Philadelphia Lost

Instead of supporting Burgoyne’s campaign, General Howe went west to attack Philadelphia, the largest city on the seaboard and the capital for Congress. Although his troops greatly outnumbered Washington’s, Howe rejected taking the direct route overland across New Jersey. Instead, he squandered nearly two precious months by embarking 13,000 men in 260 ships for a circuitous voyage via Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Susquehanna in northern Maryland. He left Clinton and 9,000 troops behind to defend New York City. The long voyage removed the main British army from combat during the peak of the summer campaign, to the dismay of Howe’s officers. His folly enabled Washington to send reinforcements north to help Gates destroy Burgoyne’s army. Not until August 25 did Howe’s army land in northern Maryland, fifty-seven miles from Philadelphia, to resume the fight against Washington. He had taken forty-seven days to shorten his approach to Philadelphia by a mere forty-three miles. Although a superb battlefield commander, Howe was a paltry strategist, obtuse to the bigger picture both military and political.

Brandywine Creek

Heading south from New Jersey to confront Howe, Washington paraded his troops through Philadelphia in a bid to sway “the minds of the disaffected.” At Brandywine Creek on September 11, Washington arrayed 11,000 men to block Howe’s advance. As in the battle of Long Island, Howe menaced the front of Washington’s line but sent a strike force on a wide sweep around the Continentals to surprise their vulnerable flank. After suffering heavy casualties, Washington withdrew his battered army to safety.

With the help of the newly arrived Marquis de Lafayette, Washington and the Continental Army ventured open battle to prevent Gen William Howe’s thrust up from the Chesapeake to seize the American capital of Philadelphia. British forces numbered 13,000 men against Washington’s 15,000, making this action the largest battle on the North American continent before the American Civil War.

American light infantry shadowed the British Army’s approach to Washington’s line across Chad’s Ford through the namesake creek. Finding the Americans prepared to receive him, Howe dispatched light units and received intelligence from the local loyalists about the American positions. Howe decided upon a holding attack, with 5000 men under Gen Wilhelm von Knyphausen attacking at Chad’s Ford, while Gen Charles Cornwallis took 8000 troops around Washington’s right flank. The British forced the crossing, while Washington received a growing trickle of reports about a second British force to the north.

Washington sent troops to reinforce his right and ordered a defensive line prepared on Birmingham Meeting House, a half-mile to his rear. With both American flanks slowly yielding to his attacks, Howe launched a bayonet charge into the American centre that collapsed Washington’s line as other British units attacked frontally. Isolated American units slowed the British as the day drew on, while Gen Nathaniel Greene’s command’s determined resistance retreating from Birmingham Meeting House to Battle Hill frustrated British attempts to turn the defeat into a rout. Howe had cleared the way to Philadelphia, but his primary objective of Washington’s army survived with 300 killed, 600 wounded and 400 captured against the British losses of 100 dead and some 400 wounded. The grimness of American resistance signalled a fundamental shift in the war.

Philadelphia Abandoned

Abandoning Philadelphia, Congress fled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania militia followed their lead at the first sight of British regulars. A disgusted Elias Boudinot lamented that “as soon as a Gun was fired within ¼ of a Mile of them [they] would throw down their arms & run away worse than a Company of [New] Jersey Women.” On September 26, Howe’s advance force entered Philadelphia unopposed. Three-quarters of the inhabitants stayed put and loudly celebrated the British as liberators, “tho’ by all accounts,” a Briton remarked, “many of them were publickly on the other side before our arrival.” Adams denounced Philadelphia as “that Mass of Cowardice and Toryism.” The former chaplain to Congress, Reverend Jacob Duche, urged Washington to disavow independence and negotiate reconciliation with British rule.

But Washington remained resolute. On October 4, his troops staggered the British with a counterattack on their outer lines at Germantown, a western suburb of Philadelphia. In the morning fog and heavy smoke of gunfire, however, the Continentals became confused and began firing on one another. It did not help that one of their generals, Adam Stephen, drank himself into a stupor during the battle. Howe brought up reinforcements and counterattacked, driving back the Continentals, but the fierce battle deflated British hopes that Washington’s army was spent, that losing Philadelphia had sapped the Patriot will to fight.

