Foglore Division

In 1940 a tiny British army had defeated a far larger Italian one and from 1941 to 1942, an outnumbered and under-resourced Italo-German one had fairly consistently got the better of a British one. How had this happened?

The answers in each case were: equipment; the tactics and training of the armies; their acquisition and use of information; and generalship.

In the winter of 1940–41, O’Connor’s Western Desert Force took 58 days to clear Cyrenaica and wipe out the eight divisions of the Italian Tenth Army, capturing 130,000 men and 845 guns and destroying 380 tanks. Though not in the end decisive, it was one of the British Army’s biggest victories of the war. Its later victories over the Germans were gained as part of an Allied army in which the American contribution was larger. In 1944, British Commonwealth forces gained a more important victory against the Japanese in Burma, but the losses inflicted on the enemy were smaller. O’Connor’s was a remarkable achievement, but it was not a miracle.

In the 1930s, Italy was a poor country still in the process of industrialization. In 1940, with a population of similar size to Britain’s, Italy had only 25 per cent of its gross domestic product. Half of its population still worked on the land and about a third were illiterate or semi-literate. They were poorly adapted to fighting a technological war – it was hard even to find enough men who could drive trucks – and its industry was barely capable of equipping it to do so. Graziani’s whole army only had 5,140 vehicles and 2,000 of them were in repair shops, leaving them with fewer than the standard complement of a British division. The bulk of his forces were marching infantry, whereas the Western Desert Force was fully motorized. During the 1930s, the Italian Army affirmed the primacy of numbers over mobility, summed up in the comment of one of their leading armoured warfare experts that ‘the tank is a powerful tool, but let us not idolize it; let us reserve our reverence for the infantryman and the mule’. The Italian infantry had a problem with their small arms. The Army was in the process of introducing a new rifle, and as a result there were two incompatible sets of ammunition, which led to confusion and shortages. Graziani had plenty of guns, but most of them were designed before World War I, many captured from the Austro-Hungarians in 1918. The result of this armaments disaster was that Italian divisions, which were in any case far smaller than those of most armies, lacked not only mobility but also firepower – the two cardinal factors in mechanized warfare.

The Italians’ biggest hardware problem of all was tanks. A lot of the vehicles classified as tanks were in fact lighter than British reconnaissance vehicles. The most numerous tank, the M11, was a death trap which has been described as ‘about the worst design of the period’. All the British tanks were better armed, but the Matilda infantry tank, a machine which had caused great consternation to Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division during the French campaign when it suddenly appeared at Arras in May 1940, was also invulnerable to Italian guns. When it first appeared in the desert on 9 December 1940, the Italian artillerymen facing it fought with great tenacity and died on their guns. But dying in their path did not stop the Matildas, as was observed by some of the survivors, and from then on the Matilda had a potent effect on Italian morale.

Poor equipment was not the end of it. Italian training, particularly of the infantry, was wretched. The generals did not believe in it. In 1937, one senior commander was sent off to Libya with the admonition not to do ‘too much training’. There was a widespread belief, congenial to Mussolini, that intuition and valour were more important in battle. What little there was consisted mainly of drill, with little live firing and almost no combined arms training. There was a gulf between officers and men, rations were poor and even proper uniforms were in short supply. By contrast, the units of the Western Desert Force had trained in desert conditions and 7th Armoured Division, which had been formed by the brilliant if eccentric tankman Percy Hobart, was probably the best trained in the British Army. O’Connor took things further by rehearsing his tactics in desert exercises before putting them into action.

Folgore Parachute Division

During the 1940 campaign and thereafter, Italian troops often displayed bravery and determination. The few effective units they had, like the Folgore Parachute Division which had trained hard for eighteen months before entering the line at Alamein in 1942, earned the respect of the Germans and British alike. After all, the performance of their predecessors in World War I had been comparable to that of the other major European powers. They gave their Austro-Hungarian opponents such a hard time that the Germans were forced to send the 14th Army to help, which included one Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, who won the highest German decoration, the Pour le Mérite, for his bold action at the bloody and hard fought battle of Caporetto in 1917. But between then and 1940, the Italian Army changed hardly at all. In modern battle, units which are poorly equipped and poorly trained usually disintegrate. Given its training and equipment, the Italian Army was bound to be ineffective in comparison both with its opponents and its allies. When he followed O’Connor’s victorious men into the fort of Nibeiwa, the journalist Alan Moorehead found a letter written home by an Italian officer which read: ‘We are trying to fight this war as though it is a colonial war in Africa. But it is a European war in Africa fought with European weapons against a European enemy.’ Most of the soldiers did not understand why they were at war, and were ill-prepared for modern battle conditions. Time had passed them by. A report from an Italian Air Force officer in November 1940 stated that troops exaggerated enemy strength and called for air support if they saw one tank. Graziani panicked at the prospect of air attack. He ordered Benghazi to be evacuated after two minor raids.

The great mass of hapless Italian foot-sloggers were inevitably out­manoeuvred by the mechanized units of the Western Desert Force. Once cut off, they could either surrender or starve, so they surrendered. But O’Connor rang rings round their leaders as well. He launched his first attack on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa, some twelve miles south of Sidi Barrani, just before dawn, and achieved total surprise. 4th Indian Division and 57 Matildas emerged out of the desert behind the Italian position, and caught them still half asleep. O’Connor consistently used speed and surprise, and exploited unexpected opportunities. He was prepared to use bluff, and had his enemies convinced that they were hopelessly outnumbered.

The command style of the Italian Army was designed for buck-passing. Responsibility was passed down as far as possible, with evidence collected on the way so that junior officers could be blamed in case of failure, which was the norm. However, junior officers were not trusted, so orders were very detailed and there was an inordinate amount of supervision. Showing initiative was positively dangerous. O’Connor – unlike a lot of his colleagues – explained his intentions to his subordinates and then delegated authority to them. They could therefore make rapid decisions without referring back whilst at the same time being confident that it would all add up to what O’Connor wanted. He led from the front, which was also his downfall, for it allowed him to be captured in April 1941 by German troops whose commander was to exhibit precisely the same characteristics over the next 24 months. They served him and his cause as well as they had served O’Connor.

During the course of 1941, the Italians improved the quality of their desert forces enormously, introducing two armoured and two motorized divisions which put them more on a par with their opponents. The M13 tank, which mounted a more effective gun than the M11, appeared in greater numbers. Even so, it was still easily the worst tank in the desert in 1942, slow and unreliable, and both the British and the Germans referred to them as ‘steel coffins’. Going to war in them required considerable courage in itself. The Italians consistently fielded the larger part of the force which was to cause the British so many headaches over the following months. However, the most important factor in explaining the Axis successes was the arrival of the Afrika Korps.


Folgore Parachute Division was officially formed in September 1st 1941. The Division was supposed to take part in the planned “C3” plan, the invasion of Malta, thus the Folgore was sent in southern Italy to begin the training for such an operation.

The Folgore parachute division was intended to have a heavy concentration of automatic firepower. Each small parachute battalion (326 men) was supposed to have 54 Breda M30 light machineguns (18 in each of the three rifle companies, which had 95 officers and men at full strength). Furthermore, all officers, noncoms, and weapons crew members (including the number two on each light machinegun) were to be armed with Beretta submachineguns. However, when the division deployed to North Africa in summer 1942, in many sub-units only officers and sergeants were actually furnished with the submachineguns, the others intended to have the Beretta (of which there were never enough to meet demand) being equipped with the M91 bolt-action carbine instead. It had also originally been planned to equip all the riflemen in the parachute battalions with semi-automatic rifles. Breda introduced its PG semi-automatic rifle in 1935, a rather advanced weapon with a curved 20-shot clip, but despite the excitement generated by early tests only 850 were made, and 200 of these (in 7mm caliber instead of the normal 6.5mm) were for sale to Costa Rica. The Armaguerra M39 semi-automatic rifle (designed by Revelli) was a 6.5mm weapon that used the same 6-shot charger clips employed by the Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifles and carbines (including later derivatives like the M38 short rifle, the official rifle of the Italian forces). There had been concerns about the complexity of the Breda PG and its reliability in field conditions, but the Armaguerra appears to have been a generally satisfactory weapon. The Italian Army ordered 10,000, intending to issue them not only to paratroopers but also to officers, sergeants, and one designated sniper in each infantry squad. However, only about 500 were actually produced, and few if any of these saw service before the Italian surrender. Thus riflemen in the Folgore also got the little M91 carbines as a substitute.

The Folgore also had a fairly large complement of 47mm antitank guns, in part because the divisional artillery was entirely equipped with this little piece, due to its light weight and portability. Lacking a shield, the 47/32 gun was very easy to move, weighing only 482 pounds, and breaking down into six parts for pack animal transport. The lack of a shield also made it easier to conceal, but it did expose the gunners to small arms fire and shell fragments, thus the Italians preferred to dig these weapons in or shelter them within emplacements. The 47mm 47/32 was roughly comparable to the British 40mm two-pounder antitank gun in 1940. The Italian gun performed better at longer ranges (half a mile or more, although more common combat range was about a quarter mile), but the higher-velocity two-pounder penetrated more armor (up to 54mm) at a quarter mile or less. The two-pounder was far heavier and more difficult to move than the Italian gun, although part of the reason was that it featured a novel mount allowing 360-degree traverse. However, by 1942 the little 47mm was completely outclassed by new, more heavily-armored tanks. While more powerful antitank guns like the British six-pounder

(57mm) and the German 50mm PAK 38 were being introduced in quantity by mid-1942 (if not before), the Italians were stuck with the Breda 47mm gun throughout the war, and were still using it in 1943. For this reason one reads, for instance, of Trieste Division gunners at Second Alamein holding their fire until British Shermans were within 20 yards, the only way to hope for penetration with the 47mm. Folgore Division received the 47/32 instead of conventional artillery because the 47mm gun could be air-dropped, fitted on a special pallet with a parachute. Since the weapon was originally intended not only for antitank use, but also as a light cannon for direct infantry fire support, the Folgore’s artillery component consisted of two groups of eight 47mm guns each.

