Ottoman Redoubts at Balaclava, 25 October 1854

THB

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.

20090224163212!Battle_of_Balaclava_(map_1)

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.

Advertisements

THE ARMY OF FREDERICK WILLIAM OF PRUSSIA

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’.

Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew I

Marina Raskova

Nothing creates more intense pressure than war, except plague and famine. In 1937, Russia had been at war for over twenty years, first against Germany in 1914–17, then against itself – in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a terrible civil war, and a class war, all involving a nationwide struggle for industrial advancement. Grim times, made worse by a state sending millions to a variety of battlefronts and Stalin’s secret police sending millions more ‘enemies of the people’ to Siberian prison camps. But for young women not stigmatized by the arbitrary arrest of some family member, there were new socialist freedoms: equality, childcare, education, divorce and work, bringing unheard-of opportunities, in cash, in status, in self-confidence.

For women in the armed forces, the ground work had been laid in 1917, in the last days before the Revolution, when Russia was still fighting Germany. A peasant woman named Maria Bochkareva had suggested countering poor morale among front-line troops by forming a ‘Women’s Battalion of Death’. She commanded some 300 recruits in one inconclusive action, but then vanished from history after opposing the Bolsheviks. Aviation promised new opportunities. The Soviet government saw air travel as the best way to tie together their vast nation with commercial planes and to defend it with long-range bombers. By 1941, there were over 100 military flying schools. Despite opposition from conservative commanders, 25–30 per cent of all pilots were women, though they were not registered for military service.

One of these was Marina Raskova, a good-looking, intelligent and strong-willed daughter of the Revolution. She started work in a chemical plant, got married (Raskova was her married name), had a daughter, got divorced, and restarted work at an air-force academy. That inspired in her a new, thrilling, romantic vision. She wanted to fly. So did many other young men and women. There were more pilots than planes, but not enough navigators. That gave her an opening. At twenty-two, Raskova became the Soviet Union’s first female navigator, and proved perfect fodder for the Soviet propaganda machine, which was keen to promote the nation’s successes by idolizing ‘heroes’ in many different fields, including air travel. Women as aviators made excellent heroes, promoting both aviation and socialist ideals of achievement and equality. Raskova took part in two record-breaking flights, and then, in September 1938, in a spectacular attempt to fly non-stop the length of Mother Russia, from Moscow to Komsomolsk in the Far East, 6,500 kilometres, one-sixth of the globe, which would be a world record for straight-line flight without refuelling. The venture was a propaganda epic, followed by the nation. Stalin himself took a personal interest. In a long-range bomberfn3 named Rodina (Motherland), there were two women pilots, with Raskova as navigator in a glass nose-cone with no door to the rest of the aircraft.

It didn’t work out as planned. The plane hit bad weather, and lost radio contact after ten hours, sparking a massive search-and-rescue operation that cost the lives of sixteen people, killed in a mid-air collision, of which the public was told nothing. Raskova, with rudimentary maps, was trying to navigate with a sextant and compass over landscapes no one had ever seen from the air. Over the immensities of the Siberian forests, circling above low cloud in search of a gap and some place to land, the plane ran low on fuel. Since a crash-landing would most likely kill Raskova, in her glass nose-module, she bailed out. Landing safely, warmly dressed, but with only half a bar of chocolate, she set off walking in the direction she thought the plane must have crash-landed. For ten days, she survived on berries, mushrooms and one square of chocolate per day. She lost a boot, and became weaker, supporting herself with a stick. On the brink of collapse, she saw rescue planes circling, followed them, and found Motherland, which had belly-flopped in a swamp. It had covered 5,947 kilometres in 26 hours, 29 minutes, a world record. The three women, with a collapsible canoe, walked and paddled their way back to civilization. The nation went wild with carefully orchestrated joy. They were taken back to Moscow and driven in an open car to the Kremlin, while adoring crowds threw flowers. Stalin greeted them with kisses and a speech about avenging the oppression of women. All three were made Heroes of the Soviet Union, the first women to receive the honour. Raskova was the favourite, with her astonishing survival story, her good looks and a bestselling book, Notes of a Navigator. She had the world at her feet.

Then, suddenly, she didn’t. At 0415 on 22 June 1941, German bombers struck sixty-six Soviet aerodromes, opening the invasion codenamed Operation Barbarossa. By noon, over 1,000 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed on the ground, the first of 6,500 lost over the next three months. ‘We have only to kick in the door,’ Hitler told his chief of staff, General Alfred Jodl, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ Not so easy, as it turned out. Stalin turned from brutal oppressor to the saviour of his nation. Factories and people moved eastwards by train and road. By October, the Germans were at the outskirts of Moscow, but General Winter was coming to the rescue, as he had come when Napoleon’s army stood at Moscow’s gates in 1812.

Meanwhile, many female pilots, mostly members of flying clubs, had written to Raskova saying they wanted to fight and complaining that no one would take them. She decided to form a regiment of women military pilots. With her fame, legendary toughness and status, she had a direct line to the top. This was in early October 1941, with Moscow likely to fall to the Germans in days. The Defence Ministry, perhaps Stalin himself, gave the go-ahead (accounts conflict). So the world’s first women’s combat aviation unit came into existence not because there was a shortage of pilots – far from it, because so many planes had been destroyed on the ground – nor for propaganda (of which there was remarkably little), but almost entirely because one formidable woman cajoled and argued until she got her way.

There were to be three regiments: fighters, heavy bombers and night bombers, all staffed by women – pilots, navigators, mechanics, armourers, support personnel. Raskova gathered a few dozen of the volunteers and got uniforms issued – male ones, with massive overcoats and oversized boots. On 15 October Stalin ordered the evacuation of government departments and armament factories from Moscow. Over the next two weeks, 200 trains and 80,000 trucks headed east with the contents of 500 factories. Two days after Stalin’s order, Aviation Group 122, as Raskova’s 300–400 young women were called, marched in their ill-fitting uniforms past immobile trams and closed-up shops to Kazansky Station, and piled into goods wagons for the journey to the town of Engels, on the Volga, 800 kilometres to the south-east. It took eight days to get there. Hours were spent in sidings as troop trains lumbered westwards, while others headed east to the lands beyond the Volga with the wounded, government staff and heavy machinery. There were no toilets, and the food was grey bread, herring and water. Raskova went from car to car, keeping up morale. No one complained. Many of the women, scarcely more than girls – average age twenty – had been raised in harsher circumstances. All dreamed of serving Stalin, the Motherland and Marina Raskova.

