1916-17 Attrition

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As French fought Germans to a standstill over 10 months at Verdun, other Allied armies attacked the Germans on other fronts. The idea was the same as Falkenhayn’s, but more strategic than merely operational. First, wear out the German reserve by inflicting (and thus, also taking) high casualties, then try to break through weakened lines to finish the war in the traditional way, by moving, encircling and doing great harm to newly exposed flanks. Italians attacked along the Isonzo front five times in 1916 alone, putting as much strain as they could on the armies of the Central Powers. Fighting scoured the Balkans and Romania and Bulgaria, too. Ottoman and British armies fought in the Middle East in 1916. Cavalry and camel formations advanced or fell back along ancient roads to Jerusalem and Damascus in a war of movement that attracted world attention, mainly by contrast to the stalemated immobility in Europe. Germans also fought a small war in East Africa in 1916, attacking the Allies’ imperial periphery. The Russians stunned the Central Powers with their greatest offensive of the war. Starting on June 4, the Brusilov Offensive smashed half the Habsburg army in just 10 days and broke the rest into demoralized fragments held together only by German troops and generals. Europe was drowning in war in 1916. Strange new machines fought each other in its skies, bombed and strafed the ground. Mechanical behemoths crawled in its fields, sinking into mud. Navies starved whole nations with blockade and counter-blockade, on and under the seas. Armies killed thousands daily. Everyone and everything was connected to the war.

On June 24, the Allies hit the Germans at the Somme with a massive barrage by 3,300 cannon plus 1,400 trench mortars and naval guns. The barrage lasted a week, hurling over 2.5 million shells onto the German line, though too many were shrapnel that exploded on the surface while leaving bunkers and the Germans inside mostly unharmed. Worse, fully one-third of the British shells failed to explode at all. After seven days of this, British troops went over the top, and lost 19,240 killed and 37,646 wounded on just the first day, July 1, 1916. This was the nadir and culmination of two years of industrial war with no prior experience as guide. However hard the lessons, the British did learn from the Somme and a second slaughter at Passchendaele, and other lessons at Cambrai and Arras. British performance was dramatically improved by late 1917, and superior by 1918. However, the cost of learning was shocking and immense.

Lots of Germans died at the Somme as well. Falkenhayn refused to yield ground and threw in what was left of the Westheer reserve. Outnumbered on all fronts, he clung to a brittle doctrine of comparing casualties. “The first principle of position warfare,” he said, “must be not to surrender a foot of ground and when ground is lost to throw in even the last man in an immediate counter-attack.” Falkenhayn thus did at the Somme what he wanted the French Army to do at Verdun—the Ausblutung (“bleeding out”) of his own reserves by clinging to every bit of ground. His subcommanders all agreed with this approach. Still, they were startled by the scale and intensity of the matériel battle and by troop losses. Each arriving German division at the Somme was used up within two weeks, putting even more pressure on strained reserves than the slow drain caused by the months longer but less intense fighting at Verdun.

Continuing to fight at Verdun cut the French Army contribution to the Somme offensive from 40 divisions to just 14. Still, over the next four months the equivalent of 166 Allied divisions assaulted 147 divisions of the Westheer, an army Falkenhayn now called Germany’s “iron wall,” not its “iron fist” as it was known earlier in the war. The change from offensive to defensive metaphor was striking. Nor was it just matériel advantages that made the difference. The Allies were also outfighting the Germans in an all-arms battle. If the Somme was not quite a bloody victory for the British Army, it was a significant Allied strategic success in that it wore down German reserves and morale. Britain would raise additional corps and attack again in 1917, but Germany did not have such strength left. Despite the experience of 1914–1915 in Flanders, despite defense-in-depth and an experimental doctrine of attrition-by-artillery at Verdun, the Kaiserheer was incapable of sustaining a war of men and matériel on this scale. It suffered 430,000 casualties at the Somme alone, piled atop more butchers’ bills from Verdun, the Isonzo front in Italy and the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front.

When the last German attack stalled at Verdun in July, the Kaiserheer had nothing left. By August the OHL had only one division in reserve. Falkenhayn went over to defense, only with Germans in the exposed position flailed by French guns on the heights around. He was fired as Chief of Staff on August 29, replaced by the eastern generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The French then went on offense at Verdun, grinding at lost ground, nibbling into the German position month after month. Douaumont was retaken in October, Fort Vaux on November 2. This time, hardly anyone cheered. It ended in December in mutual exhaustion. It was worse than a major battle lost. Along with the Allied relief offensive on the Somme, which was far stronger than Falkenhayn expected, Verdun was a watershed. Casualties at Verdun alone were 337,000 Germans to 377,000 French. Trading men at close to 1:1 was not the calculus Falkenhayn had expected or the Kaiserheer could afford. Intended to bleed France to death, the longest fight of 1916 severely hemorrhaged Germany as well. Yet Verdun was only one of many battles that accelerated the wearing out of armies on all sides that crimson year, Germany’s most of all.

Verdun was a victory for France, but a Pyrrhic one for the French Army. Mutinies broke out in April 1917 that left it incapable of resuming offensive actions until mid-1918. Luckily, the Kaiserheer had so damaged itself it could not take advantage. It was also nearly worn out, with mere boys called up along with cadres of unhealthy and substandard men. It was stretched over too many fronts. As hundreds of thousands of French and Germans died at Verdun, more French and British and Germans bled each other at the Somme, Russians and Germans perished by bushels in the east, and more Germans died fighting Italians in the Isonzo Valley. Germany had only so much blood and reserves of fighting men, and too many enemies. Rather than seek terms as hope of military victory faded into positional fighting, under the hidden dictatorship of Hindenburg and Ludendorff Germany committed everything. There would be no more costly offensives like Verdun, at least not just to look for a limited advantage to get a better chair at the peace conference. No more proposals for minor adjustments to the international order and Germany’s status within it. Henceforth it was total war for Weltmacht oder Niedergang (“world power or ruin”). The eastern generals returned to seeking total victory by direct military means, by sweeping campaigns and envelopments to match Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. Hindenburg remained certain even after the war was lost and over that the only way to win had been to stay on offense.

Berlin looked to any means to further this end, including at sea. Stalemate was achieved there, too, as the anticlimactic standoff at Jutland (May 31–June 1, 1916) meant the idea of fighting a decisive naval battle was taken off the table. Some German thinkers had contemplated Staatskaperei (“state-approved piracy”) before World War I, but the idea was obliterated by Tirpitz’s battle-fleet planning. That meant surface ships capable of commerce raiding were too few, too harried by Allied navies, or already sunk, taking away another option. However, the global grain harvest in 1916 was very poor. The German high command hoped that U-boats could take advantage and worsen its effects, bringing starvation to the Allies and cutting Britain off from essential food and fuel.

The urgency of the U-boat plan was established by Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff in a memorandum on December 22, 1916, two weeks after the end of the fight at Verdun: “The war requires a decision before autumn 1917, lest it should end in the mutual exhaustion of all parties and thus be a disaster for us … If we succeed in breaking England’s backbone, the war will immediately be decided in our favor.” As for the United States: “Fear of a diplomatic rupture should not lead us to recoil from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory for us.” A month later the decision was made to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, to strangle Britain with U-boats before American belligerence so tipped the balance of forces that Germany could not win. The United States declared war on April 6. Again, Berlin’s policies guaranteed that it would face too many powerful enemies all at once. Again, Germans must win fast and win everything or lose everything in a war of exhaustion: knock out Russia in 1917, defeat France and starve Britain, all before the Americans arrived in sufficient numbers to make a real difference on the Western Front.

Germans managed the first part, knocking Russia out of the war. The tattered end of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive had radicalized many soldiers and tipped them toward mutiny in March 1917, when the tsar abdicated in the first of two revolutions in which his shattered army and soldiers played a major role. Russia was clearly defeated by midsummer, after suffering yet more casualties and mutinous reaction in the ill-advised and failed July or Kerensky Offensive (July 1–16, 1917). Large numbers of soldiers began to refuse orders. Whole units threw down arms. Desertion and disobedience of officers worsened daily. This disintegration of the Russian Army greatly contributed to the Bolshevik Revolution in November that further opened the east to deep German advances. The Russian Army was effectively removed from the Allied order of battle by the end of 1917. This was due to Russian military collapse rather than operational superiority by the Germans, though that is not how smug German staff officers saw it, reported it at OHL, or remembered it later when contemplating a second invasion of Russia in 1941. In the absence of resistance, German armies continued to advance deep into western Russia, until the Bolsheviks finally agreed to an armistice in December. When negotiations stalled in January, they resumed the advance. That forced the Bolsheviks to accept harsh terms at Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. A conqueror’s peace ceded to Germany (with smaller bits to Austria) all of Russian Poland and Lithuania, as well as Riga. Ukraine, Finland, Estonia and the rest of Latvia were declared independent states under German military and political protection. Smaller territories went to Romania and the Ottomans. That was 400,000 square miles and 45 million people, about half of European Russia. Also stripped was 50 percent of Russian industry, 90 percent of the broken empire’s coal, and all its gold reserves. This crushing settlement was set aside only because Germany lost the war to the Western Allies later that year.

