Eastern Onslaught

WINTER 1943/44–AUTUMN 1944

By incredible efforts and courageous fighting the German Army managed to slow down the Russian offensive on the central sector of the Eastern Front. Throughout July Army Group Centre was withdrawing steadily through Poland. Its weary soldiers had been forced back towards Kaunas, the Neman River and Bialystok. The last of the German infantry units capable of retreating along the Warsaw highway over the Vistula at Siedlce was undertaken and assisted by the crack Waffen-SS division Totenkopf and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Division. The whole German position in the east was now crumbling, and any hope of repairing it was made almost impossible by crippling shortages of troops. German infantry divisions continued desperately trying to fill the dwindling ranks. However, by the end of July the Red Army was already making good progress towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. On 7 August 1944 the Soviet offensive finally came to a halt east of Warsaw. Feldmarschall Model sent Hitler an optimistic report telling him that Army Group Centre had finally set up a continuous front from the south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the River Vistula near Pulawy. The new front itself in Poland stretched some 420 miles and was manned by thirty-nine divisions and brigades. Although the force seemed impressive the German Army was actually weak; the divisions were under-strength, and were thinly-stretched. With these, the Germans were compelled to hold large areas along the Vistula River, which included Warsaw. What made matters worse was the fact that they faced a Russian force that was a third of the total Red Army. To the Germans, Warsaw possessed great strategic importance due to the vital traffic arteries running north-south and east-west, which crossed into the city. The Germans knew that if they wanted to keep control of the Eastern Front, they must hold onto the city at all costs.

As news reached Warsaw that the Russians were approaching, the Polish Home Army rose against the German forces in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising. In the north of the city the 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions, together with the Herman Göring Division, saw extensive action in trying to repulse the uprising. While the fighting raged inside the capital, north of the city Soviet troops had already made some impressive gains by pushing the 2nd Army towards the Narew River. Fortunately for the German troops the Red Army were too exhausted and the offensive ground to a halt.

But the lull in Poland was not mirrored elsewhere. In the north, Soviet forces were already in East Prussia threatening the German forces in that area by reaching the Baltic and cutting off Army Group North. In southern Poland the 1st Ukrainian Front captured Lemberg, while Romania fell to the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts. Soviet forces had also penetrated Hungary, and its powerful armoured forces soon reached the capital, Budapest. On 20 August, the 2nd Ukrainian Front broke through powerful German defences, and the Red Army reached the Bulgarian border on 1 September. Within a week, Soviet troops arrived along the Yugoslav frontier. On 8 September, Bulgaria and Romania then declared war on Germany. It seemed that nothing but a series of defeats now plagued the German Army during the summer of 1944.

In a radical effort to stem the series of setbacks, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General staff, proposed that thirty divisions of Army Group North, which were redundant in Kurland, be shipped back to the Homeland so they could be resupplied and re-strengthened to reinforce Army Group Centre in Poland. Hitler, however, emphatically refused Guderian’s proposal.

As a consequence of Hitler’s negative response, by October Army Group North was, as predicted, cut off, leaving 4th Army with only four weak corps to defend East Prussia against the full might of the Soviet forces. In Army Group Centre the 3rd Panzer Army and 4th Army were holding tenaciously to a weak salient in the north, while to the southwest, along the Narew River, the 2nd Army was still holding the river line. Army Group A had dug a string of defences from Modlin to Kaschau, with the 9th Army positioned either side of Warsaw along the Vistula. The 4th Panzer Army had dug in at Baranov and was holding positions against strong Russian attacks. The 17th Army had fortified its positions with a string of machine gun posts and mines between the Vistula and the Beskides, while the 1st Panzer Army was holding the area of Kaschau and Jaslo.

For the remaining weeks of 1944 the German Army defended Poland with everything it could muster. The bulk of the forces left to defend the frontlines were exhausted and undermanned. With reserves almost non-existent the dwindling ranks were bolstered by old men and low-grade troops. Struggling to find more manpower, convalescents and the medically unfit were also drafted into the ranks into what were known as ‘stomach and ear’ battalions because most men were hard of hearing or suffered from ulcers. Poland it seemed would be defended at all costs, despite the age and quality of the soldiers that manned the lines.

WINTER 1944/45–MAY 1945

The year 1944 ended with the German Army still fighting on foreign soil trying desperately to gain the initiative and throw the Red Army back from its remorseless drive on the German frontier. But despite the skill and determination shown by the German soldiers in late 1944, most of them were aware that 1945 would be fateful – the year of decision.

