The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

Deutscher Sturmwagen in Roye

German A7V tank in Roye, Somme, 26 March 1918.

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The ‘March Retreat’ of 1918 is remembered as one of the worst defeats in the history of the British army. After four years of deadlock, in their spring offensive the Germans used innovative new artillery and infantry tactics to break through the trenches of the British Fifth Army and reopen mobile warfare. Fifth Army lost large numbers of men and guns captured, and were forced into headlong retreat. Fuelled by inaccurate newspaper reports, the rumours of disasters on the battlefield were given credibility by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. In a speech to Parliament on 9 April 1918, Lloyd George cast some aspersions on the performance of Fifth Army, and its commander, General Sir Hubert Gough, who had been sacked on the eighth day of the battle. In Gough’s bitter words, ‘All were … clear that the real cause of the retreat was the inefficiency of myself as a general, and the poor and cowardly spirit of the officers and men.’ But this traditional picture is deeply flawed. Fifth Army was not defeated as badly as some have claimed. Overall, the German spring offensives failed, and their failure represents a British defensive victory.

At the end of 1917 the Germans were presented with a rare window of opportunity to win the First World War. Russia, beaten on the field of battle, had collapsed into revolution, thus releasing large numbers of German troops for use on the Western Front: in the spring of 1918 the Germans could deploy 192 divisions, while the French and British could only muster 156. The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, introduced at the beginning of the year, had backfired disastrously. Not only had it failed to knock Britain out the war by cutting her vital Atlantic lifeline, it had prompted the United States to enter the war against Germany. As yet, the vast American war machine was still gearing up for action. Substantial numbers of American troops would not reach Europe until the middle of 1918. The German commanders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, had no desire to sit on the defensive and risk repeating the battering the German army had received at the hands of British at Passchendaele in 1917. They decided to stake everything on one last gamble: to strike in the West and defeat the British Expeditionary Force and French army before the Americans could intervene with decisive numbers. Ironically, the fateful decision was taken at a meeting held at Mons on 11 November 1917. Exactly twelve months later the war ended, in great part as a consequence of the decision taken on that day.

On 21 January the plans were finalised. Operation Michael was an attack on the British, whom the Germans correctly identified as the most dangerous of the Allied forces, in the Somme-Arras sector. Three German armies were to be employed opposite either side of St. Quentin. Opposite Byng’s British Third Army in the Arras area was von Below’s Seventeenth Army, while to their south, covering the Flesquières Salient (created as a result of the Cambrai battles at the end of 1917) and the northern portion of Gough’s British Fifth Army, was von der Marwitz’s Second Army. Both German formations belonged to Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Army Group. Facing Gough’s southern sector was von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army, also of the German Crown Prince’s Army Group. Broadly, the plan was to crack open the British defences, and then push through into open countryside, then wheel to the north and strike the BEF’s flank. Then further attacks could be launched. In the initial stages of the offensive, von Below and von der Marwitz were to capture the old 1916 Somme battlefield before turning north to envelop Arras, while von Hutier was to act as a flank-guard, dealing with any French forces that emerged from the south, and offering support to von der Marwitz’s forces.

The attackers had several advantages over the British. First, numbers. In spite of having greater reserves than the Germans, the British were now suffering from a manpower crisis that had forced divisions to be reduced from twelve infantry battalions to only nine. Haig was forced to make hard choices about where to deploy his divisions. Miscalculating the weight and axis of the German offensive and misled by German deception operations, Haig deliberately left his southernmost Army, Gough’s Fifth, weak. Haig correctly calculated that he could afford to give ground in the Somme area, while to yield territory further north would have been catastrophic. A short advance in the Ypres area, for instance, would have brought the Germans to within striking distance of the coast, which would have imperilled the entire British position. Thus Gough had only 12 divisions to defend 42 miles of front, although he faced 43 German divisions. Byng by contrast had 14 divisions on a 28-mile frontage against 19 German divisions. In the Michael area, the Germans had 2,508 heavy guns against only 976 – a 5 to 2 advantage. Haig gambled on Fifth Army holding out against heavy odds. ‘Never before had the British line been held with so few men and so few guns to the mile; and the reserves were wholly insufficient’.

The second German advantage was in ‘fighting power’. For most of the war, the morale, tactics, and weapons of the two sides were roughly equal. But in March 1918, in terms of tactics, they were not. In the previous two years of almost constant offensives, the BEF had become highly effective at the art of attack. While much play has been made of German ‘stormtroop’ infantry tactics and ‘hurricane’ artillery bombardments used on 21 March 1918, in truth there was little for the BEF to learn from their enemy in this respect. Fighting on the defensive, however, was a novelty, especially because the British had introduced a new concept of defence-in-depth, modelled on the German pattern. In place of linear trenches, defensive positions consisted of Forward, Battle and Rear Zones, utilising machine gun posts, and redoubts. But in many cases, lack of time and labour meant that the Rear Zone was never constructed. Also, the concept was misunderstood at various levels. The Forward Zone was intended to be lightly held, to do little more than delay the attacker and force him to channel his attack where it could be more easily broken up in the Battle Zone by artillery, machine gun fire and local counterattacks. But as many as one third of British infantry were pushed into the Forward Zone. ‘It don’t suit us,’ opined a grizzled veteran NCO. ‘The British Army fights in line and won’t do any good in these bird cages’.

At 4.20 a.m. on 21 March the ‘Devil’s Orchestra’, conducted by Hutier’s innovative head gunner, Colonel Bruchmuller, began the overture to the offensive.

It was still dark on the morning of March 21st [1918] when a terrific German bombardment began – “the most terrific roar of guns we have ever heard” … The great push had started and along the whole of our front gas and high-explosive shells from every variety of gun and trench mortars were being hurled over. Everyone [in 54th Brigade] realized that the great ordeal for which they had been training and planning for weeks was upon them.’

Bruchmuller’s gunners hammered the British defenders to the depth of their position. Five hours later, assisted by a dense fog, the infantry assault broke on the battered and disoriented British defenders. By the evening, the situation was critical. The BEF had lost 500 guns and 38,000 casualties, and the Germans had captured the Forward Zone almost everywhere. Worse, in the extreme south Hutier had broken through Gough’s Battle Zone, forcing British III Corps to retreat to the Crozat Canal. Yet even on the first day of the Kaiserschlact, the ‘Imperial battle’, the British had achieved a modest, but nonetheless important success: they had denied the Germans their first day objectives.

German Seventeenth Army’s attack on Byng’s relatively strong and well dug-in Third Army achieved far less than had been intended. Similarly, German Second Army had failed to achieve the breakthrough it had sought. All this was at the cost of 40,000 German casualties. These were caused partly by clumsy tactics and relentless attacking, but also the British seizing the initiative at a local level. These acts of resistance in the early days of Operation Michael ranged from 18th Division’s counterattack at Baboeuf on 24-25 March, to the action of a Lewis Gun team of 24th Royal Fusiliers, led by two NCOs, who went forward to delay the enemy advance on their sector.

22 March saw the renewal of the offensive. British XVIII and XIX Corps fell back, in part as a result of confusion among the British commanders. Third Army was still holding its Battle Zone but was now being outflanked as Fifth Army was pushed back. To the South, von Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had advanced more than twelve miles, and this led Ludendorff to make an important error. He was painfully aware that the offensive was not going according to plan. He complained of the lack of progress of von Below’s army on 22 March, which had a knock-on effect on Second Army. Ever the opportunist, on 23 March – the day that saw the Germans capture the Crozat Canal – Ludendorff decided to make Hutier’s army the point of main effort. Hutier’s Eighteenth Army had originally been given the role of flank-guard, but now, accompanied by Second Army, it was to drive west and southwest to drive a wedge between the BEF and the French. Von Below’s Seventeenth Army and German forces further north were to push back the British. Any Staff College would criticise this plan as breaking two of the fundamental principles of war: to select and maintain the aim and to concentrate force. The resistance of the British defenders had led Ludendorff – whose grasp of strategy and operational art was tenuous at best – to change his plan on the hoof. Now, the Germans were dispersing their force, rather than concentrating it, with disastrous effects.

Nevertheless, the next few days were grim ones for the BEF as the Germans continued to advance. A British soldier wrote on 23 March that ‘we had to make a hasty retreat with all our worldly possessions – every road out of the village was crowded with rushing traffic – lorries, limbers, G.S. wagons, great caterpillar-tractors with immense guns behind them, all were dashing along in an uninterrupted stream …’ He could even look back with affection on normal army rations: ‘I never thought in the days when we looked with disdain on ‘bully’ and biscuits I should ever long for them and cherish a bit of hard, dry biscuit as a hungry tramp cherishes a crust of bread.’ On 27 March Gough was removed from command of Fifth Army. He probably deserved this treatment for the way he handled his offensives of 1916 and 1917; it was Gough’s bad luck to be sacked for a defensive battle that he conducted with some skill.

