The Woodbridge Intruder

J. J. ‘Jack’ Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew I

Marina Raskova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilya Litvyak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Engineers 1813

The crossing of the Adour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldiers of the Crimean War (1853-56)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, Sardinia, Austria, and Prussia, vs. Russia

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): The Crimea

DECLARATION: October 4, 1853, Ottoman Empire against Russia

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Russia claimed an exclusive right to protect Orthodox Christians within the territory of the Ottoman Empire; the Ottomans rejected this, and the Russians responded by invading Moldavia and Wallachia, whereupon the Ottoman Empire declared war. Fearing Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Dardanelles, the Western powers, led by Britain and France, allied themselves with the Ottomans.

OUTCOME: Russia renounced its role as protector of the Orthodox; the autonomy of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia was guaranteed; doctrines upholding the principle of freedom of the seas were affirmed.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Russia, 888,000; France, 309,268; Britain, 97,864; Ottoman Empire, 165,000; Sardinia, 21,000

CASUALTIES: Russia, 73,125 battle deaths; France, 20,240 battle deaths; Britain, 4,602 battle deaths; Ottoman Empire, 20,900 battle deaths; Sardinia, 28 battle deaths; many more soldiers died of illness, for a total of 615,378 dead on all sides.

TREATIES: Treaty of Paris, March 30, 1856

The Crimean War is noteworthy on at least two counts: first, as the only European war Britain fought after the conclusion of the NAPOLEONIC WARS in 1815 and before the opening of WORLD WAR I in 1914, and second, as a showcase of logistical incompetence and poor generalship on all sides.

The war began as a dispute between Russian Orthodox priests and French Catholics over who had precedence at the holy places in Jerusalem and Nazareth. After the dispute turned violent, Russia’s czar, Nicholas I (1796-1855), asserted his nation’s duty and right to protect Orthodox Christians as well as Christian shrines in the Holy Land and elsewhere within the Ottoman realm. To show that he meant business, Nicholas invaded Wallachia and Moldavia, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire. On November 5, 1853, a Russian naval squadron attacked and destroyed a Turkish flotilla off Sinope in the Black Sea. British newspapers reported-falsely-that the Russians had purposely fired on wounded Turkish sailors. Presumably, the news reports were planted by the British government, which wanted an excuse to declare war on the Russians in order to forestall their domination of Constantinople and the Dardanelles Strait. For his part, French emperor Napoleon III (1808-73) was eager for a war that would give him an opportunity to emulate the military prowess of his uncle, Napoleon I (1769-1821). Moreover, he felt an obligation to protect the French monks in Jerusalem. Thus, each for their own reasons, Britain and France allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

A combined British and French fleet sailed into the Black Sea and ordered the Russians to withdraw from Wallachia and Moldavia. When Russia refused, war was declared. Austria allied itself with Prussia and, securing Ottoman permission, invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, driving the Russians out by the summer of 1854. This should have brought an end to the war, but Britain and France decided that the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol was a threat to the region and to freedom of the seas. Accordingly, in September 1854 a combined expeditionary force of British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish soldiers landed on the Crimean Peninsula and moved against Sevastopol. The principal British commander was the superannuated Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, lord Raglan (1788-1855), who had not seen service since the Battle of Waterloo.

By the time the allies landed at Calamita Bay on September 13, 1854, many had fallen ill with cholera and dysentery; disease would prove the deadliest foe in this war. The landing was managed poorly, and the British were particularly disorganized. Fortunately for the allies, the landings were unopposed. Three rivers lay between Calamita Bay and Sevastopol. At the second of these, the Alma, a Russian army under Prince Aleksandr Mentschikoff (1787-1869) took its stand. Not only did the Russians enjoy superiority of numbers, they commanded a narrow pass and held ground that was well defended. It should have been an easy victory for them, but in the confusion of battle they misread the strength of the Highland Brigade. These superbly trained troops conducted a fighting advance, firing while advancing. It was a maneuver unknown to the Russians, who panicked and fell back. Thanks to the Highlanders, the Battle of the Alma became a Russian rout.

Defeated, the Russians retreated inland and, as the siege of Sevastopol began, they regrouped along the British flank. As the British and French laboriously prepared their siege works, the Russians struck against the British right flank. Once again, it was Colin Cambell’s (1792-1863) Highlanders who drove off the first wave of Russian cavalry, but an even larger body of Russian cavalry advanced against the British headquarters. The British cavalry was led by General Sir James Scarlett (1799- 1871), who ordered a charge into the much stronger Russians. Tactically, it approached being a suicide mission, yet its ferocity and execution overwhelmed the numerically superior Russians, who retreated.

