Army Group North’s Years of Hope and Frustration I

1941: Race to Moscow, German Army Group North, the leadership.

The German Push to Leningrad

The OKH issued the marshaling order—Aufmarschanweisung Ost (Deployment Directive East)—for the invasion of the Soviet Union on January 31, 1941. With respect to Army Group North, it called for an encirclement of major portions of enemy units west of the Dvina River. The main axis of advance would be from Dünaburg via Opocka to Leningrad. The town of Dünaburg is located on the Dvina River in the southeast corner of Latvia and the village of Opocka is located about 80 miles (130km) south of Pskov. This meant that the main effort was on the right. The missions assigned to Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North were:

1. Destroy the Soviet armies in the Baltic States.

2. Neutralize Kronstadt.

3. Capture Leningrad.

4. Link up with the Finnish Army.

The distance Army Group North had to travel was 500 miles (800km). Army Group North consisted of the Sixteenth Army with ten infantry divisions under the command of General Ernst Busch (1885–1945), and the Eighteenth Army with eight infantry divisions under General Georg von Küchler. Leeb planned to lead with the Fourth Panzer Group, under the command of General Erich Höpner (1886–1944). This Panzer Group was redesignated the Fourth Panzer Army in January 1942. On June 22, 1941, it consisted of XCI and LVI motorized corps with three Panzer, three motorized infantry, two infantry, and three security divisions.

When reaching Leningrad, Höpner was to continue north or northeast, depending on the situation. The Eighteenth Army’s mission was to clear the Baltic area and be ready to capture the islands off Estonia. The Sixteenth Army, on the right flank, was responsible for maintaining contact with Army Group Center and thus constituted a screen for the right flank of Army Group North.

Army Group North made rapid progress through the Baltic States mainly because, contrary to German planning assumptions, the Soviets did not intend to make a stand in those areas. General Fyodor I. Kuzuetsov (1898–1961), the commander of the Northwest Front, successfully withdrew his forces virtually intact and nothing came of the great encirclement the Germans had planned west of the Dvina River. The Soviet retreat allowed the Germans to overrun Lithuania and Latvia quickly and they entered Estonia on July 4, reaching the old Russian border on July 8. Soviet forces began to offer stiffer resistance when the Germans reached Rus sian soil, and the advance of Army Group North slowed to a crawl. Field Marshal Leeb began his final push from the area west of Lake Ilmen and Hitler reinforced him with an armored corps from Army Group Center. Such transfers were planned for in the Barbarossa directive, but only after the enemy in Belorussia had been routed.

The primary mission of the German Navy in the Baltic was the protection of the sea route from Sweden. Support of Barbarossa was accorded a lower priority. Recognizing their own inferiority to the Soviet Navy, the Finns and Germans had agreed before the war began to rely primarily on mine warfare to neutralize the enemy surface fleet. This fleet was substantial—2 battleships, 2 light cruisers, 19 destroyers, and 68 submarines. In addition there were over 700 naval aircraft. Belts of mines were laid in the Baltic and Gulf of Finland beginning shortly before the commencement of hostilities. The German/Finnish tactics proved very successful and the Soviets were unable to make use of their naval superiority. The fleet remained, for the most part, bottled up in Kronstadt.

Army Group North’s drive toward Leningrad resumed on August 10, 1941, and it was rapidly approaching Leningrad. The question about what to do with Leningrad now surfaced. In line with his twisted ideology, Hitler decided that Leningrad should not be occupied. Its population would be reduced through a process of starvation and bombardment. In the end, it was expected that the city would be leveled to the ground. Halder notes in his diary that the decision was announced by Hitler on July 12 and Moscow was to be destroyed in the same way when that city was reached. Halder refers to it as a “humanitarian tragedy” that would strike communists and non-communists alike. The Finns had already expressed a desire to have the Neva River as their southern border and Hitler agreed that the territory north of the river should be given to them.

A memorandum prepared by the German Navy clearly lays out what had been decided. It reads in part:

The Führer is determined to raze Petersburg [Leningrad] to the ground. There is no point in the continued existence of this vast settlement after the defeat of Soviet Russia. Finland, too, has announced that it has no interest in the continued existence of a large city so close to its new frontiers.

The original request by the Navy that the wharf, harbor, and other installations of naval importance should be spared … has to be refused in view of the basic policy in regard to Petersburg.

It is intended to surround the city and then raze it to the ground by a general artillery barrage and by continuous air bombardment. Individual surrenders are unacceptable, because we cannot and do not wish to deal with the problem of quartering and feeding the population. We, for our part, have no interest in preserving any section of the population in the course of this war for Germany’s survival.

The Finns Go Their Own Way

Army Group North was ordered to encircle Leningrad, but not to enter the city or accept surrender. To isolate Leningrad, Army Group North planned to cross the Neva River near Schlüsselburg. It would then establish contact with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. It also intended to drive north to Volkhov and Tikhvin and link up with the Finnish Army of Karelia near the Svir River.

To assist in the accomplishment of its mission, Army Group North wanted the Finns to advance south on both the Karelian Isthmus and from the Svir River to meet the Germans moving north. These proposals were contained in a letter from Keitel to Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil von Mannerheim (1867–1951) on August 22, 1941. Keitel’s proposal elicited a refusal by Mannerheim based on gloomy and somewhat contrived reasoning. The real reason was that the Finnish leaders did not believe it was in Finland’s interests to cross the Svir River or launch an offensive against Leningrad. The failure of proper pre-war planning was now coming back to haunt the Germans. In the end the Finns moved their front south on the Karelian Isthmus a short distance, not to cooperate with the Germans but for occupying better defensive terrain.

The letter from Mannerheim to Keitel created dismay at OKW and OKH. It resulted in an immediate message to Army Group North from OKH ordering it to link up with the Finns as quickly as possible, even at the cost of delaying the encirclement of Leningrad. Leeb was not impressed when Keitel informed him on September 3, 1941, that the Finns were moving their front south a short distance on the Karelian Isthmus. Leeb observed that a kilometer or two of territory was of no importance. What was essential was to have the Finns undertake operations to tie down the maximum number of Soviet troops on their fronts. If they failed to do that the Soviets could create serious problems for the Germans by withdrawing substantial forces from the Finnish front for use against his army group.

Leeb was correct. The Soviets quickly realized that the Finnish offensive on the Karelian Isthmus had ended. They had six divisions and several separate battalions and regiments defending Leningrad from the north. They quickly withdrew two of these divisions on September 5 and threw them against the Germans. Army Group North’s arrival in the Leningrad area in September 1941 coincided with the Finns reaching the Svir River and the start of their drive into East Karelia.

Early September was a momentous period for the Germans and the course of the war. Despite signs of an early winter and the exhausted state of his troops, Hitler decided that the time was right to resume the German offensive against Moscow, notwithstanding the wording of the Barbarossa directive stating that the offensive against Moscow would resume only after the objectives in Army Group’s North’s area—the capture of Leningrad and the link-up with the Finns—had been achieved. Hitler’s decision to resume the offensive against Moscow involved removing Höpner’s Fourth Panzer Group from Army Group North and transferring it to Army Group Center. This left only one mechanized formation in Army Group North, the XXXIX Corps. This corps had belonged to General Hermann Hoth’s Third Panzer Group and had been sent north after Army Group North paused in the vicinity of Lake Ilmen.

Schlüsselburg fell to the Germans on September 8, 1941, and the Germans now had a foothold on Lake Ladoga, and the city of Leningrad was encircled. This was the moment when OKW had planned that Leeb should send the XXXIX Corps on an eastward drive to Volkhov and Tikhvin. Leeb objected on the grounds that the operation would dissipate his strength at a time when he needed to make the ring around Leningrad secure. He was successful in his appeal—for the time being. Instead, the OKH ordered him to cross the Neva River and link up with the Finns on the Karelian Isthmus. However, he did not have the strength to cross the Neva.

The Soviets upset the German plans by launching heavy counterattacks against Schlüsselburg. Leeb pointed out to OKH on September 15, 1941, that the Soviets were withdrawing forces from the Finnish fronts and using them against the Germans. He urged that the Finns resume their offensive on the Karelian Isthmus and predicted that if they did, the battle for Leningrad could be decided within a few days. If they did not, he could not predict when he would be able to cross the Neva River.

There can be little doubt that Leeb was correct. The handful of mauled Soviet divisions north of Leningrad could have been brushed aside easily by the Finns, particularly if they had not transferred forces to East Karelia or if those transfers had been delayed until after the requested German operations on the Karelian Isthmus. Such operations would also have closed the one opening in the German encirclement—across the southern part of Lake Ladoga. The OKH answered Leeb on September 18, 1941. General Halder assured him that the Finns intended to resume their attacks both on the Karelian Isthmus and south of the Svir River. But there were conditions. The Finns told their brothers-in-arms that the offensive on the Karelian Isthmus would be undertaken as soon as the Germans had crossed the Neva River. The drive out of the Svir bridgehead would be pursued as soon as the effects of a German drive to the east became observable.

These conditions caused a conundrum for the Germans and doomed the hoped-for cooperation from the Finns, since the drive to the east had been cancelled temporarily and Leeb had just stated that he did not have the strength to cross the Neva River in force. It appears that the Finns were well informed on what was happening at OKH and used that information to their advantage.

The Tikhvin Thrust

OKW ordered Leeb to attack eastward on October 14, although there was no evidence that the Soviets had reduced their force levels in the Leningrad area to counter the offensive against Moscow. The plan was to drive eastward and envelop the Soviet forces south of Lake Ladoga. It was expected that XXXIX Corps would link up with the Finns in the area between Tikhvin and Lodeynoye Pole. It appears from this intention that the Germans still harbored hopes that the Finns would undertake operations south of the Svir River.

XXXIX Corps began its advance on October 16, 1941. The advance was slow due to strong Soviet resistance and the onset of rain that turned the roads and earth into mud. The mud and soft ground was so bad that the armored divisions were forced to leave their tanks behind after a few days. The situation became bleak enough for Hitler to want to cancel the operation, but OKH and Leeb persuaded him to continue.

By the first week in November, the Germans were still 6 miles (10km) from Tikhvin. They planned one final push on November 6. The attack succeeded and Tikhvin was captured on November 9, 1941. Thereupon, one division was turned north along the railroad toward Volkhov. However, the Russians were not giving up the fight for the town and began a counteroffensive against Army Group North with new forces. Some of these forces, according to General Waldemar Erfurth (1879–1971), chief of the German liaison detachment at Mannerheim’s headquarters, had been withdrawn from the Karelian Army front. The Soviet forces succeeded in virtually encircling the Germans and Leeb found it necessary to commit two additional divisions to hold the flanks of the Tikhvin salient. Any plans for linking up with the Finns in the Lodeynoye Pole area or of a continued advance to Volkhov were out of the question.

On December 3, 1941, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim (1889–1962), who commanded the German drive to Tikhvin, reported that he would not be able to hold that town. Leeb gave him a “be prepared” order to withdraw on December 7, but not to execute it until Hitler had given his permission. Hitler then issued Directive 39 on December 8, 1941, which stopped all offensive operations on the Eastern Front. Tikhvin was ordered held and XXXIX Corps was fighting desperately to hold on to the town in the middle of a blizzard with temperatures well below zero. Leeb notified OKW that he intended to withdraw XXXIX Corps and Hitler grudgingly agreed, provided that the railroad between Volkhov and Leningrad was held. Tikhvin was evacuated on December 9 and Leeb decided to withdraw behind the Volkhov River, despite Hitler’s insistence that he should establish his new front closer to the town of Volkhov. Hitler relented on December 15 after Leeb told him that a failure to withdraw behind the Volkhov River would lead to the destruction of XXXIX Corps. That corps was behind the river on Christmas Eve; it had sustained heavy losses in the fighting for Tikhvin and in the withdrawal.

The year 1941 had been full of disappointments for the Germans. They had not succeeded in convincing their co-belligerent to participate in the attack on Leningrad or even to take aggressive action to tie down Soviet forces north of Tikhvin and Leningrad. This doomed any hopes of capturing Leningrad. The Germans in Finland had not accomplished their objectives of severing the Murmansk railroad and/or capturing Murmansk. The support of the Finns became just a token gesture after the United States issued a virtual ultimatum with regard to the Murmansk railroad.

The Leningrad Front in 1942

The southern fronts in the Soviet Union were accorded the highest priority in the 1942 summer offensive, and Army Group North had its forces spread over an extensive area in a defensive posture. It was disposed in a very irregular frontline, a legacy of the previous year and the Soviet winter offensive. On the left, the Eighteenth Army held an arch around Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland. The front then bent eastward south of Leningrad, anchoring on Lake Ladoga at Schlüsselburg. From there, it bent sharply southeastward along the Volkhov River to the northern tip of Lake Ilmen.

The Sixteenth Army held a jagged line south of Lake Ilmen. The main feature of its front was a large salient jutting out from the main line in the direction of the Valday Hills, known as the Demyansk Salient, after the largest city in the area. From its easternmost point it curved sharply westward to Kholm and then southwestward to the northern boundary of Army Group Center, north of Velikiy Luki.

