NVA/VC Sappers

At least fifty sappers moved silently through the wire that moonless night. The sappers, bareheaded and naked except for green shorts, were covered with charcoal and grease so that even in the shimmering light of explosions and burning bunkers they would be only half-seen shadows to the stunned grunts-wraiths, specters who were here, there, and everywhere, methodically slinging grenades and satchel charges into position after position, then coldly shooting the survivors as they tried to scramble out.

The attackers were later identified by a battalion Kit Carson Scout as belonging to the 409th VC Main Force Sapper Battalion. The scout had been a member of this elite unit before coming over to the other side, and he recognized a former comrade among the handful of enemy dead left on FSB Mary Ann.

The 409th usually operated against softer ARVN targets in Quang Nam Province, though not under provincial control, receiving its missions instead from Military Region the headquarters for all enemy forces in the first five provinces below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The sapper battalions were used selectively. Perhaps the 409th was sent into action against FSB Mary Ann to grab big headlines at minimal cost. Perhaps MR 5, unaware that the 1-46th Infantry was packing up for new hunting grounds, wanted to slow down an aggressive foe that was uncovering caches and ambushing supply parties on the trails that were the logistical heart of communist operations in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai Provinces.

The allies possessed no firm intelligence on any sapper units, but they suspected that the 409th had recently slipped south from Quang Nam into Quang Tin Province to join the 402d, a sapper battalion already known to be in the area. At the time of the attack, the S2 map in the 196th Brigade TOC had the 402d and 409th plotted fifteen to twenty kilometers east of FSB Mary Ann, preparing for the anticipated surge against the ARVN. During the nine months since Mary Ann had been reopened, the NVA had studied the position in detail and had presumably prepared a sand table model for the newcomers of the 409th. Sappers sometimes rehearsed their attacks on mock U.S. positions built in their own jungle base camps.

At Mary Ann, local NVA probably served as guides for the sappers during pre-assault recons and the attack itself, after which they evacuated sapper casualties, covered their withdrawal by fire, and led them quickly away from the area. It was the sappers alone, however, who negotiated the wire obstacles and infiltrated the base. That was their specialty. With weapons slung tightly across their backs, grenades attached to their belts, and faces and bodies blackened, they slid snakelike through the brush, silently, patiently, an inch at a time, listening, watching, gently feeling the ground ahead of them. They neutralized trip flares encountered along the way by tying down the strikers with strings or strips of bamboo they carried in their mouths. They snipped the detonation cords connected to claymores, and used wirecutters on the concertina, careful to cut only two-thirds of the way through each strand, then breaking each noiselessly with their hands, holding it firmly so the large coil wouldn’t shake.

The sappers ignored Mary Ann’s northeastern side, where the slope dropped steeply to the river. They came instead from the southwest. The outer apron of double concertina was one hundred meters from the bunker line, and the sappers cut four large gaps in it, two to either side of the camp road that exited the perimeter from the resupply pad. They cut four identical gaps in the next barrier fifty meters ahead, though in places the wire was in such a state of disrepair the sappers could walk right over the rusty, mashed-down junk. It was another thirty meters to the third and final barrier, which was only twenty meters from the bunker line, and instead of risking the snap of wirecutters the lead sappers opened the way by tying the wire back with more bamboo strips. The sappers then spread out along that half of the bunker line, ready to dart into the perimeter when the mortar rounds that were to signal their attack slid down the tubes set up on the high ground north of the firebase.

Even veteran sappers were known to tremble when worming their way though a firebase’s inner wire. They were completely vulnerable there. Sappers were not supermen, and on numerous occasions alert bunker guardsthe best defense against sappers-caught the infiltrators in the wire. It helped if the wire was festooned with rock-filled cans that rattled when brushed against, and included trip flares cleverly placed under the rocks the sappers would probably pick up and move aside on their way in. It also helped if the defenders placed mock trip wires in the concertina-the more the better, for the sappers had to stop and waste time checking each one. Then there was illume and mad minutes.

Nevertheless, enemy sappers enjoyed a record of chilling successes during the Vietnam War. Air bases were a favorite target, and in February, 1965, the VC employed mortars and demolition teams to reduce the army’s Camp Holloway near Pleiku to a shambles. The shelling hit barracks buildings, and eight Americans were killed, another 126 wounded. One sapper body was left behind near the flight line where twenty-five planes and helicopters had been damaged or destroyed. Records do not indicate ARVN casualties at the base, but they were presumably substantial.

In October, 1965, a ninety-man VC raiding force penetrated the Marine air facility at Marble Mountain near Da Nang. Almost a quarter of the sappers were killed or captured, but not before they and their comrades had killed three Marines, wounded ninety-one, and practically destroyed a helicopter squadron. Nineteen choppers were blown up on the airstrip, and thirty-five damaged.

Even the elite Green Berets were given a black eye by the sappers. On an August night in 1968, sappers suddenly materialized inside the headquarters compound of the 5th Special Forces Group’s Command and Control North (CCN), on the outskirts of Da Nang, tossing satchel charges through windows as they raced through. The secret ground war in Laos was run from CCN. Given the security clearances involved, the raid received little media attention, but a dozen Green Berets were killed, along with an unknown number of their Nung mercenaries.

In May, 1969, sappers infiltrated the 101st Airborne Division’s FSB Airborne in the A Shau Valley. Twenty-six GIs were killed and sixty-two wounded in the horrific night action. Forty enemy bodies were found. Most of the enemy casualties were regular infantry who tried to follow up the sappers’ successful penetration and were chopped up in the wire by the embattled defenders.

In January, 1970, the 409th Sapper Battalion used the cover of night and a heavy monsoon rain to get into FSB Ross, even though 1st Marine Division intelligence had been tracking the unit’s movements and had reinforced the firebase in expectation of attack. Thirteen marines were killed and another sixty-three wounded. The casualties would have been worse, but most of the sappers’ water-soaked ordnance failed to explode, and the marines were able to organize a stunning counterattack. Artillery fire blocked the enemy infantry that was to have followed the sappers in, and at least thirty-eight enemy soldiers were killed and four captured. Several sappers were blown up by mortar fire from the infantry backing them up. The sappers had not been informed that a mortar barrage was part of the plan, and it threw them into some confusion after their classic penetration of the firebase defenses.

During the first week of February, 1971, a sapper force walked right into a hilltop perimeter manned jointly by the ARVN and a reconnaissance platoon from the 198th LIB, Americal Division. The VC entered through the ARVN side of the hill and demolished the position from inside out, killing five GIs and numerous ARVN. Given the timing of the raid, it was later speculated that the enemy force involved was the 409th and that the attack had been launched as something of a live fire drill in preparation for the upcoming attack on FSB Mary Ann.