Acting as a hidden military dictatorship, Hindenburg and Ludendorff hardened everything—domestic politics and German war aims. They also reversed the order of the Schlieffen idea, lurching the main military effort back to the east in 1917, aiming to knock Russia out, then return and win in the west in 1918. OHL thus again succumbed to the temptation of offense, to the allure of the next and sure-to-be-decisive campaign that first pulled the Kaiserheer westward in 1914, then east in 1915, west in 1916, east again in 1917, and finally back west in 1918, until total military defeat came. The one break in the ring of fire in 1916 came from Romania’s entry on the Allied side in August, as Bucharest declared war in expectation of rapid and easy victory (who did not?). Instead, in just two months Romania suffered counter-invasion and occupation by two armies comprising units from all four Central Powers, then loss of control of its war effort to Russia. Rather than end the war as the Allies hoped, by tipping the scales against Germany while it was already under all-around attack, Romania’s defeat gave Berlin access to food stocks it desperately needed to extend its own military effort into 1918.

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TURKISH EXPECTATIONS OF THE ALLIED LANDINGS

The bombardment of the Turkish forts. Original illustration published by H W Wilson, British journalist and naval historian, editor of The Great War: The Standard History of the All-Europe Conflict, a popular part series published by the Amalgamated Press in 13 volumes, 1914 to 1919.

Liman von Sanders, the German officer commanding Turkish Fifth Army, which defended Gallipoli and the Straits against the Allied landings of 25 April, generally anticipated the Allied landing sites quite accurately. However, one other area, Bulair/Saros, at the neck of the Gallipoli peninsula, particularly attracted his attention. This turned out not to be an Allied landing site, but the capture and interrogation of a British naval officer just before the Allied landings helped focus Liman von Sanders’ attention on Bulair/Saros from 25 to 28 April.

Following the end of Allied naval attempts to force the Straits on 18 March, Turkish attention turned naturally to defence against the possibility of Allied landings on either side of the Straits. On 24 March 1915 Liman von Sanders, a German cavalry officer, Inspector of the Turkish Army, commander of the pre-war German military mission to update the Turkish army and commander of Turkish forces in the Caucasus in 1914, was chosen to command Fifth Army, defending Gallipoli and the Asian shore area. Already in January 1915, von Sanders had outlined his ideas for a defensive system. His first point was that the present defensive structure, set up by Enver Pasa, Supreme Military Commander in Istanbul, scattered the Turkish divisions too widely. This was feasible against small landings, but, ‘Against landings of large troop formations, our divisions must be much more concentrated in order to be able to attack the enemy in strength during or after landing.’ This was easily remedied, but here, though, was the central problem, where would the Allies land?

Liman von Sanders suggested three possible landing sites, all based on the assumption that the Allies would land so as to attack Turkish batteries and fortifications from the rear. Starting firstly with the Asian shore, he predicted a landing at either Besike Bay or Kum Kale (where the French landing did actually take place), in order to attack the strong Turkish batteries and fortifications along the Straits’ shore from the rear. Liman von Sanders argued for a defensive counterattack as the enemy troops moved inland from Kum Kale and crossed the Mendere River. Also, 3 and 11 Turkish Divisions were to be combined in a corps stationed at Erenkeui, where they could go in any direction, according to the Allied landing site. Officers were to be stationed where they could judge whether the landings were a feint or a serious operation. Mines were to be laid at Kum Kale, which was to be defended by one battalion. Bridges over the Mendere River were to be prepared for demolition. (As it turned out, the French did not reach the Mendere River, partly because their landing was a feint. On the other hand, the Turkish 3 Division did little, and actually used the Mendere River as a means of protecting themselves!) Secondly, Liman von Sanders turned his attention to what he called the European shore. Here, he predicted landings at either Seddulbahir (Helles) or Gaba Tepe, or both simultaneously, ‘in order to advance against the batteries from the rear.’ The 9 Division was to be moved closer to the middle of the sector, and 19 Division was to be stationed at Maidos. In this sector, Liman von Sanders was prescient, because Helles was the site of the main Allied landing, while Gaba Tepe was just south of the intended Anzac landing site of Brighton Beach. Finally, thirdly, Liman von Sanders identified the Saros/Bulair area. He suggested two aims of a potential Allied landing in this area. One was the rather difficult Allied task of covering the ground necessary to cross the isthmus and disable the Turkish batteries on the Sea of Marmora side. The other was to totally cut off Turkish troops on the peninsula by simply capturing the narrow neck of the isthmus. Without actually saying so, Liman von Sanders revealed his particular bias toward the Saros/Bulair area by assigning three divisions to guard it, 4 and 5 Turkish Divisions, which could be amalgamated, and 7 Division.

This emphasis on the Bulair/Saros area is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ later memoirs, where he claimed that he saw the Asiatic area as the greatest danger, then Seddulbahir, then Gaba Tepe, and last, Bulair/ Saros. But he was quite correct in his memoirs when he identified intelligence reports and rumours out of Turkish embassies or consulates in such places as Athens, Sofia and Bucharest, which gave information on British and French forces preparing to land. Turkish archives actually reveal a bewildering variety of alleged Allied plans. For example, on 22 March it was reported from sources in Italy that a combined Russian, French, British plan was underway. Russians would land on the Black Sea coast, and the French would land an African division at Saros. The British army from Egypt would land near Izmir. The Allied navy would also attack. The aim was the capture of Istanbul. On the same day, the Turkish military attaché in Rome focussed on French intervention. This report said that about 40,000 French would land, including colonial troops from Mauritania and Senegal. The commander was to be General d’Amade. Indian troops and Australians would also arrive from Egypt. Altogether, the force amounted to some 80,000 troops, which the military attaché thought exaggerated. (He was not so far out, since about 75,000 Allied troops did take part in the April landings. And he was correct about d’Amade and the French colonial troops.)

With these various Turkish reports, and many others, it is not surprising that Liman von Sanders was unsure about Allied intentions. Yet, curiously, although his predictions as to where the Allies would land had all been based on the idea that the Allies were aiming to capture or demolish Turkish batteries and forts from the rear, Liman von Sanders was remarkably accurate in forecasting Allied plans, which actually had other reasons behind their choice of landing sites. There was one exception, however, to Liman von Sanders’ accurate predictions, which he tried to play down in later years, and this was the Saros/Bulair area. One probable reason for this emphasis in Liman von Sanders’ mind, was a remarkable incident that took place on 17 April, just eight days before the 25 April Allied landings. On this day, the British submarine E 15, commanded by Capt. T.S. Brodie, tried to run the Straits to get into the Sea of Marmora. The submarine first hit one of the Turkish nets, and then was caught in a strong eddy off Kephez Point, and ran aground on a sandbank. As luck would have it, this was just by the Turkish Dardanos battery, which lost no time in shelling the submarine. One shell hit the conning tower and cut the unfortunate Brodie in half, plus six other crew were killed during the shelling, and the submarine filled with thick smoke. The rest of the crew surrendered, and were taken into captivity, including a certain Lt Palmer. This individual, who was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had been the British vice consul at Chanak. After hostilities broke out, Palmer apparently arrived in Athens in early March 1915 to report on the location of Turkish guns in the Straits. Palmer then joined the staff of de Robeck at Gallipoli as an Intelligence Officer. Wishing to see active service, Palmer volunteered to serve on E 15 as an Intelligence officer. After Palmer’s capture, he was interrogated by Col. Djevad Bey, commanding the Straits Forts. Djevad Bey then sent a lengthy cipher to the Supreme Command in Istanbul on 20 April, with the results of Palmer’s interrogation.

