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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa


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

The raid by Bill McRae and 104 Squadron RAF on Palermo was just one of many in early 1943 in the elusive search to gain final victory over Axis forces in North Africa. In late-March and April 1943 the bombing raids on infrastructure, supply, Luftwaffe bases, Tunisian ports such as Sfax, Sousse, Bizerte and the capital Tunis, and those in Sicily and southern Italy, were being intensified.

Over the Tunisian battlefields DAF fighter-bombers were no less active. On 7 April No. 3 Squadron RAAF of 239 Wing RAF received orders to undertake bombing and strafing operations against extensive German troop convoys withdrawing towards Tunis along the road from Gafsa to Mezzouna. The convoys were believed to include 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Flying Officer Tom Russell and Flight Sergeant Rod McKenzie flew two of the squadron’s Kittyhawk fighter-bombers on the second of their four missions that day.

We carried six 40lb anti-personnel bombs. Each had a stick about 18 inches long sticking out from the nose, so that they would explode above the ground. In the bombing run we encountered Breda 20mm anti-aircraft gun fire. We claimed four direct hits on vehicles and three near misses, but it was impossible to be sure whose bombs did the damage.

We then turned and came back on strafing runs against the convoys. On my fourth strafing run, just as I crossed the road, I received some strikes on my starboard wing, and some on the fuselage just behind the cockpit. I looked down and saw that the anti-aircraft fire was coming from a gun emplacement. After gaining some height I dived to attack and after a couple of bursts, the fire from the gun post stopped. My report shows that I claimed a gun post, and my log book that I also claimed a troop-carrier.

Squadron Leader Brian Eaton led this mission of twelve Kittyhawk fighter-bombers, which also included Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes. The squadron’s operations record book shows:

Duty: Bombing M/T [motor transport] on road in Maharis area

Time Up: 1045

Time Down: 1150

Details of Sortie or Flight: A/C [aircraft] headed north, and flew over sea towards Maharis then turned in over land, where 40 M/T were seen on the main coast road, and bombed accurately at P/P. U6513 – 4 direct hits and 3 near misses were scored on the road. Slight Breda fire encountered. No E/A (enemy aircraft) were seen or reported.

One of the other missions that day was led by Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes, and the squadron’s Operations Record Book shows:

Duty: To bomb and strafe M/T [motor transport] on Maharis–Gafsa road

Time Up: 1515

Time Down: 1629

Details of Sortie or Flight: A fair concentration of 40+ M/T was bombed, getting one M/T flamer, then strafed with the resulting total strafing claim, 6 M/T destroyed, 16 damaged and 20+ bodies. Medium heavy accurate anti-aircraft and Breda fire was encountered.

A total of twenty-seven pilots flew on the four missions that day, in forty-five individual sorties. No pilots were lost.

It is thought that Colonel Count von Stauffenberg, who drove up to be with the leading tanks and troops of 10th Panzer Division near Mezzouna, may have been wounded in these strafing attacks. He lost his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand and, after evacuation, spent three months in hospital in Munich. Later, he was one of the leading members of the failed plot of 20 July 1944 to assassinate Hitler, for which he was executed.

From 25 April the squadrons of 239 Wing of the DAF were thrown into a concentrated anti-shipping campaign, to prevent supplies reaching the beleaguered Axis forces in Tunisia. The Kittyhawks of 3 and 450 Squadrons RAAF would dive from up to 10,000 feet to release a 500lb bomb, sometimes as low as 1,000 feet depending upon the intensity of anti-aircraft fire. Between mid-April and 9 May 3 and 450 Squadrons made 840 sorties against Axis shipping.

Because of the consequent massive destruction of seaborne supplies, by the end of March air-transport flights by the Luftwaffe had increased to around 150 per day between Sicily and Tunis. With a Junkers Ju52 transport able to carry two and a half tons and the giant, six-engined Messerschmitt Me323 more than ten tons, it was estimated they could provide up to a third of the Axis’ daily supply needs. To choke off the enemy’s last remaining lifeline, Operation FLAX was launched at the beginning of April.

Bombers from the North West Africa Strategic, Tactical and Desert Air Forces intensified their raids on the Axis air bases while fighters were thrown in to intercept transport aircraft on the air routes. On 10 and 11 April Operation FLAX began to pay huge dividends, when P-38 Lightnings of the US Twelfth Air Force claimed no fewer than fifty of the Ju52/3m tri-motor transports. Yet even worse losses for the Luftwaffe were to come.

Over Cape Bon on 16 April Neville Duke was flying with two other Spitfires of 92 Squadron RAF when he sighted a formation of eighteen enemy transports flying near to sea level. They were the three-engined Savoia-Marchetti SM.82s. Duke called his leader and then turned into an attacking dive. Because of his speed Duke only managed a short burst on his first target aircraft. He closed on a second Savoia, slowing his speed so that his cannon shells raked the length of its fuselage.

After pulling his Spitfire narrowly over the top of the Savoia he saw it quickly plunge into the sea. Duke also claimed a second SM.82, to reach eight victories in North Africa. Once again Duke’s flying skills were lethal, and he seemed to be indestructible. While five Savoia SM.82s were shot down in the encounter, luck ran out for Wing Commander ‘Widge’ Gleed of 244 Squadron who was lost.

Two days later, on Palm Sunday, 18 April, the afternoon did seem to be drifting, like its name indicated into a day of relative peace and quiet. Following intelligence reports of German plans to airlift out some of their key staff of the Heeresgruppe Afrika and non-combat troops, on transports returning to Sicily, the USAAF 57th Fighter Group sent out successive patrols through the day to try and intercept any such flights. Pilots continually returned with nothing to report.

Late in the day, when the last patrol was organized, no contacts had been made with enemy aircraft. This final operation was a combination of 57th Group and 244 Wing RAF, whose Spitfires of 92 Squadron would provide top cover. At 1705 forty-eight Warhawks from all four of 57th Group’s Fighter Squadrons, 64th, 65th, 66th, and 319th, began lifting off, led by Captain James ‘Big Jim’ Curl, the experienced flight leader of 66th.

Once they had met up with the Spitfires, Curl led the formation north-west over Cape Bon. Almost six miles out to sea dusk was gathering when Curl turned them back southwards to return home. He knew the light would not last much longer. Then he saw something, maybe 4,000 feet below them, close to the sea. At first he thought it might be a very large flight of migrating geese. The shapes became clearer under his gaze. He was looking at what he estimated to be about 100 of the Ju52/3m transports. They were all in a camouflage green colour, making them hard to pick out against the sea in the twilight, and were flying north in a giant ‘V-of-Vs’ formation. What came next was at first nicknamed by the American pilots as a ‘goose shoot’.

While the Spitfires took on some escorting Bf109s, the forty-eight Warhawks descended onto the cumbersome Ju52s like falcons swooping on a flock of fat pigeons. In the mayhem Curl claimed two Ju52s and a 109. He described the engagement as chaotic, the sky filled with turning, wheeling aircraft. The Warhawks twisted around in the melee, firing at a mass of enemy aircraft that had no escape. Captain Roy Whittaker, flight leader in 65th Fighter Squadron, shot down two Ju52s and two 109s. His four victories took him up to a total of seven, which made him the highest scoring pilot in the 57th.

Lieutenant Richard O. Hunziker, of the 65th Fighter Squadron, on only his second combat operation, found himself in a baptism of fire. He was astounded at the number of enemy aircraft.

The enemy formation looked like a thousand black beetles crawling over the water. On our first pass I was so excited I started firing early. I could see the shots kicking up the water.

Hunziker went after a Ju52 near the front of the ‘V’ and saw his shots hammer along its tail and fuselage, and simultaneously realized he was being shot at by two Ju52s on either side of him.

It looked as though they were blinking red flashlights at me from the windows – Tommy-guns, probably. The ship I was firing at hit the water with a great sheet of spray and then exploded. As I pulled up I could see figures struggling away from what was left of the aeroplane.

Next Hunziker responded to a radio call for help against some Bf109s 5,000 feet above him. At first he struggled to latch on to the enemy fighters in the whirling dogfights. Taking evasive action he found himself crossing over land. Then, with his first burst of fire at one of the 109s, he blew its nose off, sending it into a steep dive to crash into the ground in flames.

The total losses and damage inflicted by 57th Fighter Group on the Luftwaffe transports and escort fighters were:


Not surprisingly the media reported the one-sided air battle as the ‘Palm Sunday Massacre’.

However, the clashes between the fighters, the Warhawks and the Bf109s, were far from one-sided. The Bf109s were able to operate thousands of feet above the Warhawks, which were ineffective above 15,000 feet. This enabled the 109s to wait for an opportunity to mount a diving attack, ideally out of the sun on the American fighters. To counter the German fighters’ advantage, 57th Group pilots, such as Lieutenant Mike McCarthy of 64th Fighter Squadron, knew that a 109 could not out-turn a properly flown P-40 Warhawk, ‘We had to know where they were every moment, to time the ‘break’ call, and turn hard into them so we could bring our guns to bear and shoot.’

On 22 April DAF Spitfires and Kittyhawks pounced upon some twenty Me323s which were flying a wide V formation. The main cargo of these six-engined giant transports was fuel. They were escorted by ten Bf109s and Macchi C.202s. Lieutenant ‘Robbie’ Robinson of 1 Squadron SAAF downed two 109s, which made him an ace. His fellow pilots sent six more of the 323s, engulfed in petrol-fed flames, plunging into the sea.

Out of a fleet of around 250 of these huge workhorse planes, German records show that between 5 April and 12 May 1943, 166 aircraft and their cargoes of critical supplies were lost. Between 18 and 22 April Allied fighters claimed to have shot-down some 120 of the Luftwaffe’s Ju52 and Me323 transport aircraft. After 22 April the Luftwaffe was forced to fly air transports only at night, and with continuing losses to Allied night-fighters, in ever reducing numbers.


In contrast the Allies had no such supply shortages. On the ground they had more men, more guns, more tanks, and in the sky the decisive advantage – air superiority. Yet the Germans still held the vital passes through the hills surrounding Tunis, inflicting terrible losses as they withstood every Allied attack. In the southern and northern coastal corridors, it seemed impossible to concentrate sufficient forces to break through. The Medjerda Valley was blocked by German defences on Longstop Hill. After the Germans had defeated desperate Allied attacks on 25 December 1942 to retain Longstop, they had dug in extensive and formidable defences on what was for them, their Weinachtshügel (Christmas Hill).

At last, in the closing week of April the long-sought breakthrough came. Eighth Army captured Longstop Hill and other enemy strongpoints in the Medjerda Valley. Here was the opportunity to concentrate forces for a hopefully decisive thrust at Tunis. The German generals knew a major offensive was coming, but not whether it would be Eighth Army from the south-east, First Army in the centre, or the Americans in the north-west.

The final plan was for a spearhead attack in the centre in early May by First Army combined with elements transferred from Eighth Army. Battle-hardened British infantry battalions from the 1st Armoured, 4th and 78th Divisions would first break the German lines. Then 6th and 7th Armoured Divisions, after funnelling their way through the Allied-held strategic market town of Medjez el Bab, would smash their way down the Medjerda Valley through Massicault and St Cyprien to Tunis.

However, in the redeployment and concentration lead up, there was great risk. The inherent weakness of the plan was that the tanks and their support vehicles transferred from Eighth Army in the south would have to move in open view through the hills north to Medjez el Bab. Then endless columns of tanks, infantry, and supplies would have to crawl across the one and only bridge over the Medjerda River at Medjez.

Only then could the attack concentrate across a narrow 3,000-yard front on the valley floor to drive towards Tunis. In the days of repositioning and concentration, Allied forces would be glaringly susceptible to German reconnaissance, and consequent ground and air attack. Once again the question was: how could this be done without the Germans knowing, and countering with their own troop redeployments? Despite the huge losses imposed on the Luftwaffe, even late into April, with whatever aircraft they had left, the Germans had the capability to mount a desperate ‘last throw’ raid.


The Axis positions in the hills around Enfidaville were very strong, and from the air it was difficult to identify targets amongst the orchards, fields and plantations within the ridges and hilly terrain. It was very different from the desert and enemy vehicles were avoiding the use of roads during the day. In one operation the anti-tank Hurricanes of No. 6 Squadron, despite seeing the coloured smoke of Eighth Army positions, were unable to identify Axis forces hiding amongst olive groves. Rather than visible targets, pilots had to be briefed with designated areas on air photographs, which required a new approach and training.

From the sea north of Enfidaville Axis forces had established a defensive line through the hills north-west to Medjez el Bab in the Medjerda Valley, then north again through the mountains to the coast about twenty miles west of the port of Bizerte. The plain in front of Medjez in the Medjerda Valley was clearly the most favourable for an armoured attack to break through to Tunis. Alexander and Montgomery agreed that Eighth Army should restrict its efforts to maintaining pressure on the Enfidaville defences in a holding operation. On 18 April 1st Armoured Division and the King’s Dragoon Guards, and later on 30 April the 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions, 201 Guards Brigade and some artillery, moved across to join First Army near Medjez.

A joint planning conference determined that DAF would return to army/air close support to cover the armoured drive down the Medjerda valley to Tunis. The first moves of forces from Eighth Army began on 30 April. Because of DAF pilots not being experienced with the terrain of the battle area, and communications being channelled through both First Army and Eighth Army HQs, targets for DAF squadrons were drawn up and agreed in advance. A massive letter ‘T’ 150 yards long was marked out in white on the ground, as well as red and blue smoke, to assist the pilots’ navigation.

The air support plan and timelines for an ‘air blitz’ on 6 May were:

0540: Eighty-four medium bombers of the Tactical Bomber Force (TBF) would bomb Axis ground positions directly in front of the Allied troops advance path.

0730–0800: 126 light bombers of DAF would attack their pre-selected targets further back.

0830–0930: Eighty-four medium bombers of TBF would bomb targets a further distance away.

0930–1200: Fighter-bombers of 242 Wing RAF would attack targets of opportunity in the battle area.

1200 onwards: 108 light bombers of DAF would be in readiness to hit enemy reserves, while DAF fighter-bombers would look for Axis force movements in roads and valleys.

Contrary to some expectations, the initial move of the armoured divisions from the south to Medjez, protected by DAF’s dominating air cover, was achieved without the knowledge of, or hindrance from, the enemy. It was a clear demonstration of how air superiority could enable ground forces to reposition without interference.

The armoured thrust for Tunis began with six divisions, and all their supplies, in a slow crawl across that single bridge at Medjez. Air power was tasked with imposing a protective screen, an umbrella over the valley route to make it impenetrable to any enemy reconnaissance or air attack. It seemed to scream out for one Stuka dive-bombing raid to hit that one and only bridge at Medjez, and cut the offensive in two.