In March, 1971, sappers went through 101st Airborne Division units on the perimeter of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, which had been reopened to provide helicopter support to the ARVN in Laos during Operation Lam Son 719. Three GIs were killed and fourteen wounded during the fight on the bunker line. Fourteen sappers were killed and one was wounded and captured, but the rest made it to the airstrip. The base rocked for hours with burning fuel and exploding munitions from two ammo storage areas; helicopter rockets went up like roman candles.

Less than three months later, in May, 1971, a small sapper team that got in and out without a fight blew up 1.8 million gallons of aviation fuel at the army’s huge logistical complex at Cam Ranh Bay.

The sappers of the 409th, waiting in darkness and silence between the inner row of tactical wire and the bunker line on the southwest side of Mary Ann, carried with them lessons from FSB Ross. This time the support fires would be better coordinated. This time there would be no follow-up wave of infantry to get chewed up in the wire. The sappers were spread out, probably in three- and six-man teams. Each sapper knew the plan and his part in it. They would strike from the north, south, and west, and exit through the trash dump at the northwest end of Mary Ann. Most carried folding-stock AK-47s. Some were armed with RPG launchers, and carried wicker baskets with shoulder straps on their backs filled with rocket-propelled grenades like arrows in a quiver. Each had a dozen hand grenades around his waist, many of which were simply beer and Coke cans stuffed with explosives. The sappers also carried satchel charges-twenty-five pounds of C-4 in a flat canvas bag with a pull-type fuse and a strap on top for throwing. The 82-mm mortar crews of the support element were to initiate the assault with a short barrage of HE and CS tear gas shells. The enemy rarely used gas, but in this case even some of the satchel charges were wrapped with dry CS to further confuse and disable the defenders. The shelling, which would prove uncannily accurate, was targeted against the B-TOC and company CP on the southeast half of the firebase, and the mortars and heavy artillery on the northwest half. Those were the primary targets. Under the cover of the mortar fire, the sappers would quickly cross the trench line that connected the bunkers. The six-man teams were to rush up either hill to take out the primary targets, while the smaller teams would step up to the perimeter bunkers-one team per bunker-where shocked grunts would be cowering inside under cover, unaware that the mortars had stopped firing and all the explosions were being caused by grenades and satchel charges.




Praetorian guardsmen, on campaign; early 1st Century AD.

(31 BC–AD 14)

Octavian turned the praetorians into a regularized, privileged and organized part of his power base as Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. The Praetorian Guard enjoyed advantageous pay and conditions, but by dispersing them around Rome and Italy Augustus avoided creating the impression that he ruled at the head of a military dictatorship. Augustus focused far more publicly on his constitutional position and playing down the fact that he had come to power, and remained in power, as the result of naked force. He needed the army and the Guard, and they needed him. This interdependence established a dynamic that would have significant consequences in the centuries to come. The essential post of the praetorian prefect was created, but this involved putting a man, or men, in charge of a potentially very dangerous force. Augustus’ attempts to create a dynasty also raised the question of whether the Guard was loyal to the office or to the person of the emperor.

During the civil war after Caesar’s death in 44 BC an important principle and concept had been established: a Roman general would equip himself with a bodyguard drawn from his most effective, experienced and reliable troops. Now that he had supreme power, Octavian moved fast to make himself a permanent institution. After the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian was unchallenged. The permanent Praetorian Guard which he created at this point, made up from both his praetorians and Antony’s, emerged before the end of his reign as a far more regularized and coordinated force than anything that had gone before. The praetorians swore an oath of allegiance to Augustus, something that would be transferred to other emperors. In time this would present some praetorians, ordered to carry out killings on behalf of the emperor or confronted by an emperor such as Nero whose behaviour became intolerable, with serious challenges to their loyalty.

Octavian had reorganized the army after the war was over in 31 BC. At that stage he controlled around sixty legions, comprising his own army and what was left of the forces controlled by Antony’s faction, as well as praetorians. Later, as Augustus, Octavian would claim to have demobilized approximately 60 per cent (300,000) of the half million troops he controlled after Actium, dispersing these veterans throughout new colonies or back to their own home towns. Dio states that by AD 5 Augustus had twenty-three or twenty-five legions, as well as ten thousand praetorians in ten cohorts. Writing about the situation in 23, Tacitus gives twenty-five legions, though in the interim three legions had been lost in Germany in AD 9, and nine praetorian cohorts (size unspecified). These praetorian cohorts seem to have been part-mounted with the equites praetoriani, perhaps in a proportion of four to one in favour of the infantry component.

Unfortunately we possess no piece of evidence in any form that tells us the configuration of the Guard when Augustus founded it, in terms either of total size or the organization of cohorts. All we have to go on is Dio’s description of the armed forces in AD 5, and Tacitus’ summary of the disposition of the same in AD 23, both of which were written long after the event, and sporadic pieces of evidence that crop up in various contexts across the first century AD. Dio states that the Guard in AD 5 was made up of ten thousand men in ten cohorts, Tacitus that in AD 23 it consisted of nine cohorts, but without specifying either the total size of the Guard or the individual cohorts. Obviously, these figures are incompatible, which means either that one is wrong or that the arrangements had changed since the date of foundation and probably continued to change. The men recruited to the Guard were predominantly aged around eighteen to twenty years at the start of their service, a similar age to that of around two-thirds of legionaries, and drawn from Italian Roman citizens, by far and away the most convenient source. The nature of their individual origins is less certain, for example whether they came from poorer families or were drawn from the better-off. The distinction is unlikely to have made much practical difference once they had been absorbed into the Guard.

A number of modern authorities have made different assumptions about the size of the cohorts, based on the available evidence, and come to a variety of conclusions. One of these is that Dio was actually referring to the configuration of the Guard in his own time in the early 200s, and was therefore mistaken in suggesting that this was how the Guard was organized in Augustus’ time. This position is largely responsible for inferring that the nine cohorts referred to by Tacitus was the correct number for the Augustan era. It has also contributed to the assumption by some that these cohorts were quingenary in size, with a nominal 480 men each. This would have made the Augustan Guard similar in size to, but smaller than, a legion. Together with the equestrian tribunes who commanded each cohort, the centurions, optiones and standard-bearers, the total in each cohort would have been around five hundred. It is, however, important to stress that nine cohorts is a retrospective estimate based on the figures provided by Tacitus for the army in the year 23 under Tiberius, some fifty years or more after the foundation of the Guard by Augustus. We do not know for certain how many cohorts were involved when the Guard was founded. We also do not know if the numbers changed or, crucially, whether those cohorts were quingenary or milliary (one thousand strong) at this date. Quingenary cohorts are never specifically attested for the Praetorian Guard, now or at any other date, though quingenary cohorts were normal for the legions at the time. The praetorians, however, were not legionaries so there is no particular reason, in the absence of any evidence for praetorian quingenary cohorts, to insist that this was how the Guard was organized.