Despite capturing the rebel capital, the British were no closer to winning the war. Beyond the city, Howe found many farmers eager to sell produce but few willing to enlist as Loyalist soldiers. While Howe won the showy battles, Washington was winning a war of attrition as the British lost men whom they could ill afford to replace. His friend General Nathanael Greene, noted: “We cannot conquer the British force at once, but they cannot conquer us at all. The limits of the British government in America are their out-sentinels,” for they lacked enough committed Loyalists to hold the ground that Howe passed over. And Washington’s dogged ability to preserve his army impressed French leaders almost as much as Gate’s victory at Saratoga.

But some congressmen and a few officers nurtured the fantasy that Washington should have crushed Howe at Brandywine or Germantown. Impatient with a slow, inglorious war of attrition, Washington’s critics longed for a decisive military genius, who could quickly end the war by smashing the British. In mid-October, news of Gates’s great victory at Saratoga emboldened the critics, including John Adams, who had soured on Washington just two years after pushing for his elevation to command.

This malicious chatter irritated Washington and angered his inner circle of generals and staff officers, who admired his dignified character and relied on his patronage. Led by Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s “military family” interpreted the criticism as an insidious conspiracy or “cabal” to sack Washington in favor of Gates. They especially blamed General Thomas Conway, an Irish-born officer formerly in the French service. Although able, Conway was also acerbic, angering American-born officers who felt slighted when he won promotions at their expense. They felt furious upon discovering that Conway had denigrated Washington in an indiscrete letter written to flatter Gates.

The winter of criticism ultimately strengthened Washington’s hold over the army. By responding forcefully, Washington’s partisans put his critics on the defensive. Within the army, Conway and other critics became shunned and marginalized, their prospects ruined. After resigning his commission, Conway sailed back to France, nursing a wound suffered in a duel with a Washington supporter. Most congressmen recognized that only Washington could hold the army together and command popular support. Knox assured Washington: “The people of America look up to you as their Father.” Adams sarcastically recalled, “Northern, Middle and Southern Statesmen, and northern, Middle and Southern Officers of The Army, expressly agreed to blow the Trumpets of Panegyrick in concert” to render Washington “popular and fashionable, with all Parties in all places and with all Persons, as a Centre of Union, as the Central Stone in the Geometrical Arch. There you have the Revelation of the whole Mystery.” An adept political infighter, Washington built a powerful “interest” among officers and in Congress. Underestimating Washington was a fool’s errand.

In late December, Washington had his ragged, shivering men build log huts for the winter. Up to a dozen men crowded into a hut, each a mere fourteen by sixteen feet and without windows or wooden floor. He located the main camp at Valley Forge, in the Pennsylvania hills eighteen miles northwest of Philadelphia: close enough to watch the British but sufficiently far for some security from attack. But the nearby farms could not support 11,000 hungry soldiers, and many farmers preferred to sell food for British coin rather than the depreciating paper money issued by Congress. Soldiers also suffered because of corruption and inefficiency in the army’s commissary department. In February 1778, Washington described his troops as “starving.” An army surgeon reported:

Poor food—hard lodging—Cold Weather—fatigue—Nasty Cloathes—nasty Cookery—Vomit half my time. . . . There comes a soldier, his bare feet are seen thro’ his worn-out Shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tatter’d remains of an only pair of stockings, his Breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness, his Shirt hanging in Strings, his hair dishevel’d, his face meager, his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken & discouraged.

Two thousand men, nearly a fifth of the army, perished that winter from a debilitating combination of filth, exposure, malnutrition, and disease.

While Washington grew closer to his suffering soldiers, he felt more distant from the civilians whom they defended. He rebuked Pennsylvania’s legislators for criticizing, rather than supplying, his army: “I can assure those gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and snow without clothes or blanket.” He blamed the army’s plight on prosperous and selfish citizens who pursued profits instead of sacrificing for the cause: “Is the paltry consideration of a little dirty pelf to individuals to be placed in competition with the essential rights and liberties of the present generation, and of Millions yet unborn? . . . And shall we at last become the victims of our own abominable lust of gain?” As a planter and land speculator, Washington had chased profits, but at Valley Forge, he saw more clearly the human costs of profiteering.