Engels, chosen because it was a safe distance from the front and had a flying school, was a grim little place of houses made from clay mixed with straw and brushwood, and just four stone buildings – three Party houses and a cinema. The women lived in barracks in one large room, each with a plank bed, with a straw mattress and a blanket. For training pilots it was perfect. To the west ran the Volga, 2 kilometres across, but in every other direction lay steppe, flat and treeless to the horizon, in effect one vast runway.

Women fighter pilots of the 586-th IAP PVO (from the left to the right):

– Burdina Galina Pavlovna –  victories: 2(Bf-109, Ju-88)+1(Ju-52)

– Pamjatnyh Tamara Ustinovna –  victories: 2(Do-215)+0

Homjakova Valerija Dmitrievna – (1914-10.1942, died in a air crash during a night start), victories: 1(Ju-88)+0

– Lisitsyna Valentina – victories: 0+1(Ju-88)

The photo was taken at the Anisovka airfield (Saratov Region) in September of 1942. At that time the regiment was equipped with the “Yak-1” fighters

 

There were hard decisions to be made, because everyone wanted to fly. The class system was supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history, but some were still more equal than others. Armourers and mechanics wanted to be navigators, navigators wanted to be pilots, pilots wanted to be fighter pilots. The three units got names: 586th Fighter Regiment, 587th Heavy Bomber Regiment and 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Top pilots with competition experience in aerobatics became fighters; those who had flown in civil aviation or had been flying instructors would fly heavy bombers; and those with the least experience would be night bombers. But character sometimes trumped experience in Raskova’s eyes, and she spent much time cajoling, reassuring and explaining her decisions to the many who objected to them.

So began a harsh military life, under male instructors – months of drills, parade-ground humiliation, early-morning roll-calls, indoctrination by Party officials, flights in training aircraft, navigation, firearms, equipment maintenance, and a total convent-like ban on long hair, make-up, fancy clothes and socializing with men (not that the ban always worked). There was no toothpaste, toilet paper or shampoo. No one thought of issuing them with anything but men’s clothing – no bras or women’s underwear, not even the basic designs produced for the general public. Occasionally, they sewed underwear from torn parachutes, much in demand because they were made of silk. For twenty-year-olds, it was tough, unrelieved by the fact that there was no real action. December 1941 gave way to a bitter new year. They had no aircraft, and anyway the advancing Germans were over 400 kilometres away, too far to reach by plane. They had little idea of the defeats and the deaths by the hundred thousand along the 2,000-plus kilometres between besieged Leningrad and the Caucasus.

Maria Dolina (1922–2010) was a Soviet pilot and acting squadron commander of the 125th “Marina M. Raskova” Borisov Guards dive bomber Regiment. She was active primarily on the 1st Baltic Front during World War II. She flew 72 sorties with Pe-2, dropping 45,000 kg bombs. In six aerial combats her crew shot down 3 enemy fighters. On August 18, 1945 Dolina was awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Through all this Raskova proved a true leader. Since she supervised the training of all three regiments she was on duty twenty-four hours a day. ‘We did not notice any outward signs of fatigue,’ wrote one of her pilots. ‘To all of us it seemed that this woman possessed unprecedented energy.’ When one of her team tried to get her to rest, she replied, ‘We’ll rest when the war’s over.’ She could fall asleep instantly and wake up instantly. She was firm, yet always soft-spoken. One of her subordinates, Ekaterina Migunova, said in a 1976 interview, ‘I don’t remember a single case when she yelled or even raised her voice, or rudely interrupted a subordinate … She never punished anyone in a fit of temper.’ In pursuit of her aims, however, Raskova was a force of nature. As a friend of the director of the factory that was making good the disastrous loss of planes, she demanded priority in receiving the superb new Yak-1s for her women, and she got them. Her one form of relaxation was to play the piano, which she did extremely well. No wonder the women adored her.

The first fighter planes – the Russian equivalent of the Spitfire, the Yak-1, named after its designer, Alexander Yakovlev – arrived in January, and 20 Pe-2 dive-bombers (designed by Vladimir Petlyakov) in the summer, all with radios, thanks to Raskova’s perseverance. These two regiments employed some men as mechanics and administrators, so our focus is mainly on the most Amazonian of the women’s regiments, the Night Bombers, a female contingent from top to bottom for the whole war, and always with the same commander, Yevdokiya Bershanskaya.

Their task was to fly over enemy lines at night to bomb fuel dumps, trenches and supply depots. They flew flimsy biplanes designed principally for flight training fifteen years previously. Each plane had two open cockpits, one for the student or pilot, the other for the instructor or navigator. It was made of plywood covered with densely woven cotton known as percale, in effect sturdy bedsheets, which made it a flying tinderbox. Driven by a clattering little 100-horsepower engine, its top speed was 120 kilometres per hour. No radio, no brakes. It was about as basic as a plane could be: a small, cheap, lightweight, manoeuvrable and low-speed workhorse, rather like the plane in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in the scene when Cary Grant is driven into and then out of a cornfield by a crop-duster. It was the brainchild of a great designer, Nikolai Polikarpov, who was able to focus on his work rather more intensely than he would have liked because he spent much of his life in prison under interrogation by the secret police. Designated the U-2, it is not to be confused with the later U-2, the 1950s American spy plane which was pretty much the complete opposite of Polikarpov’s. This U-2 (re-designated as Po-2 in 1943) was ideal for transporting the wounded and dropping supplies, slowly and at very low altitudes. It could take off from a forest clearing and land on a road. Thirty thousand of them were produced over thirty years, up until 1958. When war broke out, air clubs had U-2s by the hundred, all quickly requisitioned for front-line work.

It was Polikarpov himself who suggested that his U-2 could be used for night bombing, gliding in over enemy territory and releasing either two or four bombs tucked under the wings. But action would start in a Russian winter, in an open cockpit, in brutal cold that froze exposed flesh in minutes. If a bare hand touched metal, the skin froze to it and got stripped away. Snow could blot out the horizon, and induce delusions about what was up and what was down. And the women would be flying at night, when they couldn’t see the ground and had to rely on rudimentary instruments, when a single light below might be mistaken for a star and guide a disorientated pilot to her death. There was, of course, no parachute. Chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya explained in an interview with Reina Pennington for her book on the women fliers: ‘The frame of mind was such that if you caught fire over enemy territory, it would be better to die than with the help of a parachute to be taken prisoner. And if you were damaged over your own territory, then you would be able to land the aircraft somehow.’