Even at this stage there were glimmerings of light for the Allies. On 26 March the crisis led to the appointment of the French general Foch as Allied Generalissimo, to coordinate the activities of the Allied forces. This averted the threat of the French concentrating on defending Paris while the British watched for their lines of communications. Moreover Byng’s Third Army decisively defeated the next phase of the German offensive, Operation Mars. On 28 March nine German divisions attacked north of the River Scarpe. The attackers used much the same methods that had proved so successful on 21 March. But this time they were attacking well-constructed positions, without the benefit of fog, and the British forces were numerically stronger and conducted a model defensive battle.

In the light of the completeness of the German failure Ludendorff ordered the assaults against Third Army to halt – he had no taste for an attritional battle. His appreciation was shared by an officer of German 26th Division, who wrote in his diary on 28 March of his hope that if German ‘operations north and south of us succeed the enemy will also have to give way here’: having seen the British defences he feared heavy casualties if ordered to attack. Michael was not, however quite dead, and a few spasms of offensive action remained. Ludendorff now scaled down his objective to that of taking Amiens. But even this was beyond the German troops. They were halted ten miles short of their goal on 4-5 April, at Villers Bretonneux, by Australian and British forces. On the same day Byng was again attacked, and again the Germans were thrown back. By this stage Ludendorff the gambler was prepared to throw in his hand. On 5 April, he called off the Michael offensive and prepared to renew the attack further north.

Heeresgruppe Nord retreats from Leningrad, 14 January–1 April 1944

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Otto Carius

For nearly three years, Heeresgruppe Nord had been holding its positions outside the city of Leningrad, with little change in the opposing lines. Although the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had opened a land corridor to Leningrad with Operation Iskra in January 1943, a year later the Germans were still within artillery range of the city. Generalfeldmarschall Georg Wilhelm von Küchler commanded Heeresgruppe Nord from his headquarters in Pskov and he had two armies: AOK 18 holding the lines around Leningrad and AOK 16 deployed between Novgorod and Velikiye Luki. Given the static nature of warfare on the Leningrad sector, the OKH had stripped Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18.Armee (AOK 18) down to the bone during 1943. Several Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen were sent to this relatively quiet sector, which allowed Heer infantry divisions to be sent southward and AOK 18 received far fewer personnel replacements than other German armies. At the start of 1944, Lindemann had 20 divisions holding a 280km-long front. In terms of armour, AOK 18 had relied upon the Tigers from s. Pz.Abt. 502 to repel enemy attacks and this unit enjoyed a considerable amount of success outside Leningrad. Oberleutnant Otto Carius was one of the Tiger ‘aces’ who made a name for himself in this Stellungskrieg (positional warfare).

However, on 6 October 1943, the Soviet Kalinin Front launched a massive attack near the boundary of Heeresgruppe Nord and Heeresgruppe Mitte. The 3rd and 4th Shock Armies, with a total of 16 rifle divisions and 300 tanks, attacked the II.Luftwaffen-Feldkorps near Nevel and rapidly achieved a major breakthrough. Both AOK 16 and PzAOK 3 were compelled to commit all their reserves to this endangered sector, to prevent the Kalinin Front from driving a wedge between the two German army groups. Von Küchler had to send his only mobile reserve, the Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502, to support a counter-attack intended to retake Nevel and crush the Soviet penetration. The fighting around Nevel dragged on indecisively for months, although the Germans claimed that 1,450 Soviet tanks were destroyed in this sector over the course of the battle.

Despite the distraction of the Nevel breakthrough, by late 1943 the OKH assessed that the Soviet Leningrad Front would eventually attack Heeresgruppe Nord’s AOK 18 in force, so Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s III.SS-Panzerkorps headquarters was sent to join Lindemann’s command in ealy December 1943, along with 11.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland and 4.SS-Panzergrenadier-Brigade Nederland. Despite their grandiloquent titles, these recently-raised Waffen-SS formations were of mediocre quality, consisting primarily of Volksdeutsche, and poorly equipped. The Nordland’s SS-Panzer Battalion 11 was supposed to be equipped with Panther tanks, but most proved defective and the battalion was still unready for combat in January 1944.1 A few of the immobilized Panthers were sent to the front and dug in as strongpoints. Instead, the Nordland had SS-Sturmgeschutz Battalion 11 with 42 StuG III and the Nederland brigade had a battery with 10 StuG III. In order to increase its anti-tank capabilities, AOK 18 had also formed Panzer-Zerstorer-Bataillone 477 and 478, each equipped with 20 of the new 8.8cm Panzerschreck rocket launchers. As a contingency plan, Heeresgruppe Nord began construction of the Panther Line on 7 September 1943; the line was intended to run from Narva, behind Lake Peipus to Pskov and Ostrov. By the end of December, some anti-tank ditches and fieldworks were in place, but the bulk of the fortification effort would not be completed until March 1944.

The main problem for AOK 18 was the Oranienbaum salient, which the Red Army had held since late 1941. This heavily-fortified salient was supplied by sea and forced AOK 18 to maintain at least a corps-size formation to contain it. Steiner’s corps was assigned to defend the southern side of the Oranienbaum salient, to prevent a link-up between the Soviet forces in Leningrad and the enclave. Nordland would serve as a mobile reserve for this critical sector. However, von Küchler and Lindemann were not particularly concerned about the Oranienbaum salient, which had been a quiet sector for two years. Instead, von Küchler and Lindemann focused on repelling a Soviet breakout from Leningrad toward the Pulkovo Heights. Once again, the Germans were let down by their poor intelligence support, which failed to note a shift in Soviet intentions. General-leytenant Leonid A. Govorov, commander of the Leningrad Front, was resolved to end the German threat to the city and to destroy AOK 18. Instead of attacking from the east, as he had tried in all previous offensives in 1941–43, this time Govorov decided to make his main effort from the Oranienbaum salient.

General-leytenant Ivan F. Fediuninskiy, a protégé of Zhukov, was put in command of the 2nd Shock Army, which consisted of seven rifle divisions, two tank brigades and three tank regiments. Fediuninskiy’s strike force was quietly moved into the Oranienbaum salient in late December; not all of this could be concealed, but the Germans failed to appreciate this as the Soviet main effort. Instead, the Germans focused on General-polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army, which was outfitted with nine rifle divisions, two tank brigades, six tank regiments and two artillery divisions. Golikov’s preparations were meticulous, and for once the Red Army was allowed adequate time for preparation. On the morning of 14 January, Golikov attacked. Fediuninskiy’s artillery commenced a massive artillery bombardment against the 9. and 10.Luftwaffe-Feld-Divisionen on the eastern side of the salient. Two Soviet battleships supported the attack, with 305mm naval gunfire. After smashing their positions with over 100,000 rounds in 65 minutes, Fediuninskiy then attacked with five rifle divisions and two tank brigades. Contrary to expectations, the Luftwaffe troops put up a stout defence that prevented an immediate breakthrough and enabled Nordland to send some reinforcements. At the same time, Maslennikov distracted the German L Armeekorps with a massive bombardment, which kept Lindemann from committing his limited reserves against Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army. As night fell, Fediuninskiy committed a mobile group consisting of Polkovnik Aron Z. Oskotsky’s 152nd Tank Brigade and two tank regiments to begin pushing toward the road junction at Ropsha.

On the morning of 15 January, Maslennikov’s 42nd Army attacked the L Armeekorps after another lengthy artillery bombardment and quickly achieved a 4km-deep penetration on the Pulkovo Heights. The breakthrough was assisted by the 36th and 49th Guards Tank Regiments, each equipped with 21 Churchill tanks. Meanwhile, Fediuninskiy smashed the remnants of the two Luftwaffe divisions but mobile group Oskotsky was stopped by a counter-attack from Nordland before it could reach Ropsha. Lindemann was able to organize local counter-attacks on 16–17 January that temporarily slowed the two Soviet armies that were advancing toward each other. Nordland employed its assault guns and mobile artillery to strike at the flanks of the Soviet penetration, but could not seal it off. Maslennikov formed a mobile group with the 1st and 220th Tank Brigades, but these were stopped north of Krasnoye Selo. However after five days of battle, the German defence began to crumble and the Soviet armies surged toward Ropsha. On 19 January, the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army fought their way into Ropsha, which isolated a number of German units and forced Lindemann to retreat. Adding to von Küchler’s problems, Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched an attack against AOK 16 which overran a Luftwaffe division at Novgorod and threatened to unhinge AOK 18’s right flank, as well. Lindemann’s centre was pierced and both flanks were in retreat.

Hitler ordered von Küchler and Lindemann to stand fast, as help was on the way. He promised the transfer of the 12.Panzer-Division from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle from France to reinforce AOK 18, but neither would arrive soon enough to prevent Golikov from completing his breakout. Instead, the only immediate help came from s.Pz. Abt.502, which sent its 3.Kompanie under Leutnant Herbert Meyer with 15 Tigers by rail on 19 January. By the time Meyer’s Tigers arrived at Gatchina on 20 January, the station was already under artillery fire and the lead elements of the 42nd Army were approaching. With the rest of the battalion still en route, Meyer’s Tigers were scooped up by a local commander who ordered him to advance northwest to assist elements of the L Armeekorps, which were under pressure from Soviet armour. With a platoon of four Tigers, Meyer promptly advanced in a movement to contact, completely ignorant of both the friendly and enemy situation. Advancing to the sound of gunfire, Meyer unexpectedly bumped into an enemy tank battalion with 20–30 tanks. The terrain around Leningrad is heavily wooded and the ensuing action must have occurred at short range; three of Meyer’s four Tigers were knocked out and abandoned. Meyer returned with his last Tiger to link up with the rest of his company north of Gatchina, assembling a blocking force on the main road to Leningrad. However, Meyer had no supporting infantry and when the 42nd Army came rolling down the highway the next morning, Kampfgruppe Meyer was quickly encircled. Although Meyer’s Tigers knocked out eight enemy tanks and six anti-tank guns, the situation was hopeless since fuel and ammunition were low. In desperation, Meyer committed suicide and all 11 of his Tigers were destroyed or captured. Without support, the Tiger was little more than a bunker.