In 1942 the Eighteenth German Army was primarily involved in preparations for an operation that Hitler hoped would bring about Finnish cooperation in the prosecution of the war. The Twentieth Mountain Army had reached agreement with the Finnish High Command to undertake a major operation against the Murmansk railroad—Operation Lachsfang (Salmon Catch). The Finns promised to make 11 divisions available for a drive to cut the southern part of the railroad, while two corps from the Twentieth Mountain Army directed their offensive against the railroad further north, at Kandalaksha. The Finns stated that the forces needed would come from the Karelian Isthmus and Svir fronts and would be assembled as soon as the Germans captured Leningrad and moved their front eastward to give cover for the Finnish front on the Svir River. The Finns considered this pre-condition necessary in order for them to have the requisite forces available.

To accommodate the Finnish wishes, Hitler ordered the preparation of an operation—Nordlicht—to capture Leningrad. The German plan was rather simple. After a preliminary softening of the enemy by the Luftwaffe and massed artillery, the Germans planned to advance across the Neva River above Leningrad, link up with the Finns if that were possible, and then capture the city. The Eighteenth Army, in the Leningrad sector, estimated the Soviet Forces confronting it at 13 divisions and three armored brigades. The Eighteenth Army had five divisions and it would have four more with the arrival of Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army which Hitler was moving from Sevastopol in southern Russia. The Eighteenth Army was still eight divisions short of what it believed was necessary for Operation Nordlicht.

Georg von Küchler (now a field marshal), the new commander of Army Group North after Leeb asked to be relieved in January 1942, briefed Hitler on Operation Nordlicht on August 8, 1942. He pointed out that the Germans were outnumbered two to one in the Leningrad area and requested additional divisions. Hitler answered that Küchler would have to do with what he had, since he could not give him divisions that he did not have. Küchler indicated that he would be ready to launch Nordlicht at the end of October. General Jodl objected and pointed out that it would have to be launched earlier because it was not an end in itself but a preparatory operation for Lachsfang. Hitler set September 10, 1942 as the date of the offensive.

No one was happy with either the outcome of the conference on August 8 or Jodl’s later recommendation and Hitler’s acceptance that the mission of taking Leningrad be given to Manstein’s Eleventh Army. Küchler protested that a switch in the command of Operation Nordlicht at this stage would only create confusion in view of all the plans and preparations made by Eighteenth Army. This argument did not change Hitler’s mind.

The Eleventh Army headquarters arrived on the Leningrad front on August 27, 1942, and its staff began to plan for an attack on Leningrad. It was agreed that the Eleventh Army would take over that part of the Eighteenth Army’s front which faced north, while the latter retained responsibility of the Eastern Front on the Volkhov River. The Eleventh Army, which was made directly subordinate to OKH, ended up holding three sectors: the Neva sector from Lake Ladoga to the southeast of Leningrad; the assault area south of Leningrad; and the sector blocking the Soviet forces in the Oranienbaum pocket.

Manstein had grave misgivings about the operation and stated in his first meeting with Küchler on August 28, 1942, that he did not believe artillery bombardment would break Soviet resistance. He concluded that Nordlicht would be difficult and that the main attack should be made from the Karelian Isthmus or from both directions. Manstein wrote that “it would naturally have been of tremendous assistance to us if the Finns … had participated in the offensive.”

The lack of forces continued to plague the operation. Despite these difficulties, preparations for Nordlicht proceeded well and it held out great promise if successful. However, fate decided otherwise. The Soviets launched an offensive from the east along the south shore of Lake Ladoga on August 27, 1942, against the front of the Eighteenth Army commanded by General of Cavalry Georg Heinrich Lindemann (1884–1963). This area was referred to as the “bottleneck” and was that part of Army Group North’s front which projected like a wedge from Schlüsselburg in a southwest direction. This wedge was vulnerable to attack from both the west and east and had grown very narrow, less than 6 miles (10km) across in certain locations. The objective of the Soviet offensive was to lift the siege of Leningrad by opening a land route through the wedge.

After the Soviets achieved local breakthroughs over a wide stretch of the slender Eighteenth Army’s front south of Lake Ladoga, Hitler telephoned Manstein on September 4 and placed him in command of the break through areas, since they threatened the German hold on Leningrad. The first concern now was to restore the front. As usual, there was a scramble to find forces to restore the situation. The 3rd Mountain Division, already at sea from Norway to Finland, was diverted to Army Group North’s front on August 31, 1942. Four divisions planned for use in Nordlicht also had to be moved to the bottleneck area.

The Eighteenth Army front was penetrated south of Lake Ladoga by strong Soviet forces; the army, however, was able to seal the penetration, which progressed some 8 miles (13km) to the vicinity of Mga. The attack against the base of the pocket was carried out by the Eleventh Army using three corps, and the German encirclement was completed on September 21. Despite desperate Soviet attacks from both within and outside this pocket, Manstein writes that the Soviets lost seven infantry divisions, six infantry brigades, and four armored brigades in ferocious fighting.

The front was not restored until October 15. OKW, which had to watch helplessly as its own offensive plans evaporated, announced on October 20 that Operation Nordlicht was indefinitely postponed. This also doomed plans for Operation Lachsfang. The heavy siege artillery brought north with Manstein’s army was to be used to support incremental advances in the front around Leningrad as long as that could be done without a great commitment of troops. After their experience the past winter, the Germans, including Hitler, were wary about any offensive which would extend into the winter season. Manstein and his Eleventh Army were shifted to the Velikiy Luki area between Army Group Center and Army Group North.

Austria’s Opening Disasters – WWI

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Austria’s decision for war against Serbia was not a product of fatalism, fecklessness, or incompetence. Whether to preempt any possibility of a solution to the south Slavic question within Habsburg borders, or from murkier motives with domestic roots, Serbia, by not repudiating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had offered the Dual Monarchy a mortal challenge. Serbia had also overplayed its military hand. The state was still assimilating the territories acquired in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, while the army was recovering from the costs and losses of those conflicts. The Austrians even had the advantage of tactical surprise, putting elements of two armies across the Sava and the Danube Rivers on August 12 and compelling the evacuation of Belgrade without a fight.

At the outbreak of hostilities Serbia’s chief of staff, Radomir Putnik, was taking the waters at an Austrian spa, and had taken with him the keys to the safe containing Serbia’s war plans. Briefly interned, he was released – policy in 1914 was still implemented by gentlemen – and returned to find his subordinates had blown open the safe and begun mobilization without him. All the advantages, moral and military, seemed to lie with Austria. But Putnik was a shrewd planner and a ruthless fighting man. Willing to sacrifice territory for the sake of position, he drew the invaders deep into a Serbia whose broken terrain and undeveloped road network played havoc with Habsburg logistics and coordination. The Serbs held, then counterattacked, driving the Austrians back to the frontier and reoccupying Belgrade in a week of fighting as heavy as anything experienced in the Balkan Wars.

Conrad’s decision to allow the use of his reserve in Serbia only until August 20, when it began disengaging for transportation to Russia, compounded the initial tactical misjudgments of Austrian theater commander Oskar Potiorek. Those in turn were balanced by Putnik’s decision to invade Bosnia in the hopes of inspiring revolt among the province’s Slavic elements. The revolt failed to materialize, and Potiorek slowly forced the now overextended Serbs back into their central mountains. On both sides disease and privation took a heavy toll of regiments already reduced by casualties as the onset of winter added to the difficulties of supply, maneuver, and combat. Belgrade fell to the Austrians on December 2. The next day Putnik, his army partly re-supplied by France and Britain, counterattacked an enemy trapped by its own advances on the wrong side of the flooded Kolubra River. It took almost two weeks for the Austrians to fight their way out and the Serbs to reoccupy their capital.

Both armies, exhausted, established winter quarters in a countryside so devastated that its recovery arguably required the rest of the twentieth century. On both sides ethnic, cultural, and religious differences were stoked into mutual hatred by the horrors of high-tech battlefields and the privations of devastated rear areas. Combat zones were constantly shifting: civilians could neither run nor hide, nor establish stable relationships with military occupiers. Material damage – burned houses, slaughtered farm animals, devastated fields – was only the tip of the resulting iceberg. A growing climate of “no quarter” on the battlefields spread to an indiscriminate use of firing squads behind the lines. Local infrastructures collapsed as labor forces disappeared and family systems disintegrated. Random violence and brutality became ways of life in an environment of everyone for themselves that had no pity on the weak and the helpless. By 1918, such conditions would encompass most of the Balkans.

Conrad’s initial commitment of his reserve against Serbia had no effect on his decision to order a general advance into Russian Poland. The war plan of March 1914, which formed the basis of Habsburg operational planning five months later, provided for an immediate attack northwards from Galicia, aimed at overrunning and destroying a substantial part of the Russian forces in that area before they could complete their concentration. Without a simultaneous German attack across the Narew River toward Warsaw, however, Conrad’s initiative invited dismissal as a voyage to nowhere in particular. Habsburg apologists have made much of Germany’s alleged failure to mount that attack, even though its general staff had urged an Austrian offensive as recently as May. In fact the initial balance of forces in the Austro-Russian sector made offensive operations imperative by the standards of 1914, no matter what the Germans did. To sacrifice the initiative, to allow Russia to complete its concentration and choose its lines of advance was, according to conventional wisdom, to create a risk approaching certainty of being overrun in the field, trapped in the fortresses of Lemberg and Przemysl, or hammered back against the Carpathian Mountains.

Austria enjoyed an initial marginal superiority in men, and only a slight inferiority in guns. To the officer corps, decisive action seemed the best way to confirm allegiance in a multiethnic, polyglot empire. Colonel Alexander Brosch, commanding a regiment of the elite Tiroler Kaiserjaeger, hyperbolically praised the “iron calm, energy, and consequence” with which Austria had gone to war. “Bismarck and Moltke together” could not have managed the affair better: “all at once one could be really proud of his fatherland and its leaders.” “Indolence, carelessness, and cowardice” had been banished; Austria had replaced America as “the land of limitless possibilities.”

On August 16 four Habsburg armies, almost 800,000 strong, began moving forward – including Colonel Brosch, whose own appointment in Samarra awaited him on September 7. To meet them the Russian high command initially deployed two armies north of Galicia and two more on the southeastern Russo-Austrian frontier, a total of around 700,000 men. As Habsburg forces advanced deeper into Galicia, the Russians sought to counter by driving forward, enveloping their flanks, and threatening or severing their lines of retreat. With cavalry and air reconnaissance providing little useful information to either side, the result was a series of brutal encounter battles. On the Austrian left, the First Army drove the Russians in front of it 20 miles back toward Lublin. The neighboring Fourth Army hammered the Russian Fifth Army at the battle of Komarow.

Determined to exploit these victories, Conrad pressed forward, ignoring his right, where the Third Army was caught in the open and crushed by 20 divisions of the Russian Third and Eighth Armies. The Second Army, Conrad’s strategic reserve, was still detraining far from the front lines. Nevertheless Conrad responded by taking the fight to the Russians. Like Adolf Hitler in 1941, he believed any retreat would turn into a rout. Better to go for the throat and hope for the best. As the armies grappled with each other the front was characterized everywhere by mutually vulnerable flanks. Victory, Conrad insisted, would go to the side first able to impose its will on events. But his tool broke in his hands. After three weeks the Austrian soldiers were exhausted and their officers bewildered. Close-order assault tactics had cost thousands of lives. There were too many Russians in too many places. By September 1, his army on the verge of dissolution, even Conrad accepted retreat as the only alternative to annihilation.

Austria’s correspondingly desperate appeals to Germany brought the Hindenburg/ Ludendorff team south. Using the superb German railway network, they deployed four corps from Prussia into Poznan, then attacked into the Russian rear, toward Warsaw, on September 28. The Germans were confident that they could easily replicate their earlier victories on a larger scale. This time, however, the Russians traded space for position, retreating, concentrating, and counterattacking as rain, then snow and bitter cold immobilized guns and supply wagons on both sides. A surrounded German corps cut its way back to its own lines, bringing out most of its wounded and 16,000 prisoners. After two months of vicious see-saw fighting the front stabilized, with the Russians holding Warsaw and most of Poland, devastated by mutual policies of scorched earth that left more than 9,000 villages destroyed and over 200,000 homeless.

For a while Austria seemed on the threshold of disaster, despite German intervention. The fortress of Lemberg surrendered without a fight. Przemyśl was left to stand a siege, with enough supplies to last until spring. But Conrad was able to match the German initiative with an offensive of his own. Mounted with what remained of the army’s prewar resources, it briefly relieved Przemyśl, sputtered, and then collapsed as a Russian counterattack drove deep into the Carpathians before outrunning its supplies. As the year ended, the combatants paused – but only to regroup. In Galicia too, a civilian economy barely above subsistence level in peacetime was devastated – and not only by the presence and the demands of the armies.

In Austrian Galicia, Russian occupying authorities sought to Russify the province by an early form of ethnic cleansing. Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews were murdered, imprisoned, driven into Russia by hundreds and thousands, their property destroyed, confiscated, or simply allowed to fall into ruin.

