Swedes in other Militaries

Swedish instructors in white tropical helmets (at left and right) training artillerymen of the Persian Gendarmerie.

In Viking times there were Scandinavian warriors, Varangians, in the Byzantine lifeguard. Since that time Swedes have served in many other foreign armed forces. They have done so for economic gain as well as for the sake of military experience, to escape boredom, and even some through forced enrollment. With the coming of the 1800s political ideas became an important factor.

From the tenth century until the thirteenth century warriors from the Scandinavian lands traveled to Miklagård, the Viking name for the Byzantine city of Constantinople, today’s Turkish Istanbul. They wanted to be Varangians and be enrolled into the prestigious Väringjalid (the Varangian guard). Scandinavians, with their exotic weapons, were seen as the best guarantee for the security of the Byzantine leadership. In Persia (Iran) between 1910 and 1920 and in Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930s, Swedes came to be seen with the same great trust and confidence as the Varangians had been. Before we report on the twentieth century Varangians, however, we need to give an overview of their predecessors during the previous three centuries.

Up to 1814, the last time Sweden as a nation was at war, Swedes in the armed forces of foreign states were not an unknown phenomena, but because Sweden’s own military was more active in that period, there were fewer Swedes who joined the military of other states. In those days it was necessary to occasionally resort to the enrollment of thousands of German, Scottish, Irish, and Swiss mercenaries to reinforce the Swedish Army. Paradoxically enough, even at this time, Swedish units could be hired out by the Swedish Regent to foreign princes during a lull in the Swedish campaigns!

A rather exotic example of a Swede who himself chose to serve in foreign uniform during Sweden’s Great Power epoch is Nils Matsson Kiöping, who in 1650 went into the service of the Persian Shah and took part in his campaign against Afghanistan.

During the following century over 400 Swedish officers fought under the French flag. In the beginning they were mainly Swedish prisoners of war who in accordance with the custom of the time were offered to change prisoner status for war service. Later young Swedish officers came voluntarily to France to join a Swedish-led regiment there, that from 1742 was called “Royal Suédois” (Royal Swedish). At that time France led the world in military theory and the regiment also offered ample opportunities for practicing the art of war. Royal Suédois participated in the battle at Gibraltar in 1782, that strangely enough, was part of the American Revolutionary War.

Two Royal Suédois colonels were even more involved in the war that led to the foundation of the United States of America. Colonel Curt von Stedingk distinguished himself in close combat during the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1779. The Colonel and Count Axel von Fersen fought from 1780 to 1782 on the American side in the staff of French General de Rochambeau. The count then marched over 1,000 kilometers with the French forces in America. In October 1781 he took part in the capture of Yorktown. As General de Rochambeau’s personal interpreter he worked with General George Washington on three occasions. Today, however, he is more famous for his relationship with French Queen Marie Antoinette. Both von Fersen and von Stedingk were honored by General Washington himself with the hereditary Order of the Cincinnati.

Some 250 Swedish colleagues of the two colonels fought on the American side in French, Dutch, and local uniforms, to a great extent out of sympathy for the American rebels in their conflict with the British Empire.

Georg von Döbeln, future Swedish national hero, was also on his way to the American Revolutionary War, but the ship he sailed with changed its destination en route and sailed off to Asia. He thus had to content himself with fighting the British in India! During this same period at least 2,000 Swedes served as officers and crew within the Royal Navy of Britain and the British Merchant Fleet. It was not as a result of great sympathy for the politics of the British that led the Swedes to these ships, however, but rather the pay as well as professional interest.

The new category of Swedes in foreign war service—the ideologically motivated—appeared most clearly in the two Danish-German wars of 1848 to 1850 and 1864 when university students entered the battlefield under idealism’s banner. In the war fought from 1848 to 1850 some 260 Swedes fought on the side of Denmark. Barely half were career military. In the second phase of the clash, in 1864, almost twice as many Swedes served, and only one-fourth of them were military men. Not a single Swede is known to have fought on the German side in these wars.

During the Danish-German wars there was a craze for Scandinavia, called “Scandinavianism,” centered around Scandinavian history and unity. It was a deciding factor for many Swedes to sign up. This romantic idea of history is reflected very clearly in the medal that was struck in 1850 for former Swedish volunteers. It had a Viking motif on both the front and back side of the medal. In the second of the Danish-German wars the Swedish and Norwegian volunteers were assembled into a special unit called Strövkåren (Wandering corps). One of the Corps’ two companies was led by the future, very influential, Chief of the Swedish General Staff, Hugo Raab. A remnant of the strong Scandinavianist spirit of the mid-nineteenth century can be heard in the Swedish national Anthem words “I want to live, I want to die in Norden” (Norden being synonymous with the Nordic countries, that is, Scandinavia plus Finland and Iceland).

Even more Swedes participated in the Civil War in America. Over 3,500 served in the Union Army while several hundred were with the Confederates. These statistics, however, ought to be seen in the light of the fact that almost all were Swedish immigrants and many of them were offered rather impressive sums for enlistment. Forty Swedish officers, sergeants, and cadets did leave Sweden after the start of the war to join the military forces of the Northern States, though, among them a captain with the Dalarna Regiment, Ernst von Vegesack. He was much appreciated on the US side of the Atlantic and was made a brigadier general there (as was fellow Swede Charles Stohlbrand). After having become an American military hero at Antietam and Gettysburg, Ernst von Vegesack returned to Sweden and became chief of a military district.

The southern states also had two Swedish-American brigadier generals. Roger “Old Flintlock” Hanson was a Confederate brigadier of Swedish stock. Hanson commanded the 1st Kentucky Orphan Brigade and was mortally wounded on the last day of the battle of Stone’s River (Murfreesboro). Charles Dahlgren raised the 3d Brigade, Army of Mississippi, by his own means. When the war ended his slaves were taken from him and set free and he was not able to retain his plantation. Things went a lot better for his brother, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, who chose to fight for the opposite side!

The total number of Swedes killed in action during the American Civil War is not known. Three of them are forever honored in Sweden, however, at the Military Academy Chapel in the Karlberg Castle, because they had completed training at that institution.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 attracted a group of Swedes to sign up for France. Their total number has not been ascertained, but they were perhaps a dozen or two. What is known about them is that several of them were veterans of the Danish-German war of 1864 and at least three of them were career officers. Only a single Swedish volunteer on the German (Prussian) side has been identified.

In the next war with Swedish participation there were two new phenomena which we rather associate with the epoch of the World Wars: concentration camps and commando troops. Both of these innovations saw the light of day not in Europe during WWII, but four decades earlier in South Africa. In the beginning of October 1899, immediately after the start of the so-called Boer War in South Africa between Great Britain and the two Boer Republics, a group of Scandinavian guest workers, seamen, and immigrants in Pretoria decided to organize a common free corps against the British. This initiative was led by a Swedish railway engineer, Christer Uggla. A total of 113 men joined, of which forty-five were Swedes, twenty-four Danes, eighteen Finns, thirteen Norwegians, and thirteen “others.” Johannes Flygare, the son of a missionary, was appointed captain of the unit. Even though he was a civilian, he had some war experience from the Zulu War. His deputy was First Lieutenant Erik Stålberg from Sundsvall, the only Swede on the Boer side with proper military leadership training—he was a Swedish first sergeant.

The Corps was organized like most Boer units; as mounted infantry. The Transvaal Government supplied ox-drawn baggage trains, provisions, weapons, and ammunition. The participants were promised citizenship and some form of payment in the event of victory. Lieutenant Stålberg got a week to teach the men the essentials of military life. The majority of the Scandinavians had no experience with weapons or even in horsemanship.

The Scandinavian Corps carried out sabotage against the railroad lines and on 24 October hastily moved to storm the fortified city of Mafeking, where the defense was led by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, later the founder of the scout movement. The attack failed because of the lack of combat experience, and because of the machine guns of the British. Shortly thereafter, however, the Scandinavian volunteers were able to seize a British forward position outside the city, but they were unable to exploit this success.

At the end of November 1899 the Corps was sent to the south together with other Boer troops to stop a brigade of British elite troops—Scottish Regiments—on the way to relieve the besieged city of Kimberley. The Boers positioned themselves along the high ground called Magersfontein, to block the British advance. In the evening of 10 December most of the Scandinavians were placed a kilometer from the high ground in order to guard the main defensive force from a surprise attack. When the Boer General Piet Cronjé got information at three o’clock in the morning that the British were on the march directly towards his position, he ordered all his forward guard posts to be drawn back. The word did not reach the Scandinavians, however, and the result was a minor modern Thermopylae.

Despite an overwhelming superiority of forces and a monopoly on the machine guns it took the British several hours to take the Scandinavian position. There they found two who were not wounded, nineteen dead, and twenty-two wounded of whom a third were dying. In front of the Scandinavian position lay 279 dead and wounded British, mainly Scots. The British found it very hard to believe that the Scandinavians had so few men. In fact, they had had only seven more, who had succeeded in fighting through to the main position.

The remarkable stand of the Scandinavians was the result of an error. Had the order to retreat reached them they would presumably not have stood their ground, but this small battle contributed to stopping the British advance. That this did not change the outcome of the war was considered wholly unimportant, at least in Sweden. A hero cult arose around the Corps. The Swedish newspaper, Social-Demokraten, commented on the official Boer report about the Magersfontein front, “War is a calamity, wicked, but it would be foolish hypocrisy to not confess that we read with joy the lines…that deal with our Nordic countrymen.” Even The Times of London respectfully described the enemy Scandinavian Corps.

One of about ten Swedes on the other, that is, British, side during the Boer War was career officer Erland Mossberg. Completely in the spirit of the times it was Mossberg who took the initiative to erect a monument for the Scandinavian Corps—his former enemies—at the place where their greatest action took place.20 The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet supported the project. A seven-meter-high granite Old Norse Memorial Stone (Menhir) was presented by a Finnish company and decorated with a runiform ornament, an engraved valkyrie. Four smaller stones were placed around the pillar. The names of the fallen are listed on the warrior shields. The stone stands there to this day, on the hill called Magersfontein.

The Boer War, with the Scandinavian Thermopylae as a climax, captivated the Swedes and the action blended an admiration for “Swedish war bravado” with a broad European enthusiasm for the Boers, an anti-British sentiment, and a sense of Nordic unity. But the most significant aspect of the Scandinavian Corps is that not a single Swedish professional officer (not even a former one) joined the Boers. The Corps was made up of Swedish civilians (albeit one a reserve officer) who were sympathetic towards Boer Nationalism. Moreover, Swedish women, for the first time, appeared in foreign war service. Three South African War Participant medals were given to Swedish nurses who belonged to the Scandinavian Ambulance. The ambulance followed the Scandinavian Corps and was virtually part of it. The ambulance personnel were not only fired upon, but also taken prisoner by the British.

The contrast between the Swedish officers in the Royal Suédois and the amateurs of the Scandinavian Corps is great, but both came to have successors during World War I and II.


Polish Air Personnel in RAF Service

Whatever negative feelings Medhurst, Boyle, Sholto Douglas and the others may have harboured towards the Polish Air Force in the desperate summer of 1940 were substantially mollified by events come the winter. All of the Polish crews proved themselves worthy of allied status ten times over during the Battle of Britain, and though little criticisms remained – such as their tendency to monopolise the radios during combat flying – by 1941 all of the serious doubts had been swept away. Indeed, even in the summer, attitudes had been changing noticeably. At first Medhurst had insisted that the ‘French’ and ‘British’ Poles were not to be mixed in squadrons if at all possible, mainly to protect the latter from defeatist influences, but Gp Capt Leslie Hollinghurst, the Deputy Director of Organisation, recorded that: ‘as a result of closer acquaintance with the “new” Poles, they [Air Intelligence] have decided that they are not such bad fellows after all and have withdrawn their objection’. This view was reinforced during the autumn of 1940 when most of the senior RAF commanders and politicians from both countries conducted high-profile visits to the Polish stations, presenting medals, giving speeches, and generally talking up a relationship which was settling into a satisfactory condition.