On 6 May, day one of the advance through Medjez, Allied aircraft flew some 2,500 sorties, attacking Axis forces in their rear bases, and bombing and strafing their defences in the path of the Allied attack. By 0800 on 6 May the British infantry had cleared a path through German positions and their minefields, taken objectives such as Frendj, and dug in. In an example of the air-ground support, and in co-ordination with an artillery bombardment preceding the lead infantry and tanks, DAF light bombers and Kittyhawks hit Axis positions at Bordj Frendj and St Cyprien, halting a convoy of 100 enemy trucks.

Then the armoured divisions burst through to take Massicault before nightfall. On 7 May the armour rolled into Tunis, taking many Axis forces by surprise. Some enemy troops even emerged from bars and restaurants, with stunned stares, and surrendered without a fight. Allied air power had made the skies above Medjez and the Medjerda valley another no-fly zone.

It was the combination of an ‘air blitz’, air support, artillery and massed armour that, on 7 May, enabled the 7th Armoured Division to burst through to Tunis. In the north American forces took the port of Bizerte. Axis air forces were powerless to help their troops on the ground. On 8 May the front lines were advancing so rapidly that First Army only allowed specific requests for air support.

On 8 May the Luftwaffe could fly just sixty sorties, some from only two operational air bases they retained in the Cape Bon peninsula. On 9 May there were even fewer Luftwaffe sorties, and on 10 May there were none. The Germans had fled the Tunisian skies, evacuating what planes, equipment and personnel they could.

Small boats attempting to evacuate Axis troops by sea were attacked by fighters. A large evacuation exercise on 9 May, when attacked by Tactical Bomber Force light bombers and DAF fighters, quickly surrendered. Large formations of Axis troops were surrendering, but some still moved towards the coast, despite no ships being able to leave. In the mountains north of Enfidaville on 10 May, the Italian First Army, including the German 10th Panzer, 90th Light and 164th Infantry Divisions, was still holding out. The 90th Light Division held the coast road, and was blocking First and Eighth Armies from joining up.

On 12 May a light bomber raid on 90th Light Division was planned. Allied troops were only 1,500 yards from the enemy, so an artillery bombardment of yellow smoke was laid on both north and south of 90th Light’s positions. The bombings were spot on, and very quickly white flags were everywhere. It proved to be the last air attack on ground forces of the North African campaign.

The capture of Tunis brought the Axis surrender and 250,000 prisoners. It was on the same scale as the German defeat at Stalingrad, and hailed as the turning of the tide. And once again air power had been the decisive ‘game-changer’.

The success in North Africa of DAF’s support for the army was based upon gaining air superiority, which in turn rested upon winning the air war first. The integral foundation of winning the air war flowed from the RAF’s strategic decision to purchase fighters rather than dive-bombers. And, of course, the superior performance of the Spitfire in aerial battles of fighter against fighter was a significant factor.

Perhaps most important were the army/air support control systems through the AASC groups, pioneered and improved between army and air force from 1941 to 1943. In the Tunisian campaign, in terrain so different from the desert, ‘flash’ messages from AASC at Army HQ to ALOs at DAF airfields were introduced. This much improved the ALOs’ ability to communicate and explain new developments in the battle area to the pilots. DAF developed a platform in this area on which air superiority could be won and hopefully sustained in the planned Allied invasion of Italy.


While the Allied armies had over six months struggled for every inch of ground in Tunisia, not surprisingly the planning for the next offensive, the invasion of Sicily, or Operation HUSKY, had gone ahead in parallel. It was seen by some as poorly co-ordinated and riddled with disagreements. Although the strategic decision was taken in January 1943 by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference, the Allies’ military commanders such as General Montgomery were openly critical of the planning. Worse still, the Germans fully expected that the Allies would next attempt an invasion of Sicily, only 100 miles (160 kilometres) from Tunisia, and were preparing accordingly. Unbeknown to the battlefield commanders this problem had been foreseen for some time.

In the summer of 1942, in the midst of the planning and preparations for Operation TORCH, a small inter-Services security committee had begun to look ahead to what might follow. The Allies were under increasing pressure from the USSR to open a second front against the Third Reich in Europe. Once victory was achieved in North Africa the obvious next step would be Sicily, only some 100 miles from Tunis. The problem was that this would be obvious to the Germans too.

The Germans must be deceived into believing that Allied forces from North Africa would next invade Europe at somewhere other than Sicily. An idea was conceived whereby German intelligence would be provided with a dead body carrying false, secret documents. A dead body, with the uniform and rank of a senior staff officer, carrying supposedly secret documents, would be dumped at sea close to Huelva on the Spanish coast.

It seemed feasible that the officer would be thought to have died in an air crash at sea while en route to Algiers. The Spanish authorities, although neutral, favoured the Third Reich and could be expected to make the papers available to German agents. The documents would be created to convince German intelligence that an invasion would take place other than Sicily, such as Sardinia and Greece.

Although medical advice supported the feasibility of the plan, finding a suitable dead body of an acceptable age proved to be the first of many practical difficulties. After time-consuming enquiries a body of a deceased man in his early thirties, who had died of pneumonia arising from exposure, was obtained and medical opinion sought on its suitability. It was thought that, as the body would be kept in cold storage, and encased in dry ice leading up to the time of release into the sea, its subsequent decomposition would seem to be from drowning, and from immersion in the sea.

In the face of some initial opposition, and debate at the highest levels, the plan codenamed Operation MINCEMEAT was eventually approved by Churchill with Eisenhower’s endorsement on 15 April. A letter was written by the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Archibald Nye, to General Alexander in Tunis, to be carried on the body to give it the touch of authenticity. The dead body, in the guise of a senior officer, would also carry two similar fake letters from Lord Louis Mountbatten, one of which would be addressed to General Eisenhower. It seemed that much now depended upon a dead man.

Or did it? For the DAF and the other Allied air forces, the invasion of Axis-occupied Sicily presented a challenge on a far greater scale than anything attempted before. It would clearly not be possible without Allied domination of the skies above Sicily, and the surrounding Mediterranean airspace. From the decisive triumphs of air power at El Alamein, Ksar Rhilane, El Hamma, and the capture of Tunis, the lessons learned must be applied to the largest amphibious landings ever attempted.

Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Napoleon’s Armies – Fall Back to France 1814

Napoleon’s retreat to the Rhine was on the whole a remarkably successful operation. On the one hand the Allies were still sufficiently daunted by the magic of the Emperor’s reputation to conduct their pursuit of his columns respectfully, while Schwarzenberg was not a general of sufficient caliber to trap the French before they could find sanctuary. For his part, Napoleon was retiring along his main set of communications towards Frankfurt and Mainz, absorbing the supplies and munitions of his depots on the way. On October 23 some 100,000 French troops (many of them in ragged condition, it is true, but by no means in a state of utter dissolution) reached Erfurt, and much new equipment was issued from its huge arsenals before the retreat was recommenced on the 24th. The discipline of some units began to break down, and large numbers began to maraud, but apart from nuisance-raids by bands of Cossacks, light cavalry and partisans, the retreat was not seriously interrupted. However, Blücher’s army was marching westward on a parallel route to the north, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians and Russians were pressing in upon the rear, several sharp rear-guard actions had taken place over the previous week, and so it behoved Napoleon to continue his retreat toward the Rhine.

As the days passed, there was an inevitable increase in the disorganization of the Grande Armée. An Allied observer noted that “the numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day. Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn out and sick soldiers. Guns and wagons were found everywhere.”40

Nevertheless, there was a spark of fire still left in the defeated army, as was convincingly demonstrated in the last days of October. A force of 43,000 Bavarians and Austrians under General Wrede, newly committed to the Allied cause, had rushed northward from the Danube into Franconia to block the French line of retreat. In due course this force reached Hanau, a few miles to the east of Frankfurt-on-Main, Napoleon’s next sanctuary. Through a complete misappreciation of the situation, Wrede came to the conclusion that the Emperor and the main body of his army were retiring along the more northerly road to Coblenz, and that his force would only be faced by a dispirited flank column of 20,000 men at the most. Confident of success after several days of snappy skirmishing, the Bavarian general placed his troops in hastily selected positions on the 30th, with the River Kinzig behind his center and his right wing in isolation to its south with only a single bridge linking it to the main body.

Initially Napoleon had only the 17,000 men of Macdonald’s infantry and Sébastiani’s cavalry available to deal with this obstruction, but the French were able to advance to close contact virtually unseen owing to the dense forests lying to the east of Wrede’s position. The Emperor soon decided to attack the Bavarian left with all available manpower. By midday, the woods facing the Bavarian center had been cleared by Victor and Macdonald, and General Drouot soon thereafter found a track through the trees towards Wrede’s left capable of taking cannon. Within three hours, Grenadiers of the Old Guard had cleared the approaches to the French target, and Drouot assembled 50 guns backed by Sébastiani and the Guard cavalry. A brisk cannonade soon silenced Wrede’s 28 cannon, and then the French horsemen swept forward against Wrede’s cavalry guarding his left. The Bavarians gave way before the onslaught. Attacked in flank by the wheeling French cavalry, Wrede’s center was forced to try and cut its way out to the left, skirting the banks of the Kinzig, and suffered a heavy toll of casualties in the process. His right wing became hopelessly involved trying to cross the single bridge, and proved incapable of influencing the issue of the main battle. Hundreds were drowned in the Kinzig before Wrede was able to rally the remnants of his forces on a line running from the Lamboi bridge to the township of Hanau. The next day the French occupied Hanau itself with scant difficulty.

Napoleon had no intention of wasting further time with Wrede; as the main road to Frankfurt was now reopened, the bulk of the French continued westward without delay, leaving a rear guard to prevent Wrede from attempting anything further. The battle and the skirmishes that preceded and followed it cost Wrede over 9,000 men. The French losses in action were considerably lower, but between October 28 and 31 probably as many as 10,000 stragglers fell into Allied hands.

Nevertheless, the main body of the French army reached Frankfurt on 2nd November. Here they were virtually safe, for their rear bases at Mainz and the mighty barrier of the Rhine lay less than 20 miles away. However, there is no possibility of minimizing the scale of the French disaster. Although Davout was still firmly positioned on the Lower Elbe, the French Campaign of 1813 had ended in complete failure. Perhaps 70,000 combatants and 40,000 stragglers reached the Rhine in safety, but almost 400,000 troops had been lost. It was true that no less than 100,000 of these still remained scattered in isolated garrisons and detachments from Danzig to Dresden, but there was no longer the least chance of their surviving or being saved, and one by one these outposts began to capitulate. St. Cyr and the Dresden garrison (two corps in strength), after conducting a gallant defense, were induced to surrender on terms on November II. General Schwarzenberg subsequently refused to ratify the agreement, but by then St. Cyr could do nothing but surrender unconditionally. The Allies later played the same disreputable trick against the garrisons of Danzig and Torgau. So the Campaign of 1813 came to its close, with Napoleon and a remnant of his army preparing to defend the natural frontiers of France, his Empire in Germany vanished forever.

What reasons underlay this new cataclysm? Here it is possible to summarize only the main factors involved. We have already noted how the quality of the French forces (both horse and foot) was markedly inferior in quality to the armies of earlier years, but this was not in itself decisive. Far more significant were the deficiencies of the French command system. These were partly due to Napoleon’s shortcomings, and partly to the weaknesses of his subordinates. In the period following the breakdown of the armistice, Napoleon was trying to coordinate the control of half a million men—a task which was simply beyond the powers of any one man with only the aid of the rudimentary communications systems of the day, as the experiences of 1812 should have taught him.

As a result—again as in 1812—the marshals inevitably found themselves bearing greater responsibilities than they were used to on distant sectors of the front. That they practically always muffed their opportunities was partly due to Napoleon’s failure to train up his subordinates for the exigencies of independent command, and partly to the rapidly dwindling enthusiasm of the marshalate. To compensate his underlings for their complete obedience and subservience the Emperor had showered them with riches, titles and estates; by 1813, the recipients were not wholly unnaturally becoming desirous of enjoying these benefits in a more peaceful setting. Many of the disappointments of 1813 can be explained in these terms.

The rank and file of the extemporized French armies achieved wonders on at least three occasions during the long campaign, but these successes to some extent contributed to Napoleon’s undoing for he came increasingly to rely on his “Marie-Louises” and decrepit veterans achieving the impossible time after time. Many of the Emperor’s strategic plans were as cunning as of old, but he lacked the means to implement them successfully—and he was very slow in appreciating this. His raw troops could not march and fight incessantly without adequate supplies, and his staff could not operate efficiently without adequate intelligence. Even the Emperor’s funds of energy, both physical and mental, were showing signs of exhaustion; his acceptance of the armistice after two victories is probably one sign of this. Napoleon, in fact, was relying on an unlikely combination of miracles and errors to achieve his total victory; miracles of performance and endurance on the part of his men—errors of judgment and coordination on the part of his foes. Neither lived up to his most optimistic expectations.

The Allies certainly made mistakes, and several times as we have seen these brought them to the brink of disaster. Their command system was extremely chaotic and poorly coordinated. Selfish national interests often replaced the common weal during their incessant councils; personal rivalries and jealousies dogged almost every move. Nevertheless, after the sharp lessons of Lützen and Bautzen in the first half of the campaign, they somehow hit upon the correct strategy for bringing Napoleon to account By employing their vast numbers of men and cannon against the secondary sectors of the French front and by avoiding as far as was possible a direct head-on clash with “the Ogre” himself, they disrupted plan after plan and severely shook the balance of French operations as a whole. There were times (as at Dresden) when they inadvisedly reverted to their old methods and suffered predictable defeat in consequence, but once they had driven Napoleon and his tiring lieutenants back on Leipzig and successfully linked up their four armies (those of Silesia, Bohemia, the North and Poland), the game was practically in their pockets. Napoleon fought with all his old tenacity, ferocity and skill, but in the end sheer numbers told in the Allied favor.

Napoleon, indeed, was guilty of several severe political and military miscalculations which between them underlay his failure. He tended to despise his opponents; this was justifiable in the case of Bernadotte, but he completely underestimated the degree of Blücher’s hatred for him or of the Tsar’s persistence. He never expected that his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, would turn fully against him; he never appreciated how sick were the German States of the French yoke, or how unreal were his expectations of military support from those quarters. He left thousands of invaluable fighting men and several of his best generals south of the Pyrenees. But worst of all, he never realized that there was a new spirit abroad in Europe; he still believed he was dealing with the old feudal monarchies which in fact his earlier victories had largely swept away. France was no longer the only country to be imbued with a genuine national inspiration or equipped with a truly national army. France’s foes had at last learned valuable lessons from their earlier defeats, both political and military, and were now learning how to employ their new-found strength against a rapidly tiring opponent. In the words of General Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig was “a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative was gone.”