Additional heavy weapons of all sorts were attached to the Folgore? s individual parachute battalions at Alamein. For example, the 5th Battalion included a mortar platoon with three 81mm mortars, an antitank platoon with three 47mm guns, and an attached pair of tripod-mounted machineguns. Even individual rifle companies often had substantial firepower. The 6th Company had a tripod-mounted machinegun and four 47mm antitank guns within its positions. The 13th Company had three 81mm mortars dug in with it, as well as four 47mm antitank guns positioned to cover both it and the neighboring 14th Company. By October all Folgore’s positions had the additional advantage of being shielded by extensive minefields. Furthermore, at Alamein the Folgore was backed by heavier artillery detached from the Ariete and Pavia Divisions, including 75mm field guns, 100mm (100/17) howitzers, plus 90mm and Italian-manned 88mm guns.

When the Folgore troopers fought their first real battle – in the predawn hours of September 4, 1942 they did indeed demonstrate enhanced firepower. The New Zealand command overseeing the operation on the Allied side expressed surprise at the effectiveness of the paratrooper? s defensive fire, which, in the words of one official history, caused some units to disintegrate. The entire engagement took both sides by surprise, as often happened in desert warfare (for instance, in the opening hours of the Gazala battle, when Ariete Division drove right into an Indian defensive box whose existence had not been suspected). In the final stages of the Alam Halfa defensive battle, Montgomery authorized a series of probing attacks on the Axis southern flank. The British 132nd (Royal West Kent) Brigade, not yet acclimated to desert conditions and navigation, ran straight into the Folgore positions at night, by accident. Neither side realized the other was in the vicinity until the two forces were at virtually point-blank range. In the confused melee that followed, opponents were shooting at each other at ranges as short as ten yards, and seldom more than 100. The Folgore, aided by a neighboring detachment of the German Ramcke parachute brigade, inflicted 700 casualties on their unwitting attackers (including 200 prisoners taken), and one of those casualties was Brigadier Robertson, commander of the British force, seriously wounded by Italian fire while moving between his sub-units. The Folgore also suffered painful losses, including Major Aurelio Rossi, commander of the 9th Battalion, who was killed in action. In addition, several of the enemy? s light vehicles (Bren gun carriers and trucks) had been knocked out, while one of the Folgore’s 47mm antitank guns took a direct hit from a 25-pounder. A fortuitous coup formed a sequel to the battle, as just before dawn the New Zealand Brigadier-General Clifton, whose troops had not even been involved in this particular fight, drove in his jeep straight into the Folgore positions in a case of mistaken identity, and was captured with his whole party.

When they realized their mistake, the General’s adjutant quickly rubbed out the markings on his map. A Folgore trooper smashed the jeep? s radio with his rifle butt when they tried to send a message about their plight. Folgore’s actual combat debut had come on August 30, 1942, when two New Zealand battalions tested the newly-arrived unit with a well-executed surprise trench raid that killed five paratroopers and took some prisoners. The following day three British light trucks sniffing around the perimeter were taken under fire by some of Folgore’s 81mm mortars, two vehicles being knocked out. The 81mm Brandt was another reasonably capable Italian weapon, similar to the model used by the US and Japan.

At Second Alamein, Folgore had enough weaponry at its disposal to withstand the first furious British assaults, albeit just barely. On one night during the Alamein battle, the 6th Company was attacked by 30 British tanks followed closely by infantry, the armor led by a special mine-clearing flail tank. In the gruesome combat that followed, seven paratroopers died and 11 were wounded in keeping 6th Company’s lone tripod-mounted machinegun firing until literally its last 20-shot tray, and the battery of four 47mm antitank guns suffered ten dead and twice as many wounded. Sergeant-major Bilo knocked out a British tank with a Molotov cocktail,? but had to leave his hole and set down his Beretta submachinegun to do so. With no weapon in his hands, he suddenly found himself virtually surrounded by British soldiers, barely 15 feet away, several of whom began shooting at him. By some miracle, Bilo regained both his weapon and the shelter of his hole with his skin intact. Others were not so lucky, and one of the hardest things the paratroopers had to endure was the screams of wounded men crushed under the enemy tanks in the night. Corporal Maiolatesi, his right arm wounded so badly that it was later amputated, kept firing his machinegun until out of ammunition, and then threw grenades with his left hand! The 6th Company held its positions, but was nearly wiped out in the process.

After the success earned during the Gazala battle, the OKW and Comando Supremo thought that the “C3” operation was no longer necessary; they thought that the forces freed up dropping the operation would have been much more useful in the final attempt to reach Alexandria, so Folgore division was sent to North Africa between July and August 1942.

The division itself saw his baptism of fire during the battle for Alam-el-Halfa, which the Italians call “corsa dei sei giorni” or “six days run”. Placed under the XX Corps, Folgore division, with Brescia and Pavia divisions, was ordered to advance in the center of the offensive, as the left flank of the armoured units of the Italian-German Tank Army who were though to break through the southern defence of the British Army, in the same manner as they did during the Gazala battle.

As soon as the attack has begun on 30th August 1942, the Italian and German forces where caught by intense RAF bombings and saw themselves slowed down by an intense mine netting, also the British defence mounted up as the axis forces advanced. After two days of fighting, on 1st September 1942, Rommel called off the attack and ordered his units to return to the starting positions.

As the attack ceased the British forces begun operation Beresford, their counter attack on 4th September 1942,  focusing their efforts in the southern sector, where Folgore took built a bulge in the British defensive assets. The attack, begun by the VI NZ brigade and by the CXXXII British brigade, was repulsed with heavy casualties by IX and X battalions, with the latter being incorporated in the IX after the battle because of the losses, which comprised the BtG commander, Aurelio Rossi, fell in the counter attack. It was in this battle that Clifton was captured by the men of the IX BtG!

Forming Raggruppamento Ruspoli

After Alam-el-Halfa the two armies took time for rest. In this period the Axis forces dug in, reinforcing their position in order to resist to the incoming British offensive. El Cairo and Alexandria being so far right now.

Folgore division was assigned to the extreme southern sector of the army, within the X corps. Her deployment lay between Haret-el-Himeimat and Deir-el-Munassib.

The central portion of the division was held by “Raggruppamento Ruspoli” ( Ruspoli Group), which comprised the VII/186° and VIII Btg, with the II/28th from Pavia division. The raggruppamento had various artillery group taken from other divisions, which comprised some 88/56, 90/53, 100/17 and 75/27.

The Battle

October the 23rd, 1942, at 21:40 the British begun their attack on the Italian line. Raggruppamento Ruspoli was one of the main objectives of Monty’s assault, as he began his initial assaults in order to find a weak spot in the axis defences.

The attack begun with a heavy shelling from British artillery which lasted until 23:30, after that the Infantry of the 51th HD and the tanks of the 7th AD attacked the Folgore front.

The first night saw fierce combat, with the 6/II company being surrounded and destroyed, the 19/VII having only 16 survivors. The VIII battalion is one that suffered the heaviest losses of the Raggruppamento, with his 24th company being the only formation emerging almost intact from the bitter fight.

Despite these heavy losses the British attack was repulsed, with the exception of some position in the sector of 20/VII. By 2:30 AM the fighting ceased, the raggruppamento having lost also a mortar platoon and 6 AT guns.

On the second day of the offensive Ruspoli counterattacked, sending forward his 20/VII company supported by some three semoventi da 75/18 and a number of German Panzers. The counter attack begun at 16:00, with the fighting ceasing by 16:30, with the company having reconquered all the ground lost.

Between the 25th and 26th October the British resumed their efforts, advancing in the sector of the 20/VII and 21/VII companies. Their offensive spirit being again frustrated by the bitter defence opposed by the paratroopers, with many local assaults and counterassaults. The British gained a foot hold tough, with their forces threatening now the flank of the raggruppamento.

Seeing the danger of an outflanking manoeuvre Ruspoli ordered his VII Btg to counterattack the British foot hold. The btg was support directly by the 100/17 guns, taken into the front line in order to shoot on tanks with open sights, the assault was so ferocious that the British forces retired back to their starting line, capturing half battalion in the process!

The 28th October, 20th anniversary of the march upon Rome, the British forces retired to their starting line, 500 m back from Folgore positions. The operation took two days. The men from Folgore division couldn’t rest tough, as the British resumed their attack the 31st upon the position of the 21/VII company, threatening the position of the battalion commander, they were repulsed, but during the night they mounted up another assault upon the 20/VII that lasted until dawn, when the British retired. By this time it was destroyed the 100th Tank in front of the Raggruppamento.

Despite their heroic resistance the division was ordered to withdraw in the night between 2 and 3 November 1942, they had to retreat 15km back from the line while destroying everything that wasn’t transportable. The orders looked grimmer as the hours passed, by the 4th November the division was supposed to fall back to Fuka, without any kind of motor transport, with all the ammunition stocks being depleted, without water nor food while British armoured car squadrons harassed the exhausted paratroopers, which returned fire with their last 47/32 while refusing the British proposal to surrender.

The 6th November the survivors of the divisions surrendered to the British forces at the gates of Fuka, receiving the honour to keep their personal weapons (onore delle armi in italian, honour of arms/weapons?). The division destroyed some 120 enemy tanks, while inflicting heavy losses to 51st HD, 7th AD, the Free French brigade and the Greek brigade.

Raggruppameno Ruspoli OOB

Along the first mine layer from north to south:

– 6/II company, capitano Paolo Emilio Marenco with a 2km front

– 1/I company, tenente Carlo Massoni with 4 47/32 ATGs

these two companies had support from two mortar platoons

– 19/VII company, capitano Alfonso Salerno with some battalion ATGs with the 16/VII to his south

Behind the first mine layer, behind 6/II:

– 22/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, tenente Stelio Silleni supported by the 1/II artillery section with two 47/32 ATGs

Behind the second mine layer (resistance mine line, fascia minata di resistenza), directly behind the 22/VIII, Northern Sector:

– 20/VII company, capitano Carlo Lombardini

– 24/VIII “Guastatori Paracadutisti” company, capitano Scalettaris

Behind this position stands the command post of the VIII BtG “Guastatori Paracadutisti”, maggiore Giulio Burzi, to the right behind the 24/VIII

Southern Sector:

– 21/VII company, capitano Gino Bianchini, with one of his platoons deployed in front of the main line of resistance

– 16/VI company between the first mine layer and the main line of resistance

Between 20/VII and 21/VII stands the command post of the VII btg of capitano Carlo Mautino with two mortar platoons (one with captured 3″ mortars).

Between the 24/VIII and 20/VII are deployed the reserve, formed by the II/28 “Pavia” of maggiore Priano, with only three under strength companies. Among the reserves, on their right flank, stood the command post of the Raggruppamento, commanded by tenente colonnello Marescotti Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the command post of the I ATG group of capitano Giovanni Curti.