Although the alliance was stabilising in military terms, the Poles still had two political issues which were not fully resolved from their point of view. The first was British assistance in establishing recruitment schemes abroad so that their very healthy core stock of air personnel would not be diminished by combat losses and unavoidable demobilisation due to age or disability. The second was the perpetual quest for independent status. The question of recruitment will be dealt with in Chapter Three, primarily because the Polish experience was broadly in line with that of the Czechoslovaks in that both groups suffered when they tried to export their enthusiasm to a largely disinterested North America. But, disappointing though these efforts ultimately were, the all-important need for prestige drove both of them into head-on confrontations with the British over the question of independence. It was a battle which the Poles eventually won, and one which the Czechs lost with great indignity.

Even by late 1940, the British were still reluctant to discontinue the practice of duplicating middle- and high-ranking posts within all the allied air forces (a not unreasonable decision considering the language difficulties and lack of a thorough knowledge of RAF practice on behalf of the allies), but this did not slow the political momentum behind Polish desires to achieve fully independent status. Success in this quest would be measured in various ways: (1) an agreement between the two nations that would formally enshrine the bilateral aspects of the alliance; (2) the creation of a separate Polish Air Force Inspectorate that would have full powers in the field of promotion, selection, training and administration; (3) equal, or at least substantial, representation at strategic level. This last point should not be confused with the creation of an independent stratum of command regarding missions and routine flying, for the Poles, as junior allies, were always prepared to follow the British lead when it came to active operations. Rather, as with their earlier requests for a seat on the Supreme War Council, the Poles felt entitled to a say in what course the war took, especially regarding operations or plans which affected the home territory. It was to be an unfulfilled objective, partly for political reasons on behalf of the British, many of which surfaced in the last years of the conflict, and partly because with the entry of the USA into the war after Pearl Harbor, that power automatically put many of the lesser groups into the shade, assuming an ever-greater dominance in strategic affairs which even Churchill had difficulty in resisting at times.

In 1940, however, no such obstacles existed, and it fell to the Polish High Command and political representatives to make the best possible case for the creation of independent armed forces. Indeed, all of the European allied powers felt entitled to independence in one form or another, and more often than not the air contingents were the focal point of their efforts. For its part, the War Office had no great objections to forming Army units which reflected the national character of each ally, but we should bear in mind that in 1940 there was no land war and it was relatively easy to create free-standing organisations which could, if need be, be smoothly integrated with the home Army. That was not the case in the air. Given the crises of that summer, and the obvious implications that air power would henceforth be a major strategic tool, the RAF felt wholly justified in its insistence that it retained as much control as possible over the allied groups. Equally, each allied government felt to a greater or lesser degree that the air units stood as elite representatives of their own national freedom and their determination to resist the invader, therefore the potential for conflict was vast.

As we have seen, the agreement to split the Polish air personnel between Britain and France was a separate issue dealt with in October 1939. However, the Polish terms of service were another matter, and the British side-stepped any unnecessary complications by simply rewording the Anglo-Polish naval agreement which legally formalised the collaboration at sea. This was not enough for the Poles, for in essence it meant that they were seen and described as an associated power simply assisting the British government with its war against Germany, when what they wanted, quite reasonably, was a level of international standing much higher than that. Even before the attack on France, Sikorski had been campaigning for greater recognition for the Polish presence to be embodied in the military agreements. He tried first with Chamberlain – meeting with little success – and then Churchill, who demonstrated that although the spirit was willing, the influence was weak. As far as Sikorski was concerned, Polish sovereignty rested largely upon the process of officer promotion and selection – a power which the British intended to reserve for themselves. As things stood in May 1940, the RAF had first and last say over who would receive commissions in the Polish section of the RAFVR – something which Sikorski strongly rejected. The British argument rested upon the constitutional point that only the King, ‘as advised by the Air Council, can promote officers belonging to that force’. Furious with this ill-judged and almost feudal declaration, Sikorski complained directly to Churchill, who put pressure on the Foreign Office to intervene. Within days the Air Ministry had relented, but not entirely, for the subsequent re-draft of the agreement merely permitted promotion to be considered by a joint board of Polish and British representatives, with the Poles having the final approval.

The air war over Britain that summer slightly delayed the negotiations leading towards the finished document, but by August all the outstanding issues had been resolved, or at least were in a state of compromise. The Poles had initially pushed for Polish military law to be applied in all cases, but this was refused by the Air Ministry with the not unsound argument that it would be unworkable where both nationalities were serving in the same squadron or on the same station. The compromise here was to insist that RAF law would apply at all times when a Polish individual was serving with the RAF in any capacity, and although in theory he would be subject to Polish military law, when the terms of Polish military law and Royal Air Force law differed, the latter would prevail. Furthermore, all disciplinary courts would consist of an equal number of British and Polish officers as judges, but with a British officer serving as president of the court and holding the casting vote. On the question of promotion, it was decided that all recommendations were to be generated by unit commanders then forwarded to the Polish High Command by the RAF for the former’s approval, but only if the RAF agreed with the recommendation in the first place. As a nod to Polish sovereignty, however, all men were permitted to take an oath of allegiance to the Polish Republic, and the agreement provided for the creation of an independent Polish Inspectorate theoretically responsible for all matters relating to the force, though in practice it represented the interface between the two air ministries, the primary channel of communication through which the RAF could monitor the condition of the Polish Air Force and, perhaps more importantly, the means by which the RAF could make its wishes known. But the Poles, and to some extent the British too, had taken for granted the creation of a formal Inspectorate as early as March 1940. In any case, it served both parties to have such a body in place: from the Polish side, it enabled them to monitor and maintain the development of the air force in exile, and from the British viewpoint, it relieved them of the burdensome task of day-to-day administration, allowing them to concentrate on the major issues of policy and deployment.

The first incumbent was Gen W.J. Kalkus, the existing head of the Inspectorate since September 1939, but when the transfers to Eastchurch were well under way, Polish requests to have him sent to Britain were at first rebuffed. The Directorate of Organisation was clearly displeased with the prospect of a senior commander viewing the shambles at Eastchurch, minuting Porri in March 1940, ‘[His visit] would not serve any useful purpose because any shortcomings that he might discover would certainly be well known to us’ – the implication being that the RAF could not stand before him covered in shame when as far as they were concerned they were only doing what was expected of them.

The attitudes changed when Davidson, the station commander at Eastchurch, supported the proposal and enlisted the help of the British Attaché in Paris. The latter described Kalkus as a man ‘with very pleasant manners’, the only serious drawback being that he spoke no English or French. Davidson concurred with this view, though he warned that the proposed Inspectorate might prove to be larger than imagined because the Poles had a few surplus officers which they wished to employ. However, the argument was clinched when the attaché added: ‘I should say that he is not a very strong man, and this impression is borne out by his nickname among his own people which is “the sheep in lion’s clothing”.’

This was more than enough to sway even the devout sceptics like Boyle who minuted all departments that Kalkus was clearly the man for the job, and that the creation of an Inspectorate within the RAFVR would ‘enhance the levels of control’ over the units in Britain. At a meeting in May, it was decided that Kalkus would be given the immediate rank of Air Commodore and have a staff of twelve, though there was still some foot-dragging over the powers he would be endowed with, and whether this would lead to a form of de facto independence by the back door. Davidson argued that the Inspectorate must be formed with all possible speed because the workload placed upon him was at times intolerable, and that the senior Polish officer, Capt Stachon, was forced to refer to his superiors in Paris before even the smallest decision could be taken. Then, in late May, AVM Paul Maltby, the AOC No. 24 (Training) Group, which shouldered most of the responsibility for the training programme at Eastchurch, wrote directly to the Air Council and complained about the expectations placed upon Davidson at Eastchurch:

[He] is becoming far too involved with all matters concerning the various Polish contingents in this country, no matter where they are stationed [and] he is being consulted not only by various branches of the Air Ministry and the Polish authorities, but even by politicians. I submit that it is quite beyond his capacity to command his station . . . if he is expected to act as an advisor on widespread policy matters at the same time.’

He closed by urging the creation of ‘some central authority’ at once, and henceforth all doubts were cast aside and Kalkus was formally installed at the beginning of June. If anything, this little episode demonstrates yet again that the British were totally unprepared for dealing with the Poles in any capacity, but also that any proposals for improving the situation had first to run the gauntlet of suspicion that by passing greater autonomy to the Polish High Command, the British would lose more of what little control they had to begin with.

The first Anglo-Polish Military Agreement was signed on 5 August 1940, with appropriate appendices covering the respective air, sea and land forces. Apart from defining the powers of the Polish Inspectorate, it also officially removed the entire contingent from the RAFVR and placed them under their own national banner. It went some way towards fulfilling Polish aspirations, but it had one crucial omission: it did not include any promise by the British to restore the territory of Poland once victory had been assured – something which did not pass unnoticed by the Poles. The preamble only committed the two governments ‘to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion’, a vague and slippery objective which meant that the British could avoid indelicate matters of territory and frontiers at the war’s end.

Furthermore, the Poles were not the only group whose postwar ambitions were kept at a distance by the British: the Czechoslovaks too were to discover that their new friends were inclined to shuffle and mumble when the question of ‘afterwards’ was raised, and it was even more galling to both these nations when the agreements with the other allied countries of Western Europe proudly proclaimed restoration and deliverance. This is one reason why the British preferred all of the national agreements to be kept secret between the contracting parties, and why they were never elevated to state treaties, for this would have meant parliamentary ratification, and therefore publicity. In short, although the various allied military agreements were, in the main, little more than carbon copies of each other, the essential differences lay in the amount of power each group had over its own forces, and what policies the British government intended to follow once the war had been won. Nevertheless, and perhaps wisely, the Poles did not seek further conflict over this matter, for had they done so they would have faced a wall of opposition from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. But in 1940, looking around at the grim state of the war, this was a minor point of contention compared to the very real business of getting on with the fighting.

In the years that followed, the Polish Air Force superbly demonstrated that getting on with the fighting was something it could do without prompting from the French, the British, or anyone else. By mid-1941, most of the doubts and suspicions of darker days had been dispelled by the sheer tenacity and determination of these men in exile, to the point where the RAF started to throw open hitherto shuttered doors to selected members of the Polish High Command. This still did not extend to what might be termed ‘secret information’ or strategic briefings, but when Sikorski requested that certain of his officers might serve for a time in Command or Group Headquarters so they might learn more about the central organisation of the RAF, both the DAFL and Portal (then the CAS) signalled their wholehearted concurrence. Polish officers were gradually seconded to British squadrons, and like senior officers in other allied forces, eventually placed in command of some of them.

The social dimension was also a positive one for the Poles. Zamoyski spends considerable time describing how attractive the Poles were to British women in the first half of the war, and there can be little doubt that the Polish airman or officer was very much an exotic creature until the arrival of the Americans in large numbers. But what he lacked in spending power, the Pole amply made up for in charm, ‘traditional’ values and sheer symbolism, for he represented merely by his existence in British uniform all that was mythically wonderful about Britain’s crusade against tyranny. The Czechoslovaks also enjoyed this backwash of sympathy, though perhaps their social acceptance was promoted by a pinch of guilt over the Munich affair. Men from both groups made friends easily in Britain; several hundred married British women. For a while, too, the Pole was a social accessory in the upper reaches of the British class system. The huge amount of radio and newspaper publicity generated by their successes in the air made a token Polish officer de rigueur at any cocktail party worth the name, and although things were to turn very sour indeed for the Poles by the war’s end, the eighteen months between the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor proved to be a happy hunting season for all the Slavs.

