and 6), the numerically largest was Luftlotte 6, which was operating in Poland and East Prussia. It numbered 822 combat aircraft. However, according to the data for 10 January 1945, Luftflotte 4 in Hungary stood in a respectable second place with 588 combat aircraft (78 single-engine fighters, 56 bombers, 199 ground attack aircraft, 101 night attack aircraft, 38 long-range reconnaissance aircraft, 67 short-range reconnaissance aircraft, and 49 transport aircraft). In addition to the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s 17th Air Army, Luftflotte 4 also faced the 2nd Ukrainian Front’s 5th Air Army, which had 642 operational combat aircraft on 1 January 1945, also with A-20 Bostons in place of Pe-2s. However, all the same the correlation of forces in the air here was worse for the Soviet side than on other directions of advance in this period.

In view of the swift regrouping of Gille’s IV SS Panzer Corps from the Warsaw area to Hungary, Soviet intelligence didn’t manage to acquire reliable evidence of the arrival of fresh enemy formations before the start of Konrad. In its intelligence summary produced at 22.00 1 January 1945, that is, just several hours before the launching of the enemy offensive, the headquarters of the 4th Guards Army came to the following conclusion: “The enemy is striving to hold its present positions with all its forces; on separate sectors of the front, the adversary is undertaking attacks for reconnaissance purposes and with the aim of improving local positions.” At that moment, it had relatively solid intelligence about the arrival of Wiking at the front from prisoners. Yet it simply had no information at all about Totenkopf. It isn’t surprising, given such attitudes, that the anti-tank mines had been stacked on the side of the roads instead of being emplaced.

Konrad I: A Hasty Surprise Part II

Repulse of the German Counteroffensives Konrad I and II, 1-11 January 1945.

Soviet forces were the first to go on the attack in the new 1945 year. At 11.00 1 January, five rifle divisions in the center of the 4th Guards Army went on the offensive with the aim of seizing Mór. The attackers were met by heavy fire and had no success. Heavy snow began falling that afternoon. Despite the exceptionally poor flying weather, the German Luftwaffe became active. In groups of several aircraft, they bombed targets close behind the Soviet front line in the sector targeted by Operation Konrad. These small groups of 3 to 10 aircraft each became the harbingers of the German offensive. But times had changed, and instead of large swarms of Stukas, now the Germans were operating in small groups of fighter-bombers.

At 22.00 1 January 1945, small groups of German tanks and infantry began to probe the Soviet defenses, but at 2.30 2 January, the main forces of the IV SS Panzer Corps entered the fighting. The defensive positions of the 80th Guards Rifle Division were broken by a powerful blow on a narrow front, and the Germans emerged in the rear of the defending regiments and attacked the division’s headquarters in Agostyán. Command and control over the division’s units became disrupted. Simultaneously, in the time period between 1.00 and 5.00 2 January, a landing party from the 96th Infantry Division crossed the Danube and managed to drive the units of the 4th Guards Rifle Division out of a number of villages on the Danube’s right bank. Soon, the infantry of the river crossing linked up with panzers that were attacking from the west. Part of the 80th Guards Rifle Division and the 18th Tank Corps’ 170th Tank Brigade (27 tanks) became encircled. From the very start of the operation, two directions of enemy attack became clear: along the Danube and through Agostyán. On the former axis of advance, the IV SS Panzer Corps was operating, while Kampfgruppe von Pape was attacking on the latter axis. For a certain amount of time, General Gorba managed to keep the Germans out of Agostyán by holding a narrow pass in the hills. However, the blocking force in the pass, which had held up all day against German tank attacks on 2 January, was outflanked by enemy infantry on the following morning.

The 31st Guards Rifle Corps’ defensive front was swiftly crumbling, and in essence it was necessary to create a new one. The 41st Guards Rifle Division, which was located in Zakharov’s reserve, was 60 kilometers away from the point of the German breakthrough, and it would require no less than a day and a half or even two days before it could move out. In addition, at the start of the German offensive, it still wasn’t clear whether the German attack toward Agostyán was the main attack or just a pinning attack. The 3rd Ukrainian Front commander F.I. Tolbukhin decided to split up the attack grouping that was targeting Mór. The 93rd Rifle Division, which had been attacking on a narrow front, was pulled out of the front line and received an order to make a forced march to Tarján. This would require the division to conduct a march of approximately 45 kilometers. At Tarján, it would block the path of the German advance out of the wooded, hilly area through Bicske onto the plain.