All this to inflict minor damage with four 50-kilogram bombs, a tenth of what a heavy bomber could carry. Was it really worthwhile? Yes, as the official agenda of the Night Bombers said, it was vital ‘to harass the enemy, to deprive him of sleep and rest, to wear him down, destroy his aircraft on his own airfields, his fuel depots, his munitions and food supplies, disrupting transport movements, hindering the work of his headquarters.’ And the women had no doubts. ‘We were all sportswomen, with good coordination,’ said one of them, Galina Brok-Beltsova, at that time just seventeen, interviewed for Italian TV in 2016 at the age of ninety-one. ‘We were fit, in control of our bodies. But most of all we had the will to win, and we were a community.’

But this was a dangerous life, even before real action started. On 10 March, training flights ran into wind-whipped snow, which obscured the horizon and the runway lights. Two U-2s crashed, two of the women died. After their bodies were recovered, Raskova organized the funeral, placing flowers on the coffins. Nina Ivakina, administrator for Komsomol (the youth organization), wrote in her diary, ‘We tenderly put the coffins with our friends, who only yesterday had been so full of fun and laughter, on the truck and to the strains of the Funeral March slowly accompanied our dear young falcons on their last journey, to the graveyard.’ Raskova spoke the oration: ‘Sleep, dear friends; we shall fulfill your dreams.’

In May, before the German advance on Stalingrad, the Night Bombers were put into action. Raskova led them in a flight from Engels to a village near Morozovskaya, some 230 kilometres from the front line, where they would form part of the Night Bomber division of Fourth Air Army on the Southern Front between Stalingrad and the Black Sea. On arrival they were inspected by the divisional commander, Dmitrii Popov. ‘I’ve received 112 little princesses,’ he complained to Fourth Army’s boss, General Konstantin Vershinin. ‘Just what am I supposed to do with them?’ ‘They’re not little princesses, Dmitrii Dmitrievich,’ Vershinin replied. ‘They’re fully fledged pilots.’

Raskova, called to Moscow for new orders, left them with uplifting words: they had to show that women could fight as well as men, ‘and then in our country too women will be welcomed into the army.’ It was the last the Night Bombers saw of her. By June, after a month of further training, they were ready for action, flying out of their new base near Krasnodon, only 30 kilometres from the front, and part of the effort to stop the German advance on Rostov and Stalingrad, the lynchpin of the Russian south.

But there was no stopping the enemy. Rostov went up in flames, driving endless lines of refugees eastwards through unharvested grain fields. The Night Bombers retreated with the Soviet army, flying out of base after base, learning to navigate first on the endless, featureless steppe, using the stars or a church or railway station to find their way, then in the mists of the North Caucasus mountains. They trained by day and flew at night on successive one-hour missions, because that was how long the fuel lasted; over 100 missions per night – five or more, sometimes ten, for each pilot – even in high summer.

The stress was constant: finding their way in darkness without instruments, blinded by searchlights, deafened by anti-aircraft shells, coughing to get rid of the gunpowder smoke, focusing to drop their bombs, then finding their way home to an unfamiliar field, guided in by kerosene lanterns or car headlights. They were constantly, desperately short of sleep. They slept where they could, an hour here, an hour there, in the cockpit, under a wing, in abandoned peasant huts. How did they endure it? Partly because they were all there by choice, all volunteers, able to leave if they wished. No one did. Partly pride: they were eager to prove they could do anything the men could, and more. They kept careful notes: Polina Gelman recorded that she flew 860 combat flights. Partly, they were all in a tight-knit community, as efficient as a pit-stop in a car race. Mechanics could refuel and re-arm a plane in five minutes – faster, they noted, than any of the men’s regiments. Also there were remarkably few losses. So morale remained rock solid. ‘It’s really difficult to shoot a plane down,’ wrote Zhenya Rudneva reassuringly to her parents. ‘If anything happens, though, what of it? You will be proud that your daughter was an airwoman! Being up in the air is really such a joy!’ Later, after the war, they were amazed at themselves. ‘Even I find it difficult to believe sometimes that we, young girls, could endure such incredible stress in our combat work,’ recalled Raisa Aronova. ‘Apparently, our moral strength was immeasurable.’ The chief of staff, Irina Rakobolskaya, put it down to group solidarity: ‘Women fight more effectively in a separate unit than men. The friendship is stronger, things are simpler, there is greater responsibility.’

Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew II

The Germans hated the U-2s. They drifted in low like ghosts – at scarcely more than the speed of an owl, 80 kilometres per hour – too low to be held by a searchlight, the air flowing over the wing-struts making a soft whooshing noise, then in seconds they were gone again, leaving an ammunition dump ablaze, a bridge destroyed or a slit-trench blown apart. It was over before there was time to mount an effective defence. When the Germans learned from Russian broadcasts that their tormentors were women, they started to refer to them as the Nachthexen, the Night Witches. The Russian women pilots loved that – Nochnye Vedmi, Night Witches: that’s what they have been ever since.

In August 1942, German forces clogged the roads to Stalingrad. The city, a symbol of victory for both sides, seemed about to fall. Hitler said it would, ordering a massive air assault on 23 August that set the city ablaze. Stalin said it would not, must not fall – ‘Not one step back!’ had been his famous order in July 1942. The city would be held, at least enough of it for long enough for armies to build up around the besieging Germans. Then the Germans would become the besieged. The Night Witches played their part, flying from Salsk to bomb the Germans as they crossed the Don, then moving eastwards ahead of them.

What might have been their greatest moment came in September 1942, in the Caucasus, when they were ordered to destroy the headquarters of General Paul von Kleist. As part of Operation Edelweiss, he was leading 1,000 tanks through the Caucasus towards Baku, the source of 80 per cent of the Soviet Union’s oil, and had set up his HQ on the Terek River in Georgia. While the German forces were crossing the river, the Night Witches attacked, killing 130 Germans, but failing to kill Kleist himself. Their attack remained a footnote in Russia’s desperate resistance to a vast operation, which would anyway grind to a halt, mainly because of German losses on other fronts and a consequent lack of supplies to this one.

To the north, Stalingrad was in dire peril. The eight women in Raskova’s 1st Fighter Squadron were re-allocated to the two vastly outnumbered air regiments defending Stalingrad. The women lived inside a bubble of ignorance and bravado. Without any idea of the catastrophe unfolding in the city, they were thrilled at the thought of combat on equal terms with men, fighting in their Yak-1s, which they could all control as Amazons had once controlled their horses. But these were brief, disappointing assignments: the commander of one regiment kept the women clear of all danger, and the second regiment was disbanded after two weeks. The girls flew only two missions, losing sixteen aircrew and twenty-five aircraft in that short time.