If the medals, the public acclaim and the sexual conquests were indicative of the bright side of the Polish exile, there were darker aspects which exercised the diplomatic skills of the politicians. The application of Polish military discipline raised some eyebrows in the service departments and Whitehall, for although the British were the final arbiters in matters of gross infringement, minor issues were dealt with at a local level and occasionally drew unfavourable comments regarding harsh treatment meted out to men who had for whatever reason managed to transgress the Polish codes of honour and service.

Part of the cause was the defeat of Poland itself, which led to an urgent need to rebuild and restore national pride through the service arms in exile. This led some Polish officers to interpret indolence, dissent or simply fatigue as evidence of cowardice or disloyalty, and there were examples of men being humiliated or punished for offences which would have attracted lesser reprimands in the British forces. The Air Ministry decided that this was a hangover from the pre-war days, declaring some of the older Polish officers to be ‘too rigid and inflexible in outlook’. In the early part of the war, the RAF applied pressure to the Polish High Command to transfer or reassign officers whose very presence gave rise to disciplinary problems in Polish squadrons, and they also adduced this conflict between ideals and codes of practice to explain much of the tension which had plagued the exiles in the Eastchurch era. Even as late as Christmas 1940, the British were still having difficulties integrating RAF officers into some Polish squadrons within the system of dual command, and it was not until the summer of 1941 that most of the problems had been resolved. By that time, the RAF had successfully collaborated with the Polish High Command to reduce or remove the small cohort of career officers whose enthusiasm for order had threatened the stability of some Polish squadrons.

The Polish air crews were unique among the European allies in exile because they alone were denied a triumphant return home at the end of the war. After nearly six years of bitter and intense fighting, their reward was to fall into the political abyss created by the sudden upsurge in tension between East and West, and as the major powers positioned themselves ready for a new confrontation, so the Poles were swept along virtually powerless to direct events.

They themselves were aware of what was happening – or likely to happen – as the war in Europe ended. A Polish forces magazine, Robotnik, published several letters from men who complained of anti-repatriation propaganda being spread by some officers. These scare tactics, generally consisting of blood-curdling warnings of deportation or internment by the communists, were interpreted by the Foreign Office as useful indications of the growing political divisions within the Polish forces, attitudes which had been slowly developing since January 1944, when in a meeting of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, at which a Polish representative was present, it became apparent that Poland would inevitably be occupied by Soviet forces after the defeat of Germany. ‘This had, not unnaturally, created a considerable commotion in Polish circles,’ ran a Foreign Office minute. ‘We had better deal with this dangerous rumour immediately. Our explanation would be that the Moscow Conference had a document before them – not subsequently agreed to – concerning the general administration of the liberated territories.’

The conference to which this rather unsettled note referred was the meeting of foreign ministers in the Soviet capital between 18 October and 30 October 1943. Their brief was to set the agenda for the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran at the end of November, and again the Polish government-in-exile tried in vain to have a voice. Polish–Soviet relations at this time were sour indeed. Stalin had used Polish outrage at the discovery of the massacre at Katyn to break off all diplomatic relations with the London group in April 1943, and by the end of that year the arrival of the Red Army in Polish territory was imminent. The Poles attempted to persuade Churchill to take up their case with Stalin, but the former was outflanked and isolated at Tehran by the other two leaders, and the latter had nothing to lose by ignoring the desires of the Polish government in London. In the event, the Tehran Conference decided that Poland would be shifted westwards on the map, with Stalin gaining enormous territories in the east, and the Poles being compensated by German land in the west. At Tehran, the carve-up of Poland had begun in earnest; in fact, the eventual dismemberment of all of Eastern Europe was set in motion there. When the news reached London, the Polish government redoubled its efforts to have the Western allies stand firm, but it was always going to be a fruitless exercise. The overwhelming need to have Stalin continue the war in the east and not make a separate peace with Hitler was enough incentive for Britain and America to petition him with little more than vague hopes for a sunny Polish future; anything concrete would have been waved aside. Furthermore, Churchill’s scheme for a second front rooted in a Balkan invasion was also scuppered at Tehran. Such an expedition might have brought some relief to Poland, or at least the troops of Western allies on her soil, but it was never to be. On the night of 3 January 1944, Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier, and there they were to remain for a long time.

Rumours of the talks in Moscow and Tehran gradually filtered down to the Polish forces in exile, and the de facto occupation of Poland by the Red Army made the rumours metamorphose into grim expectancy. However, this did not lead – as one might have expected – to a sudden downturn in morale. On the contrary, the commitment to the defeat of Germany and an honourable peace remained as high as ever in the Polish forces. But, like the Czechoslovaks, the pervasive effect of the Soviet advance made itself felt in political terms. The Polish government’s efforts to play down the dark reality of events at home by continually pointing to the fact that nothing had been firmly settled and that a satisfactory deal with Stalin was still possible led men to believe that victory might still mean freedom. That attitude was not to last long, however, because the true horror for the Polish people erupted on 1 August with the Warsaw uprising. Throughout the two months of struggle, the powerlessness of the Western allies to be of any assistance was forlornly monitored by the Polish forces in Britain and Europe, and although it is doubtful that the West could have provided any substantial military aid, Stalin’s refusal to allow Western planes to use Soviet airfields for supply drops merely confirmed in the minds of many thousands of Poles that they had been sold out in the West, leaving their beleaguered homeland to be inexorably drawn into the Soviet orbit.

The Warsaw uprising and its subsequent failure dealt a shattering blow to Polish morale. Worse still, other exiles alongside whom they had fought for five years were gleefully anticipating their own return home. August 1944 had seen Gen de Gaulle, dodging Vichy snipers, marching in triumph through Paris; the battle for Belgium, though still with all too much life left in it, was going to be won sooner or later; and also in August, the Free Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade began the liberation of the Netherlands, and it was only the allied failure at Arnhem which greatly stifled the process. Nevertheless, the war was clearly being won; Germans were on the run all over Europe, and yet, as one Polish pilot said: ‘As we sat around the radio, we died a little during each of those 63 days of the rising.’ The slaughter and hideous reprisals meted out by the Germans left Warsaw as little more than an open wound, and it was all the more unbearable with so much joy all around.

It was this pain and uncertainty about what the future held which triggered the factious elements within the Polish forces. As the last full year of the war came to a close, the Chiefs of Staff report for the final quarter of 1944 merely recorded the continuation of ‘restlessness’ in the Polish Air Force, but added: ‘It has not weakened either spirit or discipline in the squadrons.’ This was true enough, but there were deeper elements at work in the minds of men who had given so much for what appeared to be so little. For it seemed to many that the cause had been lost, and that their allies had given their consent to Poland being swallowed by a hostile power. Then the final blow to Polish hearts was cruelly delivered – not by Britain, America or even Stalin – but by those very ordinary people who had once been their unreserved champions: the British public.

Soldier and Warrior

Soldiers are warriors who fight for pay and, as such, are comparative latecomers to the field of human conflict. The warrior may be as old as human society itself, born of its need to protect family, territory and possessions against the greed and envy of neighbours.

When it was that men first learnt to turn their tools and weapons of the chase against each other we cannot now guess. Warfare of an endemic sort is a feature of tribal relations among the most primitive peoples surviving into our own age. But the purpose of such warfare is obscure and its conduct marked by little loss of life. About five thousand years ago, however, in those fertile areas of the world where men were simultaneously learning to fashion their implements from metal, to communicate in written symbols and to farm their land by co-operative effort, the nature of warfare underwent a functional change. Uniformly armed bodies of men obeying a common leadership came into being and began to fight in an organized and purposive manner.

These earliest warrior types were foot soldiers – infantrymen, as we would call them today – armed with clubs, spears and daggers, but also with close -range missile weapons, javelins, slings and the short bow. It was with such weapons that the peasant and city militias of early Egypt, Sumeria and Assyria protected and extended their irrigated lands. Such armies were temporary, however, called together only when need arose, and narrow in their campaigning range, since means neither of transport nor supply were well enough developed to permit extensive expeditions of conquest.

About 2000 B. C., however, warfare underwent a second revolution, as important as and more dramatic than the metallurgical revolution which had given man effective weapons. Somewhere on the southern fringes of the great steppe of Central Asia the horse was tamed for domestic use. Initially the driven horse – it was not yet robust enough to be ridden – fulfilled a merely auxiliary military role. But intense technological experimentation provided its masters, at some time around 1700 B. C., with the chariot. Light enough to be drawn across country, strong enough to withstand the stress and strain of a charge over rough ground, and stable enough to allow its passenger to handle missile weapons from its platform, it empowered its owner with almost irresistible force against pedestrian opponents. Charioteers literally carried all before them, so that soon after 1700 B. C. they had established ‘chariot empires’ around the whole temperate periphery of the steppe heartland – in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Persia, northern India, northern China and Western Europe.

But the chariot empires were to prove short-lived. The technology on which they were based consumed too large a proportion of the rare metals and skills available for their warrior classes to be anything but an aristocratic minority imposed on the subordinate populations they ruled. The dissemination of iron tools and weapons, which became available in abundance about 1000 B. C., returned military power to the peasantry and townspeople of the world’s fertile regions. Out of the warrior masses that this iron revolution brought into being the traditional agricultural empires – in Egypt, Assyria and China – were restored. At first their military- strength rested on the armies of foot soldiers that they deployed. But about 900 B. C. a new sort of warrior made his appearance. He was a man who derived his power from a fourth military revolution, that of the adaptation of the horse to riding.

Selective breeding from chosen stallions out of prized mares probably underlay this ‘cavalry revolution’. But the first ridden horses, bred by the nomad peoples of the steppe, were still not strong enough in the back to endow their rider with the capacity for shock action that would make them masters of the battlefield. The steppe pony, though it would carry its master on a thousand raiding expeditions into the civilized world from 600 B. C. to 1500 A. D., was essentially no more than a mobile platform for the archery at which the nomad peoples became so adept. Of far wider military significance was the appearance of the ‘great horse’ which the warriors of the Persian empire developed from 600 B. C. onwards. Large and strong enough to bear an armoured man in the line of battle, its strength underpinned the power of the Persian empire throughout its heyday, endowed Alexander the Great and his Companions with the means by which they conquered the Persian emperor’s dominions, and assured the empire’s survival in its long years of struggle against Rome.

The great horse and his armoured rider would dominate wide sectors of the civilized world until the application of effective firearms to warfare in the sixteenth century A. D. Between them they helped to preserve the Byzantine half of the Roman empire into the fifteenth century and to found the Christian successor states of its western regions on a secure basis. The Teutonic warriors who overran the West in the fifth century A. D. were foot soldiers in the old tradition. By the eighth century they had acquired the stirrup – instrument of a minor technical revolution in its own right – from the steppe nomads and were commonly riding to battle, armoured, on great horses. Out of that military development a whole social order was born in Western Europe, an order based on the social dominance of the peasantry by the armoured warriors who protected them. ‘Feudalism’ is the word historians have adopted to describe it, a word derived from the dual relation- ship sustained by the mounted warrior with those above and below him. From his overlord he held his land in ‘feu’, a contract which obliged him to come armed and mounted for war when called upon to do so. To his underlings he offered security against the depredations of other feudal warriors and defence from the attack of hostile outsiders – Vikings, Muslim invaders, steppe raiders – who sought to penetrate the boundaries of Christendom.