The battlefield at Balaclava was extremely hilly, and Lord Raglan was anxious to gain the high ground. Accordingly, he ordered George Charles Bingham, lord Lucan (1800-88), the commander of the cavalry, to regain the heights at any cost. Because infantry support failed to materialize, Lucan refused to move. When the Russians began to remove the guns they had captured from British positions, Raglan demanded that Lucan prevent their removal-again at all costs. Lucan in turn ordered the Light Brigade, led by James Thomas Brudenell, lord Cardigan (1797-1868), to take the lead. The Light Brigade advanced into a trap of massed Russian infantry and cavalry on both sides of the valley and ahead of them. When Cardigan protested the folly of charging an unassailable position, Lucan reminded him that his orders came directly from Lord Raglan, the commander in chief. Without further protest, then, Cardigan ordered the bugler to sound the charge, and the Light Brigade advanced into what Alfred, lord Tennyson (1809-92), in his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” would call the “valley of death.” Of the 673 men who advanced, fewer than 200 returned, and most of these were wounded.

The British claimed the Battle of Balaklava as a victory, but, in fact, they had failed to dislodge the Russians from the strategic position of the Causeway Heights. Nevertheless, the principal Russian forces had been flung back. The Russians counterattacked at the Battle of Inkerman, which was fought largely hand-to-hand in a thick fog. A slugfest, the battle resulted in yet another Russian retreat. From this point on the Allies advanced slowly upon Sevastopol, enduring, as they inched forward, a bitter winter. The great scandal of the war was the corruption, heartlessness, and general incompetence of the British commissary department, which failed properly to clothe, feed, and shelter the freezing troops. It was in this context that the British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) campaigned so vigorously for sanitary and decent treatment of the sick and wounded at the hospital in Scutari.

In the meantime, Malakov and Redan, the two main Russian fortifications overlooking Sevastopol, fell on September 8 and 9, 1855. This led to the fall of Sevastopol itself, whereupon Czar Alexander II (1818-81), who had succeeded his father, Nicholas I, opened peace negotiations-even as the war continued to rage in the Caucasus. The Russian siege of Kars, an Ottoman fortress, proved successful, the Turks succumbing mostly to starvation and disease. However, British and French naval bombardment of Russia’s Baltic fortresses continued unremittingly, and Alexander at last agreed to the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856.

Russia relinquished its self-proclaimed role as protector of the Orthodox in the Ottoman realms, and the Russians as well as the Turks agreed to recognize self-government in Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia. Issues relating to domination of the Dardanelles were also resolved, with all sides agreeing to recognize a general principle of freedom of the seas.

Further reading: Deborah Bachrach, Crimean War (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997); Winfried Baumgart, Crimean War, 1853-1856 (London: Hodder Arnold, 1999); Trevor Royle, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Philip Warner, The Crimean War: A Reappraisal (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2000).

Witnesses to the End…

Tiergarten Flak Tower – Generation 1 – (Flakturm Tiergarten) with twin 12,8 cm Zwillingsflak 44, Berlin, 1945.

The Flakturm (Flag Tower) is a concrete bunker that is placed in a city. The bunker was provided with a space where people (in the largest tower itself was room for 20,000 people) could shelter during bombings and there was space for storage of goods. The bunker was equipped with Flak anti-aircraft gun (Flak is the acronym for Flugabwehrkanone, also called Fliegerabwehrkanone).
These large towers were built during the Second World War in the cities Berlin (Germany), Hamburg (Germany) and Vienna (Austria).
Each Flak tower complex consisted of a G-Tower (Gefechts-Turm) and L-Tower (Leit-Turm).
The complexes consisting of 3 generations:
Generation 1:
G-Tower – 70.5 x 70.5 x 39 meters – with eight 128 mm guns and several 20, 30 and 37 mm guns.
L-Tower – 50 x 23 x 39 meters – usually equipped with sixteen 20 mm guns.
Generation 2:
G-Tower – 57 x 57 x 41.6 meters – equipped with eight 128 mm guns and sixteen 20 mm guns.
L-Tower – 50 x 23 x 44 meters – equipped with forty 20 mm guns
Generation 3:
G-Tower – 43 x 43 x 54 meters – with eight 128 mm guns and 32 pieces of the 20 mm gun.