The Sinai Campaign of 1967 Part I

Conquest of Sinai. 5–6 June 1967

As a small nation surrounded by enemies, Israel was acutely conscious that if she was to survive she could not afford to lose a battle, much less a war. Of necessity, therefore, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was a citizen army in which all of military age were liable to serve, accepting compulsory periods of regular service, reserve training and periodic mobilisations as a normal part of their lives. Equally, it was necessary for Israel to be armed to the teeth, most of her weapons being supplied by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The organisation of the IDF’s tactical formations followed the flexible patterns of the US Army, while in action the use of ‘saddle orders’ and ad hoc battlegroups in the German manner was well suited to the Israeli temperament. The result was that within any overall plan of campaign the IDF, highly motivated and capable of thinking and acting on the move, possessed the capacity to exploit local situations to its own advantage.

Israel’s Arab enemies were also highly motivated, although for them the loss of a battle or a war did not threaten their survival. After the 1956 war, in which the UK and France had colluded with Israel to launch an attack on Egypt, it was natural that many of the Arab nations should turn to the Soviet Union for arms and military assistance, both of which were provided on generous terms. The Soviet tanks of the period, notably the T54/55 series, were less sophisticated than their Western counterparts, but they were far less expensive and their simplicity made the training of Arab crews, many of whom lacked the technical education of the Israelis, a relatively quick and simple matter. Because of these factors, most Arab general staffs were prepared to overlook the principal disadvantage of the T54/55, which was a low, domed turret that seriously restricted the upwards movement of the main armament breech, thus curtailing the degree of depression that could be obtained and so reducing the tank’s ability to fight hull-down. With Soviet equipment came Soviet command methods that emphasised the importance of central control and restricted the degree of personal initiative allowed to commanders on the spot, the consequence being that operations were conducted in accordance with a preconceived plan at a slower tempo than that of the IDF. Needless to say, if the overall plan was disjointed by enemy action, the stiffness inherent in the system often prevented remedial action being taken before the situation degenerated until it was beyond control. A notable exception was the small but efficient Royal Jordanian Army, which had preserved many of the traditions of the old British-officered Arab Legion. The Jordanians, among whom the British influence remained strong, preferred to equip their armoured units with Centurions and Pattons and on occasion came very close to inflicting a defeat on the IDF.

It was, however, in Sinai that the Israelis and Egyptians fought the greatest tank battles since World War II, those of 1967 demonstrating most clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. The Sinai peninsula is triangular in shape, having a maximum width of 130 miles along its Mediterranean coast and a length of 240 miles from north to south. In the east it is separated from Saudi Arabia by the Gulf of Aqaba, and in the west it is divided from Egypt proper by the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal. From the northern shore the ground rises steadily across a sand, gravel and rock plateau to the 8664 foot peak of the Mount Sinai massif, then falls steeply towards the Red Sea. Three routes cross the peninsula between the Israeli/Egyptian frontier and the Canal. Of these the most northerly is the shortest and best, following the coast from Gaza through Rafah, El Arish and Romani to El Kantara. South of and roughly parallel to this a road runs from Kusseima to Abu Agheila and on through Bir Gifgafa and the Tassa Pass to Ismailia. Further south still, a more difficult track exists between El Kuntilla, Thamad and Nakhl, then winds on through the Mitla Pass to the town of Suez at the southern end of the Canal. North-south communication is restricted to a track running from El Arish through Bir Lahfan to Abu Agheila and on past Djebel Libni to Nakhl, with a branch diverging in a south-westerly direction from Abu Agheila to Bir Hasana and the Mitla Pass. The landscape is everywhere hot, parched and sterile, and since it absorbs less than ten inches of seasonal rainfall each year sources of water are few and far between.

Since 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President of Egypt, had been the hero and leader of the more radical elements within the Arab world. His claim that the Israeli victory in Sinai that year would have been impossible without British and French support was widely believed and since then, with Soviet assistance, he had made Egypt a major military power. Likewise, his determination that Israel would be destroyed and dismembered among the victorious Arabs, broadcast with increasing stridency by Radio Cairo, won him enormous support throughout the Middle East. Assured of the efficiency of his newly equipped army by his Soviet advisers, he became the victim of his own propaganda and by May 1967 had deployed no less than 100,000 in Sinai, so creating a threat to which Israel was bound to react.

 General Abdul Mortagy, the Egyptian Commander in Chief in Sinai, had studied several of Montgomery’s set piece battles, notably Alam Halfa, and he was also known to favour the Soviet Army’s concept of a defence in depth intended to wear down an attacker’s strength, followed by an armoured riposte that would inflict a decisive defeat, very much in the manner of Kursk. He predicted, correctly, that the Israelis would strike the first blow and there is every reason to believe that, left to himself, he would have established his defensive belt in western Sinai. The effect of this would, partially at least, have offset the stiffness in his own command structure and it would have ensured not only that the IDF would have to open its attack at the end of a very long line of communications, but also that in the event of failure it would have to conduct a difficult withdrawal across many miles of desert.

However sensible they might have been, such ideas were not acceptable to Nasser, since they involved the apparent abandonment of large areas of Egyptian territory before the first shot had been fired. The fact that these areas possessed no military value, and that the defence of eastern Sinai would leave the Egyptians with open desert at their back, was considered to be less important than projecting the image of an army poised on the brink of victory. Mortagy was forced, therefore, to make the same sort of forward deployment that had failed in 1956, albeit in greater strength and depth. The 20th (Palestinian) Division, with 50 Shermans, was holding the Gaza Strip; the 7th Infantry Division, with 100 T34/85s and JS IIIs, was responsible for the defence of Rafah, the Jiradi Defile, where the coast road passed through an area of apparently impassable dunes, and El Arish; the important track junction at Abu Agheila was held by the 2nd Infantry Division with the 3rd Infantry Division deployed in depth to the west near Djebel Libni, each with 100 T34/85s and T54s; to the south the 6th Mechanised Division, also with 100 T34/85s and T54s, covered the axis El Kuntilla-Nakhl; at Bir Gifgafa, roughly in the centre of the peninsula, was Major General Sidki el Ghoul’s 4th Armoured Division, ready to deliver the armoured counter-stroke with its 200 T55s; and between Kusseima and El Kuntilla was a second armoured formation, named Task Force Shazli after its commander, Major General Saad el Din Shazli, equipped with 150 T55s, which was to cross the Israeli frontier into the Negev Desert and isolate the port of Eilat.

With the exception of Task Force Shazli, this deployment was primarily defensive in character and tacitly surrendered the initiative to the IDF. Again, although numerous historical precedents emphasised the importance of the operative level of command in desert warfare, Mortagy alone was responsible for coordinating the operations of seven formations from his headquarters far to the rear, a task which could have been eased considerably if he had established an intermediate corps headquarters with a degree of local autonomy. Furthermore, while the Egyptians had 800 tanks in the line, with a further 150 in reserve, only 350 of these were serving with armoured formations while the rest were subordinate to local infantry commanders who often reduced their potential contribution by digging them into static defence systems. Finally, the assumption that the Israelis would willingly engage in a contest of attrition was fundamentally flawed; it would have been safer to assume that once the initiative had been surrendered to the IDF, which was always conscious of its limited manpower resources, the Israelis would impose their own conditions on the battle.

The Israeli Armoured Corps had won its spurs in the 1956 war and since then it had been regarded by the IDF as the decisive arm in the land battle. It had been expanded and was now equipped with Centurions and M48 Pattons, all of the former and many of the latter being upgunned with the excellent British 105mm tank gun, as well as upgunned Shermans and French AMX-13s. The IDF had begun mobilising its reserves on 20 May and by the time this process was complete Major General Yeshayahu Gavish’s Southern Command had three armoured divisions plus two small independent armoured brigades in the line opposite the Egyptians. This produced a total tank strength of 680 with 70 in immediate reserve, with all but a few serving within armoured formations. Gavish’s orders were breathtakingly simple in their scope – his armour was to smash through the enemy’s defences on parallel axes and advance rapidly to the Suez Canal, which would become Israel’s new and defensible military frontier with Egypt; the Egyptian Army, fragmented and cut off from its homeland, would wither and die in the desert.

On the right of the Israeli line, opposite the Gaza Strip and Rafah, was Major General Israel Tal’s armoured division. Tal had served as the platoon sergeant of a machine-gun platoon in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade during the Italian campaign, and in the 1956 war he had commanded an IDF infantry brigade in Sinai. In 1964 he became commander of the Armoured Corps and within the space of a year had achieved a dramatic improvement in the standard of its gunnery. His division consisted of the regular 7th Armoured Brigade (79th Tank Battalion with 66 90mm Pattons, 82nd Tank Battalion with 58 Centurions, an armoured infantry battalion in M3 half-tracks and a reconnaissance squadron); the reserve 60th Armoured Brigade (a tank battalion with 52 Shermans, a light tank battalion with 34 AMX-13s and an armoured infantry battalion); a regular paratroop brigade serving as armoured infantry, supported by a tank battalion partly equipped with upgunned Pattons; and a divisional reconnaissance group which included eighteen upgunned Pattons.

The second armoured division, commanded by Major General Ariel Sharon, was positioned opposite Abu Agheila. In the early 1950s Sharon, a natural swashbuckler, had raised and led a special forces unit and in 1956 he had commanded the paratroop brigade that had secured the Mitla Pass. A strict disciplinarian, he was also a difficult subordinate who was inclined to exceed his orders. Notwithstanding this tendency, he was a good, hard-fighting soldier who could be relied upon to batter his way through any opposition. His division included the 14th Armoured Brigade consisting of one Centurion battalion with 56 tanks and an upgunned Sherman battalion with 66 tanks; two upgunned Sherman companies with 28 tanks that were allocated to the 99th Infantry Brigade, which was to assault the Egyptian trenches at Abu Agheila; and a divisional reconnaissance group reinforced with 20 AMX-13 light tanks.

The third armoured division, commanded by Major General Avraham Yoffe, was positioned midway between Tal and Sharon with the twin responsibilities of stopping lateral reinforcement between the enemy’s major defended localities at Gaza and Abu Agheila and preventing intervention by the Egyptian 4th Armoured Division. Yoffe had held a commission in the British Army during World War II and, like Tal, he had commanded an infantry brigade in Sinai during the 1956 war. His division contained the 200th and 520th Armoured Brigades and possessed a total of 200 Centurions.

The war began on 5 June with a series of pre-emptive air strikes by the Israeli Air Force, intentionally timed to coincide with morning rush-hour in Cairo, when Egyptian senior officers would be trapped in dense traffic between their homes and offices. After most of the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the ground, the IAF turned its attention to airfields in Syria, Jordan and Iraq. By late afternoon it had gained complete command of the air and was able to divert squadrons to support the ground fighting.

Codenamed ‘Red Sheet’, the Israeli offensive in Sinai commenced at 0815, thirty minutes after the first air strikes had gone in. A parachute brigade, supported by AMX-13s, penetrated the Gaza Strip and immediately became involved in heavy fighting with the Palestinians. Simultaneously, Tal’s division, spearheaded by Colonel Shmuel Gonen’s 7th Armoured Brigade, broke into the flank of the Strip further south and, discounting its casualties, fought its way through Khan Yunis. Gonen’s task was to break out along the coast road to El Arish but at Rafah his spearhead was counter-attacked by the Egyptian 7th Infantry Division’s armour, led by JS IIIs. Using his Centurions to hold the enemy’s attention to their front, Gonen sent off his Pattons in a wide hook through an area of dunes to the east, from which they emerged to fall on the Egyptians’ flank and rear. Although the JS III was well armoured and its 122mm gun was capable of defeating both the Centurion and the Patton, it had not been designed for this sort of fast-moving mêlée. The domed turret, like that of the T54/55, gave the loader little headroom in which to work; furthermore, within this cramped space, he was forced to struggle with heavy two-piece ammunition, with the result that the tank’s rate of fire was restricted to three or four rounds per minute. Against crews who had been taught speed-loading and who could handle their one-piece rounds in adequate space, such an engagement could have only one ending. By noon the ground was littered with wrecked and burning JS IIIs and anti-tank guns lying shattered in their pits.

Gonen found it significant that both Egyptian divisions had chosen to fight their own battles without any attempt at a coordinated response. Without further delay he ordered his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel ‘Pinko’ Harel, to collect as many Centurions as possible and press on along the coast road towards the one obstacle remaining in the path of a clean breakthrough, the Jiradi Defile. Hammering along, the crews were uneasy about the prospect, for the defile was over eleven miles long and was known to be held in strength. In fact, covering the eastern entrance alone was an entire infantry brigade, well dug in among minefields covered by anti-tank guns, supported by an artillery brigade with 42 guns and a battalion of 36 Shermans fitted with AMX-13 turrets, many of which were also dug in. Further along the defile and at its western exit were more, though less formidable, defensive positions.

The Sinai Campaign of 1967 Part II

Conquest of Sinai. 7–8 June 1967

Yet, as the saying goes, who dares wins. The Egyptians, listening to the excited voice on Radio Cairo announcing with more optimism than accuracy that their comrades had captured Beersheba, were quite unprepared for the sudden appearance of the Israeli tanks. Turrets swinging alternately right and left, the Centurions roared the length of the defile, a rain of coaxial machine-gun fire and HE shells keeping most of the defenders pinned down and unable to man their weapons. Having sustained few casualties and little damage, the group, consisting of eighteen Centurions, two Pattons and several half-tracks and jeeps, reached the outskirts of El Arish in mid-afternoon. Harel reported the fact to brigade headquarters from whence it was relayed to an astonished Tal, whose command group had just reached Rafa. Tal, recognising that Harel, now seriously short of fuel and ammunition, would remain in considerable danger unless he could be reinforced, ordered Gonen to reinforce him with the Patton battalion.