Back in their base in Saratov, 300 kilometres up the Volga from Stalingrad, Raskova’s 2nd Squadron had a remarkable success. On the night of 24 September, a searchlight picked out a twin-engine Junkers Ju-88 bomber. Valeriya Khomyakova in her Yak-1 attacked, machine gun blazing, and apparently killed the pilot, for the huge plane banked right, went into a dive and exploded on the ground. She checked the crash site later – the four crew members had bailed out, but too close to the ground for their parachutes to open, and their bodies lay around the plane’s shattered hulk. It was the first kill by Raskova’s fighters and the first enemy bomber shot down at night by a woman. The next morning there was vodka and watermelon for breakfast, plus 2,000 roubles in cash for the regiment from Comrade Stalin, followed by a trip to Moscow for Raskova to receive a medal, the Military Order of the Red Banner, from the hands of the eminent revolutionary and head of state Mikhail Kalinin. This success was followed, two weeks later, by a sudden reversal. Valeriya Khomyakova, who had been dozing in a dug-out and had no time for her eyes to adapt to the darkness, crashed on take-off and was killed. Commanders were blamed, fired and replaced by men. That was the end of 586th Regiment as the only group of all-female fighter pilots.

The Night Witches, meanwhile, were still divided between Stalingrad and the front further south in the Caucasus. In Stalingrad, searchlights presented a big problem. The Germans arranged flak guns and searchlights in concentric circles around probable targets. Planes flying in pairs in a straight line across the perimeter risked being ripped to shreds by flak. So the Night Witches developed a way of dealing with the problem. They flew in groups of three. Two would go in and deliberately attract the attention of the Germans. When several searchlights were pointed at them, and just before they judged the guns would open fire, the two pilots suddenly separated, flying in opposite directions and manoeuvring wildly to shake off the searchlights. The third pilot would fly in through the dark path cleared by her two teammates and hit the target virtually unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. It took nerves of steel to risk attracting enemy fire, but it worked well.

In the Caucasus, they were raiding the German front line, which crossed what is now a clutter of little republics on Georgia’s northern border with Russia. Their successes, with no casualties, were rewarded with praise and medals – more of them were Heroes of the Soviet Union than in any other bomber regiment (twenty-four by the end of the war). In November, their commander, Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, received a letter from Konstantin Vershinin, commander of Fourth Army: ‘Comrade Bershanskaya and all your fearless eagles, glorious daughters of our Motherland, intrepid pilots, mechanics, armourers and political workers!’ Her boss had something more in mind than praise and medals. He was sending ‘certain necessary but non-standard accessories’, namely women’s underwear.

Why now, after all this time? Because of an incident referred to by Vershinin. Two women gunners had taken the parachute from an aerial flare bomb and sewed themselves panties and bras. Someone had denounced them for undermining the war effort. A military tribunal sentenced them to ten years’ imprisonment. But Vershinin saw that Mother Russia could not afford such a waste. ‘As regards the two girls who were guilty of error, give them the opportunity to carry on working in peace, and at some later date file an appeal to strike out their criminal records.’ A supply of underwear would save careers and lives.

Now it was not the Soviet army but the German Sixth Army that was trapped in Stalingrad. Soviet forces had held small pockets of land inside the city, down by the Volga, with building-to-building fighting around them and a fearful aerial war in the skies above, until the Volga froze and trucks could bring supplies across. On 19 November 1942, a vast build-up of guns, tanks and infantry began the counterattack. By mid-December, 250,000 German troops were surrounded. Bombs, bullets, frostbite, disease and starvation took a terrible toll.

The 587th Women’s Heavy Bomber Regiment, still commanded by Raskova but operating from several different airfields, was ordered to Stalingrad. On 4 January 1943, Raskova was due to join them from her base in Arzamas, 750 kilometres north of Stalingrad. The weather was bad: dense fog. She knew that the instruments in her Pe-2 dive-bomber would not be good enough to cope with the fog, but she was keen to join the regiment, as were the three others with her – a navigator, gunner-and-radio-operator and the squadron’s chief mechanic – so she planned to land halfway, in Petrovsk, and wait for the fog to clear. She was leading two other planes, piloted by Lyuba Gubina and Galya Limanova. Over Petrovsk, it seemed clearer. On Raskova went, heading south, losing touch with the two other planes. In ever denser fog, with night approaching, they managed to crash-land, injured but alive. Of Raskova there was no news. Two days later, when the fog cleared, a search party found her plane. Apparently she had tried to get under the fog, and dived straight into the steep right bank of the Volga. She and her navigator had been killed instantly. The tail had broken off, leaving the other two hurt but alive. A blood-soaked towel showed they had tried to staunch each other’s wounds, before they froze to death.

Their bodies were picked up by a U-2 and flown to Saratov, where the director received orders to bury three of the dead locally, and to prepare Raskova’s body for an overnight journey to Moscow. Her shattered head was stitched together, but not well enough to be seen in public. The news spread nationwide. Hundreds filed past her closed coffin before it was put in a special carriage for the train journey to Moscow. All her women pilots, navigators, gunners and technicians in their scattered units gathered in tearful shock. One of the Night Witches took a little comfort from the thought that, though the other two regiments were no longer exclusively female, hers, the 588th, had remained true to Raskova’s ideals.

The whole nation mourned. Pravda’s front page described this, the first state funeral of the war: the funeral hall, the strips of black crêpe cascading from the ceiling either side of the funeral urn with Raskova’s ashes, the gathering of the top politicians, the guard of honour, the slow march with the urn to the walls of the Kremlin, the threefold volley of shots, and the fly-past, all proclaiming ‘that Marina Raskova, hero of the Soviet Union, great Russian aviatrix, has concluded her glorious career.’

A new commander, Raskova’s No. 2, Zhenya Timofeyeva, led the Women’s Heavy Bombers into combat against Germany’s besieged Sixth Army, trapped in the charred, snow-covered ruins of Stalingrad. Several raids were shared with planes flown by men, until 30 January, when the women were allowed to go in on their own, preparing the ground for assaults by tanks and infantry. The next day, Hitler, who had ordered General Friedrich Paulus never to surrender, made him a field marshal, on the grounds that no field marshal in German history had ever surrendered. But Paulus had no choice. On 1 February, a German soldier crawled out of the basement of the Sixth Army’s HQ, the Central Department Store, waving a white flag. Two days later, the news reached the final, isolated pocket of Germans, and it was all over. Russian deaths in the siege were over 100,000, while the Germans lost 160,000 dead, with a further 90,000 shuffling off into captivity and to almost certain death. On the Eastern Front, the tide of war had turned. Russian forces began to advance westwards, the Women’s Heavy Bombers with them.