As Christendom waxed in strength and self-confidence, its warriors heeded the call to carry their military prowess beyond its frontiers and against the enemies whom hitherto they had always met on the defensive. In the crusading era, from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, Christian knights rode against the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land and the pagan Slavs of Europe’s eastern boundary. During the thirteenth century the easternmost defenders of Christendom had a close call with the most formidable of the steppe nomad armies ever to threaten Europe, when Genghis Khan’s horde approached its southern gateway in Hungary. Already the rulers of the largest empire the world had yet known, the Mongols might have succeeded in extending its frontiers into the lands dominated by the riders of the great horse, had it not been for the death in 1241 of their king, Ogotai, at the critical moment.

Armoured horsemen and steppe nomads alike were, however, approaching the term of their power precisely at the moment when it seemed at its most extensive. Within three hundred years of the fall of the Crusader Kingdoms in Palestine and the withdrawal of the Mongols from Central Europe, a fifth military revolution brought the long dominance of the horseman in warfare to an end. Gunpowder, which allowed the warrior to substitute chemical for muscular energy in the management of his weapons, had been discovered in China in the twelfth century and, independently, in Europe in the fourteenth. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the development of both handguns and artillery had reached a stage which robbed horse and rider of their freedom to move unchallenged about the battlefield, and returned military dominance to the infantryman.

Not only to the infantryman; it had long been a major element in the armoured horseman’s control of his fellow men that his tactical prowess allowed him to build and occupy fortified strong places. Artillery brought such knights’ castles crashing down by the hundred in the sixteenth century, subordinating their occupants to the will of the few dynastic rulers rich enough to own guns in quantity. In the place of these ruins, which now dotted the landscape of feudal Europe, the new rulers built frontier and civic fortresses which protected their domains against invasion and their richest urban centres against domestic rebellion.

These fortifications were the handiwork of a new breed of military engineers, who built not by rule of thumb but on mathematical principles. Geometrical calculation made their ‘bastion forts’ death traps for infantry to attack unsupported; when artillery joined the assault, the strength of the defences and the scientific siting of their gun positions ensured that sieges, even if successfully concluded, were long and costly. The development of a step-by-step technique of offensive siege engineering gradually empowered assaulting armies with means to overcome such fortification systems. But, extended as that development was over nearly two centuries, the overall effect of scientific fortification engineering was to consolidate the territories of the successful dynastic states and entrench the power of the monarchies that ruled them.

The spread of such fortification systems did not, however, prevent those monarchies from waging war. On the contrary; though fortifications reduced the room for manoeuvre in the border regions, their indirect enhancement of state power, particularly for the raising of revenue, allowed kings to finance armies which were bigger and better equipped than any seen in the West since the collapse of the Roman empire. Campaigns, in consequence, actually increased in duration and reach, and battles in scale and intensity, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The principal medium of such military effort, outside the fortified zones, was supplied, as we have seen, by infantry. Gunpowder had made the infantryman sovereign in warfare, so that infantry now became, in a commonly used chess analog- ‘the Queen of the battlefield’. In the early half of the gunpowder period, pikemen continued to complement the handgunner’s function. By the late seventeenth century, when the musketeer had acquired the bayonet, which made his firearm also an effective edged weapon, he took the field unsupported. Artillery was not yet mobile enough to keep pace on the field with the infantry’s movements; cavalry, though effective when opposing infantry already broken by fire, and indispensable in the pursuit, was too fragile an arm to risk against massed musketry.

From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, therefore, European campaigning was dominated by the foot soldier. And, increasingly, he was the permanently employed servant of one royal master – a ‘regular’ soldier, armed and clothed in a uniform manner. The first such soldiers had appeared in numbers in the employ of the Spanish kings at the end of the fifteenth century. France and the Habsburg lands had been the next monarchies to establish large regular armies. By the end of the seventeenth century they were the distinctive mark of all kingdoms which aspired to great power status. The populations of regions too small, remote or poor to maintain armies of their own – Switzerland, Scotland, the Balkan borderlands – contributed to the new military labour market by furnishing mercenary regiments which were hired and maintained by the rich states on a regular basis.

The model on which the bodies of regular infantry were based was still that of the old mercenary companies of the late Middle Ages, in that the tactical unit remained the company, commanded by a Captain, with a lieutenant and sergeant- major as his principal assistants. Under the new dispensation, however, the rule or ‘regiment’ of a Colonel, appointed by the King, was imposed on groups of companies for administrative purposes. These regiments, about a thousand men strong, became the principal instrument through which the European states settled their religious, dynastic and political differences from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Clad in white by the French and Habsburg Kings, red by the English, blue by the Prussian – an important newcomer to the European military scene – their long columns, swinging forward ten or fifteen miles a day in cadenced step to the rhythm of their regimental drums and fifes, emerged each campaigning season from winter quarters to manoeuvre against each other around Europe’s campaigning grounds and, when advantage promised or escape was denied, to form against each other in serried ranks and put the issue to the test of volley and bayonet charge.

The primacy of the regular infantryman was somewhat diminished by the appearance of mobile battlefield artillery at the end of the eighteenth century. In the battles of the French Revolution and Empire, such artillery was frequently pushed forward to ranges at which massed infantry suffered grievously from its fire, allowing cavalry to exploit the damage done. Resolute infantry which kept its ranks closed nevertheless remained impervious to successful attack by any save its own kind. And when drilled infantry, transported by seapower to the world beyond Europe, met armies not yet schooled to its standards of discipline, the outcome of such exchanges was even more arresting. Quite tiny armies of Europeans proved able to devastate, for example, vast hosts of soldiers deployed by the Mogul emperors of India, with results that would transform the world balance of power.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the technological equilibrium which had endowed the European infantryman with his battle -winning capacity was suddenly upset. New firearms, rifled to enhance accuracy at unprecedented ranges and then furnished with a magazine to decuple firepower, rendered close- order infantry tactics not merely ineffective but dangerous and self-defeating. The character of the battles of the American Civil War, 1861-65, had issued that warning in stark terms. Those fought in Europe and in its dependencies during 1866-1913 repeated it in even more threatening form. By the end of the first decade ot the twentieth century it was clear to any dispassionate observer that the era of the primacy of man in warfare was drawing to a close and that the era of the primacy of the machine was at hand.

Most professional observers were, however, not dispassionate. Despite the appearance of the machine-gun, which multiplied the firepower of an infantry regiment tenfold, of quick-firing artillery, which made mass tactics suicidal, and of the aeroplane, which immediately extended an army’s daily scouting range beyond that which cavalry could reach in a week, and promised an offensive effect of which only visionaries had hitherto dreamt, the traditional military mind clung to traditional military methods. Cavalrymen, recruited from descendants of or aspirants to the old feudal class, continued to insist that the mounted warrior was ultimately the deciding instrument of battle. Infantrymen argued that mass tactics provided the most rapid, and therefore the best, means of bringing issues in combat to a conclusion. Even gunners, whom their new weapons, if employed from a distance, endowed with battle -winning power, sought opportunities to engage the enemy at point-blank range, where their gun crews and teams were exposed to disabling counter-fire. In the teeth of a technological revolution, as it were, Europe’s professional soldiers sought to wage future war by the methods of the past rather than of the age to come.

They, and those who obeyed their orders, were to pay a terrible price for this obscurantism. When war enfolded Europe in its grasp in August 1914, the huge regular armies of the combatant states – France, Germany, Russia and Austria each fielded armies several million strong and Britain promised to do so – beat each other into bloody immobility within three months of the outbreak. Overnight the military engineer, expert in the design and construction of fortified positions, resumed the place of importance he had held in his heyday; traditional fortresses had been overwhelmed in the opening moves of the war, but field entrenchments on a scale never before seen had appeared on all fronts and were to determine the nature of the fighting across them. The gunner, too, found his role enormously enhanced. The artilleries of all the armies began a vast expansion, particularly with howitzers of heavy calibres. Within two years of the war’s outbreak, it would be common practice to prepare infantry attacks with bombardments that consumed a million shells in a few days of fighting.

Yet neither field engineering nor large-scale gunnery sufficed to solve the problem of the First World War; the former could not fully protect defending infantry from the latter, which in turn generally failed to break a way through for the attacker. Two years of heartbreaking trench fighting established those facts beyond doubt. New means and methods were needed to open the front. In the third year of the war they appeared, when the British army unveiled the tank and committed it to action with infantry trained to exploit the effect it created.

From the outset, the tank aroused the strongest loyalties among tank men and excited revolutionary ideas about how it should be employed. Twice during the First World War, at Cambrai in 1917 and Amiens in 1918, sufficient numbers of tanks were made available for a mass armoured breakthrough to be essayed. In neither case was it wholly successful. The machine itself had not yet reached the stage of development at which it could achieve what was hoped for it. By 1939, however, its technical imperfections had been overcome and the German army in particular had reorganized its order of battle and rewritten its fighting doctrine to profit fully from the tank’s potentiality. The resulting strategy, to be hailed as ‘Blitzkrieg’ – lightning war – brought the Germans a whirlwind triumph in the West in 1940 and the Russian army to its knees in 1941. The machine age in warfare did indeed seem to promise victory almost without cost to the attacker who made the right technical choice and backed his judgement with deeds.

The Germans reinforced their success on land with a brilliant and convergent effort from the air. The aeroplane had played a minor role in the First World War as an observation platform, protected by specialized fighting machines which occasionally flew ground attack missions in the later trench offensives. By 1939 the German air force was equipped with three thousand fighters and bombers of advanced performance, all designed to support the army’s tank units in offensive operations. Additionally, it deployed a large force of tactical transport aircraft, some dedicated to fly and drop its newly raised units of parachute assault infantry behind enemy lines. These parachutists, supplemented by glider-borne infantry, were to intervene in the 1940 campaign with spectacular effect against strongpoints in Belgium and Holland.

Tanks, tactical aircraft, self-propelled artillery, motorized infantry; these elements of machine-age warfare were to invest its operations with the rapidity and reach not seen since the irruptions of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. And while the steppe horsemen merely slew and plundered, the behemoth armies of Blitzkrieg crushed all opposition they encountered, devastating the countryside over which they passed and laying waste the towns and cities that stood in their path. For the opening years of the Second World War, it seemed that armies organized on the Blitzkrieg principle were unstoppable and invincible, and that a total German victory was inevitable.

But the pendulum swing of technical riposte then came into play. During the two years in which Germany’s tank and air forces had rampaged across the battlefields, the governments and industries of its surviving opponents had bent all efforts to replicating the armouries and organizations deployed against them. By 1942 Russia and Britain had raised large armoured and tactical air forces of their own, to which were then joined those furnished by the mighty and swelling industrial power of the United States. By 1943, the military balance of force in the world stood in equilibrium. Rapidly thereafter it swung the way of Germany’s enemies, whose output exceeded hers some six times. By 1945 British, American and Russian tank armies had broached her frontiers and stood on her soil, while her cities and industry crumbled under the weight of their strategic air attack. Germany, the inventor of Blitzkrieg, had in her turn been blitzkrieged, and, through the iron laws of attrition that the technique had been supposed to evade, reduced to humiliating and agonized defeat.

Wartare had proved too crude and brutal a medium of human relationship to be revolutionized by mere technical ingenuity. Yet that did not mean that, in the post-war world, the search would not continue for military success without proportionate military outlay. The renaissance of irregular forces had been a noted feature of the Second World War – commandos, parachutists, long-range penetration units, subversive teams, guerrilla liaison units. The Western allies had suffused German-occupied Europe with irregulars of all sorts, while the Soviet Union had maintained large partisan units in the German rear in Russia. Both had encouraged and sustained guerrilla forces inside areas they could not immediately reach with their own regular units, as the British and Americans had also done in Japanese-occupied Asia. The rise of nationalist guerrilla movements in the remnants of the European colonial empires after 1945 – in Palestine, Indo-China, Malaysia, Algeria, Arabia, Southern Africa – prompted the states which had, as they believed, acquired expertise in irregular warfare against the Germans to mobilize the same technique against these revolutionary nationalists.