This was far easier said than done, for the Egyptians were now fully alert and fiercely determined that the defile would remain closed. An attack along the road, accompanied by a short hook through the soft sand to the south, resulted only in tanks being lost on mines or knocked out by anti-tank guns. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ehud Elad, was killed while personally leading the attack. Gonen decided to try again, smothering those positions closest to the road with mortar bombs while the Pattons used their speed and firepower to smash a way through. The result is vividly described by Shabtai Teveth in his book The Tanks of Tammuz.

‘The time was 1800 hours. The forward tanks were driving at a speed of 45 kph and the distance between each tank was growing. Major Haim [had taken over the battalion on Elad’s death] was worried that the Egyptians would be able to pick off each vehicle one after the other. About two kilometres down the road, close to the enemy’s artillery positions, he turned left off the road with part of the force and began shooting at the enemy artillery, tanks and anti-tank guns, which were now to his rear. He ordered the rest of the force, which had brought up the rear of the column, to carry on towards El Arish. Anti-tank guns were sent flying and dug-in enemy tanks reduced to flames. When he had a moment Major Haim reported to Colonel Shmuel [Gonen] on the situation and of his intention to destroy the defence zone from the rear.

‘“Leave everything, get to El Arish!” Colonel Shmuel ordered.

‘Again the distance between the tanks lengthened, with each tank driving through its own stretch of hell and the gunners working like men possessed.’

Suddenly, just as the sun was setting, the Pattons broke out of the defile and found themselves among Harel’s Centurions. Many had casualties aboard and all bore scars testifying to the ferocity of the encounter; incredibly, one waddled in with a smashed drive sprocket, lurching wildly from side to side.

Gonen had started to follow the Pattons with his command group and supply echelon but ran into such a hail of fire that he was forced to halt; the defile was closed again. Meanwhile, the 60th Armoured Brigade, commanded by Colonel Men, had been moving along a parallel axis inland. Tal ordered Men to attack the Jiradi position from the south, using his AMX-13 and armoured infantry battalions. The going in the soft dunes, however, was extremely difficult and at 1930 Men informed him that both battalions had stalled short of the objective and were out of fuel. Tal’s division was now stationary and dispersed across a wide area stretching from Rafah to El Arish and only prompt, decisive action would get it moving again. He withdrew Gonen’s armoured infantry battalion and a Centurion company from mopping-up operations at Gaza, directing his Chief of Staff to lead them personally through the traffic jam which had developed along the coast road. There was no time to be wasted in argument; those trucks which were slow in leaving the highway were bundled off it by the tanks.

With artillery support, the Centurions secured a lodgement in the northern defences of the Jiradi. At midnight, the armoured infantry arrived and, leaving their half-tracks, began fighting their way forward through trenches and bunkers, assisted by parachute flares. The Egyptians fought back stubbornly, but in such close-quarter night fighting their heavy weapons were less effective. As soon as a narrow corridor had been cleared along the road, Gonen set off with his fuel and ammunition lorries and by 0200 was clear of the defile. The Centurion and Patton crews at El Arish immediately began replenishing their vehicles, but if they were hoping for rest and sleep afterwards they were very much mistaken.

Meanwhile, to the south, Sharon’s division was heavily engaged at Abu Agheila. Here the Egyptian positions, lying on three successive ridges, had been prepared for all-round defence in great strength and depth. Ostensibly, the position could only be taken by direct assault, and then at heavy cost; that, however, was not the way the Israelis intended solving the problem. During the day Sharon’s Centurion battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Natke Nir, overran a battalion-sized outpost in a series of sharp actions then went on to cut the roads leading north to El Arish and west to Djebel Libni, shooting up fuel and ammunition dumps on the way; simultaneously, the divisional reconnaissance group and its AMX-13s cut the southern track to Kusseima. The Abu Agheila garrison was now in a situation where it could neither be reinforced nor withdraw. In the afternoon the 14th Armoured Brigade’s Sherman battalion closed up to the eastern perimeter, against which the assault was to be delivered that night by three infantry battalions, and began sniping at the enemy’s strongpoints.

As darkness fell the 99th Infantry Brigade left the civilian buses in which it had travelled to the front and marched up to its assault start lines, where it deployed with the two Sherman companies it had been allocated. At 2230 Sharon’s artillery opened a heavy preparatory bombardment and as the enemy guns began to reply the Israelis played their trump card. Exactly on time, flight after flight of helicopters clattered in to airland a parachute battalion just behind the Egyptian battery positions, which were quickly stormed. Concurrently, a Centurion-led battlegroup broke through the western perimeter and joined the paratroopers. As soon as the enemy artillery ceased firing, 99th Brigade and its supporting Shermans began fighting their way into the western defences, the tanks providing illumination for their gunners and the infantry with Xenon infra-red searchlights, while the infantry indicated their own progress with coloured light flashers. After several hours of fierce close-quarter fighting the two groups met in the centre of the position just as dawn was breaking. Those Egyptians that could mounted their vehicles and attempted to escape to the south-west, with Israeli tanks in hot pursuit. Abu Agheila, the key to central Sinai, had fallen.

Meanwhile, between Tal and Sharon, Yoffe’s division had been grinding its way westwards in low gear. It had traversed an area of dunes that the Egyptians considered to be tank-proof but which the Centurion’s cross-country performance and thorough route reconnaissance along the Wadi Haridin proved to be nothing of the sort, although it took nine hours to cover 35 miles. By 1845, having brushed aside such minor opposition as they had encountered, the leading elements of Yoffe’s 200th Armoured Brigade were in position covering the track junction at Bir Lahfan, which the Egyptians would have to pass through if they wanted to counter-attack at El Arish. It had, in fact, taken several hours for Mortagy to catch up with the situation, but early that evening he had ordered an armoured brigade and a mechanised brigade to move along the central axis and recapture El Arish in a dawn attack from the south. The Israelis watched them approach the junction in blaze of headlights then, at approximately 2300, opened fire. The headlights were hastily extinguished as the column scattered across the sand, but by now the flames from burning tanks and trucks provided an alternative source of illumination. Although the T55s possessed infra-red night fighting equipment, they were unaware that they were opposed by only twenty Centurions and did not develop an attack, seeming apparently content to engage in a protracted, long range fire fight. This suited the Israelis very well, as it enabled them to maintain their blocking role and simultaneously benefit from their superior gunnery techniques; it was ironic that the only Centurion to sustain serious damage was one which used its Xenon searchlight, and thereafter the use of light projectors was forbidden.

Furthermore, unknown to the Egyptians, Tal had despatched his replenished 7th Armoured Brigade south from El Arish and, having smashed through a defensive position near the town’s airfield, this began bringing additional pressure to bear on the Egyptian flank at about 0630. More of Yoffe’s division had come up and, as the light strengthened, the IAF came in to strafe and bomb. By 1000 the Egyptians had commenced a rapid and disorderly retreat towards Djebel Libni.

The situation within Mortagy’s army on the morning of 6 June can be summarised as follows. At Gaza the 20th (Palestinian) Division was fighting to the bitter end, which could not be long delayed. The 7th Division had been destroyed on the Rafah-El Arish axis, as had the 2nd Division at Abu Agheila. The 3rd Division’s camps near Djebel Libni were being savaged by Sharon’s and Yoffe’s tanks and that formation was pulling back as best it could. On the southern sector, the 6th Mechanised Division and Task Force Shazli had allowed themselves to be intimidated by a single Israeli armoured brigade, Colonel Albert Mandler’s 8th with only 50 Shermans at its disposal, with the result that the offensive thrust into the Negev had been abandoned and, at the most critical moment of the battle, several hundred Egyptian tanks were retained to meet a threat that did not exist. In the centre, however, the 4th Armoured Division still lay in the path of the advancing Israelis.

For his part, Gavish had every reason to feel satisfied with the events of the previous 24 hours. However, although the last of the Jiradi’s stubborn defenders had been overcome during the night and the 60th Armoured Brigade, having been replenished, had moved forward to El Arish, the very intensity of the first day’s fighting ensured that it could not be maintained on 6 June. Having been informed by prisoners that Mortagy had ordered all his troops to pull back and establish a line of defence covering the three passes that led from Sinai to the Suez Canal, the Tassa and Gidi in the north and the Mitla in the south, Gavish flew forward to brief his divisional commanders on the next phase of the battle. His orders were simple: Tal and Yoffe were to smash their way through the retreating Egyptians and seize the passes; Sharon was to complete mopping up around Abu Agheila, then drive the enemy towards Tal and Yoffe so that they would be caught between the hammer and the anvil. As far as possible, most of 6 June was spent in rest and replenishment, although on the coast road a battlegroup commanded by Colonel Israel Granit pushed on for a further 40 miles without encountering serious opposition.

On 7 June the Israelis resumed their breakneck advance. Mortagy, allocated whatever armoured reinforcements could be scraped together in Egypt proper, committed them to the northern sector and did what he could to prevent the complete collapse of his army. The pace of the battle, however, was too fast for him and control slipped from his grasp as one formation after another went off the air.

Between Romani and El Kantara, Granit’s battlegroup, which had been reinforced by paratroopers who had driven west at top speed after the fall of Gaza, was temporarily halted by recently arrived enemy armour. While the tanks engaged in a gunnery duel, the paratroopers swung off the road in their jeeps and half-tracks, executing a wide hook onto the Egyptian flank to open fire with their recoilless rifles. Having thus eliminated the last obstacle in his path, Granit pressed on to El Kantara, becoming the first Israeli commander to reach the Canal.

Meanwhile, Tal’s division was heading straight for Bir Gifgafa, deliberately seeking battle with Ghoul’s 4th Armoured Division. In a stand-up fight lasting two hours Gonen’s Centurion and Patton crews demonstrated their superior gunnery, after which the Egyptians pulled off to the south in the fading light. While the tank battle raged, Tal pushed his 60th Armoured Brigade westwards, hoping to fall on his opponents’ flank, but the latter broke contact before the move could take effect. At about 0300 the leaguer of the brigade’s AMX-13 battalion, located in a hollow beside the road to the Tassa Pass, was entered by two Egyptian trucks with infantry aboard, heading west. Both burst into flames when they were shot up, but while the prisoners were being herded together tanks were heard approaching from the direction of the pass. They were T55s and formed the vanguard of a reinforcement brigade that had just entered Sinai. The guard tanks opened fire at once, their crews watching in horror as the rounds flew off the Egyptians’ heavy frontal armour. Since the leaguer was already illuminated by the burning trucks, the Egyptian gunners found plenty of targets for their return fire and soon several AMX-13s, a mortar half-track and ammunition vehicles were also blazing fiercely. Colonel Men, advised of the situation, despatched a Sherman company to the rescue and Tal ordered Gonen to further reinforce this with one of his Centurion companies. Before either could intervene, however, the remaining AMX-13s had scattered into the darkness and begun directing their shots at the enemy’s thinner side armour. After the first four tanks in their column had been knocked out in this way, the Egyptians halted and, following some long-range sniping, withdrew to the west. Their commander, evidently under orders to buy as much time as possible, deployed his armour in a series of tank ambushes over four miles in length at a point where the metalled road wound through a wide belt of dune country.

Next morning, 8 June, Tal’s division resumed its advance on the pass, spearheaded by 7th Armoured Brigade. The leading Centurion company, advancing beyond the bounds permitted by its orders, ran into the first ambush site and sustained some loss before it could be pulled back. Once the situation ahead became clear, Tal resorted to what he described as steamroller tactics. While the Centurions engaged each ambush site in a long range gunnery duel, followed by a simulated frontal attack that absorbed the defenders’ attention, the rest of the brigade executed a wide hook through the dunes and fell on the Egyptians’ rear. It took the Israelis several hours to fight their way through, by which time the sun was setting and the tanks required replenishment. Political considerations now began to intrude on the battle. Civilian radio programmes picked up on transistor radios indicated that in New York the Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations had requested a ceasefire, and before this could be imposed it was essential that the IDF should be firmly established on the Canal. The IAF had already confirmed that several more Egyptian positions lay ahead, but Tal, beefing up his reconnaissance group with six Pattons and a self-propelled artillery battery, sent it off into the darkness. The reconnaissance jeeps and the tanks worked as a team, the former flashing back signals with their torches whenever they reached a potentially dangerous area, which was then illuminated by the tanks’ infra-red light projectors and engaged with direct gunfire if the enemy was present. Most of the Egyptians, however, were already pulling back and little opposition was encountered in the pass. At 0030 on 9 June the reconnaissance group reached the Canal, destroying a guard tank beside which a lonely traffic control sentry mistakenly attempted to direct them across a bridge; replenished, the rest of the division arrived and quickly established contact with Granit’s battlegroup to the north.