In the Caucasus, the Night Witches started to move northwards and westwards, into devastated lands. It was the first time they had seen war close up, as if the women lived in a world of their own, sowing damage and death, never seeing the results first hand, until now. Moving forward yet again, in Rasshevatka, 400 kilometres north of their old front-line base on the Terek River, navigator Natasha Meklin and her pilot Irina Sebrova saw dead Germans for the first time. The place had just been liberated. The village was on fire, bodies of men and horses lay scattered about. The first German she saw was young, Meklin recorded, ‘pale and waxen, the head thrown back … straight fair hair frozen to the snow.’ She felt a flow of emotions: depression, revulsion, pity, and a sudden insight into the effects of what she was doing. Not that she was deterred. ‘Tomorrow, I shall be bombing again, and the day after that, and the day after that, until the war is over, or I am killed myself.’

Lilya Litvyak

Spring came, turning the steppe to mud, bogging down planes and fuel trucks, curbing operations. The pilots of 296th Regiment, which had absorbed Raskova’s women fighters, had to share the fifteen surviving planes, which was OK by fighter pilot Lilya Litvyak, because the man she was sharing with was about as small as she was, so there was no need to adjust the pedals. Life for her was fine, because she was in love with another pilot, Alexei Salomatin. They had official permission to marry. He was a bit reckless and she notoriously sharp-tongued, but they were a popular couple, so the others did their best to give them time together as the regiment moved forward, even if it was only in one abandoned peasant hut after another.

Litvyak, still just twenty, was a star, thanks to the Soviet propaganda machine. In February she had claimed a Stuka (a Junkers Ju-87 dive-bomber), in March another Stuka and a Ju-88 fighter-bomber, an encounter that left her with a bullet in the thigh and in a damaged plane, which she managed to land safely. ‘The Girl Avenger’, as she was called in a magazine article, was the perfect heroine, ‘20 years old, a lovely springtime in the life of a maiden! A fragile figure with golden hair as delicate as her very name – Lilya,’ a fragility that contrasted with her fighting spirit: ‘When I see a plane with those crosses and the swastika on its fin tail, I experience just one feeling – hatred. That emotion seems to make my grip firmer on the firing buttons.’ She left hospital after a few days, still limping, but happy, and eager for some R & R with family in Moscow. Her brother recorded that she had with her a dress made of German parachute silk, trimmed with little green bits made from viscose that had once held gunpowder in German anti-aircraft shells. She fought well, and sewed well too.

In May, Litvyak was back on duty in Pavlovka, almost on the Ukrainian border, sitting in her cockpit waiting for action. Her lover, Alexei Salomatin, was in the early-summer skies above, flying his Yak, training a new pilot. Two women mechanics were sitting on Litvyak’s wings, chatting to her. Suddenly they heard the noise of a plane engine, rising to a roar. It cut off with a boom at the far end of the runway. Someone else had seen a Yak come out of the clouds doing rolls, far too close to the ground. The three women ran to the crash site. It was Salomatin, killed by his youthful recklessness, or as the official report put it, because of ‘undue self-confidence, self-regard and lack of discipline’.

Lilya Litvyak faced death many times in the next two months. Two immense Russian counterattacks were under way: to the north, the greatest ever tank battle around Kursk, and to the south, along the Mius River, where Soviet forces were trying to break the line formed by reinvigorated German armies. She had a string of successes and narrow escapes: in June, she and her wing-mate, Sasha Yevdokimov, set on fire two German observation balloons; on 16 June, she was leading a new arrival into the air when she veered off course, causing the pilot following her to crash to his death; that same afternoon, she and Yevdokimov were chased by four Messerschmitts, returning to base with several bullet holes in their machines; five days later, her Yak was hit by a Messerschmitt, but she crash-landed safely.

On 1 August, having moved further west to Krasnyi Luch in Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbass, Litvyak flew three sorties in support of Ilyushins attacking German ground troops. When she was climbing into her Yak for her fourth sortie – leather boots, khaki tunic, dark-blue flying breeches, blue beret tucked into her map case – her mechanic, Nikolai Menkov, tried to talk her out of it. He recalled the scene vividly later; it was etched into his memory by what happened next.

‘It’s very punishing for one person to fly so many missions in this heat,’ he said. ‘Do you really need to do so much flying? There are other pilots.’

She replied, ‘The Germans have started using weaklings! They’re wet behind the ears and I feel like blasting one more of them!’

She said goodbye, bright and cheerful as usual, closed the canopy and took off. She and five other Yaks were escorting eight Ilyushins. Approaching the front line, they shot down two Messerschmitts then, as they turned for home, another Messerschmitt emerged from clouds, fired at Litvyak’s Yak, and vanished again. Two of the other pilots saw her plane falling out of control, and guessed that she had been shot and was either dead or seriously injured. She did not bail out, and no one saw an explosion on the ground. Back at the base, everyone waited and hoped, until hope died. A day later, as the Soviet troops advanced, Yevdokimov and the mechanic Menkov searched the villages and gulleys where they thought she had crashed, but found nothing. Then two weeks later, Yevdokimov was killed, and no one went looking for Lilya any more. ‘Lost without trace,’ said the official letter to her mother.

But the loss of a heroine often inspires legends, especially if she’s a slender, feisty, good-looking blonde of twenty-one. A returning prisoner said he had seen Lilya in captivity. Rumours spread that a plane had landed in a village in German territory, that a girl had been driven off by Germans. Or perhaps the Germans had buried her with full military honours. Political officers asked questions. Could she have gone over to the other side? Another returning prisoner claimed she had. But these were strange times, with prisoners being re-imprisoned by their own people, and forced ‘confessions’ made and retracted, and cancerous jealousies in the regiment of Lilya’s looks and skills and popularity. There was never any evidence, only hints to the contrary: in the 1970s, village boys pulling out a grass-snake from its hole found fragments of a helmet and underwear made of parachute silk. But the discoveries were buried and, despite continuing research and much controversy, Lilya remained lost without trace, and remains so today.