With AOK 18’s front broken and the Soviets rolling inexorably toward the Luga River, von Küchler’s nerve cracked and he ordered both armies to retreat to the Panther Line, even though its fortifications were incomplete. Under heavy pressure, AOK 18 conducted a fighting retreat to the Luga River, while AOK 16 fell back about 30km. The remaining Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502 assisted the AOK 18 in its withdrawal by turning to ambush the Soviet spearheads; on 25 January they claimed 41 Soviet tanks destroyed at Voyskovitsy, 5km southwest of Gatchina. However, German supply lines were disrupted by the retreat and resupply of fuel and ammunition became problematic. On 28 January, the Tigers made a brief stand at Volosovo while the infantry retreated to the Luga River. One lone Tiger was engaged by a battalion with 27 T-34s; despite having only three AP rounds and nine HE rounds, it managed to knock out seven T-34s and then fall back. Yet aside from the few remaining assault guns, Heeresgruppe Nord had almost no other armoured units to serve as a rearguard.

Von Küchler’s retreat order was unauthorized and Hitler immediately sacked von Küchler and decided to replace him with Generaloberst Walter Model, who had already made a name for himself as a steadfast commander. However, by the time that Model arrived in Pskov on 31 January, Heeresgruppe Nord was already in full retreat and Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army was on the outskirts of Kingisepp. Even worse, Model found that AOK 18 had barely 17,000 combat troops to hold the 115km-wide front on the Luga River, which was insufficient to repulse a determined offensive. Affecting a bold front, Model declared that Heeresgruppe Nord would employ Schild und Schwert (sword and shield) tactics to stop the Soviet steamroller. By this he meant limited tactical withdrawals to enable him to concentrate enough troops for local counter-attacks. Model ordered the establishment of large-scale stützpunkte at Narva and Luga, while combing out infantry replacements from Heeresgruppe Nord’s rear-area troops. He personally went to inspect the defences at Narva and decided to commit the remaining Tigers to reinforce Steiner’s III. SS-Panzerkorps’ defence, since the loss of Narva would fatally compromise the Panther Line.

Yet despite Model’s bravado, the Soviet steamroller kept right on coming, advancing up to 16km per day, overrunning Kingisepp on 1 February and then seizing bridgeheads over the Luga River. At Narva, Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army managed to cross the Narva River south of the fortress city, but was stopped by a fanatical defence by Gruppe Sponheimer. Other Soviet elements crossed the frozen Lake Peipus, but were quickly destroyed. Generalleutnant Erpo von Bodenhausen’s 12.Panzer-Division arrived by rail from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Model decided to use it in a Schild und Schwert effort to stop the 42nd Army on the Luga River. The 12.Panzer-Division had never been completely refitted from its losses in 1941 and could only field a single Panzer-Abteilung, equipped with a mix of Pz III and Pz IV tanks. In contrast, the Leningrad Front received additional armour for the breakout, included some of the new KV-85s and IS-1s. After a few failed counter-attacks, von Bodenhausen used his armour and Panzergrenadiers to slow the Soviet advance, but the 42nd Army still managed to capture Luga on 13 February. Any hope Model had for standing on the Luga were demolished when Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front joined the Soviet offensive on 16 February and its 1st Shock Army overran the AOK 16 position at Staraya Russa. With Hitler’s grudging acceptance, Model ordered all of Heeresgruppe Nord to retreat to the Panther Line. When the troops arrived at the designated positions, they were forced to dig fighting positions in the frozen, snow covered ground. One innovation that did help was the ‘trench plow,’ a large steel hoe that was towed behind a semi-track vehicle and used to rip open the ground.

Govorov focused most of his effort on Narva, hoping to capture the city and outflank the rest of the Panther Line. He decided to reinforce Fediuninskiy with the 8th and 47th Armies. General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer commanded a mixed force of survivors at Narva, including the Nordland division, the Nederland brigade, four infantry divisions and s.Pz.Abt.502 (with 23 operational Tigers), as well as Estonian Waffen-SS troops and Luftwaffe troops. In early February, the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle arrived to bolster his command.* Narva was a formidable defensive position, located on a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipus, surrounded by marshes and forests. The city itself was located on the west side of the Narva River, which effectively served as a wide moat. While the Nordland division moved into the city, Oberleutnant Otto Carius and four Tigers were left as a rearguard on the east side of the river to gain time for the Waffen-SS troops to fortify their position. Model promptly arrived at this exposed position and personally told Carius, ‘I am holding you personally responsible that no Russian tanks break through.’ Once the Nordland was dug in, Carius’ Tigers were allowed to retreat across the river and the bridge was blown up.

Rather ambitiously, the Soviets attempted a double envelopment of Gruppe Sponheimer at Narva, with the 47th Army crossing the Narva River north of the city at Riigi and Siivertsi and the 8th Army crossing south of the city at Krivasso. In addition, on 13–14 February the Soviet Baltic Fleet landed a battalion of naval infantry behind German lines on the Gulf of Finland. Somehow, Sponheimer was able to scrape together just enough of a reserve to deal with each Soviet attack. Otto Carius’ Tigers played a major role in defending Narva, first sending three Tigers to crush the amphibious attack on 14 February. Next, several Tigers assisted the Nordland in battering the northern Soviet bridgeheads on 18 February, then shifted to deal with the southern threat. While the Soviets came close to encircling Narva, the Tigers prevented the pincers from shutting and kept a narrow lifeline open. Soviet tanks crossed the river, but not in sufficient numbers to overcome s. Pz. Abt. 502, which was reinforced with 17 new Tigers in late February.

On 1 March, the Soviet 59th Army began a major offensive from the Krivasso bridgehead which created a substantial lodgement south of Narva. However, the Nordland division finally destroyed the small bridgeheads north of Narva, which allowed the Germans to shift the Feldherrnhalle division to block this southern threat. On 6 March, the Soviets heavily bombed Narva, turning it into a pile of rubble, then attacked across the river with 2nd Shock Army. On 17 March, the 59th Army attacked from the south to sever the main east-west rail line, but three Tigers under Carius managed to hold the thinly-manned HKL and destroyed 14 T-34s and 1 KV-1, which halted the attack. Instead of overwhelming Carius’ small force, the Soviets attacked piecemeal, with only company-size groups of tanks supporting a battalion of infantry. Despite heavy casualties, the German defence held and after two weeks of heavy fighting the Soviets ceased their attacks.

As the Soviet offensive ebbed, the OKH decided to mount a major counter-attack to try and eliminate the 59th Army’s Krivasso bridgehead. It was a decidedly low-budget affair. Oberst Graf von Strachwitz was sent to Narva to lead a Panzerkampfgruppe formed from the remaining Tigers and a handful of Panthers and Pz IVs scraped up from repair depots. Elements of three infantry divisions were also committed to the effort. On 26 March, Strachwitz attacked and in six days he managed to demolish the western side of the Soviet bridgehead. The 59th Army had not expected a tank attack and failed to establish effective anti-tank defences. Strachwitz resumed the counter-offensive in early April and achieved more success until the spring thaw brought a halt to his mobile operations. The Soviets still maintained a toehold at Krivasso, but the threat to Narva was temporarily reduced. Strachwitz’s counter-offensive inflicted about 12,000 casualties on the 59th Army and brought the Soviet steamroller to a halt.

By early April, the situation along the Panther Line had stabilized for Heeresgruppe Nord. The defence of Narva was difficult and resource-consuming, but the fanatical defence of the city brought Govorov’s advance to a halt. The Soviets became too engrossed with taking Narva, rather than pressing hard at other sectors of the Heeresgruppe Nord front. Consequently, the rest of AOK 16 and AOK 18 were able to establish a new defensive line on the border of Estonia, although the army group lacked mobile reserves. As it was, the Leningrad Front came close to breaking Heeresgruppe Nord in February and it was the lack of large armoured mobile groups that reduced the scale of the Soviet victory. With all the tank armies committed to the Ukraine, Govorov and Meretskov had to make due with combining various tank brigades and regiments into ad hoc groups, which was little better than the Red Army tactics of 1941–42. For the Germans, it was equally unnerving to realize how little armoured support they had when a positional campaign transitioned to mobile warfare.

OPERATION VARSITY

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Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders. Comment : This was Operation Varsity, part of Operation Plunder.

