The Lieutenant’s Story

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

General Alexander inspects the 3/2nd Punjab.

El Alamein, July–November 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Anything wrong, sir?’ Wright called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh!’ said Wright, and saluted again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘A Hot Day’ 22 June 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Air,’ he replies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Three-Week Subaltern’ or Pilot

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

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

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

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

Killed     37 (21.3%)

Wounded            48 (27.6%)

Prisoners             6 (3.4%)

Other reasons     83 (47.7%)

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

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

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

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

Killed     45(41.3%)

Wounded            17(15.6%)

Prisoners             31(28.4%)

To home establishment   16(14.7%)

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

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

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

EASTERN FRONT SOLDIERS

THE GERMAN EASTERN FRONT SOLDIER

Few German soldiers were committed Nazis, but all took into the invasion a faith in Hitler and his generals created by two years of victories, and the younger ones several years of indoctrination in school and the Hitler Youth about German racial superiority. The welcome they received, particularly in Ukraine and the Baltic States, and the enormous early captures of Soviet troops boosted that euphoria, but it faded somewhat after weeks of tramping over seemingly endless plains, and finding that however many of the enemy they killed or captured, more came at them the next day. Panzer crews were shocked to find the newest Soviet tank, the T-34, superior to their hitherto unstoppable Panzer Marks III and IV, but in 1941 there were few of them.

The defeat at Moscow affected morale little; they attributed it more to the weather than to the enemy, and expected to reassert their superiority when summer came. This they duly did, only to suffer another winter disaster at Stalingrad. This depressed them more, but Manstein’s successful counter-offensive in February 1943 somewhat restored morale.

The crunch came at Kursk. The Prokhorovka tank battle was the swan song of the Panzers as attack spearheads, until the abortive Ardennes and Balaton offensives of 1945; the infantry for the first time experienced failure in summer, decisive Soviet air superiority and the start of a series of Soviet offensives that dwarfed even that of Stalingrad. Most German soldiers remained disciplined and skillful to the end, but after Kursk they fought in fear of the consequences of defeat rather than in expectation of victory.

A typical German soldier from a tank destroyer unit, who fought in the east from the very first day, summed up his experiences as follows. First encounters with the Red Army suggested they would not be much trouble, but `things were different later.’ Many felt they should not have invaded, but it was not safe to say so. His belief that the war was lost came with the retreat from the Volga in 1942, but he and his comrades expected to be shot if captured, so they fought hard and nobody deserted or defected.

He had a month’s home leave in mid-1942; before going on leave soldiers were sent to a transit camp for two weeks, and fed better than usual, so as to make a better impression at home. On leave they were privileged to wear civilian clothes and received extra rations of food and chocolate. He found home front propaganda so untruthful that he listened mostly to the BBC; this was punishable by imprisonment or death, but soldiers sent back to the Soviet Union thought they would probably be killed anyway, so were not deterred. He was shocked by the poor standard of replacements for casualties, and his friends envied him when a leg wound finally removed him from the front. He `would not wish his worst enemy’ to have to fight the Russians.

In the Third Reich’s last throes desertions increased, despite the activities of SS execution squads. So many units retreated, to surrender to the Anglo-Americans rather than the Red Army, that General Eisenhower had to threaten to close the Elbe crossings against them. Their fears were not baseless; the Anglo-Americans released most of their prisoners within two years, whereas those taken by the Soviets were kept as forced labour from four to ten years.

THE RUSSIAN EASTERN FRONT SOLDIER

The Red Army had a draconian disciplinary code together with Stalin’s 1941 Order 270, which defined `voluntary surrender’ (i. e. if neither wounded nor unconscious) as treason. Yet the first six months saw mass surrenders on an unprecedented scale. Since only a little over half the Soviet population was Russian, soldiers’ attitudes to the war covered as wide a spectrum as the civilian populations from which they came. The instinct for self-preservation kept most in the ranks, but surrender at the first opportunity was rife in 1941, particularly among conscripts from the recently annexed Baltic States and former eastern Poland.

The backbone of the Red Army was the ethnic Russian, mostly a peasant or first-generation urban worker. He retained the hardiness and self-sacrificing qualities of his forebears, but added basic literacy and familiarity with machinery that they lacked. His training and tactics were generally primitive – right until the end of the war, infantry attacked frontally in successive waves, with little regard for casualties; outflanking manoeuvers were usually left to the tanks and motorized infantry. The heavy casualties affected morale less than they might have; they were frequent enough to become regarded as normal, and the soldiers had no basis for comparison with other armies. In the later campaigns, material superiority and experience substantially reduced them, though they remained high compared to what allies and enemies alike regarded as acceptable.

Apart from the first weeks, when some units fled in panic, there was nothing resembling the breakdown of discipline that disrupted the Russian Army in 1917, though there were numerous instances in 1941-42 when NKVD troops were stationed behind the front-line soldiers, to shoot any who ran away. Unlike in World War I, no cases were recorded of collective refusal to obey orders. This owed something to the regime’s greater ruthlessness, but probably more to indoctrination. Unlike its predecessor, the Red Army, through its political officers, took much trouble to tell the troops why they were at war, and to inculcate hatred of the invader.

Communist values were not particularly emphasized; membership of the Communist Party was not easily granted, and most troops were below the minimum age for membership. However, Communist Party members in the armed forces were expected to set an example to the rest, and many set one good enough for soldiers’ applications to join the Party to rise, especially on the eve of major campaigns.

The cult of Stalin was all-pervading, but it was only in films that soldiers went into battle shouting `For the Motherland! For Stalin!’ Many would, much later, admit putting more trust in God, others that they went into the assault shouting obscenities. One who ended the war in Berlin recollected that:

…luxuries such as leave seldom came our way. Food was monotonous but usually adequate, clothing, especially for winter, much better than the Germans had, but small amenities such as playing cards, dominoes, writing materials or musical instruments were scarce, and usually the first things we looted when we took a German position. Correspondence was censored, and we learned not to criticize our leaders, especially Stalin, because such criticisms attracted heavier punishment than disclosure of military secrets. We knew few of those anyway, because we were only told what we were going to do at the last moment, or sometimes not at all, and the command we mostly heard from our officers was just `follow me.’ Most of our officers earned our respect for their readiness to lead, but we wished they had been trained to do more than just take us to attack the Germans head on. We respected the Germans as soldiers, and to begin with many of us doubted our own propaganda about German atrocities. But when we began recapturing territory and seeing what they had done there, we came to hate them, and when we reached German soil some of us vented our hatred on German civilians, even on some who claimed to be Communists, in ways I still shudder to think of. As the war ended, Stalin ordered us to change our attitude to the German people, and even to start feeding them. That did cut down the amount of murder and rape, but it didn’t stop us looting, or beating up any Germans who didn’t accept that they were the losers.

NVA/VC Sappers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FOUNDATION OF THE PRAETORIAN GUARD

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

(31 BC–AD 14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconnaissance Battalion Nizza

AB41 appatenant à la Nizza Cavalaria et à la Monferrato.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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