X

With Allied forces advancing from the west, east and south and a northerly route of escape cut off by the sea, the noose was finally closing around Hitler’s “1,000-year” Reich. Berlin, of course, was to be the scene of final destruction and in the last two weeks of the war in Europe the Germans prepared to defend their capital as best they could.

The east side of Berlin was strongly fortified, with three separate lines of anti-tank defences. In the city centre, every street was to be turned into a strong point. Hitler had hoped to make Berlin into a fortress and it was certainly given many of the relevant features. Ringed around the city were three structures which echoed the castles of medieval times. These were the flak towers, three huge concrete structures with walls so thick that not even the heaviest artillery shells could penetrate them. The first, known as the Humboldt Tower, after the famous German oceanographer, was located just off the Brunnenstrasse in the north of Berlin. The second was just to the east of the city centre, on Landsberger Allee, and the third was in the south-west of the city centre, at the Zoo.

The original purpose of these flak towers had been to serve as anti-aircraft gun platforms to protect Berlin against the frequent Allied bombing raids. Each of the enormous gun towers had a satellite tower a short distance away from where artillery observers controlled the anti-aircraft fire. After the Russians beat off a last desperate stand on the Seelow heights east of Berlin, pouring down such a weight of artillery fire that the defenders had to retreat, the last natural obstacle into the city was open to them. Now the onus was on the defence ring hastily thrown up around Berlin and on the flak towers, which were virtually impregnable.

In 1945, with the dreaded Russians almost at the gates, these defences were to protect not only Berlin, but also the heart of the Nazi regime, located in a bunker close to the Chancellery building on Wilhelmstrasse. They were also meant to preserve the nearby key city landmarks of the Brandenburg Gate, the famous Unter den Linden and the Reichstag on Königsplatz.

In his bunker, Hitler was obsessed with dreams of glory that would never come true. At the start of 1945 he had dismissed as ridiculous fantasy the idea that the Red Army was about to launch a major offensive into Germany and even at this late hour clung to the illusion that forces commanded by SS Lieutenant-General Felix Steiner were going to link up with the surviving German forces north of Berlin and strike a decisive blow against the Russians. Steiner had no more than a ragbag of forces, the grandly named Group Steiner, that was incapable of even scratching the Russian advance. The Russians simply brushed them aside as they completed their encirclement of the Nazi capital.

Finally, Hitler turned to Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, commander of the Army Group Vistula, including the Ninth Army, which, he fancied, was going to march into Berlin any day and save the Reich and its Führer from the communist devils. Heinrici was an experienced professional from a family with a military tradition going back eight centuries. He was supposed to be responsible for the defence of Berlin, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one. Like Schörner, he ordered his troops away from the capital, advising them to surrender to the British or the Americans. Hitler ineffectively dismissed Heinrici on April 28 and returned to his illusions. He spent his time moving flags on a large map, apparently believing that they represented real military forces. He remained unaware that his new mighty “armies” consisted of a few small groups and defenders holed up in Berlin’s flak towers.

Hannau Rittau was a gunner in the Zoo flak tower. He was prepared to do all he could to defend Berlin, his birthplace, but like Heinrici, he knew it was hopeless:

You could see what was happening, the Russians were drawing closer and closer to Berlin and when they started firing on Berlin with their artillery we said, “Well, this is the end!” But I was born and raised in Berlin and we had to defend our home, just as we had to defend our country. That’s what we tried to do.

I was lucky to get into the tower at the Zoo. There was an army and an air-force hospital on one floor, though in the end we had wounded solders and civilians on all the floors. I think there were 3,000 people in this tower. My job was to drive the ambulance and bring the wounded to the tower from outside, so it was easy for me to stay there.

The tower came under determined Russian attack for two days and two nights. Despite the safety Rittau and the others had found in the tower, it was a frightening experience:

The Russians were firing at the tower all the time. The noise of the exploding artillery against the walls was terrible, the walls shook all the time. They couldn’t get through because the concrete of the tower was so thick and strong.

Even so, at one o’clock in the morning of May 2, the tower was surrendered to the Russians. We were told to stay at our stations, which we did. The first thing I remember after that was the door opening. A Russian tank driver came in and said, “Everybody kaput, everybody kaput, ja? Everybody kaput, ja? Don’t be frightened, Russian soldiers are good. The bad things you’ve heard about us were all propaganda.” And out he went again. That was our first contact with the Russians.