Since this cipher message containing Palmer’s interrogation is of critical significance, as it occurred just five days before the Allied landings of 25 April, it is given in full:

Palmer, who was the Consul at Chanak, was captured and made a prisoner of war. He was accused of being a spy for the Allied powers. Also a certificate was found in the submarine showing that Palmer was a reserve officer. But we did not tell him that we had found this certificate. Palmer was told that he was accused of being a spy, and that is why he might be executed. Because no soldier wants to give information openly, Palmer wanted to talk privately. So I promised him that he would be regarded as a prisoner of war. Then, he agreed to give us information. I asked him about the Allied attack that was planned. He said that a British attack would be made against the Dardanelles with a force of 100,000 men, landing under the command of Gen. Hamilton. According to Palmer’s statement, the Allies planned to land at Gaba Tepe. But as soon as they found out that the Turks had learnt of this attack, they changed their plans concerning Gaba Tepe and Seddulbahir [Helles]. Also they did not think that their landing at Seddulbahir would be successful. Consequently, they decided to land in the Gulf of Saros, and in the region of the northern part of the Peninsula. Previously, they had planned to attack Gaba Tepe, Seddulbahir and even Besike. To support their attacks in these regions, they needed the support of their navy. In fact, they planned to make these attacks last Monday [presumably 12 April: the original date for the landings was 14 April], but they have now given up this plan. He does not have any information about the new attack plan. This information has been given by the ex-consul on the condition that his life be spared under this agreement. Please do not give the origins of this information, in order to ensure his safety. I have sent the prisoner of war [Palmer], and his goods that have been taken from the submarine, with this cipher. I beg you to accept him as a prisoner of war.

20 April 1915, the Commander of the Forts, Col. Djevad.

The next day, the Supreme Command in Istanbul, obviously interested in what might be a real Intelligence coup, wanted Palmer to identify the threatened northern area. Djevad Bey replied: ‘The name of the region which is around the Gulf of Saros as mentioned by the ex-consul that I wrote in the cipher, is the region between Imbros and Karacali on the northern coast of the Gulf [of Saros]. 21 April 1915.’

It would seem that Palmer had to think quickly on his feet during this interrogation. On the one hand, he certainly did not want to be shot, but on the other hand, he did not want to give away the real Allied landing sites, which he certainly knew, having been an Intelligence officer on de Robeck’s staff. So he adopted the risky strategy of giving the actual Allied landing sites, but then suggesting these had been cancelled due to a security leak. In their place, Palmer directed Turkish attention north to Saros/Bulair as the new Allied landing area. In his further explanation of what the northern region consisted of, Palmer gave a vague answer, although it did include the Anzac landing zone. As for the 100,000 Allied troops that would land, Palmer probably did not know the exact Allied figure, otherwise the logical solution would have been to minimize the number of Allied troops, in order to cause Turkish over-confidence. On the other hand, Palmer may just have been unable to think quickly enough on the question of numbers, or he did not think the question of numbers was significant. (Ironically, the actual number of Allied soldiers involved in the landings was in fact discovered by Fifth Army through a Turkish wireless intercept on 25 April.) Nevertheless, the timing of Palmer’s capture and interrogation was extremely critical – just five days before the Allied landings on 25 April, although he did not give away this information. Now the question was: would the Supreme Command, and especially Liman von Sanders, be taken in by the Bulair/Saros disinformation from Palmer?

Documents in the Turkish archives do not definitely answer this question, but one message on 22 April, and correspondence between Fifth Army and Supreme Command on 20 April, show that the information was at least disseminated. Other messages suggest a considerable focus on the Saros/Bulair region. For example, Fifth Army reported on 25 April that Allied ships were in Saros, and that help was needed. The next day, 26 April, Fifth Army urgently requested more ammunition for the Saros area. On the other hand, while the Turkish Official History mentions Palmer, it does so without emphasis, and does not claim an Intelligence coup. It is also the case that Liman von Sanders does not mention Palmer in his memoirs. Yet a significant first hand observer of Liman von Sanders at his GHQ on 25 April and following days, Capt. Carl Mühlmann, describes in detail how Liman von Sanders focussed on the Saros/Bulair region to an unusual degree over the next four days.

Mühlmann awoke early on Sunday 25 April, to the sound of gunfire. He was at Liman von Sanders’ GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, when a staff officer rushed in with news of landings at Seddulbahir and Ari Burnu (Anzac), as well as of a transport flotilla in the Gulf of Saros. (This was part of an Allied feint by Hamilton at Bulair/Saros.) Liman von Sanders immediately alerted 4 Division to march to Bulair. Mühlmann takes up the story:

Unfortunately, L[iman] was somewhat nervous and instead of centralizing all telephone connections and remaining at the choke point – GHQ – he swung up on his horse and, accompanied by the two of us [Mühlmann and another staff officer] rode up to the heights near Bulair. Unfortunately, this meant that all reports were delayed 1–2 hours and the entire traffic between us and GHQ was made much more difficult…

Admittedly Bulair was the nearest danger zone to the German GHQ at the town of Gelibolu, but Liman von Sanders could also have headed toward Ari Burnu, or to Maidos, as a more central location to the known landings of Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir. In fact, while Liman von Sanders’ party was at Bulair, news of the Kum Kale French landing came in. Esat Pasa, GOC Turkish III Corps asked permission to move his HQ to Maidos, and this was granted. Yet Liman von Sanders continued to focus on Bulair.

Mühlmann relates that the small party reached the heights above Bulair in time to see a heavy naval bombardment of the fort there. Mühlmann already noted the limited effect of naval fire – the shell craters were immense, but did no damage unless there was a direct hit, although ‘the psychological effect is tremendous.’ Perhaps this influenced Liman von Sanders, because when evening came on 25 April, instead of returning to his GHQ at Gelibolu, Mühlmann commented: ‘to our great surprise, he [Liman] decided to spend the night out here; we could not find out why because we had no telephone line to GHQ.’ Mühlmann was sent on a mission the next day, 26 April, to Maidos with orders to concentrate 5 Division closer to Bulair, while 7 Division was sent to Seddulbahir. However, Liman von Sanders again planned to spend the entire day of 26 April on the heights above Bulair. (Meanwhile, Mühlmann was now down at Maidos, where an Allied submarine, evidently the Australian submarine AE2, fired nine torpedoes at a troop transport and missed, probably because the torpedoes failed to explode. Then AE2 surfaced and hailed a sail boat to ask directions, ‘really an incredible piece of cheek!’ noted Mühlmann. The AE2 sailed into the Sea of Marmora and, according to Mühlmann, did not sink any transports before being forced to the surface and scuttled. A Turkish message notes that the AE2 was followed by the German Capt. Merten, and fired on.) After the submarine episode, Mühlmann returned to Liman von Sanders at Bulair, and was ordered to remain there to observe, while Liman von Sanders went, on 27 April, to check on the situation at Maidos and Ari Burnu.

Mühlmann thought his sojourn at Bulair was over on 27 April, when the fleet disappeared from the Gulf of Saros. Liman von Sanders met Mühlmann at GHQ at Gelibolu and informed him that all was well at Ari Burnu, and that the French were hurled into the sea at Kum Kale, which was, of course, the planned French re-embarkation from Kum Kale. Liman von Sanders had also witnessed the shelling across the peninsula by the Queen Elizabeth of a Turkish transport, usually seen by historians as a significant blow, but Mühlmann remarked ‘Thank God, it was not loaded, and sank within one minute.’ Apparently Liman von Sanders returned from Maidos to his GHQ at Gelibolu by sea on 27 April, aboard the Barbarossa, at which a submarine fired two torpedoes and missed. This was probably the British submarine E14, and a successful torpedo attack would certainly have changed the campaign had Liman von Sanders gone down with this ship. The next day, 28 April, news came into von Sanders’ GHQ that the enemy was being reinforced at both Ari Burnu and Seddulbahir, and so, at this time, 7 Division and most of 5 Division were recalled from Bulair to move south via Maidos. This decision is at variance with Liman von Sanders’ memoirs, where he claimed to have recognized Bulair/Saros as a feint by 26 April.

However, neither Liman von Sanders nor Mühlmann were finished with Bulair. While on his way to a different task on 28 April, Mühlmann,

became despondent when, looking beyond the heights [at Bulair] I saw the transport fleet back in the Gulf of Saros. It was clear to all of us that we were only dealing with a bluff, otherwise they would have landed several days ago – in addition, the ships rode too high in the water to be fully loaded. Of course, L[iman’s] specific concern about protecting his rear at Bulair was to be expected, and therewith came the danger that I was to be left there again.