The artillery count:

– I/21st “Trieste” battery, with 100/17 howitzers

– II/27th “Pavia” battery, with 75/27 and 100/17

– IV/26th “Pavia” with 75/27 and 100/17

– “German mixed heavy group” from 21st panzer, with 210mm howitzers and 25pdr cannons.

( This is the artillery assigned to the raggruppamento, the division had some more pieces)

The raggruppamento counted about 1300 men.


The El Alamein offensive by the British Eighth Army, Operation LIGHTFOOT, begins on the 23rd October 1942, at 2140 hours local with an artillery barrage by 1,000+ guns aimed at Axis batteries; at 2200 hours, the barrage switches to the forward positions as British troops move forward; heavy fighting continues during the night of 23/24 October with XXX Corps on the north making the main effort and XIII Corps conducting diversionary actions on the south. The 12 Italian and German divisions amount to 80,000 men (53,000 of which are Italian). The Commonwealth forces amount to 230,000 men divided among ten divisions. As far as the tanks are concerned, only the German Panzer IV (35 total) are equal to the Commonwealth’s American M4 Sherman (252 total) and M3 Grant (170 total) tanks. The British attack the sector defended by the Italian Folgore Parachute Division. The Italian forces include 3,500 paratroopers, 1,000 Guastatori d’Africa, 80 artillery pieces and five tanks of German origin.

The Folgore prepare their defenses among a 15 kilometer (9.3 mile) barrier and realize they are the last defense before the rear of the Italo-German Army. The fighting lasted for one week and constituted four separate battles; the central sector on the 23rd, the northern sector near Naqb Rala on the 24th, the central sector again on the 24th and 25th, and the southern sector on the 25th, 26th and 29th. The British are thrown back after every attempt with a considerable loss of life and are ordered a stop any further initiatives on that front. Total dead, wounded or missing amount to 1,100 for the Folgore. Eventually General Montgomery’s forces claim victory over the Axis forces in El Alamein and Rommel orders the Folgore to withdraw on the 2nd of November, leaving their defenses still intact. Eventually, the remaining Folgore forces thin out during the difficult withdrawal through the desert.

British Regulars and Colonial Militias at War

Colonial troops and, to a lesser extent, Indians contributed to Canada’s defeat, but British regulars bore the brunt of the fighting. The relationships among redcoats, colonials, and Indians were strained, but the developing rift between British officers and colonial civilians was even more ominous. Regular officers believed colonial troops had no merits. They were, wrote one of Braddock’s subordinates, “totally ignorant of Military Affairs.” They were ill disciplined and lazy and, lacking even elementary knowledge of camp sanitation, suffered an appalling rate of sickness. Colonies never fielded as many men as the legislatures voted, officers failed to report accurately their unit’s strength, and men deserted in droves, so the number of colonial troops was always uncertain. The large enlistment bounties that were needed also made colonial recruits exorbitantly expensive.

This catalog of shortcomings was true in many respects, and understanding why is important. The Great War for Empire was a war of conquest, requiring extended offensives far from the homes of most militiamen. But the militia was a system for local defense. Large numbers of militiamen could not be absent long without leaving their colonies vulnerable to enemy raids and without dislocating the local economy. Militiamen were part-time citizen-soldiers who had to run businesses, tend crops, and conduct the fishing and fur trades. Consequently, authorities hesitated to impose militia drafts and instead relied on volunteers, who came primarily from the lowest social strata. In the few cases when a colony resorted to a draft, the sending of substitutes and paying of commutation fines ensured that few middle- or upper-class citizens served. But of all the high-ranking British officers serving in North America, Lord Loudoun alone seemed to realize that colonists marching with English regulars against some distant fort were different from the men enrolled on militia musters. “The Militia,” he wrote, “are the real Inhabitants; Stout able Men, and for a brush, much better than their Provincial Troops, whom they hire whenever they can get them, and at any price.” Almost all other British officers confused the expeditionary forces with the actual militia, thus misjudging the militia’s military potential in defense of its own terrain.

Holding such a low opinion of colonial soldiers, British officers relegated them to auxiliary functions. They built roads, served as wagoners and boatmen, and repaired and constructed forts. With their aristocratic ties and long years of experience, English officers were reluctant to treat American officers, who were usually young and newly commissioned, as equals. While provincial officers had traditionally relied on exhortation and admonishment to maintain discipline, English officers inflicted ferocious punishment upon enlisted men, including liberal use of the lash and, for serious offenses, execution by hanging or firing squad. To colonial soldiers, whippings and executions were horrific and unnecessary. And because the redcoats engaged in swearing, excessive drinking, and whoring, the colonists also condemned them as profane, irreligious, and immoral—pollutants in a pure land. And initial British defeats mingled with earlier memories, making a lasting impression. The Walker expedition, Cartagena, Braddock, Loudoun at Louisbourg—what right did professionals have to claim superiority? All in all, serving with British regulars graphically reminded colonists of a standing army’s threat to free people living in a free society, and persuaded them that their own military institutions were morally and militarily superior.

British officers also considered Indians questionable allies. Amherst described them as “a pack of lazy, rum-drinking people, and little good,” and Forbes accused them of being “more infamous cowards than any other race of mankind” and having a “natural fickle disposition.” These impressions flowed in part from cultural ethnocentrism, but also from the natives’ difficult position in the white rivalry swirling around them. Between 1748 and 1760 England and France negotiated constantly with the Indians and tried to buy their allegiance through lavish gift giving. While the natives listened to, and took presents from, both French and English ambassadors, they were naturally anxious to be on the winning side. Inactivity, duplicity, and hesitancy to go on the warpath were stratagems to buy time until a clear-cut winner emerged. But these traits exasperated British professionals, who demanded unwavering commitment.

Initially, with English arms suffering reverses, Indians tended to support the French, and the British maintained the neutrality of important tribes, such as the Creeks and Iroquois, only through astute diplomacy coupled with large expenditures for gifts. The turning point in Indian relations, as in the war itself, came in 1758 when a reversal of battlefield fortunes occurred and the naval blockade prevented French goods from reaching Canada. Addicted to European products through the fur trade and white gift giving, French-aligned natives suffered. The tide of allegiance shifted to England.

Although the British found that friendly Indians were useful, in the final analysis they were not essential. To combat American conditions and the enemy’s guerrilla methods, the British recruited white frontiersmen and organized them into ranger companies to perform duties traditionally done by natives. Regulars also made certain tactical adaptations. They formed light infantry companies composed of agile, lightly armed men who received training in irregular warfare tactics. Some units learned to deliver aimed fire rather than volleys, to maneuver by companies instead of battalions, and to march single file to lessen the impact of an ambush. These modifications, however, were not widespread, and the British army’s success depended on standard European practices. The regulars’ discipline and organized persistence counterbalanced the virtues of Indian-style warfare.

Relations between British regulars and colonial civilians were a reenactment of the Walker expedition performed on a continent-wide stage. Conflicts over recruitment, quarters, transportation, and provisions fueled mutual resentment. To fill understrength regiments and raise new ones, the British hoped to tap the colonial manpower reservoir. In 1755 and 1756 they met considerable success, enlisting some 7,500 colonists, but thereafter the number of recruits dwindled. One reason was that men had a choice: long-term service in the regulars with low pay and harsh discipline, or short-term service in a provincial unit with an enlistment bounty, higher pay, and lax discipline. Another reason was the often violent opposition to the unscrupulous methods British recruiters used. For example, they recruited heavily among indentured servants, a practice that colonists considered “an unconstitutional and arbitrary Invasion of our Rights and Properties” that cast suspicion on all recruiting. By 1757 mobs regularly harassed recruiters and “rescued” men whom they assumed had been illegally recruited. The inability to find men outraged professionals and forced Pitt to rely on full-strength regiments from the home islands.

Redcoats needed quarters, especially during winter, but America had few public buildings that could serve as barracks. The only option was to quarter them in private houses, but citizens argued that soldiers could not be quartered in a private home without the owner’s consent. Civilians had the law on their side, but Loudoun insisted that “Whilst the War lasts, Necessity, will Justify exceeding” normal quartering procedures. He told the Albany city government “that if they did not give Quarters, I would take them” by force. Albany officials maintained that Loudoun “assumed a Power over us Very inconsistent with the Liberties of a free and Loyal People. . . .” Civilians and soldiers invariably reached an accommodation over quarters, but only at a high cost in mutual trust.

The British government also counted on colonial assemblies to provide adequate provisions and timely transportation, but the colonies proved stingy and dilatory—at least in the opinion of regular officers. Every British officer complained about the reluctance of assemblies to comply “with the just and equitable demands of their King and Country,” but legislators acted at their own deliberate pace. They were so slow in fulfilling requests that the British frequently impressed or seized what they needed, which was an unjustified exercise of arbitrary power from the colonial perspective.

British officers thought they perceived sinister motives in the colonials, who seemed “bent upon our ruin, and destruction,” working tirelessly “to disappoint every Plan of the Government.” Professional soldiers simply misunderstood colonial institutions and political philosophies. England’s appointment of a commander in chief for North America imposed centralized military control on a decentralized political system. Each colony considered itself sovereign and was anxious to maintain its freedom of action in military affairs. Allowing the Crown’s representative, who was also a high-ranking officer in a suspect standing army, to direct the war effort would reduce every colony’s independence. Furthermore, many colonists accepted radical Whig ideology, which preached a dichotomy between power and liberty. Every accretion of power reduced freedom’s sphere. When the British army recruited fraudulently, quartered men illegally, impressed property, and tried to bully assemblies, colonists feared that growing military power threatened their liberty. Colonial legislatures believed they were fighting two wars of equal importance, one against France and one for liberty.

Several important themes emerged from the colonial wars. First, most Americans gained a high opinion of their martial abilities and a low opinion of British professionals. Colonists typically emphasized British defeats and insufficiently praised the triumphs of Amherst, Forbes, and Wolfe. Such attitudes were a tribute to the colonists’ selective military memory and help explain colonial confidence in 1775. Second, the wars had a nationalizing impact. In 1763 each colony still jealously protected its sovereignty, yet during the wars against New France important experiments in cooperation had occurred. The Albany Plan, though rejected, was an evolutionary step leading to the First Continental Congress. During the colonial wars English colonists became Americans. Finally, a growing estrangement between England and the colonies emerged. Many Englishmen agreed with Loudoun that the colonies assumed “to themselves, what they call Rights and Privileges, Totally unknown in the Mother Country.” Many colonists concurred with the Albany city council, which stated that “Upon the Whole we conceive that his Majesties Paternal Cares to Release us [from the threat of France] have in a Great Measure been Made use of to oppress us.” The Peace of Paris, which should have pleased Englishmen everywhere, left a bitter heritage.