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By March 1945 the Allies had advanced up to the River Rhine, the last great defensive barrier against the western armies. The Canadians had fought through the Reichswald whilst the British had assisted in the restoring of the lines in the northern sector of the Ardennes following the Battle of the Bulge. Further to the south Hodge’s US 1st Army was at Koblenz on the Rhine and Patton’s 3rd Army was opposite Mainz. Montgomery, seeing a chance to cross the Rhine in the area of Wesel utilising his 21st Army Group put forward the plan for Operation Plunder. This would incorporate 1st Canadian, 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Crossing the Rhine they could then advance into the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr and on to the North German Plain, which was ideal ground for a rapid armoured advance. Montgomery would also include airborne forces in his plan. Dropping just behind the river crossings to secure towns on the intended route of advance as well as disrupting the German reaction to the crossings and halting reinforcements into the area. Learning lessons from the Market Garden debacle, the airborne troops would expect to link up with the ground forces within 24 hours.

The plan was for the Canadian 1st Army to hold the left flank of the assault whilst also making feint attacks across the river to draw the defenders’ attention from the main assault. The British 2nd Army was to make an assault crossing opposite Rees with the 1st Commando Brigade crossing just north of Wesel itself. The US 9th Army would cross further to the south with the aim of advancing on Munster whilst protecting the right flank. The airborne element would utilise the 17th US and 6th British Airborne Divisions. The 6th, made up of 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill, 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett and 6th Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy would drop around the towns of Hamminkeln and Schnappenberg and the Diersfordter Wald, a forested area east of the Rhine, secure the towns and the surrounding area and await for the arrival of the ground forces. They would also capture several crossings over the smaller Issel river to the east of the Rhine. The 17th, made up of 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, 513th PIR commanded by Colonel James Coutts and 194th Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Pierce would drop just south of the 6th but north of Wesel, again securing areas of the Diersfordter Wald and disrupt any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the battle zone. The plan was also made to include the 13th US Airborne Division but due to a lack of transport aircraft this division was left behind.

Preparations for the crossing commenced on 16 March with the laying of a massive smoke screen to cover the Allied build up and deployment of the supporting artillery, which would total over 5,000 guns. Facing the upcoming assault were elements of the German 86th Corps and 2nd Parachute Corps, with the brunt of the attack been taken by 7th Parachute Division and the 84th Infantry Division. Further to the rear on the east side of the Issel river were the severely depleted but still threatening 116th Panzer Division, with a total of some seventy tanks. The area surrounding Wesel was also thick with anti-aircraft batteries.

During the afternoon of the 23 March 1945 a massive air raid on Wesel was followed by a four hour bombardment from the allied artillery covering the entire 21st Army Group front but concentrating on the town of Wesel. Late that evening the first elements of 2nd Army, the 51st Highland Division made its crossing in amphibious Buffalo vehicles, the crossing taking less than three minutes. The path was laid by an array of searchlights and tracer fire firing from the west to the east bank. Just after midnight the 15th (Scottish) Division would land on the east bank too. The 1st Commando Brigade would do the same landing just north of Wesel. No. 46 (RM) Commando were in the lead and managed to create a bridgehead, despite tough resistance. No. 6 Commando then passed through their positions and began entering the outskirts of the town before they were met by local counter-attacks. The Germans, alerted for days by the smoke screen and the preliminary bombardment were dazed, but soon began to put up a solid defence all along the eastern bank of the Rhine, the 51st Division did not manage to capture the northern town of Rees by the end of the first day, whilst the 15th Division was facing Fallschirmjaeger well emplaced with machine guns and numerous anti-tank ditches.

To the south the Americans were meeting less stubborn resistance but were still taking casualties. The lead unit, 30th Infantry Division managed to gain a strong foothold on the eastern bank whilst the 79th Division did the same to their south.

On the morning of 24 March 1,600 transports, mostly C-47 Dakotas but with some newly arrived C-46 Commando and C-54 transports, began to form up above Belgium. Being towed by these aircraft were a total of 1,300 gliders, made up of Horsa, Waco and the heavy lift Hamilcar. The vast armada stretched for some 200 miles and was heavily protected by fighter aircraft. This was to be the largest airborne drop in military history.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first over their drop zone, DZ ‘A’, and were met with ferocious anit-aircraft fire. The unit did however manage to land as a cohesive unit on the drop zone ten minutes before their H-Hour of 10.00. Once on the ground they held off local counter-attacks and went about clearing their area of the Diersfordter as well as moving on the village of Schnappenberg, which was captured by 14.00.

Closely following the 3rd were the men of 5th Parachute Brigade, landing on DZ ‘B’. Here the men again landed within their designated area but were met with intense artillery fire onto the drop zone. This had to be neutralised before the Brigade could then go about its tasks.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade was separated into companys for its assault. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry landed to the north on LZ ‘O’. Their task being to secure the two bridges over the River Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed just south on LZ ‘U’ to secure the main road bridge whilst 12th Battalion of Devonshire Regiment landed LZ ‘P’ tasked with the capture of Hamminkeln. By now the German defenders were fully alerted and the slow moving gliders, along with the towing aircraft were met with heavy flak. This took an extreme toll on the glidermen with many casualties from aircraft crashing or making emergency landings. These same flak cannons were then lowered to the horizontal where they engaged the brigade as they formed up on their respective landing zones. 2 Ox and Bucks captured the two bridges and established footholds on the eastern bank of the Issel. 1 RUR also captured their bridge. 12 Devons took the most casualties on landing but despite this moved on Hamminkeln and took it with the aid of the misdropped men of 513th PIR. As the glidermen dug in to defend their positions local counter-attacks by the Germans, supported by armour were made, these being fought off. However the area around 2 Ox and Bucks positions at the road bridge was severely threatened and they were pushed from the east bank. This was taken with an immediate counter-attack, but when enemy armour approached the bridge it was decided to blow it.

First of the American units to drop was the 507th PIR. They were to drop on DZ ‘W’ but due to a thick haze low to the ground half of the regiment landed further north of the town of Diersfordt. Nevertheless the men made their way to the rest of the regiment, engaging any enemy they saw on their way, again all the regiments tanks were fulfilled by the early afternoon.

Next to drop were the 517th PIR. En route to the drop their aircraft hit a particularly bad belt of flak, taking a huge toll on the transports, especially the C-46 Commando aircraft. The C-47s with which the paras were familiar with had been fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks, however the C-46s did not have this facility and were very susceptible to explode due to the high volume of flak. General Matthew Ridgway would later forbid the use of the type in future operations. To add to the drama the ground haze caused the 507th to be misdropped on the 6th Airlanding Brigades area. Typically of paratroopers they dealt with the problem quickly and adapted their plans accordingly. They joined forces with their British counterparts and aided in the capture of Hamminkeln.

West of the 507th the 194th GIR came down on LZ ‘S’. Again the gliders and transports took heavy casualties, the glidermen actually landing amongst an artillery emplacement engaging targets on the western bank of the Rhine. This was duly silenced by the glidermen.

As 24 March came to a close all the tasks given to the men of the various airborne units had been accomplished. The German rear had been thrown into disarray and allowed for the consolidation of the bridgehead over the Rhine by the land forces. The routes taken by any potential counter-attack from the German panzer units stationed further to the rear were held and the town of Hamminkeln had been captured. By midnight of 24 March the 15th Division had made contact with the 6th Airborne and armour was starting to come across the river to further reinforce the bridgehead. By the following day twelve pontoon bridges were laid across the Rhine to aid the stream of Allied forces east of the river. The attack had been costly on the airborne forces, with the 6th Airborne suffering 1,300 casualties and the 17th Airborne suffering a similar amount. However the lessons learned from Market Garden had proved to be fruitful, with an airborne army landing in the enemy’s direct rear area a swift victory could be achieved. The German defences in the west had been cracked and now the road was open for 21st Army Group to exploit the gap and continue on to the Elbe river, swinging south to join with the American counterparts, who had forced various crossings along the southern part of the Rhine. Within six weeks the war in Europe would come to an end.

“Japan Raid by U.S. Is Out of Question”

 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto stewed aboard his flagship, the Yamato, safely anchored off the island of Hashirajima in Japan’s Inland Sea. The fifty-seven-year-old commander of the Combined Fleet—and architect of the surprise attack on Hawaii—understood the danger the United States still posed to Japan, even as much of the Pacific Fleet now rusted on the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto had long warned his superiors about the industrial power of the United States. The victories Japan now enjoyed, he knew, were merely the prelude to the war’s main act. “Britain and America may have underestimated Japan somewhat, but from their point of view it’s like having one’s hand bitten rather badly by a dog one was feeding. It seems that America in particular is determined before long to embark on full-scale operations against Japan,” he wrote a colleague. “The mindless rejoicing at home is really deplorable; it makes me fear that the first blow at Tokyo will make them wilt on the spot.”