If anything, Yoffe’s exploitation on 7 June was even more dramatic. His axis of advance took him in a south-westerly direction from Djebel Libni through Bir Hasana and Bir Tamada towards the Mitla Pass. It was also the direction in which most of the Egyptians in northern and central Sinai were attempting to retreat, harried constantly by the IAF. This proved to be something of a mixed blessing as, while it further demoralised the enemy and accelerated his disintegration, it also left the roads blocked with a tangle of burning wreckage through which the Centurions had to force their way. Rearguards were little in evidence so that from time to time the tanks, guns blazing, ploughed into the rear of a column. When this happened the Egyptians abandoned their vehicles and fled across the sand, leaving the road still further congested. Progress was so slow that at length Yoffe, realising that he would not reach the pass ahead of the enemy unless drastic steps were taken, despatched a task force, based on Colonel Iska Shadmi’s Centurion battalion, to drive through the Egyptians and, stopping for nothing, establish a roadblock at the eastern end of the Mitla. By the time he reached the pass fuel shortage and breakdowns had reduced Shadmi’s battlegroup to nine Centurions, two of which were on tow, two infantry platoons and three 120mm mortar half-tracks. Even as the roadblock was being set up, three more Centurions and two of the half-tracks ran out of fuel and had to be towed into position. Disorganised elements of the Egyptian 3rd Infantry, 4th Armoured and 6th Mechanised Divisions and of Task Force Shazli were now converging on the pass and, desperate to escape from the trap in which they now found themselves, they mounted repeated attacks on the tiny Israeli force barring their path. A handful of vehicles broke through before Shadmi’s tanks blocked the route with the burning wrecks of those that tried to follow. After this, the growing clutter of their own knocked-out tanks made each attack progressively more difficult for the Egyptians. Shadmi also had a powerful ally in the IAF, which strafed and bombed at will along the three-mile traffic jam that had developed in the approaches to the pass, creating unparalleled scenes of mechanical carnage. During the night most of the Egyptians abandoned their equipment and filtered through the hills on either side of the pass. Yet, it had been a very close-run thing, for when the rest of Yoffe’s division broke through at first light on 8 June Shadmi’s four remaining Centurions were down to their last few rounds.

After cleaning up the Abu Agheila area, Sharon’s division had headed south on the 7th, being joined by Mandler’s 8th Armoured Brigade, which had crossed the frontier near El Kuntilla. It had been anticipated that the Egyptian 125th Armoured Brigade, belonging to the 6th Mechanised Division, would put up a fight, yet all its tanks were found abandoned and in working order; the same division’s mechanised brigade was encountered near Nakhl and routed with the loss of 60 tanks, 100 guns and 300 vehicles. It remained only for Sharon’s troops to drive the remnants of Mortagy’s army westwards towards Yoffe and Tal, although for all practical purposes the fighting was over for a while.

The 1967 campaign in Sinai, lasting only four days, cost Israel 275 killed and 800 wounded. Total Egyptian casualties, including 5500 prisoners, were estimated at 15,000; approximately 80% of the Egyptian equipment in Sinai was destroyed or captured, including 800 tanks, 450 artillery weapons and 10,000 assorted vehicles. Not least among the IDF’s concepts of armoured warfare to be justified was that of leading from the front at all levels, albeit that several promising middle rank commanders had paid the ultimate price in so doing. Against this, risks were taken that could not have been justified in any other army and although it can be argued that such decisions were made with a full knowledge of the enemy’s weaknesses, it was folly to assume that these would never be eradicated. That particular chicken would come home to roost, with consequences that were to shake the entire Israeli nation, during Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Tal was to remain in command of the Armoured Corps until 1969. He served as the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff in the Yom Kippur War and was then closely involved in the development of Israel’s own main battle tank, the Merkava. He is widely regarded as being among the most successful practitioners of armoured warfare since World War II. Sharon again commanded an armoured division during the Yom Kippur War and played an important part in regaining the initiative for the IDF on the Suez Canal front. He subsequently entered politics and became Defence Minister, being noted for his uncompromising views. Yoffe also entered Parliament for a while, then became head of the Israeli Nature Preservation Authority, establishing wildlife reserves throughout the country. It was Gonen’s misfortune that he was serving as GOC Southern Command when the Egyptians effected their successful crossing of the Canal in October 1973, and it was inevitable that much of the blame for this and other Israeli reverses should be laid at his door. He was replaced by General Chaim Bar-Lev, but loyally agreed to remain at the front as the latter’s deputy.

Most Israelis had a sincere respect for the average Egyptian soldier, but not a lot for his officers, many of whom had abandoned their responsibilities and their men as they sought safety in flight. Well aware of these shortcomings, the Egyptian Army court-martialled no less than 800 senior officers who were either executed, imprisoned for life or dismissed in disgrace. Russian advisers also purged the officer corps of its more privileged members and insisted that the remainder should live and work among their troops. By 1973 the relationship between officers and men, and the general standard of leadership, had improved beyond recognition.

One officer who had escaped the odium of the 1967 defeat in Sinai was General Shazli, who had brought most of his troops home. In 1973, as the Army’s Chief of Staff, he was responsible for the detailed operational planning which resulted in the successful crossing of the Canal on 6 October. Believing, correctly, that he could not get sufficient tanks and anti-tank guns across in time to meet the inevitable Israeli armoured counter-attack, he equipped each of his infantry divisions with 314 RPG-7s and 48 portable AT-3 Sagger anti-tank guided weapons. The remarkable success of the latter caused a number of wild-eyed commentators to predict the demise of the tank (similar flawed prophesies had also marked the introduction of the anti-tank gun and nuclear weapons), yet the Israelis quickly discovered that by restoring the proportions of mechanised infantry and artillery in their tank-heavy armoured divisions that the enemy’s dismounted Sagger teams could be unsettled or neutralised by sustained fire.

Intervention by the United States and the Soviet Union prevented the Yom Kippur War being fought to a military conclusion. At a heavy cost in lives and equipment, both sides had won and lost territory, but the Egyptians were also satisfied that they had restored their honour. Taken together, this formed the basis for an honourable and lasting peace under the terms of which Israel withdrew from Sinai in exchange for Egyptian recognition and a secure southern frontier.                               

The history of the [Spanish] Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. Part I

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By Fernando González de León

It appears that there were two distinct periods or eras in the history of the Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. The first one lasted roughly from 1567 to the signing of the Twelve Years Truce in 1609. This first Army of Flanders functioned with the regimental and professional structures inherited from earlier periods and those introduced by the Duke of Alba during his administration. It was an army open to tactical innovation, with a remarkably meritocratic official ideology and structure of promotion and that was, all things considered, rather successful, both tactically and strategically. At the very least it was able to rescue and hold the Southern Netherlands for the King of Spain in the midst of widespread revolt and foreign attacks and to intervene effectively in the French Religious Wars. The second Army of Flanders spans the fifty years between 1609 and the conclusion of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 and its most representative figure is the valido of Philip IV, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who greatly influenced its standards and structure during the last half of the war. This army was highly divided among nations, ranks and factions and ultimately failed to adapt too many of the new trends in warfare known in the historiography as the Military Revolution. It is the army whose remarkable decline in combat effectiveness led it to a major string of defeats in the last two decades of the war. Although the Army of Flanders could still be an effective siege and relief force up to the final years of the war, the battles of Rocroi, Lens, Rethel, and the Dunes demonstrated its inability to vanquish the French in the open field. The French, like the Dutch before them, had begun to adapt their armies to a more modern tactical and organizational model while the high command of the Army of Flanders busied itself in perennial disputes over precedence and status. The process of aristocratization that had begun late in the reign of Philip II, gathered speed in that of Philip III and became institutionalized under the Count-Duke of Olivares, had seriously damaged the tercios. Its fractious high command was increasingly dominated by dilettantes (courtiers or diplomats), not by career soldiers. Its Infantry Maestres de Campo were blue-blooded and brave but could not effectively maneuver their units, much less lead larger detachments as they had done under Alba; its untrained cavalry officers showed little fi ghting endurance and its artillery was often inadequately equipped and deployed or not used at all as in the Dunes’.

Thus the history of the Army of Flanders does not adhere to the linear progressive model proposed in all versions of the Military Revolution. In certain key aspects and from a modern perspective, Alba’s army and Parma’s seem much more advanced or “revolutionary” than the Count-Duke’s. On the other hand, one must be cautious not to describe the evolution of this crucial institution as one of absolute decline. As David Parrott and John Lynn have recently demonstrated, the French army ailed from many similar problems throughout the seventeenth century. (However, Parrott’s generalization about the inherent inability of early modern governments to “revolutionize” their militaries does not apply to the successful modernization of the Spanish army in the sixteenth century). It was only in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century when the strict hierarchy and cohesion that had existed in the early tercios of Flanders appeared in the French armed forces and one would have to wait until the nineteenth for the incipient application in some European countries of the meritocratic and technocratic ideals formulated by Spanish officers in the sixteenth. (For instance, it was only in 1811 that commoners were admitted to the service academies in Spain). Therefore, it might perhaps make better sense to refer to the process of deterioration of the Army of Flanders as one of “normalization” or of decline relative only its own previous standards and practices. It certainly appears that the early success of the Spanish army and its remarkable effectiveness derived from the fact that it was, in a manner of speaking, “ahead of its times.”

As Alba, Olivares and others realized, the Spanish monarchy, a vast and heterogeneous empire spanning the globe, relied to a very high degree directly and specifically on cabezas or leaders as well as on the structures that facilitated their proper functioning. Though her rivals enjoyed more advantageous geography, larger populations and richer agricultures and economies, the secret to the remarkable staying power of imperial Spain was her development and mastery in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries of singularly efficient structures of authority and administration, transport and supply, diplomacy and war, and the training and appointment of dedicated personnel capable of making them work. Thus she could ill afford their deterioration, even a relative one, especially at time of general economic and political crisis and population decline like the seventeenth century. In other words, the Spanish army in the Netherlands could not be allowed the luxury of imitating its competitors and deviate from strictly pragmatic and tangible military objectives in a baroque search for luster. To be sure, the process of military aristocratization was common in greater or lesser degrees to almost all of early modern Europe but, as in the general seventeenth century crisis, it was probably the Spanish empire that experienced its most severe consequences.

There are suggestive parallels between this process and the social evolution of early modern Spain and Western Europe. The reinforcement of noble privilege in the Army of Flanders may be considered an episode in that famous early modern “crisis of the aristocracy” that Lawrence Stone described in the English context and that Spanish historians identify also in Castile.4 Recently, for instance, Yun Casalilla has argued that relative distancing between the Crown and the aristocracy that prevailed in the sixteenth century came to an end in the seventeenth as the central government sought to marshall the resources of the country’s elite and the nobility looked to the King for a variety of modes of financial relief. This process led to a certain “refeudalization” not only of Castilian society but also of the Army of Flanders. However, it must be kept in mind that military service was not a money-making proposition for the Spanish aristocracy. In the seventeenth century the Spanish nobility went Flanders only with great reluctance and its organizational and tactical impact on the combat effectiveness of the tercios was severe enough to be obvious even to the most enthusiastic advocates of a socially prestigious high command. It is thus hard to see what sort of military or social advantage either Crown or nobility derived from this aristocratization.

Although nowadays historians almost routinely minimize or simply ignore the importance of military factors in the erosion of Spain’s power and influence, the trajectory or “road” of the Army of Flanders returns these issues to center stage. The deterioration of the combat effectiveness of this army, the Spanish monarchy’s most powerful military weapon, played an obvious and crucial role in the outcome of the Eighty Years War and in the overall erosion of Spanish power in the seventeenth century. The number and importance of fortified places in the Netherlands lost through internal discord, indiscipline or incompetence in the leadership of the tercios is quite high; certainly more enclaves were lost due primarily or even exclusively to those factors than to lack of money or soldiers. Since the 1590’s, when internal struggle among the army’s nations allowed the Dutch to consolidate their position, to the late 1620’s and early 1630’s when another flare-up of intramural disputes imperiled Spanish rule in the Netherlands, to the critical 1640’s when the monarchy was fighting for its very survival, the Army of Flanders failed to perform according to expectations or to its levels of funding and repeatedly spoiled the plans of Madrid’s diplomats and strategists. In the last years of the war Spain’s failure to profit from the Fronde Revolt in France had a great deal to do with the growing inadequacies of its principal military instrument in the Low Countries. Obviously, an efficient Army of Flanders fighting on only one front could have soon exploited French political and social turmoil to great advantage; Spanish victories in the north would have not only relieved the pressure in the Catalonian and Mediterranean fronts but might have brought about favorable peace treaty and even perhaps a shift in the European balance of power in favor of Spain.

The Army of Flanders remained one of the Spanish monarchy’s most important armies after the Treaty of the Pyrenees but on the larger European field it cast a shrinking shadow. The army’s internal problems certainly did not go away and the Spanish aristocracy continued to demonstrate a marked reluctance to serve within its ranks. However, these perennial shortcomings were now compounded by the rise of a more numerous and much more powerful French military under an aggressive Louis XIV. Soldiers were still recruited in Spain and elsewhere and troop levels remained relatively high in the 1660’s and 1670’s (roughly 53000 soldiers in both 1668 and 1675 during French invasions) but they could not match the French build-up from the late 1670’s onwards. By the early 1690’s the tercios were reduced to less than 20,000 soldiers and even further, down to 8000 troops, by the end of the century. In reality the once protagonistic Army of Flanders had become an auxiliary force in a number of major Allied defeats in the Nine Years War (1689–1697). Although it was not a uniformly bleak picture, as the foundation of Europe’s first military academy in 1675 suggests, the formal abolition of the tercio as an organizational and tactical unit during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704 and the adoption of the French regimental model was indicative not only of the changing dynastic direction in Madrid but of the obsolescence and irrelevance of the old Army of Flanders. Thus traditional weapons such as the pike were finally abandoned.