In fact, there is good reason to support the idea that milliary cohorts are not only possible but even likely for this early date, though there can be no certainty about this. Dio’s reference to there being ten thousand praetorians in ten cohorts must imply milliary cohorts, making the Guard close to the size of two legions. The possibilities are that this was the size of the Guard when it was founded, or the size to which it had grown by AD 5, or was a retrospective reference by Dio. If both Dio and Tacitus were correct this would have to mean that the Guard had been reduced by one cohort between 5 and 23. The number of cohorts, however, may also have varied in ways that have gone unrecorded, rendering futile efforts to reconcile the disparate evidence. There were at least nine cohorts on the evidence of tombstones at Aquileia, which specify cohorts up to and including the VIIII (IX) cohort under Augustus, while other evidence suggests an expansion to twelve cohorts by the 30s or 40s. In 76, one of the earliest praetorian discharge diplomas known explicitly refers to nine praetorian cohorts, though this surely reflects the reorganization of the Praetorian Guard after the civil war, during which Vitellius had increased its numbers to sixteen cohorts. Whatever reason there might have been for using nine cohorts under Augustus or at any other time, as opposed to another number, is unknown to us, especially as a graffito from Pompeii, which must predate August 79, refers to a tenth cohort. It is quite clear that arrangements could and did change.

The idea that Dio was mistaken is a convenient, but unsatisfactory, way of refuting one piece of evidence to resolve the discrepancy between Dio and Tacitus. When discussing the division of Rome into fourteen districts for the purposes of firefighting in 7 BC, Dio makes it clear with his phrase ‘this is also the present arrangement’ that he was fully aware that circumstances might have differed between his time and what had prevailed two centuries earlier. There is no reason therefore to assume as a matter of course that he was wrong about the size of the Guard in AD 5. Since the Guard at that date was not accommodated in a single location, and was widely dispersed, none of the normal methods (such as the size of a fort) by which a theoretical number could be estimated applies.

The figure of ten thousand given by Dio is also the same number given by Appian for Octavian’s praetorians in 43 BC. Given the lack of precision in our sources, and the difficulty of reconciling all the disparate pieces of information available to us, it is possible that Octavian did indeed create a Praetorian Guard on the scale described by Dio, based on ten milliary cohorts. After all, it would have been useful to reward especially loyal soldiers towards the end of their careers in the aftermath of the war. Moreover, it would be some time before Octavian could feel completely secure, so a large Praetorian Guard might have seemed a good idea to begin with. The conspiracy led by Fannius Caepio in 22 BC showed that almost a decade after Actium, Augustus could still face danger at home just as Caesar had. The only other early reference to milliary cohorts in the Guard is by Philo for the year 40, who clearly mentions a thousand-strong cohort. In other words, the only specific evidence we have for the size of early imperial praetorian cohorts comes from Dio and Philo; both suggest the cohorts were milliary, at least for the times they were writing about.

The layout of the Castra Praetoria, built in Tiberius’ reign by 23 when the Guard was all based in Rome, allows for a very substantial garrison, perhaps in excess of fifteen thousand. This certainly does not conflict with the idea that Dio was indeed right about the size of Augustus’ Guard in AD 5, and that the cohorts were milliary from the outset. Even if the Guard was smaller under Augustus, the availability of the Castra Praetoria would have transformed the extent to which praetorians could be accommodated in Rome, making an enlargement of the Guard logistically feasible from at least thereon.

All these speculative possibilities really serve to show is that we simply do not have enough precise information to know how the size of the Guard changed over time from its inception, if indeed it did change, and to resolve the contradictions in the evidence. We do not have to assume that Dio was wrong about the size of the Guard under Augustus, or that his information conflicts with that of Tacitus. It is possible that the cohorts were military sized from the beginning, and that the numbers of cohorts fluctuated in ways that we are now unable to pin down with certainty, as indeed has been acknowledged by some authorities. The latter seems certain, the former no better than the balance of probability. As an aside, it is worth noting that the individual cohorts of the Guard did not possess at this date any form of honorific or loyalist name commemorating particular acts or campaigns as the legions did. There was thus no overtly prestigious or privileged praetorian cohort.

There is also the question of the cohors speculatorum, ‘the cohort of scouts’, the subunit of the Guard associated with intelligence and spying, first attested in Antony’s forces at Actium. Augustus is even recorded as having remained on social terms with a former speculator on his staff. They were still in existence in 68, when they were described by Tacitus as forming a special bodyguard chosen by height, and presumably remained a permanent feature. They did not necessarily serve in separate cohorts, even if they had done so under Antony.

The Guard was, in any relative sense, a tiny part of the Roman world’s armed forces but a very definitely privileged one, regardless of how it was organized. In 27 BC Augustus saw to it that the senate passed a decree authorizing the Guard to receive ‘double’ the pay of the ordinary legionaries. Predictably enough this does not tie up with other evidence for later dates, which suggests that the ratio was modified to 3.33:1. In AD 14 a praetorian was paid two denarii per day, according to Tacitus, whereas a legionary received 10 asses (0.625 of a denarius) per day. The latter figure was a slight approximation, equating to 228 denarii per year. The actual annual rate for a legionary was 225 denarii per year, rising to 300 under Domitian (81–96), so the day rate given by Tacitus is obviously a rounded figure for the sake of simplicity. Soldiers in the Roman army were in theory paid three times a year so the figure needed to be divisible into thirds, which of course 225 and 300 are. Based on this, the differential recorded in AD 14 would probably have to mean that by then a praetorian was perhaps paid 720 denarii per year (that is, 3 × 240), equal to 1.97 notional denarii per day, in other words the ‘two denarii’ cited by Tacitus, who had no means even to express the term ‘1.97’. Another, more likely, possibility is that the praetorians were paid 750 denarii per year (3 × 250 denarii), equivalent to 2.05 denarii per day. Either approximation would fit with Tacitus and fulfil the need to be divisible by three. Moreover, 250 denarii is equal to 1,000 sestertii, the amount awarded praetorians in Augustus’ will, just as legionaries were awarded 75 denarii (300 sestertii). It is of course entirely possible that the praetorians’ ‘double’ pay in 27 BC had been raised to a higher rate by AD 14, though we have no evidence to prove this, other than the discrepancy discussed here.