Less than three weeks after the cataclysm of Leipzig, the Emperor Napoleon was back at St. Cloud. With that astonishing resilience he customarily displayed in time of catastrophe, he at once immersed himself in planning the defense of French soil. For the second year running he had witnessed the destruction of half a million French troops and the rapid dwindling of his Empire’s frontiers, but still he appears to have believed that his situation and prospects were not beyond hope. Given a little time to create new armies, he was still confident of his ability to snatch a final victory from his converging and seemingly all-powerful opponents. “At present we are not ready for anything,” he confided to Marmont in mid-November, “but by the first fortnight in January we shall be in a position to achieve a great deal.”

To anybody but a supreme egotist, France’s military situation in the last months of 1813 must have appeared hopeless. Following their victory at Leipzig, more than 300,000 Allied troops would soon be poised along the Rhine, while the French could muster fewer than 80,000 exhausted and disease-ridden survivors to defend the 300-mile length of their eastern frontiers. Perhaps 100,000 French troops still remained in Germany and Poland, but without exception they were divided into widely separated and closely beleaguered detachments, incapable of taking any active part in France’s impending death struggle. In North Italy, Viceroy Eugàne was narrowly holding his own with 50,000 men along the Adige against the 75,000 Austrians of General Bellegarde, but he already was finding good reason for concern about the ambivalent attitude of Napoleon’s relation, the King of Naples. Amid the Pyrenees, the armies of Marshals Soult and Suchet (sharing 100,000 men between them) were steadily giving ground before the advance of Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Spanish forces (125,000 strong). Napoleon could derive little satisfaction from a study of the true situation on any of these fronts. He also faced the prospect of open dissent in both Holland and Belgium. The French people were also fast reaching exhaustion point after sustaining the ceaseless drain of its dwindling manpower, year after year, and the economic repercussions of two decades of warfare—gravely aggravated by the effects of the Royal Navy’s relentless blockade of France’s ports—were steadily mounting. The Marshalate was war-weary and increasingly mutinous; the dependable Berthier was seriously ill; and the military resources of the German satellites were no longer available to eke out the emaciated French war effort. All in all, Napoleon faced a chilling prospect.

Still, however, the spirit burned; his will to success remained indomitable. The Emperor goaded the jaded ministries of Paris into a flurry of activity. New armies must immediately be created for the defense of la patrie. Every last resource of manpower must be tapped. Edicts were issued calling up no less than 936,000 youthful conscripts and aged reservists during the winter months of 1813-14. Policemen, forest rangers, customs officers were all summoned to the tricolor, together with 150,000 conscripts of the Class of 1815. Large parts of the National Guard were embodied for active service. Every government controlled newspaper made emotional appeals for Frenchmen to rally for the defense of their country as in 1792. Orders were sent to the armies in Italy and Spain, calling for sizeable drafts of experienced soldiers to lead the embryonic citizen armies. Decrees announced a vast expansion of the Young Guard. New taxes would be levied to finance the war effort.

Simultaneously, Napoleon launched a full-scale diplomatic offensive, planning to free his hands of peripheral problems. In the hope of rallying Italian support behind Eugène, the Pope was released from house arrest in France and restored to the throne of St. Peter. To clear the southwest frontiers of France and make the veterans of Soult and Suchet available for action on the Rhine, the French Government offered to restore Ferdinand to the throne of Spain in return for a permanent cessation of hostilities—and a preliminary agreement to this effect was actually initialed by French and Spanish plenipotentiaries on December 11 at Valençay.

Napoleon was well aware, however, that the fruition of these desperate policies could not take place overnight. There had to be a lull, a breathing space, most particularly on the Rhine front where France was weakest and her foes most imposingly strong. In optimistic moments, the Emperor spoke of his hope that the Allies would delay their attack on France’s eastern frontier until the spring of 1814. He based this assessment on three considerations. First, the Allied armies must necessarily be in an exhausted condition after their exertions throughout 1813. Second, it would take them time to incorporate the forces of their new German allies and place their communications in order. Third, Napoleon gambled greatly on internal dissensions within the Alliance disrupting any plans for a winter offensive. By the spring Napoleon was confident that France’s new armies would be, in position along the Rhine, and he even dreamed, of a great offensive by Murat and Eugàne sweeping from Italy over the Alps to threaten Vienna—a repetition of 1796-97.

To some extent Napoleon’s calculations concerning the possibility of a stay in the Allied offensive were soundly based. Powerful factions within the Allied high command were advocating just such a course of action. The Emperor of Austria had at this time no great desire to see the total eclipse of his son-in-law, for the downfall of the French Empire would indubitably favor the interests of the Houses of Hohenzollern and Romanov rather than those of the Hapsburgs. Providing Austria regained her Italian possessions, Francis was prepared to grant France her “natural frontiers”(namely the Rhine, Alps and Pyrenees) even at the cost of Belgium. For purely selfish reasons, Crown Prince Bernadotte of Sweden was also opposed to a full-scale invasion of France; he apparently harbored the hope that the French people might be induced to replace Napoleon with himself, if affairs were properly handled and excessive direct pressure avoided. The representatives of Great Britain were equally concerned with the balance of power in a post-war Europe, and tended to share Austria’s view that Napoleon might be left the “natural frontiers”—less Antwerp and the Scheldt—providing adequate guarantees of future good conduct could be extracted.

The advocates of immediate action placed their faith in the Tsar. Alexander was actually of two minds on the subject. Desperately though he wished to see Russian troops occupy Paris in revenge for Moscow, it occasionally struck him that the soldiers of Holy Russia were being called to make heroic efforts and sustain heavy losses for the benefit of the Germanic powers rather than of Russia herself. On balance, however, he favored action. As for Prussia, King Frederick William III was expected to follow the Tsar’s lead, although personally he wished to avoid any unnecessary prolongation of the war. Among the soldiers, opinion was equally divided. Prince Schwarzenberg—“by nature a statesman and diplomatist rather than a general”—tended to favor his master’s view, but the Prussian leaders, led most vociferously by Blücher, demanded the immediate and vigorous continuation of the campaign until the final overthrow of “the Corsican Ogre.”

In early November, their forces poised along the banks of the Rhine, the Allied leaders went into conclave at Frankfurt-on-Main to settle their policy. So serious were the divisions of expressed opinion that on the 16th it was decided to suspend operations for the immediate future while Napoleon was approached with a conditional offer of the “natural frontiers.” News of this development probably convinced Napoleon that he had won his pause, however much he might distrust the ultimate motives of the Allies. To make the most of his opportunity, he countered by calling for a general Congress, making no definite mention of the proposed terms. As a sop to the Tsar, the Emperor later appointed Caulaincourt as foreign minister and chief plenipotentiary. It is dubious whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time. The Allies threw the validity of their pacific postures into question when Napoleon provisionally agreed to the “natural frontiers” suggestion, on November 30; his envoys were then informed that the Allies had withdrawn their original offer, and it was eventually communicated that talks could now only open on the basis of the “frontiers of 1792.” This was out of the question for Napoleon. “I think it is doubtful whether the Allies are in good faith,” he wrote to Caulaincourt in early January, “or that England wants peace; for myself, I certainly desire it, but it must be solid and honorable. France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.”

Some time before these lines were penned, the uneasy truce along the eastern frontiers had been shattered. Napoleon’s hopes of a lull extending into March or April were abruptly ended on December 22 when General Wrede crossed the Rhine and laid siege to Hunigen. Even earlier, an Austrian division under General Bubna had begun to occupy undefended Switzerland. By the last days of the year it was clear that the Allied masses were on the move and that der Schlag had come.

The main reasons that decided the Allies to open a major winter campaign were distrust of Napoleon’s long-term intentions (probably justified) and a wish to exploit the current atmosphere of unrest in the Low Countries. Holland had already rebelled against French domination, and it was felt that Belgium needed only positive action by the Allies to follow suit.

The plan was complex. The Army of the North was to split into two. One corps under General Bülow, supported by a British expedition led by General Graham, was to occupy Holland, advance on Antwerp and in due course sweep through Belgium into northern France. The other half, commanded by Crown Prince Bernadotte, Winzingerode and Bennigsen, was to isolate Marshal Davout’s sizeable detachment around Hamburg, keep up pressure against the Danes and continue the siege of Magdeburg. Covered by these secondary operations Blücher’s 100,000 men of the Army of Silesia would advance on the central reaches of the Rhine, secure crossings over a wide front between Coblenz and Mannheim, and hold Napoleon’s attention. Simultaneously, Schwarzenberg (accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Allied monarchs) would march from Basel to Colmar, cross the Upper Rhine, and head for the Langres Plateau. Then the second stage of the campaign would commence. While Blücher continued to pin Napoleon frontally, the 200,000-strong Army of Bohemia would fall upon the French right, subsidiary columns fanning out to the south and southwest to make contact with the Austro-Italian forces advancing on Lyons and Wellington’s army advancing from the Pyrenees. By mid-February at the latest, close on 400,000 Allied troops might well be operating on French soil, the majority of them converging on the ultimate objective—Paris.

The Second Siege Yorktown – 1862 Part I

When he came to write his official report on the Peninsula campaign a year later, General McClellan was still incensed. He labeled the withholding of McDowell’s First Corps a “fatal error,” making it impossible for him to execute the “rapid and brilliant operations” he had so carefully planned. “I know of no instance in military history where a general in the field has received such a discouraging blow,” he wrote. What was worse—and he made this charge from the first—it was all part of a deliberate plot, conceived by “a set of heartless villains” in Washington, to sacrifice him and his army on the altar of abolitionism.

As McClellan viewed it, the real reason for holding back the First Corps was to make sure he would not have force enough to capture Richmond and end the rebellion before the abolitionists could enlarge the conflict from civil war to revolution, from the reuniting of the sections to the forcible abolition of slavery in defiance of the Constitution. As he told his friend Samuel Barlow, it was all a conspiracy originating in “the stupidity & wickedness” of his enemies in the government.

There was no substance whatever to McClellan’s conspiracy theory, but there was also no doubt of his fervent belief in it. Unable to recognize failings in himself, he needed to invent failings in others to excuse whatever went wrong with his grand campaign. His list of conspirators was a long one, headed by Secretary of War Stanton and seconded by radical Republicans of every stripe, and it included General McDowell, whom he suspected of plotting to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln was on the list as well, but more as Stanton’s tool than as instigator. Throughout the campaign McClellan would rarely find a good word to say for the president—and would never grasp the reality that it was Lincoln, rather than Stanton, who made the decisions affecting him and his army. Although he had glimpsed the truth earlier when he remarked to Barlow that the president “is my strongest friend,” he would not return that friendship. This matter of the defense of Washington was just the first of many instances when General McClellan’s refusal to trust the president or to take him into his confidence would cost him dearly.

Nor was there any substance to McClellan’s claim that holding back McDowell to guard Washington dislocated all his plans for getting the Peninsula campaign off to a fast start. He had already brought the campaign to a dead stop, before learning of the First Corps’s detachment, by electing to lay siege to Magruder’s line across the Peninsula. The First Corps was not even a high priority in his planning—by his scheduling it was to be two weeks or more before its divisions began to reach Fort Monroe. In any event, his original idea of using McDowell to outflank all the enemy positions on the Peninsula was gone beyond recall the moment he decided that the main army could not turn Yorktown.

Should he land the First Corps on the north bank of the York and send it past Gloucester Point while the rest of the army was immobilized in its siege lines before Yorktown, he would be committing what was for him a cardinal military sin: dividing his army in the face of what he now had no doubt was a superior foe. It would invite his opponent to leave a holding force in his own siege lines, cross the York with the rest of his army, and fall on McDowell like an avalanche. General McClellan’s declarations to the contrary, the president’s decision to hold back McDowell did not dictate the decision to besiege Yorktown. It did not affect the way the siege was conducted, or even how long it lasted. The sole author of the siege of Yorktown was George Brinton McClellan.

Sunday, April 6, dawned clear and pleasant, and at first light the balloon Intrepid, piloted by “Professor” Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the New Hampshire Yankee who headed McClellan’s aeronaut corps, rose majestically from behind the trees to spy out the Yorktown defenses. On the ground dozens of other Yankees crept forward with telescopes and field glasses on the same mission. Prince John Magruder, continuing his game of bluff, provided them with a good deal to see, but little that was distinct. His artillerists and sharpshooters continued to fire at the slightest movement, and the Yankee observers had to keep their distance.

Some of McClellan’s generals were eager that morning to see what was really behind the fierce front Magruder displayed. Charles S. Hamilton, leading a division in Heintzelman’s Third Corps, said he could not see much in the way of any actual defenses in the gap between Yorktown’s ramparts and the headwaters of the Warwick River. Heintzelman and Hamilton went to headquarters to seek permission for a reconnaissance in force to probe the spot. They got nowhere with the idea. McClellan’s favorite lieutenant, Fitz John Porter, and his chief engineer, John Barnard, both strongly seconded the general’s decision to do nothing more than dig in where they were. As Barnard wrote in appraising the siege, “The project of an assault was mere hare-brained folly. . . .” Just then, however, an actual reconnaissance in force was being launched against another part of Magruder’s line, and it very nearly succeeded.

Leading the left wing of the Federal advance was the Fourth Corps division of General William F. Smith, who since his West Point days had been known as “Baldy” for his thinning hair. Baldy Smith was an aggressive, contentious sort, with little faith in the resolve of his corps commander, Erasmus Keyes, and that morning he acted on his own in ordering two regiments to investigate the Warwick River line to see if there were any holes in it. Smith assured the leader of the expedition, Brigadier Winfield Scott Hancock, that if a hole was found he would send him strong reinforcements to exploit it.

After seeing off his reconnaissance, Smith rode to Keyes’s headquarters to let his superior know “in a conversational way” what he had done. As they talked, a messenger arrived from McClellan’s headquarters. Keyes read the dispatch and without a word handed it to Smith. No action was to be initiated against the enemy, it read, until the engineers had thoroughly studied the Rebel line and determined the best approach. Smith, “very much chagrined,” rushed back to the front to recall Hancock. Hancock said that he had already discovered the weak spot they were looking for, and that it could be taken easily. No matter now, Smith told him: it was out of their hands. Baldy Smith always believed that had McClellan’s order arrived an hour or two later, he would have broken the enemy’s line and ended the siege of Yorktown the day it began.

Ironically, this aborted assault furnished General McClellan with the evidence he needed to prove he had done the right thing in putting Yorktown under siege. Hancock came back with four prisoners from the 14th Alabama who were so talkative that it is likely they were members of Prince John’s acting company. Under questioning by one of Pinkerton’s detectives, the Alabamians revealed that the Rebel line on the Warwick was manned by 40,000 men, which would grow “in a few days” to 100,000. Joe Johnston himself was expected that day, along with 8,000 reinforcements.