The dismantling of the 4th Guards Army’s attack grouping didn’t stop with the removal of the 93rd Rifle Division. Tolbukhin also pulled the 40th and 62nd Rifle Divisions out of the front line and into the reserve. In addition, General Gorshkov’s 5th Guards Cavalry Corps was taken out of the fighting near Mór. On the evening of 1 January, it had joined the attack on that town, but it had also had no success. Already on the morning of 2 January, it received a fresh order to march to a new area of assembly.

However, it was no longer possible to resurrect a line of defense and extend its right flank to the Danube River with just the forces of the 4th Guards Army alone. This could only be accomplished with additional forces of the 3rd Ukrainian Front. Front commander Tolbukhin decided to create a new line of defense 16-20 kilometers behind the 4th Guards Army’s already ruptured positions as quickly as possible, while delaying the German advance with screening forces. The German axis of advance along the bank of the Danube had been identified as the most dangerous one at the time. Soviet mobile divisions could reach the new line of defense most quickly, so the 18th Tank Corps (minus its 170th Tank Brigade) received an order to move to a blocking position in the path of the German penetration. The 86th Guards Rifle Division and the 46th Army’s 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps moved out toward the same place. Just like the Russian fairy tale, the rifle division and mechanized corps pivoted, with their backside now to the forest (Budapest) and their front facing Ivan Tsarevich (the IV SS Panzer Corps). The orientation of the front of the two formations had flipped 180 degrees, blocking the enemy’s path to Budapest along the bank of the Danube.

Tolbukhin was an artilleryman, and this left a definite imprint on his style of conducting a defensive operation. He ordered Zakharov to move up Katiusha rocket launchers, artillery (including anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery) and mortars, which had passed to his control from the roster of the 18th Tank Corps and the 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, to the new line of defense. It should be noted that the Germans also used this tactic. In the course of defensive battles, they would create combat groups of anti-tank guns and artillery, which had greater mobility than did the infantry, and deploy them on the axis of the enemy advance.

On 3 January, the firmness of the new line of defense was tested by attacks by German panzer formations. The reserves that had moved up at Tolbukhin’s and Zakharov’s orders entered the fighting. Units of the IV SS Panzer Corps that were attacking along the right bank of the Danube collided with the defenses of the 86th Guards Rifle Division and the 18th Tank Corps, which had been reinforced with anti-tank artillery. Fierce tank battles developed for control of the Bajna road hub. Hours literally decided everything. The 110th Tank Brigade and the 363rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment equipped with ISU-122s entered Bajna at 5.30 on 3 January and immediately ran into the leading units of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. They managed to drive back the Germans and keep possession of this important road junction. That afternoon, the SS troops launched furious but unsuccessful attacks on Bajna from the north, and then from the west and east. The outflanking maneuvers of the Germans were anticipated and parried.

The activity of the Luftwaffe, according to the standards of 1945, was rather high on the day of 3 January. Altogether, the Germans conducted approximately 350 individual combat sorties. Groups of 15-20 fighter-bombers almost continuously hung in the air above the combat positions of elements of the 18th Tank Corps in Bajna. In the course of the day, 6 T-34 tanks and 2 ISU-122 self-propelled guns of the 110th Tank Brigade were left burned out after their attacks. The 181st Tank Brigade lost 5 more T-34 tanks and had an additional 3 rendered immobile.

The actions of the Soviet reserves that had hurried up to confront Kampfgruppe von Pape and the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking were less successful. The successful advance of the attackers created a salient in the Soviet line, the perimeter of which was longer than the initial front of the defense, thereby requiring additional Soviet units to hold it. In the process, the attacker had the possibility to choose the next axis of attack with the creation of a local superiority of force at the selected point of the attack.