A few hours later the Russians came round looked at everybody. The wounded soldiers were lying on the floor, we had no beds, the wounded were on blankets on the hard floor. The Russians started stealing their watches, as they did with everybody. They were very interested in watches. We looked after the wounded, as we had done before. We had enough food in the tower because there was enough food storage in there for the whole of Berlin.

Although the Russians did not appear to be particularly dangerous or violent, Rittau decided to escape from the tower:

I tried to get out, because we hadn’t seen any fresh air all the time, you never saw daylight in this tower. I was on the third floor. I went downstairs and there was just one Russian standing on guard there. I gave him a cigarette. That seemed to please him. I was in hospital dress, all in white, so that he could see that I was a member of the hospital team. I looked around, and then went back into the tower again.

During the next two days, all of a sudden they starting making lists. The Russians came around asking, “What’s your name? What’s your grade? What was your last regiment?” “Oh, oh!” I thought to myself.

This is getting dangerous. I’d better get home!”

It was May 6 by now. The Russians on guard were so used to seeing me that they didn’t notice when I slipped out of the tower. It was easy. I did the same thing again, I was wearing my uniform, but I had removed all the insignia. I pulled on my white hospital dress over it, went out the door and walked away, just like that! Of course, I tried to keep out of sight of any Russian soldier in the street who might ask me, “Where is your pass or your pay book?” or goodness knows what, and I walked home. Although my parents’ house was quite close to Berlin, I didn’t arrive until seven in the evening, after 10 hours.

Walking all the way, it took a long time because I tried to avoid any Russians wherever I could see them. I just ducked away out of sight and waited until they had passed by.

Ulf Ollech, formerly of the Luftwaffe, was in a rather more exposed position than Rittau. He helped to man an artillery battery in the environs of Berlin. Members of the Volkssturm, the citizens’ militia, were also there. This body, consisting of Hitler Youth and older men up to the age of 65 or more, had been specially trained with the Panzerfaust, also known as the Faustpatrone. This was a deadly anti-tank weapon which fired a hollow-charge projectile effective at 33 yards. In the battle for Berlin, groups armed with the Panzerfaust went hunting for Russian tanks and destroyed so many of them that the wreckage littering the streets actually obstructed the Russian advance.

Ollech was, however, disturbed at the idea that the Panzerfaust and their other weapons were going to kill people:

I was only 17, but suddenly I had to shoot at human beings in order to preserve my own life. We were trained with artillery, and were stationed on one of Berlin’s arterial roads, the Prenzlauer Allee, it was called. Work began at 0700 hours – practice with the artillery and training, training, training. Then we were transferred further to the north-east, to the eastern edge of Bernau. We set up positions on the road, but were then transferred at night to a place called Malchow, where we had a free field of fire on the road closer to Berlin, near the Weissensee – a free field of fire towards this road.

The Volkssturm troops were in the trenches in front of us. Behind us were residential areas with trees and houses and gardens, so that we were well camouflaged; and we expected, quite rightly, that the Red Army would come along this road straight past us. We had to be patient. During the course of one day, in terrible weather and soaking rain, walking through the trenches meant that you carried the mud and filth with you. We spent the night there, half awake, half asleep, and the next morning, when the sun rose, we heard they were advancing along this road. Because it was an asphalt road, the Russians could see exactly whether or not someone had been laying mines there. But it was free of mines and so they advanced.

Four T-34s, two Shermans and an assault tank came along. The road had a small bend and before the first tank had reached this bend, we started firing. We had an artillery gun, which had a velocity of 1,200 metres per second, the only gun in the world from which the shell left the barrel at such speed. That meant that the discharge and impact, especially at a distance of 200, perhaps 300 metres, was so short that you thought the discharge and the impact were the same sound. The tanks were all destroyed and the Red Army infantry at the rear of the tanks dispersed.

The wrecked tanks glowed red throughout the night and the ammunition inside exploded. We spent that night there, and the next morning the weather was dry, we discovered that the infantry units, in the shape of the Volkssturm, had gone, vanished. They were supposed to be in front of us and we had seen them the day before, but now they were nowhere to be seen.

That, of course, scared the wits out of us, because we knew that if the Red Army infantry had come at us overnight, we could never have fought them off. The next morning we ate a little and drank some tea, and then we got the order to retreat with our unit into the town proper, because the Red Army, primarily the infantry, but also the tanks, had already gone around us and broken through into the suburbs.