The Black Watch at Fontenoy

The Black Watch at the Battle of Fontenoy by William Skeoch Cumming.

The Black Watch Chaplain at the Battle of Fontenoy, 1745 by William Skeoch Cumming (1897)

In March 1743 the regiment was ordered south into England. They reached London on 29th and 30th April, and in May embarked for the Continent, to join the army under command of the Earl of Stair at grips with the French forces of Louis XV. They sailed from Gravesend to Ostend, whence they marched to Brussels, arriving on 1 June 1743; and thence by Liege to Hanau, where lay the army commanded by George II in person, who had just assumed command from the Earl of Stair. Throughout the ensuing twelve months or more the Highlanders saw no active service, but the year 1745 was to be an eventful one for the Black Watch and indeed for the regiment’s homeland.

Leading the powerful French forces in the Low Countries was the redoubtable Marshal Saxe, one of the greatest military figures of the century. He was opposed, after King George returned to England, by the Duke of Cumberland, at least the equal of the most unsuccessful general ever to have commanded British troops. Together with his Dutch allies and some Austrians, he marched at the beginning of May to relieve the fortress of Tournai from the siege with which Marshal Saxe had opened his campaign. Leaving a force to ‘mask’ Tournai, Saxe had drawn up his army in a superb defensive position some miles away. Forming the key point of all’ L-shaped defence line was the village of Fontenoy; several woods formed natural obstacles, redoubts were constructed by the French to add to the hazards faced by the attackers, and the whole front was liberally garnished with field-guns.

On 10th May when, in the manner of the time, the Allied army began its deliberate approach, it was seen that the planned start line for the attack could be reached only through the small village of Vezon. A mixed force of infantry and cavalry, including the Highlanders, was therefore detailed to clear the place. This was achieved with little trouble, the French falling back after a sharp exchange of musketry; and that was the Black Watch’s baptism of fire. Thereafter the regiment was posted on the extreme right of the Allied line, facing the wood of Barri, which formed the point d’appui of the French left flank. The following morning the task of clearing the French from the wood was given to a certain Col. Ingoldsby, who was provided with a brigade consisting of the 12th and 13th Foot, a Hanoverian regiment, and the Highlanders. At 6.00 a.m. the brigade moved off, but a succession of quite inexplicable events halted it. Whether it was uncertainty on Ingoldsby’s part or confusion resulting from conflicting orders from his superiors, is not known (he was later acquitted at a court martial) but, despite the arrival of supporting artillery, he either could not or would not press home the attack. By 11.00 a.m. a Dutch attack on Fontenoy had failed, and the Highlanders were ordered to proceed from the right to the left flank to support them in a second assault. This was much more to their taste; off they went at the double led by Lieut.-Col. Sir Robert Munro, and stormed forward against the French positions about Fontenoy with tremendous spirit and elan. The French, protected by field fortifications and in considerable strength, were much shaken by this unusual attack launched by Highland furies armed – thanks to the granting of a request that this day they should fight with their native weapons – with broadsword and targe. Over the first line of entrenchments poured the Highlanders, but the French musketry was sustained and deadly and many of them fell and died before the fortifications. After a bitter struggle the Highlanders had to retreat, carrying with them the Lieutenant-Colonel, a man of such tremendous girth that he stuck in one of the entrenchments and barely escaped being made prisoner.

While the Black Watch was regrouping after this onslaught, there followed the tremendous episode when the solid mass of British and Hanoverian infantry – 16,000 strong – advanced into the heart of the French position, shattering the Gardes Francaises and many another distinguished regiment of the ancien regime, and retiring only after having been .virtually decimated by musketry and gunfire and innumerable cavalry and infantry counter-attacks. The Highlanders and another battalion were detailed to cover the inevitable retreat, a difficult duty even though there was no sustained pursuit, and the regiment was singled out for special praise by Cumberland in his report of the battle.

As an additional mark of favour, the men were asked if there were any special requests they might like to make. Unanimously they expressed the desire that two of their comrades, under sentence of flogging for allowing some prisoners to escape, should have the punishment remitted. Another incident is worth recording. On the morning of the battle, when the Highlanders paraded, the commanding officer saw the regimental minister standing in the ranks with drawn broadsword. This was Adam Ferguson, later Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who was threatened upon the spot with the loss of his commission if he did not at once return to his more orthodox duties. ‘Damn my commission!’ retorted the bellicose prelate and marched off to battle with his men. Their first engagement cost the regiment dearly, over 30 officers and men killed and nearly 90 wounded – not as serious as the casualties of some other regiments taking part, but bad enough.



The Women’s Battalion of Death in the field.

When World War I began, Russian law prohibited women from joining the army. Nonetheless, women found ways to fight with the Russian army. Some women took the “traditional” route and disguised themselves as men, taking advantage of the general confusion to bypass medical inspections and other formalities. Others applied directly to unit commanders for the chance to enlist. As the war went on and manpower shortages became dire, individual commanders chose not to enforce the law. When women couldn’t convince a commander to let them enlist, they often appealed to a higher authority. (At least one invoked the memory of Nadezhda Durova to strengthen her case.) The number of petitions became burdensome enough that in June 1915—ten months after Russia entered the war—the army established a policy for dealing with them. Thereafter, all requests were referred to the tsar for his personal approval.

In 1917, the February Revolution brought with it the possibility of change. The Provisional Government proclaimed all subjects of the empire free and equal citizens, with the rights and duties that went with citizenship. Many women assumed their new status included their right as citizens to bear arms in their country’s defense. By the spring of 1917, the idea of an all-female military unit was in the air. Individual women proclaimed their desire to serve. Women’s groups sent petitions to the government asking for permission to form all-female military units.

At the same time that women were eager to join the army, men on the front were desperate for the war to stop. For two and a half years, the army had suffered shortages of food and materiel, heavy casualties, and brutal defeats at the hands of the Germans. From the perspective of the front line, the February Revolution had done nothing to improve their lot. The Provisional Government was no more effective at running the war than the imperial government it replaced. The introduction of democracy to the military decision-making process in the form of soldiers’ committees resulted in endless wrangling about every action and made it difficult for officers to enforce orders. In fact, many units voted to remove their officers, and then followed up the vote with force. Morale was low and the desertion rate was high. In May, units at the front experienced mass mutinies. It was not clear that Russia could continue to fight.

Many people thought an all-female battalion was the solution, believing the presence of women in the trenches would raise morale, or at least shame male soldiers into fighting.

In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers.

Bochkareva’s story is similar to that of women who joined the army disguised as men in earlier centuries. She was born into a desperately poor peasant family and went to work at the age of eight. When she was fifteen, she married a local peasant, Afanasi Bochkarev, in an attempt to escape her father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Afanasi proved to be as brutal as her father. She fled again, this time with a petty criminal named Yakov Buk. They lived together for three years. When Buk was arrested for fencing stolen goods in May 1912, Maria followed him into exile in Siberia, where he began to drink heavily and became physically abusive.

When the war began in 1914, Bochkareva saw it as an opportunity to escape. She traveled to her childhood home of Tomsk and attempted to enlist in the Twenty-Fifth Tomsk Reserve Battalion. The commander explained it was illegal for women to serve in the imperial army. Bochkareva pushed. The commander sarcastically suggested she ask the tsar for permission to enlist—not that far-fetched a suggestion as it turned out. Bochkareva convinced (or perhaps bullied) the commander to help her write a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. To the amazement of everyone, and the possible chagrin of the commander, she received a thumbs-up from the tsar.

With the tsar’s permission, she enlisted in the Fourth Company of the Twenty-Fifth Reserve. Her unit was sent to the western front in February 1915. For two years she served with distinction. She was wounded three times—the third time a shell fragment pierced her spine, leaving her paralyzed. She learned to walk again and returned to the front. She earned several military honors for valor, including the St. George Cross.

Bochkareva was an avid proponent of an all-female brigade. She began to recruit for the First Women’s Battalion of Death as soon as she received approval to form the unit, helped by the Petrograd Women’s Military Organization. Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.

The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.

Bessie Beatty, an American journalist who reported on the Russian Revolutions and the subsequent civil war for the San Francisco Bulletin, spent ten days living with the battalion in its barracks. When she asked the women why they had enlisted, many told her it was “because they believed that the honor and even the existence of Russia were at stake and nothing but great human sacrifice could save her.” Others joined because “anything was better than the dreary drudgery and the drearier waiting of life as they lived it.” A fifteen-year-old Cossack girl from the Urals, who managed to enlist despite the requirement that all volunteers be at least eighteen, joined because her father, mother, and two brothers had all died in battle. “What else is left for me?” she asked Beatty.

On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit, the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders. Bessie Beatty trumpeted the significance of the unit and the event to her readers. This was “not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun throughout the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse—machine gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.”

Two days later, Bochkareva and her soldiers left for the Russian western front. Kerensky sent the unit to an area that suffered from dangerously low morale. A few days before the women arrived, a regiment had been forced to disband due to massive desertions. Their posting was deliberate—a test as to whether the presence of women would affect the morale of male soldiers.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death experienced its first taste of battle on July 9 as part of an offensive against a German position. When the order came to attack, nothing happened. Three regiments of the infantry division to which they were attached convened their soldiers’ committees and debated whether or not to fight. After several hours, the women, anxious to prove their worth, decided they would advance without the support of the other regiments. Joined by a few hundred male soldiers, they advanced with few casualties. Eventually, more than half the soldiers in the division joined them in the advance. Together they took the first and second lines of the German trenches.

The women and a few male soldiers held off six German counterattacks on their position. They retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Before retreating, they captured two machine guns and a number of Germans, including two officers, who were not happy about being taken prisoner by women. One officer was so distraught with the shame of being captured by women that the Russian women tied him down for fear he would commit suicide—a variation of the Yoruba rage at finding they had retreated before an army of women.

The First Women’s Battalion of Death inspired the creation of similar units throughout Russia. Between five thousand and six thousand women volunteered for combat. The Provisional Government established fifteen more official units; grassroots women’s groups organized at least ten others. Several of these units saw active duty.