Yamamoto was unique among the empire’s senior leaders. The son of a former samurai warrior, he stood just five feet three inches tall, one inch shorter than Jimmy Doolittle. A graduate of Japan’s renowned Eta Jima Naval Academy, he shunned alcohol even as he nursed a lifelong love of gambling. Yamamoto had fought as a young ensign in the Russo-Japanese War. A gun explosion aboard the armored cruiser Nisshin in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait robbed him of the index and middle finger of his left hand, earning him the nickname “eighty sen” from the geishas in Tokyo’s Shimbashi district who charged one yen for a ten-finger manicure. The explosion had peppered Yamamoto’s lower body with more than a hundred pieces of shrapnel, leaving the paunchy admiral forever scarred and self-conscious. “Whenever I go into a public bath,” he used to quip, “people think I’m a gangster.”

Yamamoto twice lived in the United States, where he studied at Harvard and later served as naval attaché at the embassy in Washington. An avid admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he devoured biographies of America’s sixteenth president, demanding that his subordinates read them. Visits to the Detroit auto plants and the oil fields of Texas convinced him that the world was moving away from a dependency on iron and coal and more toward oil, gasoline, and light metals better suited for planes. When his superiors shot down his request for cash to tour Mexico, the dedicated officer opted to pay for the trip on his own meager salary, ultimately drawing the scrutiny of Mexican authorities. “A man who claims to be Yamamoto Isoroku, a commander in the Japanese navy, is traveling around the country inspecting oil fields. He stays in the meanest attics in third-rate hotels and never eats the hotel food, subsisting instead on bread, water, and bananas,” Mexican authorities cabled the embassy. “Please confirm his identity.”

These experiences had convinced Yamamoto of the United States’ raw industrial might, even as isolationist policies in the wake of World War I had stunted America’s military growth. Yamamoto opposed Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy and long resisted war with the United States, arguing that his nation’s limited resources would run out in eighteen months. His dissent had led some in Japan’s militaristic right wing to threaten to assassinate him, forcing the military police to guard him. One of Yamamoto’s top aides even slept each night with a sword. But the admiral refused to back down, voicing his concerns in 1940 to the then prime minister, Fumimaro Konoye, when pressed on Japan’s chances of success. “If we are ordered to do it,” Yamamoto had answered, “then I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it went on for two or three years.”

Despite Yamamoto’s protestations, Japan had continued the march toward war, leaving the admiral in the awkward position of planning an operation he opposed, a predicament he captured in an October 1941 letter to a friend. “My present situation is very strange. Because I have been assigned the mission, entirely against my private opinion, and also I am expected to do my best,” he wrote. “Alas, maybe, this is my fate.” In past war games the Japanese Navy had never won an overwhelming victory against the United States, leading to the maneuvers’ suspension for fear the Navy would be dragged into gradual defeat. The best way to improve Japan’s chances, Yamamoto realized, was a surprise strike against American forces in Hawaii. “The most important thing we have to do first of all in a war with the U.S., I firmly believe, is to fiercely attack and destroy the U.S. main fleet at the outset of the war,” he wrote. “Only then shall we be able to secure an invincible stand in key positions in East Asia.”

The success of the attack on Pearl Harbor had made Yamamoto a national celebrity, a status he despised even as a stack of new fan mail nearly a foot high landed daily on his desk. A request by famed painter Yasuda Yukihiko to paint his portrait only outraged the admiral, who remained troubled by Japan’s failure to sink any of America’s powerful aircraft carriers in the raid on Hawaii. “As I see it,” Yamamoto wrote a friend, “portraits are vulgarities to be shunned only less rigorously than bronze statues.” Likewise, he rejected an offer to write the original calligraphy for a new monument in central Tokyo’s Hibiya Park. When presented with two military decorations, he refused to accept them, burdened by a sense of guilt that, even though he commanded sailors, he had yet to see an enemy warship or plane. “I could never wear them,” Yamamoto said. “I’d be ashamed.” In a personal letter he was more blunt: “I wonder how the men who’ve seen action in the front line would feel about it?”

Underlying Yamamoto’s unease was his fear that Japan’s euphoria over the attack on Pearl Harbor was premature. After more than four years of war with China—and with Japan already devouring its stockpiles of raw materials—Yamamoto knew the nation now lived on borrowed time. In his first wartime State of the Union address only weeks earlier, President Roosevelt had demanded that America produce 60,000 bombers, fighters, and cargo planes, 45,000 tanks, and 20,000 antiaircraft guns that year, along with eight million tons of ships. The Pearl Harbor attack was only the opening salvo of what promised to be a long and hard war, a view Yamamoto captured best in a letter to a colleague. “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten,” he wrote. “I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.”

Yamamoto’s fears ran counter to the views of his fellow military leaders, the press, and general public. In the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, newspapers printed photos and dramatic accounts of the raid, described by the Osaka Mainichi newspaper as “the brilliant curtain raiser for the destruction of the United States and Britain.” Other papers published poems celebrating the attack, while a motion picture compiled of edited assault footage played for packed theaters nationwide. With each passing day—and as Japan’s victories mounted—the national ego swelled. The press began to refer to Japanese forces as “superhuman” and even celebrated them as gods. One newspaper article went so far as to proclaim that Japan’s conquest of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies fulfilled a centuries-old prophecy of the deity Boyo Moyo. “As our country was founded by God,” declared planning board president Lieutenant General Teiichi Suzuki, “so our men in the fighting forces are God’s troops.”

Yamamoto watched as this national fervor reached a climax with the February fall of Singapore. Members of the House of Representatives erupted in shouts of “Banzai.” Schools suspended class, while newspapers published special “Victory Supplements.” Despite rationing, the government announced each family would be given two bottles of beer, rubber goods, and red beans; children under thirteen would receive caramel drops. Even Emperor Hirohito put in a special public appearance—dressed in his military uniform and mounted on his favorite horse, White Snow—to accept the banzais of the adoring crowd of thousands gathered in front of the Imperial Palace. “The downfall of Singapore,” the Osaka Mainichi wrote, “has definitely decided the history of the world.” The Japan Times & Advertiser compared the victory to Hannibal’s legendary crossing of the Alps and Genghis Khan’s passage through the Hindu Kush. “Our men,” the paper declared, “are now among the world’s immortals.”

The press went so far as to boast that it would be easy for Japanese soldiers to storm the beaches of California. “Once a landing is made on the American continent, it will be a simple matter for a well-trained, courageous army to sweep everything before it,” argued an editorial in the Japan Times & Advertiser. “The contention that the United States cannot be invaded is a myth.” At the same time the possibility that America might actually strike back at Japan was viewed as impossible, if not laughable. “Japan Raid by U.S. Is Out of Question,” declared one headline; another stated, “No Fear of America Attacking Empire.” Most pointed out that Japan, after seizing American bases across the Pacific, now controlled much of the seas and the skies. “As for aerial attacks from aircraft-carriers,” argued a correspondent for the Asahi newspaper, “any such attempt is believed suicidal because, unlike Hawaii, a very vigorous vigil is kept along the Japanese coasts and American raids will be nipped in the bud.”

Yamamoto wasn’t so cocky, particularly since he knew how few the resources were to protect Japan’s crowded cities from attack. Most of the nation’s fighters had deployed to the front lines, leaving behind just three hundred planes to safeguard the homeland—two hundred Navy and one hundred Army. Only fifty of those were dedicated to the defense of Tokyo and the industrial suburb of Yokohama. The Osaka and Kobe regions were equally ill equipped, with just twenty defensive fighters, while Nagoya counted only ten. Many of the planes were older Nakajima Type 97, code-named Nate by the Allies, a single-seat fighter with a fixed-landing gear. Yamamoto knew that antiaircraft defense was likewise inadequate. Tokyo had just 150 of the nation’s 700 antiaircraft guns—most 75 millimeter—while Kobe and Osaka had a combined 70 and Nagoya a mere 20. “Compared with the Japanese forces in the overseas areas,” one postwar Japanese report noted, “the air defense units in the home islands were poorly equipped and trained.”

Many of Japan’s senior leaders, however, did not share Yamamoto’s fears. During a meeting with his military councillors on November 4, 1941, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo dismissed the threat of an air raid against Japan, insisting that the nation dedicate its forces to overseas operations. “I do not think the enemy could raid Japan proper from the air immediately after the outbreak of hostilities,” Tojo said. “Some time would elapse before the enemy could attempt such raids.” That same confidence led him to reject the first comprehensive air defense measures proposed by the War Ministry in mid-January, which called for dispersing factories, protecting utilities, communication and transportation systems, and even evacuating major urban centers. Tojo likewise shot down a proposal in February to at least evacuate women and children, claiming that such action would merely threaten Japan’s important family structure. Only cowards, he argued, evacuated.

Yamamoto disagreed. The veteran admiral had set a precedent with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He understood that America’s strong national character—coupled with Japan’s failure to sink the nation’s flattops at Pearl Harbor—would no doubt lead to a retaliatory carrier strike against the Japanese homeland. Yamamoto recalled that during the Russo-Japanese War when a Russian naval force arrived off Tokyo’s shores, many terrified residents fled to the mountains while others stoned the home of Vice Admiral Kamimura, the officer trusted to protect the homeland from attack. Yamamoto vowed never to let that happen again, and his determination to protect the seat of the emperor, aides remembered, grew into an obsession. “He never failed, before giving his attention to any thing else, to ask for the latest Tokyo weather report,” recalled Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the air attack on Pearl Harbor. “If the reports were bad, he felt relieved because they gave added assurance that the capital was safe.”