On the second day of the operation, the German units that had been moving through Agostyán from the west to the east altered their axis of attack. Now their path of advance ran almost directly from north to south through Tarján toward Bicske, toward an exit from the hilly, wooded terrain. Forward units of the 93rd Rifle Division managed to reach Tarján on 3 January, but lacked the time to build a continuous line of defense. In the middle of the day, they were enveloped from both flanks and compelled to retreat.

Both sides made changes in their plans due to the results of the fighting on 3 January. The strong blocking force across the road to Budapest, created by the units of the 46th Army and the 18th Tank Corps that had been moved from that city, forced the Germans to search for reserves in order to strengthen the attack grouping. For this purpose, the main forces of the 6th Panzer Division returned from the northern bank of the Danube. Now it was to rejoin its armored grouping (that was part of Kampfgruppe von Pape).

On its part the Soviet command, recognizing the shakiness of the newly created line of defense, strove to reinforce it as much as possible. The 7th Mechanized Corps was still sitting in reserve in Székesfehérvár. However, an unusual combat group under the leadership of the deputy commander of the 4th Guards Army Major General Filippovsky was detached from it and sent to repel the enemy attack. It consisted of the 16th Mechanized Brigade, the 78th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, and the 1289th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment (a total of 16 T-34, 12 IS-2, 4 SU-85, 7 SU-76, 8 armored halftracks, and 20 85mm guns). Filippovsky was also given control of the 41st Guards Rifle Division and the 152nd Howitzer, the 222nd and 127th Cannon Artillery Regiments, as well as the 205th Mortar Regiment. In addition to Group Filippovsky, a significant amount of rocket artillery was moved up to the approaches to Bicske. Already by the morning of 4 January, 13 M-13 rocket artillery battalions and 1 M-31 battalion were positioned here – which represented a large portion of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s Katiusha rocket launchers. The so-called “Guards mortars” mounted on trucks were always one of the Soviet command’s most maneuverable reserves. The Katiusha rocket launchers could be assembled on a selected axis much more quickly than regular artillery, especially heavy artillery.

The German counteroffensive also compelled an urgent crossing of the freshly arrived 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to the western bank of the Danube. According to plan, it was to cross using a 60-ton pontoon bridge. However, the bridge had been swept away by drifting ice (a large amount of floating ice was moving down the Danube at the time), and as a result the crossing was organized by two ferry boats towing armored launches. Naturally, this significantly slowed the pace of the river crossing. By 6.00 4 January, only the combat elements, without their rear services and a majority of the vehicles, had crossed the Danube. The motorized riflemen moved up to the front line on foot. A group of 59 SU-100 from three self-propelled artillery regiments under the command of the deputy artillery commander of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps Colonel Sveshnikov had been moved out in advance of the infantry. By 8.00 4 January, it had already assembled in the Bicske area.

The events of 4 January demonstrated the correctness of the decisions that had been made by Tolbukhin and Zakharov. It was Group Filippovsky, which had been created at their order that prevented the Germans from reaching operational space on this day. Having bypassed the 93rd Rifle Division in Tarján and driven the 12th Guards Cavalry Division from its positions, Wiking’s tanks had lunged on to the south toward Bicske, and penetrated to the village of Mány, which lay just 4.5 kilometers to the north of Bicske. From there, it would take only one more bound in order to break out of the hilly and wooded area onto the plain west of Budapest. However, on the afternoon of 4 January, the mobile units of Group Filippovsky that had come hurrying up struck the southward attacking German units in the flank. Threatened with encirclement, the German units that had been advancing at a heady pace that morning were compelled to recoil in retreat. By evening, Group Filippovsky’s rifle units had moved into position, and the defenses on the approaches to Bicske became sufficiently solid to withstand an enemy panzer attack.

In the northern sector of the offensive on 4 January, the Germans again used the method of crossing the Danube, which allowed them to outflank the 86th Guards Rifle Division and shove it back to the east. Here, the two infantry divisions of Gille’s IV SS Panzer Corps were continuing the offensive along the course of the Danube River. However, the Soviet defenses had in the interim been bolstered by the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps, which stopped the enemy advance.