McClellan took the baited hook. On April 7 he telegraphed Washington, “All the prisoners state that Gen. J. E. Johnston arrived in Yorktown yesterday with strong reinforcements. It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men & possibly more”; as a result of the government’s deductions from his command “my force is possibly less than that of the enemy. . . .” To take the offensive now would be fatal: “Were I in possession of their entrenchments and assailed by double my numbers I should have no fears as to the result.” Simply to continue the siege he must have more men and more heavy guns.

President Lincoln urged him to break the enemy’s line in front of him immediately. “They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can,” he warned, and sought to reason with his general. Yorktown would only become another Manassas: “You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted, that going down the Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty—that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, intrenchments, at either place.” The country could not fail to note “that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated. I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now. . . . But you must act.” McClellan ignored the overture. He wrote his wife that the president had urged him to make an attack, and added, “I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”

Prince John Magruder continued to direct his charade bravely enough, but he was not confident that it would hold together much longer. On the evening of April 6 he telegraphed General Lee in Richmond that enemy observers, in the air and on the ground, had been active along every part of his line throughout the day. “They discovered a weak point,” he reported, and while he would make every effort to shore up the spot he worried that “numbers must prevail.” Reinforcements were reaching him very slowly “and will probably be too late.” The previous evening a brigade had arrived from General Huger’s command at Norfolk, but that day had brought him just two regiments from across the James and no troops from Johnston’s army.

Prince John was not one to display his concerns outwardly, however. In full regalia, with staff and escort, he rode his lines from one end to the other, radiating confidence, encouraging his troops, looking every inch the part of commanding general—or more accurately in his circumstances, every inch the part of leading actor.

Richmond was almost sixty miles from the scene of conflict at Yorktown, but already there was a palpable sense of crisis in the Confederate capital. Martial law was imposed on the city, the sale of liquor prohibited, and all military furloughs canceled. Additional state militia were called to the colors to supplement the half-dozen militia units already serving with Magruder on the Peninsula. The women of Richmond, responding to an appeal from the authorities, stitched together 30,000 sandbags for Yorktown’s defenders in thirty hours. The Confederate Congress sitting in the Virginia State Capitol debated a revolutionary bill to conscript men into the army, and Richmond’s city council appropriated funds to bolster the city’s defenses. According to one Southern newspaper, the issue building at Yorktown was “tremendous,. . . for the stake is enormous, being nothing less than the fate of Virginia.” The editor went so far as to compare the army McClellan was assembling to march on Richmond to the Grande Armée Napoleon had assembled to march on Moscow fifty years before.

The capital’s mood brightened considerably when Joe Johnston’s army began to arrive from the Rapidan. A steady parade of Johnston’s troops started through the city on April 6, the very day Magruder remarked on how slowly help was reaching him. While there was no official announcement of the fact, it was obvious to all that the army was on the march to meet McClellan on the Peninsula, and spirits soared.

“Richmond is one living, moving mass of soldiers & to day the streets show nothing but a continuous stream on their way to Yorktown—infantry, cavalry & artillery,” a Mississippi soldier wrote home. Citizens filled the windows overlooking Main Street and lined the sidewalks to cheer column after column as they made their way to the depot of the York River Railroad or to the wharves at Rocketts for passage down the James. Women welcomed them with food and drink and bouquets of flowers. The men responded with the Rebel yell, and regimental bands swung into “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Maryland, My Maryland” and “Dixie.” Flamboyant Robert Toombs, one of the founders of the Confederacy and now a brigadier in Johnston’s army, was especially noticeable. Looking revolutionary in a flaring black slouch hat and tossing red scarf, he personally led each regiment of his brigade in turn past the cheering throng in front of the Spottswood Hotel, making sure all Richmond knew that Toombs’s brigade was on its way to war.

The first two brigades reached Yorktown on April 7, and a third the next day. On the tenth another brigade arrived, and on the eleventh, three more. By that date, General Magruder’s force stood at 34,400, two and a half times his strength just a week earlier when the Federals began their march on Yorktown, and he finally began to breathe easier. Prince John expressed himself utterly surprised that his opponent had “permitted day after day to elapse without an assault,” but he was properly grateful nonetheless. Joe Johnston was equally surprised. After inspecting the Warwick line and hearing what Magruder had to say about those first days of the siege, he told General Lee, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

On April 11, taking a leaf from General Magruder’s book on bluff, the Merrimack appeared suddenly out of the morning haze and steamed slowly and menacingly toward the Federal squadron in Hampton Roads. “The cry was raised, ‘There comes the Merrimack!!’” a Northern diarist wrote. “. . . Such a scatteration of vessels as ensued was quite a sight: the roads were full of transports of all sorts, steam and sail, and those which lay farthest up got underway in a hurry.” The Monitor and her consorts cleared for battle, seeking to draw the monster deeper into the roadstead to give the ramming vessels the sea room they needed to make their runs at the enemy. By contrast, the Merrimack’s commander, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, was determined to lure the Monitor into the narrow waters of the upper bay, engage her there, and capture her. He knew of the Yankee rams and was heard to say that he was not going out into enemy waters “to get punched. The battle must be fought up there.”

It was Tattnall’s idea for sailors from his escorting gunboats to close with the Yankee ironclad, board her, jam the turret with wedges, blind her by throwing a wet sailcloth over the pilot house, and smoke out her crew by tossing lighted, turpentine-soaked cotton waste down the ventilators. Tattnall expected to lose half his gunboats in the attempt; Flag Officer Goldsborough expected to lose half his ramming squadron if it engaged. Hour after hour the contestants feinted and challenged and exchanged random shots at long range, but neither commander would forgo his tactical plan, and at last the Merrimack steamed back to her lair in Norfolk. The stand-off would be repeated several times in the coming weeks. By threat alone the Merrimack succeeded in guarding Norfolk and sealing off the James and in neutralizing every major fighting ship in the Federal squadron.

General Johnston first reached Richmond from the Rapidan on April 12, to be greeted by President Davis with new orders. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula and Huger’s command at Norfolk were thereby folded into Johnston’s command, which was officially styled in these orders the Army of Northern Virginia. This ought to have made him, in history’s eyes, the famous first commander of this most famous of Confederate armies, but Joe Johnston would never be a general blessed by fame, and his name—in contrast to Robert E. Lee’s—would never be automatically coupled with that great army. Johnston himself preferred to continue calling his command the Army of the Potomac, as if in deliberate defiance of the Federal army of the same name. Some who communicated with Johnston in these weeks used the one name for his army and some the other; Jefferson Davis even addressed him as commander of the Army of Richmond. Despite these eccentricities, most people found it most convenient to call the army now defending Yorktown the Army of Northern Virginia.

Joseph E. Johnston was by nature a fault-finder, seldom satisfied with his circumstances, always first calculating risks before profits. A story was told of him on a grouse-hunting outing before the war. Johnston was known to be a crack shot, but on the hunt he could not seem to find the perfect moment—the birds flew too high or too low, the dogs were not properly positioned, the odds for a sure shot were never quite right. His companions blazed away and ended the day with a full bag; Johnston was blanked. “He was too fussy, too hard to please, too cautious. . . .”

Much the same could be said of him when he inspected General Magruder’s Yorktown line. Magruder was certainly to be commended for his efforts, Johnston said, but everything was wrong with his position—the line was incomplete and badly drawn; it was purely defensive, with no avenues for an offensive; the artillery was inadequate; the Federals, with their naval and arms superiority, would surely turn one or both flanks. On the morning of April 14 Johnston was back in Richmond and delivering his gloomy report to President Davis. He wanted to abandon Yorktown immediately and pull right back to Richmond, the better to contend against the enemy host.

Davis called together a council of advisers to take up this momentous question. He had General Lee and Secretary of War Randolph join them, while Johnston brought in his two senior generals, Gustavus W. Smith and James Longstreet. In the president’s office in the Confederate White House, from eleven that morning until one o’clock the next morning, with only a break for the dinner hour, the six of them debated the proper strategy for meeting the invaders.

Collectively they possessed a remarkable range of personal knowledge of the general opposing them. Lee had commanded young Lieutenant McClellan in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican War, and Longstreet too had made his acquaintance in the old army. Joe Johnston had been McClellan’s close friend in the decade before the war, and G. W. Smith his closest friend. As a junior officer McClellan was the protégé of then secretary of war Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis, Longstreet recalled, took special note of the “high attainments and capacity” of General McClellan.

Repeating his arguments for abandoning the Yorktown line, Johnston urged that all the forces from his command and from Magruder’s on the Peninsula and Huger’s at Norfolk, reinforced by garrison troops from the Carolinas and Georgia, be massed at Richmond for a showdown battle against the invading army. Alternatively, he proposed leaving Magruder to hold Yorktown for as long as he could while the rest of the army marched north to menace Washington and (as Longstreet phrased it) “call McClellan to his own capital.” Longstreet predicted that McClellan, being a careful-minded military engineer, would not be prepared to assault Magruder before May 1. Smith added his support for Johnston’s plan and strongly pressed for an invasion of the North that would not stop at Washington but go on to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.

Randolph and Lee took an opposite tack. Randolph pointed out that giving up Yorktown would also mean giving up Norfolk and its important navy yard, where there were ironclads and gunboats under construction and where the Merrimack was based. Lee added his voice to the argument for continuing to hold the lower Peninsula, primarily for the time it would gain them: time to complete the difficult transformation of the Confederacy’s one-year volunteer army into a “for the war” army; time to begin enlarging that army through the conscription law then being acted on by the Congress; and time to forestall the call-up of reinforcements from other areas. Immediately stripping the Carolinas and Georgia of troops, he warned, would very likely lead to the loss of Charleston and Savannah. In any case, Lee said, the lower Peninsula was well suited defensively for fighting the Yankees.

The debate continued hour after hour until all the arguments—and all the participants—were exhausted, and then Mr. Davis announced his decision. Johnston was to shift the rest of his army—the troops of Smith and Longstreet—to Yorktown and make a stand there for as long as it was practical to do so. Whatever General McClellan gained on the Peninsula he would have to fight for. Joe Johnston accepted the decision without protest. He later wrote that he knew Yorktown could be held only so long before the government would come around to his plan to fall back on Richmond; that, he said, “reconciled me somewhat to the necessity of obeying the President’s order.”

The two armies went to ground, and the siege of Yorktown settled into a sometimes deadly but more often dull routine. Reinforcements would raise the number of men involved to 169,000, with the Federals enjoying a final superiority of almost exactly two to one. On the Confederate side Magruder’s redoubts and trenches—including some first dug by Cornwallis’s redcoats in 1781—were extended and deepened and weak points strengthened, using slave labor impressed from the Peninsula’s plantations. Starting their fortifications and trench lines from scratch, the Federal troops had much the heavier labor, which was multiplied by McClellan’s decision to emplace 111 of the largest siege pieces in the Union arsenal in order to blast his way through Yorktown’s defenses.

He had a choice, McClellan explained: an approach “blocked by an obstacle impassable under fire”—the Warwick River—“& another that is passable but completely swept by artillery. I think we will have to choose the latter, & reduce their artillery to silence.” He sent to his wife for his books on the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimea, which he had studied intensively. In planning the siege of Yorktown, he told her, “I do believe that I am avoiding the faults of the Allies at Sebastopol & quietly preparing the way for a great success.”

Day after day at one point or another in the disputed ground in this hugely scarred landscape there were exchanges between pickets or sharpshooters or artillerymen. “There is scarcely a minute in the day when you cannot hear either the report of a field-piece and the explosion of a shell, or the crack of a rifle,” Lieutenant Colonel Selden Connor of the 7th Maine wrote. In a letter home Lieutenant Robert Miller of the 14th Louisiana described one of these outbursts of firing. The Yankee shells, he wrote, “get to us some seconds before the report . . . so that the first thing we know of them is a shrill whistle unlike any thing you or I ever heard before, then the sharp bell-like crack of the bomb—the whistle of the little balls like bumble-bees—then the report . . . but it all comes so nearly at the same time that it takes a very fine ear to distinguish which is first.” Lieutenant Miller counted 300 shells fired at his sector in one twenty-four-hour period; miraculously the only casualties were three men wounded.

“I believe if there is anybody in the world that fulfills the Apostle’s injunction, ‘beareth all things,’ and ‘endureth all things,’ it is the soldier.” Thus the 2nd Vermont’s Wilbur Fisk opened his weekly letter to his hometown paper on April 24. At its best, life in the trenches meant endless boredom. “This is the dullest place I ever saw, nothing to arouse one from the oppressive monotony but an occasional false alarm . . .,” the 19th Mississippi’s Oscar Stuart wrote bitterly after three weeks in the lines. “I am afraid we will stay in this abominable swamp for a long time without a fight.” Another Mississippian, Augustus Garrison, said that after a while the boys began to wish for a nice safe flesh wound, one that would get them home and “that they might show the girls.” His friend Pink Perkins got his flesh wound, Garrison noted, being nicked in the hip by a piece of shell, “which was very painful but which he could not show to any of the fair ones.”

Life in the trenches was at its worst during the periods of miserable weather that marked these April weeks. Soldiers sent their letters home datelined “Camp Muddy” and “Camp Misery.” A Georgian in Toombs’s brigade, which had marched so gaily through Richmond a few days before, recorded in his diary one particular pitch-black night when his brigade had to crouch for twelve hours in a waterlogged trench knee-deep in mud and water while a cold rain poured down on them without letup. In the middle of the night there was an alarm and much firing, and at daylight they discovered two of their men badly wounded and one dead, all three, it was decided, shot accidentally by their comrades. “It was a night that will long be remembered not only by me, but all that were in that disagreeable hole,” he wrote.

As often as not the killing was random and without purpose. An other diarist, Lieutenant Charles Haydon of the 2nd Michigan, was off duty one day and well behind the lines when he noticed a soldier walking idly by himself across an empty field. With no warning a shell burst over the man’s head, killing him instantly. It was the only Confederate shell fired within a mile of that spot during the entire day. “Some men seem born to be shot,” Haydon decided.

By far the most dangerous siege duty was the advanced picket line, which called for keeping a close watch on the enemy while at the same time avoiding becoming a sharpshooter’s target. Captain William F. Bartlett of the 20th Massachusetts, in command of a company assigned to picket duty every third day, expressed a universal complaint when he called it “very unpleasant duty. No glory in being shot by a picket behind a tree. It is regular Indian fighting.” Four days after writing this, Bartlett had his knee shattered by a sharpshooter’s bullet and had to have the leg amputated.

Early in the siege it was the Union sharpshooters who had the decided edge in this deadly contest, and any Rebel showing himself was liable to catch a bullet. Among the units in the Army of the Potomac was a regiment of sharpshooters recruited by Colonel Hiram Berdan that contained expert marksmen armed with special rifles, among them finely crafted target pieces equipped with telescopic sights. “Our Sharp Shooters play the mischief with them when they come out in daylight,” one of Berdan’s men told his wife.