Yamamoto ordered daily long-range air patrols in the waters east of Japan, along with the creation of a fleet of picket boats, a force that would eventually count 171 such vessels, most small fishing boats requisitioned from private owners that ranged in size from 50 to 250 tons. Armed with radios to flash reports of any approaching enemy fleet, the boats operated anywhere from eighty to a thousand miles off shore, anchoring during the day and patrolling at night. Despite these precautions Yamamoto remained so concerned he even advised a geisha friend to move her property outside the city. “A lot of people are feeling relieved, or saying they’re ‘grateful to Admiral Yamamoto’ because there hasn’t been a single air raid,” he wrote. “They’re very wrong: the fact that the enemy hasn’t come is no thanks to Admiral Yamamoto, but to the enemy himself. So if they want to express gratitude to somebody, I wish they’d express it to America. If the latter really made up its mind to wade in on us, there’d be no way of defending a city like Tokyo.”

Operation ‘Albion’

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THE BATTLE OF MOON SOUND, OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1917 (Q 57942) Russian battleship SLAVA, which was badly hit in the action in the Gulf of Riga on 18 October 1917 and had to be abandoned. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205307253

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After the torpedo and mine casualties of the winter of 1915/16, there was little activity by larger warships in the Baltic theatre, although smaller vessels remained active – and suffered losses from the same causes. Ashore, there was an essential stalemate, but in March 1917 the ‘March Revolution’ in Russia ended the monarchy and although the Provisional Government continued the war, pressure began from the far left for an end to hostilities. Then, in July, the failure of the Kerensky Offensive opened the whole front to a German advance.

Against this background, Operation ‘Albion’ was launched in September 1917 to seize the West Estonian Archipelago that closed off the Gulf of Riga from the Baltic.8 The aim was both to free German forces and trade from the threat of Russian ships and submarines based there and to threaten St Petersburg, with a view to encouraging the Russians to seek an armistice.

German land forces – numbering some 23,000 men, carried from Libau by nineteen ships – were supported by a large naval force under the command of FO I. Sqn., flying his flag in Moltke, a veteran of the 1915 Riga campaign. Under him were the III. Sqn (König, Bayern, Großer Kurfürst, Kronprinz and Markgraf), the IV. Sqn. (Friedrich der Große, König Albert, Kaiserin, Prinzregent Luitpold and Kaiser), the II. and IV. SGs (Königsberg, Karlsruhe, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, Danzig, Kolberg, Straßburg, Augsburg, Blitz and Nautilus), the II., VI., VIII. and X torpedo boat Flotillas (forty-three boats with Emden as leader) and thirteen submarines, plus minesweepers and other supporting vessels. In opposition, the Russian Navy could only deploy the battleships Slava and Grazhdanin (ex-Tsesarevich), the cruisers Bayan, Admiral Makarov and Diana, the gunboats Khrabryi, Groziashchii and Khivinetz, and three divisions of destroyers, led by Novik, torpedo boats, plus other subsidiary vessels.

Although the German-based ships left Kiel on 24 September, weather prevented operations until early October, when aerial bombardment commenced, together with the sweeping of mines in the Irben Strait, which almost immediately resulted in the mining and sinking of T54 and M31, with damage to M75, T85 and Cladow. Finally, on 10 October the III. and IV. Sqns departed Putzig Bay, near Danzig, the naval forces rendezvousing the following day. Minesweeping had not proceeded as planned, while a navigational error meant that when the battleships began planned shore bombardments in support of the German landings (Bayern against the battery at Cape Toffri, the rest of III. Sqn against the battery at Ninnast [Ninase] and IV. Sqn. against battery at Cape Hundsort [Tagamõisa]) they were operating in unswept waters.

Early on the morning of the 11th, Bayern opened fire first, followed by Kaiser, Prinzregent Luitpold and Kaiserin. The Hundsort battery’s reply was aimed at Moltke, its 6in [152mm] shells falling only 100 metres short of her, the second salvo over, and the third 50 metres off her bow. Moltke then added her guns to the bombardment, while shortening the range to just 8000 metres as the landing got underway. In the meantime, the III. Sqn had taken the batteries at Cape Toffri and Ninnast under fire, the latter at a range of 4600 metres, allowing secondary batteries to be used. Großer Kurfürst had carried out her part in the bombardment in spite of having been mined forward on the starboard side shortly before, damage being limited to 280t of water in the double bottom, wing passage and bunkers and adding 10cm to her draught forward.

While firing against the 12cm battery at Cape Toffri, Bayern was also mined, suffering significantly more damage, with the bow and forward torpedo broadside torpedo flat flooded, 1000t of water aboard and seven dead; it is likely that damage was exacerbated by the explosion of the twelve air-accumulators in the torpedo flat. The ship continued to undertake her bombardment, expending twenty-four 38cm and seventy 15cm rounds, at ranges varying from 9300 to 10,200 metres, with Emden also adding her fire while the German landing-forces got into position. In parallel, Friedrich der Große and König Albert undertook a diversionary bombardment to the east of the Sworbe Peninsula. Having completed their duties, the big ships came together that evening at Tagga Bay, between the now-neutralised Ninnast and Hundsort batteries.

Russian naval responses had now begun, Admiral Makarov, Groziashchii, Novik and five other destroyers engaging German torpedo boats that afternoon, while on the 12th intelligence reports of submarines being deployed led to the III. Sqn, except for Markgraf, being sent back to Putzig Bay that evening. From here the damaged Großer Kurfürst and Bayern could proceed to Kiel and beyond for repairs. Großer Kurfürst reached Wilhelmshaven on the 18th; she re-joined the fleet on 1 December.

However, while Bayern was initially able to proceed with her squadron-mates at 11kts, strain on her bulkheads resulted in progressive reductions in speed, until she came to a stop around 20.00 while the bulkheads were shored up. It having been decided that the risk of proceeding further was too great, Bayern returned towards Tagga Bay, escorted by Kronprinz and three torpedo boats, supplemented by further torpedo boats sent out from Tagga Bay. The battleship continued to experience difficulties, stopping again for a number of hours, and finally struggled into Tagga Bay the middle of the next morning for temporary repairs. The ship eventually arrived back at Kiel on the 31st, and was under repair until 27 December. The IV Sqn. remained at Tagga Bay, with König and Kronprinz due to return on the 15th.

On the 13th, further actions took place between Russian destroyers, later joined by Khivinetz, and German light vessels, supported by Emden. The following day, the latter and Kaiser provided fire support for operations to secure the Kassar Wiek, the stretch of water between the islands of Dagö (Hiiumaa) and Ösel, the battleship engaging the Russian destroyers Pobiedtityel, Zabiyaka, Grom and Konstantin at long range. Grom received a shell that passed through her engine room without exploding.

These destroyers subsequently engaged the German light forces penetrating the Kassar Wiek, ships on both sides being damaged, before Khrabryi and Khivinetz joined the action, the former taking Grom, which had been badly damaged by V100, in tow. The tow was subsequently dropped, Grom’s hulk being then captured by the Germans and towed further before foundering in shallow water. Grazhdanin and Admiral Makarov joined the fray late in the afternoon, but the range was too great and fire ceased at nightfall.

The following morning, Friedrich der Große, König Albert and Kaiserin departed Tagga Bay to undertake bombardment duties off the Sworbe Peninsula – Friedrich der Große against ground forces, König Albert and Kaiserin against the battery on Zerel, which mounted four 30.5cm guns, with excellent arcs of fire. In the event, Friedrich der Große joined her sisters in action against the battery, which managed to straddle Kaiserin with its fourth salvo.

The IV. Sqn. returned to their bombardment positions off the Sworbe Peninsula the next morning, but did not open fire until the afternoon, while the III. Sqn supported the minesweepers at work in the Irben Straits. That evening, König Albert and Kaiserin were detached to Putzig Bay to coal whilst Friedrich der Große remained to the west of Sworbe. In parallel, Grazhdanin and destroyers were sent to the area, the Russian battleship escaping a number of attempted attacks by German submarines en route.

König and Kronprinz had now returned to theatre and on the 16th narrowly avoided being torpedoed by HMS/M C27 while en route to face the Russian naval force approaching Moon Sound. Since disembarkation at Tagga Bay was now largely complete, Markgraf was ordered to leave the bay and join her sisters. The next morning, however, before Markgraf could join, Grazhdanin, Slava, Bayan and supporting destroyers launched an attack on the German minesweepers, the Russian battleships and the five 10in [254mm] guns of the Woi shore battery straddling but not hitting the minesweeping force. Unfortunately, a fault developed in Slava’s fore turret during this phase of the operation, and thus she was reduced to a single pair of 12in [305mm] guns when König and Kronprinz appeared on the scene.

On the other hand, the Russian guns (although significantly older than those in the German ships) outranged their German counterparts by 1600m – a legacy of the German pre-war doctrine of short-range fighting. The big battleships’ ability to manoeuvre was also constrained by the swept channel. König having narrowly escaped being hit, they were forced to withdraw in the face of their antiquated opponents, which were able to resume their assault on the minesweepers, joined again by shore batteries.