Mühlmann’s fear was only too accurate, since Liman von Sanders came up, and informed Mühlmann that he would move his HQ to Maidos, but Mühlmann was to be stationed at Bulair as Liman von Sanders’

plenipotentiary and general staff officer. I [Mühlmann] made a deeply disappointed face and explained my wish to him [to get closer to the actual war theatre]. At first, he [Liman von Sanders] did not wish to consider it, because after seeing the enemy fleet, new fears had swelled up in him. But, finally, he gave in…

Thus, it is clear that Liman von Sanders remained heavily preoccupied with the Bulair/Saros area over the period of four days between 25 and 28 April, and was still inclined to worry about this area as late as 28 April, when major Allied operations were obviously focussed at Anzac and Helles. Of course, Liman von Sanders was right to consider Saros/Bulair as a danger area, and in addition there was the Allied naval feint at Saros/ Bulair, but Liman von Sanders also appeared to show an unreasonable interest in this area. It is entirely possible that the capture and interrogation of Lt Palmer just before 25 April, with his disinformation about the Allies choosing Saros/Bulair as their main landing area, helped to confirm Liman von Sanders’ preoccupation with this zone. The documents do not specifically reveal this, but Liman von Sanders’ focus on Saros/ Bulair, and his hesitation in sending the Bulair divisions south, certainly gave the Allied landings on 25 April a breathing space they might not otherwise have expected.

Hearts And Minds

While maintaining a psychological war against the guerrilla it is crucial to conduct a ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign with the ordinary people.

In Malaya White Areas, heavily patrolled and free of communist influence, were set up in 1954. Initially these were heavily controlled, with curfews, food restrictions and body searches. However, the restrictions were quickly lifted to allow the privileged occupants of such areas to enjoy a near normal existence. Before long the occupants of peaceful villages surrounding the white areas began to demand incorporation, until all but a few of the most hardened pro-communist areas were involved.

At the same time power passed from the military to a civilian High Commissioner, while steps were taken to broaden the base of Tunku Abdul Rahman’s government-in-waiting to make it more acceptable to the Chinese and Indian minorities.

The policy of ‘Hearts and Minds’ was later extended by the British to her ‘brush wars’ in Borneo and the Oman and did much to facilitate her comparatively bloodless withdrawal from Empire. British involvement in Borneo began in 1962, when President Sukarno of Indonesia declared a state of Confrontation with the neighbouring states of Sabah and Sarawak in an attempt to coerce them into joining a Greater Indonesia.

Initially the Indonesians fought the war by proxy, employing local guerrillas to mount small-scale cross-border raids against isolated police and army posts. As the war intensified Sukarno introduced regular troops, including special purpose forces, trained in deeper infiltration. These received limited assistance from the Clandestine Communist Organization, mainly supported by the Chinese in the coastal towns and by a few Indonesian labourers in the timber trade along the southern border of Sabah.

To counter these incursions the British employed some 15,000 troops, mainly infantry. Borneo was a small-unit war in which patrols often spent weeks in the jungle seeking out and ambushing the enemy. In 1964 top secret British and Gurkha ‘Claret’ patrols began to infiltrate across the border in an attempt to drive the Indonesians back from their forward bases, without escalating the war or inviting intervention by the United Nations.

At the same time RAF helicopters worked closely with the British and later Australian and New Zealand SAS. Using their language and medical skills to win the hearts and minds of the Murat and Kelabit peoples and the numerous smaller groups living deep in the jungle SAS patrols amassed huge amounts of intelligence on enemy movements. The indigenous peoples were mainly pro-British, although some were quite introverted and resistant to outside influences. Others, like the Punans, were hard to find, migrating back and forth across the border.

Patrols were moved close to target villages, although at night they moved to jungle hides to maintain security. The comparatively simple medical and engineering services provided by the patrols vastly improved the villagers’ lot without fundamentally altering their way of life, which many SAS troopers came to respect and admire. Health education programmes were introduced and preventable illnesses treated, while malnutrition was overcome, initially by gifts of food and later by the introduction of better farming methods.

As contact increased, gifts of radios, medical kits, beer and even luxury hampers sealed the friendship. Ideology was rarely, if ever, mentioned. It was simply accepted that the tribesmen, to whom national borders were irrelevant, had no interest in politics and would happily support those who best served their very subjective interests. In appreciating this, and reacting to it, the British in Borneo proved the worth of ‘Hearts and Minds’, a policy which they were to adopt again with equal success in the Oman but which few other Western countries ever seem fully to have grasped.

In 1970 Britain was drawn with some trepidation into what was to be her last major colonial war. Since 1962 Sa’id bin Taimur, the aged and despotic Sultan of Oman, had been engaged in a losing battle with Marxist inspired guerrillas in the southern province of Dhofar. Using the recently independent People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as a base, they had mounted an increasingly successful campaign against the small government presence in the region and were now threatening to destabilize the entire region. In 1970 the unpopular and totally out of touch Sultan was replaced in a bloodless coup by his son, the Sandhurst-trained Anglophile Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Qaboos requested and was immediately granted British military assistance to crush the insurrection. SAS teams were introduced within days (there is some suggestion that elements may already have been in position) and at once began to implement Operation Storm, the regaining of the initiative in the South.

The area of operations was alien to the SAS troopers, most of whom were fresh from the jungle. It comprised a narrow coastal plain some 60km long and 10 km wide centred on the regional capital of Salalah. Inland the region was dominated by the mountainous Jebel Qarra, with its deep wadis and numerous caves running south and west to the Yemeni border. The Negd, a generally flat and treacherous area of desert between the mountains and Empty Quarter completed the uninviting panorama.

The Dhofari people were largely unknown to the SAS. The town tribes of the coastal plain were basically of Kathiri origin, industrious, comparatively sophisticated and unsympathetic to the Marxist cause. By contrast the Qarra Jebalis of the mountains were hot tempered, highly intelligent and fiercely independent. Their loyalty was to self, livestock, family and tribe in that order. As the SAS discovered to their advantage, the Jebalis made loyal friends if exploited sensibly, but bitter enemies if crossed. The Bedu of the Negd were nomadic herdsmen drawn from the Mahra and Bait Kathir tribes. They had their own languages and were equally independent.

Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Watts, commanding 22 SAS, fully appreciated that his greatest battle would be for the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. A PsyOps team was formed to counter the Adoo, or Marxist rebel, propaganda. Initially most Dhofaris offered at least tacit support to the rebels, until the British were able to exploit the Marxists’ hatred of family and religion, the two main cornerstones of local society. Once it was safe to do so doctors and SAS paramedics visited the local villages, inoculating the tribesman and their families against preventable but previously fatal diseases. At the same time veterinary teams treated the camel and goat herds in the Negd, providing the nomadic Bedu with newfound economic security.

Watts then gave the Dhofaris the opportunity to take up arms against the Adoo. Newly formed groups of fighters were trained, armed and paid, but never actually commanded by, the SAS. Known as ‘firqat’ they were allowed to elect their own leaders, after which they were given almost total autonomy. By 1975 the SAS administered some 1,600 men deployed in twenty-one separate ‘firqat’ units. With skilful handling they became a key element in operations to recover lost territory and win the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people.

Martyrdom on the Volga

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In war, it is often glibly said that ‘fortune favours the bold’; whether the bold actually deserve or receive such benefit is seldom questioned. By late December 1942, any last luck had run out for the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as it had done so for the Soviet defenders of Sevastopol six months earlier. Common to these two sieges was the remarkable courage and stoicism of the troops involved. But the results of both battles showed that no amount of risk-taking or individual valour displayed at the tactical level could alter necessarily the overall operational and strategic odds. Nations who send their sons and daughters into overexposed outposts abroad would do well to remember this, as many conflicts since the Second World War, including those in Indo-China, Iraq and Afghanistan, have demonstrated amply.

Manstein dedicated his account of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom on the Volga’ to the ‘German soldiers, who starved, froze and died there’. Noting the unlikelihood of any monument being erected to commemorate their sacrifice, he declared eloquently, ‘the memory of their indescribable suffering, their unparalleled heroism, fidelity, and devotion to duty will live on long after the victors’ cries of triumph have died away and the bereaved, the disillusioned and the bitter at heart have fallen silent’. His moving paean for the dead was prompted by the famous epigram of Simonides, dedicated to the brave Spartans who fell to a man at Thermopylae: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders, and here lie dead.’