In January 1945 along the Vistula Front hope dawned among some of the more fanatical commanders of the German Army. The strongest of the forces deployed along the Vistula against the Russians were in Army Group Centre. Its battle line ran more than 350 miles. However, each division that was placed on the front lines was perilously under strength and would not be able to contain a Russian attack for any appreciable length of time. On 13 January 1945 the Soviet offensive opened up and soldiers and Panzer crews from the 4th Panzer Army bore the brunt of the attack on the Vistula. Almost immediately the army was engulfed in a storm of fire. Across the snow-covered terrain Red Army troops and massive numbers of armoured vehicles flooded the battlefield. By the end of the first day the battle had ripped open a breach more than twenty miles wide in the Vistula Front. The 4th Panzer Army was virtually annihilated. Small groups of German soldiers tried frantically to fight their way westwards through the flood of Red infantry and tanks.

As the whole German military campaign in the east began collapsing it was proposed that all German forces located between the Oder and Vistula rivers be amalgamated into a new army group named ‘Army Group Vistula’. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was to command the new army group. German soldiers together with elite formations of the Waffen-SS were supposed to prevent the Soviets from breaking through. However, the once mighty German Army was now suffering from an unmistakable lack of provisions. By January 1945, the problems had become so critical that even children and old men were being thrown into what was now being called the last bastion of defence for the Reich. In Army Group Vistula the German Army could no longer function properly.

There was no contact between units on the battlefield, battalions were out of touch with their companies, and regiments had no link with their divisions. Successive blows by the Red Army began to tear apart Himmler’s Army Group and send scattered German formations reeling back westward towards the Oder or north-westwards into Pomerania. As the whole front began withdrawing both the 9th Army and 2nd Army’s right wings lost contact with each other. In a drastic measure to restore the disintegrating situation General Weiss, commanding the 2nd Army, tried to stabilise the front on the Vistula between the town of Thorn and Graudenz. But still Soviet forces were overwhelming many German positions and pushing back Hitler’s exhausted forces.

Despite the best efforts of the German Army to bolster its dwindling ranks on the Eastern Front, nothing could now mask the fact that they were dwarfed by the superiority of the Red Army. It was estimated that the Russians had some six million men along a front which stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic. To the German soldiers facing the Russians, the outcome was almost certain death. They were well aware that what they had done in Russia and the occupied territories had caused the Red Army to exact a terrible revenge.

As the Nazi empire was sheared off piece by piece, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda chief, begun to switch from terror-mongering to reassuring the population that victory was just around the corner. However, in an atmosphere of near panic, stirred up by refugees and their stories of Russian atrocities, there was little to console them. Many stories had already reached the German front lines as to how the Red Army had raped and murdered women. The widespread panic among the civilians was causing the German command many problems, especially with supply and troop movements. In some areas the roads had become so congested with civilians and soldiers that many miles were brought to a complete standstill.

Out on the battlefield, the realisation among troops that they might lose the war was seldom admitted openly; but most of the soldiers already knew that the end would come soon. Troops were not convinced by their commanders’ encouragements especially when they were lying in their trenches subjected to hours of bombardment by guns that never seemed to lack shells. Poorly armed and undermanned, infantry and Panzer divisions were exhausted shadows of their former selves.

The last great offensives that brought the Russians their final victory in Eastern Europe began during the third week of January 1945. Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged into Silesia after the capture of Radom and Krakow. On the night of 27 January, the German divisions of the 17th Army pulled out of the region towards the Oder River. The principal objective of the Red Army during late January 1945 was for an all-out assault along the Baltic to crush the remaining under-strength German units that had formed Army Group North. It was these heavy, sustained attacks that eventually restricted the German-held territory in the north-east to a few small pockets of land surrounding three ports: Libau in Kurland, Pillau in East Prussia and Danzig at the mouth of River Vistula. It was here along the Baltic that the German defenders attempted to stall the massive Russian onslaught with the few weapons and men they had at their disposal. Every German soldier defending the area was aware of the significance if it were captured. Not only would the coastal garrisons be cut off and eventually destroyed, but also masses of civilian refugees would be prevented from escaping from the ports by sea. Terrified civilians eager to board the next ships to the homeland queued night and day until the next vessel came in. They were so desperate to leave that they stood out in the open, enduring constant bombing and strafing by low-flying Russian aircraft, whose presence was now unchallenged in the sky.