Her memorial is the record of what she achieved in her two years of service: the first woman pilot to shoot down an enemy plane, 66 sorties, 11 or 12 solo victories and 4 shared (though these figures too are disputed, like so much in her life and death), giving her the greatest number of kills by a woman pilot.

The day before Lilya Litvyak vanished, some 400 kilometres to the south, the Night Witches, now honoured as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, suffered their worst night. The Russians had driven the Germans back along the Taman Peninsula, which divides the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. The Germans needed it as a base for regaining all the ground they had just lost. Fifteen Russian U-2s took off that night, as searchlights sliced through the darkness ahead. Strangely, the anti-aircraft guns fell silent. The pilots soon learned why. The Germans had for the first time deployed a night-fighter, who had perfect targets in the spotlit, slow-moving U-2s, each as ‘clear as a silvery moth caught in a spider’s web’, as one of the returning Night Witches put it.

Serafima Amosova, one of the surviving pilots, recorded what happened:

The searchlights came on, the anti-aircraft guns were firing, and then a green rocket was fired from the ground. The anti-aircraft guns stopped, and a German fighter plane came and shot down four of our aircraft as each one came over the target. Our planes were burning like candles. We all witnessed this scene. When we landed and reported that we were being attacked by German fighters, they would not let us fly again that night. We lived in a school building with folding wooden beds. You can imagine our feelings when we returned to our quarters and saw eight beds folded, and we knew they were the beds of our friends who perished a few hours ago.

Success in the Taman campaign brought more fame and more honour to the Night Witches, redesignated as the 46th ‘Taman’ Guards. They fought on to the end of the war, moving westwards with the land army – to Belorussia, Crimea, East Prussia, Poland, and in May 1945 to Berlin and victory. They were disbanded in October 1945, because women were being reintegrated into society. Motherhood and factory work took over from fighting as Soviet ideals.

British Engineers 1813

The crossing of the Adour

In the days leading up to 7 October 1813, Wellington tried with evident success to convince the French that his attack, when it came, would be inland, probably around Maya. Soult therefore placed the bulk of his troops in this area, leaving the mouth of the Bidassoa virtually undefended, believing that the river was not fordable. Unfortunately for the French, Wellington knew that it was, thanks to the help of local fishermen. The French had heavily fortified the right bank of the river and their troops were spread over many miles, manning various redoubt and forts. The defences looked impressive but Wellington was confident they could be taken, saying to Captain Harry Smith of the 95th Foot ‘These fellows think themselves invulnerable, but I will beat them out with great ease’. He went on to explain that they did not have enough troops to hold their position. On the morning of 7 October, the attacks were launched. The two main attacks were at the mouth of the Bidassoa and against Vera. Captain Todd RSC, who had been surveying the area for some weeks, was with the attackers fording the river, no doubt guiding them to the fords. Other RSC officers carried out similar roles at the several fords used to get the troops across. As predicted, Wellington was able to outflank and overwhelm the enemy.

Two days later the whole area was in Allied hands and Soult had withdrawn his demoralised troops across the next barrier, the river Nivelle. As soon as the right bank was secured, work started on laying the bridges. Wellington’s orders for the attack stated:

A pontoon bridge is to be thrown across the river near the ruined bridge [at Irun] as soon as it is possible to establish it. To cover its construction and the passage of the troops, the 18-pounder battery and two other batteries are to be placed on the San Marcial heights.

Apart from the number of guns, the 18-pounders would have greater range than anything the French could bring up to try and disrupt the operation. Wellington’s orders also specified a second pontoon bridge further up the river. Burgoyne noted ‘we commenced throwing bridges of trestles, boats, pontoons, etc. over the Bidassoa’. Frazer also wrote that by 10 October there were two pontoon bridges and a third bridge of boats in place. As well as the bridges, new redoubts were started on the right bank. This was the first occasion where a substantial number of Pasley’s trained Royal Sappers and Miners (RSM) were present. Some worked under Lieutenant Piper RE to throw the pontoon bridges across the river at Irun, while another company under Captain Dickens RE built a trestle bridge further upstream. Although these bridges were washed away by the strong current, they were speedily restored. Captain Wells RE was building defences on the Bidassoa, General Hope reporting that working parties had been assigned to him and asked if Burgoyne could look at the ground around the pontoon bridge as he thought ‘that several considerable works may be necessary’. Further east, Captain Pitts RE with another company of RSM quickly erected breastworks at Vera and then proceeded to build several redoubts around La Rhune. Further east again, Lieutenant Wright RE was erecting defences around Roncesvalles. The work done by the Royal Engineers, Royal Staff Corps and Royal Sappers and Miners is often difficult to identify, but these corps made a significant contribution to strengthening the defences to resist French attacks, then in getting the army across the Bidassoa and then building further defences to allow Wellington to retain his toe-hold in France.

For the first time in the Peninsular War there were now sufficient artificers from the RSM to attach companies to divisions in the army. For the next few months they lived and fought with the soldiers and after a shaky start, appreciation of their value grew, Reid, who commanded the company with the Light Division, remarking ‘the arrangement seems to answer. My Company was taken away the other day, which put all the division in a rage. Sappers are thought absolutely necessary now.’ A few weeks later, Reid commented again, that ‘Baron Alten got in a rage and wanted to write to Wellington’ when the divisional entrenching tools were taken away.

For the next few weeks Wellington waited for the surrender of Pamplona and for news from northern Europe. Following a request from Sir John Hope, Captain Todd RSC was employed to improve the roads around Vera to aid troop movements. As mentioned earlier, there was change of command in the Royal Engineers. Elphinstone returned to headquarters on 13 October and Burgoyne was speedily reassigned to Sir John Hope’s force. Elphinstone, having arrived by sea, needed to settle himself in. Writing to his wife he said:

Hitherto I get on famously with Lord W., but he is said to be so violent and capricious that it is impossible for any one to say how long the civility may continue. It was decidedly his wish that I should come up [I do not believe this is true] and I think he is pleased with my coming up as I have done without any regard to my personal comfort … I have purchased a mare … for the enormous price of 80 guineas … In England I should not have paid above 40 for her. I have also purchased a mule for 130 dollars … Ellicombe and myself dine with each other alternately, each party bringing their own plates, knives and forks, as always living with Fletcher he is as badly of for canteen, cook etc. as myself. I shall be very glad to get my new canteens … I am told my coming up is already making a row in the artillery – there certainly will be a breeze, whether I shall stand the squall or not remains to be proved. I heard rather a moderate man say he thought if any officer senior to Dixon [sic, Dickens] remained to serve under him after my coming up they ought to be sent to Coventry by the regiment.