For all their fortitude, was the sacrifice of over 225,000 men from the twenty German and two Rumanian divisions and supporting troops worth it? What had it achieved? The lost battle of Stalingrad resulted in an unprecedented catastrophe for Hitler. Worse than the defeat a year earlier at Moscow, it had far more severe political and military consequences. If the losses of the Rumanian Third and Fourth Armies smashed on either side of Stalingrad are included, together with the complete collapse of the Italian Eighth Army on the Upper Don and the subsequent defeat of the Hungarian Second Army in January 1943, then the Soviet winter counter-offensive was nothing less than a strategic disaster for the Axis cause. It showed all interested powers, including Germany’s allies and ‘concerned’ neutrals such as Turkey, that the Third Reich had severely overreached itself and could never hope to win against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the net result of the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad and subsequent operations in its winter campaign was the removal of the surviving Axis contingents from the Eastern Front and the evacuation of German forces from the Caucasus. Although the Red Army had suffered terrible losses in making these gains, everything Hitler hoped for in Operation BLUE had vanished. His fantasy of crossing over the southern Russian frontier and advancing to the Middle East and Iran remained just that – a vain dream devoid of all reality.

The only operational benefit of Sixth Army’s ‘martyrdom’ was that it had tied down so many Soviet forces for so long, and that Operation SATURN had been downgraded to LITTLE SATURN. Had the Germans lost Rostov-on-Don, the prime terrain objective of SATURN in December 1942, then Army Group A, and particularly a large chunk of First Panzer Army, could not have escaped destruction. Despite Manstein’s and Zeitzler’s constant urging, Hitler’s permission to start this urgently required withdrawal from the Caucasus (and at this stage only a partial one at that) came characteristically late on 29 December 1942 in ‘response to the insistence of Don Army Group’. None the less, Stalin was unable to inflict in full measure his intended mortal blow on the German Army in the East, the Ostheer. Army Groups A and Don survived to fight another day notwithstanding the grievous loss of Sixth Army, Germany’s strongest. As we shall see, Manstein managed to stabilize the southern wing of the front and the Soviet winter offensive was brought to a halt in March 1943 in spectacular fashion, offering a brief glimpse of victory. Yet nothing could disguise the harsh fact that the destruction of so many Axis forces (the equivalent of no less than fifty-five divisions) in the meantime had ‘fundamentally changed the situation to the detriment of Germany and her allies’. The strategic balance had now shifted in favour of the Soviet Union and its Western allies.

For the German people, moreover, there was no way of disguising the magnitude of the catastrophe at Stalingrad and the psychological blow it represented. Too many soldiers’ letters had reached the homeland for it to be brushed aside as a mere setback. Goebbels had tried to counter anguish and defeatism in his famous speech of 18 February 1943 at the Berlin Sportpalast, declaring ‘total war’. The strategic truth, however, had already been drawn on the battlefield. Marshal Zhukov, even stripping away the bombastic tone of his memoirs, hit the nail on the head when he explained the ‘causes of the German debacle’ and the Soviets’ ‘epoch-making victory’:

[The] failure of all Hitlerite strategic plans for 1942 was due to an underestimation of the forces and potentialities of the Soviet State, the indomitable spirit of the people. It also stems from an over-estimation by the Nazis of their own forces and capabilities. [Secondly,] utilization of the surprise factor, correct selection of the directions of the main effort, accurate detection of weak points in the enemy defences led to the defeat of the German troops in the operation[s] codenamed URANUS, SMALLER SATURN [and] RING.

Zhukov could not avoid listing a number of other contributory factors, not least the ‘Party and political work conducted by the Military Councils . . . and commanders’, ‘who fostered in soldiers confidence and bravery, and encouraged mass heroism on the battlefield’.

For both sides, there was as much a psychological as any physical turning point. Germany’s offensive operations had culminated. In view of the Soviet superiority, the only option available was to switch to a strategic defence. How aggressively it could be conducted at the operational level would depend on the time, space and forces available, and above all, on the skill of its commanders. As Manstein was soon to show, the Red Army could still be defeated in the field.

In the meantime, the final agony of Stalingrad is briefly told. In the grand scheme of the Second World War, it is tempting to describe the German defeat on the Volga in terms of a ‘decisive point’. Although such vocabulary is valid in any strict, detached, military analysis of campaign, it obscures the irrefutable fact that the battle was a human disaster. Manstein was surely right, therefore, to remind his readers:

The death-struggle of Sixth Army, which began around the turn of the year [1942-43], is a tale of indescribable suffering. It was marked not only by the despair and justified bitterness of the men who had been deceived in their trust, but even more by the steadfastness they displayed in the face of an undeserved and inexorable fate, and by their high degree of bravery, comradeship and devotion to duty, and by their calm resignation and humble faith in God.

None the less, it is perfectly appropriate to examine Hitler’s and Manstein’s decision-making during the last few, debilitating weeks of the Sixth Army: after all, the fate of so many thousands of soldiers rested on their political and military leaders.

By late December 1942, the combat power of the encircled troops in Stalingrad had diminished dramatically. On the 26th, when only 70 tonnes of supplies were flown into the pocket, Paulus reported that ‘bloody losses, cold, and inadequate supplies have recently made serious inroads on divisions’ fighting strength’. Moreover, it was ‘no longer possible to execute [a] break-out unless [a] corridor is cut in advance and [my] Army [is] replenished with men and supplies’. So Paulus was in no doubt as to the nature of the impending disaster. He concluded his report with a plea: ‘radical measures [are] now urgent’. None was available.

Back at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, the mood had turned to one of frustration and resignation for there was nothing now that could save Sixth Army. As Engel recorded, ‘here [is] deepest depression. Nearly everybody had been hoping against hope that P. [Paulus] would take the risk and try to break out against his orders.’ However unrealistic the prospect, he felt that the army commander ‘could have got out with the bulk of his men, albeit at a high cost in material’. Yet the fact remained that ‘Nobody knows what should be done next at Stalingrad.’ In the face of unfolding events he was powerless to change, the Führer had turned ‘very quiet’, and was ‘almost never seen except at daily situation conferences and to receive reports’.

By the end of the year, Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had been pushed back to its line of departure, then further west still towards Rostov-on-Don. Building on the success of the Stalingrad counter-offensive, the Soviet Middle Don operation had sealed Sixth Army’s fate. As Zhukov noted accurately, the encircled German force ‘had no prospect of relief, stocks had run out, troops were on starvation rations, hospitals were packed, and the death rate from injury and disease was steep. The end was in sight.’

On 9 January 1943, following instructions by the supreme command in Moscow, the Soviet Don Front presented Sixth Army with a surrender ultimatum. The demand was summarily rejected the same day by Paulus on Hitler’s orders. Manstein did not defer. Perhaps tilting at the obvious criticism after the war, he went to considerable lengths in his memoirs to explain why, in his view, a capitulation on this date would not have been appropriate. His rather banal comments that, ‘if every Commander-in-Chief were to capitulate as soon as he considered his position hopeless, no one would ever win a war’ and ‘even in situations apparently quite bereft of hope it has often been possible to find a way out in the end’ provided little justification. What mattered far more was the operational rationale for sustaining the struggle in Stalingrad at such high human cost. The critical consideration, therefore, which he stressed repeatedly, was the fate of the entire southern wing of the German Army on the Eastern Front. So Manstein was on safer ground when he stated:

this in turn brings us to the crucial point which justifies Hitler’s order to refuse to capitulate and also barred the Army Group from intervening in favour of such action at that particular time. No matter how futile Sixth Army’s continued resistance might be in the long run, it still had – as long as it could conceivably go on fighting – a decisive role to fulfil in the overall strategic situation. It had to try to tie down the enemy forces opposing it for the longest possible space of time.

Strictly speaking, he was right in his assessment. Sixth Army’s prolonged and heroic stand on the Volga continued to fix seven armies of Rokossovsky’s Don Front, powerful forces which otherwise could have been employed elsewhere to ‘telling effect’. That said, the conduct of war ought never to be reduced to the moves of an elaborate chess game: the humanitarian imperative to end a lost battle and so prevent any further loss of life must at some stage take precedence over military considerations.

Manstein maintained to his deathbed the deeply held conviction that Germany was not doomed to defeat as a result of Stalingrad. One of his central themes in Lost Victories is that it would have been possible to have come to some sort of draw, however illusory that view might now appear. For all his professional military capabilities, Manstein was not a politically astute man. In propounding his solution, he failed to appreciate the utter determination of Stalin and the Soviet people not only to free their sacred Motherland (Rodina), but also to punish the Fascist invaders and render the aggressor incapable of mounting a war of conquest ever again. He also underestimated the strength of feeling against Germany held by the Western Allies, who at the Casablanca conference (14-24 January 1943) had demanded unconditional surrender.