For the next several weeks thousands of civilians risked their lives in order to escape from the clutches of the Red Army. Even to the end of March 1945, as Soviet troops fought their way into the outskirts of Gdynia, the German Navy continued rescuing many refugees before the Russians could get to them. German soldiers too, even remnants of elite Waffen-SS units, found themselves faced with a similar experience. Thousands of dishevelled troops streamed towards the coast, mingling with countless numbers of terrified women and children. Just along the coast in Danzig, the Russians stormed the ancient Teutonic city, smashing into the rear of fleeing German troops who were making their way desperately along the Vistula estuary. To the German soldiers that saw Danzig fall, it marked a complete disaster along the Baltic. Russian soldiers, however, saw Danzig as a way of exterminating Teutonic culture, which had long since been despised. All over the city, they blew up old buildings, set alight churches and randomly executed groups of soldiers that had not raised the white flag of surrender, but had fought on until they ran out of ammunition.

Elsewhere along the Baltic coast isolated areas of German resistance continued to fight on, but still they had no prospect of holding back the Russians. Hitler made it quite clear that Army Group Kurland was not to be evacuated. To the Führer, Kurland was the last bastion of defence in the east and every soldier, he said, was to ‘stand and fight’ and wage an unprecedented battle of attrition. In fact, what Hitler had done in a single sentence was to condemn to death some 8,000 officers and more than 181,000 soldiers and Luftwaffe personnel. Those soldiers who managed to escape the destruction of Army Group Kurland retreated back towards the River Oder or returned by ship to Germany.

On other parts of the Eastern Front fighting was merciless, with both sides imposing harsh measures on their men to stand where they were and fight to the death. Since September 1944, Hitler had appreciated the importance of holding the city of Breslau from the approaching Red Army and declared it a fortress. As with other towns and villages lining the approaches to the Homeland, Breslau’s infantry formations consisted mainly of old men and young boys who were poorly-equipped and hastily trained for combat. Four months later in January 1945, the city was still poised for the arrival of the Russians. By February, the sound of approaching Russian guns brought the city to panic stations. It was the 269th Infantry Division, withdrawing in the face of the massive Soviet advance, that was given the objective of forming the main defence of Breslau.

To test the defenders of Breslau, the Red Army launched a series of probing attacks into the city. Four Soviet divisions then carried out a furious assault that penetrated Breslau’s defences. Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, Waffen-SS and various formations from the 269th Infantry Division put up a staunch defence with every available weapon they could muster. As the battle raged, both German soldiers and civilians were cut to pieces by Russian fire. The Red Army drive was so powerful and swift that by 14 February the city was cut off and isolated, miles behind the Russian front.

During these vicious battles, which continued into May 1945, after Berlin had fallen, there were many acts of courageous fighting. Cheering and yelling, old men and boys of the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend advanced across open terrain into a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire. By the first week of March, Russian infantry had driven back the defenders into the inner city and were pulverising it street by street. Lightly-clad Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend were still resisting, forced to fight in the sewers beneath the ravaged city. Almost 60,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded trying to capture the city, with some 29,000 German military and civilian casualties. When Breslau finally capitulated, the Red Army was bitter and vented its anger against the civilians.

As the massive Russian forces pushed ever westward, the German Army, along with the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend formations, withdrew under increasing pressure nearer and nearer to the Homeland. With every defeat and withdrawal came ever-increasing pressure on the commanders to exert harsher discipline on their weary men. The thought of fighting on German soil for the first time resulted in mixed feelings among the men. Although the defence of the Reich automatically stirred emotional feelings to fight for their land, many soldiers were quite openly aware that morale was being completely destroyed. They had all received a message from the Führer telling them to fight to the death, and they no longer had the manpower resources or strength to wage a bloody war of attrition. More young conscripts began showing signs that they did not want to die for a lost cause.

Conditions on the Eastern Front were miserable not only for the newest recruit, but also the battle-hardened veteran who had survived many months of bitter conflict against the Red Army. The cold harsh weather during February and March prevented the soldiers digging trenches more than a few feet deep. But the main problems that confronted the German Army during this period of the war were shortages of ammunition, fuel and vehicles. Some vehicles in the divisions could only be used in an emergency and troops were strictly prohibited from using them without permission from the commanding officer. The daily ration on average per division was for two shells per gun. Thousands of under-nourished civilians, mostly women and slave labourers, were marched out to expend all their available energy to dig lines of anti-tank ditches. For the benefit of the newsreel camera, which was intended somehow to help bolster the morale of the troops, Hitler made a secret visit on 13 March 1945 to the Oder Front. In fact, Hitler did not meet one ordinary soldier at the front and was surrounded by well-armed SS guards. During his brief war conference on the terrible situation faced by his Army, he gave a formal speech on the necessity of holding the positions. He told General Busse, commander of the 9th Army, to use all available weapons and equipment at his disposal to hold back the Russians.