Following the surrender of Pamplona on 31 October, Wellington was free to act. The Allies had superiority in numbers and probably also in the quality of their troops. The next challenge was to pass the river Nivelle. Following the French withdrawal, Soult has set his troops to work building a set of defences on the banks of that river, similar to those that had failed to work on the Bidassoa. The natural defences of the area also assisted the French. Heavy rain and snow now fell and the river levels rose, making crossing difficult, if not impossible. Hope was concerned that the bridges across the Bidassoa could be lost. He wrote to Wellington on 1 November:

We have had torrents of rain last night and it has just been reported to me that the upper bridge, constructed, I believe, by the Portuguese, has been carried away, and that they are in some apprehension the coming down of the materials and other matters carried by the river may injure the Spanish bridge. Burgoyne and Todd are, however, doing what they can to secure it, as well as our pontoon bridge.

Writing again the next morning, he reported ‘I found that a premature report had been made respecting the trestle bridge above Biriatou, which, though in danger, was not carried away.’7 There are a number of interesting points in this letter. Firstly, the Royal Engineers and Royal Staff Corps are once again mixing roles as circumstances required. Secondly, Hope mentions both the Portuguese and Spanish as having a role in the construction of the bridges. Burgoyne had mentioned some weeks earlier that there was a company of Portuguese artificers with engineer officers at San Sebastian. The same day that Hope wrote the letter above, Wellington remarked that ‘Hill, however, being up to his knees in snow, it is absolutely necessary to defer our movement for a day or two’. The weather continued poor and Wellington had to postpone an attack that was planned for 8 November, which was re-scheduled for the 10th. Hope carried out feint attacks around the mouth of the Nivelle at St Jean de Luz, Hill similarly demonstrated around Ainhoue and Beresford made the main attack around Sarre.

The outnumbered and demoralised French put up only limited resistance before once again retiring to the next barrier, the river Nive, and the city of Bayonne. As the French retired from St Jean de Luz on the morning of 11 November, the Allies quickly moved into the town, Burgoyne recording that ‘the bridges … were burning but saved them before much mischief was done’.8 Hope reported the next day that Captain Todd was repairing the bridges at St Jean de Luz and having moved forward to Guethary, noted on the 13th that ‘a pontoon bridge has been established across the stream of Bidart’.9 As Burgoyne was with him, it is likely that he was involved in its construction. Wellington agreed with the need to have the pontoon bridge because a means to move artillery across the river would be the ‘best defence for our posts towards the Nive’, but cautioned that the bridge should be able to be quickly removed. A third bridge had been built across the Nivelle at Sarre by the company of RSM under Captain Pitts. The trestle bridge had been constructed using material taken from a local farmhouse. Pitts, describing the action around Sarre, mentions around thirty redoubts built by the French to defend the area. Elphinstone also recorded the events of the last few days in a letter to his wife:

Good news and I am quite safe and well. Having stated above what is of most consequence to you I shall now add an outline of our proceedings, that is such part of them that I happened to see. On the 10th at 3am I left Vera and went to the advance post where I knew the attack was to commence. Lord Wellington arrived soon after and as soon as it was light, a cannonade commenced on the advance redoubt of the enemy … the gentlemen not approving much of the effects of our artillery, saved us the trouble by taking to their heels … The works were also deserted one after another except one which was the largest and most formidable. This Lord Wellington continued to surround most completely that an officer was sent to advise them to lay down their arms … They then retreated across the Nivelle in such a hurry that they had not time to destroy the bridges. Our people followed them and got into the village of St Pé … It was at this place that I regret to say Mr Power [Lieutenant Robert Power RE] was killed … It is the only casualty in the Corps … we set off to return to Vera at least 3 leagues off, and where we arrived at half past eight o’clock. The ride home was altogether the worst part of the day. It was so dark that they rode with a torch before Lord Wellington to show him the way and we were obliged to follow trusting entirely to our horses … Except a few shots from the first redoubt, the Head Quarters party were never nearer than a mile to the enemy, so that it was nothing more than being at a review. I took out plenty of toast and hard eggs so that I had nothing to do but munch all day. What a fortunate thing it has now been my coming round by water.

I am sure his engineer officers would have been happy to have nothing to do but munch all day! The Allied army’s communications were now divided by two major rivers and the next few weeks was a constant battle to keeping the bridges in place as the winter torrents battered them and trying to move bulky pontoon trains on near-impassable roads.

Once again the Allied army settled themselves in to guarding the crossing-points over the Nivelle. The French destroyed their bridge and tête du pont at Cambo on 17 November and Colville reported that he had ordered Captain Henderson RE to strengthen his piquet defences around Ustaritz to be able to withstand field artillery. Whilst Wellington was keen to press on, the weather made any rapid movement impossible and there was a lull as all the equipment and material was moved into place.

The final action of 1813 was the passage of the river Nive. Wellington wanted to expand the area his troops occupied but also restrict the ability of the French to supply Bayonne. If he could place his troops on the left bank of the Adour, the French could not use the river to bring in supplies. Once again, Wellington decided on three simultaneous attacks. The first column under Hope was to advance up the coast from St Jean de Luz. As part of his advance, Hope was asked to push on to the mouth of the Adour to reconnoitre for the ‘possibility of a bridge being thrown over the river there in some future operations of the army’. Inland, Beresford was to attack in the centre at Ustaritz where the plan was to capture the bridges and if required to thrown pontoon bridges across. Further east, Hill was to attack at Cambo, again with the intention of throwing a bridge across. Detachments of Royal Sappers and Miners and Royal Staff Corps were attached to each of these columns.

The pontoon train was moved up and a pontoon bridge thrown across the Nive at Ustaritz in the early hours of 9 December. Burgoyne, describing the situation a few days’ earlier, wrote:

Five pontoons have been ordered to Ustaritz, to throw a bridge across the Nive, where an island to which we have access, makes it very narrow … There is great difficulty however to get pontoons to the spot, on account of the state of the roads and the heavy rains that have now recommenced; two days of them will probably increase the Nive and stop the operation.

Early that night, the pontoon train was laid from the left bank to the island and in the morning the troops forded the river to the right bank. Once secure, the final part of the bridge from the island to the right bank was completed.