It would be far too simple, however, to dismiss out of hand Manstein’s perspective that ‘in those days it was by no means certain that Germany was bound to lose the war in the military sense’. Accepting that the military is but one instrument of national power, in early 1943 Germany had yet to realize the full potential of its war economy: that would take another year under Albert Speer’s best efforts. Furthermore, despite its huge losses on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht still had considerable reserves of men and equipment, much of it being squandered in the totally futile defence of Tunisia or dissipated to little benefit in other peripheral theatres such as Norway or the Balkans. The fundamental issue Manstein raised was whether a military stalemate could have been brought about, and if, in turn, it would have caused ‘a similar state of affairs in the political field’. He felt a ‘draw’ ‘would have been entirely within the bounds of possibility if the situation on the southern wing of German armies could in some way have been restored’. All his efforts during and following the disaster at Stalingrad were aimed at achieving that one objective – staving off defeat – as opposed to the pursuit of ultimate victory.

In the weeks that followed Sixth Army’s defiant refusal to capitulate, the Soviet forces slowly but surely pushed in the German defence. Operation RING, designed to reduce the pocket, was prosecuted with ruthless ferocity. Throughout this period, bad weather and heavy fighting continued to hinder aerial resupply. Freezing and worn out, German troops fought on: the sapping starvation of the survivors accelerated, as did the appalling suffering of the injured and wounded. Manstein was not immune to the human misery involved, observing that it was but ‘a cruel necessity of war which compelled the [German] Supreme Command to demand that one last sacrifice of the brave troops of Stalingrad’.

Within Stalingrad, the situation worsened steadily and losses mounted alarmingly. The bread ration was cut from 200 to 100 grams a day; after all the horses had been slaughtered, the dogs came next. When the airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak were lost on 12 and 22 January respectively, the inevitable end drew much closer: no supplies in; no wounded out. The start of a series of concentrated Soviet blows to liquidate the German hold of the city centre began on 22 January. On 24 January, Paulus signalled: ‘Fortress can be held for only a few days longer. Troops exhausted and weapons immobilized as a result of non-arrival of supplies. Imminent loss of last airfield will reduce supplies to a minimum. No basis left on which to carry out mission to hold Stalingrad.’ He requested permission to break out in small organized groups. In response, he received a stark message ‘Re break-out: Führer reserves right of final decision.’ It never arrived.

By this late stage, Manstein had realized the futility of any further sacrifice in Stalingrad and pressed Hitler hard to give Paulus permission to enter into surrender negotiations. The Führer refused point-blank. That same day (24 January 1943), the Soviets had broken through the last remaining coherent front and split the German forces in the city into three smaller segments. Within a week, Paulus (promoted to field marshal to encourage him not to fall into the hands of the Russians alive) and his immediate staff had surrendered at their final command post, the Univermag department store in Red Square.

In one of those great ironies of history, it was Colonel Ivan Andreevich Laskin, a hero of the defence of Sevastopol and now chief of staff of the 64th Army, who arranged the cessation of hostilities in Stalingrad. The guns fell silent on 2 February when the last defenders of XI Corps in the northern pocket gave up. No fewer than 90,000 Germans were captured of which only 5,000 came back to their Fatherland. Although the fighting had stopped, cold, disease and malnutrition in Stalingrad was soon replicated in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps; only the very strongest and exceptionally lucky pulled through.

Manstein had done his very best to relieve Stalingrad. When that attempt failed for lack of forces, he felt compelled by military logic, and in accordance with Hitler’s instructions, to require Sixth Army to fight on. Perhaps somewhat belatedly, he had urged the Führer to agree to its surrender when the airlift was broken and when any further resistance was no longer justified on military grounds. Of the German leader’s role, Manstein wrote:

It was certainly to Hitler’s credit that he accepted responsibility unreservedly and made no attempt whatever to find a scapegoat. On the other hand, we are confronted by his regrettable failure to draw any conclusions for the future from a defeat for which his own errors of leadership were to blame.

One consequence of Stalingrad was the temporary loosening of Hitler’s micro-control of operations in early 1943. It led to timely evacuations from the exposed Demyansk and Rzhev salients that forestalled Soviet blows and created much needed reserves. Manstein also exploited this situation in stabilizing the southern wing of the Eastern Front by the end of March. Without gaining sufficient freedom to manoeuvre, it is doubtful whether he would have achieved anything like the fleeting operational success he gained.

Extracting any flexibility from the Führer, however, drained him. His mounting frustration over Hitler’s way of war caused him to consider tendering his resignation on several occasions. When Hitler denied him urgent reinforcements for Fourth Panzer Army, he wrote to Zeitzler on 5 January 1943 asking to be relieved of command:

Should these proposals not be approved and this headquarters continue to be tied down to the same extent as hitherto, I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by my continuing as commander of Army Group Don. In the circumstances it would appear more appropriate to replace me by a sub-directorate of the kind maintained by the Quartermaster-General.

Hitler refused his request. Matters came to a head again towards the end of the month with the Führer’s rejection of his demand to allow Sixth Army to surrender. His principal subordinates again advised him against resignation. His ‘closest collaborator’ Busse, according to Manstein’s account, is recorded saying in late 1942: ‘If I had not kept begging him [Manstein] to stay for the troops’ sake, he’d have chucked the job back at Hitler long ago.’

Notwithstanding his stated desire to step down, Manstein was probably right in his assertion that Hitler would not have accepted his resignation. The Führer tolerated and needed him for another year. The army group commander had further professional ambitions in any case. He knew that he was well qualified to take over from either Zeitzler or Keitel, or to assume overall command of the Eastern Front. This was a view shared by many of Germany’s generals who criticized the conduct of operations. Hermann Balck, for example, commented in his diary on 17 February 1943 that ‘the solution generally desired throughout the Army’ is for ‘Manstein to assume as Commander-in-Chief East’.

Of more enduring interest are Manstein’s comments against military resignation. He concluded that a senior commander ‘is no more able to pack up and go home than any other soldier’. Furthermore, ‘the soldier in the field is not in the pleasant position of a politician, who is always at liberty to climb off the band-wagon when things go wrong or the line taken by the Government does not suit him. A soldier has to fight where and when he is ordered.’ True enough for a politician in a democracy, but dictators such as Hitler are not in the habit of standing down: they either die of natural causes or come to a premature, violent end.

In early 1943, Manstein faced fighting some very difficult battles with Hitler in order to prevent any further disintegration on the southern wing as a result of renewed Soviet attacks. He had been wrestling with this problem since his assumption of command. With Stalingrad soon to fall, resolution of this issue became ever more urgent. It all revolved around securing a more coherent command of the Wehrmacht and the Eastern Front.

THE RESILIENCE OF THE REBELLION

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Even when the British did win victories against less wary and able rebel commanders, these proved ultimately unimpressive because of the resilience of the rebels’ military forces. For example, in New Jersey in November and December 1776, in Georgia in December 1778 and January 1779, and in South Carolina in May and June 1780, the British managed to defeat, drive off, disperse, or capture the enemy’s forces; they then detached troops to fortify and garrison posts to tie down the occupied territory. Yet in each case the battered rebels recovered remarkably quickly. In the North the unexpected blows that Washington’s dwindling, tattered band delivered at Trenton and Princeton compelled Howe to evacuate almost all of occupied New Jersey. In Georgia and South Carolina, despite shattering British victories at Savannah, Briar Creek, Charleston, and Camden, the rebels were able to keep putting regular and militia forces in the field to contest the reestablishment of royal authority in the backcountry. In such circumstances British commanders must have felt that they were engaged in a never-ending struggle to cut off the heads of a Hydra-like enemy.

As the war progressed, the rebels’ military forces gradually gained experience and discipline, despite the Continental Army’s continued dependence on short-service drafts. In part, this was the result of Washington’s deliberate strategy of exposing his regulars to small doses of combat in the petite guerre. As Major the Honorable Charles Stuart put it in 1777: “The rebel soldiers, from being accustomed to peril in their skirmishes, begin to have more confidence, and their officers seldom meet with our foraging parties, but they try every ruse to entrap them. And though they do not always succeed, yet the following our people as they return, and the wounding and killing many of our rearguards, gives them the notion of victory, and habituates them to the profession.” Colonel Allan MacLean was of the same mind: “The rebels have the whole winter gone upon a very prudent plan of constantly harassing our quarters with skirmishes and small parties, and always attacking our foraging parties. By this means they gradually accustom their men to look us in the face, and stand fire which they never have dared to attempt in the field. But this is a plan which we ought to avoid most earnestly, since it will certainly make soldiers of the Americans.”