However, nothing could stop the Red Army’s drive. Out on the Vistula Front, German troops were now barely holding their wavering positions that ran some 175 miles from the Baltic coast to the juncture of the Oder and Neisse in Silesia. Most of the front was now held on the western bank of the Oder. In the north the ancient city of Stettin, and in the south the town of Küstrin, were both vital holding points against the main Russian objective of the war – Berlin.

By late March, the situation in Army Group Vistula had become much worse. Not only were supplies dwindling, but rations too were becoming so low that some soldiers were beginning to starve. In the ranks rations were more abundant: most days each soldier received an Army loaf and some stew or soup, which was often cold and not very appetising. But the main problem was the lack of clean drinking water. As a result of this, many of the soldiers suffered from dysentery.

The bulk of the Vistula front was manned by inexperienced training units. Some soldiers were so young that in their rations they were handed sweets instead of tobacco. More experienced soldiers observed that the Soviets were playing with them like ‘cat and mouse’. Sitting in their trenches, cowering under the constant Soviet shelling, almost all of the men seemed fixated on one thing: ‘the order to hurry up and retreat.’

Despite all its weaknesses on the Vistula Front, the German Army could still be a formidable opponent. Both young and old alike fought together to hold some kind of line in the face of the massive Russian onslaught.

In the last months of the war on the Eastern Front, German infantry divisions tried their best to form some kind of defensive line along an increasingly shrinking front. Exhausted and demoralised skeletal units that had been fighting for survival in previous weeks were now fully aware of the impending defeat in the east. Yet the German General Staff was still determined to fight at all costs, even if it meant throwing together unfit or badly depleted regiments and battalions.

In late March 1945, east of Berlin, German infantry and Panzer troops were compelled to hold the front against superior Soviet artillery and aviation. The German soldier had neither the manpower nor the weapons to hold the Russian onslaught, in spite of determined resistance along some sectors of the Front.

The Eastern Front, over which the German soldier had marched victoriously into heartlands of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, was now no more than 100 miles from the Reich capital. Between Berlin and the River Oder was a motley assortment of German soldiers, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend and Luftwaffe troops preparing for the final onslaught of the Russian Army. When the final attack began on the River Oder on 16 April 1945 the German soldier was overwhelmed within days, and was slowly beaten back to the gates of Berlin. It was here that the German soldier fought out the last days of the war in the east until he was either captured or destroyed.


The United States Air-power in 1918

In 1918 the United States, still inexperienced in modern warfare, rushed to field an effective air arm for the European war, while struggling to establish an industry to support the new service and the logistics to transport supplies to the front. The optimistic predictions and expectations of 1917 yielded to the chastening realities of coordinating an effort to fulfill them in 1918.

At the front the U.S. Air Service command was riven with internal rivalries, which the May appointment of Brig. Gen. Mason M. Patrick as chief to replace Gen. Benjamin Foulois did not resolve. Only when Col. Billy Mitchell became the top American air combat commander, with considerable independence in establishing objectives despite the army’s ultimate control, did these tensions ease. Yet certain problems continued to plague the new arm. The command of fliers by nonfliers and the army’s ignorance—from division staff officers to troops of the line—regarding the air service and its work remained dilemmas.

Colonel Mitchell, as his mentor Trenchard, was determined to take the aerial offensive. June’s strategic bombing and independent air operations, the formation of the RAF’s Independent Force, and Trenchard’s refusal to acknowledge any superior—even Marshal Foch, Allied commander in chief—prompted the United states to switch from assisting the British campaign to supporting Foch’s coordinated plan. Meanwhile, Pershing’s chief of staff warned air service officers “against any idea of independence.” The American air war would be a tactical campaign.

U.S. units saw action in the quiet sector around Toul in the spring. Ninety-three Lafayette Escadrille members transferred to the U.S. Air Service and 26 went to naval aviation. The escadrille’s aces took command of U.S. units. For example William Thaw was commanding the 103rd Squadron of mostly former escadrille fliers when it transferred into the U.S. Air Service in May. Raoul Lufbery, the escadrille’s ace, after a short stint flying a desk at the huge U.S. training base at Issoudun, returned to the air only to be shot down in flames in May by a German two-seater. Lufbery had shared his knowledge with Eddie Rickenbacker, a 27-year-old new pilot of the 94th Squadron and former race-car driver. Rickenbacker scored his first victory on 29 April and ultimately gained 26 victories to become the United States’ leading ace.

By the end of June, 13 squadrons were operating at the front—6 pursuit, 6 observation, and 1 bomber squadron—when they transferred to the fighting around Château-Thierry during the Aisne-Marne offensive in July. Over Château-Thierry U.S. pursuit pilots encountered for the first time large concentrations of Fokker D7s, which fought aggressively and tenaciously in teams and made attacks on German observation planes dangerous. The inexperienced pilots of the First Pursuit Group, mounted on France’s second-line fighter, the Nieuport 28, found that they could not yet compete with the D7. In their three-plane incursions over German lines, they were barely able to defend themselves, much less U.S. observation planes.