The German battleships resumed action two hours later at a range of 16,000m or more, König taking on Slava at 10.13 and Kronprinz Grazhdanin four minutes later; Bayan was for the time being ignored. This time, Slava was hit by König’s third salvo, two shells striking below the waterline on the port side, abreast the fore turret, and another hitting the superstructure abreast the forward funnel. This caused 1130 tons of water to enter the ship, causing an 8° degree list, reduced by half through counter-flooding. Two more shells struck the battery deck at 10.24, causing fires that were, however, soon put out, but another two hits at 10.39 were again below the waterline, adding to the flooding and resulting in the after turret also being put out of action through water penetration of its magazines.

Grazhdanin was more fortunate, receiving only two hits, one of which caused a fire that was quickly extinguished, the other of which damaged two generators and several steam pipes. Bayan was belatedly taken under fire by König, and at 10.36 was hit a shell that penetrated both the upper and the battery decks and exploded deep inside the ship, where it caused a fire that was only put out the next day. The German battleships ceased fire at 10.40, the Russians having begun to withdraw towards the Moon Sound dredged channel ten minutes earlier. Unfortunately, Slava now drew too much water to pass, and had to be scuttled, with the intention of also blocking the dredged channel against the Germans. However, she ran aground before being properly positioned, her aft magazines being detonated in an attempt to sink her – an act which, although visible 25 kilometres away, seemingly did little more than blow the roof off the turret. Slava was thus torpedoed by the destroyer Turkmenets Stavropolskii, after which she settled on the bottom in shallow water, burning until the following day; the wreck was broken up in 1935.

No attempt was made to pursue the remaining Russian ships, since they no longer posed a threat to the minesweepers, the German forces continuing their advance, the König successfully engaging the Werder and Woi shore batteries. The submarine threat remained, both an imagined periscope-sighting and a real – but abortive – attack by HMS/M C26 soon after 12.00.

Earlier in the day, at 09.25, Kaiser had opened the landing on Dagö with a preliminary bombardment of the landing ground at Serro and by the evening good progress had been made throughout the theatre. Consideration was also being given to cutting off the Russian naval forces at the northern end of the Moon Sound, but the decision had already been made to withdraw them into the Gulf of Finland, with the remaining islands evacuated, although Dago was to hold out for as long as possible. The withdrawal took place on the evening of the 19th,

As the campaign wound up, Kaiserin and König Albert were released on the 19th to return to the North Sea, although Markgraf undertook a bombardment of the island of Kyno on the 21st and Hainasch on the 22nd – in both cases using only her secondary guns. She was left temporarily as the last battleship in theatre on the 26th, when König and Kronprinz left for the North Sea, although both touched ground soon after departing, thus requiring dockyard attention once they reached Germany.

Ostfriesland and Thüringen were due to arrive in theatre on the 30th, and thus Markgraf began her voyage home on the 29th. However, soon after departure she struck two mines on her starboard beam; 260t of water was taken aboard, but there were no casualties. The incident nevertheless emphasised the hazards of operating in the area, and accordingly it was decided to withdraw the newly-arrived battleships and the existing cruisers. Moltke, Ostfriesland and Thüringen thus steamed into Putzig Bay on 3 November, the Special Unit established for the Riga operation being dissolved the same day.

Of Model and Manstein

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Model’s salvaging of the Hagen Position in August 1943 had bought some temporary respite north of the former Kursk salient. The German armies south of it, however, were soon in peril. If the third battle of Kharkov was arguably Field Marshal von Manstein’s greatest victory, the much larger battle of the Ukraine that now unfolded was undoubtedly his greatest defeat.

The fighting lasted from August 1943 through to April 1944. There were some inspired counterthrusts, courtesy most famously of General Balck’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. Indeed, the performance of Balck’s troops recalled the old-style manoeuvre warfare of the Panzer divisions at their best. ‘Almost all linear and stubbornly defended positions in World War Two were penetrated,’ Balck asserted after the war. ‘The defence, therefore, had to be conducted in a mobile and offensive manner, so that the two most precious weapons, initiative and surprise, remained in your own hands and not the enemy’s.’ Overall, however, Army Group South’s performance in the course of the Ukraine battles showed that the Germans could no longer delude themselves that their operational performance was superior to the Red Army’s. Manstein underestimated the Soviets’ cunning when he allowed his armour to be drawn to counter a Soviet offensive on the River Mius. Simultaneously, the Soviets launched an offensive to destroy German forces directly south of the Kursk salient. Manstein now realized he had been duped, and re-sent his Panzer divisions further south. The Germans eventually re-established a defensive line and checked the Red Army, but not without enduring further grievous losses of troops and territory.

Again, Hitler showed some strategic sense: he allowed Manstein to dissolve the now pointless Kuban bridgehead, retreat part way through the Ukraine and establish a new defensive line on the River Dnepr. However, with the Soviets committing five army groups to driving them out of the Ukraine entirely, the Germans could not hope to hold the Dnepr. ‘The devil has been let loose among us,’ wrote Lance Corporal Helmut P. of the 198th Infantry Division. ‘The Russian is trying with all means to set foot on the west bank. The ultimate material battle is in progress. I have much to do, for every day and night the wounded pour in. … Yes, this is the “quiet position” that we had looked forward to for so long!’ The Soviets were across the river by early October, and in Kiev little more than a month later.

The Red Army’s capture of Kiev, which saw General Hoth sacked from his command of the Fourth Panzer Army, exemplified how far the Red Army had come in mastering the operational art of the offensive. Rather than attack the well-defended sector just below Kiev, Red Army command reinforced a small foothold north of the city in swampy terrain that the Germans never considered a viable jumping-off point. It built up its forces in this foothold under the utmost secrecy. Then, on 1 November, the Red Army attacked below Kiev. The Germans, assuming this to be the main focus of its attack, sent mobile reserves to counter. Two days later, the Soviet 38th Army burst out of its swampy bridgehead to devastating effect against the much weaker German defences now facing it. As a feat of misdirection it rivalled Army Group B’s diversionary drive through the Low Countries in May 1940 in pursuit of Manstein’s Sickle Cut Plan. The field marshal had been shot with his own gun.

The 4th Mountain Division and the 198th Infantry Division, like many other formations, were devastated by the Ukraine battles. In November, the 4th Mountain Division described the chaotic spectacle of its retreat west of Melitopol: ‘The only usable road … is hopelessly blocked by fleeing motorized and horse-drawn baggage. To an extent the picture is one of the wildest panic and the greatest disorganization. … The main reason for this chaos is that marching next to the road is impossible, because it is flanked by quicksand. … If the enemy attacks strongly under these conditions, as before, the effect upon the already disorganized baggage will be catastrophic.’ Between 10 July and 30 September, the 198th Infantry Division lost nearly ten thousand men. In March 1944, while also facing the miseries of the spring thaw, it was virtually destroyed all over again. ‘We’ve had to fight the hardest battles that ever there were,’ wrote Helmut P. on 16 March. ‘Mud and filth were even bigger enemies. We went barefoot through the mud. Six days ago the division was completely shattered. I got out of it by a miracle; the whole headquarters with everything around it fell, including the colonel.’

Despite further German efforts, such as a costly breakout from the Cherkassy pocket, by April 1944, the Red Army had cleared the Germans from the Ukraine, including the Crimea. Developments in the Crimea were another occasion on which Hitler showed some flexibility, albeit at the very last minute, by ordering the peninsula evacuated. He also ordered down Colonel General Schörner from Army Group North with three corps to stabilize the situation. The Red Army’s forces now halted to replenish their strength and wait out the spring rasputitsa. They had already done their job: the Germans were out of the Ukraine and back on the Romanian frontier, and Army Group South had been cleaved in two.

Losing the Ukraine brought Field Marshal von Manstein’s time to an end. Hitler had already run out of patience with him by late 1943, remarking after Manstein had proposed another strategic withdrawal and counterattack that the field marshal ‘should not speak of a counter-operation but call it by the right name: running away’. Manstein had only lasted as long as he had because the crisis in the east was so desperately urgent, but Hitler finally sacked him in March. Manstein’s doctrine of flexible defence might work locally, if executed by a reasonably resourced formation such as General Balck’s XLVIII Panzer Corps. But strategically, it was bankrupt. The withdrawals Manstein had advocated would only have meant something if they had bought the Germans time to marshal forces for the kind of effort that might postpone the Reich’s defeat indefinitely. Strain their sinews as they might, however, neither German industry nor the Wehrmacht itself could achieve such a decisive effort.

Realistically, Hitler’s focus on rigid defence could do no more than delay the inevitable, either. That said, it was not so doctrinaire or deranged as some generals’ postwar memoirs claimed. For one thing, Hitler did not always adhere to it strictly. Further, it had a logic that, though unrealistic, was at least straightforward – by holding on to territory, Hitler believed, the Germans would not only stave off defeat, but also retain a launch pad for future offensives. And it was no worse a solution to Germany’s strategic ills than what Manstein and the ‘manoeuvre generals’ had been proposing.