Washington had his troops whip and even shoot civilians caught conveying provisions to Philadelphia. He left their bodies beside the road as a warning to others. His troops also destroyed the flour mills within twenty miles of the city and seized all the grain and livestock in that no-man’s-land for the Continental Army. General Greene reported, “The Inhabitants cry out and beset me from all quarters—but like Pharo[a]h, I harden my heart” and “forage the Country very bare.” Greene’s troops converted once prosperous farms into a barren landscape of “poverty and distress.”

In late winter, as their food supply improved, the soldiers also got their first systematic training in battlefield maneuvers and the manual of arms. In previous battles, their movements and firing had been ragged and uncoordinated: a poor match for disciplined British regulars. A Patriot officer declared that the typical Continental Army soldier had never learned how to wield the bayonet “but to roast his beefsteak”—and beefsteaks were rare in a starving army. To supervise the new drill instruction, Washington relied on a mercenary officer who called himself Baron von Steuben and claimed to have served as a general in the fabled Prussian army of Frederick the Great. Like most of the mercenaries who offered their services to Congress, Steuben greatly inflated his qualifications. Neither a general nor a baron, he had served as a mere captain in Prussia, but Steuben had real talents and adapted resourcefully to new circumstances. Admiring Washington’s persistent soldiers, Steuben marveled that no European army would have held together under such suffering.

Steuben’s powerful build, profane passion, and blundering English amused and intimidated his soldiers, who learned to fire more rapidly in synchronized volleys and to wield bayonets. Their morale improved as they took pride in their conspicuous progress in performing Steuben’s drills. Thrilled by the results, Washington longed to have another go at the British in a European-style battle in an open field. That opportunity would come in the summer thanks to an alliance with France.

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Sickle Cut through France I

Knights of our times . . . Tank units, mobile, fast and hard hitting, and directed by wireless from headquarters, attack the enemy. This armoured machine paves the way to victory, flattening and crushing all obstacles and spitting out destruction.

Signal, 1940

Although Britain and France had declared war on Germany in September 1939, nothing much happened on the Western Front until the Germans invaded France in May 1940. This was the period known to the Germans as the Sitzkrieg (sit-down war) during which time both sides faced each other across the frontier, the Allies waiting for the Germans to make the first move. The Germans for their part were surprised that the French had not attacked while the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in Poland. Indeed not only had the Germans stripped the West of all of their tanks and almost all of their infantry, they had no defence line worthy of the name to delay any French thrust. But the French chose instead to renege on their military pact with Poland and do nothing to help their ally.

The French did launch a half-hearted attack from the Saar with nine divisions on 9 September, in what was to be the only major French offensive of the war. But these divisions were ordered to halt after just three days and were withdrawn completely by early October, largely due to an unwillingness to provoke the Germans. The Western Front then settled into a period of prolonged inactivity, broken only by occasional artillery duels and the continual patrols mounted by each side to discover the strengths and dispositions of the other. Activity in the air was limited to reconnaissance and leaflet dropping, both sides wary of encouraging retaliation on civilian centres.

At least part of the reason for French inactivity can be attributed to their Commander-in-Chief, the 68-year-old General Gamelin, a relic of the First World War with an over-inflated reputation. He seemed to regard his real enemy to be not the Germans, but his own government. Gamelin set up headquarters in a thirteenth-century castle without radio or telephone communication and admitted it normally took forty-eight hours for his orders to reach the front. He was also on poor terms with his chief of staff. Clearly the French High Command was neither technically nor psychologically prepared for the pace of the battle ahead.

The Germans had used the winter of 1939–40 to convert the four Leichte divisions to full panzer status, thus forming the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th panzer divisions. The general shortage of tanks meant that once upgraded, they were equipped with only one tank regiment whereas the earlier divisions all had two and about half of the 220 tanks each of these new divisions contained were Czech-built. There were now ten panzer divisions. The process of replacing the obsolete Pz Is and IIs with the new Pz IIIs and IVs was also accelerated, but the low numbers of tanks being produced meant that relatively little progress had been made on this by May 1940.