Despite the success of the First Women’s Battalion of Death at the front, military authorities believed the units were more trouble than they were worth. The units were formed as a means of improving morale among male troops. Instead, male soldiers became increasingly hostile to the presence of women soldiers over the course of the summer. By September, the military had stopped enlisting women and was discussing proposals to disband existing women’s combat units.

In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a relatively bloodless coup. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and began demobilizing the army, including the all-female units. Because the great experiment of women soldiers was publicly linked with the Provisional Government, many women soldiers were branded as counterrevolutionaries during the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule and suffered violence at the hands of their countrymen. Some joined anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Others enlisted in the Red Army, which welcomed women during the civil war—though most of them were placed in noncombat positions.

Maria Bochkareva fled to the United States, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson to plea for the United States to intervene in Russia. (And took the time to “write” her memoir.) She returned to Siberia in 1919 and organized a women’s paramedic unit on behalf of the White Russians. She was captured by the Bolsheviks on Christmas Day 1919, tried as an enemy of the state, and shot on May 16, 1920. She was thirty years old.

Russia’s women soldiers were celebrated during the First World War, but they were conspicuously absent from Soviet histories of the war and the revolution that followed it because of their connection to the failed Provisional Government. Nonetheless, they would serve as a precedent when Soviet Russia once again faced an external enemy in the form of Nazi Germany.

The Escape of Flying Officer Tom Wingham, RAF

Tom Wingham, together with the other members of the crew of their Halifax II bomber, belonging to No. 102 (Ceylon) squadron, had just returned from a bombing trip to Germany, when they were told to report to Boscombe Down to test the latest Halifax bomber – the Halifax III prototype. They still had three more trips to do before they completed their tour but they had been selected for this job because they were the most experienced crew in the group. This was a welcome relief to the crew as the losses within the squadron were mounting with each mission and the odds of survival were quickly diminishing.

The development tests were scheduled to last for about five weeks but problems with the aircraft resulted in the five weeks turning into five months. On their return to their home base of Pocklington in Yorkshire, they discovered that they had been ‘screened’, which meant that the three trips needed to complete their tour had been deemed to be done. The crew was then split up and Tom Wingham chose to go to RAF Rufforth, just outside York, as a bombing instructor with the Heavy Conversion Unit.

By March 1944, Tom Wingham was becoming restless and although his job as an instructor was important, he wanted to get back into the war. His opportunity came when a drinking companion, Fgt-Off Jim Lewis, a navigator who was part of a crew that was being reformed, asked him if he was interested in joining them. Tom Wingham jumped at the chance and together with two gunners, WO John Rowe and F/Sgt Harry Poole, both instructors from RAF Driffield, they made up the crew. The rest of the crew consisted of pilot Sqn Ldr Stan Somerscales and wireless operator Fgt-Off Jack Reavill.

On the 20 April 1944, the crew took over a brand-new Halifax that had been delivered just two days previously by an ATA pilot. She maintained that it was one of the best Halifax bombers she had ever flown. The crew took it on an air test to ensure everything worked as it should and declared it fit for operations. On 21 April the crew carried out two raids on railway yards in France and Belgium and then was stood down for another crew to take the bomber on a raid to Dusseldorf. The second crew was led by the CO of No.76 Squadron, Hank Iverson, but Group HQ ordered him and his crew to stand down as they had completed their quota of trips for that month. Stan Somerscales and his crew were taken off ‘stand down’ and given the green light to take part in the raid.

At 10.36 p.m. on 22 April the big Halifax bomber once again lifted off the runway at Home-on-Spalding Moor (Yorkshire), together with other bombers, and headed south towards northern France. As they passed over Liége Tom Wingham settled himself down in the prone position to carry out checks on his bombsight. Minutes later there was a muffled thud and the aircraft shook slightly. Over the intercom came shouts of, ‘What was that?’ Then F/Sgt Harry Poole in the mid-upper gun turret shouted, ‘The wing’s on fire!’ They discovered some time later that they had been attacked by a Me. 110 nightfighter flown by Fähnrich Rudolph Frank, one of the Luftwaffe’s top night-fighter aces with forty-five victories to his credit, using an upward-firing cannon called a Schräge Musik.

Within seconds Stan Somserscale ordered the crew to bale out as he knew there was no way of saving the aircraft. Tom Wingham immediately jettisoned the bomb load to make it easier for the pilot to maintain control and then clipping on his parachute, moved his seat from over the escape hatch. Being a new aircraft the hatch was extremely tight and it took the combined efforts of himself and Jim Lewis to force it open. All the time the flames were creeping along the wing and into the fuselage. As he watched Jim Lewis drop out, Tom looked back along the fuselage, which by now was enveloped in smoke and flames, and saw Jack Reavill about to leave by one on the other hatches. Sitting on the edge of the hatch, Tom dropped out and as he pulled the ripcord of his parachute he saw the burning aircraft plunging towards the ground. He discovered later that the aircraft crashed between Maastricht and Aachen.

Tom Wingham remembered nothing after pulling the ripcord until he came to in the middle of a field. He lay there for a while trying to collect his thoughts, and then his back and legs started to become extremely painful as he struggled to his feet. Hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes whilst unconscious hadn’t helped his situation. He glanced down at his watch and was aware that he was having great difficulty in focusing. His jaw was also very swollen and tender. He realised later that he was suffering from concussion probably brought about by the heavy metal parachute clips hitting him on either side of the jaw as his parachute opened. Gathering up his parachute and harness, he rolled it into as tight a bundle as possible then struggled across the field and hid it under the hedgerow.

Looking up at the stars Tom managed to fix a position and headed in a south-westerly direction. Reaching a small river he waded across then decided to settle down for the night. In the morning the sun spread a warm feeling through his aching and bruised body but his vision was still out of focus which was causing him some concern. He decided that it would be safer to travel at night and so rested beside the river until dusk. With the gathering darkness he started off, not knowing where he was headed for or indeed what country he was in. He had in fact crossed the Dutch–Belgian border during the night and was now in Belgium. The walking had helped ease the pains in his back and legs. Stumbling on through the darkness he came upon a village and although he could hear voices he could not identify their nationality, so decided to skirt the village and continue in a south-westerly direction.

His vision was still giving him cause for worry and the only way he could work out his course was to lie flat on his back, identify the North Star and line up his body to the south-west. This of course was conditional on clear nights, but on the second day he was caught out in the open during a violent thunderstorm and within minutes was soaked through to the skin in a torrential downpour. In addition to this he could hear the sound of engines as bombers flew overhead on their way to targets in Germany. Then suddenly he heard the sound of gunfire and minutes later saw a burning Lancaster bomber hit the ground and explode just a mile or two from where he was standing.

Tom realised that he was in dire need of help and decided to trudge back to the village he had skirted earlier and make his way to the church. He found the church deserted so decided to wait in the undergrowth until the dawn came. Then he saw movement and watched as a woman emerged from a cottage. She opened a pen full of sheep and proceeded to drive them towards a field close to where Tom was hiding. Taking a chance, he stepped out and explained to the woman in a mixture of gestures and sign language that he was the member of an RAF bomber crew that had been shot down and had parachuted into a field. The communication proved to be difficult but then the realisation of what he was trying to say became apparent to the woman and she quickly ushered him into the cottage.

On entering the cottage he was confronted by three men – the woman’s husband and their two sons. After managing to explain to them that he was a downed RAF airman they helped him take off his wet clothes. Meanwhile one of the sons had disappeared and had gone across the street to another cottage where he knew there was a Dutch policeman, Herman Ankoné, who had been visiting some friends in the village. Unwittingly, the woman Tom had approached for help was known locally as the worst gossip in the area and so the policeman, knowing this, was wary of offering his help. However, they had approached him and by doing so had compromised themselves, so he decided to check Tom out in case he had been a German ‘plant’.

Entering the cottage, the policeman barked out a number of commands in German and getting no response from Tom, proceeded to verify that he was who he said he was. Tom was initially shaken but after realising that the man was not German but in fact Dutch, he relaxed. Again the language barrier was causing problems, so the policeman indicated using sign language and pencil and paper that an English-speaking policeman would come later that evening.

At 9 a.m. a tall policeman in uniform entered the cottage and began to interrogate Tom until he was satisfied that Tom was indeed an RAF airman. Introducing himself as Sgt Vermullen, the policeman told Tom that he and all the other officers in the district just over the border were members of the local Dutch Resistance.

After being given fresh clothes and a meal, Tom was taken to another house in the village where he was instructed to wait until he was collected by other police officers that evening. Promptly at 6 p.m., three Dutch police officers, including Sgt Vermullen and officer Ankoné, arrived to take him over the border into Holland. He was taken to a farmhouse close to the border and introduced to Richard Linckens and his wife Cisca. The couple were members of the Resistance who helped escaping and evading allied airmen and had aided more than forty since the beginning of the war. In order to allay any suspicions from the German border guards, the couple maintained a very friendly relationship with them and on numerous occasions entertained the guards in one room, whilst in another room allied airmen were enjoying a meal. During the two days Tom Wingham stayed there he remembers having supper with Cisca, whilst her husband was having coffee in the next room with some of the German border guards!

On the evening of the second day, the three Dutch policemen arrived to escort him to another safe house in a village called Slenaken. On the way the group ran into a patrol of German border guards and Tom had to jump out of the vehicle and hide in an orchard until they had passed. The group resumed their journey and for the next three days and nights Tom Wingham stayed at the home of Sgt Vermullen in the company of his wife and three children.

Again this aid and hospitality was extended willingly despite the risk that families might pay for it with their lives if they were discovered. Then after the third day, a guide turned up to take him to another safe house. After saying farewell and thanking his hosts, Tom Wingham and the guide set off on a two-hour trek through pitch-black woodland to an isolated farmhouse over the border in Belgium. The farmer and his wife welcomed him but were nervous about him being there. They emphasised the point to the guide that it could only be for one night. The next morning he was told that another guide would come to collect him after lunch but lunchtime came and went, with the farmer and his wife becoming increasingly agitated. Then a message came to say that it would be the following day before he could be collected. Despite Tom feeling a sense of embarrassment at being foisted on the couple, he had no choice but to stay put until the following day.