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The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567–1659

The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries’ Wars

The history of the [Spanish] Army of Flanders and the Eighty Years War. Part II

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BATTLE OF ROCROI, 19 MAY 1643 Following successful cavalry charges by Isembourg on the Spanish right and Conde on the French right, the latter won the battle by keeping his horsemen in check, riding across the rear of the Spanish infantry, and attacking Isembourg’s cavalry from behind. Once the Spanish horse had been defeated, Conde’s artillery opened gaps in the Spanish tercios that were exploited by his horsemen. Rocroi, the last tercio, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau

By Fernando González de León

In a sense, the history of the Army of Flanders parallels that of the Spanish empire. Both were aggregations of disparate and opposing elements that during the “crisis of the seventeenth century” faced increasing fragmentation along social and national lines. Both were subjected to the reforms of an ambitious minister intent on welding the separate units into a cohesive and efficient whole. From its inception the whole enterprise was handicapped by the stubborn resistance of established interests, in the monarchy as a whole and in its military machine in particular. As John Elliott points out, unlike Richelieu, who had the advantage of a fresh start, “Olivares was always trying to make an old system work. He found the machinery hopelessly slow, and was driven to despair by its prevarications and delays.” The stress created by his policies precipitated a crisis in both structures and relegated them to a process of slow disintegration, loss of status and defeat but ultimate survival. However, despite his failure to improve the high command, Olivares should be credited with having correctly identified most of its flaws. His successors were equally or even more unsuccessful, but much less active and perceptive.

The Count-Duke’s worst error in command organization was his failure to detect the links between two problems that he clearly but separately observed and tried to solve: structural disunity and falta de cabezas. Apparently Olivares never realized that internal conflicts prevented the Army of Flanders from taking advantage of the expertise of its officers. Creative tactical leadership could not have much influence in a decision-making structure fragmented by disputes and cumbersome consultative procedures. Although the fall in the levels of seniority and experience in the general staff was certainly a major cause of falta de cabezas, adverse organizational conditions also precluded the emergence of a dominant leader able to implement any single design or plan in the field of logistics, strategy or tactics. This may go a long way towards accounting for the absence of a great General after Spinola, and would certainly explain the army’s failure to profit from the advice of recognized master tacticians like Turenne and Condé.

The absence of a dominant commander contributed to the Army of Flanders’ failure to take the lead in military modernization in the seventeenth century. Tactical reforms were usually applied by strong Generals such as the Duke of Alba, Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and Oliver Cromwell. Without firm and concentrated authority, tactical improvements were difficult if not impossible to apply, especially in an army so far from its political seat of power. Although the Army of Flanders did undergo some of the transformations associated with the new warfare of the early modern era (such as an increase in the number of units, a decrease in the average size of such units, a greater role for cavalry and technical experts, etc.), its structural problems prevented it from integrating these changes into a coherent functional system. Instead of helping, these potential improvements actually aggravated the army’s internal divisions and proved to be instruments of defeat. During the last two decades of the war the Army of Flanders appeared unable to coordinate its major components to win battles or contested sieges. The stress that such engagements placed on its increasingly disjointed structure provoked disasters such as Rocroi.

Nevertheless, despite these clearly harmful consequences, the persistence of internal conflicts and the absence of a strong General was not, from a royal perspective, a completely negative phenomenon. Tactical reform and structural unity demanded intensive training, uniformity of action and rigid discipline, and in the early seventeenth century central governments were often not powerful enough to enforce such reforms which were thus left up to particular commanders to enact. This often resulted in professional armies led by vigorous leaders who used their troops as instruments of their personal political ambitions. Such was the case in the Dutch Republic with Maurice of Nassau and William II, in England with Oliver Cromwell, in the Holy Roman Empire with Wallenstein, and in France with Condé and other rebels. The emergence of a General of this type was possible in the tercios of Flanders, the seventeenth century army farthest removed from its political center. Royal suspicion and fear of insubordination and rebellion was always acutely present and “Secret Instructions” were issued to prominent members of the general staff containing orders to report acts of disobedience by a Captain General, as well as authorization and ways to remove him. Maverick commanders like don Juan José de Austria, who overstepped their authority were immediately reprimanded and did not last long in the Spanish Netherlands. Fortunately for the King of Spain such cases were extremely rare. Structural disunity may have prevented the rise of a Spanish Cromwell or Wallenstein and the closest the King ever came to losing control of his army was in 1576 when following the death of Requesens Sancho Dávila and his cabos led the tercios to the sack of Antwerp. Normally though, the Army of Flanders’ divided high command appealed constantly to the monarch to arbitrate its disputes and Philip IV retained absolute authority over an army less efficient but probably more subservient than its Dutch, French and English counterparts.

In addition, the fragmentation of the army into branches, nations and factions probably contributed to its signal resiliency after defeat. Like a machine designed to break apart on impact to prevent worse damage to its components, the Army of Flanders disintegrated under the intense stress of battle but was never permanently disabled. In Rocroi the cavalry deserted the infantry and fled the field, yet two weeks later Melo could count on an army of sixteen thousand soldiers, many of them cavalry men who, in proverbial style, had lived to fight another day. Their action, however ignominious, certainly kept the number of casualties down (eight thousand dead in an army of twenty-six thousand) and in seven months the Army of Flanders was back at its normal strength of seventy-seven thousand troops, a recovery that despite being mainly quantitative and not qualitative, would have been impossible had the entire army clung together under French bombardment in Rocroi. Similar recoveries took place after Lens in 1648 and Arras in 1654. Under these circumstances, the enemy found it difficult to inflict a decisive, “Napoleonic” defeat on the tercios of Flanders. Should we be surprised that the war lasted eighty years?

The Chinese Invasion of India I

It was not entirely unexpected that the Chinese would attack. The Indians had observed a massive build-up across the border and there had been several encounters between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in the days before the main attack, including bombardment of Dhola and Khenzemane on 19 October 1962. But the ferocity and the sheer co-ordination of the Chinese attacks on 20 October 1962 and the days that followed stunned the Indian security establishment as well as international observers. At daybreak on that day, artillery guns and mortars began intense bombardments across the Thagla Ridge.

According to Brigadier John Dalvi,

At exactly 5 on the morning of 20th October 1962, the Chinese Opposite Bridge III fired two Verey lights. This signal was followed by a cannonade of over 150 guns and heavy mortars, exposed on the forward slopes of Thagla…this was a moment of truth. Thagla Ridge was no longer, at that moment, a piece of ground. It was the crucible to test, weigh and purify India’s foreign defence policies.

Dalvi called it ‘The Day of Reckoning—20th October 1962’. The all-out assault on Indian positions north of Tawang was on.

On the western front in Aksai Chin, the fighting was spread out over a swathe of land from north to south, covering a distance of approximately 600 kilometres. But the thrust of the Chinese towards the south was confined to a relatively narrow area, which measured approximately 20 kilometres from west to east. Most of the attacks by the PLA seemed to be confined to dislodging Indian troops from the outposts that had been established as a result of the government’s Forward Policy rather than for capturing territory. According to Indian military analysts, ‘In the Western sector, [the] Chinese had a limited aim. They were already in occupation of most of the Aksai Chin plateau through which they had constructed the Western Highway connecting Tibet and Xinjiang. In this war, their aim was to remove the Indian posts which they perceived were across their 1960 Claim Line.’ They had no intention to move forward deep into Indian territory, as they did in NEFA.

The Aksai Chin plateau was and still is virtually unpopulated; this had made it possible for the Chinese to build their highway there in the mid-1950s without the Indians finding out about it until a year after it had been completed. The name Aksai Chin means ‘the desert of white stones’, and the altitude varies between 4,300 and 6,900 metres above sea level. In the past, some Ladakhi villagers used the area for summer grazing and made it part of the Cashmere wool trade, but otherwise there has been no commercial activity worth mentioning in the area. Whatever ancient trade routes that existed were secondary, and the only valley, if it may be called such, is along the River Chip Chap that flows from Xinjiang to Jammu and Kashmir. During the 1962 War, the Chinese captured several Indian positions in the valley and have since controlled most of the area.

During the weeks of fighting in this western sector of the theatre of the 1962 War, it became obvious that the Chinese knew exactly where the Indians were, how many there were at each position, and what kind of weaponry they had. As was the case in the NEFA in the east, pre-war intelligence gathering had been carried out in the Aksai Chin area by small teams of surveyors who could move freely and, presumably, undetected on the barren plateau.

A contentious issue on the eastern front was the location of the Indian outpost at Dhola in the River Namka Chu gorge, where the borders of India, Bhutan, and Tibet intersect northwest of Tawang. The post was created on 24 February 1962 and, according to the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report, the site ‘was established north of the McMahon Line as shown on maps prior to October/November 1962 edition. It is believed that the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt that we tried to clarify the error in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention.’ The Chinese, in any case, would not have paid much attention to Indian maps. Their objective was entirely different: to teach India a lesson.

This remark in the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report is anyway a far cry from the claim by Neville Maxwell and others that the establishment of the Dhola outpost triggered the 1962 War and that India was the aggressor. Chinese troops had crossed the Namka Chu on 8 September, surrounded an Indian outpost in the gorge, and destroyed two bridges on the river. The nearby Dhola Post was reinforced and firing from both sides continued in the area throughout September. Three Indian soldiers were wounded when the Chinese threw hand grenades at their position, but otherwise, there were no casualties.

When the final attack came on 20 October, the Indians found that the Chinese had cut all their telephone lines the night before. In preparation for the assault, the Chinese had also taken up positions on higher ground behind Indian defences and were thus able to attack downhill on the morning of the attack. After the Chinese artillery barrage from the Thagla Ridge overlooking the Namka Chu, the PLA destroyed all Indian artillery positions and surrounding fortifications. The Indian border posts as well as Dhola and Khenzemane were overrun by ground forces within hours, and their defenders either lay dead or were captured alive. The strength of the Chinese attacking force was estimated at 2,000, while the Indians at those outposts numbered only 600.

Simultaneous attacks were launched on other positions, and the 2nd Rajput Regiment, which was also in the area, suffered horrendously. Of the 513 members of all ranks, 282 were killed that day, 81 were wounded and captured alive, and 90 were captured unwounded. Only 60 men, mostly rear elements got away. A Gurkha regiment, also in the area, lost 80 men, with a further 44 wounded, and 102 taken prisoner by the Chinese. The 7th Brigade lost a total of 493 men that fateful morning of 20 October.8 The total strength of the PLA units that were deployed for the operation on the Dhola and Thagla front was at least 10,000, supported by heavy artillery and more sophisticated weaponry than the Indians had in their arsenal.

After the Indian defences were crushed, the 7th Brigade commander, Brigadier John Dalvi, who remained a prisoner of war in China for almost seven months, described with a large degree of bitterness and in great detail how the chain of command had broken down, and how undersupplied his troops were. He quotes a fellow Indian Army officer as saying that their ‘mission was the defence of a political instead of a tactical position. The troops slaughtered along the Namka Chu River were spread out in a thin line, difficult to supply and impossible to defend.’

Apart from observing the camps that had been built by the Chinese for him and the other Indian prisoners of war, Dalvi also concludes that the ‘Chinese preparations began in earnest from May 1962’, so well before the incidents at the Dhola post. The emphasis here should be on ‘in earnest’; all available evidence points to the fact that intelligence gathering and construction projects began in the mid-1950s, when China wanted to challenge India’s role as the leading voice of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 prompted the Chinese to switch from contemplating the possibility of a war with India to putting their ruminations into concrete action.

Dalvi also quotes, and ridicules, the Chinese version of events,

The Chinese told the world that: ‘At 7 o’clock (Peking time) in the morning of 20th October the aggressive Indian forces, under cover of fierce artillery fire, launched massive attacks against the Chinese Frontier Guards all along the Kachileng River and in the Khenzemane area.’ The poor Chinese were driven to self-defence by the fire of two out-ranged para-guns with 400 rounds of ammunition!

Maxwell is not as extreme as the Chinese in his version of events, but his pro-Chinese account of what happened in 1962 would nevertheless have been equally dismissible if it had not been accepted as the truth and often referred to in writings about the war and the border dispute, even by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself.

The war on the eastern front in the NEFA was going to be very different from that in Ladakh. While the Chinese may not have encountered many civilians on the Ladakh front, interacting with the local population became an important issue for them in the NEFA, where they occupied several towns and villages. Once the road down from Bumla had been constructed by the Chinese, and Tawang was secured as a supply base, it became clear that not only had scouts been sent in advance by the PLA to collect crucial intelligence, but its soldiers and officers had also been trained in psychological warfare.

Most local people in Tawang, whether Monpas or Tibetans, had fled when the Chinese began attacking the border. They had heard from relatives and traders about the atrocities the PLA had committed inside Tibet and were, naturally, afraid. But there were always two sides to the PLA. As an ideologically motivated communist force, it tolerated no dissent or opposition to the rule that it imposed on local people anywhere. But, as a ‘people’s army’, it was supposed to behave gently towards ‘the oppressed masses’. According to the Maoist doctrine of the Eight Points of Behaviour, communist soldiers were ordered ‘not to steal so much as a single needle or thread from the people’.