Nor, however, was it any better. It had worked, temporarily, before Moscow during the winter of 1941–42, but that was before the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by at least five to one in certain sectors of the front. As Manstein himself rightly observed after the war: ‘we confronted a hydra: for every head cut off, two new ones appeared to grow’. Furthermore, Hitler based his doctrine of rigid defence on the idea that the German soldier was still better trained and better led than his Red Army opponent. That was a contentious statement at best by late 1943, and even if it were true, the gap was closing rapidly. The ultimate bankruptcy of rigid defence was exposed when the Germans had to abandon ten Ukrainian towns and cities that Hitler had designated ‘fortified places’.

That said, the Germans defended the eastern front’s central and northern sectors more successfully than they did its southern sector. Kiev’s fall and a Soviet breakthrough at Nevel shook Army Group Centre’s southern flank, but its formations were able to fall back cohesively and establish a firm defensive position further west, centred on Vitebsk, Orsha, Mogilev and Bobruisk, with the swamps of Polesja covering its southern flank. It was pinned down and unable to aid its comrades further, but at least held its new line until June 1944. Army Group North, however, was hard-pressed, still more so when it was forced to relinquish many of its troops to the more southerly army groups. In January 1944, the Soviets relieved Leningrad and simultaneously attacked the Eighteenth Army before Field Marshal von Küchler could organize an orderly withdrawal to a new defensive line, the Panther Position. Hitler initially refused to allow Küchler to withdraw, sacked him, and replaced him temporarily with Model. In March 1944, Model assumed command of Army Group North Ukraine, and was replaced in turn as commander of Army Group North by Colonel General Georg Lindemann. But after Soviet partisan forces joined the attack, and the Germans lost a vital railway junction, Hitler suddenly decided that withdrawing to the Panther Position made sense after all. Army Group North resisted fiercely along the Panther Line, and the early spring thaw and the region’s swampy, forested terrain made it easier to defend.

By the spring of 1944, Army Group South had been split into Model’s Army Group North Ukraine and Schörner’s Army Group South Ukraine. Both men were hard-bitten commanders, well versed in resilient defence. Schörner in particular combined a fanatical National Socialist faith with a brutal determination to terrorize his men into fighting on. The latter characteristic would become increasingly clear over time. His real capabilities in defensive warfare were already apparent, as an order of 29 May 1944 shows. Schörner issued the order following an ignominious collapse by the 91st Mountain Regiment against a Soviet breakthrough, during which the troops had abandoned several villages, according to Schörner, ‘in cowardly flight’. As well as railing against the senior commanders whom he held responsible, Schörner outlines what he believed went wrong and the practical measures he believes could have remedied the situation. He expresses his undying faith in the superiority of the German soldier. Moreover, though he acknowledges the fighting qualities of the Red Army, his racial contempt for it is clear. The order offers a good insight into the German army’s approach to defensive warfare during the long retreat in the east, and is thus worth citing at some length:

How the Bolshevik digs himself into the ground, how he digs himself in the shortest time a deep defence system with countless blocking positions! Whenever he takes a village, he holds it and we have to take it back with the harshest fighting.

What was going on with the attacking reserve in the area north of Corjewa? Nothing had been prepared. And no one among the responsible commanders got a grip to try and control the chaos that was reigning, bring all the demoralized men together and get them standing again. And I stand by this: there is no desperate situation, just desperate men, and to that group belongs no decent German soldier!

Quiet fronts are dangerous fronts. … Some seem to forget that calm can be deceptive and is only a pause in a bitter war that the Bolshevik is preparing with all his might. … The greatest Soviet flood has yet to break forth – and already the enemy has broken through with complete surprise in one place!. . . Only enthusiasm in work and fanaticism in the fight guarantees us victory, which in the words of the Führer ‘will belong to those who put into the battle the purest will, the most steadfast belief, and the most fanatical resolve’

Airpower Ardennes 1944

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Luftwaffe Situation

The situation for the Luftwaffe was not encouraging. Fuel was the main concern within the Luftwaffe with aircraft availability a close second. The general policy was one of a concerted effort to conserve fuel and assets. This resulted in a stockage of reserve fuel and ammunition as well as an increase in serviceable aircraft. The past few months of near uninterrupted Allied air superiority caused many problems for the Luftwaffe. Despite these problems, FM Herman Goering, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was able to equip and recommitted fifteen decimated Luftwaffe units by the end of October. The strength of twin-engine fighters increased by 25 percent from the beginning of the year, however, monthly German losses averaged 1,800 single-engine fighters in the West alone. This, along with the increase in deliveries, resulted in only a slight increase in actual availability of aircraft. The readiness emphasis on fighters was accomplished at the expense of the bomber and reconnaissance arms of the Luftwaffe.

Regardless of the number of planes, the desperate situation in aviation fuel limited use of the new planes. As mentioned earlier, aviation fuel production was suffering and stocks were being depleted. The shortage of fuel had two primary effects. First, pilot training was cut from 250 hours to 110 hours. Secondly, as a result of pilot and fuel shortages, Luftwaffe planes were only able to engage Allied missions over Germany on an average of four days a month compared to the Allies who conducted missions on a daily basis At the start of the offensive, Luftwaffe Command West had a strength of 2,292 planes of all types of which only 1,376 were operational.

In September, there were seventy-five serviceable airfields within a 125-mile radius of the Ardennes Offensive staging area. However, within the first four weeks of the build-up, thirty-four of the airfields were rendered unserviceable or partially unserviceable by Allied air interdiction. Poor soil conditions inhibited the repair of damaged airfields. To make matters worse, none of these airfields was suited for winter operations. These conditions forced the Luftwaffe to consolidate aircraft at a few bases. Additionally, the Germans wanted these forward airbases to conserve fuel and provide maximum time on station for ground support. This consolidation resulted in overcrowding of aircraft and gave Allied aircraft a target-rich environment when attacking these airbases.

By December 1944, the Luftwaffe received 527 Me-262 jet fighters. The Luftwaffe fielded the first Me-262 units this same month. However, technical problems and an effort to conserve aviation fuel resulted in a lack of pilot training. This would result in the Me-262 having no significant influence on the war much less the Ardennes Offensive.

Approximately 75 percent of single engine fighters in the Luftwaffe were located on the Western Front—an amount of approximately 1,500. Of these, approximately 70 percent were serviceable. German production of single engine fighters for October was 850 ME-109s and 650 FW-190s. Production of twin engine fighters was 240 aircraft with the majority being Me-110s, which were used mainly as night fighters. The strength of the Me-110s had grown to over 700 by November. Approximately 225 bombers were located in the area and were used for night bombing of Allied supply lines.

During the preparations and build-up for the offensive, the Luftwaffe was mainly used for reconnaissance. Planes were also used to fly up and down the front to attempt to drown out the sound of vehicles moving into place on the final few days before the assault.

Such was the situation in Luftwaffe preparations for the Ardennes Offensive. Although there was a rather large number of fighters and bombers in the area, restrictions on fuel usage would limit the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe during the build-up. This situation resulted in the Ardennes Offensive being the first offensive the Germans launched without air superiority. As the offensive would unfold, the results of the unprepared Luftwaffe would be fatal.

Allied Situation

Next, it is important to view the actions of the Allies during the build-up phase and how these actions would affect German logistics efforts for the Ardennes Offensive. Much of Hitler’s plan depended on the Allies remaining static and the Germans holding the line of September. This thesis paper will not cover the full range of Allied operation in the West, only those aspects that affected the German offensive or logistics preparations.

In an effort to secure access to the port of Antwerp, British and Canadian troops surrounded the Germans on 3 November in the Schelde Estuary at the mouth of the Rhine and accepted their surrender. Although Antwerp was now in Allied control, the Allies would have to clear the mines in the estuary before the port could be used. The Germans were unable to demolish cranes or docks and the port required only minor repairs. The port was finally available to Allied shipping on 28 November. This provided a major port to receive supplies and greatly cut the resupply time to units at the front that were stalled by fuel shortages. Once Antwerp was opened, the priority of the Red Ball Express from Normandy shifted to Antwerp. By November, the Allies were using La Havre, Rouen, Cherbourg, and ports in Southern France as primary ports with over 1.2 million tons of supplies. By December, over 420 thousand tons of supplies were arriving at Antwerp—27 percent of all Allied supplies. This was what Hitler expected and wanted. Now, if successful, the capture of Antwerp would bring about the results he wanted from his offensive.

On 16 November, the Allies began an expected attack over the Rohr River toward the Rhine. At the beginning of this offensive, 2,500 Allied bombers dropped more than 9,400 tons of high explosives on German positions and reserve locations in the heaviest tactical bombing of the war to date. This disrupted operations in that area and caused OKW to shift two divisions designated for the Ardennes to Fifteenth Army to block the Allies advance.

Meanwhile in France, the Allies were able to forward stage bombers on the continent. This increased the range and reduced the turn-around time for bombing raids on German industry and transportation centers. I do not believe Hitler expected Allied strategic and operational bombing to degrade war production to the degree it did. The Allies were in a situation that Hitler envisioned: ties to a port and with over stretched lines of communications. However, Hitler did not expect the Allies to possess such superiority in the air.