The first U.S. day-bomber units, flying Breguets, began operations in June attacking railroad yards. On 10 July six Breguets of the United States’ only bombing squadron, the 96th Squadron, got lost and were forced to land behind German lines. They compounded the disaster by failing to burn their aircraft, prompting the German message, “We thank you for the fine airplanes and equipment which you sent us, but what will we do with the Major?”

By fall circumstances had improved markedly. When the AEF First Army attacked the Saint-Mihiel salient on 12 to 16 September, Colonel Mitchell had under his direct command or on call 1,481 airplanes—701 pursuit, 366 observation, 323 day bombers, and 91 night bombers—the largest concentration of Allied air forces during the war, nearly half of which belonged to the United States. Despite poor weather conditions, this overwhelming mass retained aerial control as the fighters penetrated over German airfields and day bombers struck targets on the battlefield and in the rear. Saint-Mihiel marked the meteoric ascent of the 27th Squadron’s Arizona balloon-buster Frank Luke, who concentrating on observation ballons shot down 18 Germans in 17 days, but was downed by the Germans on 28 September as the Meuse-Argonne offensive began. In an unusual gesture for a downed pilot, Luke, rather than surrender, pulled his pistol to fight on the ground and was killed. His wingman and protector, Joseph Wehner, an ace in his own right, had fallen 10 days before.

American bomber crews, whether flying Breguets or DH4s, suffered severe losses during the offensive when operating in small formations of 3 to 6 airplanes but far fewer in larger tight formations. The United States’ use of virtually unprotected day bombers on raids 10 to 20 kilometers behind German lines—a French and British practice—resulted in such heavy losses that the U.S. Air Service resorted to bomber escorts in the Meuse-Argonne campaign. In that campaign from 26 September to the end of October, Mitchell pursued the same tactics as over Saint-Mihiel. He sent 100 aircraft-pursuit groups strafing over the lines, and staged his largest daytime raid on 9 October with 200 bombers and 100 fighters attacking German troop concentrations. Mitchell also further increased the size of his fighter patrols to counter German formations at the point of the U.S. attacks. The corps observation planes had the most difficult task—keeping pace with the infantry in contact patrols performed at tree-top level, often in fog and ground mist—in addition to their artillery observation tasks. Ultimately 18 observation squadrons would serve army or corps headquarters in what the army regarded as aviation’s most essential task.

Losses in the intensive fighting in the war’s last three months offset the influx of new units to the front, and many of these approximately 31 units were understrength. On 26 September the air arm had 646 airplanes; on 15 October it comprised 579; and at the Armistice it could muster 45 squadrons with only 457 serviceable planes, less than half the authorized program. Supply remained a problem throughout the war, and was particularly grave during the Meuse-Argonne campaign. At the end of October the three pursuit groups could assemble only a little over half their listed strength of 300 Spads.

The U.S. Air Service received 6,624 combat planes—4,879 from the French, 1,440 DH4s from the United States, 272 from the British, and 19 from the Italians. Of its French planes, 1,644 were Nieuports, 893 were Spad 13s, and 678 were Salmsons. At the war’s end some 80 percent of the air service’s planes were French made. The Spad 13, France’s first-line fighter, though not particularly maneuverable, was strong and the fastest fighter at the front. It was more difficult to keep in operation than the Nieuport 28 because the geared Hispano-Suiza 220-hp engine was more difficult to adjust and repair than the Nieuport’s 160-hp Gnome rotary. In the August Saint-Mihiel buildup, problems with the 220-hp Spads of the 22nd Squadron made concentration on combat difficult, and at Saint-Mihiel some pilots could fly only one mission a day because mechanics were able to keep only 65 percent of the planes serviceable.

U.S. squadrons judged the DH4 inferior to the Breguet for bombardment and the Salmson for observation. Similar average losses of Breguet, Salmson, and DH4 squadrons in the war’s final months were misleading, since squadrons in quieter sectors used the DH4. The Breguet was faster, its metal-tubing fuselage stronger than the DH4’s wood frame, and possessed better load and altitude capability. The sturdy Salmson 2A2 was overall the best observation craft. Although corps observation missions—especially infantry-contact patrol—suffered serious losses to enemy pursuit in the absence of fighter protection, on army observation missions above 15,000 feet the Salmson with its 260-hp radial could outrun the Pfalz, Albatros, and Fokker D7 and outclimb both the Pfalz and the Albatros.