The Second Siege Yorktown – 1862 Part II

A rough balance was restored with the arrival at Yorktown of John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade from Johnston’s army. Hood’s men had a sizable number of British-made Enfield rifles and knew how to use them. When the Yankee sharpshooters grew too bold, the Texans would slip into the forward picket line for what they liked to call a little squirrel shooting. Soon their fire would drive the Federals out of the trees and other hiding places they favored and back into their fortifications, where sharpshooting continued but on more even terms. The marksmen on both sides at Yorktown considerably exaggerated their prowess, especially to credulous newspaper correspondents, yet there was no doubt that because of them the prudent learned to keep their heads down. The story quickly got around, for example, of the Confederate soldier who woke up one morning in his cramped trench and unthinkingly stood up to stretch and was instantly shot through the heart.

In spite of the sharpshooters’ threat the siege had its lighter moments. One day a Louisiana soldier searched out his colonel in the trenches to report “an awful thing has just happened!” What was it, the colonel demanded: were the Yankees attacking? It was worse than that, the man said. A Yankee shell had just struck the colonel’s camp tent and smashed a barrel of whiskey stored there. The colonel rushed to his tent in the hope that something might be salvaged, but he was too late. His men had already crowded in with their tin cups to rescue whatever had survived the wreck.

One particularly novel form of entertainment in the Confederate ranks was electioneering. For months Richmond had been struggling with what General Lee termed “the fermentation of reorganization”—keeping its army in being beyond the one year that the volunteers had signed up for in the first rush to the colors in 1861. To encourage re-enlistments it had tried bounties and furloughs and even allowed men to change their branch of service, but with indifferent results. Finally on April 16 the Congress, acting on a bill drafted by Lee, took the ultimate step and decreed conscription. Men between eighteen and thirty-five would be subject to military service, and the one-year volunteers had their enlistments extended to three years or the duration of the war. Regiments had forty days in which to reorganize under the new system and to hold elections for their officers.

For those who had seen enough of soldiering, even the thought of changing the rules this way was a betrayal. “I have no respect for a government that is guilty of such bad faith,” an Alabamian complained. Private Jesse Reid of the 4th South Carolina thought Congress was taking the law into its hands unjustly; if volunteers were kept on for two more years, he asked, what was to prevent the lawmakers from keeping them on for ten more years? With conscription, he warned, “all patriotism is dead, and the Confederacy will be dead sooner or later.”

Most of the men accepted the new law more philosophically, recognizing that there was nothing they could do about it anyway. At least electing their officers would break the monotony of their days, and they followed the campaigning with interest. Certain candidates found one time-tested electioneering tactic that worked as well in the army as it had back home. “Passed the Whiskey round & opened the polls,” Private John Tucker of the 5th Alabama wrote in his diary on April 27. It was very much a “Big day” when his brigade elected its field and company officers, he wrote, “& a great many of the men got gloriously tight.”

Resourceful Federals found ways to vary the monotony of their days as well. It did not take them long to discover that the tidal creeks emptying into the York below Yorktown contained the most succulent oysters they had ever tasted, and that the gray squirrels infesting the thick woods made a delicious stew (wearing the enemy’s colors, it was said, made them fair game). The hogs that roamed the woods were also declared contraband of war and subject to capture, although the headquarters prohibition on firing guns behind the lines forced a resort to the bayonet; it was admitted that considerable effort was required for the enjoyment of roast pork. Pennsylvanian Oliver W. Norton felt obliged to justify such foraging by explaining that whatever they found in Virginia “is nothing else than a secesh, and when Uncle Sam can’t furnish food, I see nothing wrong in acquiring it of our enemies.” A Virginia woman who lost most of her pigs and chickens to the light-fingered Yankee cavalrymen encamped on her farm near Yorktown had taunting advice for her guests. Want to get into Yorktown did they? “General Magruder’s thar, an’ he kin drink more whiskey nor enny general you’uns got, but he won’t be thar when you git thar. . . .”

Informal truces, usually arranged when no officers were around, also served to break the siege routine. These sometimes produced odd coincidences. The men of the 2nd Rhode Island discovered that the Rebel pickets opposite them had haversacks and canteens stenciled “2nd R.I.” that they had picked up when fighting the Rhode Islanders at Bull Run nine months earlier. (One of the Rhode Islanders got a big laugh from the Rebels when, called on for the name of his regiment, he shouted back, “150th Rhode Island!”) The men of the 2nd Michigan found that the Georgians posted in their sector were from the same regiment they had faced the previous fall at Munson’s Hill near Washington. They talked this over at a parlay between the lines and agreed that as old acquaintances they would refrain from firing at each other when on picket duty.

In places where the lines were close together there was a good deal of bantering back and forth. “As they have only a large swamp between them,” a man in the 61st Pennsylvania wrote his family, “they can talk as well as if in a room together, they throwing up Bull Run to our boys & we Fort Donaldson & other places.” At the James River end of the Warwick line, where tidal marshes 300 or 400 yards wide made the prospect of any attack highly unlikely, informal truces might stretch on for as long as the stints of duty lasted. When one side or the other was due to be relieved, the pickets shouted across to watch out and everybody keep their heads down, for they could not be responsible for what the new men might do.

Federal general Philip Kearny was struck by the ironies of the situation. “Is it not odd to think,” he wrote his wife, “that Magruder, one of my best friends, is one of the chief men here. This is surely a most unnatural war.” At one of the nearby farms, Kearny went on, he had the disconcerting experience of talking to an elderly slave of at least ninety who distinctly remembered, as a child, hearing cannon fire once before at Yorktown—during the first siege in 1781. Union engineers examined old maps made by Cornwallis’s army for clues to the Confederates’ Yorktown defenses.

Whenever the weather was good Professor Lowe’s war balloons—by April 10 he had the Constitution as well as the Intrepid at the front—soared high in the air over Yorktown like great yellow soap bubbles, searching out information about the enemy positions. Generals frequently went up with the professor, to cast a professional eye on what the Rebels might be doing. Confederate artillerists did their best to shoot down the intruders, and while they scored no hits they did force Lowe to keep his distance and thus limited what he could see. For all the drama of these ascensions, balloon reconnaissance brought very little real enlightenment to General McClellan; certainly they furnished him nothing that brought any reality to the way he was counting the Army of Northern Virginia.

Indeed, the Intrepid very nearly deprived him of his favorite general. On April 11, in Professor Lowe’s absence, Fitz John Porter went up alone, and the balloon broke free of its moorings and began drifting straight toward the enemy lines. Fortunately for Porter, a last-minute wind shift carried him back to Union territory, and he managed to reach the gas valve and bring himself to the ground. General McClellan termed the episode “a terrible scare,” and Professor Lowe admitted that it was some time before he could persuade any other generals to go up with him.

Determined not to be outdone in aeronautics, the Confederates countered with a balloon of their own. Lowe was scornful: it was nothing but a hot air balloon—he called it a fire balloon—and could only stay aloft a half hour or so before the air in the envelope cooled and lost its aerial buoyancy. Lacking a portable hydrogen generator of the sort Lowe had developed, the Rebels had to stoke a hot fire of pine knots soaked with turpentine to get their aeronaut, Captain John Bryan, off the ground. Captain Bryan had the same visibility problems as the Yankee aeronauts, complicated by the fact that his balloon had but a single mooring rope whose strands tended to unwind and spin him around dizzily like a top. On his third ascension he duplicated General Porter’s experience. His balloon broke loose, drifted over the Federal lines, then was finally blown back to safety by a Confederate breeze. “This was indeed luck of the greatest kind,” Captain Bryan observed, and never went up again.

Easily as unusual as the war balloons were the coffee-mill guns, a Yankee invention getting a tryout in General Keyes’s Fourth Corps. This crank-operated prototype machine gun fired cartridges rapidly from a hopper mounted atop the barrel; President Lincoln, an enthusiast for new weapons, coined its name. Its promoters called it “an Army in six feet square.” Rhode Islander Charles E. Perkins, for one, was impressed. “And we have got 4 other guns that shute a ball a little larger than our muskets do and thay can shute it a hundred times a minit,” he wrote home. “Thay are drawed by one horse and are very handy and I should think that thay might do a grate work.” A newspaper correspondent was sure this example of Yankee ingenuity “must have astonished the other side.” No Confederates recorded any reaction to the novel weapon, however. In any event, as well sheltered as the Rebels were from the Federal artillery it is doubtful that the coffee-mill guns claimed any victims during the siege.

On April 16 General McClellan took his first aggressive action against the enemy since arriving in front of Yorktown. He ordered Baldy Smith to stop the Rebels from strengthening their defenses behind the Warwick River at a place called Dam No. 1—the “weak spot,” as it happened, that General Hancock had wanted to seize ten days earlier. There was no truly pressing need for the operation—it was not the spot McClellan had selected to pulverize with his siege guns to force a breakthrough—and he hedged his orders with cautions. There was to be no general engagement; his last words to Smith were to “confine the operation to forcing the enemy to discontinue work.” Smith dutifully advanced his divisional artillery close to the dam, along with the Vermont brigade—five regiments from his native state, including the 3rd Vermont that he had led at Bull Run back in 1861—for infantry support. For most of the day the Yankee gunners and skirmishers blazed away at long range at the enemy across the millpond.

The Confederates prudently took shelter from this barrage (“Break ranks and take care of yourselves, boys,” one of their officers shouted, “for they shoot like they know we are here”) and nothing could be seen of them, and presently an adventurous Yankee lieutenant waded across the waist-deep pond and came back to report he thought the enemy’s works could be taken. Four companies from General Smith’s old regiment, the 3rd Vermont, holding their rifles and cartridge boxes high, splashed across the pond on a reconnaissance. As the Rebel pickets scattered, the Vermonters rushed into the rifle pits on the far bank and opened a steady fire into the woods beyond. Having gained this much, no one in the Federal high command seemed to know what to do next.

Baldy Smith was victimized by an unruly horse, which twice threw him and left him stunned and incapable of “seeing the advantage I had obtained.” General McClellan, who had come to observe the operation, offered no advice and then left, having concluded that “the object I proposed had been fully accomplished. . . .” After clinging to their foothold for forty minutes, the Vermonters were counterattacked by a brigade of Georgians and Louisianians and sent flying back across the pond, losing men at every step. “As we waded back,” one of them wrote, “. . . the water fairly boiled around us for bullets.” Of the 192 who began the ill-fated reconnaissance, 83 were killed, wounded, or captured. The Vermont brigade’s commander, William T. H. Brooks, belatedly sent in reinforcements, but their assault was shot to pieces before it fairly began. Recalling McClellan’s injunction not to bring on a general engagement, Brooks finally ordered everyone back. The day’s Federal casualties came to 165.

The operation left a sour taste. “This Battle took place at Dam No. 1 in Warwick creek,” a Federal diarist wrote, “and was a Dam failure.” It was rumored that General Smith had not been thrown by his horse but was in fact drunk and had fallen off. In Washington a Vermont congressman introduced a resolution calling for the dismissal of any officer “known to be habitually intoxicated by spirituous liquors while in service,” and left no doubt who it was aimed at. Smith’s defenders, and Smith himself, hotly denied the charge and eventually a congressional investigating committee found it groundless. It was clear enough that the operation had been bungled, but less clear where the fault lay. All he could see, General Brooks remarked ruefully, was that his brigade had gotten itself involved “in something we did not exactly finish.”

“The roads have been infamous,” General McClellan wrote Winfield Scott, his predecessor as general-in-chief; “—we are working energetically upon them—are landing our siege guns, and leaving nothing undone.” His sense of accomplishment was understandable. The complex arrangements for commencing siege warfare were proceeding on schedule. Two weeks into the siege, he already had 100,000 troops under him. He had persuaded the president to let him have the First Corps division commanded by a favored lieutenant, William B. Franklin, and he was promised the second of McDowell’s three divisions, under George A. McCall, as soon as “the safety of the city will permit.”

Prospects for naval cooperation were improving. A new ironclad warship, the Galena, was slated for his use, to break through between Yorktown and Gloucester Point and cut the enemy’s communications on the York. Critics were muffled by the release to the press of “official” estimates of Confederate strength that ranged up to 100,000 men and 500 guns. “The task before Genl McClellan, reduction of fortified entrenchments, is that for which he is held specially qualified and the result is not doubted,” one correspondent wrote.

A suddenly docile Secretary Stanton even volunteered to put General Franklin in command of the Fourth Corps, in place of the ineffectual Erasmus Keyes, an offer McClellan was quick to accept. Although nothing finally came of this idea, it at least suggested a thaw in his chilly relationship with the contentious secretary of war. There was a strong gleam of optimism in the letter McClellan wrote his wife on April 19. “I know exactly what I am about,” he told her, “& am confident that with God’s blessing I shall utterly defeat them.”

He grew increasingly confident the next day as a result of new intelligence about the enemy’s high command. He had heard, he told President Lincoln, that Joe Johnston was now under the command of Robert E. Lee, and that greatly encouraged him. “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” he explained. To his mind, General Lee was “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility . . . wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” (He added the opinion, a few days later, that “Lee will never venture upon a bold movement on a large scale.”) McClellan did not elaborate on how he had arrived at this singular appraisal; mercifully for him, it was never made public during his lifetime.

The Yankees pursued their siege operations with great energy and according to the latest principles of military science. However much he overestimated Confederate numbers, General McClellan never doubted his own superiority in artillery, especially heavy artillery. His confidence in ultimate victory rested on his guns. His siege train contained no fewer than seventy heavy rifled pieces, including two enormous 200-pounder Parrotts, each weighing more than 8 tons, and a dozen 100-pounders, all of which greatly outgunned any cannon the Rebels had at Yorktown. The balance of McClellan’s heavy rifled pieces were 20-pounder and 30-pounder Parrotts and 4.5-inch Rodman siege rifles. For vertical fire he had forty-one mortars, ranging in bore size from 8 inches up to massive 13-inch seacoast mortars that when mounted on their iron beds weighed almost 10 tons and fired shells weighing 220 pounds. Once they were finally all emplaced and opened fire simultaneously, as McClellan intended, these siege guns would rain 7,000 pounds of metal on Yorktown’s defenders at each blow. Such firepower dwarfed even that of the Sevastopol siege.