In the meantime, Totenkopf was stubbornly assaulting Bajna. On the night of 3 January, the village had been attacked by German panzer grenadiers equipped with panzerfausts. Bajna increasingly took on the semblance of a mousetrap, as Wiking’s advance had pushed far beyond the defenders’ left flank. On the morning of 4 January, the 110th Tank Brigade and the regiment of ISU-122s were pulled out of Bajna to the south of the village, where they took up concealed positions on hilltops behind a stream. However, here the Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns that were deployed in ambush were pounced upon by German fighter-bombers. According to the list of the 18th Tank Corps’ irrecoverable losses for the day 4 January, 5 (!!!) heavy ISU-122 self-propelled guns were knocked out or destroyed by German bombs in the vicinity of the village of Bajna. In addition to these losses, on 3-4 January 15 T-34 tanks had been destroyed by German artillery fire in the Bajna area. However, the outcome of the fighting for Bajna was decided by Wiking’s attack west of Bajna, which penetrated to the village of Mány. Although this breakthrough couldn’t be exploited by the Germans, the units of the 18th Tank Corps in the Bajna area were now in danger of being encircled. By the morning of 5 January, they had been withdrawn to the line Mány – Zsámbék, where they tied in with the defenses of Bicske. By this time, the 110th Tank Brigade and the 363rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment had been reduced to 15 T-34 tanks and 8 ISU-122 self-propelled guns (of the 37 T-34 and 19 ISU-122 they had possessed on 1 January).

Since the defensive battle was being prolonged, it no longer made sense to leave the “breakwaters” of encircled units in the enemy rear. On the night of 3 January, the 80th Guards Rifle Division and the 170th Tank Brigade at the order of the commander of the 4th Guards Army broke out of their encirclement along the hilly, forested roads. Approximately 100 vehicles, as well as 11 T-34s and 11 SU-85s managed to return to friendly lines. The tankers even managed to bring out their wounded.

While the divisions that had received the initial enemy attack were bringing themselves back to order, the newly constructed defensive line was subjected to the next series of panzer attacks by Kampfgruppe von Pape and Wiking. However, with the arrival of the 40th and 41st Guards Rifle Divisions on the approaches to Bicske, the defensive front stiffened to the necessary degree. Even the main forces of the 6th Panzer Division which were added to the German attack grouping on 6 January didn’t alter the situation. All of the German attacks on Bicske were repulsed. For the role he played in the several days of defensive fighting, Colonel M.F. Malyshev, the commander of the 16th Mechanized Brigade that had most distinguished itself in the combat, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

Having pulled alongside the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf was also unable to overcome the 18th Tank Corps’ defenses on the approaches to Zsámbék. The Soviet tank corps’ combat ranks had been fleshed out with the arrival of the 49th Guards Rifle Division from Budapest. This axis was also reinforced with the three self-propelled SU-100 artillery regiments from the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps. They had been shifted from the Bicske area and placed under the operational control of the commander of the 18th Tank Corps. Since it wasn’t clear where the Germans would strike next, the group of three SU-100 regiments had to extend their front significantly. It was at Számbék where the latest Soviet self-propelled tank destroyers had their first baptism by fire.

On the morning of 7 January, the Germans went on the attack toward Számbék. Blocking their path was the 382nd Guards Self-propelled Artillery Regiment of SU-100s. Under the enemy onslaught, the infantry of the 49th Guards Rifle Division fell back and left the SU-100 tank destroyers alone to face the attacking German units. The Germans threw infantry against the self-propelled guns. In the course of it they employed anti-tank grenades and Molotov cocktails, while the crews of the self-propelled guns, which lacked machine guns, fought back with whatever infantry weapons they had at hand. Over the day of combat the regiment lost half of its strength – 9 self-propelled guns were left burning, and 2 were knocked out. However, there was no German breakthrough on this axis. By 8 January 1945, the first German offensive with the aim of freeing Budapest, now known as Operation Konrad I, had been stopped.