In 13 BC Augustus fixed the length of service for a praetorian at twelve years and a legionary’s at sixteen, modifying this in AD 5 to sixteen and twenty years respectively. These should be seen as minimum figures rather than fixed points at which discharge automatically took place. The gratuity received at discharge for praetorians and legionaries seems to have been set at a related ratio to that for pay. Praetorians received 20,000 sestertii but a legionary received 60 per cent of that amount – 12,000 sestertii. This is equivalent to 1.67:1 or approximately half of the 3.33:1 ratio for pay, which is unlikely to be a coincidence. The amounts left to praetorians and legionaries in Augustus’ will were also based on the ratio of 3.33:1. The slight differences are easily explained by the need to have rounded figures divisible by three for the purposes of annual pay, and rounded figures for the single distribution of retirement gratuities and imperial bequests. The idea that the ratios are inconsistent therefore simply does not hold up, since it is quite clear they were very closely related and were rounded for convenience.

Reconnaissance Battalion Nizza

AB41 appatenant à la Nizza Cavalaria et à la Monferrato.

While reading Panzer Commander, the memories of Colonel Hans Von Luck I can across an interesting few paragraphs.

“Some days later Rommel’s HQ informed me that I was to be sent an Italian armored reconnaissance battalion, the Nizza. At first, I was not very pleased, as I had no great opinion of Italian weapons or morale. They duly arrived, well spread out and apparently still at normal fighting strength. Their commander, a tall, fair haired Major, presented himself. As he told me later, he had been given the posting “for disciplinary reasons,” because of an affair with a member of the Royal House. The officers and men came exclusively from the north. They were proud Piedmontese and Venetians. They wanted to show that they knew how to fight.

“May our patrols go on reconnaissance with your?” I was asked by the commander and his officers. “That would be the best way to learn.” I inspected their armored cars and weapons. “More sardine tins,” said our men, who were standing around inquisitively. Indeed, the equipment didn’t approach the standard of that which we had at the start of the Polish campaign. It was hopelessly inferior to the British Humbers and anti-tank guns. And yet, the Italians wanted to be sent into action at the front. IN the difficult weeks that followed, my feeling waved between admiration and pity for these brave men, who despite heavy losses, didn’t give up and so remained to the end, our good friends.

He (The Italian) doesn’t take war with deadly seriousness and ends it for his part when he considers it to be hopeless. Hitler’s pathetic, cynical maxim, “the German soldier stands or dies,” is, to the Italian profoundly alien.

It is against this background that the active service and performance of our allies is to be seen. So much more highly did we value the service of the Nizza Battalion, whose officers and men fought bravely beside and with us to the bitter end”

Then near the end in Africa he received the Medaglia d’Argento, by request of the Nizza Battalion commander.

3rd Battalion Nizza Cavalleria (AB41 Armoured cars) part of Italian 132 Armoured Division Ariete.

Ottoman Redoubts at Balaclava, 25 October 1854


True Heroes of Balaklava

A4, 20pp., illustrated, published by the Crimean War Research Society, 1996.

A review of the role of the Turkish forces at the Battle of Balaklava. Treated as cowards at the time, and blamed for many of the reverses of the battle, this work re-evaluates the contribution of the Turkish troops and concludes that their stubborn defence of the redoubts along the Causeway Heights, no less than their often-ignored contribution to the Thin Red Line, makes the Turks the true heroes of Balaklava.
“a reasoned attempt to revise and sharpen our perceptions of the Turks and their conduct at the battle [of Balaklava]… well-illustrated with diagrams and maps… a valuable reassessment.” – Andrew Sewell in the War Correspondent.


Battle of Balaclava. Ryzhov‘s cavalry attacks over the Causeway Heights at approximately 09:15. Both branches of the attack happened almost simultaneously.

The Ottoman guns from No.1 redoubt on Canrobert’s hill fired on the Russians at around 06:00 – the Battle of Balaclava had begun. Lucan despatched Captain Charteris to inform Raglan that the redoubts were under attack. Charteris arrived at around 07:00, but those at the British headquarters had already heard the sound of the guns. Lucan himself rode quickly back towards Kadikoi to confer with Colin Campbell, commander of the Balaclava defences. The two men agreed that this was not another Russian feint, but an attack in force with the intention of taking the British base. Campbell prepared his 93rd Highlanders to meet the enemy, whilst Lucan returned to the cavalry. Leaving the Light Brigade where it stood, Lucan led the Heavy Brigade towards the redoubts, hoping his presence might discourage any further Russian advance on Balaclava. Realizing his show of strength had little impact, however, Lucan led the Heavies back to their original position alongside the Light Brigade. The Ottoman forces were left to face the full force of the Russian assault almost alone.

Whilst Gribbe’s artillery continued to shell No.1 redoubt, the Russian columns under Levutsky, Semyakin, and Skyuderi began to move into the North Valley. Although the Heavy Brigade had pulled back, the British did send forward their available artillery to assist the Ottoman forces on the Causeway Heights. Captain George Maude’s troop of horse artillery, I Troop, unlimbered its four 6-pounder and two 12-pounder guns between redoubts 2 and 3, whilst Captain Barker’s battery, W Battery, of the Royal Artillery, moved out of Balaclava and took its position on Maude’s left. However, the artillery duel was a very one sided affair. The heavier Russian guns (some 18-pounders), particularly No.4 battery under Lieutenant Postikov, together with the riflemen of the Ukraine regiment, took their toll on both men and ordinance. Running short of ammunition and taking hits, Maude’s troop was forced to retire, their place taken by two guns from Barker’s battery (Maude himself was severely wounded). As the British artillery fire slackened, Semyakin prepared to storm No. 1 redoubt, personally leading the assault together with three battalions of the Azovsky Regiment under Colonel Krudener. “I waved my hat on both sides.” Recalled Semyakin, “Everybody rushed after me and I was protected by the stern Azovs.” The Ottoman forces on Canrobert’s Hill resisted stubbornly. Although the attack had begun at 06:00, it was not until 07:30 when No.1 redoubt fell. During that time the 600 Ottoman defenders had suffered from the heavy artillery bombardment; in the ensuing fight in the redoubt and subsequent pursuit by the Cossacks, an estimated 170 Ottomans were killed. In his first report of the action for The Times, William Russell wrote that the Turks ‘received a few shots and then bolted’, but afterwards admitted that he had not been a witness to the start of the battle, confessing, ‘Our treatment of the Turks was unfair … ignorant as we were that the Turkish in No.1 redoubt lost more than a fourth of their number ere they abandoned it to the enemy’. Later Lucan and Campbell too acknowledged the firmness with which the assault on No 1 redoubt, which was not visible from their vantage point, had been resisted; it was not until this had been overwhelmed did the defenders abandon redoubts 2, 3 and 4. Of the estimated 2,500 Russians who took part in the assault the Azovsky Regiment lost two officers and 149 men killed.