Just after lunch the following day, the farmer gave Tom an old bicycle and he was taken to a lane some distance from the farm. There he was told to wait until his guide arrived to take him to his next point of contact. After about thirty minutes a woman and a young girl, Madame Coomans and her daughter Mady, suddenly appeared on bicycles and stopped beside him. Once again there was a problem with language but Madam Coomans, the mother, spoke a few words of English and managed to explain to Tom what was going to happen. The mother and daughter would cycle in front with at least a 50yd gap between each of the bikes. In the event of the mother being stopped by a German patrol, the daughter would turn around and cycle back towards Tom. He in turn would turn around and take the next turning off the road. The daughter Mady would catch up and overtake him and then lead him on to safety.

Still suffering from concussion, Tom set off behind the two women, all the time having great difficulty in focussing. Fortunately everything went smoothly and just before dark they reached the small town of Wandre. They parked their bicycles at the rear of the home of the parish priest, before entering the Manse. Here they were warmly welcomed and the priest’s housekeeper provided them with a hot meal. The priest, who spoke good English, explained to Tom what was going to happen next. He was to go and stay the night at the home of Mme Coomans and the next day he was to travel with a guide to Brussels to join up with a group of evaders who were going down the escape line to Spain.

The following morning he was woken to be told that he was too late to join the others in Brussels. Due to a directive from London to the escape line organisers to suspend all movement of airmen, he was to stay with the Coomans. This created a major problem, because Mme Coomans’ husband had no knowledge of his wife’s Resistance activities. Nevertheless, Tom Wingham moved into the small house and lived there for the next seven weeks without Monsieur Coomans’ knowledge as he went to work as a miner blissfully unaware of who was living in the spare room upstairs.

Madame Coomans’ husband worked a regular 2-10 p.m. shift, so she set out her husband’s timetable for Tom Wingham:

8 a.m. – Got up and had breakfast.

10 a.m. – Went to local estaminet (bar) to play cards with friends.

12.30 p.m. – Returned home for dinner.

1.25 p.m. – Departed for work at the mine.

10.20 p.m. – Returned from work.

11 p.m. – Went to bed.

In between all these times Tom Wingam was allowed out of his room, but never allowed to leave the house – not even to use the outside toilet. The stairs from downstairs led directly into the first bedroom, there was no landing, whilst the door to the second bedroom was at the foot of the bed in the main bedroom.

During the day, visitors, in the shape of the local priest, a member of the escape committee from Liége and sometimes the paymaster for the Resistance, would occasionally visit to see if he needed anything and to pay Mme Coomans for Tom Wingham’s food. Tom was constantly concerned about what would happen if M Coomans ever found out that he was in the house. He was told that he would probably just tell him to leave, as he was neither for nor against the Germans and equally he was neither for nor against the English.

As the days turned into weeks the arrival of June heralded the beginning of summer and Tom longed to be able to walk in the warm sunshine. Then on 6 June news came through of the D-Day landings and the retreat of the German army. Two weeks later Tom Wingham’s world almost collapsed around him when he heard a sudden screeching of tyres and the slamming of car doors outside the house. There came a hammering on the doors and shouts in German for the doors to be opened. He had been betrayed to the Gestapo.

Tom had been listening to the BBC on the radio at the time, so switching it off and changing the dial settings, he raced upstairs with the intention of escaping through a window at the back of the house and into the woods. As he went to open the shutter, he saw a leather-coated figure at the back trying to force open a window in the back. Now desperate, he raced downstairs and into the cellar, frantically looking for a place to hide. It took a few moments for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness and it became obvious that there was nowhere to hide. The cellar was cluttered with old boxes and the usual items found in a cellar. Upstairs he heard the Gestapo searching the rooms. Suddenly he spied a tiny alcove behind the stairs that led to the cellar, surrounded by old crates. The alcove, which was about 4ft high and just 18in wide, was his only hope and so he somehow squeezed in and pulled the crates around him.

He heard heavy footsteps pounding down the wooden staircase into the cellar. Barely daring to breathe, his heart was beating so loudly that he thought the Germans must have been able to hear it. The two Gestapo men stopped and struck matches to enable them to peer into the inky blackness. Fortunately for Tom they had not thought to bring torches with them and after a few moments, including a time when they moved close to the crates behind which he was hiding, they left. Tom remained crouched whilst he heard them banging around upstairs and then he heard car doors slamming shut followed by an engine starting, and the scream of tyres as they sped away.

He waited for almost an hour before emerging from the cellar just to ensure that they had gone. He discovered later that the Gestapo had gone to the mine, picked up M Coomans and taken him to their headquarters in Liége for questioning. After many hours of questioning the Gestapo realised that he knew nothing of his wife’s involvement with the Resistance, which of course he didn’t, and released him. M. Coomans returned home in the early hours of the morning, not knowing that Tom was still in the house.

That evening Tom slipped out of the back door and made his way through the dense wood to the Manse at the other end of the village and explained what had happened to the priest. He was then passed on to another Resistance group, who took him to a small terraced house in the village where he stayed with an elderly widower who lived alone. Once again Tom found himself confined to the house, not even being allowed to use the outside toilet.

The reason for this was because one of the attached houses was the home of members of the Belgian Nazis (Rexist Party), and one of their sons was away fighting with the Waffen SS. Their bedroom window overlooked the widower’s outside toilet and it was too dangerous for Tom to even consider stepping outside in case they spotted him.

After one week some members of the Resistance came and took him to a farm a couple of miles outside the town. The farmer named M. Schoofs, his wife, a son called Pascal and two daughters made Tom very welcome and he quickly became integrated as part of the family. This was a complete change for Tom, in as much as he could walk freely around the farm and help in the fields picking fruit. It also gave him a chance to repay their hospitality in a small way and not feel completely obliged, although this had never been suggested or hinted at by any of the people who had helped him.

For the next few weeks Tom enjoyed the open-air life, only interrupted by the odd raid by the Gestapo. They almost always made their raids either first thing in the morning or in the evenings. When it was suspected that they were in the area, Tom would get up early in the morning and go to the bottom of one of the fields and hide, and do the same thing again in the evening.

One evening one of the Resistance members called and asked him if he was prepared to join up with an RAF pilot and steal a German plane from a local airfield and fly it back to England. Tom immediately jumped at the chance but the town priest suggested that he be allowed to check on the validity of such a daring proposal. The priest returned saying that it was indeed a genuine proposal and arrangements were put into place to take Tom to Liége to await final instructions. He was taken into the town and placed in the care of an elderly couple in their third-floor apartment.

After two days of waiting and hearing nothing, it was soon realised that the whole project was a non-starter. Increasing German patrols and searches by the Gestapo in the town made the old couple extremely nervous. The Resistance was contacted and arrangements were made to take him back to the farm. Early one evening a member of the Resistance, a Belgian Intelligence agent, arrived with two bicycles and the two men set off to cycle back to the village of Wandre. They had just left the outskirts of Liége when another cyclist, a German soldier, joined them. He accompanied them almost all the way to Wandre before leaving them.

Just a mile from the farm, the two men stopped and parted and Tom walked the rest of the way, whilst the Belgian took the other bicycle back to Liége.

Towards the end of August there were a growing number of German soldiers retreating from the advancing allies. Then suddenly the farm was surrounded by German troops camping out in the fields, hedgerows or anywhere else they could. The officer in charge then told Madame Schoofs that he was taking over part of the farmhouse and making it his headquarters. He told her that their barns would be commandeered as billets for his men. Taking M Schoofs to one side, Tom suggested that he should leave so as not to cause problems for the family in the event of him being discovered. But because of the situation, and the reduction in the level of danger, the couple decided that Tom should play the part of a deaf Flemish mute, as it might arouse suspicion if he suddenly left.

That lunchtime the family, including some of the workers from the fields, sat down in the kitchen to enjoy a rather sumptuous roast lunch of veal. At one point the whole family, with the exception of Tom, left the table to harangue a bunch of dejected, straggling soldiers as they trudged their weary way through the farmyard. As they did so, Tom, still at the lunch table, looked up to see two German soldiers looking longingly at the pile of food on the table.

Tom’s chair was situated close to the door leading into what was becoming the German officer’s control room and suddenly it was pushed ajar violently and Tom was almost thrown to the floor. The German officer’s head peered around the door shouting out commands. On receiving no response he shouted even louder, Tom had to play the part of a deaf mute all the time. At this point Mme Schoofs, on hearing the commotion, stormed into the kitchen and started to berate the officer about how she felt a German officer should behave and how she did not want dirty Boche boots soiling her Belgian kitchen floor. For a moment there was silence, then the officer muttered something and quietly shut the door and locked it.

Word started to come through that retreating bands of Waffen SS troops were killing young Belgian men indiscriminately, so it was decided that Tom Wingham should be moved to a safer location. The problem was how to get him past the German troops now surrounding and even camped within the farm itself. Within the hour Pascal told Tom to get ready to move and so Tom Wingham prepared himself for one of the most nerve-racking moments since he had bailed out of his aircraft. Pascal came in to fetch him and the two men walked out into the farmyard. Waiting in the middle of the farmyard was a very fat peasant woman of around thirty-five years of age holding a battered pushchair. With her was a young child aged between two and three years old, who was playing with some of the German soldiers.

The woman glanced at Tom and then shouted for the child to come to her or Papa wouldn’t push her in the chair. Tom was stunned for the moment as he realised that he had just been ‘married’ off, and dressed in ill-fitting pinstripe trousers and a black jacket, he tottered off with the woman, followed by goodbyes and laughter from the Schoofs family and totally bemused looks from the German soldiers lounging around.

The couple made their way back to Wandre, where members of the Resistance were waiting. After saying goodbye and giving grateful thanks to his ‘bride’ of a few hours, Tom Wingham was placed in a safe house.

Two days later an American tank column entered the village and Tom was able to arrange passage to Paris where he met up with his navigator. The two men returned to England on 16 September.

Tom Wingham returned to operational flying, this time on Mosquitoes with No. 105 squadron. He completed four more missions including, on the night of 2 May 1945, being in one of the last four aircraft of Bomber Command to bomb Germany.

It cannot be emphasised enough the dangers that the men, women and children placed themselves in to help allied soldiers and airmen to escape the clutches of the German army and Gestapo. The identities of the vast majority of these people will never be known, as after the war they just went back to their normal way of life. The debt owed to these people can never be repaid but should never be forgotten as they helped in their own way to shape the course of history.

No. 102 Squadron RAF

Ju-52 ”Kaleva”

Kaleva, registered OH-ALL, was a civilian Junkers Ju 52 passenger and transport plane, belonging to the Finnish carrier Aero O/Y. The aircraft was shot down by two Soviet Ilyushin DB-3 bombers during peacetime between the Soviet Union and Finland on June 14, 1940, while en route from Tallinn to Helsinki, killing all 9 on board.