There were numerous complaints about faulty materiel, particularly engine assembly and magnetos. The DH4 frame was too weak for the Liberty engine to run at full throttle without shaking the plane to bits. One U.S. engineer officer considered Liberty planes unprepared for service and often replaced their shock absorbers and wheels with Breguet parts. Beyond such construction flaws, the absence of self-sealing gas tanks offering some protection against fire in the DH4s did not help the morale of bomber crews. French plane tanks had asbestos-rubber coatings that automatically sealed bullet holes. The DH4’s nickname, “Flaming Coffin,” stemmed from its unprotected gas tanks and pressure-feed gas system. If a bullet punctured the gas tank, the pressure system forced fuel out of the unsealed hole over the airframe. A single incendiary bullet or spark made the plane a flaming funeral pyre for its crew.

Such potential fate did not deter American aircrews. Second Lt. W. J. Rogers, a DH4 observer of the 50th Aero Squadron, commented:

Aerial observation is neither a bed of roses nor the path to glory that the man on the ground imagines it to be. The wind behind a Liberty is terrific, and it taxes the strength of the strongest to fight it for three hours. If the ship is rolled and tossed about very much, . . . the occupants sometimes get sick . . .

But I like it. I’m sorry we had war, but since we did, I’m glad I was an aerial observer.

Aircrew members underwent training at home and in Europe. The Signal Corps adopted the Canadian method, establishing ground training units at eight universities that ultimately put more than 17,000 cadets through an 8- to 12-week course. Although the army increased its flying fields for primary training from 3 in 1917 to 27 by the war’s end, airplane and instructor shortages in the United States caused many aircrews to receive their primary and advanced training in Europe.

The most noted training grounds in France were the pursuit school at Issoudun and the bomber school at Clermont-Ferrand. The French fighter-training method emphasized individual tactics rather than teamwork and formation flying, although “gang” or “collective and cooperative” fighting, perhaps the “exact antithesis of the ‘sporting attitude,’” was most efficient and appropriate in 1918. The U.S. fliers did not fully appreciate the necessity for formation training until after the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when they modified their instruction. Meanwhile, trainees and instructors in the bombardment school at Clermont-Ferrand suffered from dissatisfaction and poor morale. School commanders complained that pursuit aviation received excessive publicity, and that training for observation and bomber aviation was undervalued, neglected, and used as a threat for poor fighter-pilot trainees.

Casualties of U.S. Air Service personnel attached to all armies in Europe mounted steadily from four in March to 537 in October. Of the total 583 casualties, 235 were killed in action, 130 were wounded, 145 taken prisoner, 45 were killed in accidents, 25 were wounded, and 3 were interned. Accidents at the front and in flight training were as lethal for the American air arm as other air arms. The figures show that 681 flight personnel died in the air service, 508 (74.6 percent) of them in accidents (263 training in the United States, 203 in AEF training schools in Europe, and 42 at the front), 169 (24.8 percent) in combat, and 4 (.6 percent) from disease. In 1920 Lieutenant Colonel Rowntree of the Medical Reserve Corps concluded that “for every flier killed in combat three succumbed to accidents.” In addition, 72 were missing, 137 taken prisoner, 127 wounded, and 3 interned at the front. Of the 2,034 flight personnel—1,281 pilots and 753 observers—who reached the front, for every 100 trained fliers 24 had been killed; for every 100 pilots 33 had been killed; and for every 100 observers 4 had been killed. Pursuit training took the highest toll, followed by night bombing, day bombing, and then observation.

On 6 April 1917 the navy had 21 seaplanes in use, and on 14 October it had over 500 seaplanes at U.S. naval stations and 400 abroad. U.S. naval aviators flew Capronis in the northern bombing group at Calais-Dunkirk. However they received only 18 Capronis in July and August 1918 instead of the 140 promised, and the planes’ Fiat engines were so poorly built that they had to be completely reconstructed. The first Caproni with the superior Isotta-Fraschini engines arrived just after the Armistice. The group’s day bomber DH4s flew with RAF units. The naval operation remained small, and at the Armistice it had only 17 serviceable aircraft—6 Capronis, 12 DH4s, and 17 DH9s—instead of the 40 Capronis and 72 day bombers planned. By the war’s end naval aircraft would be based at 27 naval air stations from Ireland to Italy, and for their overwater operations they would rely increasingly on U.S.-made seaplanes—Curtiss boats with Liberty engines.