The winter at Valley Forge in 1777–78 marked a major milestone in the tactical effectiveness of the Continental Army, largely due to the efforts of the rebels’ Prussian drillmaster, Major General Friedrich von Steuben. Despite a shaky start, Washington’s regulars performed better at Monmouth Courthouse than in most previous engagements, and the rebel coup against Stony Point the next year was particularly impressive. In January 1780 captive British ensign Thomas Hughes saw a battalion of Continentals marching southward who “had good clothing, were well armed and showed more of the military in their appearance than I ever conceived American troops had yet attained.” Months later Captain John Peebles made a similar observation on the surrendered rebel troops at Charleston: “They are a ragged, dirty-looking sort of people as usual, but [they have] more appearance of discipline than what we have seen formerly, and some of their officers [are] decent-looking men.”

During the southern campaigns, disciplined Continental Army corps like the 1st Maryland Regiment demonstrated their increasing ability to repulse British bayonet rushes. Hence the Hessian adjutant general in America expressed surprise at Clinton’s displeasure at the expense of Cornwallis’s hollow victory at Guilford Courthouse: “I myself do not see anything extraordinary in it, for since we made no effort to smother the rebellion at the beginning, when it could have been done at a small cost, the rebels couldn’t help but become soldiers.” After his capture at Yorktown, the sight of rebel troops at exercise particularly impressed captive Captain Johann Ewald: “Concerning the American army, one should not think that it can be compared to a motley crowd of farmers. The so-called Continental, or standing, regiments are under good discipline and drill in the English style as well as the English themselves. I have seen the Rhode Island Regiment march and perform several mountings of the guard which left nothing to criticize. The men were complete masters of their legs, carried their weapons well, held their heads straight, faced right without moving an eye, and wheeled so excellently without their officers having to shout much, that the regiment looked like it was dressed in line with a string.”

As the war dragged on, an increasing number of those who were drafted into the Continental Army or called out for militia service, or who offered themselves as paid substitutes for such men, were themselves veterans of previous campaigns. In short, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, by the end of the war, the best of the rebels’ regular corps were tactically every bit the equals of their British counterparts.

The resilience of the Continental Army was central to Britain’s eventual failure in America. Eighteenth-century military convention dictated that the army that held the field at the end of an engagement had gained the victory. By this standard Crown troops won the great majority of the engagements of the American War. Yet while battles like Bunker Hill, Freeman’s Farm, Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk’s Hill, and Eutaw Springs were all unquestionably British tactical victories, they were simultaneously strategic reverses on three counts. First, they cut deeply into Britain’s limited military manpower. Second, they did not neutralize the rebels’ field armies. Third, they failed to convince colonial public opinion that Crown forces were invincible. For example, if Cornwallis had intended that a victory at Guilford Courthouse would prove the superiority of His Majesty’s arms and thereby rally the people of North Carolina to the royal cause, then the result impressed few. As the earl sadly reported, in the aftermath of the action, barely one hundred locals were willing to come out in arms in his support: “Many of the inhabitants rode into camp, shook me by the hand, said they were glad to see us and to hear that we had beat Greene, and then rode home again.”

Furthermore, as the war unfolded, the political dividend that Crown forces gained from clear operational or tactical successes against the rebels proved less and less potent. Probably the best example of this was Cornwallis’s triumph at Camden. In the first flush of his victory, the earl optimistically predicted, “The rebel forces being at present dispersed, the internal commotions and insurrections in the province will now subside.” But when (as Lord Rawdon put it) “the dispersion of that force did not extinguish the ferment which the hope of its support had raised,” Cornwallis rationalized the failure of his prediction by suggesting that “[t]he disaffection . . .  in the country east of [the] Santee [River] is so great that the account of our victory could not penetrate into it, any person daring to speak of it being threatened with instant death.” Rawdon’s assessment was more straightforward: “The approach of General Gates’s army unveiled to us a fund of disaffection in this province of which we could have formed no idea. . . . A numerous enemy now appears on the frontiers drawn from Nolachucki and other settlements beyond the mountains whose very names have been unknown to us.” Rawdon’s admission that the British had simply been oblivious to the scale, intensity, and persistence of popular hostility to royal authority in South Carolina was reminiscent of Burgoyne’s obvious alarm three years earlier, when he reported from New England that “[t]he great bulk of the country is undoubtedly with the Congress in principle and in zeal” and that New Hampshire, “a country unpeopled and almost unknown in the last war, now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race of the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left.” In short, if British military successes impressed the undecided, they did not intimidate inveterate rebels, whose numbers and determination Crown commanders gradually came to realize they had drastically underestimated.

If British commanders ultimately did not reap the expected political fruits from their military successes, their armies’ unhappy interaction with the population at large certainly wrought massive political damage. Among the leading causes of this alienation were the unauthorized employment of “fire and sword” methods by some hard-line officers and the nefarious misdemeanors committed by the rank and file, including theft and rape. In some ways British soldiers proved excellent recruiting agents for the rebel cause.

Even if British military successes had encouraged the rebel leadership to sue for peace and the majority of the population to acquiesce in the restoration of royal government, it is far from clear that this would have signaled the end of the conflict. Instead, it is quite possible that the British would have found their authority still contested at a local level by inveterately hostile sections of the population (much as occurred over a century later during the guerrilla phase of the Second Boer War). The lawlessness that wracked the “no-man’s-land” around New York City for much of the conflict, and the bloody civil war that ravaged Georgia and the Carolinas when the strategic focus shifted to the South, were surely a foretaste of what must have happened had the British succeeded in defeating organized rebel resistance across the continent. It is difficult to see how Britain’s limited military resources could have successfully overcome such a state of universal anarchy.

While Crown forces won the great majority of the battlefield engagements of the American War, the fruits of these victories were too limited to decide the outcome. Certainly it was beyond the powers of the British to “destroy” rebel field armies on the battlefield. This was because rebel commanders generally succeeded either in evading battle under unfavorable conditions or in escaping the worst consequences of a defeat. They managed the latter feat because the British were generally incapable of mounting an effective pursuit to disrupt or interdict the flight of the vanquished from the battlefield. As Major General the Chevalier de Chastellux put it, “it is not in intersected countries, and without cavalry, that great battles are gained, which destroy or disperse armies.” As the struggle dragged on, and despite repeated reverses, the rebels’ military forces gradually gained in experience and discipline to the point that, by the end of the war, the Continental Army’s best corps were able to meet the King’s troops on the open field on more or less equal terms. This made British victories all the more difficult and costly. Additionally, the British appear simply to have overestimated the political worth of military success. While their Pyrrhic tactical victories predictably failed to convince many Americans that Congress was doomed to defeat, neither did great victories like Camden persuade inveterate rebels to abandon the cause. Had the rebel leadership given up the struggle, and had the mass of the population resigned themselves to the restoration of royal authority, it is likely that these incorrigibles would simply have made America ungovernable.

A HAREBRAINED SCHEME

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By October 1962, the lofting of Discoverer XIV on August 18, 1960, had dispelled the darkness from the interior of the Soviet Union for more than two years, permitting an acccurate assessment of its strategic capabilities. Minuteman, the weapon that was to play such an important role in keeping the nuclear peace by safeguarding against the nuclear Pearl Harbor so dreaded earlier, was moving into deployment. The first flight of ten Minutemen went on alert in silos at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana on October 22, 1962. Yet that same month, in no small irony, the eternal curse of the human race, man’s folly, brought the United States and Russia the closest they were ever to come to nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev precipitated the crisis by shipping Soviet missiles to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in a wild poker play to try to even the strategic odds. When Khrushchev was overthrown two years later in a conspiracy led by one of his principal subordinates in the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev, the Missile Crisis was cited as an example of his “harebrained scheming.” It was not the only reason for his downfall. His colleagues had other complaints against him as well, but a harebrained scheme it certainly was.

The genesis of Khrushchev’s Cuban gamble seems to have been a meeting in February 1962 of the Soviet Union’s Defense Council, a gathering that included senior military commanders, leading missile designers like Korolev and Yangel, and members of the Presidium. Khrushchev was informed that it would take a number of years to provide him with a sizable force of reliable and accurate ICBMs. In the meantime, he would have to endure an American opponent in John Kennedy who possessed awesome nuclear superiority. By the end of the forthcoming October, for example, Khrushchev would possess a mere twenty unreliable ICBMs, along with a bomber force of fifty-eight Bison jets, limited to a one-way trip, and seventy-six Tu-95 turboprops, slow planes that were dead pigeons to the American jet interceptors and surface-to-air missiles. In contrast, Kennedy would flaunt ninety-six Atlas ICBMs, fifty-four Titans, ten Minutemen, forty-eight of the Navy’s new Polaris submarine-launched IRBMs hidden on station in the depths, and SAC’s bomber force of 1,741 B-47s, B-58s, and B-52s. Uncounted because of their joint control but also ready were the sixty Thor IRBMs in England, the thirty Jupiters in Italy, and the sixteen in Turkey.