Fifteen batteries for these heavy guns were dug and fortified. “It seems the fight has to be won partially through the implements of peace, the shovel, axe & pick,” a New Hampshire soldier observed. To reach the battery sites new roads had to be cut through the forest and bridges built and old roads made passable by corduroying them with logs. The best at this road-making proved to be the 1st Minnesota regiment, whose skilled woodsmen could clear a mile of road and corduroy a quarter of it in a day. According to a Minnesota diarist, the Rebel gunners heard them felling the trees and fired at the sound. The heaviest pieces in the siege train had to be carried forward in canal boats on the York and then up Wormley’s Creek to the front. To mount one of the great seacoast mortars in battery, the side of the canal boat was cut down, tracks were laid to the bank, and the piece was raised by a hoisting gin and dragged ashore on rollers and finally hauled to its platform suspended under a high-wheeled sling cart. Simply to stock the battery magazines required 600 wagonloads of powder and shot and shell.

Much of the digging for batteries and trenches and redoubts was done at night and under fire. “Night work in the trenches is a sight to be remembered,” a man in an engineer battalion wrote in his journal, “to see a thousand strung along like a train of busy ants in the night, shoveling away, with now and then a shell bursting near. It is strange . . . to have a piece of shell come so near you, you can feel the wind. . . .” Although Fitz John Porter was put in direct command of the siege operations, General McClellan, a military engineer by training, visited the batteries constantly, directing construction, planning for the final assault, encouraging the troops. “Gen. McClellan & staff have just rode along the line,” a Pennsylvanian recorded in his diary on April 16. “Took a view of the rebel fortifications, gave some orders to the Gen. & passed on. While riding along he stopped and lit his cigar from one of the private’s pipes.” Such homely touches by the general sent morale soaring.

The import of all this immense effort was not lost on Joe Johnston. As the siege dragged on and the Yankees continued to fire only their field artillery in the periodic exchanges, it became obvious that McClellan was holding back his big siege guns until all were emplaced and ready to open simultaneously. General D. H. Hill, now in command of the Confederate left at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, observed that with his control of the water McClellan could “multiply his artillery indefinitely, and as his is so superior to ours, the result of such a fight cannot be doubtful.” One of his lieutenants, Gabriel J. Rains, predicted that when the enemy opened fire it would be with 300 shells a minute. One day Hill was discussing their prospects with Johnston. Johnston asked him how long he could hold Yorktown once the Federal siege batteries opened. “About two days,” Hill said. “I had supposed, about two hours,” Johnston replied.

Scouts and spies reported evidence of the rapidly multiplying Federal batteries and sightings of numerous transports entering the York, suggesting preparations for a drive up the river. It was reported too that the Yankees now had one or two more “iron-cased” war vessels in addition to the Monitor. To the trained military eye, a certain sign of impending attack was the appearance of parallels, the advanced trench lines from which the final assault would be launched once the siege guns had battered down Yorktown’s defenses.

On April 27 General Johnston warned Richmond that thè enemy’s parallels were well along and he would be compelled to fall back to avoid being trapped in his lines. On April 29 he made it official: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful. . . . I shall therefore move as soon as can be done conveniently. . . .” Once Yorktown and the line of the Warwick were abandoned, Norfolk could not be held for long; it too must prepare for evacuation.

Johnston sent an appeal for the Merrimack to come to his aid by attacking the Federal shipping in the York and upsetting McClellan’s best-laid plans. (He also repeated his earlier call for a strike on Washington so as to distract his opponent further.) This idea of a sortie by the Merrimack had already caught General Lee’s imagination, and he several times urged the navy to send the big ironclad by night past Fort Monroe and the cordon of Federal warships to get in among McClellan’s transports in the manner of a fox in a henhouse. “After effecting this object,” he explained, “she could again return to Hampton Roads under cover of night.” For Robert E. Lee, a weapon in war was only as good as the use made of it.

Flag Officer Tattnall complained that too much was expected of the Merrimack. Her fight in March in Hampton Roads, in which her first captain, Franklin Buchanan, was wounded, had raised expectations too high, Tattnall said; “I shall never find in Hampton Roads the opportunity my gallant friend found.” The truth of the matter was that the Merrimack was altogether a dubious proposition—unseaworthy except in a flat calm and ponderous to maneuver, inadequately armored, powered by engines that constantly broke down. In truth too the adventurous spirit that had marked Josiah Tattnall in long-ago battles against the Royal Navy and the Barbary pirates had cooled. Now, at age sixty-five, his first impulse was to catalogue all the possible risks in any plan, and certainly here was a plan freighted with risks.

Tattnall was appalled at the thought of navigating the Merrimack by night across Hampton Roads and up the York. To attempt such a sortie by day would mean running the gauntlet of Fort Monroe’s guns and those of the Monitor, the forty-seven-gun frigate Minnesota, and assorted other Federal warships, not to mention the threat of being “punched” by the Yankee rams. Even if he somehow reached the York safely, McClellan’s transports would probably find shelter from his guns in shoal water and in the tidal creeks. Flag Officer Tattnall could see only hazard in the operation. General Johnston would have to manage without any aid from the Merrimack.

Evacuating an army of twenty-six brigades of infantry and cavalry and thirty-six batteries of field artillery—56,600 men all told—and their equipment, and carrying out the evacuation secretly in the face of the enemy, was a truly challenging task. It was also a complicated task, and Johnston had to endure delays caused by every imaginable complication. “I am continually finding something in the way never mentioned to me before,” he complained. He finally set the withdrawal for the night of May 3 and made it a “without fail” order. Anyone and anything not ready to move by that night would be left behind. And unlike the earlier Manassas evacuation, this time the entire Federal army was only a few hundred yards distant.

Perfect security proved impossible, and hints of the movement leaked out. Northern newspaper correspondent Uriah H. Painter, for example, interviewed an escaped slave from Yorktown who had seen the Rebel wagon trains pulling out behind the lines. When Painter reported this to Chief of Staff Randolph Marcy, however, he was told it could not be so; headquarters had “positive intelligence” the enemy was going to put up a desperate fight at Yorktown.

That was indeed the message in most of the intelligence reaching General McClellan. On May 2 another contraband reported the Confederates were 75,000 strong and intended to hold out until 75,000 more men reached them. On May 3 detective Pinkerton announced the enemy’s strength to be between 100,000 and 120,000, and since that was merely a “medium estimate” it was very likely “under rather than over the mark of the real strength of rebel forces at Yorktown.” McClellan was thus confirmed in another of his intuitive leaps of logic. Just as he had been sure in early April that Magruder would never attempt to hold a line all the way across the Peninsula with a mere 15,000 men, he now concluded that with eight times that number the enemy would certainly stay and make a showdown fight of it. “I can not realize an evacuation possible,” he told Baldy Smith.

He pressed ahead with his plan for the grand assault. The heavy batteries would simultaneously open fire at dawn on Monday, May 5, the thirty-first day of the siege. Once the enemy shore batteries were silenced, gunboats and the new ironclad Galena would run past to take Yorktown’s defenses in reverse. General Franklin’s reinforcing division from Washington, held on shipboard for ten days while McClellan debated what to do with it, was brought ashore to add weight to the attack. After a day or two of unremitting bombardment—or only a few hours, some predicted—it was supposed that every gun and fortification between Yorktown and the headwaters of the Warwick would be demolished. Heintzelman’s Third Corps would then storm the position. “I see the way clear to success & hope to make it brilliant, although with but little loss of life,” McClellan told President Lincoln.

After nightfall on May 3, a Saturday, the Confederates opened a tremendous bombardment with their heavy guns. The shells were not directed at any one spot but seemed rather to be aimed at random, driving the Yankees to ground everywhere. Their burning fuzes traced brilliant red arcs across the dark sky. The surgeon of a New York regiment called it “a magnificent pyrotechnic display.” At last the guns fell silent, and for the first time in a month it was utterly still. At first light General Heintzelman went up in the balloon Intrepid with Professor Lowe. “We could not see a gun on the rebel works or a man,” the general would write in his diary. “Their tents were standing & all quiet as the grave.” He shouted down that the Rebel army was gone.

The Yankees on picket duty rushed forward and clambered into the empty redoubts, and the color bearer of the 20th Massachusetts laid claim to being the first to plant the Stars and Stripes over Yorktown. “The soldiers gave tremendous cheers,” wrote the 20th’s Lieutenant Henry Ropes, “and it was altogether a glorious occasion.” Another Massachusetts soldier, wandering through one of the abandoned Rebel camps, was struck by the message scrawled in charcoal across one of the tent walls: “He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. May 3.”


China’s Expeditionary Forces and C.A.I.

In the history of China’s participation of war overseas, there were two Chinese Expeditionary Forces and one Chinese Army in India.

The first Chinese Expeditionary Force was sent from Yunnan in the spring of 1942 into Burma to participate in the defense of that country. The words “1st Route” were attached to this Expeditionary Force, as the Japanese aggressive campaign was then at the height of its fury, and it was planned that additional expeditionary forces, to be designated 2nd and 3rd Routes, would be dispatched by China to the aid of her Allies in Siam and even the South Pacific. The first force was, however, generally known to the world merely as the Chinese Expeditionary Force, the words “into Burma” being sometimes designated together. It was commanded by General Lo Cho-ying.

With the conclusion of the first Burma Expedition and the end of this mission of the first Chinese Expeditionary Force, the Chinese Army in India (C.A.I.) was created. This designation was adopted because there was no fighting in Indian territory, and an expeditionary force could not be stationed in an Allied country.

The C.A.I. was to become an important actor in the later Burma campaign which reopened the route between India and China. The New First Army, the achievements of which are recorded in this publication, constituted the major part of the C. A. I. Throughout its later activities in the successful counter-attack in Burma and until its return to China after the completion of its mission, the C.A.I. maintained its original designation.

The second Expeditionary Force sent by China into Burma was organized in 1944. This force entered Burma from western Yunnan, under the command of General Chen Cheng, and later of General Wei Lin-huang, to co-ordinate with the efforts of the C.A.I. attacking from India. The two Chinese forces eventually effected a junction at Mongyu after a brilliant campaign.

The First Force into Burma

The Pearl Harbor treachery in December, 1941, presaged a wild attempt by Japan to penetrate southwards into the Pacific. Following their capture of Singapore, the Japanese launched and intensified drive into Burma to deal a blow on our British ally and to cut off the sole surviving international route to China – the Burma Road. The combined forces of the Japanese 33rd, 55th and 18th Divisions took part in this offensive.

When Rangoon, capital of Burma, fell into Japanese hands on March 7, 1942, the Chinese Government at Britain’s request dispatched the 5th, 6th and 65th Armies, then stationed at Yunnan, into Burma – the first Chinese Expeditionary Force.

Out of this Expeditionary Force, the men of the New 38th Division and the New 22nd Division were later transferred to India to form the nucleus of the C.A.I.

The Birth of the C.A.I.

The first Burma campaign failed because of inadequacy of Allied preparedness and the lateness in the arrival of the Chinese forces. Nevertheless, during the campaign, the 5th Army inflicted a severe toll on the enemy, while the New 38th Division achieved the great feat of rescuing more than 7,000 British troops from a Japanese trap at Yenangyaung.

The withdrawal from Burma, in the face of overwhelming odds, was finally effected under great difficulties by June 8, 1942.

On June 14, 1942, a military review took place at New Delhi on the occasion of United Nations’ Day.

Advance Through Jungle

A squad from the New 38th Division represented China on the occasion, and made a plausible impression to the Allied leaders. Both British and Indian circles expressed open admiration for the Chinese achievements at the Burma expedition just concluded, and the foundations were laid for the stationing of a Chinese Army in India.

The 38th Division, which had withdrawn into Indian territory, was a month later transferred to Ramgarh for training. The division was soon joined by the New 22nd Division, originally intended to be withdrawn into Yunnan, but re-directed to India.

In August, 1942, the Chinese Army in India was officially formed. General Stilwell, Chief of staff in the China Theatre, was appointed Commander-in-Chief, with General Lo Cho-ying as his deputy.

In the spring of 1943, General Lo was transferred to a post at home. The High Command organized the New 38th Division, the New 22nd Division, and the newly created 30th Division (formed in India) into a new army – the New First Army. Lt. Gen. Cheng Tung-kuo was placed in command of the Army with Lt. Gen. Sun Li-jen as the Deputy Commander, who commanded the New 38th Division concurrently. The New 30th Division was commanded by Maj. Gen. Hu Shu, while Maj. Gen. Liao Yao-hsiang retained the command of the New 22nd Division. Artillery regiments, Engineering regiments, motor transport regiments, armored car units, anti-aircraft units, signal corps, special service units, military police units, and men and animal transportation units, either sent from home or newly organized in India, increased the strength of the Army which was subsequently further augmented by the 14th and 50 Divisions after its march into the Hukawng Valley.

The War Record in Burma

The counter-offensive in Burma really began in March 1943, when the vanguards of the New 38th Division undertook the duty of annihilating or expelling the enemy on the Indian border so that the initial engineering work on the India-Burma Road could be protected. This prelude to the actual campaign was successfully completed by the end of October, 1943, when the enemy’s 18th Division, reputed a strong force, was driven away from its stronghold. The operations at this juncture were carried out under greatest difficulties, for in addition to the obstinate enemy, our forces had to combat the reptile infested jungle, where communications were entirely underdeveloped.

On the eve of New Year’s Day of 1944, the New 38th Division successfully took Yupong Ga, and reinforcements arrived later.

By February, 1944, the New 38th Division, continuing its success, occupied Taipha Ga, while the New 22nd Division also captured Taro, and the two forces launched a combined attack against Maingkwan. The victory at Walawbum on March 9 concluded the Hukawng Valley campaign.

The enemy defense of the Mogaung Valley was aided by its geographical advantages and the Chinese progress was considerably checked by the difficult terrain. By the latter part of May, 1944, however, when a new strategy was employed we made our advance. In spite of the high water level on the river with the approach of the rainy season we succeeded in crossing the Namkawng River. This act surprised the enemy and cut off his retreat, capturing at the same time much of his supplies. The famous Battle of Seton ensued with disastrous results to the enemy. On June 16, we captured Kamaing, and on the 25th of the same month Mogaung also fell.

Simultaneous with this fighting in the Mogaung Valley, the fight for Myitkyina also raged high. A combined Chinese-American detachment, consisting of the New 38th Division, the 50th Division, and a portion of the 14th Division, with one regiment of American troops, attacked that important city. The Japanese staged a desperate defense and street fighting raged for 80 days. The city finally fell on August 4, and the first stage of the Burma counter-offensive was concluded.

During the temporary respite that followed this important victory, there were some changes in the organization and command of the Chinese Army in India. General Stilwell had been recalled to the United States and he was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Sultan, with Lt. Gen. Cheng Tung-kuo second-in-command. The Chinese Army in India was now composed of two armies – the New First and the New Sixth. The New First Army consisted of the New 30th Division and the New 38th Division. The New Sixth Army had under its command the 14th Division, the 50th Division, and the New 38th Division. General Sun Li-jen commanded the New 1st Army while General Liao Yao-hsiang commanded the New 6th.