Operation DRAGOON, (15 August 1944)

Allied amphibious operation in southern France originally intended to support and coincide with the June 1944 invasion of northern France-Operation OVERLORD-although it could not be mounted until 15 August 1944. Operation DRAGOON had its genesis under the code name ANVIL during strategic planning in 1942 as the Allies considered operations to invade continental Europe. Tied to operation SLEDGEHAMMER, the cross-Channel plan for 1942, ANVIL was to be a diversionary attack on the Mediterranean coast of France to either draw German forces there or, at a minimum, hold those already there so they could not reinforce the defense against an attack on the Channel coast.

Operation DRAGOON was also entangled in European strategic discussions related to Allied planning: the direct route across the Channel pressed by the Americans, or the peripheral approach through North Africa and southern Europe urged by the British. When British Eighth Army forces were defeated in June 1942 in the Battle of Gazala in Libya and their forces at Tobruk were forced to surrender, pressure built to act against the immediate threat, and the western Allies decided on Operation GYMNAST (later renamed TORCH,) the Allied assault on North Africa. This decision canceled SLEDGEHAMMER and delayed planning and consideration for operation ROUNDUP, the autumn 1943 cross-Channel operation with which ANVIL was still loosely associated.

Debate continued between the Americans and British over the timing and even the feasibility of a cross-Channel attack into northwest France, to which ANVIL always was linked. As operations first in Sicily and then in Italy evolved from TORCH and Operation ROUNDUP gave way to OVERLORD, debate continued as the British pressed to reinforce Italian operations at the expense of ANVIL and delay OVERLORD. Finally, at Combined Chiefs of Staff discussions in the Cairo Conference in late November 1943 in preparation for the Allied Conference in Tehran, the decision was made to take Soviet views into account.

At Tehran, Soviet leader Josef Stalin came down in favor of a cross-Channel attack against Germany in northwest France. Stalin believed that ANVIL, considered a diversionary attack in southern France by the western Allies, was an integral part of the overall pincer movement against German forces. When British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill suggested that operations in the eastern Mediterranean might take immediate pressure off the Soviets even if it meant delaying OVERLORD, Stalin replied that it was not worth scattering British and American forces. Before leaving Tehran, the Allies committed themselves to mounting OVERLORD with a supporting operation against southern France during May 1944. The problem then became how to conduct both OVERLORD and ANVIL with the resources available.

As planning for OVERLORD and ANVIL proceeded, it became apparent that the limiting factor would be the shortage of landing craft. Seizing the opportunity, the British again pushed for cancellation of ANVIL, not only to provide landing craft for OVERLORD but to divert manpower to the Italian Campaign, which had bogged down. So severe was the landing-craft shortage that Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower found himself in favor of at least postponing ANVIL until after OVERLORD. This weakened the U. S. argument that ANVIL was necessary to divert German troops away from Normandy’s beaches, but the British argument for needing additional forces in Italy evaporated with the Allied liberation of Rome. The Americans still argued they required the major Mediterranean port of Marseille to bring resources ashore for the drive against Germany.

On 10 August, the British reluctantly agreed to give ANVIL the go-ahead. Renamed because of security problems, DRAGOON (Churchill said the name was apt because he had been dragooned into agreeing to it) began five days later on 15 August 1944. Vice Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, commander of the Eighth Fleet, had charge of the landing, and four naval task forces supported the invasion. Participating ships included 5 battleships (the Lorraine, Ramilles, Texas, Nevada, and Arkansas), 24 cruisers, 7 escort carriers, and numerous smaller ships from the British, U. S., French, and Greek navies. A total of 881 ships took part, along with 1,370 landing craft. In the skies, 4,056 Allied aircraft provided support.

At dawn, contingents of three American divisions-the 3rd, 45th, and 36th-and a French armor task force came ashore on beaches between Saint-Tropez and Cannes on the French Riviera, while a combined British and American airborne task force landed to seize bridges and cut roads inland. U. S. Seventh Army commander Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch Jr. led the Allied force. Major General Lucian Truscott Jr., VI Corps commander, was the ground force commander. Seven Free French divisions under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny came ashore the next day and headed west to seize the ports of Toulon and Marseille.

Although DRAGOON was dwarfed by the Normandy Invasion two months earlier, the Allies nonetheless ultimately landed 250,000 American and French ground troops. German forces in southern France amounted to no more than 210,000 troops in eight and two-thirds divisions, and these were mostly second-rate formations. By the end of the first day, all three Allied divisions had secured their beachheads, and 86,000 men, 12,000 vehicles, and 46,000 tons of supplies had come ashore.