The impulse to fight fire with fire was almost uniformly unsuccessful. The British Special Air Service achieved limited dominance over the weak Malayan guerrillas in remote areas, later to be repeated against Indonesian infiltrators in Borneo. The French founded and ran anti-nationalist guerrilla groups in Algeria and Indo- China, in the latter territory later to be reformed by the Americans. The Rhodesian army conducted deep penetration operations against African guerrilla bases lying beyond the country’s borders. But all. with allowance for some British success, eventually failed in staving off the inevitable. Elite forces, however dedicated and well-trained, lack the capacity to defeat guerrillas fighting on their own ground with the support, however obtained and sustained, of the local population.

That is not to say that guerrilla warfare is what Clausewitz would have called ‘a stronger form’ than conventional war. On the contrary; despite much political propaganda and ill-informed journalism lauding the cunning and skill of guerrilla fighters in the ‘wars of national liberation’ which have been so widely fought since 1945, they have had success only when heavily supported by conventional forces, or when established authority was ripe for defeat, and then always through methods that inflicted appalling hardship and suffering on the civilian population caught between the millstones of rebellion and repression.

Hardship and suffering are inseparable from the human experience of war; it is, indeed, war’s purpose that humanity should suffer, to the point when one side is unwilling or unable to sustain the strain. That strain is frequently offset by material and spiritual alleviations. War generates a sense of unity, of pride, of identity, of excitement. Its material demands often generate prosperity, at least in the short term, by mobilizing the resources of the combatants to the full, by stimulating state expenditure and by absorbing labour previously unemployed. But, in wars fought to a decisive conclusion, costs almost always outweigh benefits, and such costs are measured in death, wounds and profound personal suffering.

Families and localities experience such suffering through the loss of those who do not return from the fighting. Soldiers experience that suffering directly. The fear of death is the soldier’s universal lot. So, too, is the fear of wounding, which, for soldiers of the ‘teeth arms’, is all too often realized; in the British infantry of the First World War, four out of every nine soldiers who reached the front became casualties. How he may be wounded and how he will be treated have, therefore, always preoccupied the soldier, for whom the quality of his army’s medical service has consequently been as important as that of his weapons or of his leadership. In some of the earliest military contracts that have come down to us, sworn between Greek mercenaries of the third century B. C. and their employers, the provision of adequate medical care ranked among the principal terms.

Yet medical care, almost until our own century, could not be adequate. Surgery, advances in which were always stimulated by warfare, could repair simple, clean wounds. But battle wounds are frequently deep and complex and easily infected by contact with clothing and the soil; gangrene, for example, a common outcome of wounds suffered in the First World War, is the consequence of falling with an open wound on to tilled ground that has been fertilized with animal manure. Fatalities in a unit that had been in action were therefore often higher on the days following a battle than on the day of fighting itself, as those who had suffered wounds not immediately fatal succumbed to their after-effects. Not until disinfectants came into common use after 1850 did this pattern begin to reverse itself; while the real improvement in the prognosis of wound treatment had to await the introduction of antibiotics, blood transfusion and intensive resuscitation during the Second World War. And by then refinements in the nature of wounding agents, particularly those producing intense blast, burn and high fragmentation effect, were causing wounds graver than any with which military medical services had yet had to deal. ‘A Blighty One’ – the sort of simple, disabling wound which soldiers of the First World War had welcomed as an honourable passport off the battlefield – was becoming ever more elusive.

How does the soldier, beset by the danger of death, fear of wounds and the greatly increased risk of succumbing to disease which membership of an army has entailed for most of military history, sustain his will to combat? Fighting spirit is the mood a commander strives most earnestly to generate and sustain in his army. Proper concern for his troops’ welfare, by provision of good and regular food, pay and comforts – what are called the ‘sinews of war’ – is one means to it. Exhortation is another; many great commanders have been noted orators, skilled in appealing to the pride, patriotism and loyalty of their men and calculating, too, in their promises of fame and material reward. Punishment, of course, always threatens the soldier who will not yield to such appeals; ‘pay well, command well, hang well’ was Sir Ralph Hopton’s summary of the seventeenth-century general’s art and hangmen or their equivalents have found their place in all the armies of history.

But no general can afford to hang too extravagantly in the face of disobedience or cowardice; that will transform a bad army into a mutinous one. The wise general seeks, on the contrary, to make his men obey not because he makes them but because they so wish. And the most effective means of attaining that state of consent is by fostering among them bonds of loyalty and regard for each other too strong for the strains of battle to break. ‘Small group cohesion’ is what modern armies call this relationship. Whatever it is called, it has existed in good armies since the beginning of time. The hoplites of the Greek city-state militias took their place in the phalanx at the side of neighbours whose good opinion counted more strongly with them than fear of the enemy. The Roman legions made their smallest tactical unit the tentful of men who messed together throughout their service. In the mediaeval ‘lance’, neither knight, squire nor servant could flinch before the enemy without being damned for good in the eyes of the others. Regular armies made the platoon or company the unit of both of comradeship and firepower. And in the great conscript armies of our century, drafts of reservists have been trained together from the start of their service to foster that comradeship between them they will need to see them through the fires of combat.

This ‘buddy system’, based, in the words of the American military theorist S. L. A. Marshall, on a man’s fear of losing ‘what he holds more dear than life itself, his reputation as a man among other men’, seems ultimately to be what armours the individual against the terrible experience of war. It is felt most strongly by those soldiers whose duty brings them closest to the point of danger – the infantryman, the cavalryman, in our own age the tank man. It sustains the gunner, the engineer, the airman when their missions bring them within the orbit of the enemy’s firepower. It motivates the humbler servants of the fighting soldier, who work the sinews of war, and are often as much in danger as those at the front. It is life blood to the irregular, whose isolation and exposure put him more permanently at risk than any other sort of soldier.

Perhaps only the commander stands outside its influence, since for him there can be no comradeship, no shared danger, no dependence upon others when risk threatens and disaster must be braved out and stared down. His is sometimes the most extreme because the loneliest of all predicaments that a soldier undergoes and his the most total obloquy should he be proved unequal to bearing it. But he is one, nevertheless, with his soldiers in undergoing a predicament. The exact nature of that experience, and of its many variants – as known by infantryman, cavalryman, tank man, gunner, sapper, aircrew, irregular…


Although initially hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany rapidly developed a system of highly effective antiaircraft weapons. An early attempt, adopted in 1928, the 75mm FlaK38 fired a 14-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. In the decade following World War I, Krupp arranged with the Swedish arms giant Bofors to allow its engineers to work secretly on new designs in Sweden. One of the most successful artillery pieces of all time came about as a result of that arrangement-the famous German Eighty-Eight. Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, combat experiences in the Spanish Civil War and early World War II proved the Eighty-Eight’s versatility in other applications. By war’s end, German designers had also adapted it to antitank, tank, and conventional field applications. The first test model was assembled in 1931, and after trials the new gun went into ser- vice in 1933 as the caliber 88mm FlaK18. With a veteran crew it achieved a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The FlaK18 fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 26,247 feet, and in a ground role it achieved a range of 9.2 miles.

Krupp engineers continued to improve the FlaK18 and also redesigned it to ease its manufacture. The redesigned Eighty-Eight entered service in 1937 as the Flak36 and saw considerable service with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Having proved the gun’s effectiveness as a ground weapon in Spain, Krupp again improved the Eighty-Eight, by adding ground sights and pro- viding high-explosive shells for field use. Firing high-explosive and armor-piercing ammunition, the Eighty-Eight further proved itself against British armor in North Africa in 1941-1942. As the war progressed, it became increasingly necessary to increase German tank armament to match the heavy guns and armor of the new Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front. That necessity resulted in slight modifications to the basic Eighty-Eight design, which resulted in the Kwk36 (Kampfwagen Kanone) and the Kwk43, for use in Tiger tanks and self-propelled guns.

Other German antiaircraft guns included the 37mm Flak18 and 36/37 series, which entered service in 1935 and, at 160 rpm, fired a 1.5-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 15,750 feet. First introduced in 1938 as the Flak38 and improved in 1939 as the Flak39, the semiautomatic 105mm antiaircraft gun fired a 33-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,400 feet. More than 2,000 Flak39s were manufactured during World War II. Adopted in 1941, the automatic 50mm FlaK41 was an intermediate antiaircraft gun effective at 18,000 feet and reaching a maximum ceiling of 59,528 feet firing a 4.8-pound shell. Despite a relatively unstable carriage, the FlaK41 was a good weapon and was popular with its crews. It later became the starting point for a more advanced 55mm gun that incorporated a comprehensive fire control system yet did not reach production by the war’s end. Heavy German antiaircraft weapons also included the semiautomatic 88mm FlaK41, a Rheinmetall-Borsig variation of Krupp’s famous Eighty-Eight designed primarily for antiaircraft use. It entered service in 1943 and, mounted on a revolving base, traversed 360 degrees and fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 36,213 feet. In a ground role it achieved a range of 21,544 yards. Adopted in 1942, the FlaK40 had a 128mm barrel with a semiautomatic horizontal sliding block. The Flak40 fired a 57-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 48,556 feet.


The appearance of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units on the battlefields of Europe and Africa in a conventional artillery role was not due to any personal ambition of the Reichsmarschall, but rather to a sound and admirable flexibility of thought on the part of the German staff. So often ignorantly criticized for rigidness, the Germans, in their willingness to experiment with combat techniques, compare very favourably with certain episodes in the record of the Allied command.

The superb 8·8 cm anti-aircraft gun developed by Krupps in the early 1930s first appeared at the front line in Spain during 1936, equipping Flak batteries of the German expeditionary force. (It was entirely logical that anti-aircraft artillery should fall under Luftwaffe control, not least because of the importance of close technical liaison.) ‘Flak’ has come into common English usage, and will be used throughout this text; it is a contraction of Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone, ‘anti-aircraft cannon’. The version used in Spain, properly termed the 8·8 cm Flak 18, was followed in 1937 by the improved Flak 36 model, which had provision for the speedy changing of barrels, and a new and significant wheeled carriage designated Sonderanhänger 201. The normal ground mounting was of cruciform design; for travelling the side arms were folded upwards and wheeled bogies fitted to the long arms. The 201 mounting allowed the gun to fire on ground targets without being freed from the bogies and winched down to ground level; the brakes were applied, the wheels chocked, the side arms of the cruciform mounting folded down and the ‘feet’ at their extremities winched down to brace against the ground – and the gun was ready for action. It is not known who first suggested that the gun was too versatile to be confined to flying targets, but he was certainly a soldier of some vision; that battlefield use of the gun played a part in staff thinking from an early stage is confirmed by the fact that from 1940 onwards armoured shields to protect the crew during ground combat were fitted to new guns, and fitted retrospectively to many Flak 18s.

The Luftwaffe Flak regiments and batteries operated in great numbers throughout the war, and with enormous success. To detail all these units is frankly beyond the author’s competence and would serve little purpose; but perhaps it is valid to consider one isolated campaign – that in North Africa.

In the mobile desert warfare of which the Germans of Rommel’s Panzerarmee soon showed themselves to be masters, the Flak played a vital part. Supply and replacement problems haunted Rommel almost from the first – his uniquely vulnerable lines of communication lay across a Mediterranean ranged by Allied aircraft from Malta and submarines from Malta and Gibraltar – and although his precious tanks were superior in quality to all Allied equipment until the very end of the campaign, their numbers were never as high as he could have wished. To conserve the PzKpfw IIIs and IVs of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, he evolved a deadly technique.