The rainy season of Burma ended by October when C.A.I. commenced its second phase of offensive. The New 6th Army except the 50th Division which became part of the New First, had in the meantime been transferred to the home front and the New 1st Army continued its march towards Bhamo to complete the task of opening the overland road from India to China.

The siege of Bhamo reached its fiercest stage on November 17, 1944, when the Japanese resorted again to a desperate defense strategy. By December 15, enemy lines were fully penetrated, and the Chinese force pushing ahead passed Bhamo towards Namhkam. The Army was now met by the Japanese 49th Division, which had been specially transferred to Burma from Korea, only to be routed after five days of intensified combat.

Namhkam was entered by the New 30th Division on January 15, 1945. On January 27, the New 38th Division captured Mongyu, the junction between the new India Road and the former Burma Road. The following day, a ceremony was held to celebrate the junction of C.A.I. and Expeditionary Force from Yunnan, and Stilwell Road was fully opened.

To render effective assistance to our British allies fighting in lower Burma and to protect the newly opened Stilwell Road, the New First Army continued toi push southward towards central Burma. On February 20, the New 30th Division captured Hsenwi, while on March 8, the New 38th Division captured Lashio. At the same time, the 50th Division, sweeping down from Katha, also captured in succession Mwanhawn, Namtu, and Hsipaw. On March 20, Kyankme was captured, completing the chain of victories of the Chinese Army in the Burma campaign.

The campaign in Burma occupied two full years, practically all of which were fully taken up in fighting against all odds. The difficult terrain and jungle fighting will all its horrors were strenuously overcome. All these factors made up an epic episode of achievement in our military annal.

During the campaign, Chinese Army encountered the Japanese 2nd, 18th, 49th, 53rd, and 56th Divisions and the 34th Independent Brigade, as well as other special units. The enemy suffered 33,082 dead, including many ranking officers, while another 75,000 casualties were counted as wounded, and more than 300 prisoners taken. The enemy practically suffered total annihilation. Our casualties were about one-sixth of that of the enemy. Trophies which were taken included 7,938 rifles, 643 machine guns, 185 cannons, 553 motor vehicles, 453 locomotives and wagons, 67 tanks, 5 airplanes, 108 godowns, and more than 20,000 tons of metals. The area liberated cy C.A.I. was more than 50,000 square miles, in which were 646 miles of highways and 161 miles of railroads.

Chosen as the training center for Chinese Army in India, the small town of Ramgarh in the Province of Bihar soon bustled with life. The Chinese flag fluttered gaily over this part of land where Buddha was born.

Though in the winter nights the air is a bit cold, the sun remains hot all the year around. Training was usually undertaken in intense heat. Besides the daily drill by units themselves, the Army was given sunstantial training in motor driving, tank operation, artillery, anti-gas practices, signal communications, engineering, ordnance and veterinary courses.

As the ultimate mission of the Army was to recapture Burma, emphasis was placed on jungle fighting, hill and tree climbing, bridge building and similar exertions were being conscientiously gone through by both officers and men. The building up of a strong body was, of course, a primary prerequisite for all men. No time was spared in conducting a vigorous exercise as an all round activity.

Political training, morale up-lifting and general improvement on the Knowledge of the soldiers also occupied an important place in the schedule. English, Hindustani and Burmese were avidly studied in order to enable the men to cultivate a better understanding with the local people with whom they had to come in contact.

By the spring of 1943, the Army had fairly completed its training. The Burma Road had been closed for a year, and China was in dire need of a new international supply route for the importation of war supplies. The time came for launching a counter-offensive in Burma so that the supply line might be established. General Sun Li-jen, as Advance Commander, led the New 38th Division as the vanguard of the campaign. From Ramgarh the Division returned to Ledo and took up the duty in annihilating the enemy in the Hukawng Valley in order to safeguard the supply junction in India.

Ledo, a small hamlet on the edge of a primeval jungle, soon grew into a town with railroad extension from the Indian trunk lines. With the influx of troops it also became an armed camp, the operation base for launching a counter-offensive against the enemy in Burma and the springboard for an immediate campaign.

A further period of training in jungle fighting was given the New 38th Division before their actual drive into Burma.

On the path of the campaigners lay an immense tract of wild jungles and swamps infested by harmful animals, insects and brambles. Many lives had already been lost in this region during the Chinese troops’ earlier withdrawal from Burma into India. The memory of the past incited the Army to a full determination in accomplishing their task.

Eight months were spent in hewing a mountain path through this region, driving away the enemy, and allowing the engineers following in the wake of the Army to build the road.

Surmounting the almost unbelievable difficulties, the New 38th Division conquered the border jungle, and in the early winter of 1943, occupied Shingbwiyang, which served as the advance base for the push towards the Hukawng Valley.

The Hukawng Valley was one of the most strategic important areas in the Burma campaign. The 18th Japanese Division, accredited as the enemy’s “invincible” force, held sway over the area.

The Battle for Yupong Ga

The battle for Yupong Ga was the first fierce encounter in the counter-offensive in Burma. Chinese Army encountered an enemy force five times its own strength, and there was encirclement and re-encirclement of each other during the whole campaign. One battalion of the 112th Regiment was cut off from contact for 36 days, depending on supplies dropped by planes. Casualties suffered by both fighting parties were high.

On December 21, 1944, General Sun Li-jen personally led a rescue party and with courage and strategy completely routed a most obstinate enemy force, heralding other suvvesses that were to follow in the campaign. General Stilwell presented General Sun with a special pennant to commemorate this unprecedented victory.

The Battle for Taipha Ga

The enemy now entrenched himself at Taipha Ga. For the first time, the Chinese Army adopted the strategy of “swirving” fighting and divided forces to attack on all flanks. On February 1, the forces attacking the enemy’s left scored such successes that the enemy was forced to abandon his plan of defensive fighting and come out in the open, to be defeated and routed.

The Victories at Maingkwan and Walawbum

The building of the India-China Road had by this time made considerable headway, that the New 22nd Division was now able to launch forward from Ledo into the Hukawng Valley. After taking Taro in January the Division marched southwards toward Maingkwan, assisted by the 1st Tank Battalion in a joint operation. An American Regiment transferred from the South Pacific also joined in the campaign.

In the battle of Maungyang River, the 114th Regiment captured secret orders issued by the enemy and the New 38th Division was thus enabled to proceed to behind the southern lines of the enemy and cut off his retreat.

On March 4, the enemy was surprised at Maingkwan, which fell the following day.

The New 38th Division pushed on towards Walawbum, the last enemy stronghold in the Hukawng Valley. The enemy put up a stiff resistance at this point for four days, and casualties were heavy, no less than 757 corpses were left by him after the fall of the place.

With the capture of Walawbum on March 9, the campaign in the Hukawng Valley was brought to a successful end.

The Capture of Laban

Between the Hukawng Valley and the Mogaung Valley lies a 4,000-foot hill. A small path provides the only link between the two valleys. The New 22nd Division, with the Tank Corps, launched a frontal attack against the Mogaung Valley, while the New 38th Division, braving all difficulties of cliff climbing, went over to the back of the enemy.

Fourteen days’ arduous hill climbing brought the New 38th Division to a point 20 miles to the rear of the enemy, and Laban was taken immediately to cut off the enemy retreat. Meanwhile, the New 22nd Division also advanced against the enemy from the north and the two forces effected a junction at Shadazup.

Surprise Attack on Seton

The enemy took full advantage of the mountainous terrain of the Mogaung Valley in laying defense positions. The rainy season in Burma was approaching by the end of May, and advance was checked. The New 22nd Division was held by the enemy at Malakawng. General Sun Li-jen considered it necessary to employ special strategy if the Mogaung war was to be concluded before the full blast of the rainy weather. A bolder attempt to send a regiment to the rear of the enemy was made. The 112th Regiment chosen for the purpose ran the enemy blockade across the Namkawng River, and took by surprise Seton, five miles to the rear of enemy-held Kamaing on May 26. Confusion was poured into enemy ranks.

The enemy rushed reinforcements for the relief of the position, and during the fierce fighting that ensued, heavy casualties were inflicted on his troops, while the Chinese also suffered more than 300 losses.

The Forced Crossing of Namkawng River and the Capture of Kamaing

The loss of Seton sealed the fate of the enemy in Kamaing. From May 29, Zigyun on the bank opposite Kamaing was subjected to bombardment and it fell on June 9. On the morning of June 16, a forced crossing was made, the wait being occasioned by the need to obtain supplies of rubber boats. The enemy had lost his morale, and the capture was imminent.

The Fight for Mogaung City

While the 113th Regiment was still attacking Zigyun, the 114th Regiment had proceeded rapidly towards Mogaung City. By June 15, many points to the north of the city had been placed under control. At the same time, the 77th British Brigade which paratrooped into Katha two months previously was being encircled by the enemy and the Chinese came to their rescue in time. The city itself was captured after two days of hard fighting.

Enemy troops along the road from Kamaing to Mogaung still offered resistance despite the fall of both cities. They were duly taken care of.

The battle of the Mogaung Valley had been successfully concluded.

General Stilwell, in a telegram congratulating General Sun Li-jen, referred to the victory as a top-notch achievement.

The Divisional Commander of the 3rd British Indian Division congratulated General Sun and General Li-hung for the great victory, and expressed gratitude for the assistance rendered the 77th British Brigade.

Before the commencement of the battle in the Mogaung Valley, the New 30th Division of the New First Army had already been trained intoi a combattant unit. It was further reinforced by the 14th and 50th Divisions, airborne into Burma.

With the exception of the 149th Regiment of the 50th Division, the various units making up the three Divisions referred to in the first paragraph did not participate in the battle in the Mogaung Valley. They created a new battlefield for themselves.

In the latter part of April, while the fighting in the Mogaung Valley was in progress, another force consisting of the 88th Regiment of the New 30th Division, the 150th Regiment of the 50th Division, and a regiment of United States infantrymen was concentrated at Maingkwan, and pushed southeastward for a surprise attack on Myitkyina.

On May 19, the railway station was occupied for a time.

Further reinforcements arrived on May 21 from Ledo, this being the 42nd Regiment of the 14th Division.

The enemy, meanwhile, took advantage of the respite in sending for help and in consolidating his defense positions.

The combating forces were interlocked against each other from May to mid July, when the battle reached the decisive stage. On August 3, the 50th Division organized a Dare-to-Die Corps which broke down the last of the enemy’s stubborn resistance.

In the Burma Campaign, the Chinese and Americans undertook two different tasks. The first were engaged in fighting, the latter in transportation and supplies and their cooperation made success possible.

In addition to transportation and supply, the work of giving first aid was also undertaken by the service forces.

Ambulance and first aid work during the Burma Campaign was most satisfactory. From field surgeons tp field hospitals, station hospitals to base hospitals everywhere the work of giving medical attention to the needy was carried out efficiently and satisfactorily thus reducing the suffering of the wounded to a minimum.

The medical services were so satisfactory that during the Burma Campaign many soldiers returned to the front after being wounded many times over. No less than 18 men had been wounded six times. Excepting those who fell in actual fighting, a very high percentage of the wounded recovered and were fit for service after treatment.

The New First Army rested at Myitkyina for nearly two months. By October, the rainy season in Northern Burma was over, the C.A.I. launched its second major offensive. The New First Army was to launch a frontal attack on Bhamo, while the New 6th Army was to head towards Shwegu from the left. The last named post was captured on October 29, after which the New 6th Army was recalled to China Theater and the Burma Campaign thenceforth was solely undertaken by the New First Army.

From Myitkyina to Bhamo was mountainous terrain, which was helpful to the defense and provided difficulties for the attackers.

During its march towards Bhamo, the New First Army unearthed en route a stone memorial of great historical importance. It was a commemorating tablet of one of the Chinese expeditions to the district in the Ming Dynasty, and characters “Wei Yuan Ying” (Overwhelming Afar Barracks) were boldly engraved on the center of the tablet. A description of the events leading to the erection of the memorial testified to the military operations and established the strategic importance of Bhamo even in those old days.

Early in November, the New 38th Division had registered great progress in the advance. At this juncture, the Army made use of the great suspension bridge which had been built by one of the famous Chinese generals who undertook one of the expeditions into Burma during the Tsing dynasty.

The enemy made full use of the boggy nature of the terrain at Bhamo in laying his defense positions which, it was later made known, took eight months to build.

By November 16, the Chinese Army had taken the suburban regions and three of the airfields. The enemy retreated to the inner defenses within the city, and offered stiff resistance. He was immediately encircled.

Street fighting ensued and the Chinese encirclement of the enemy was gradually tightened. The city of Bhamo was completely captured on December 15. The enemy was completely wiped out, and a large booty was captured.

To commemorate this signal victory, the Allied Supreme Command in Northern Command named the road from Memauk to Bhamo the Sun Li-jen Highway, while a street in Bhamo was renamed Li Hung Road.

While the battle for Bhamo was still in progress, General Sun Li-jen ordered the New 30th Division to proceed forward beyond Bhamo, heading for Namhkam.


The Battle at Kaibtik

The enemy was given a surprise by the New 30th Division’s march on Namhkam while the New 38th Division was still fighting for Bhamo. Reinforcements were brought in hurriedly in an attempt to disperse the New 30th Division and thence to go to the relief of Bhamo. These forces, recently transferred from Korea, met the New 30th Division at the Kaibtik plateau, and the first frontal battle of Northern Burma took place.

Kaibtik is the highest salient between Bhamo and Namhkam and is of such strategic importance that its capture would be decisive in the battle for Namhkam.

After a number of battles, the enemy was completely routed, abandoning 1260 dead when they retreated by December 14.

The Crossing of the Shweli River

The approach to Namhkam is a narrow valley enclosed by mountains, and is neither easily attacked nor defended.

By this time, Bhamo had already fallen, and the forces attacking Namhkam were reinforced by two regiments from the New 38th Division.

The most eventful episode at this period of the campaign was the crossing of the Shweli River, a watercourse flanked by high cliffs offering a great risk to the undertaking.

The Capture of Namhkam

Little fighting was expected in the Namhkam Valley itself, but the problem was the securing of the mountains surrounding the valley.

After successfully crossing the Shweli River, the Chinese forces had little difficulty in breaking through enemy lines in the vicinity of Namhkam.

On the morning of December 15, the Namhkam Valley was enveloped in a thick fog. The 90th Regiment marched through the fields into the town of Namhkam, which was fully captured before noon that day.

After the capture of Namhkam, the New 38th Division did not allow the enemy breathing space, and continued to march rapidly on to Mongyu, the intersection point between the new India-China Road and the old Burma Road. The point was captured on January 27, 1945, and the historic junction of the Chinese Army in India and the Chinese Expeditionary Force from west Yunnan was effected.