In the United States, the disarray in the aviation industry continued in 1918. By January the production program’s failures led President Wilson secretly to authorize sculptor and air enthusiast Gutzon Borglum to investigate the existence of an “aircraft Trust.” Borglum’s attacks forced the resignations of Col. Edward Deeds and Howard Coffin. By mid April aviation manufacturers, members of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and particularly a president’s special committee investigating the industry recommended placing the aircraft program under a powerful civilian executive separate from the Signal Corps. Builders complained about the lack of definite orders; the Senate committee decried the delays in the provision of training aircraft, the “gravely disappointing” production of Liberty engines, and combat-plane production that was “a substantial failure and constitutes a most serious disappointment in our war preparations.” The committee majority believed that production needed to be removed from the Signal Corps entirely, although a minority insisted that the program was doing well given its difficult circumstances.

In May the president appointed Brig. Gen. William Kenly, Pershing’s former aviation chief, director of the Division of Military Aeronautics directly subordinate to the Secretary of War. President Wilson selected John D. Ryan, a director of the Anaconda Copper Company, to direct the army’s Bureau of Aircraft Production and chair the Aircraft Production Board. The two offices proceeded to operate independently, since Secretary of War Newton Baker was too overburdened to serve as liaison between Kenly and Ryan. On 22 August a report by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs recommended establishing an independent air secretary with a seat in the cabinet over a department of aviation, as existed in both England and France. In August 1918 President Wilson placed Ryan in charge of aviation, appointing him a second assistant secretary of war and director of the U.S. Army’s air service, but Ryan then left on a six-week tour of Europe, and the war ended before the new arrangement took effect.

As the government struggled to correct matters, rumors spread. The 22 March New York World carried part of Gutzon Borglum’s report to the president, and Wilson referred the matter to the Justice Department. Charges of profiteering and conflict of interest led to an investigation of aircraft production by Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson’s opponent in the 1916 election and a former Supreme Court justice. The investigation, which was completed in October, yielded evidence of confusion and conflict of interest though none of corruption or conspiracy. The matter was dropped at the war’s end.

During this political turmoil, the U.S. aviation industry strove to develop and produce combat airplanes. DH4 production began to accelerate in May, when 153 were manufactured, and culminated in October with the production of 1,097. Only 67 had reached the battlefront by 1 July, but tests showing them to be structurally weak and defective forced a temporary suspension of contracts. In 1918 Liberty-engine production increased dramatically from 39 in January to 620 in May to 1,102 in June and finally to 3,878 in October. In July some aircraft plants were shut down or running below capacity.

The failure to manufacture foreign designs in the United States resulted from production problems. The government’s cancellation of Spad production at Curtiss in January necessitated providing large advances to prevent the firm’s collapse. In late April the Joint Army and Navy Technical Board recommended SE5 production at Curtiss, but the prototype, an SE5a with a 200-hp geared Hispano-Suiza, arrived with incomplete drawings that mixed the SE5a and the SE5 with a 180-hp Hispano-Suiza. Later, on 20 August, the official test of the U.S. SE5 revealed engine and radiator problems. When the order was canceled at the Armistice, Curtiss had produced only one SE5.

The 2,000 Bristol fighters ordered from Curtiss in January met a similar fate. Curtiss initially believed that the plane required extensive redesign and strengthening to contain the Liberty, but later abandoned these reservations. The first plane crashed in test on 7 May, then another crashed nose first on 7 June, killing the crew, as did a third in a 15 July test. The overpowered plane was deemed “unsafe, overloaded, and [of] no military value.” On 20 July the order was canceled. The United States would build no frontline fighters, only fighter trainers.

In February the Aircraft Production Board decided to produce both Handley Pages and Capronis and placed contracts in April with the Standard Aircraft Corporation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. By late June Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton C. March was studying the United States’ ability to produce the Handley Page four-engine giant V/1500. In late July the plant began to ship unassembled Handley Page 0/400 bombers without engines to England for assembly. It ultimately sent fewer than 100, none of which reached the front. Meanwhile, after much delay, misunderstanding, and trouble, the Caproni flew on 4 July and proved to be overpowered by the Liberty engines. In October the government decided that Capronis and Handley Pages were a stopgap measure until the manufacture of U.S. Martin bombers, a new design by Glenn L. Martin and Donald Douglas that would prove to be the world’s best light bomber in 1920. The Armistice, however, led to the cancellation of all Caproni and Handley Page orders.

Capt. Frank Briscoe, assigned to manage Caproni production, attributed the long delay and great expense to the serious problems of adjusting metric plans for skilled woodworkers to production by machine methods using U.S. measurements. He considered the greatest obstacle of all to be “the military method of handling industrial projects,” specifically the absence of a single authority to manage the project.