By 17 August, the Allied advance had reached 20 miles inland. Facing the possibility of substantial Germany army units being trapped in France, German leader Adolf Hitler ordered Army Group G commander General Johannes Blaskowitz to withdraw, leaving sufficient troops behind to deny the major ports to the Allies. The most serious fighting took place at the two ports of Toulon and Marseille, but within two weeks on 28 August, both fell to the French divisions of General de Tassigny’s newly designated First French Army.

Operation DRAGOON cost the Allies more than 13,000 casualties (more than half of them American) but resulted in a 400-mile advance that liberated virtually all of southern France. It also hurried the introduction of Free French troops into combat and opened additional ports for supporting the drive across France into Germany. It also netted 79,000 German prisoners and sped the collapse of the Third Reich.


On 4 August 1943, a new French army came into being, consisting of eight infantry divisions, four armored divisions, four regiment-sized groups of French North African troops, six commando battalions, and one parachute regiment. Under the terms of an inter-Allied agreement, the United States assumed responsibility for rearming, reequipping, training, and supplying the French forces. Language problems and the emphasis on fielding the greatest number of combat units possible at the expense of support units were the most prominent obstacles encountered. Other problems arose over weapons (the French never received the excellent U. S. M1 Garand rifle) and supplies (the French never received tanker jackets and, more seriously, initially received a smaller ration scale than American troops). Eventually most problems were resolved.

A French Expeditionary Corps of five divisions was formed on 18 May 1943. Commanded by Major General Juin and sent to Italy in late 1943 and early 1944, it was instrumental in winning the Fourth Battle of Cassino, outflanking the German position by moving through the mountains as Juin suggested. A reinforced Free French division liberated the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Elba in September 1943 and June 1944, respectively.

On 15 August 1944, what became the French First Army under Major General Jean Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny landed in southern France as part of the U. S. Sixth Army in Operation DRAGOON. Its eight divisions and 200,000 men fought their way up the Rhone Valley, arriving on the right flank of U. S. Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army. The French First Army advanced into southwest Germany, and by the end of the war it had reached the Tyrol in western Austria. In addition, Major General Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armored Division served with the U. S. First Army, liberated Paris, and joined the French First Army in February 1945. By the end of the war, the rebuilt French air force consisted of 25 fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons equipped with American and British aircraft. The Free French navy, which initially consisted of only three ships, had grown by war’s end to a total of 240 warships.

At a cost of 23,500 killed and 95,500 wounded, the Free French Forces demonstrated a will to fight that impressed their Allied counterparts. Although it was significant, the Free French contribution to the Allied victory in Europe is not generally recognized.

Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny, (1889–1952)

In September 1943, de Lattre escaped from Riom Prison, evading capture with the help of the maquis (guerrillas), until he was evacuated to England on 17 October.

On reporting to the head of the Free French government in Algiers, General Charles de Gaulle, de Lattre took charge of training French forces in North Africa. He then commanded French troops in the June 1944 invasion of Elba. He led the Free French First Army into southern France in Operation DRAGOON, and his subsequent capture of the fortified ports of Toulon and Marseille proved a brilliant feat of arms. The First Army fought on the Allied right flank through Alsace. By occupying territory technically within the Allied boundaries, de Lattre reached the Franco-German border abreast of the Americans, rather than behind them as he had been ordered. Among his successes was the capture of the fortress of Belfort at a cost of only 1,000 French casualties. He then pushed nine divisions into Germany by the armistice, helping to secure for France a substantial role in the postwar occupation of Germany.

References Breur, William B. Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of the South of France. Navato, CA: Presidio Press, 1987. Harrison, Gordon A. United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations: Cross-Channel Attack. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1951. MacDonald, Charles B. The Mighty Endeavor: American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Matloff, Maurice. United States Army in World War II, The War Department: Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944. Washington, DC: U. S. Army, Center of Military History, 1959. Wilt, Alan F. The French Riviera Campaign of August 1944. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981.