It has been said that despite the glamorous image of the tank columns which churned across the Western Desert, the real kings of the African battlefields were the landmine and the anti-tank gun. The greatest of these was the ‘eighty-eight’; it was extremely mobile and could operate well forward with the advanced armoured squadrons. It was normally towed by the heavy SdKfz 7 half- track; this powerful vehicle could accommodate the entire crew of eleven (layer, trainer, breech-worker, fuse-setter, five ammunition numbers, commander and driver) and their personal equipment, a good supply of ammunition for immediate use, and reserves of fuel. Thus, once a target was sighted, the gun could be got into action very quickly. Its impressive rate of fire – between fifteen and twenty rounds a minute – was combined with great range and accuracy. Maximum low-trajectory range was 16,500 yards, and the 21-lb armour-piercing round could kill a tank at up to 3,000 yards – three times the range of the best Allied equipment. Its air-burst high-explosive round was notably effective against infantry. In the ‘eighty-eight’, Rommel had a deadly anti- tank weapon, a fine anti-aircraft gun, and a field-piece capable of augmenting conventional barrages with great speed and accuracy, all rolled into one supremely functional piece of metal.

The most frightening and effective use of the gun was in Rommel’s famous ‘Flak front’. In the face of advancing enemy armour the Luftwaffe regiments would be sent right forward and dug in to ground level; the gun was easy to conceal, as is any relatively small piece of equipment at ground level under the peculiar light conditions of the desert, and its rounds used a flashless propellant. A few troops of tanks would probe forward, making contact with the British armour and then withdrawing, luring the Grants and Crusaders within range of the trap. Once they were comfortably lined up the Flak would methodically decimate them; their own short-range guns were useless, their attackers were virtually invisible, and their casualties were frequently appalling. At its anti-tank debut in the Battle of Sollum in June 1941 the ‘eighty-eight’ is claimed to have destroyed 123 out of 238 British tanks attacking the Afrika Korps position in Halfaya (‘Hellfire’) Pass); according to German sources this represented one ‘brewed’ tank for every twenty rounds fired by the Flak batteries.

Another battle in which the ‘eighty-eights’ distinguished themselves and their Luftwaffe crews was the series of actions near Agedabia in January 1942. Prominent was a crack Air Force unit, Major Hecht’s Flak Regiment 135; the 18th, 33rd and 35th Regiments also did well, as did Major Hartmann’s Reserve Flak Abteilung 114. The 135th, now led by Oberst Wolz, also figures honourably in the records of Bir Hakeim in June 1942; in this hard-fought action he also had under command various detached battalions, notably II./Flak 25, I./Flak 18, I. /Flak 6 and I./Flak 43· The last-named unit won no fewer than three awards of the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) during the desert fighting; they were awarded to Oberleutnant Gellert, Major Gürcke (the commanding officer) and Oberfeldwebel BöseL. At El Alamein the 102nd and 135th Regiments were organized as the main fighting units of the ‘9th Flak Division, under direct army command and led by Generalleutnant Burckhardt; these units, together with the 109th Flak Battalion attached to Graf von Sponeck’s famous 90th Light Division, and various army Flak battalions, had a total strength of eighty-six 8·8 cm guns at the opening of the battle. So seriously did the British take these weapons that Montgomery issued explicit instructions to his armoured brigade commanders concerning the absolute necessity of avoiding the ‘Flak front’ and saving their strength for the final battle with the panzers. Even so, it is said that the ‘eighty-eights’ were largely responsible for the massacre of the first wave of British armour at Alamein.

The Flak fought their way back along the coast with the other survivors of the Panzerarmee, and were still scourging Allied armour as the last stores were burned in Tunis in May ‘943. The remains of the ‘9th Flak Division took up their last firing positions along the Miliane line, in company with the survivors of the’ Hermann Goring’ Division and Koch’s and Ramcke’s paratroopers. The 20th Flak Division, or what was left of it, was at Tebourba; the 3/52 Battery distinguished itself in the last few days of the fighting when Leutnant Happach and Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Voight turned their ‘eighty-eights’ on the American 2nd Armoured Battalion, and killed twenty tanks in as many minutes.

The Lieutenant’s Story

As a German shell bursts dangerously close by, steady veterans of the 4th Indian Division continue to move forward across a stark desert landscape.

General Alexander inspects the 3/2nd Punjab.

El Alamein, July–November 1942

Late that night, two lieutenants, escaping the fug of the VCOs’ circle, prowled the tented rows of Latifiya Camp and found a pipeline on which to sit, or perhaps lie down. They lay down. The stars hung chandelier-like, so infinitely various and bright that some seemed pinned up, high in the tent of night, and others dangled low, heavy with radiance. Bobby’s head spun slowly, and he could not shut his eyes, and the stars poured into them.

In the desert, Wright said, this was the only sight he had not tired of ten times over. On his first night at Ruweisat Ridge, he thought God had taken down the old night-roof and put in a new one. The sky had three dimensions here, which was a mercy, because the desert was so damned flat.

They were engineers, trained to work with inclines, gradients, cambers, but in the Western Desert, just about the only place where vertical relief mattered was up there. The stars suggested it, and men elaborated on the imaginary contours. The launch and drop of artillery shells traced thousands of hills in the sky; the long flight of Spitfires and Stukas drew an aerial steppe. Paratroopers jogged down gentle bluffs, swinging sideways from slope to opposing slope. Bursting anti-aircraft shells made pale vegetation, and even shots from rifles, fired in error or in desperation, added the thinnest pencil strokes to the mad conjured landscape. In night battle it was visible: Verey flares etched the luminous outlines, which glowed in his eyelids when he blinked.

Mainly there was no battle. Only the desert, so woefully flat. Wright arrived in Cairo to the news that his formation, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, had been destroyed at Gazala. He was instead to join 2nd Field Company, barely half a mile from the front line. On Ruweisat Ridge rain had parted the curtains of desert haze, and a long blue scratch of Mediterranean water had appeared to the north, beyond the pebbled flatness. The infantry roasted in their trenches, endlessly cleaning the sand out of their weapons and flies out of their ears. In the daytime, an inattentive nomad might walk right through the forward area, veined and scabbed as it was by trenches and sandbags, and barely notice. Brown heads and helmets only rose out of the earth like moles, travelled low along the ground and vanished again. Only the engineers worked all day, fixing desert tracks or blasting rock, or planting and clearing, planting and clearing, planting and clearing mines.

At dusk, as the sky’s fever abated and cool winds crossed the camp, life rose out of the blistered ground. Bright points of cigarettes glowed against the indigo sky and the grey earth, and the Muslim sappers bent in prayer, their bottoms to the foe. Cut-off petrol tins mouthed cowbell noises as tea was boiled. Infantry patrols slipped up to the wire, and rifles barked as snipers took aim at silhouettes, in the minutes before they were swallowed by darkness.

It was not until September that the dreary peace lifted, and a battle began that dazzled the eye. Replaying Gazala, the Panzers punched into the southern El Alamein front, then swerved back in behind the British lines, cutting an arc below Ruweisat Ridge. From up on top, Wright watched the fireworks.

If it had been scored by Wagner instead of the machines, it would have seemed a war of angels. To the south, above the main enemy thrust, Fairey Albacores dropped phosphorus flares that lit up the desert with electric brilliance, illuminating targets for Wellington bombers. Above their own sector, the Luftwaffe slit the full-moon sky with tracer fire. Planes dropped cases of butterfly bombs: delicate contraptions with hinged casings that sprang open, releasing a pair of wings that spun in the airflow, and drove a spindle into the bomblet to arm it. Landing, they flashed complex patterns on distant ground. Pulsing scarlet flares arced above the Allied lines, and searchlights swung across the spectacle, long flailing spider legs of light that grabbed at the descending figures. The stars burned on above it all.

‘An exhilarating performance,’ the major wrote in the unit diary.

The following morning they had orders to move east at once, and lay a minefield to stop the Panzer force from getting any further north. The company’s lorries stretched out into the desert, each a hundred yards behind the other, raising a great cliffside of dust and grit.

Wright, in charge of picking up stragglers, drove a jeep all the way at the rear. His windscreen wipers worked non-stop to scrape open a view of the road. Turning to look over his elbow, Wright noticed a stationary staff car just south of their line of march. It didn’t seem to belong to the company, but he pulled off the track toward it. He stopped a regulation distance away and hailed the men beside the vehicle, and hearing English voices, walked over.

The Humber had its bonnet up, and a helpless-looking sergeant underneath it, prodding at an engine that was belching steam. By the doors were two older officers, one carrying a fly-whisk and wearing the beret of the 11th Hussars, and the other wearing a flinty expression and a peaked cap with a red band.

‘Anything wrong, sir?’ Wright called out.

‘Of course there is,’ the first officer snapped. ‘You don’t think I want to stop here?’

Wright brought his jeep up to where the staff car was still sizzling. The fan belt was gone.

‘I’ll have to tow you, sir. Where do you need to go?’

‘Army HQ, of course,’ said the impatient Hussar. ‘At Burg el Arab.’

Wright nodded, and went to unspool the towing hook from his jeep. Perhaps he should ask who they were. Of course he should ask who they were: it was protocol for desert encounters, where anyone might be an enemy infiltrator. He turned and snapped out a salute. ‘Mind if I ask for your identity card, sir?’

The older officer’s hand drifted to his pocket, but the Hussar exploded. ‘Don’t be a fool, man! Don’t you know the Army Commander?’

Wright made sure his face stayed flat and solicitous. The Eighth Army Commander was General Auchinleck, but this didn’t look like him. Someone had neglected to tell him that ‘the Auk’ had been relieved of his command. The news would be disappointing to any Indian soldier, but especially for the 161st Brigade, which included the regiment the Auk had once personally commanded, the 1/1st Punjab.

‘Oh!’ said Wright, and saluted again.

He hooked up the Army Commander’s car and off they went. Wright’s eye drifted to his rear-view mirror for a glimpse of the pinched face of the man who would dictate the fate of the Eighth Army. He was General Bernard Montgomery, the second appointee to replace the Auk, after a German Stuka put a bullet in the chest of General Gott as he flew to Cairo. Montgomery had some antipathy for the Indian Army: perhaps because he hadn’t passed out from Sandhurst high enough to join it himself.

Wright was thinking that it would require snappy navigation to get the general to the Army HQ and still locate his convoy before dark. He decided to head straight across on the compass bearing, which meant getting off the main Army track. He quickly found a strategic track, less visible and used by L-of-C transport to evade aerial observation, and steered onto it. It was rough and covered in fine sand, but the coupled vehicles made good progress. Wright’s eye went to his mirror again. The tow-chain disappeared into a cloud of dust. He sighed. Eventually he deposited a beige-masked, sand-blasted Army Commander at Burg el Arab, and waited for thanks, ‘which were not forthcoming’.

Hours later, when he found the company, he also found a furious captain waiting, who refused to believe a word of it.

When Bobby’s duties had him in the HQ tent, he read through the onion-paper pages of the unit diary, as quick as he could. The story of the September battle was completed here. By the time the sappers’ work on the new minefield had begun, Rommel’s last thrust was already exhausted. Short of petrol again, his Panzers ground to a halt amidst the fighting. They were forced to withdraw, and the offensive chance now lay with the Eighth Army, which was flush with new troops, new American tanks, raised morale and plenty of fuel.

The 4th and 5th Indian Divisions traded places one final time. The weary 5th piled into lorries to join the enormous reserve lying up in Iraq; only the 161st Brigade, its battalions still fresh, stayed put on Ruweisat Ridge. In the unit diary Bobby found the letters that had come down to the company in October, announcing ‘D-Day’ at last. ‘Together we will hit the enemy for a “six”, right out of North Africa,’ Montgomery wrote. ‘Let every officer and man enter the battle with the determination to do his duty so long as he has breath in his body. AND LET NO MAN SURRENDER AS LONG AS HE IS UNWOUNDED AND CAN FIGHT.’ The 4th Division commander had added his own message: they were to fight to ‘the last man, the last round, the last bomb, the last bayonet’.