British missionary and writer George N. Patterson observed that in some areas the Chinese soldiers who took part in the occupation of Tibet were also ‘scrupulous in their behaviour, keeping to themselves and not oppressing the Tibetan population in any way. Heavy penalties were imposed on any Chinese soldier who was known to have made use of even a Tibetan prostitute. One Chinese soldier, accused by a Tibetan woman of raping her, was shot by his superior officer.’ In certain areas in Tibet, clinics and schools, where lessons were held in Tibetan as well as in Chinese, were built.

But there was a hidden agenda behind that kind of benevolent behaviour towards some of the Tibetans. According to Patterson,

With all the beneficent and necessary reforms being introduced one ominous factor emerged, that the innovations were not being made on a national scale but were limited strictly to the cities, towns and villages on the main route through Tibet to India. In effect, they were merely supplementary to the thrust to the Indian border; there was no attempt to develop the country outside the main arteries.

That development began a year or two after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, indicating that China was prepared for action along the border even before Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, in March 1959, pledged to ‘settle accounts’ with the Indians.

Significantly, according to Patterson, ‘in East Tibet their approach was more often on the accepted Communist pattern’. That would inevitably mean harassment of local people and the execution of ‘reactionaries’ opposed to the new order. East Tibet was the home of the Khampas, where the first armed resistance against Chinese occupation broke out in the mid-1950s. When, in 1958, the Chinese authorities began forcing Tibetans in the central provinces to become collectivized in ‘people’s communes’, the relations between the occupiers and the occupied deteriorated even further.

The Chinese military historian Li Xiaobing, interviewing Li Weiheng, a PLA radio operator, describes the hostile reception the Chinese soldiers encountered when they entered Tibet, especially after the 1959 uprising, ‘Sergeant Li Weiheng recalled that he and his comrades felt as if they were entering a foreign country when they went to Tibet. Religious and linguistic barriers, separatist propaganda, and a backward economy had created a seemingly irreparable rift between the troops and local Tibetans.’ The sergeant told Li Xiaobing that one of the regulations for the PLA troops in Tibet was to refrain from talking to the Tibetan people without permission, ‘Any communication between the village and the radar company had to be conducted by…the company commander through the village chiefs, one of whom spoke Chinese’.

During his first six months of service in Tibet, sergeant Li Weiheng visited the village only twice. On the first visit, he and his comrades went there to see a local medicine man who had refused to come to the Chinese camp and insisted he would meet the PLA soldiers if they came to the village. Li ‘could feel the hostility around them. Children vanished into their homes…no women could be seen. Several Tibetan men sat in front of the house with knives in their hands, staring at Li without saying a word. Li felt lucky that all firearms had been collected from the Tibetans after their rebellion in 1959. Nobody could legally have a gun.’

Sergeant Li Weiheng’s second visit to the village was different. It was during the 1962 War and when a temporary camp for the Indian prisoners of war (POW) had been built at the bottom of the hill below the village. ‘Indian prisoners of war arrived in large numbers, more than the camp guard unit could handle…[Li] was surprised to see many Tibetan villagers visiting the Indian prisoners, bringing water, food and milk…Li even saw the old medicine man visiting sick and wounded Indian soldiers.’ Li and his platoon complained to the camp commander, who had been instructed not to let any Tibetans have contact with the Indian soldiers, ‘but he had difficulty feeding the large number of prisoners. As a compromise, he had decided to allow Tibetan women and children to visit the Indian prisoners.’

Despite being surrounded by an evidently hostile population, the PLA seems to have had no problem recruiting and educating enough Tibetan spies and interpreters for the campaign against India. It is often forgotten, particularly in the West, that some Tibetans, who were opposed to their country’s medieval feudal system, did side with the Chinese, at least at the beginning of the occupation. A group of young intellectuals led by Bapa Phuntso Wangye had even set up a small Tibetan Communist Party in 1939. But, like several other progressive Tibetans, he became disillusioned with developments in the 1950s, and, consequently, the Chinese became suspicious of him. Bapa Phuntso Wangye was detained in 1958 and imprisoned in 1960. Other Tibetans, however, worked for the Chinese and were fluent in their language. The thousands of porters, who the PLA mobilized during the months before the attack on 20 October, belonged to other segments of society. They were peasants who had been conscripted at gunpoint from villages all over southern Tibet.

In Tawang, the PLA quite naturally decided on adopting a ‘benevolent’ approach so as not to antagonize those who had remained in the town when almost the entire population had fled and the Indian soldiers had evacuated the area. There, the Chinese soldiers interacted with the local people and did their utmost to be friendly, according to Singye, a local Tibetan who was among the few who stayed behind. Tawang was not in Tibet proper, but it was here that the sixth Dalai Lama, a Monpa, was born in 1683. He became the Dalai Lama in 1697 and reigned until he disappeared in 1706, presumably killed by an ally of the Chinese Kangxi emperor. Tawang, therefore, was a special place for followers of Tibetan Buddhism and the Chinese had to behave exemplarily.

According to Singye, Tawang’s famous monastery was not destroyed or looted by the Chinese, as some rumours would have it. The PLA protected the monastery and gave one of the senior monks a rifle so that he could defend the monastery against looters, who were roaming the town after the Indian soldiers and most of the locals had departed. They even brought in a lama from the Rethang monastery in Tibet to lead and take part in religious ceremonies at Tawang. Private houses, which were empty because their owners had fled, were locked by the Chinese to prevent looting. Food that had been dropped from Indian aeroplanes and had fallen into Chinese hands was distributed to the locals. ‘A gift from us to you,’ the Chinese officers said.

The Chinese also had other, cruder ways of showing that they, and not the Indian soldiers and administrators from the plains, were the ones the local population should trust and identify themselves with. Residents in the border areas recall that Chinese officers showed them photographs of a bearded Sikh in a turban, saying, ‘Is this man or I your brother?’ A Chinese, of course, looks more like a local person in Tawang than a Punjabi ever would.

But those who stayed behind were still relatively few. Tens of thousands of local people had fled south towards the plains or across the border to Bhutan in the east. After the Chinese had broken through the Indian defences at the Sela Pass south of Tawang on 18 November 1962, there was panic everywhere. A day later, when a PLA unit, in a flanking manoeuvre, reached the town of Bomdila, many Indians expected the Chinese to advance south and occupy Assam.

One of those who fled was Dorjee Khandu Thongdok from Rupa, a small town near Bomdila. He and his family trekked over the mountains for days with little more to eat than Tibetan tsampa, a porridge-like dish made from barley flour and mixed with butter tea. Once in the plains, they were taken by truck to makeshift refugee camps in the Brahmaputra Valley. Three such camps were built, at Barampur, Diphu, and Dansiri, where the refugees were housed in huts and barracks.

Most local people in Bomdila and Rupa are Sherdukpens, who are related to the Monpas but still somewhat different. Consequently, they speak a dialect related to Tibetan as well. And, significantly, the PLA halted there because they would be lost further south, where they would not be able to communicate with any remaining locals through their Tibetan interpreters, and, more importantly, where the PLA’s spies had not been able to gather intelligence during the years leading up to the 1962 War. The PLA troops could now benefit from those human intelligence operations, as it was clear that their knowledge of the terrain was remarkable in all the areas into which they intruded, in the west as well as in the east, in October and November 1962. Colonel Gurdial Singh, who was taken prisoner at Rupa, recalls that the Chinese kept asking him where the foothills were. Bhalukpong, at the very foothills of the NEFA, was abandoned but never occupied.

The Indian Army was gone from all its former positions in the battle zones, and no less than two-thirds of the population of the garrison town of Tezpur on the banks of the Brahmaputra had fled by 20 November. Trains and trucks were full of people with baggage heading west, away from what they thought was an impending Chinese invasion. Prisons and hospitals were opened and patients and inmates were left to fend for themselves. This became a problem, as Tezpur had a major mental hospital, and suddenly severely mentally ill people were seen roaming about and staggering along the town’s streets. Banks were closed after they had burnt their currency notes.

But the panic was misguided. Because the PLA had no intention of occupying Assam, the same pattern as in western NEFA could be seen in the east. The attack on Kibihtoo right on the border on 22 October was probably meant to push all the Indian troops back to Walong, the main Indian base in the area located some 20 kilometres to the south. The final attack on Walong, which fell on 16 November, was also made possible because the Chinese possessed vital intelligence of the area and its terrain. Walong was attacked from all sides, even from the rear. Significantly, the local people there are the Meyor, who speak a dialect related to Tibetan and practise Tibetan Buddhism.

After the Chinese had captured Walong, India’s defences in the easternmost corner of the NEFA were obliterated. According to one Indian writer, ‘The fall of Walong would mean the fall of Haiyuliang, and there after Tezu as well. From Tezu, it was the Brahmaputra Valley. After Tezu would be Tinsukia.’ But nothing like that happened. The Chinese did not advance beyond the River Yapuk, immediately south of Walong. That was as far as the Chinese had surveyed the area. South of the Yapuk is Mishmi country, where the people speak an entirely different dialect.

The Chinese Invasion of India II

The Chinese incursion into Subansiri and Siang in the central NEFA commenced on 21 October, with a main offensive being launched on 16 November. The Indian defences, as understaffed and poorly equipped as elsewhere in the NEFA, put up a stiff resistance but, in the end, proved to be no match for the more heavily armed Chinese troops. This area forms part of Pemako, which today straddles the border with a major section located on the Indian side. Tibetan tax collectors were active here well into the 1950s, so intelligence was not a problem for the PLA.31 But the Chinese did not capture any territory beyond it. The tribes in the areas south of Pemako would be Nyishis and Apatanis, whose languages are distantly related to Tibetan, but not close enough to be mutually intelligible.

The similarities between the Tibetan language and some of the local dialects had enabled Chinese agents to collect intelligence about the areas that had been selected for temporary occupation and, judging from the precision and swiftness of the operation, it is clear that this was done well before the PLA swung into action in October 1962. While the vast majority of the local population fled to the southern plains once the PLA had entered those areas, it was also important from a purely operational point of view that its officers could rely on their Tibetan-speaking interpreters to communicate with the few who had stayed behind.

After the unilateral ceasefire that the Chinese announced on 21 November, the withdrawal began and people could return home. Singye remembers how the Chinese soldiers packed up and marched single file along the road they had built from Bumla to Tawang. Chinese army trucks carried their equipment. Forty-nine days of occupation were over. The Chinese returned to their camps and bases north of the McMahon Line.

Dorjee Khandu Thongdok and his family were now able to return to Rupa. On the way from the Assam plains to their home in the hills, they saw burnt-out tanks and vehicles, and ammunition belts, mortars, rifles, and helmets left behind by soldiers who had died or retreated during the war. Once they reached their village, there was an eerie silence. Empty houses awaited them, and it was weeks before life returned to normal. Thongdok notes wryly that, before the war, a portrait of the two countries’ respective prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai, had hung on the wall in the local school.

But the end of the Chinese invasion of some carefully selected parts of the NEFA did not mean that anything had really changed on the ground. The McMahon Line became what the Chinese like to call the Line of Actual Control, while the Indians continue to refer to it as ‘the traditional boundary’. But India was shattered and its pride lay in tatters. No one wanted to mention the Forward Policy and Nehru himself never recovered from the humiliation and what he and many others perceived as a betrayal by the Chinese.

Nehru felt that he was grossly misunderstood. Others would argue that Nehru had placed too much trust in sweet talk by Zhou Enlai who had hoodwinked him into believing that China was a friend of India, while the Chinese, as early as 1949, had denounced him as ‘a running dog of imperialism’ and a Chiang Kai-shek-like ‘loyal slave’ of the enemies of the revolution.

To be fair to Nehru, he appears to have been unaware of what the Chinese were saying about him behind his back in the 1940s and 1950s. His Forward Policy was never meant to provoke the Chinese but to reassert what the Indians considered to be the traditional boundary and to check the continuing Chinese advance by connecting all the gaps and plugging the holes along the frontier by establishing new outposts and sending out patrols even to the remotest parts of Ladakh and the NEFA. Action was to be taken only if there were any new Chinese army camps south of where the Indians had decided that the McMahon Line should be.

Lieutenant Colonel Gurdip Singh Kler, an Indian Army officer who fought at the Sela Pass during the 1962 War, wrote after the events, ‘Many of us compared the Forward Policy with police action whereby we could push the Chinese out of our territory. The action, we thought, would not lead to war.’ The officer also remarked that although some new army units were proposed to be raised—and some were—‘insufficient funds were allotted to the Armed Forces for weapons, equipment and ammunition’. He found it ‘strange’ that in this state of affairs ‘we had to confront with one of the world’s strongest countries’.

As the Chinese had been strengthening their positions in the mountains along the frontier in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Indians decided to launch a military operation codenamed ‘LEGHORN’ on 8 October 1962 to secure its territorial claims. A bridgehead was established at Tsengjong, north of River Namka Chu, which was attacked by the PLA on 10 October. The Indians withdrew, but they were terribly undersupplied. Air-drops of supplies were landing in the wrong places; only a few days of rations were available for the troops; and many of the soldiers had only 50 rounds of ammunition each. Mortars and mortar ammunition were still in transit somewhere when the Chinese attacked across the Thagla Ridge 10 days later. It is not certain exactly how many troops the PLA had in the area at this stage, but they vastly outnumbered those at the scattered Indian outposts along the McMahon Line.