The remaining redoubts were now in danger of falling into the hands of the oncoming Russians. The battalions of the Ukraine Regiment under Colonel Dudnitsky-Lishin, attacked redoubts Nos.2 and 3, whilst the Odessa Regiment under Skyuderi, advanced on redoubt No.4. The Ottoman forces in these positions, having already watched their compatriots flee the first redoubt and realizing that the British were not coming to their aid, retreated back towards Balaclava, pursued by the Cossacks who had little trouble dispatching any stray or isolated men; the few British NCOs could do nothing but spike the guns, rendering them unusable. The Ottoman forces had gained some time for the Allies. Nevertheless, by 08:00 the Russians were occupying redoubts 1, 2 and 3, and, considering it too close to the enemy, had razed redoubt No.4.


The role of the Ottoman division during the initial stage of the siege is not clear. Most probably it also took part in the costly French attack. Additionally, thanks to the miscalculation and neglect of allied quartermasters, it suffered further casualties because of poor diet and lack of provisions. But, its role in the Balaclava (Balýklýova) battle is well known, albeit not with glory. The Russian main army group attacked the relatively weakly defended allied security perimeter around Voronzov Ridge. At least four Ottoman battalions reinforced with artillery gunners, some 2,000 men (more or less) manned five poorly fortified redoubts that established the forward defensive line. What happened at these redoubts during the early morning of October 25 is still shrouded in mystery. According to the commonly accepted version, the Ottoman soldiers cowardly fled when the first Russian shells began to land, leaving their cannons behind. The day was saved thanks to the British Heavy Cavalry Brigade and the famous ‘‘thin red line’’ of the 93rd Highlander Regiment. The alleged cowardly behavior then became so established in the minds of the allied commanders that Lord Raglan refused to assign Ottoman troops to reinforce his weak defensive forces at Inkerman Ridge just before the battle of the same name.

Recent research, however, including battlefield archeology, provides a completely different story and corresponds to the version of events contained in the modern official Turkish military history. According to these recent findings, the Ottoman battalions in the redoubts, especially the ones in Redoubt One, defended their positions and stopped the massive Russian assault for more than two hours with only their rifles; the British 12 pounder iron cannons located there could not be used without help. Their efforts gained valuable time for the British to react effectively. The battalion in Redoubt One was literally annihilated and the others, after suffering heavy casualties, were forced to retreat. They did not flee, because we know that some of them regrouped with the 93rd Highland Regiment and manned the famous ‘‘thin red line.’’ It is evident that Ottoman soldiers were also heroes at Balaclava. However, because of factors including racial xenophobia, language barriers, and lack of representation at the war council in Crimea, their valor was tarnished, and they were chosen as scapegoats and blamed for many of the blunders that occurred during the battle.


01APPYHD; King Frederick William I Of Prussia Inspecting His Giant Guards, Known As The Grand Grenadiers Of Potsdam, Although Most Called Them The Potsdam Grenadiers Or Potsdam Giants.

King Frederick William I Of Prussia Inspecting His Giant Guards, Known As The Grand Grenadiers Of Potsdam, Although Most Called Them The Potsdam Grenadiers Or Potsdam Giants.

Your Excellency will already know [… ] of the Resolution the new King has taken of increasing his army to 50,000 men. [… ] When the state of war [i.e. military budget] was laid before him, he writt in the margen these words, I will augment my Forces to the number of 50,000 men which ought not to allarme any person whatsoever, since my only pleasure is my Army.

When Frederick William came to the throne, the Prussian army numbered 40,000 men. By 1740, when he died, it had increased in size to over 80,000, so that Brandenburg-Prussia boasted a military establishment that seemed to contemporaries quite out of proportion to its population and economic capabilities. The king justified the immense costs involved by arguing that only a well-trained and independently financed fighting force would provide him with the autonomy in international affairs that had been denied to his father and grandfather.

Yet there is also a sense in which the army was an end in itself, an intuition reinforced by the fact that Frederick William remained reluctant throughout his reign to deploy his army in support of any foreign-political objective. Frederick William was powerfully attracted to the orderliness of the military; he himself regularly wore the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant or captain from the mid-1720s onward and he could conceive of nothing more pleasing to the eye than the sight of uniformed men moving in ever changing symmetries across a parade square (indeed he flattened a number of royal pleasure gardens in order to convert them for this purpose and tried where possible to work in rooms from which drilling exercises could be viewed). One of the few indulgences in wasteful ostentation he allowed himself was the creation of a regiment of exceptionally tall soldiers (affectionately known as ‘lange Kerls’ or ‘tall lads’) at Potsdam. Immense sums were squandered on the recruitment from all over Europe of these abnormally tall men, some of whom were partially disabled by their condition and thus physically unfit for real military service. Their likenesses were memorialized in individual full-length oil portraits commissioned by the king; executed in a primitive realist style, they show towering men with hands like dinner plates plinthed on black leather shoes the size of plough shares. The army was, of course, an instrument of policy, but it was also the human and institutional expression of this monarch’s view of the world. As an orderly, hierarchical, masculine system in which individual interests and identities were subordinated to those of the collective, the king’s authority was unchallenged, and differences in rank were functional rather than corporate or decorative, it came close to actualizing his vision of an ideal society.

Frederick William’s interest in military reform predated his accession to the throne. We see it in a set of guidelines that the nineteen-year-old crown prince proposed to the Council of War in 1707. The calibres of all infantry guns should be the same, he argued, so that standard-issue shot could be used for all types; all units should employ the same design of bayonet; the men in each regiment should wear identical daggers on a model to be determined by the commanding officer; even the cartridge pouches were to be furnished according to a single design, with identical straps.49 One of his important early innovations as a military commander was the introduction within his own regiment of a new and more rigorous form of parade drill intended to heighten the manoeuvrability of unwieldy masses of troops across difficult terrain and to ensure that firepower could be delivered consistently and to the greatest effect. After 1709, when Frederick William witnessed Prussian troops in action at the Battle of Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession, the new drill was gradually extended through the Brandenburg-Prussian forces as a whole.