On 1 March 1940 Hitler issued a directive for the occupation of Norway and Denmark which he codenamed Fall Wesserubung. It was a daring operation, devised from a Baedecker guide by General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst and the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) staff and conducted largely by naval forces landing infantry at the main ports. The attack was launched on 9 April and Denmark capitulated almost immediately with Norway subdued by early May. Although the Panzerwaffe played only a very minor role in the campaign, it is still worthy of a mention.

A special tank battalion, Panzer Abteilung zur besonderer Vervendung 40, was formed for use in Norway by taking one company each from the 4th, 5th and 6th panzer divisions. Two of these companies were initially used in Denmark and the bulk of the third was lost at sea when its transport went down. An experimental formation called Panzerzug Horstmann was also dispatched to Norway, comprising three Neubaufahrzeug Panzerkampfwagen VI – these were prototypes sent with the specific intention of convincing the Allies that the Germans already possessed heavy tanks. With this purpose in mind, staged propaganda photographs were taken of the three tanks leaving the harbour. Whether the ruse worked or not must remain a matter of conjecture, as before the campaign had ended Hitler had struck in the West.

The total number of German tanks used in the northern campaign never exceeded fifty and was composed largely of obsolete Panzer Is and IIs. Despite the limited nature of the Panzerwaffe’s participation in the Norwegian campaign, the Germans learned some valuable lessons. The prototype heavy tanks were found to be suitable only for supporting infantry operations and never went into production. Indeed one proved so heavy it bogged down at a fjord crossing and had to be destroyed by army engineers – it was replaced with a sheet-steel mock-up in order to maintain the subterfuge. Experience in dealing with mountainous terrain was studied and put to good use when the panzers struck in the Balkans a year later.

The Allies, while slow to honour their pact with Poland, had devised a plan to counter the likely German assault on France. The plan, codenamed Plan D after the River Dyle, was to advance into Belgium to meet the invading Germans there. It was based on two simple premises: an expectation that the Germans would attack along the lines of the famous von Schlieffen plan which had come within an ace of success in 1914 and that the Allied southern front was adequately covered by the supposedly impassable Ardennes forest and the Maginot line fortifications. A German attack across the plain of Flanders offered ready access to France’s greatest prizes, Paris and the industrial region near the Belgian border. To counter this expected revival of Schlieffen, the Allied plan called for a wheel-like advance along the Belgian border to establish a defensive line along the rivers Dyle and Meuse. The overall objective of Plan D was to gain time, not outright victory. The Allies aimed for a battlefield deadlock until their own armament production got into full swing and they could then launch a massive offensive of their own in late 1940 or early 1941.

The French Seventh Army was allocated the bulk of motorised units as it was expected to advance along the coast, at the rim of the imaginary wheel, and hence had the farthest to travel. The ten motorised infantry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied the centre of the front with the French First Army, to their south. Corap’s French Ninth Army was at the hub of the wheel and was composed of second-rate reservists and older troops. Their advance was to be the shortest as these troops were not up to the rigours of the long forced marches expected of their northern comrades.

Little or no consultation was taken with the Belgian military, as the Belgians, keen to maintain a neutral stance, did not want to provoke the Germans with overtly belligerent behaviour – an attitude hard to reconcile with the fact that all her defences, including the fortress of Eben Emael, pointed toward the Reich. As a result no common defence plan, central command or framework for co-operation was agreed on for use in the event of a German attack. This unhelpful Belgian attitude to their own allies hampered the successful prosecution of Plan D, as the twenty-two Belgian divisions would be badly missed if they were destroyed in the initial stages of a German attack.

The French for their part had invested a lot of money and effort in the Maginot Line, the series of underground fortifications built along the central part of her north-eastern frontier during the 1930s. These forts were the physical manifestation of the French static warfare mentality. It is often said that generals always expect the next war to be fought in the same way as the last one and in the case of the French, this was certainly true. They anticipated the battle ahead would be First World War, Mark II with a deadlock on the battlefield forcing both sides to dig into defensive positions like the trenches of 1914–18. They seemed to have forgotten that Napoleon had once said that the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten.