It never came to that – Wright resumed his story, while they checked a register of tools maintenance with the stores naik that evening – once the attack began, Rommel’s ranks were quickly broken. There was one terrible day when a Stuka bomber dropped a stick of bombs over their lines, nearly killing the officers in the mess truck, but saving its rage for the cook staff. They found the water carrier, Maqbool, screaming at a stump of flesh that had been his left hand. Mohammed Sharif the masalchi, only seventeen years old, was blown to pieces, ‘shattered from head to toe’; Budhu Masi, the cook, was disembowelled. He was twenty years old and healthy. He took three hours to die.

Still the battle moved west of them, and its blanket of noise was lifted, then blown off by the open roar of the wind. Wright’s platoon found themselves in a quiet sector by the Qattara track, clearing S-mines. Those were anti-personnel devices that popped into the air and exploded at chest level. It was while clearing a minefield that the sappers looked like the farm boys many of them had been. A serried line of men jabbed their bayonets into the ground and felt for the edge of metal on metal. If they felt nothing, they struck again and again, clearing crescents before them, and advanced this way, scything slowly under the sand. The strange agriculture of the desert. One side planted steel seeds, and the other side harvested them. Only some lived out their natural design, to rise suddenly as a plumed palm of shocked air and sand.

Wright sat on a rock, watching his men till the sand. One NCO, Naik Taj Mohammed, was moving fast – he had cleared about thirty already. But then: the sharp noise, the bomblet hanging in the air. Wright felt the blast, the instant of utter surrender, everything tilting over, followed by long, gaping seconds of realisation. He saw the naik sit upright, his belly hanging in his lap like a tongue. It was bad but he would survive; the Germans built the mines that way, since a wounded man was a heavier burden than a corpse. When the ambulance left, work resumed.

Afterward, a jeep rolled up to where Wright stood, and he was hailed by Colonel John Blundell, the divisional Chief of Royal Engineers. The lieutenant explained how things were going. ‘Right, well, hop in,’ said the colonel. ‘They can look after themselves.’ They drove west into a minor depression of soft sand, interrupted by great limestone boulders, outrageously sculpted by the grainy wind. Wright was chuffed to be so friendly with the colonel, the CRE, and they spoke idly about the news of the fighting. The Desert Fox was losing, for lack of the one thing he valued even over water: petrol. This time the Eighth Army could exploit its advantage all the way. Both men were offended that the 4th Indian Division, one of three Allied divisions in Egypt since the desert war began, was being held back on salvage duty. Wright was wondering aloud whether that had anything to do with him giving Montgomery a mouthful of sand, when he heard a snap and a whistle past his ear.

It took a moment to register that they were being shot at. His instinct was to duck behind the dashboard, but the colonel floored the accelerator, and the jeep lurched forward at one of the boulders. Sure enough, an Italian soldier emerged from behind it with his hands behind his head. ‘Know Italian?’ the colonel shouted, above the engine’s whine. Wright didn’t.

The jeep slammed to a halt in front of the Italian, and the colonel leapt out and bounded right at him. In a flash, he picked up the man’s rifle and tossed it as far as he could. Then he gripped the straggler by his shoulders, and in lieu of arresting him as a prisoner of war, the colonel turned him to face due east, stepped three paces back and gave him a running kick in the bottom. The Italian went sprawling in the sand. The colonel dragged him back to his feet, turned him east again and gave him a shove. The Italian took off running toward the Eighth Army reserve.

John Wright watched as the soldier pitched through the sand. His figure grew smaller and lost detail, but on the clear, flat ground he stayed visible for a long while, running east and east while his army ran west. Very soon, Wright suspected, he would be doing the same.

‘A Hot Day’ 22 June 1941

While large-scale assaults by German aviation and armour did not occur across the whole of the Białystok Salient, smaller forays were so widespread that not a single sector remained quiet. Sergeant Major Anatoly Loginov of the 87th Frontier Guards Detachment (3rd Frontier Post) recalled that:

I was on duty in Lobzha, not far from Grodno. Around 2 or 3 a.m. on 22 June heavy bombers flew over at high altitude. The Frontier Post Commander was resting and the Politruk was on vacation. According to the regulations, however, a sergeant major was entitled to set operational tasks for border protection, so I assigned a task for the next detail. Suddenly, the sky turned red: ‘Well, Sergeant major, is it war or just provocation?’ – ‘It’s war, guys. The Belovsky, Sorokinsky and Malinovsky sectors are all under fire. We’re going into action.’ The German artillery put down a barrage for about ten minutes, then their infantry advanced while the tanks worked round our flanks. But we were well armed: two large-calibre machine-guns and SVT semi-automatic rifles. I had a PPSh submachine-gun. And we had two good sharpshooters with sniper rifles. In general, border guards are good shots – we were taught to fire in the direction of gunshots and muzzle flashes. A few days earlier we’d virtually been disarmed by the detachment’s Head of Technical Supply, who told me to discharge the cartridge belts for the machine-guns. I made a start on this task but stopped as soon as he left. Because of this we could only fight for a couple of hours. But the guys still rose to the counter-attack three or four times. At last the Germans broke through. At 4.30 a.m. a messenger arrived with orders to quit the border and join regular Red Army units. I sent up a red flare – the signal to withdraw and head for the frontier post. We arrived at the Commandant’s office and were formed into units – we’d done our duty.

Private Anatoly Kazakov of the 178th Artillery Regiment (attached to General-Major Sherstyuk’s 45th Rifle division), recalls:

The West Ukrainian town of Lyuboml, situated on the River Bug, some 13km from the State Border, was defended by the 45th Rifle Division (whose HQ was located at Kovel). South of the town was a steep rise topped by a topography station – the position of our 178th Artillery Regiment. The regiment was armed with 76mm horse-drawn guns, subordinate to divisional command. Due to inadequate training, severe frosts and an intake of recruits from Azerbaijan and Georgia – who didn’t know Russian – our unit was hardly battleworthy. Which brass hat had the bright idea to place such an outfit in the first echelon? Meanwhile, the locals – who had only recently become Soviet citizens – clung to the customs and attitudes of the Polish State. They were mistrustful of the new collective farms and fearful of the NKVD. One local, on examining our clumsy Red Army soldiers, openly declared: ‘The Germans will annihilate you . . .’

About 4 a.m. on 22 June shells pounded our position. The first salvo hit the barracks, causing the roof to cave in and the walls to collapse in a cloud of dust and smoke. Then the HQ tents were hit – the battalion commander’s arm was shattered, so the chief of staff took over. Now disorder was replaced by sensible action, everyone taking his place according to battle drill. Our horses were pulled from the stables with some difficulty amid the shell-bursts, while the gun crews rolled the guns out of the depots to the relays. Thus the battery cantered to its reserve positions, unknown to the Germans, who continued pulverizing our former location on the hill. Gradually we assembled and counted our losses, which turned out to be light – several soldiers wounded and two horses killed. Later, our field kitchen – forgotten by everyone – turned up and the soldiers stuffed themselves with hot pasta.

A German rama [i.e. ‘frame’, the Russian nickname for the twin-fuselage, twin-engine FW-189 reconnaissance aeroplane – trans.] appeared in the sky but our relays – hidden beneath the awnings of nearby shacks – apparently cheated it, as no shelling followed. Perhaps the aircraft was interested in a more important target . . .

The regiment was largely manned by recruits who had served no more than two months. We felt sorry for these boys, thrown unprepared into the inferno of combat. Again, we were astounded by the short-sightedness or malicious intent of the District HQ. Meanwhile, the sun rose high above the horizon – a hot day was beginning, in both the literal and figurative sense.

An order arrived: the battery must take up fire positions west of Lyuboml, behind the railway. We trotted 2km down country tracks and leaped out at the allocated spot, while the relays rode off to shelter in a nearby grove. We dug in – the shovel is as much a combat weapon as a rifle – I, myself, hacking out a narrow slit trench next to the left wheel of the gun (a soldier’s rule is: as soon as you hit the ground, dig a hole for your head – never mind about your arse; then dig deeper; once you’re safely hidden, get ready to shoot). We piled parapets around the guns, smoothed and deepened the ramp. Shells were brought by cart and piled behind the guns as a reserve. Signalmen dragged coils of telephone cable to the observation post through a roadside ditch. There was a distance of some 8km between the battery and the OP.

Two hours of quiet followed. The battery was now ready to fight – despite the inhibitory role of the higher HQs (we later heard of some commanders who, having taken casualties, were still ringing HQ for permission to fire – such was the fear of provocation and of taking independent decisions). Then we heard the buzz of aircraft flying from the east – two flights of ground-attack planes were in the air. We were in raptures – our planes were overhead! Imagine our surprise when we spotted black German crosses on the wings. These Messerschmitts were returning to their aerodromes.

About midday a telephone order came from the Battery Commander at the OP: ‘Battery! Action! Number One Gun, one shell – fire!’ The zeroing-in shell flew off. Then: ‘Battery! Two splinter shells – fire!’ And finally: ‘Battery! Five shells – volley fire!’ The guns began to roar, the ground shook, the air thickened with smoke and dust. At which point, Politruk Poleshuk arrived with the news: ‘It’s not a provocation – the Germans are advancing over the whole front between the Barents Sea and the Black Sea. They’ve bombed Kiev, Zhitomir, Minsk and other cities. The Party urges us to repulse the enemy!’ Our soldiers, inspired, began to chatter: ‘We’ll reach the Atlantic in three months!’

A German spotter plane appeared. Suddenly, an alien sound mingled with the rumble of our guns – incoming shells were screaming into the battery, scattering soil and splinters, as stinking black smoke engulfed our position. Seeing an explosion between the gun mounts, I dived into my foxhole. Kosharnyi – an assistant gunlayer – also went to ground, clutching a wound in his shoulder. Soveiko – a gun charger – was killed. German shells continued to hammer us while a signalman, yelling from his trench, relayed a message from the Battery Commander: ‘Why have you ceased firing? Fire! Volley fire by the whole battery!’ Apparently it was not so comfy over at the OP.

How frightful it was to quit my shelter! Taking myself in hand, I manned the gun-sight as a charger crawled up and chambered a shell. The gun-lock clanked. A shot! The recoil knocked me back into the trench. I scrambled out and, through a shroud of dust, saw a terrible scene: shell craters covered our position; a gun had been overturned; shells were scattered all over the place; dead men were lying mangled; wounded men were crawling. And still the Commander kept calling from the OP: ‘Lisyak, 0.15 to the right, three shells – fire! Why isn’t Gun Number Four firing?’

We kept on firing with three guns. After several hours the barrels were red hot, the paint peeling and bubbling. The oil was overheating in the recoil mechanism and oozing through the screws. The load-limit of the barrels had been exceeded and they were liable to burst. Lieutenant Lisyak – the senior man at the battery – reported to the OP. The Battery Commander reluctantly called the ‘All Clear’.

This action was my first – that’s why I remember it in detail. The dead guys were picked up – mostly greenhorns – ammo carriers who, lacking entrenching tools, had cowered behind crates. I don’t know their surnames.

A strange silence gripped us. For some reason we preferred to talk in whispers . . .

The field kitchen came round and took post in a small ravine. A local guy, Yashka Kramer, was sent over to collect food. A stray German shell exploded near his foot, plastering him in hot pasta, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. Amazing things happen in war!

The Battery Commander telephoned from the OP. Lisyak passed on the message: ‘The OP will relocate – limbers to the battery!’ We froze in suspense – where are we going? If forward, then our troops were on the advance. If backward, they were on the retreat. The battery formed a marching column and moved onto the road. Lisyak, riding at the head of the column, turned right. But having trotted several hundred metres the column was halted. Lisyak and the gun commanders walked around, examining the terrain. There would be no forward or backward – just a change of firing position . . .