Ollech’s part in the battle of Berlin ended in one of Berlin’s flak towers, which was under siege by the Russians:

We retreated and retreated and we finally ended up in a flak tower – there were three of them in Berlin – and we got ourselves over to one of them. It was surprisingly comfortable. The food was good – I had the most glorious pea soup I had ever tasted in my life – and each of us had a plank bed, a cupboard, and everything was in first-class condition. We kept guard outside for four hours, then two hours inside.

The Russians started firing at the tower with their tanks. You could hear them. Their shells went “Clack-clack” as if someone was knocking on a door. That wasn’t good enough for the Russians, so they brought up some 15cm howitzers. They managed to make tiny holes in the concrete. There were windows which were closed from the outside with heavy steel doors, I imagine that they weighed tons, and the Russians succeeded in hitting the upper hinge of one of the doors, which burst. One of them broke off, twisted off the other one and hurtled downwards. Apart from that, the flak tower wasn’t badly damaged at all.

They then brought up a light artillery piece. A tank attack at night followed; they knew that we were lying in relays in the surrounding trenches. We had never experienced a tank attack at night before, and that was perhaps the most awful experience, because they attacked and we sought cover, and fought them off. Next morning we saw Russian corpses hanging over the edges of the trenches, with their machine guns dragged halfway. The Russian MGs were on wheels. You could hear when they were being pulled across a street because they rattled, “rat-a-tat-tat”.

Then came April 30, when we learned that Hitler and his wife had committed suicide. Hitler had once said: “I am National Socialism, if I no longer exist, there will be no more National Socialism; in other words, everything was focused upon him. We young men were very upset. We’d believe him when he’d said that. We’d grown up with it. We felt he had let us down. It was like losing an all-powerful father. What was going to happen to us now? we wondered.

It seemed hopeless for us to carry on. On May 2 we surrendered the flak tower.

The 33rd Waffen-Grenadier-Division of the SS Charlemagne (French No.1)

Henri Kreis. Former head of the PAK section of the Sturmbrigade in Galicia and Kriegkommandant of Radomyśl village, where he was seriously injured when fighting a T34 tank. Once recovered, he became an instructor at the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Schule at Kienschlag. In March 1945 he commanded a reinforcement battalion at Wildflecken, as the division itself had already left for Pomerania. Attached to the 38th Nibelungen Division, he fought against the Americans in Bavaria with the rank of an Obersturmführer, although in this photograph he is still only an Unterscharführer. (DR)

Prisoners of the Charlemagne Division who were executed on 8 May 1945 at Karlstein by their fellow Frenchmen from the 2nd Armoured Division, commanded by General Leclerc, in American uniform and under orders from Paris. In the foreground from left to right are Waffen-Unterscharführer Jean Robert, then Waffen-Obersturmführer Serge Krotoff (of 2nd Bataillon, 57th Regiment), Paul Briffaut in army uniform and Waffen-Untersturmführer Raymond Daffas. The divisional archives had previously been piled onto trucks and destroyed in late April by the Bavarian peasant with whom they had been hidden, as a result of the American advance.

In the spring of 1944 a command was issued from the OKW to transfer all foreigners serving in the German Army to the Waffen SS. The attack against Hitler on 20 July accelerated this movement, particularly concerning the French. German high command decided to regroup the volunteers into a new SS French brigade, under the command of Colonel Edgard Puaud. The SS-Hauptamt [the administrative office of the SS] decided to bring the 638 French infantry regiment back from Russia. It was disbanded on 10 August 1944 and its members transferred to the Waffen SS. The LVF headquarters at Greifenberg now became the new brigade’s headquarters as well as the Französische SS-Grenadier Ausbildungs und Ersatz-Bataillon (French SS Grenadier training and reserve Battalion), commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinrich Hersche who had arrived from Sennheim. The Sturmbrigade, whose 1st Battalion had proved itself so valiantly in Galicia, arrived on 5 September and joined 2nd Battalion for training at the ‘West-Prussian’ SS-Trüppenbüngsplatz. Alongside them, 2,000-2,100 political soldiers were finishing their basic training there, under the command of SS-Oberstumbannführer Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. In addition there were also men from the SS-Französische Flakbaterrie, who had not joined the Sturmbrigade in the fighting in Poland, 1,000-1,200 sailors from the Kriegsmarine and Kriegsmarinewerftpolizei who had landed at Greifenberg in mid-September, and around 2,000 men who were involved in the Schutzcommando and Todt Organisation, the NSKK, the Speer Legion and the Technische Nothilfe, which was part of the German Police. There were also other general German paramilitary units, although some had remained at their original training grounds with the permission of their leaders.