Each of the large forts was the equivalent of a two-storey building sunken into the ground with only the big guns on its roof visible. They were designed to be self-sufficient and indestructible, the larger ones capable of housing up to 1,000 defenders for a prolonged period. Some were interconnected by tunnels and the guns were given a good range of fire, even capable of firing at neighbouring forts if they fell into enemy hands. This impressive piece of engineering formed a formidable obstacle stretching along the French border from Luxembourg to Switzerland. However it must be stressed that large parts of the line were less well defended and consisted of minor secondary works.

There was only one problem with the Maginot Line: it was clearly in the wrong place. No invader of France had ever followed the route it defended – from the time of the Romans they had always come further north. The Germans had come through Belgium in the First World War and even the Allies expected them to do so again in the coming attack. Why then was the Maginot Line not extended as far as the Channel coast?

The main reasons were political. For one thing, building a defensive line between Belgium and France would mean abandoning the Belgians to their fate. If it had been built, it would have left the Belgians to fight the initial German advance alone, while the Allies stood by and watched the Belgian Army’s inevitable destruction from behind their defensive walls. More importantly, Allied military thinking was based on the notion of advancing into Belgium to meet the Germans there, thus keeping the fighting off French soil altogether. There were also the peacetime considerations of the detrimental effect such a barrier would have on trade, industry and communications.

Once war broke out, the French did begin work on extending the defensive line to the sea, but it was much too late by then and it didn’t take the panzers long to breach these flimsy westward extensions when they met them in May 1940. In the end the Maginot Line proved more of a propaganda success than a military one. One commentator later stated that the Maginot Line did prove a formidable barrier, not to the Germans but to ‘French understanding of modern war’.

In September 1939, Hitler had ordered his army to produce a plan for the conquest of France. The work was allocated to the planning staff of the OKH (Oberkommando das Heer – Army High Command) led by Generaloberst Franz Halder, Chief of the General Staff. The bureaucratic, pince-nez-wearing Halder, a typical product of the German General Staff, looked and behaved more like a pedantic school-master than a soldier. This colourless functionary had no real faith in the possibility of a successful Western offensive, and aided (or hindered) by a 58-page memo from Hitler, the OKH under Halder’s guidance produced an unambitious plan which bore some resemblance to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, but fell far short of promising the quick and decisive victory Hitler needed in France.

The plan proposed a strong right hook across Holland and Belgium led by Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B. Holland would be overrun by Armee-Abteilung N (an army detachment – this was a small army made up of two or three army corps) while the three armies under von Bock were expected to engage and defeat the Allied armies in Belgium somewhere in the region of Liege. For this task Bock’s Army Group was to receive eight of the ten panzer divisions and over half of the available forces in the West. At the same time Army Group A under Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt was to cover the southern flank of these operations using two armies and a single panzer division, but with little hope of getting much farther than the Meuse. Army Group C, commanded by Generaloberst Ritter von Leeb, was left to hold the Siegfried Line. Although the attack on Holland was repeatedly dropped and re-included over the coming months, the plan in essence remained the same.

Neither Hitler nor his army chiefs had any great faith in the ‘Fall Gelb’ (Case Yellow) plan. If the Germans failed to defeat the Allies outright in Belgium, all they could then hope for was to push them back to the Somme, at the same time aiming to seize as much of the Channel coast as possible for future operations by the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. What was to happen after that was unclear, but it looked as if the battle would then settle into a protracted First World War style war of attrition, which the Germans knew from experience they couldn’t win. Victory had to be quick if war in the West was to be viable.

The launch of Fall Gelb was postponed nearly thirty times, generally caused by poor weather prospects, but one wonders how much Hitler’s basic dislike of the plan influenced these postponements. In the months before the attack he constantly sought modifications and improvements. Finally a new and radical plan came to his attention and he enthusiastically adopted that instead.