In retrospect, much has been written about intelligence failures on the Indian side, that the government was not aware of the massive build-up the Chinese had been engaged in along the border since 1959. But Nehru’s chief of intelligence, Bhola Nath Mullik, had actually repeatedly warned the government of Chinese manoeuvres along and across the border, ‘In September 1960, we sent another report of widespread Chinese activities all along the frontier in Tibet and many instances of fresh intrusions. We also mentioned that new Chinese activities had been noticed in the area bordering South-East Ladakh, which had remained quiet until then.’

But nor did Mullik entirely escape blame. The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report quotes ‘the Director of the Intelligence Bureau’, obviously Mullik, as saying that ‘the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so’. That was obviously a gross miscalculation.

In the east, the Chinese had already advanced up to and even through the ‘gaps’ that the Indians wanted to connect—and that was long before Nehru announced his Forward Policy. The problem was that Nehru refused to believe that the Chinese were actually preparing for war against India. His firm belief in the friendship between India and China had even led him to dismiss reports of unrest in Tibet in the late 1950s. On 17 March 1959, Patterson, who was close to the Tibetans, was warned by Nehru himself in a speech in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, that he ‘had accepted bazaar rumour for a fact’. Patterson was guilty of sending ‘misleading and exaggerated reports’41 about the situation in Tibet, and was threatened with expulsion from India.

As Nehru was accusing Patterson of spreading falsehoods, revolt had already broken out in Lhasa. The heartbroken prime minister then had to admit in another speech in the Lok Sabha on 19 March that the revolt was real—and that Chinese bullets had struck the Indian Consulate-General in Lhasa. The Chinese, who apparently thought that the Indians were somehow involved in the uprising, ordered the diplomats to remain inside the Consulate until further notice. Patterson noted, ‘Whatever India may have thought of China’s friendship and good faith it became obvious that China placed very little value on India’s goodwill’. Even so, Nehru added in his speech that, ‘India has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of China, with whom, we have friendly relations’.

Following the Dalai Lama’s escape to India after the March 1959 uprising, Nehru was forced to re-evaluate that friendship. The Chinese authorities now began to openly accuse India of being behind the revolt. The official, state-controlled Chinese media published reports saying that ‘Indian expansionists and British imperialists have not given up their ambition to invade Tibet and enslave its people’. The ‘commanding centre’ for this grand conspiracy was the northern West Bengal town of Kalimpong, where the British imperialists and Indian expansionists were supposed to have connived with a ‘traitorous clique’ in Tibet to conduct ‘a series of traitorous and subversive activities’.

It is hardly any secret that the Tibetans, in collaboration with the Americans, were collecting intelligence from Kalimpong, and that some Tibetan resistance fighters had been trained and were supported by the American CIA, but, judging from Nehru’s statements at the time, it is extremely doubtful that he was aware of these shenanigans. More alarmingly, although Nehru decided to grant the Dalai Lama asylum in India, he still believed that China was, in fact, a friendly neighbour and whatever problems there were between the two countries could be settled amicably. It was only at the eleventh hour that he took reports of massive build-ups of Chinese troops across the border seriously and then decided on a half-hearted, and many would argue, ill-conceived Forward Policy to counter China’s advances. Whatever that policy was aimed to achieve, the tools and wherewithal were simply not available.

The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report, which Maxwell bewilderingly uses to ‘prove’ that India was the aggressor in 1962, stated that, ‘it is obvious that politically the “Forward Policy” was desirable and presumably the eviction of the Chinese from Ladakh must always be the eventual aim. For this, there can be no argument, but what is pertinent is whether we were militarily in a position at that time to implement this policy.’ The still-classified report goes on to mention that

the Chinese build-up in Tibet by the end of 1960 had substantially increased and was brought out in the Military Intelligence Review 1959–60. This required a fresh reappraisal of our forces and tasks … [and] at the outbreak of hostilities if a coordinated plan had been made to meet the Chinese offensive our troops would perhaps have been more balanced and there would not have been any question of plugging holes at the last moment.

It is also astonishing to note how many Western writers, not only Maxwell and Alastair Lamb, have decided to accept China’s crude propaganda and fanciful interpretations of the border conflict and related issues such as the reason for the war in 1962. This could be because Lamb and the others who accept the Chinese view do indeed present the issues in ‘much clearer and persuasive terms than the Beijing Government’, to quote the Berkeley professor Leo E. Rose. In other words, they present the general Chinese view minus crazed outbursts about ‘Indian expansionists’, ‘British imperialists’, and ‘traitorous and subversive Tibetan cliques’.

The claim that Indian troop movements around the Dhola Post and some skirmishes between the Indians and the Chinese in mid-October determined the timing of the attack is part of this twisted interpretation of the causes of the 1962 War. A much more plausible explanation is that an event that was taking place far from the Indian subcontinent made the Chinese decide that 20 October would be the most appropriate day to launch an attack and that, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted from 22 to 28 October.

From the Chinese point of view, it was a masterstroke to decide to wage war on India at the same time that the American President John F. Kennedy was preoccupied by such an immediate threat to national security. A direct American intervention supporting India in the war would be out of the question, but if it did happen, it would force India to compromise its commitment to non-alignment. On 26 October, as war was raging in the Himalayas, Nehru made an unprecedented appeal for international sympathy and support.

Three days later, when the Cuban missile crisis was essentially over, the United States did decide to send military aid after Ambassador John K. Galbraith had had a private meeting with Nehru. The Soviets had agreed to withdraw their ballistic missiles from Cuba after a secret agreement had been reached according to which the United States would dismantle its missile bases in eastern Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally of the US.

The message was conveyed through Galbraith that Kennedy had agreed to send arms to India ‘without strings and the terms would be settled later’. Nehru is also reported to have requested American warplanes, and, on 19 November, India sought full defensive intervention by the United States. That did not happen, but a US aircraft carrier had already set course for the Bay of Bengal, and a squadron of transport planes had arrived in India. It is believed that Kennedy sanctioned supplies of a million machine-gun rounds, 40,000 land mines, and 100,000 mortar rounds to India, while Time magazine at the time reported that shipments had been even more substantial and were complete with US crews and maintenance teams. But it was too little, and too late. The Chinese had already achieved their objectives by the time Western military assistance arrived.

China did not miss the opportunity to denounce Nehru as ‘a lackey of US imperialism’ and ‘a pawn in the international anti-China campaign’. The tone and content of the 15,000-word vitriolic article in the official party paper the People’s Daily on 27 October was, according to British analyst Roderick MacFarquhar, ‘consonant with that of Beijing’s anti-Soviet polemics of 1960 and prefigured in its anti-Soviet polemics of 1963–64, thus marking it as a weapon in the ideological struggle with Moscow rather than in the military struggle with India’.

Apart from condemning Nehru for seeking military aid from the United States, China also wanted to hit out at the Soviet Union, which had been closer to India than any other Western power before the conflict began—and the Soviet Union was China’s main rival for control over what it termed ‘The Third World’. The rivalry had begun in the 1950s and first came out in the open when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Politburo of the CCP, had an argument at the congress of Romania’s ruling communist party in 1960. Khrushchev branded Mao ‘a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist’, while the Chinese denounced Khrushchev as ‘patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical’, and, eventually, as a ‘revisionist renegade’ who had betrayed true Marxism-Leninism. Khrushchev responded by withdrawing 1,400 Soviet experts and technicians from China and cancelling more than 200 projects in the world’s most populous communist country.

In the beginning of the conflict between India and China, the Soviet Union had been cautious. Although Khrushchev’s sympathies were with India, he could not afford to get too tough with China. On the other hand, India’s defence minister, Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, who was known for his pro-Soviet leanings, was forced to resign on 31 October, after being held responsible for India’s lack of preparedness for the 1962 War. In the midst of the crisis, Nehru himself temporarily took over the defence portfolio. The Soviets, who had provided India with defence equipment long before the war, found themselves in a severe dilemma. According to Mohan Ram, an Indian journalist and a specialist on Sino-Indian relations, the Soviets had begged the Chinese to stop their military operations and offered mediation, for which India was ready. ‘They tried hard to prevent India from looking to the United States and Britain. Thus, years of striving for India’s neutrality went to waste and capitalists were supplying arms to India thanks to the Chinese aggression.’

Another disclosure, according to Ram, was the Soviet concern over the ouster of Menon from the Indian government. Ram quotes a rejoinder from the Soviets saying that ‘Chinese aggression also had the consequences that we lost one of our most faithful friends among the Indian leaders, and that because he relied on our help’.

Khrushchev had remained neutral during the skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 1959, which had angered the Chinese. As tension between India and China was brewing in 1962, the Chinese called upon the leaders of the Soviet Union to ‘denounce the Indian bourgeoisie as a lackey of imperialism’—which they refused to do. Instead, on 12 December, when the war was over, Khrushchev came out in support of India, saying ‘we absolutely disallow the thought India wanted to start war with China’. Thus, China managed to force India to seek help from the United States, and also put the Soviet Union in the same anti-Chinese camp. It was a masterstroke that placed China as the leader of the Third World.

According to MacFarquhar, ‘Nehru’s appeal for Western aid in his hour of need dented, if it did not destroy, India’s image as a non-aligned nation, thus diminishing its status both in the Communist bloc and the Third World…Beijing had also demonstrated to a deaf Moscow the unwisdom of choosing India over China as an ally.’ But, most importantly, MacFarquhar states that rising tension with India even in early and mid-1962, which eventually led to outbreak of hostilities in October, ‘had signalled to its erstwhile communist partner that the banner of militant Marxism-Leninism had once more been unfurled over Beijing’. The year of 1962 saw China, with Mao back at the helm, successfully challenging both India and the Soviet Union and, in the end, becoming the leader of the Third World’s progressive and revolutionary forces.

There has been much speculation among scholars and analysts as to why the Chinese decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November and then withdraw to its former positions behind the McMahon Line. Some have suggested that the American decision to intervene was a factor, others that the Soviet Union had threatened to take action unless the Chinese halted their advance into Indian territory. Indian military analysts have pointed to that the fact that winter was approaching in the high Himalayas, making it impossible to maintain long and vulnerable supply lines from forward bases in Tibet.

But none of these explanations are consistent with the broader picture of China’s overall policies and strategic ambitions at the time of the war. It was a limited action aimed at punishing India, dethroning it from its leadership position in the non-aligned movement, and at forcing the Soviets to take sides in the wider conflict that had been raging within the international communist movement since 1960. There is nothing to indicate that the Chinese ever intended to hold the territory it had captured in October and November 1962. China wanted to demonstrate its military might and superiority and, by withdrawing, it had showed its ‘goodwill’ towards its neighbours and the rest of the world, demonstrating that it was not an aggressive power bent on capturing land from other countries. It was against the backdrop of these events that China emerged as the winner and the road now lay open for China to become the leader of the Third World.

The Cuban missile crisis may help explain why the Chinese decided to attack India on that precise date, 20 October, putting into action a plan that had been on the drawing board since 1959. But there were also other, domestic, factors which made them hasten the decision to launch their blitzkrieg against India. After the dismal failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao was plotting to regain his former position as the undisputed leader of the Chinese communists.

His rivals in the Party would have to be sidelined, neutralized—or won over. Among those critical of Mao’s policies were President Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai, and, most importantly, the powerful Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, a hero of the Chinese Revolution as well as the Korean War in the early 1950s who, wise from his experiences during the latter conflict, wanted to reform the PLA and make it more professional, along the lines of the armed forces of the Soviet Union. This ran contrary to Mao’s doctrine of an ideologically motivated ‘people’s army’ that would be indoctrinated by studying the writings of the Great Chairman. Mao’s vision of a good soldier was to be embodied in Lei Feng, the fictitious character created later; the loyal fighter who wanted to be ‘a stainless-steel screw for the Party’.

The ideological aspect of the 1962 War and that it was part and parcel of power struggles within the CCP at the time have been highlighted by MacFarquhar in his study of China in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘The question that remains unanswerable is: if Mao had still been in retirement, would Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai have chosen to teach Mr Nehru a lesson in quite so brutal a fashion? Probably not, in the light of their support for san he yi shao.’

’San he yi shao’ was a notion advanced by Wang Jiaxiang, an erstwhile comrade-in-arms of Mao and a former Chinese ambassador to the Soviet Union. It can be translated as ‘three peaceful acts and one reduction’ and referred to his proposed conciliation with the imperialists (the United States), the revisionists (the Soviet Union), and the reactionaries (India), while reducing aid to the world’s revolutionary forces.

According to Sergey Radchenko, a specialist on Sino-Soviet relations, Mao was fiercely opposed to this idea.

Mao talked about national security and national pride. He wanted the world to know that China could not be intimidated, and that Beijing’s stern warnings to India were not a bluff. He knew that the People’s Liberation Army was in a position to inflict a shattering blow to the Indian Army and so assert China’s claim to regional hegemony. National security concerns and illusions of grandeur were very good reasons for a war with India.