At the same time, Hill forded the river at Cambo with the intention of re-establishing the bridge once the right bank was secure. Burgoyne praised the inventiveness of Sub-Lieutenant Calder RSM:

A bridge was to be made over the Nive above Cambo. It was there 90 feet wide with low banks frequently inundated. – Goldfinch asked Mr Calder if he would undertake it with a few Sappers and some rough carpenters tools only – he said he would – well how will you do it? – why, I’ll cut a large mallet and drive a few piles.

Both these crossing were achieved with surprisingly little opposition. Wellington’s army was now split on both sides of the river Nive with lengthy communications between them. This appears to be what Soult had hoped for, and on successive days he attacked each formation separately. The first attack against Hope seems to have been unexpected and there was hard fighting before the French retreated. The following day, Soult moved his forces back through Bayonne and attacked Hill on the right bank of the Nive. Soult’s superior forces came very close to defeating Hill before reinforcements could arrive. The Allied situation was made more critical by the pontoon bridge at Villefranque being washed away and it was after noon on that day before it was repaired and reinforcements could move to support Hill.

Whilst these actions were taking place, the engineering services raced to stabilise the crossings across the river. Beresford reported to Wellington on 11 November that the pontoon bridge had not been completed the previous night and was still liable to be swamped by the rising river. Consequently, the bridge of boats that had also been thrown across the river could not be moved downstream to the preferred position at Villefranque. This work was under the command of Captain Henderson who had been in the area for a number of weeks and consequently knew it well. Henderson had recovered his reputation with Wellington after being removed from the repairs at Badajoz in late 1812, partly through his conspicuous gallantry at the siege of San Sebastian. The following day, Beresford was more confident but reported the bridges were still not exactly where he wanted them due to a lack of materials and anchors (to hold the pontoons in place against the fast-flowing rivers). He expected to improve them in the following days. Wellington was keen to get the main bridge at Ustaritz repaired as soon as possible so that these pontoons could be removed and placed in reserve for any new opportunity. Burgoyne recorded on 12 December that three bridges were in place at Herraritz, Ustaritz and Cambo. Anton, who served with the 42nd Foot, noted that ‘our artificers lost no time in making the necessary repairs [to the wooden bridge] for the passage of troops and stores’. Frazer also noted that ‘troops were filing over’ the bridge at Cambo ‘which had been hastily and inexpertly repaired’.

As before, once the situation stabilised, the Allied troops dug in. Cole was ordered to dam some tributaries on the Nive and construct breastworks and redoubts to strengthen his front, the main works to be at Garat’s House. The QMG also noted when issuing the orders that Cole would have to do his best as his company of RSM had been removed to work on the bridges. Other engineer officers continued to serve on the general’s staff, Lieutenant Peter Wright noting that ‘he had been drawing all day for Sir Rowland [Hill]’.

Following these engagements, the army went into cantonments through the worst of the winter, but the work of the engineers continued. Elphinstone was engaged in fortifying the area around the mouth of the Bidassoa as the river was to be used to supply the army and more importantly to deny it to the French. Keeping the various bridges in place was a constant challenge due to the bad weather and the torrents coming down the rivers, Frazer noting on 23 December that all the bridges across the Nive had been washed away but would soon be restored. Captain Wells RE had also been dispatched to Santona to assist the Spanish forces that were blockading the port.

Writing to his brother, Lieutenant Harry Jones gave some idea of the internal politics of the Corps under its new commander:

Oh what a difference in the spirit of our undertaking compared with the time of your Sir R. Fletcher. At the present while my division is busy strengthening its front by field works, he [Fletcher] would have been constantly moving about and giving every assistance required; whereas I suppose Col. Elphinstone does not go around the line once in a fortnight and when he does he is so much in a hurry and is so near sighted that he retains very little more than when he left his house. Ellicombe, upon the strength of Lord Wellington’s answer to Sir R. Fletcher when he recommended him for Brigade Major; still keeps the situation, very much to the annoyance of E————e who wishes to have Boteler and is always complaining of it. Ellicombe told him; unless he ordered him to give up the situation he should not do it.

Elphinstone himself had little good to say about anyone. He had waited anxiously to see if he would be mentioned in dispatches for the crossing of the Nive and was disappointed when he was not:

I am not seriously disappointed at not being mentioned, but he mentions the bridges and the attack on the Chateau D’Arcangues – therefore according to the old proverb he might have praised the bridge that carried him over … I send home by this pacquet a very fine military sketch of the position, to General Mann, but [I am] afraid it will be putting pearls before swine.

Having had a bit more time to think about it, he wrote home again:

I am not aware upon what occasion Lord Wellington can have said anything in my favour, but I assure you that he is so uncertain and violent with everybody that you are not certain for five minutes of retaining his good opinion. The only person I know of to compare him to in character is Dfezzan Pasha who had always his ante-room filled with people without noses or ears whom he called his marked men. I firmly believe that he sighs for the same power – a peace is necessary if it is only to put an end to his over grown power and dissolve this army, which is a complete mass of corruption.

Probably his most unpleasant comment was to his wife in January 1814, when he wrote: ‘Don’t you set fire to yourself as poor Dickson’s wife has done – though I don’t know that he would have been very sorry if it had not been put out. It is not being very charitable you will say.’ The only good point about this uncharitable comment is that for the first time he spells Dickson’s name correctly. Dickson’s wife had been involved in an accident in December 1813 and Dickson was receiving updates from the Royal Artillery headquarters on her condition and the care of his children.

In the days leading up to the crossing of the Adour, Elphinstone described his relationship with Wellington and his position in the army:

I assure you I now fair sumptuously every day, and as it happens at present that I am obliged to see a great many people having even Naval officers under my orders; my splendour has its effect. I have had two or three most extraordinary rows with the Peer [i.e. Wellington], but I believe I have come off the victor. The first arose from his being obliged to dismount his artillery to furnish horses for the pontoon train. He was perfectly furious and like a mad man; however I gave up no one point to him, and he personally asked me to dine with him the next day. The next day following he sent for me and took all the platforms we had, to make a bridge across the Adour by the Staff Corps. However, two days after, I received a letter from General Murray to desire I would make the bridge and that the Staff Corps were to be under my orders. Now that he finds he cannot get the better of me by argument he makes me report to him twice a day the progress of the work. It is really quite ridiculous to see us together; he tries all he can to get me to make him promises as to time and I as resolutely refuse it. I told him plainly yesterday [12 February 1813] I would not deceive him, and that I had no one ground upon which I could say when our preparations would be ready. You may depend upon it I am doing right.

Whether he was right or wrong, his behaviour would not have been appreciated by Wellington. Bridges and pontoons would remain a source of tension until the end of the war.