The king’s chief preoccupation during the early years of the reign was simply to increase the number of troops in service as fast as possible. At first, this was accomplished largely through forced recruitments. The responsibility for raising troops was transferred from the civil authorities to the local regimental commanders. Operating virtually without restraint, the recruiting officer became a figure of fear and hatred, especially among the rural and small-town population, where he prowled in search of tall peasants and burly journeymen. Forced recruitments often involved bloodshed. In some cases, prospective recruits even died at the hands of their captors. Complaints poured in from the localities. In fact so dramatic was the first phase of forced recruitments that it prompted a wave of panic. ‘[His Majesty] makes use of such hasty means in levying of [his troops] as if he was in some very great danger,’ wrote William Breton, the British envoy, on 18 March 1713, scarcely three weeks after the new king’s accession, ‘that the peasants are forced into the service and tradesmen’s sons taken out of their shops very frequently. If this method continues, we shall not long have any market here, and many people will save themselves out of his Dominions…’

Faced with the mayhem generated by forced recruiting, the king changed tack and put an end to the practice inside his territories. In its place he established the sophisticated conscription mechanism that would come to be known as the ‘canton system’. An order of May 1714 declared that the obligation to serve in the king’s army was incumbent upon all men of serving age and that anyone fleeing the country in order to avoid this duty would be punished as a deserter. Further orders assigned a specific district (canton) to each regiment, within which all the unmarried young men of serving age were enrolled (enrolliert) on the regimental lists. Voluntary enlistments to each regiment could then be supplemented from enrolled local conscripts. Finally, a system of furloughs was developed that allowed the enlisted men to be released back into their communities after completion of their basic training. They could then be kept on until retiring age as reservists who were obliged to complete a stint of refresher training for two to three months each year, but were otherwise free (except in time of war) to return to their peacetime professions. In order to soften further the impact of conscription on the economy, various classes of individual were exempted from service, including peasants who owned and ran their own farms, artisans and workers in various trades and industries thought to be of value to the state, government employees and various others.

The cumulative result of these innovations was an entirely new military system that could provide the Brandenburg-Prussian Crown with a large and well-trained territorial force without seriously disrupting the civilian economy. This meant that at a time when most European armies still relied heavily on foreign conscripts and mercenaries, Brandenburg-Prussia could raise two-thirds of its troops from territorial subjects. This was the system that enabled the state to muster the fourth largest army in Europe, although it ranked only tenth and thirteenth in terms of territory and population respectively. It is no exaggeration to say that the power-political exploits of Frederick the Great would have been inconceivable without the military instrument fashioned by his father.

If the canton system provided the state with a greatly enhanced external striking power, it also had far-reaching social and cultural consequences. No organization did more to bring the nobility into subordination than the reorganized Brandenburg-Prussian army. Early in the reign, Frederick William had prohibited members of the provincial nobilities from entering foreign service, or indeed even from leaving his lands without prior permission, and had a list drawn up of all the sons of noble families aged between twelve and eighteen years. From this list a cohort of boys was selected for training in the cadet school recently established in Berlin (in the premises of the academy where Gundling had once worked as professor). The king persevered with this policy of elite conscription despite bitter protests and attempts at evasion by some noble families. It was not unknown for young noblemen from recalcitrant households to be rounded up and marched off to Berlin under guard. In 1738, Frederick William inaugurated an annual survey of all young noblemen who were not yet in his service; in the following year he instructed the district commissioners to inspect the noble sons of their districts, identify those who were ‘good looking, healthy and possess straight limbs’ and send an appropriate annual contingent for enlistment in the Berlin cadet corps. By the mid-1720s there were virtually no noble families in the Hohenzollern lands without at least one son in the officer corps.

We should not see this process simply as something that was unilaterally forced upon the nobility – the policy succeeded because it offered something of value, the prospect of a salary that would assure a higher standard of living than many noble households could otherwise afford, an intimate association with the majesty and authority of the throne, and the status attaching to an honourable calling with aristocratic historical connotations. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the establishment of the canton system represented a caesura in the relationship between the crown and the nobilities. The human potential locked within the noble landed estate was now placed even more securely within the state’s reach and the nobility began its gradual transformation into a service caste. Samuel Benedikt Carsted, pastor of Atzendorf in the Duchy of Magdeburg and sometime field chaplain in the Brandenburg-Prussian army, was thus right when he observed that the canton system constituted ‘the final proof that King Frederick William had acquired the most comprehensive sovereignty’.

An influential view has it that the cantonal regime created a sociomilitary system in which the hierarchical structures of the conscript army and those of the noble landed estate merged seamlessly to become one all-powerful instrument of domination. According to this view, the regiment became a kind of armed version of the estate, in which the noble lord served as the commanding officer and his subject peasants as the troops. The result was a far-reaching militarization of Brandenburg-Prussian society, as the traditional rural structures of social domination and disciplining were permeated with military values.

Reality was more complex. Examples of noble landlords who were also local commanders are very rare; they were the exception rather than the rule. Military service was not popular among peasant families, who resented the loss of labour that occurred when young men were taken away for basic training. Local records from the Prignitz (to the north-east of Berlin) suggest that the evasion of military service by flight across Brandenburg’s borders into neighbouring Mecklenburg was commonplace. In order to escape service, men were prepared to resort to desperate measures – even professing their willingness to marry the women in their villages upon whom they had fathered illegitimate children – and they were sometimes supported in these efforts by noble landowners. Moreover, far from bringing a mood of submission and obedience to the estate community, the active and inactive duty soldiers were often a disruptive element, prone to exploit their military exemption from local jurisdiction against the village authorities.

Relations between local communities and the military were beset with tension. There were numerous complaints about the tyrannical behaviour of regimental officers: exemptions were sometimes disregarded by the officers who came to ‘collect’ recruits, reservists were called up during the harvest season despite regulations to the contrary, and money was extorted in bribes from peasants seeking marriage permits from their local commanders (in some areas this latter problem was so pronounced that there was an appreciable rise in the rate of illegitimate births). There were also complaints from the landlords of noble estates, who naturally resented any unwarranted meddling in the affairs of the peasants who constituted their workforce.

Despite these problems, a kind of symbiosis developed between regiments and communities. Although only a fraction of the eligible male population (about one-seventh) was actually called up, nearly all the men in rural communities were listed on the regimental rolls; in this sense, the cantonal system was based upon the principle (though not the practice) of universal conscription. Exemptions came into play only once the enrolments had taken place. All reservists were required to wear their full uniforms in church and they were thus an ever-present reminder of the proximity of the military; it was not unknown for enlisted men to gather voluntarily in town and village squares in order to practise their drilling. The pride that many men felt in their military status may have been sharpened by the fact that the exemption system tended to concentrate enrolments among the less well-off, so that there was a tendency for the sons of landless rural labourers to serve while those of the prosperous peasants did not. Soldiers and reservists thus gradually came to constitute a highly visible social group within the village, not only because the uniform and a certain (affected) military bearing became crucial to their sense of importance and personal worth, but also because the conscripts tended to be drawn from among the tallest of each age group. Boys shorter than 169 cm were sometimes called up for service as porters and baggage handlers, but, for most, diminutive stature was a free ticket out of military service.