In October 1939 the Fall Gelb plan fell into the hands of General von Manstein, now Chief of Staff to Army Group A under his old boss, von Rundstedt, and he wasn’t at all impressed. Manstein, who had ably proven his own planning credentials during the Polish campaign, remarked in his memoirs that he felt deep disgust that the General Staff could do no better than try an old formula, and even then on a less ambitious scale: ‘I found it humiliating, to say the least, that our generation could do nothing better than repeat an old recipe, even when this was the product of a man like Schlieffen.’ By the end of the month he had formulated an entirely different plan.

Manstein was of the opinion that what was required was a decisive result from the campaign, not merely grabbing as much of Belgium as possible – he wanted to defeat the Allies completely. The strategic surprise so obviously lacking in Fall Gelb could only be attained by attacking through the Ardennes. With these ideas in mind, he proposed a feint attack in the north through the Low Countries and Belgium, as the Allies no doubt expected, by Army Group B. The new Schwerpunkt would now however lie along the front of Army Group A, reinforced with an extra army and most of the armour. Army Group C would continue to harass the Maginot Line and man the Siegfried defence line. Once the Allies had been lured north into Belgium to meet the threat of Bock’s armies, phase two would be set in train. Rundstedt’s forces would strike out for the Meuse and once that obstacle was overcome, would thrust in the direction of the Channel coast, thus severing the Allies’ communications and supply lines and trapping their best troops in a pocket.

Manstein conferred with Guderian when the tank expert’s new command, the XIX Panzerkorps, was transferred to Army Group A on Hitler’s order to conduct an attack south of Liege. Guderian assured him that the terrain through the Ardennes was not in fact tank proof as all serious military experts assumed. He had personal experience of the Ardennes and the Meuse river valley from the First World War and study of the maps did nothing to discourage his view. He therefore became an enthusiastic supporter of Manstein’s plan, realising that the panzer divisions were the ideal force to deliver the surprise blow needed. Armed with this assurance, Manstein now attempted to get his plan adopted.

Although in essence events evolved as Manstein had foreseen, the real struggle for France was in getting the Supreme Command to accept his proposals. Manstein bombarded the OKH with a whole series of memoranda, all countersigned by von Rundstedt, but to no avail. Halder and the Army’s weak-minded Commander-in-Chief, Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, lacked the imagination to appreciate the subtle genius of the plan. Manstein’s persistence eventually led to him being sidelined to command an obscure infantry corps, which later backfired on the arch plotter Halder and his vacillating Commander-in-Chief.

On 10 January 1940 German plans received a serious setback when a Luftflotte II liaison officer was forced to land his plane in Belgium during a storm. In strict contravention of standing orders, he carried a full set of plans detailing Fall Gelb. Despite his frantic efforts to destroy the documents, they were captured relatively intact and sent post haste to Paris and London. In any event, the Allied High Command chose to dismiss them as a deliberate plant and made no effort to change their dispositions, but the Germans couldn’t have known this and had to assume that the element of surprise was lost.

Only now were conditions ripe for the adoption of the Manstein plan. On 17 February Manstein and all other newly appointed corps commanders were summoned to meet Hitler for lunch. As they rose to leave, Hitler asked Manstein to remain and expound on his ideas for a thrust through the Ardennes. Manstein outlined his ideas succinctly, calling for a shift in emphasis to Army Group A, which would then attack across the Meuse towards the lower Somme, while Army Group B attacked the Allies frontally in Belgium. Once Army Group A reached the Channel coast, the Allied forces would then be surrounded and destroyed. He argued that for this Rundstedt now needed three armies: one to intercept the Allied forces driven back by Bock; a second to cross the Meuse at Sedan and destroy any French forces massing for a counter attack and a third to cover the southern flank of the Group. He also insisted that Guderian’s XIX Panzerkorps was insufficient to force the Meuse crossings and demanded the motorised infantry of Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps to reinforce them.

Hitler was attracted to his proposals for three reasons. Firstly, they were audacious and appealed to Hitler’s liking for the unorthodox; secondly they tied in with his earlier calls for an attack south of Liege; and thirdly they were in complete contrast to the proposals of the hated General Staff. Whatever his shortcomings as a warlord, Hitler can never be accused of lacking imagination and a taste for novel schemes. Manstein himself received precious little credit for his masterstroke; he was to command a mere infantry corps in the second wave of the attack while Hitler later claimed the idea for the plan as his own.