A few minutes after taking off in Tallinn, Kaleva was joined at close range by two Soviet DB-3T torpedo bombers. The bombers opened fire with their machine guns and badly damaged Kaleva, making it crash into the water a few kilometers northeast of Keri Lighthouse. All nine passengers and crew members on board were killed.

Estonian fishermen had witnessed the attack and crash of the plane. Shortly after the crash the Soviet submarine Shch-301 surfaced and inspected the fishing boats. After confiscating items taken from the wreck by the fishermen, the Soviets picked up diplomatic mail from the wreck and the sea. The future top-scoring Finnish pilot Ilmari Juutilainen was sent to inspect the crash site. After the Soviets spotted the Finnish airplane, the submarine hid its flag.

At the time of the incident Finland was not at war with the Soviet Union. The attack was probably part of the Soviet preparations for the full-scale occupation of Estonia, which took place two days after the Kaleva incident, on 16 June 1940. The occupation was preceded for several days by a Soviet air and naval blockade, which included preventing diplomatic mail from being sent abroad from Estonia. The passengers on the last flight of Kaleva included two German businessmen, two French embassy couriers, one Swede, an American courier, and an Estonian woman. The French couriers had over 120 kilograms of diplomatic mail in the plane. The American courier was reportedly transporting the U.S. military codes to safety from Estonia.

The plane was piloted by Captain Bo von Willebrand, and Tauno Launis was the wireless operator. The American victim was Henry W. Antheil, Jr., younger brother of noted composer George Antheil. Antheil worked as a clerk at the U.S. Legation in Helsinki. In 2007, he was honored for his service in a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State. His name was inscribed on the U.S. Department of State’s Wall of Honor.

The Government of Finland did not send any complaints or questions to the Soviets out of fear of hostile Soviet response, and the true reason for the crash was hidden from the public. This was due to the heavy pressure put upon Finland during the Interim Peace by the Soviets. After the outbreak of the Continuation War, the incident was described in detail by the government.

G. Golderg’s report

The commander of Shch-301 G. Golderg’s report on the incident held in the Russian State Naval Archives starts with the notice of a Finnish airplane on its way from Tallinn to Helsinki on June 14, 1940 at 15.05 PM. According to the report, the airplane was chased by two Soviet Tupolev SB high-speed bombers. At 15.06 PM, the Finnish airplane caught fire and fell into the sea, 5.8 miles from the submarine. At 15.09 PM the submarine took course to the crash site and made it to the location by 15.47 PM. The submarine was met by 3 Estonian fishing boats near the detritus of the airplane. The Estonian fishermen were searched by lieutenants Aladzhanov, Krainov and Shevtshenko. All valuables found from the fishermen and in the sea were brought on board of the submarine: the items included about 100 kg. of diplomatic post, valuables and foreign currencies. At 15.58 a Finnish fighter plane was noticed with the course towards the submarine. The airplane made 3 circles above the site and then flew towards Helsinki. The exact coordinates of the crash site were determined to be at 59°47′1″N 25°01′6″E.

A. Matvejev’s report

Captain A. Matvejev’s report states that on board the Shch-301 noticed an airplane crash on June 14, 1940 at 15.06 on 5.8 miles distance from the submarine. At the crash site 3 Estonian fishing boats and the remains of the airplane were found. At 15.58 PM a Finnish fighter plane made 3 circles above the crash site. By 16.10 PM all items found from the sea and from the hands of the fishermen were brought on board the submarine. The items included about 100 kg of diplomatic mail, and valuables and currencies including: 1) 2 golden medals, 2) 2000 Finnish marks, 3) 10.000 Romanian leus, 4)13.500 French francs, 5) 100 Yugoslav dinars, 6) 90 Italian liras, 7) 75 US dollars, 8) 521 Soviet rubles, 9) 10 Estonian kroons. All items were put on board of patrol boat “Sneg” and sent to Kronstadt.


I thought this article on PANZERGRENADIER TACTICS might prove of some interest, as probably the German Motorised/Panzergrenadier divisions were amongst the most versatile of the War.

Guderian always accepted that tanks could not operate alone effectively. Despite anti-infantry weaponry-usually machine guns-a tank was always vulnerable to small groups or even lone infantrymen if they were determined enough. This vulnerability was increased if the infantry had access to decent anti-tank guns or devices, but even poorly-equipped foot soldiers could prove a real danger if they had the requisite courage. Finnish tank-killing infantry destroyed about 1600 Soviet AFVs/Tanks during the Winter War of 1939-40, mostly using Molotov cocktails or even petrol filled vodka bottles. Tanks proved particularly at risk in broken terrain, such as forests and urban areas and the Finns exploited this.

When Tanks were fighting through defensive lines or moving through landscape that provided the enemy with good cover, they needed accompanying infantry to go in first to clear the way or make a breakthrough in the enemy line so the Tanks could then exploit. Thus the Panzergrenadier might very often have to fight like a conventional infantryman. Conversely, in a fast-moving advance that usually characterised German Blitzkrieg tactics he might find himself carried by a halftrack, lorry or motorcycle, or in extreme circumstances, hanging from the tank itself, ready to dismount and engage anything that slowed the Tank. Whenever tanks bypassed points or ‘pockets’ of stiff enemy resistance, it was the job of the Panzergrenadier to clear up these pockets.

Although the classic image of the Panzergrenadier is intimately associated with the SdKfz 251 half-tracked armoured personnel carrier, there were never enough of these vehicles to equip panzergrenadier formations to full strength. The concept of a carrier-borne attack into the heart of the enemy’s defences accompanying the tanks was the ideal, but the reality was somewhat more mundane. Most Panzergrenadiers were transported in soft-skinned vehicles like trucks and motorcycles. These were very vulnerable and thus caution was required when following tanks. There were no half-tracks available in the Polish campaign, and later in the War very few Pazergrenadier divisions had a full complement of these vehicles. Even within the Panzer divisions, only 1 battalion in 2 would be so equipped.

Therefore instead of driving into the midst of the enemy position, the Panzergrenadiers. normally debussed at a forming-up point or start line away from the enemy’s line of sight. They then attacked in the conventional manner of infantry supporting tanks. The key tactical advantage was that because of their motorisation, they could be brought into battle as soon as they were needed.

It was only at the time of Barbarossa in 1941 that large numbers of SdKfz 251s became widely available and enough to equip full battallions of Panzergrenadiers within a Panzer division. Now, the Germans could experiment with fighting directly from their half-tracks. Although the SdKfz 251 provided decent protection against small arms fire, they only had 13mm of armoured plate. Thus they became vulnerable to even the smallest calibre anti-tank weapon and suffered accordingly. Due to heavy losses suffered amongst half-tracks when accompanying Tanks into the heart of a battle, the Germans fairly quickly resorted to debussing at least 400m or so in front of enemy positions, when using the SD KFZ 251. Nonetheless, under certain tactical conditions, the half-track could provide a useful firing position.

At the lowest level, the basic Panzergrenadier unit was the gruppe or squad, usually about 12 men mounted in a half-track or often a truck. The squad was led by a squad leader, usually a junior NCO eg a corporal, who was armed with a machine pistol and was responsible for the squad to the platoon commander. On the move, he also commanded the vehicle and fired the vehicle mounted machine gun, usually an MG 34/42. His rifle-armed assistant was normally a lance-corporal and could lead the half squad if it was divided. The squad contained 2 light machine-gun teams, each of 2 men, four rifle-armed infantrymen and the driver and co-driver. The driver was also responsible for the care of the vehicle and expected to remain with the transport. A Panzergrenadier platoon was made up of 3 squads, with the platoon HQ in a separate vehicle. The HQ troop consisted of a platoon commander, usually a junior officer but sometimes a sergeant, a driver, a radio-operator, 2 runners, a medic and usually some form of anti-tank gun.

When the squad was transported by a half-track, the vehicle was mounted from the rear. The deputy squad leader was responsible for closing the door, thus he would sit towards the rear of the vehicle and the squad leader would sit at the front.

These vehicles were open-topped, and on the move it was usual for one man to scan the skies constantly for aircraft, whilst others kept a watch on both sides of the vehicle. When a platoon was driving together, close order, for the convoy was usually 5-10m apart in column or even abreast in open country. In combat, however, the gaps were extended to beyond 50m, and ragged lines or chequered formations were used. If the whole battalion was deployed, the preferred formation was often an ‘arrowhead’. On the whole, troop-carrying vehicles rarely averaged more than 30km per hour road speed. Even under ideal conditions, a panzer division was not expected to advance more than 20km in a day.

The SdKfz 251, drivers were prepared to simply ignore or drive through small arms fire, but the presence of enemy artillery or anti-tank guns usually saw them seek cover. The squad’s machine-gunners might well engage targets on the move, as could the rest of the squad if necessary from the sides. Often when advancing, the SdKfz 251s, could utilise a motorised version of fire and movement, advancing, stopping and firing to cover other half-tracks. A halted half-track provided a good firing position but was vulnerable. As a result, it was not recommended to stop for more than 15-20seconds in hostile terrain. The normal dismounting procedure was via the rear of the vehicle. However, in emergencies, the squad might well jump over the side as well as out of the back. This was often performed on the move at slow speeds. Once dismounted, the Panzergrenadiers fought as normal infantry. Improvements in Soviet anti-tank defences as the war advanced meant that the Panzergrenadiers often had to precede the tanks, or a mixed force of tanks and soldiers might move forward to clear enemy defences.

One of the most important German formations developed during the Soviet campaign was the PULK, a contraction of Panzer und lastkraftwagen, meaning tanks and trucks. This was a hollow wedge of tanks inside which moved the mororized infantry. The point of the wedge was formed by the best tanks and the sides by other tanks and self-propelled guns. When the wedge pierced the enemy defences, it widened the gap as it passed through. The Panzergrenadiers were then able to spread out and attack remaining areas of resistance from the flanks and rear. If the enemy’s weakest point had not been identified, the PULK could advance as a blunt quadrangle. Once a weak spot was found, the formation could incline left or right, its corner becoming the ‘point of advance’.