Did the canton system heighten morale and cohesion within serving regiments? Frederick the Great, who knew the Prussian army as well as anyone and observed the canton system at work during three exhausting wars, believed that it did. In his History of My Own Times, completed in the summer of 1775, he wrote that the native Prussian cantonists serving in each company of the army ‘come from the same region. Many in fact know or are related with one another. [… ] The cantons spur on competition and bravery, and relatives and friends are not apt to abandon each other in battle.

WWI Night Patrol

73-British Trench Raiders

I really believe that I am after all a coward for I don’t like patrolling…The battalion who alternates with us here have lost three officers (or rather two officers and an NCO) on this business in front of my trenches. Let me try to picture what it is like. I am asked to take out an ‘officer’s patrol’ of seven men; duties – get out to the position of the German listening post (we know it), wait for their patrol and ‘scupper’ it; also discover what work is being done in their trenches.

I choose my favourite corporal (a gentleman, a commercial traveller for the Midland Educational in civilian life) and my six most intelligent and most courageous men. My sentries and those of the first platoon of the battalion on my right are told we are going out so that we shan’t be fired on. Magazines are charged to the full, one round in the breech; bayonets are examined to see if they slip out of the scabbard noiselessly; my revolver is nicely oiled; all spare and superfluous parts of equipment is left behind. Everything is ready.

As soon as the dusk is sufficiently dark, we get out into the front of the trenches by climbing up on to the parapet and tumbling over as rapidly as possible so as not to be silhouetted against the last traces of the sunset. No man feels afraid for we have grown accustomed to this thing now, but every man knows that he has probably seen his last sunset, for this is the most dangerous thing in war. Out we walk through the barbed wire entanglement zone through which an approaching enemy must climb, but we have a zigzag path through the thirty yards or so of prickly unpleasantness; this path is only known to a few. The night has become horribly dark already, and the stillness of the night is broken only by the croaking of many frogs, the hoot of an owl and the boom of distant guns in the south. The adventure has commenced.

We lie down in the long grass and listen. Nothin’ doin’. I arrange my men in pairs – one to go in front and one to either flank, the corporal and myself remaining in rear, but the whole party is quite close together, practically within whispering distance of one another. We all advance slowly and carefully, wriggling along through the long grass for a hundred yards or so, past the two lines of willow trees and across the stream, now practically dry. There we lie and wait and listen. One pair goes out another fifty yards or so, nearly to the German wire to see if there is anything about. Nothing is discernible, so they return, and for another hour we lie in absolute silence like spiders waiting for flies. It is a weary game and extremely trying to one’s nerves, for every sense especially hearing and sight are strained to the utmost. Tiny noises are magnified a hundredfold – a rat nibbling at the growing corn or a rabbit scuttling along give us all the jumps until we learn to differentiate the different sounds. In the German trenches we hear the faint hum of conversation. Nothing is to be heard near us, but there is a very ominous sign – no shots are being fired from the trenches in front of us, no flares are being sent up and there is no working party out. This points to only one thing and that is that they also have a patrol out. There is no other conclusion.

Suddenly quite close to the corporal and myself there is a heavy rustling in the long grass on the right. Now, if never before, I know the meaning of – is it fear? My heart thumps so heavily that they surely must hear it, my face is covered with a cold perspiration, my revolver hammer goes back with a sharp click and my hand trembles. I have no inclination to run away – quite the reverse – but I have one solitary thought: I am going to kill a man. This I repeat over and over again, and the thought makes me miserable and at the same time joyful for I shall have accounted for one of the blackguards even if I go myself. Do they know we are here? How many are there? Are they armed with bombs like most German patrols? However, our queries remain unanswered, for quite abruptly they change their direction and make off to the right where to follow them would be only courting certain disaster.

So with great caution we come in and breathe again when we are safely inside the trench. I give instructions to the sentries to fire low down into the grass but it is very improbable that the German patrol will get anything but a fright.

Note: by Second Lieutenant H E Cooper, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

The Woodbridge Intruder

J. J. ‘Jack’ Lee

How often have those of us who operated over Europe during the war years seen an aircraft in distress, either coned by searchlights, mauled by fighters, or shot up by flak, wondered if the aircraft and its crew ever made it back home?

J. J. Lee, rear gunner, Lancaster PB797 VN-Z-‘Zebra’ on 50 Squadron. On 22 March 1945 227 Lancasters and eight Mosquitoes of 1 and 8 Groups raided Hildesheim railway yards. Some 263 acres – 70 per cent of the town – was destroyed and 1,645 people were killed. Four Lancasters were lost. Another 130 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 4 and 8 Groups bombed Dülmen in an area attack, which was without loss and 124 Halifaxes, Lancasters and Mosquitoes of 6 and 8 Groups bombed rail and canal targets at Dorsten, which also was the location of a Luftwaffe fuel dump, again without loss. One hundred Lancasters of 3 Group carried out a ‘G-H’ attack on Bocholt, probably with the intention of cutting communication. All returned safely. 138 Another 102 Lancasters of 5 Group in two forces attacked bridges at Bremen and Nienburg without loss. The bridge at Nienburg was destroyed though no results were observed at Bremen.

‘We were engaged on a daylight raid over Bremen on 22 March 1945. The aircraft was piloted by Pilot Officer Pat Reyre and crewed by Flight Sergeant Ken Shaw, navigator; Flying Officer Jack Andres RCAF, bomb aimer; Flight Sergeant Alan ‘Shorty’ Thorpe RAAF; Sergeant Gerry Jones, flight engineer; and Sergeant Alf Robinson, mid-upper-gunner. ‘Z-Zebra’ was at the rear end of the ‘gaggle’ formation and bombs had been released over the target. It was a perfect day for the operation; the sky was cloudless. Anti-aircraft fire can only be described as moderate and fighters were conspicuous in their absence. We were escorted by American air force ‘Mustangs’.

‘Like most crews ‘flak’ was not an undue hazard unless it got too close and it was only by a stroke of misfortune should an aircraft fall victim to the big guns. Having said that, as we left the immediate target area I saw bursts of flak creeping dangerously close to the Lancaster directly below and astern of me. ‘Poor Blighter’ I thought. No sooner had this thought passed through my mind when two almighty explosions shook our aircraft. A dark trail of smoke appeared from the starboard wing, at the same time the aircraft swung to starboard and began to descend rapidly. I watched as we descended and saw the gaggle drift further and further from our view.