Khrushchev saw a way around this dilemma. The Soviet Union possessed plenty of well-tested IRBMs. If a substantial number of these were slipped into Cuba, their presence 90 miles from Key West would, as he put it in his memoirs, equalize “what the West likes to call ‘the balance of power.’” Soviet IRBMs this close would effectively neutralize much of SAC; there would be no time to get planes off the ground in the event of an attack. Besides, he had been particularly rankled by the Jupiters in neighboring Turkey ever since their deployment. “The Americans … would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointing at you; we’d be doing nothing more than giving them a little of their own medicine.” The range of the first-generation IRBM, the R-12, had been extended by 1962 from 1,250 to 1,292 miles and its warhead blast increased from 700 kilotons to the eighty Hiroshimas of a megaton. The R-12 would hold hostage all Eastern cities through Washington to New York, which was 1,290 miles from Cuba, and those as far west as Dallas and Oklahoma City. (During the crisis, the CIA designated the R-12 a medium-range rocket, or MRBM, but rocket historians refer to it as an intermediate-range missile because of its 1,000-mile-plus reach.) The second-generation R-14, at 2,500 miles, would threaten the whole of eastern and much of western Canada and virtually the entire United States out into Montana. The plan was to ship thirty-six R-12s to Cuba with twenty-four launchers for them and twenty-four R-14s with sixteen launchers. (Some of the rockets would be “reloads” for second firings.) The question was whether the missiles could be transported and emplaced in Cuba secretly. Khrushchev planned to complete deploying them on the island in October and then to tell Kennedy they were there after the midterm congressional elections in November, when he assumed the American president would be under less political pressure and more likely to accept the rockets without too much of a fuss. Anastas Mikoyan, like Khrushchev another of Stalin’s henchmen who had survived to be a better man in better days and was now Khrushchev’s closest friend and adviser in the Presidium, urged him to abandon the scheme. It was too dangerous, Mikoyan said. They would get caught in the act and a crisis would ensue. Khrushchev’s foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, who had considerable experience dealing with the Americans, warned him that “putting missiles in Cuba would cause a political explosion in the United States. I am absolutely certain of that.” Khrushchev heeded neither man. He seems to have had no conception that, however uncomfortable Russians might be over hostile missiles in adjacent Turkey, Russian sensitivities about Turkey were mild compared to those of Americans about Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole. Americans regarded the Caribbean as the Romans had regarded the Mediterranean. It was Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. Similarly, Cuba had come to be looked upon as an American possession and treated as American territory after the United States seized it from Spain in 1898. This was why there had been such an uproar when Castro had nationalized the American-owned businesses that virtually monopolized the island’s economy and declared himself a Communist. It was bad enough to have the Red Menace now just across the Florida Straits from Miami. No American president could withstand the political firestorm that would ensue if he acquiesced in the positioning of Russian nuclear missiles on the island.

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WHOSE MISSILE GAP?

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A terrifying fairy tale called “the missile gap,” which had the Soviets surging ahead of the United States in ICBM capability, was roiling Washington. The controversy was another example of the chronic American habit during the Cold War, partly from genuine fear but usually inspired as well by political and institutional motives, of seriously overestimating Soviet military power and technological capabilities. Khrushchev, whose solution to the carefully disguised military inferiority of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the United States was boasting and bluff, had helped to foster it. In August 1957, approximately two months before the shock of Sputnik, he announced that Russia had ICBMs able to reach “any part of the globe.” In November of the following year Moscow claimed to have begun “serial production” of ICBMs. That December of 1958, Khrushchev told Senator and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, who was on a visit to Russia, that the Soviets had a new rocket but no place to test it because it flew 9,000 miles. He asked Humphrey what his hometown was and then walked over to a map of the United States and drew a circle around Minneapolis. “That’s so I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly,” Khrushchev said. On another occasion, he bragged that in Russia “missiles were being turned out like sausages from a machine.”

The Soviet leader had a receptive audience in the United States for these lies. Aroused by Sputnik, Democratic Party leaders accepted the purported missile gap as real and accused the administration of allowing the United States to lapse into a position of strategic inferiority. One of those crying out the loudest was the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who was to make the missile gap one of the central issues in his victorious presidential campaign of 1960. Influential fearmongers like Paul Nitze and chronic alarmists in the press like the Alsop brothers, Joseph and Stewart, who shared a syndicated column, added to the presumed state of peril. Nor were the military services averse to exploiting the situation in order to force an increase in the Pentagon budget. The worst offender was the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence, Major General James Walsh. In November 1959, he predicted that the Soviets would have 50 ICBMs by mid-1960 and “an operational ICBM force of about 250 (185 on launcher) by mid-1961, 500 (385 on launcher) by mid-1962, and 800 (640 on launcher) by mid-1963.” Eisenhower, who knew Khrushchev was lying from the U-2 photography and other intelligence, which, for security reasons, he refused to share with his opposition, attempted reassurance but was simply not believed. (To his credit, Schriever did not join in fostering the scare, although he naturally benefited from the loosening of the budget strings.)

The truth was that by 1959 there was a missile gap. The gap was widening steadily in favor of the United States, not the Soviet Union. Soviet rocket engineers like Sergei Korolev had been ahead through the mid-1950s with soundly constructed medium-and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. After Bennie Schriever and the Schoolhouse Gang got going in the summer of 1954, however, the key in the ignition had been turned and the motor started to reverse positions in the race once it reached the level of an ICBM. With the assurance of a 1,500-pound hydrogen bomb for the warhead by the time the missile was ready, Schriever and company could commence by designing a practical ICBM. They were not forced, as Korolev had been because the Soviet Union was three years later than the United States in acquiring the hydrogen bomb, to begin by designing a behemoth rocket capable of carrying a 5.4-ton fission, or atomic, warhead, and thus to produce a totally impractical ICBM. By mid-1960, when the Air Force’s intelligence chief predicted that the Soviet Union would have fifty ICBMs, it had emplaced the only four of Korolev’s R-7 proto-ICBMs it was ever to deploy at Plesetsk, 600 miles north of Moscow. Khrushchev was to admit years later that the R-7 had “represented only a symbolic counterthreat to the United States.”

There were Soviet ICBMs comparable to the Atlas and its alternative, Titan, on the way in 1959, but they were still in the development stage. Korolev designed one called the R-9, first flight-tested in 1961. It did not find favor with the Soviet military and was never produced in substantial numbers. The missile that was to become the standard Soviet ICBM for much of the 1960s, the R-16, was created by Mikhail Yangel, Korolev’s principal rival as a rocket designer. Its initial flight test on October 24, 1960, turned into the worst disaster in the history of rocketry. Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, the commander of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, came to supervise the launch. He was a career artillery officer, an impatient, bullheaded man who actually knew little about rockets. When there was a last-minute glitch, he refused to allow the launch crew to drain the fuel from the rocket as a safety precaution while making necessary fixes. One of the fuel’s components was nitric acid, flammable and toxic, inflicting severe burns on contact with the skin. A technician accidentally ignited the engines and the rocket burst apart in a mammoth fireball, sloshing burning fuel all over the pad and the surrounding area.

A camera set up to record the launch instead recorded a horror movie of human torches, including Nedelin, futilely attempting to escape. Secrecy was clamped over the catastrophe and the exact number of victims is unclear. The toll of those incinerated was apparently somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred. A Red Army newspaper reported in 1990, the year before the Soviet Union collapsed, that 156 perished. Nedelin’s death was publicly attributed to a plane crash and a coffin supposedly containing his remains was buried with honors in the Kremlin wall. William Taubman, the Amherst College scholar whose splendid biography of Khrushchev won him a Pulitzer Prize, says there was nothing left to put in a coffin. All that remained of Nedelin, he writes, was “a marshal’s shoulder strap and half-melted keys to his office safe.” The calamity did not stop test launches of the R-16 and the ICBM was deployed in 1962. The Soviets were, however, still having trouble with the weapon in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred and Khrushchev had a total of twenty operational ICBMs to the 160 Kennedy possessed. Preparations to fire the R-16 continued to require several hours rather than the thirty minutes Yangel had posited and that was eventually achieved. “Before we get it ready to launch,” Kirill Moskalenko, a ranking Red Army marshal and friend of Khrushchev from Second World War days, warned in the midst of the crisis, “there won’t even be a wet spot left of any of us.”