On 22 June the 62nd Rifle Division of Colonel Timoshenko was mainly engaged on its left flank, north of Ustilug. The situation was complicated by the fact the division had gone into combat undermanned: one of its regiments (the 104th) was in reserve in the Podgorodno – Horostkov area, and only two battalions were present in Colonel Petr Gavilevsky’s 306th Rifle Regiment, as one battalion had been left on guard duty in Lutsk. Meanwhile, the operations of the 41st Rifle Division (6th Army), deployed south of Barbarossa’s main strike, became the first unpleasant surprise for the Germans. These troops, commanded by General-Major Georgi Mikoushev, together with combined border guard units, invaded German-occupied Polish territory to a depth of 3km on an 8km-front. This incursion was explained in the operations logbook of Army Group South in the following way:

The 262nd I[nfantry] D[ivision] appeared prone to ‘the fright of the enemy’ and retreated. The eastern wing of the Corps is certainly in [a condition of] crisis. This situation will be rectified by the introduction of the 296th Infantry Division between the battle formations of the 24th and the 262nd Infantry Divisions.

The chief of staff of the 17th Army even requested the transfer of the 13th Panzer Division to assist the 295th and the 24th Divisions.

On the other hand, beside the success of Georgi Mikoushev’s division, the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Soviet 6th Army’s position was set up on the first day of the war. The 3rd Cavalry Division was moved forward from the Zolkew area to the Belz – Ugnuw Line, in order to cover the right flank of the Army. According to the Plan of Cover, a cavalry unit – unsuited for manning of static defence sector by virtue of its organizational structure – would have to defend this sector only until the third day of mobilization. It had been contemplated that the 3rd Cavalry Division would then be replaced by the 159th Rifle Division, ‘having taken over (the defence sector) from the 3rd Cav[alry] Division after 5 a.m. of the third day of hostilities’. However, no replacement of the cavalry division occurred either on the first day of the war or, indeed, on the third day. And it was that very sector through which the Germans later pushed the 9th Panzer Division. The splitting of Soviet mechanized units began on the very first day of the war. Not knowing the scope of the German advance, the commander of the 6th Army, Ivan Mouzychenko, deployed negligible forces to meet it. In the middle of the day, the 6th Army HQ ordered the commander of the 4th Mechanized Corps to allocate two battalions of medium tanks (32nd Tank Division) and a battalion of motorized infantry to destroy the enemy near Radzehov. The chief of staff of the 63rd Tank Regiment described the events the following way:

Having turned around, the column headed, as a matter of fact, in the reverse direction. The T-34 I was in, by order of the corps commander, followed Zheglov’s machine. For the first time I was inside a T-34. There’d been no such machines in the reconnaissance battalion I’d been in charge of before my arrival at the regiment. I look closely at the crew, at their conduct, at the way they do their duties. Everything is going well from my point of view. I feel sorry about just one thing: I haven’t had a chance to drive this tank or shoot from it. And how badly I need those skills now!

I try to imagine the situation at the State Border. I knew that the 140km sector from Krysynopol to Radymno was covered by two frontier guard detachments, the 41st, 97th, 159th Rifle Divisions, and the 3rd Cavalry Division. They were supposed to be ahead of us. Did they manage to take up their lines on time? What kind of task are they carrying out now? Maybe the regiment’s reconnaissance commander, Lieutenant Korzh, who we have sent forward, will be able to clarify something? How badly we need some general information about the enemy . . .

The driver slows down and stops abruptly. ‘What’s happened?’ I shout to the crew commander.

‘Air,’ he replies.

I open the hatch. The daylight dazzles me for a moment, but at the same moment I notice black puffs of smoke rising far ahead: bomb explosions. The aircraft are getting closer and closer. They are sharp-nosed, with slightly gulled wings. They hang over the column and drop their mortal load one after another. Rumble, whizzing, fire, smoke . . .

Signal flags flash above the commander machine – ‘Forward! Follow me!’ – as it turns on the spot, crawls over a roadside ditch, and moves towards the forest, gaining speed. Our tank follows. I had time to look around. To our right is the floodplain of the River Shklo. It means we are west of Yavorov. Transport vehicles are blazing on the road, ammo is exploding, several tanks (damaged during the bombing) stand motionless. The German planes turn around unhurriedly and the howling and rumbling begins again . . .

We’re already approaching the forest when shells begin bursting right and left of us. The commander’s machine jerkily speeds up to evade fire. Our driver also revvs up and soon we find ourselves on the spot of the first tank engagement, which had just been fought by Major Zheglov’s battalion. Three German tanks stand stricken on the field, crimson flames rising from their turrets and hatches, dense smoke spiralling, ammo exploding. Our five tanks bog down in the swampy river bed left of the Krakowec road. Three of them keep firing as tankers bustle around, adjusting logs for the tracks to pull themselves out [. . .] A German shell screams over the turret of one of the T-34s. Shots are heard from the other side of the river and explosions are rumbling in our direction . . .

I had lagged behind the regiment’s commander at the approach to the River Shklo, and currently I didn’t know where he was, or what decision he took when our two battalions came across the enemy. I felt offended that, carrying out the corps commander’s order, I found myself in the role of an ordinary tanker, having lost communication with both regimental and divisional HQ. I only knew what I could see for myself, and what I had heard from the company commander, Senior Lieutenant Bestchetnov.

I tried to reach Zheglov’s two-way radio. No reply. Fortunately, I managed to contact the second battalion. Having engaged German infantry and tanks they managed to push them back. Kolkhidashvili led the companies forward but, having encountered strong fire from artillery and tanks, he had to stop. Two companies of the first battalion were somewhere on the left flank. I ordered Senior Lieutenant Bestchetnov to establish communications with them. The third battalion, having turned off the road – above which enemy aircraft kept circling – had stopped in the woods nearby and was awaiting orders.

I found regimental HQ at the edge of a grove. An HQ bus stood under pine trees, the radio-station was nearby. The Deputy Chief of staff, Captain Krivosheev, jumped off the bus. His thin, black, eyebrows were scowling: ‘The regiment commander has been killed.’ A chill crossed my heart. I stared at Krivosheev, unwilling to believe what he had told me. Could it be possible that Zheglov was no more? I took off my helmet, finding no words to express my grief. And Captain Krivosheev, without waiting for my reply, added: ‘Kombat [Battalion Commander – trans.] Scheglov is badly wounded.’ Then a signalman shouted from the bus:

‘Comrade Captain, they want you on the phone!’ The divisional commander, Colonel Efim Pushkin, was on the line. Having greeted me dryly he asked:

‘How come you didn’t safeguard the regiment commander? The first action and such a loss . . .’

‘We didn’t even know the Germans had broken through the covering units,’ I replied after a short pause. ‘We thought that infantry was ahead of us . . .’

‘You must learn to fight from the very first action,’ Efim Pushkin said, adding: ‘It’s been decided to appoint you as regimental commander. Captain Krivosheev will be the Chief of staff.’ Efim Grigorievich Pushkin stood silent for a short while, giving me time to grasp the level of responsibility pinned on me, and then added:

‘Lose no time. Take charge of the regiment. This is war. It punishes hesitancy. How do you assess the current situation?’

I reported what I knew. The report obviously dissatisfied Efim Pushkin.

‘It’s not enough for a competently run outfit,’ he pointed out. ‘Clarify the situation properly and report back. Get it done before the enemy renews his activity.’

‘The Three-Week Subaltern’ or Pilot

Many legends have sprung up since the First World War. Among the most prevalent are those which say that the life expectation of a subaltern in a front-line infantry battalion or of a pilot in a frontline fighter squadron was only three weeks. While it is true that both groups of men suffered severe losses, the ‘three-week life expectation’ is an exaggeration. The reader may be interested in actual figures from one average infantry battalion and from an R.F.C./R.A.F. squadron.

The history of an infantry brigade in the 17th (Northern) Division contains an appendix giving the names of every officer who served in three of the brigade’s four original battalions. The first battalion listed is the 10th West Yorks, an early New Army battalion which served with its division on the Western Front continuously from its arrival in France in August 1915 until the Armistice. The battalion took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the Battles of Arras and Passchendaele (Third Ypres) in 1917, and the March Retreat and the Final Advance in 1918. There is no reason to believe that this was not a typical Western Front battalion during more than three years of fighting.

The officers’ details in the brigade history give the date of joining the battalion, the date of the final departure from the battalion and the reason for that departure. There is one unfortunate omission: temporary absences because of light wounds or for other reasons are not noted. To allow for this, all subalterns remaining with the battalion for more than two years have had twelve months deducted from their service to allow for such temporary absences, and those remaining between one and two years have had six months deducted. It is believed that these deductions err on the generous side.

It was found that 174 officers joined the battalion as lieutenants or second lieutenants. After the allowances for temporary absence had been made, it was found that the average subaltern spent not three weeks but 6.17 months of front-line service with the battalion before becoming a casualty or leaving for some other reason. Furthermore, only one in five of these subalterns was actually killed, and almost half left the battalion unhurt. The following table shows the circumstances in which their service with the battalion ended.

Killed     37 (21.3%)

Wounded            48 (27.6%)

Prisoners             6 (3.4%)

Other reasons     83 (47.7%)

The ‘wounded’ total does not include those slightly wounded subalterns who returned to the battalion. The ‘other reasons’ include transfer to other units – usually trench-mortar, machine-gun, tank or flying units – those officers returned to England for various reasons, and those still with the unit at the Armistice. The shortest stay was by Second Lieutenant H. Banks, who arrived at the battalion on 23 August 1918 and was killed four days later near Flers, on the old Somme battlefield, during the final advance of the British Expeditionary Force.

Although these figures debunk the ‘three-week subaltern’ legend, it should not be forgotten that the figure of 174 subalterns serving with the 10th West Yorks during its period of thirty-eight months service on the Western Front shows that the battalion had to replace its original complement of junior officers six times.


Details for length of service of pilots joining a front-line fighter squadron are also available. This is No. 56 Squadron, which served on the Western Front from April 1917 until the end of the war, except for a very short period when it was withdrawn to England at the height of the German Gotha bomber attacks on London. The squadron flew S.E.5a single-seat fighters and, again, there is no reason to believe that it was other than an average fighter squadron during that part of the war which saw the greater part of the war’s air fighting; this squadron did, however, miss the worst of the spring 1917 air battles, when the R.F.C.’s aircraft were so inferior to those of the Germans and when excessive British casualties were suffered.

A total of 109 pilots were included in the survey; a further small number, who were transferred to other squadrons almost as soon as they arrived or who were returned home, presumably as unsuitable for front-line flying duties, have been omitted. There were no temporary absences among the 109 pilots, and their average stay with the squadron worked out at ten weeks and five days. The reasons for departure were as follows.

Killed     45(41.3%)

Wounded            17(15.6%)

Prisoners             31(28.4%)

To home establishment   16(14.7%)

The shortest stay was by an American, Lieutenant J. N. Offut, who was killed two days after his arrival.

It can be seen from these figures that, although the ‘three-week pilot’ is a myth, life for a fighter pilot was considerably more hazardous than for the junior infantry officer.

It would be interesting to see figures for equivalent German units. It is probable that neither their infantry-officer nor their fighter-pilot casualty rate would have been so high as that of the British. German infantry officers were not exposed to danger as frequently as their British counterparts because German senior N.C.O.s carried out many of the duties that British subalterns performed. The German fighter pilots fought mostly within their own lines and the prevailing westerly wind prevented many a British pilot in a damaged aircraft from returning to safety.