‘Within seconds of our being hit those dreaded words came over the intercom; ‘Jump, Jump.’ I swung my turret to the beam, snatched the doors open and prepared to make a hasty exit. I can’t recall to this day why I hesitated but I replied to the skipper; ‘Did you say jump?’ Back came the reply; ‘No, hang on.’ In the course of further conversation it transpired that both starboard engines were damaged and the props feathered. Our descent continued and then, by some great fortune, one of the engines was restarted and our sided descent was corrected. It now became obvious that we had suffered serious damage. However, we were fortunate not to have any casualties. In a matter of minutes we were on our own at a height of about 5,000 feet on a perfectly clear day and a sitting duck for enemy fighters.

‘As I surveyed the sky for fighters my attention was drawn to what appeared to be long strips of brown paper drifting from the aircraft and spiralling earthwards. I was completely puzzled at the appearance of this phenomenon. I rotated the turret and peered into the fuselage where I saw the wireless operator ‘Shorty’ Thorpe and the mid-upper gunner Alf Robinson engaged in stripping lengths of ammunition from the ammunition tracks situated on the starboard side of the aircraft. Both tracks had been damaged by flak which rendered my two left hand guns U/S. On reflection this course of action would have virtually no effect on lessening our overall weight. However, it did seem a good idea at the time and was good for morale. By the time we had reached Holland some considerable height had been gained. Further assessment as to the amount of damage inflicted to the aircraft drifted over the intercom to the effect that the ‘George’ control system had been shot away, numerous fuel lines had been severed, our starboard aileron was useless and we had no brake pressure.

‘Our situation was bad, but not hopeless. However, it was decided to discharge a distress signal with a view to obtaining assistance from any of our fighter escort who may still be in the vicinity. I watched as the red flare ascended then fell gently away. It was within a matter of seconds after the flare had been discharged that three ‘Mustangs’ appeared on our port beam, two of the fighters peeled off whilst the third positioned himself some fifty yards to the port side of my turret. The pilot waved his hand as a gesture of encouragement and maintained his position. This ‘Mustang’ escorted us right across Holland and over the Dutch coast. The Frisian Islands came into view. Later as we flew over the islands our aircraft was once again subjected to heavy anti-aircraft fire. As the flak opened up the ‘Mustang’ pilot opened his throttle and headed out to sea. No further damage was sustained to ‘Z- Zebra’ and we made headway towards the English coast.

‘At the main briefing prior to our take off it had been stressed that Woodbridge, one of the two emergency runways catering for aircraft in distress, was out of use for reasons which I recall were never disclosed. Only Manston was available. It was due to the set of circumstances prevailing at that time that our pilot was forced to set course for Woodbridge. We still maintained height and the weather remained nigh perfect. At this stage an intercom discussion was held during the course of which our skipper gave us an ultimatum stating there was a fifty-fifty chance of putting our aircraft down in one piece. The two options open to us were either bale out or stay with our aircraft. The response was unanimous and an instant decision was made to stay together.

‘As Woodbridge came into view there were excited comments over the intercom. The emergency runway was lined virtually from end to end with ‘Halifax’ aircraft and various types of gliders. Here was the answer to the airfield being closed. Flying control was contacted and a request for landing made. Needless to say our request was refused and we were instructed to divert elsewhere. Owing to the state of our aircraft, plus the fact our fuel situation was becoming critical, this course of action had to be refuted. Despite an almost superhuman effort by our skipper the kite was becoming almost impossible to control and our crash landing procedure was put into operation.

‘There was to be only one approach to the runway due to the fact alterations to course could not be achieved owing to the failure of our controls system. Wheels were down and the undercarriage locked. The approach was made and we touched down halfway along the runway. We had no flaps and brake pressure was nil, the result being that we careered along the runway at a fast rate of knots. The end of the runway was reached and we carried onto the overshoot area which was in a similar state to a newly ploughed field. The vibration was such that I thought we were going to break up. I had rotated the rear turret facing starboard and as we trundled on I had a shaky view of a football match which was in progress some several hundred yards away. As their attention was drawn to us, players and spectators alike stopped as though riveted to the ground and gazed in amazement as we roared past them. The aircraft finally came to rest with our undercarriage intact. I virtually fell out of my turret, whilst the rest of the crew with the exception of our skipper followed suit via the main door. On making my way to the front of the aircraft I saw our skipper still sitting in his cockpit, no doubt finding it difficult to believe we had made it down in one piece.

‘As we took account of the damage sustained we noticed that the bomb doors had crept open several inches. Closer inspection revealed one of our 1,000lb bombs nestled on the bomb bay doors. It became obvious we had a hang up which had not registered on our instruments and the bomb had broken loose during our bumpy entry onto the overshoot area. Had we known the bomb was still in the aircraft I doubt very much if we would have brought ‘Zebra’ home. Needless to say there was much twittering at the thought of what might have happened had it exploded.

‘Bladders were relieved and the crew then congregated awaiting transport to the flights and our de-briefing. Ken Shaw the navigator produced a fair sized piece of shrapnel. This had become lodged in his ‘Mae West’. He then went on to explain having felt a blow in the lower part of his ribs as though he had been kicked. It transpired the shrapnel had torn through his life jacket and struck the large ‘rat trap’ type of buckle of his battle dress jacket. The buckle had been bent almost double by the impact but had no doubt saved him from serious injury. The emergency vehicles were on the scene very promptly and we were transported to the flights for de-briefing whilst our navigator attended the sick bay where he was given a check up. It was only at the debriefing stage we were informed that Woodbridge was on standby for the forthcoming Rhine crossing operation. This explained the presence of the large numbers of aircraft stationed on the main runway. We were further informed that strict security was being imposed on the station and all personnel confined to base. It was also made clear no mail would be allowed to leave the base until the glider force had left for its destination. After a meal we were billeted and then we commenced to have a look around the base. There were literally thousands of aircrew and army personnel scattered around the station and we met many old friends with whom we had trained prior to our operational posting.

‘The giant armada finally left; a sight we shall never forget as the aircraft set off into an almost cloudless sky. The crew went into Ipswich to celebrate our survival and on our return to the base the following day arrangements were made for our return to our Squadron at Skellingthorpe. We had been absent for several days and some of the other crews thought we had been written off.

‘This brief account of the experience of a Lancaster crew carrying out its duties does not highlight any acts of heroism or brave deeds, but it does bring home the occupational hazards faced by all crews engaged on operations. It also emphasises the determination of a crew and the outstanding efforts of an exceptional pilot to survive and return with their aircraft to continue the struggle.

‘We returned to Woodbridge three days after the defeat of Germany and flew ‘Z-Zebra’ back to Skellingthorpe. She flew for two more years before joining hundreds of other redundant Lancasters in the scrap yard’.