Two regiments were formed, with two battalions each comprised of four companies. The 57th Regiment was predominantly composed of former members of the Sturmbrigade, on the orders of Paul Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 58th Regiment was headed by Commander Eugéne Bridoux and contained the ex-Legionnaires. Either for religious reasons (the perceived paganism of the SS), years of combat fatigue, or because they felt the war was definitively lost, a few dozen men categorically refused to be transferred. Taking advantage of this opportunity to start on a clean slate, a purge took place removing 180 of these ‘undesirables’. In order to learn the fighting methods of the SS, a number of LVF officers and soldiers were sent on training courses. During their absence, the brigade left its quarters and headed for the SS-Truppenübungsplatz at Wildflecken. On 5 November, part of the French state militia had to withdraw from Germany and found itself also being incorporated into the brigade. During the winter of 1944-45, the Waffen-Grenadier (no longer the SS-Grenadier as those of the Sturmbrigade had been called) had to endure particularly harsh training as a result of the snow, the freezing temperatures, lack of equipment and clothes and poor diet. Desertions among the prestigious SS units, such as the Walloon or the Wiking divisions were very common, because their members wanted to join the fighting as soon as possible.

Given the title of ‘Division’, despite its reduced capacity (more than 7,300 men), the orders to depart for the East by train arrived on 16 February. Integrated with the 11th Army, the first men arrived on 22 February at Hammerstein in Pomerania and gathered in a nearby camp. Sent to the frontlines without any armoured support, heavy weaponry or radio equipment, and with all their assault rifles having been hijacked by another unit, the division’s casualties began to pile up. Different companies broke off to fight in isolated groups, with no communication with the rear lines as they were pushed backwards. The survivors retreated to Szczecinek and after this initial engagement, the division had lost around one third of its troops, most of whom were either wounded or evacuated. Five hundred were dead. After regrouping at Białogard, the units were merged together to form a frontline regiment with the freshest and most experienced soldiers, and a reserve regiment with a reduced combat role, due to the fatigue amongst the men. They were sent to protect the retreat of the German troops at the port of Kolberg. Once more the French faced fierce fighting trying to defend the city, forcing them to consider pulling back towards Białogard, which was still held by the Germans. Trapped on a plain south-west of the city, the 3,000 men of the reserve regiment were massacred by Soviet tanks. A few survivors were captured, while others took refuge in the nearby woods. Surrounded for days, the exhausted soldiers now had to finish their war as prisoners, having failed to cross the River Oder. Arriving in Międzyrzecz, in western Poland after a long and painful march, the men of 1st Battalion, who were the only ones left unscathed, managed to succeed in breaking the encirclement of Pomerania. The French regrouped on the outskirts of Anklam and waited for other survivors of the Division.

Stationed at Carpin, the combat units were once more reorganised and resumed their training. On 24 April SS-Brigadeführer Krukenberg, who was now in charge of the French, received a telegram from Hitler’s bunker announcing that he was to take up a new position in Berlin and must get there with a French assault battalion as quickly as possible. Having lost three vehicles en route, a French detachment arrived in Berlin, which by now was virtually surrounded by the Red Army. They were attached to the SS Nordland Division, commanded by Waffen-Haupsturmführer Henri Fenet. This division had distinguished itself in urban combat, repulsing many large-scale armoured vehicle attacks using the Panzerfaüst [German anti-tank weapon]. The very experienced French soldiers managed to officially take out sixty-two tanks as they gradually retreated to the ever-decreasing German-held zones. On the morning of 2 May, Fenet and his men finally reached Hitler’s bunker. They were hoping to find the last kernel of resistance, but instead realised that the battle was all but over. More fighting now commenced in order to avoid being taken prisoner, but one by one the men were arrested by the victorious Soviets, before resistance finally ceased at 3pm.

The remaining men who were still at the barracks at Greifenberg left and joined those at Wildflecken. Here they were divided into various units and separately retreated westwards, where some were subordinated into the 38th SS-Grenadier-Division Nibelungen. In the end, four members of the division were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.