Although the Panzergrenadiers key role was co-operation with Tanks they could fight on their own. The very flexibility was a vital component of their value. They could fight as infantry offensive and defensive actions, assault vital strongpoints, seize bridges and clear urban or wooded areas in which the Tanks were at risk. Essentially the Panzergrenadiers was part of an all-arms team. His role grew out of the German acceptance that the Tank could not win battles alone. To quote Wilhelm Necker in 1943: ‘The Germans at an early stage in the war and even before the war understood the special weakness of the tank: its dependency on terrain and the fact it cannot occupy, but can only strike hard and break through lines. For this reason, the actual tank force was cut down to the minimum and the division reinforced with various other units, the most important being the Panzergrenadier.’

First German vehicle picture I saw as a child.

Fleischer, Wolfgang: “Die motorisierten Schutzen und Panzergrenadiere des deutschen Heeres, 1935-1945. Waffen-Fahrzeuge-Gliederung-Einsatze”, Podzun Pallas Verlag, Wolfersheim, 2000,

Riemann, Horst: “Deutsche Panzergrenadiere”,

Mittler & Sohn Verlag, Herford, 1989,

Scheibert, Horst: “Panzergrenadiere, Kradschutzen und Panzeraufklarer 1935 – 1945”, Podzun Pallas Verlag, Friedberg, ca. 1984,

Lucas/Cooper: “Panzergrenadiere im 2.Weltkrieg”,

Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart, 1.Auflage, 1981,

Redmon/Cuccarese: “Panzergrenadiers in action”, Broschur, Squadron/Signal Publications, (engl.) Carrollton, Texas, USA, 1980,

Senger-Etterlin,F.: “Die Panzergrenadiere, Geschichte und Gestalt der

mechanisierten Infanterie 1930 – 1960″, Lehmanns Verlag, Munchen, 1961

Officers, mid-17th century to early 18th century

During this period-with the notable exceptions of England and the United Provinces-monarchs in Europe increasingly took direct control of military affairs away from powerful noble military families and mercenary captains. As they did, better-supervised and more-professional officer corps slowly took shape on land and at sea. The progress of professionalization displacing mere class origin in selection and advancement of officers varied in terminology employed and historical timing in different kingdoms. In general, however, by the mid-17th century, men holding a commission signed by a king were known as “commission-officers.” By the early 18th century, this terminology shifted slightly to commissioned officers. That referred to any officer appointed by the crown-or the Admiralty in the case of the Royal Navy or one of five states’ admiralties of the Dutch Navy. At sea, commissioned officers included captains, commanders, and lieutenants. On land, this status comprised all ranks of field marshal and general as well as colonels in command of regiments. Below commissioned officers were warrant officers, who held rank by virtue of a warrant rather than a royal commission. These were staff or administrative appointments made by a regiment’s colonel or a ship’s captain. An exception was the small Prussian Army, wherein the “Great Elector” Friedrich-Wilhelm insisted on a veto of all officer choices made by his colonels. Warrant officer rank was most frequently awarded to Army chaplains and surgeons, and sometimes also to corporals and sergeants. Naval warrant officers included the master, quartermaster, boatswain, purser, and master carpenter. Holders of these four offices were also known as standing officers. Royal Navy warrants were issued by one of the naval boards.

The French Navy always found it difficult to recruit officers with seafaring skills. Service at sea was resisted by the aristocratic classes, who sought instead to serve in view of the king in the senior arm, the French Army. The Navy thus had only a small permanent officer corps, numbering fewer than 1,000 even if one counts the more than 600 ensigns. Most French sea officers in this period were either “roturiers” (of non-noble social origin) or “anoblis” (recently ennobled), or their sons. They learned seacraft in merchant ships or as privateers. Officers of more noble social origin acquired seamanship by serving on Mediterranean galleys of the Knights of Malta before commanding French galleys that remained part of the fleet based at Toulon. Some later rose to high rank and command of ships of sail. From the 1670s, French ensigns were trained in companies of Gardes marine set up by Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Many French sea officers switched over, or back, to privateering from 1695 as the Navy abandoned guerre d’escadre in favor of guerre de course. The Navy as a whole was nominally commanded by the “Admiral of France,” an ancient office that was revived in 1669 and given to a succession of the king’s illegitimate sons. Real operational command lay with activeduty admirals and two vice-admirals, one residing in Brest and the other based in Toulon. Below them were “lieutenants-general of the navy” and “chefs d’escadre,” roughly equivalent to the British rank of “commodore.”

From the time of Friedrich-Wilhelm, serfs laboring on Hohenzollern lands were recruited equally into the Prussian Army, while socially and economically privileged Junkers formed the bulk of the officer corps. Rigid social order found expression in a Junker’s desire to serve as an officer, which marked him off as socially superior to all others, and thereby reinforced rather than eroded his noble status. For a half century before 1700, Russian officers were mostly foreigners. This began to change even before Peter I imposed intense and fundamental Army reforms after ruthlessly suppressing the strel’sty. By 1675 there were many experienced Russian officers already serving in the Army; by 1695 Russians served in large numbers at all levels in new-formation units. In 1708 the majority of officers in all the tsar’s regiments were ethnic Russians or came from other of his subjects. Peter insisted on this, but also that no fewer than one third of his officers during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) must be experienced foreigners. Russian officers, too, were by then experienced in war, and were well trained in modern weapons and the new methods of warfare which Peter imported from Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United Provinces. In contrast, 15% of all Polish officers in 1650 were foreign. This number was important, however, since most Polish officers in the “National Contingent” army served a maximum of 10 years, and many did fewer than that. The Austrian Hofkriegsrat faced a much different problem, that of inherited officer commissions. It made some progress in professionalizing the officer corps when it abolished the sale of officer commissions early in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), during the presidency of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Hereditary promotions and sales of at least some commissions were standard for many middle-ranking officers and for most senior positions in most European armies of this era. Commissions were treated, and traded, as military investments. Some British Army officer commissions remained for sale well into the 19th century, until after the Crimean War. This probably reflected the position and prolonged influence of the Duke of Wellington, a man both rich and talented, who purchased a commission as lieutenant-colonel at age 23. The other problem in England, resolved only by the Glorious Revolution and complete military triumph of Protestantism across all Three Kingdoms in 1691, was the tendency of Charles II and his brother James II to appoint officers from a narrow slice of the population solely on the basis of Catholic loyalties rather than military competence. By 1688 about 10% of English officers were Catholics. Virtually all officers in Ireland under James were Catholic, following a purge of the Irish establishment by the Earl of Tyrconnel. Many Protestant officers deeply resented this assault on the property rights of their purchased commissions and deserted to William III within hours or days of his landing in England. The new king did not readily trust such men, however, and for years afterward, continued to rely on fellow Dutchmen or on German and other mercenaries. He truly trusted only those English and Scots officers who had previously served him in the Anglo-Dutch Brigade. For instance, Marlborough came under deep suspicion of divided loyalty and was imprisoned for a time. This situation changed slowly during the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). In 1706 a “Board of General Officers” was established to impose penalties or hear courts-martial of delinquent officers. This introduced a fresh element of professionalism to the British Army, even for gentlemen-officers.

The process of professionalization of the officer corps was much further and earlier advanced in France under Louvois and Louis XIV than in any other country of the time. The traditional independence of noble officers in France was severely eroded after the failure of their effort to retain privileges of their class, and the active treason of several senior commanders during the rebellion of the Fronde. Fresh standards were then imposed on even the most senior officers. The most important reform was to partly open the French officer “corps” (the word did not actually yet apply in its modern sense) to entry by men of low birth but real ability, though an old refusal of French nobles to serve under or to obey men who were regarded as social inferiors, even if they were also of noble birth, was slowly overcome. In 1675 Louis issued an “ordre de tableau” setting up a seniority list for French maréchals (of whom 51 were created between 1643 and 1715) to eliminate conflicts of command authority based on social rather than military rank.

This was part of a larger professionalization and reform undertaken by Louis and Louvois that established the modern system of ranks. Nobles still dominated the top commands: only 1 out of every 15 French generals who served under Louis XIV was of non-noble birth. The upper-class origin of most senior officers and many middle ranks was reflected in an aristocratic code of values and conduct that required displays of conspicuous courage under fire, and encouraged frequent dueling in peacetime, a practice that survived multiple royal bans. At its height, the French Army under Louis XIV had over 20,000 officers. Most were drawn from roughly 50,000 noble families of France. Others came from recently ennobled bourgeoisie, who eagerly served in the many new line regiments Louis raised during his long wars. These men paid to equip and support a new regiment in return for the privilege of its colonelcy. This led to extensive patronage networks organized around colonelcies. That trend was reinforced by the king’s insistence on state service by the old nobility, who built their own client networks in the regiments. Even among aristocratic officers, by the end of this period, an emerging professionalism ensured higher levels of political loyalty to the king than in past wars. Enhanced professionalism also cut back on otherwise endemic officer quarrels, dueling, and absenteeism.

Louvois found a way around purchased commissions by introducing two new, non-purchasable appointments (officially, these were not yet considered ranks): major and lieutenant-colonel. Even so, independent wealth remained key to an officer’s rise in station since he was expected to partly equip and maintain his company or regiment. To recover these costs, a colonel or captain fully expected to milk his regiment through creative accounts. Commissions from royal agents were issued to raise, command, and supply troops, partly replacing the system of purchase of companies and regiments by noblemen, though success in this regard was largely confined to the elite Gardes du Corps.

A young officer’s education also changed markedly in this era in France. Before the reforms made by Louvois, all training was received on-the-job, in active duty with one’s regiment. Louvois changed this in several ways. He designated certain musketeer units as training locales for young officers, especially for future staff officers. Thus, in 1679, when an artillery school was founded, it was attached to the “Fusiliers du Roi,” originally a musketeer regiment that was renamed the “Royal-Artillerie” in 1693. This change in the artillery was a vast improvement on civilian contractors hired by the French Army until 1672 to handle the big guns. Contractors had been paid for each cannon they brought into action on a battlefield or during a siege, which was no proper basis for sustaining a professional corps of cannoneers. In 1682 Louvois set up nine training companies for officer-cadets in various frontier towns. These trained young men in arms, drill, and riding, as well as in dancing, fencing, and other social skills deemed crucial (in most armies, into the early 20th century) to officer status. Cadets also studied mathematics, geography, and map reading, and those who chose to do so indulged art, music, and literature. The next year, officers in training for whom very high expectations were held were attached to the Régiment du Roi, and from 1684 to other regiments of Louis’ household (“Maison du Roi”) regiments. Similarly, a “Ritterakademie” was established for officers of the Prussian Army, though its curriculum was not as advanced in this era as in the French academies.