The khaki-clad New First Army and the grey cotton-padded uniformed Expeditionary Force arrived at the appointed meeting place early in the morning when the ceremony was witnessed by a number of ranking Chinese and American generals. The Chinese National Flag and the Stars and Stripes were hoisted amidst the playing of the national anthems of the two countries and a salvo of gun fire.

In an address on the occasion, General Wei Li-huang referred to the junction as the most important achievement in Sino-American cooperation. The principal slogan of the day was “To Tokyo,” and the junction at Mongyu was celebrated as the prelude of the meeting of the Allies in Tokyo.

After the ceremony, the two forces parted company. The Expeditionary Force returned to China. But the Chinese Army in India had not yet completed its duties – the safeguarding of the Stilwell Road. The stalwart sons of the New First Army continued their march on Lashio.

With the junction of the Chinese armies at Mongyu, the India-China Road was cleared of the enemy. The road was officially opened and named after General Stilwell by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

One hundred and five vehicles participated in the ceremony for the opening of the highway – the first convoy traveling from India to China.

When the convoy passed through the Field Headquarters of the New First Army, General Sun Li-jen gave an official reception at which the guests were offered Chinese and Australian food, American cigarettes, British matches, and Indian liquor.

The official opening ceremony was held at Wanting, and presided over by President of the Executive Yuan Dr. T. V. Soong.

The opening of the Stilwell Road was soon followed by the opening of the India-China pipeline. Trucks using the highway sent supplies of arms for the improvement of the equipment of the Chinese fighting forces, while the pipeline brought into China the fuel needed for the motive power of the China war theatre. A great stride was made towards victory.

From Hsenwi to Lashio

While the enemy was cleared off from the Stilwell Road, he still maintained forces at Meng Yu and Namhakka. The New 50th and New 38th Divisions therefore continued to clear these districts of remnant enemy units, and the divisional commander of the enemy 56th Division barely escaped being taken prisoner in the engagement.

Hsenwi was captured by the New 30th Division on February 20, when the march on Lashio was launched.

The 30 odd miles separating Hsenwi and Lashio was very mountainous territory, and the progress was necessarily slow but now with the arrival of armored car units our forces were reinforced.

The old town of Lashio fell on March 6, while the new section of the town fell three days later.

From Mwanhawm to Hsipaw

The capture of Lashio completed the mission of the New 38th and the New 50th Divisions, but the 50th Division had still to effect the last act in the Burma campaign.

The 50th Division, after the Mogaung Valley campaign, was first charged with the task of affording assistance to our British Allies (36th British Division) in their attack of Katha which was successfully accomplished. The 50th Division then crossed the Irrawaddy to mop-up the remnant enemy units in that district. The battle for Mwanhawn was the fiercest engagement in this connection, and the point was captured after a series of vogorous attacks.

The 50th Division carried on its victorious march southwards and by the middle of March captured Hsipaw and on March 23 effected a junction with the New 38th Division on the Naphai Highway.

The area west of Hsipaw was virtually a British war zone but because of the swift advance of Chinese Army the British were enabled to push immediately southwards to lower Burma, leaving the Chinese forces to capture the important point of Kyaukme west of Hsipaw with which Chinese Army in India concluded its brilliant Burma campaign.

No less than six Japanese Divisions were routed by the New First Army in Burma, the casualties amounting to 100,000, with 323 taken prisoner. Trophies captured by the New First Army included 7,938 rifles, 643 machine guns, 186 cannons, 553 motor vehicles, 453 locomotives and wagons, 67 tanks, 5 planes, 108 warehouses and more than 20,000 tons of metals.

Prisoners of War  

It must be admitted that the Japanese soldier was fully imbibed with the spirit of sacrifice, which was especially demonstrated in the Saipan and Iwo Jima engagements in the Pacific where the Japanese willingly died rather than surrender. Accordingly, in the wide stretched battlefield of Burma where more than 2,000 engagements took place, only 300 odd prisoners were taken, amounting to 0.3 percent of the number of their casualties. However, a low ebb in Japanese morale was noticeable with his defeat at Yupong Ga, where the Japanese militarist hold on the rank and file began to lose his grip.

The best treatment possible was accorded the Japanese war prisoners who were subjected only to restrictions in their movements but received all the medical attention they needed. The stubbornness of these prisoners were soon won over and they were made to realize their folly in playing into the hands of their ambitious military aggressors.   The prisoners taken in Burma were ultimately transferred to internment camps kept by the Allied Command at New Delhi. Culture in Army Life   In addition to military training, spiritual training was given the Chinese Army.   During the training at Ramgarh, a campaign against illiteracy among the enlisted men was carried out.

When the men were sent into actual battle, their cultural life was not neglected. Newspapers were issued among various units.   Dramatic entertainment was also successfully carried on to benefit the men. Performances were often staged by their own members even during the progress of fighting. Motion picture squads were later also introduced as an additional recreation. The Army also undertook work in establishing good relations with the population in the war zones – a measure which proved most effective in promoting cooperation between the Army and the people.

Special Service workers of the Army visited villages to bring succour to the population suffering from the Japanese invaders. Their sympathy was soon won and they cooperated in various measures to the progress of the military operations.

The Army also took time to pay attention to the improvement of the large numbers of overseas Chinese communities in Burma. In this interaction, General Sun Li-jen was personally interested in various schemes for the betterment of the lot of the Chinese residents. After the victorious conclusion of the Burma campaign, the New First Army was assembled at Myitkyina to await orders for its triumphant return.

Towards the end of June, 1945, our Allied Air Force placed more than 30 air transports of the C-46 and C-47 models for the transportation of the New First Army back to China. The general counter-offensive in the China Theatre was to be launched, and the New First Army was to take up the task of the offensive against the enemy on the Liuchow Peninsula, to coordinate with the operations of our Allies in the Pacific.

While the New First Army was marching towards its new destination from Nanning in August, 1945, the Japanese announced their unconditional surrender. The Army was then commissioned with the new task of accepting the enemy’s surrender in the Canton area.

The Causes of Victory  

The brilliant victories scored in Burma by the Chinese Army in India were neither accidental nor sheer luck. The general conception that the success was chiefly due to the efforts of our Allies was also exaggerated. Of course, air support, efficient supply lines, and excellent first aid service by our Allies contributed much to the outcome, but the main source of success lay in the hardy fight put up by our own men.

High morale and capacity for endurance marked the principal characteristics of the C.A.I. The operations carried out over difficult terrain in northern Burma were further complicated by the roundabout movements which were employed on more than one occasion to surprise the enemy. The stamina and ability for physical endurance displayed by the Chinese troops made a great impression on the United States Medical Corps, and even on the enemy who prided his bushido.

Superior strategy and efficient command also marked the Burma campaign where the Chinese Army usually took the initiative in the engagements.

The intensive training received by the C.A.I., which was continued even during the campaign when no actual fighting took place, was another factor which ensured victory.


The Chinese Army in Burma, 1942–5

Nationalist survivors of the 1942 fighting in Burma take part in an assault course as part of their training in India. The helmets worn by the troops are M35s brought back from Burma by them, while their P-17 rifles have been donated by the Allies. With good training, regular meals and better uniforms, equipment and weaponry these soldiers soon became the elite of the Nationalist army.

US army instructor looks on as the crew of a PACK 75mm howitzer supplied by the USA fires its gun in the hills around the Ramgarh training centre in September 1943. US instructors were sent to set up a training scheme for the Nationalist artillery which involved new trainees then going on to instruct their comrades. The week-long training course was in most cases found to be adequate to get the Chinese up to a reasonable standard.

Soldiers of Y Force, the Allied trained and supplied army based in Yunnan province, cross a river in June 1943. Y Force was made up of eleven infantry divisions which were intended to enter Burma sometime in 1943–4. Their arms, equipment and training were not up to the standard of their sister organization, X Force, in India but were superior to other Nationalist formations. They were to be pitted against the 56th Division of the Japanese Imperial army fighting in some the most difficult terrain encountered during the Second World War.

When the Japanese Imperial navy’s aircraft attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 China’s war changed. Overnight the Chinese had Allies against Japan who Chiang Kai-shek hoped would aid him in his four-year war. However, the reality was different with the Japanese blitzkrieg tearing through British, US and Dutch territories by early 1942. In the short term the Allies had enough to cope with without sending armaments or any other aid to Nationalist China. French Indo-China had already been taken over by the Japanese in 1940, cutting off supplies to the Nationalists from that direction. When the Japanese Imperial army invaded British Burma from Thailand on 15 December the last land supply line along the Burma Road was threatened. As with Malaya, the Philippines and other Allied territories, the Japanese advanced through Burma. They moved northwards with the British forces retreating in front of them towards the Burma Road in the north-east of the territory.

Disturbed by the Japanese punitive campaign in north China that followed the Doolittle raid, Chiang Kai-shek feared that the loss of the Burma Road and the demands of other theaters would cut Lend-Lease programs for China. His short-term concern was the expansion of the Japanese occupation into western China; his strategic goal was to strengthen the Kuomintang and Nationalist Army against the Communists. Chiang’s special problem was the senior American officer organizationally at his side but physically in India, Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. As early as 1942 Stilwell found himself at odds with Chiang over the reform and employment of the Chinese Army. Stilwell had 2 divisions with him at Ramgarh, India (X Force), and he believed he controlled 12 more divisions in Yunnan province, China (Y Force). After the Burma campaign, none of these divisions had more than half their manpower, and they lacked weapons and training. Chiang did not view either force as adequate for his needs.

Instead, he presented an ambitious plan to Roosevelt in June 1942. The Three Demands, drafted by Brigadier General Claire L. Chennault, argued that China held the key to defeating Japan with land-based air power. Chiang could not wait for Stilwell to reopen the Burma Road with a new extension from Ledo in northern India. Instead, the United States should send three divisions to undertake this mission while Chennault built an American air force of over 500 aircraft in China. This force would employ heavy bombers that would attack Japanese supply lines and bases along China’s coast. Until the Burma Road reopened, air transports from India would supply the air force in China. Chiang demanded an airlift capacity of 5,000 tons a month, an incredible figure, since the designated transport, the twin-engine C-46, had only a four-ton load capacity. At the time of the Three Demands, Chennault’s 130 aircraft required 2,000 tons of supplies per month, which meant a 500-aircraft force would probably need 10,000 tons a month, not 5,000. Moreover, who would guard the air bases? The Chiang-Chennault plan said that an elite, American-armed Nationalist Army (Z Force) would perform this mission, which sent the logistical requirements even higher.

Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew they could not meet the Three Demands, but they could not ignore the fact that the Nationalists might tie down much of the Japanese Army. A military renaissance in China, built around 30 elite Nationalist divisions, would protect the air force Chennault wanted. Despite British skepticism about China, Roosevelt promised to do something about getting money and Lend-Lease supplies to Chungking. He did so for several reasons: a sincere conviction that China might become a regional power; his optimistic expediency in military affairs; and his sensitivity to the China lobby, which included influential members of his own cabinet as well as Republican senators and media moguls.

By March 1942 Chiang had realized that as the fighting continued in northern Burma unless he offered forces to help the British they would soon be defeated. A Chinese expeditionary force, under the command of US General Stilwell, was deployed to north-eastern Burma. The Chinese sent some of their best troops into Burma, consisting of three armies, each with three divisions (Fifth Army: 22nd, 96th and 200th divisions; Sixty-sixth Army: 28th, 29th and 38th divisions; and Sixth Army: 49th, 55th and 93rd divisions). The 200th Division included eighty Soviet-supplied T-26 light tanks. Although this force appeared formidable on paper, each army was only the strength of a British or US division. Over the next two months the expeditionary corps fought well in several battles with the Japanese, especially their superior divisions such as the 22nd and 38th. By late May the British and their Chinese allies were defeated and began a long retreat into India in the north-west and into Yunnan province in China.

Once the British army defeated in Burma had reorganized itself in the relative safety of India, it was decided that the Allies would train and equip a Chinese army. This force would be created from the Nationalist troops who had escaped Burma with the elite 22nd and 38th divisions forming a hardcore. It was agreed that the Allies would provide training, equipment and weaponry for a large number of troops, to be designated ‘X’, or X-Ray, Force. A large training facility made up of various training schools was opened in 1942, with facilities to instruct trainees in military skills such as radio operation, veterinary care for draught animals and artillery operation. With good-quality food, new uniforms, equipment and weapons and proper medical care the Allies were confident they could produce a useful military force. In November 1942 Chiang Kai-shek promised twenty divisions’ worth of troops, which would be flown by Allied transport planes across the Himalayas. Training went well and by 1943 a 50,000-strong X Force with modern small arms, artillery and a tank force was ready to be sent into Burma.

From 1943 onwards, two other forces were trained in China by US advisors, with the first, known as ‘Y’, or Yoke, Force, set up in Yunnan province. The training for Y Force was not as intensive as that given to X Force in India but the troops and officers trained in Yunnan were still superior to most other Nationalist formations. By the early summer of 1943 a force of 100,000 Nationalist troops was available to be sent into Burma. Y Force was designated to advance westwards into Burma along the Salween River to link up with X Force advancing eastwards from India in 1944. A third smaller force, known as ‘Z’, or Zebra, Force was trained in Kwangsi province from late 1943. The intention was to create a thirty-division-strong force which would be given several roles in any 1944 campaign. With over 2,000 US instructors but with less facilities and few arms to hand to their trainees, Z Force would not reach the standard of either X or Y Forces. Z Force’s first role was to advance southwards to link up with any future Allied amphibious landing in southern China. Its other role was to provide a defence force for the US airbases being set up in Nationalist territory from where bombing missions would be launched against Japan.

By December 1943 X Force was ready to begin its advance but the planned linkup with Y Force was to be frustrated by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang wanted to keep the newly trained troops in Yunnan to counter the threat of rebellious generals, particularly the province’s governor, General Lung Yun. Eventually, after threats by the Allies to withdraw their support, Y Force was sent across the Salween River into Burma in May 1944. Both forces had to fight not only against the Japanese Imperial army but in some of the most challenging terrain in the world. It took X Force until March 1944 to reach their first objective, the town of Maingkwan. When it fell Chinese labourers immediately moved in to start repairs on the vital Burma Road. Meanwhile, X Force continued its slow advance, taking Myitkyina in May and Bhamo in November. By January 1945 X Force was in a position to finally link up with Y Force, which it duly did on the 21st. It had taken Y Force until September 1944 to capture their first major town, Tengchung, after an epic battle. After the reopening of the Burma Road, Y Force had served its purpose and most of its units were sent back into China to defend several provinces under attack by the Japanese. X Force, the best of all the Allied trained Nationalist armies, was to be airlifted into northern China and its divisions were to be destroyed in the civil war in Manchuria in 1948.