On 20 February Manstein’s Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) was officially adopted, although not without much opposition from within the High Command. The pedantic Halder declared the plan ‘senseless’ and wanted the panzers to wait on the Meuse till the infantry and artillery caught up for what he called ‘a properly marshaled attack in mass.’ Guderian was violently opposed to this. The vain and ambitious General Bock, appalled at the erosion of his Army Group, developed an irrational jealousy of Rundstedt that was to have dire consequences for the entire Wehrmacht within eighteen months. Even Rundstedt seemed doubtful that his Army Group could carry out its task and uncertain about the capabilities of tanks. In fact there was so little enthusiasm for the plan among the High Command that Guderian states in his memoirs that only three people believed it would actually work – himself, Manstein and Hitler.

On the eve of battle the German Army in the West comprised 136 divisions. These forces were opposed by 135 Allied divisions: 94 French, 10 British, 22 Belgian and 9 Dutch divisions. There was rough parity in the numbers of troops, about 2.5 million men each. The Germans were outnumbered however when it came to most important weapons: in field artillery pieces they had 2,500 versus the French’s 10,000 and in tanks they fielded 2,600 to the French 4,000. The only place the Germans had superiority was in the air where they could pit 5,500 planes against the Allies’ 3,100.

Of course as it turned out the tank was to be the crucial weapon in this campaign – not so much because of their quantity or quality, but because of the way they were handled. The BEF, though small, was entirely motorised and the French had a total of 7 armoured divisions; these were the 3 Divisions Légères mécaniques (DLMs), mechanised cavalry divisions which carried out the traditional roles of cavalry, and the 4 Divisions Cuirassées Rapides (DCRs) which acted as infantry support units. There were also 25 independent light tank battalions engaged in infantry support. In total 1,300 of France’s tanks were concentrated within these armoured divisions, which were spread across the front in line with the fatal French reluctance to concentrate their armour.

The French main battle tanks included 300 massive Char B1 heavy tanks, bigger and better armoured than anything the Germans had and carrying two guns, a 47 mm in the turret and a low-velocity 75 mm in the body of the tank. They proved almost impossible to destroy and the Germans who encountered them dubbed them Kolosse; their only vulnerable point proved to be a small ventilation grill in the side – it took a steady and calm gunner to hit it at close range. The French were also able to field over 250 Somuas, widely regarded as the best tank in Europe at the time and the model for the American Sherman; like the Char B1, it mounted the superb 47 mm gun and at least 55 mm of armour. The French also had plenty of light tanks, including 800 Hotchkiss H35s or H39s, nearly 1,000 Renault R35s and about 2,500 of the tiny First World War vintage Renault FTs. All these light tanks were armed with 37 mm guns and mainly used for infantry support.

The Char B1 was the only French tank with four crewmen. The Somua had three, all the rest only two. This proved to be a major disadvantage, especially as many of the French tanks incorporated a one-man turret where the commander was expected to choose targets and then load, aim and fire the gun all by himself; in the German turrets there were three men to carry out these tasks. Also, very few of the French tanks had radios, making formations hard to control in battle.

The French Army had neglected higher formation staff training for tank officers such as was needed for handling several divisions at once. This was in keeping with their belief that tanks should function either as infantry support or in the traditional cavalry roles. The French had completely failed to grasp the possibilities offered by tanks deployed independently and in concentration, instead sticking to the tired old formula of ‘penny packeting’ their armour.

Desert Sabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basra Pocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Rats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was clearly a remarkable achievement.

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

Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Threat to Army Group North

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

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

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

The Battle Expands to the Flanks

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

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

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

Army Group North Ukraine Broken Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baltic Gap

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

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

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

Attentat!—Guderian—Schörner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retreat Back to Poland Summer 1944 II

“The thrust is the best parry”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Recovery

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

Crosscurrents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Corridor to Army Group North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle Subsides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allied air power lights the flame of Operation TORCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

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


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

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

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

DAF to the rescue of French forces at Ksar Rhilane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ptable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Beaufighter MkX RAF 144Sqn Sqt PG Fletcher Tunisia 1943