A report on U.S. aircraft production submitted on 22 August by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs ascribed the disappointing results in aircraft production to the automobile manufacturers’ control of the program. Their lack of experience in aircraft production and the emphasis on the Liberty engine, which was thought capable of powering all aircraft types, were largely responsible for production delays. The committee rejected as reasons for delays the difficulty of measurement conversion and of securing sufficient engines, and accused the board of being mainly concerned with adapting planes to the Liberty engine, referring to the abortive attempts to adapt the engine to the Bristol fighter and the Spad. It condemned the organization under the Aircraft Production Board as unsystematic and inefficient, and believed that the board should have heeded the 1917 recommendations of Colonel Clark and Colonel Boiling to produce foreign planes and engines. The committee also suggested that the board should have adopted the Italian approach of selecting the best French types for production and then gradually moving to domestic designs. It judged that a substantial part of the $640 million appropriation had been wasted, citing the $6.5 million expended on the Bristol fighter and the over $6 million expended on 1,200 standard J-trainers that had to be condemned.

The navy’s seaplane procurement was highlighted not just by Curtiss’s success but also by that of the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, which had begun deliveries in April. The first Naval Aircraft Factory plane flew in March, only 228 days after the factory’s ground-breaking ceremonies. By the war’s end the factory employed 3,750 workers, a quarter of them women, and by 31 December 1918 it had built 183 twin-engine flying boats, the last 33 of them Felixstowe F5Ls, the final version of the British boat powered by a Liberty engine. A critical difference between the circumstances of naval and military procurement was the navy’s foundation of the Curtiss designs, which compared favorably to those abroad and were probably the United States’s true aircraft production success story. The military had no domestic landplane design of comparable standing.

Richard II – Hundred Years War

Richard II was in many ways a tragic figure. As the younger son, he would not have been raised to be king, and, although his mother had considerable (and generally beneficial) influence on his early education and subsequent development, he had little contact with his father, who was frequently away on campaign, and his senior uncle, Gaunt, was unpopular in the country. This unpopularity was, of course, partly engendered through envy: the dukedom of Lancaster was immensely rich and in many aspects was independent of the central government. But Gaunt’s frequent quarrels with various bishops (usually over the question of sanctuary in churches), his obvious disdain for public opinion, and his lack of charisma (perhaps surprising given his genes) as a military commander did not help his reputation.

It was an unfortunate start to the reign that the truce negotiated in 1375 ran out only a few days after Richard’s accession. It was even more unfortunate that the French had used the brief peace to prepare for war, by embarking on a major ship-building programme based in Rouen, while the English, short of money, had been much less energetic. In the summer of 1377, French fleets, aided by the Castilian galleys of Enrique, raided the English Channel ports from Rye as far as Plymouth. They would land, loot what they could, set fire to anything that looked as if it might burn and set sail again. They landed on the Isle of Wight and extracted a ransom before departing; attacked Southampton, where they were bloodily repulsed by local forces under Sir John Arundel, a younger son of the third earl of Arundel; raided Poole; and tried (and failed) to effect a landing in Folkestone. On the continent, the French admiral Jean de Vienne blockaded Calais by sea while the duke of Burgundy laid siege on land. Fortunately for the Calais garrison, commanded by Sir Hugh Calveley, although some of the outer defences fell, bad weather and heavy rains made mining and the movement of siege engines impossible and the French withdrew, giving Sir Hugh an opportunity to sally out, attack Étaples further down the coast, and remove the large quantities of wine stored there. Meanwhile, in the Dordogne, the duke of Anjou was steadily reducing English-held towns. He captured the seneschal of Aquitaine, Sir Thomas Felton, father of the Sir William who had been killed in Spain, and threatened Bordeaux, only to have to turn back when he found pro-English forces in his rear. Brest was under siege, but was reinforced from England in January 1378, although English attempts to capture Saint-Malo and to initiate a campaign in Normandy failed.

Then, later in the year 1378, an opportunity to hit back at the French by proxy presented itself when Charles of Navarre re-entered the frame. Charles had once again fallen out with Charles V of France, for much the same reasons as Edward III had with French monarchs over Aquitaine: Charles of Navarre was a king in his own right, but also held Navarre as a vassal of the French king, and, when Charles of France declared Navarre forfeit, Charles of Navarre appealed to England. The council was very happy to support Charles of Navarre on the grounds that any enemy of France was a friend of England, and contracted to send 1,000 men for a period of four months, in exchange for the port of Cherbourg. This was agreed and the English duly occupied Cherbourg.

By the time the English army arrived in Navarre, however, delayed by bad weather and shortage of shipping, the situation had been resolved. Enrique of Castile had invaded Navarre on behalf of his French ally, but, when he heard that an English army had landed in Aquitaine and was on its way, he wisely withdrew. As the English troops, under Sir Thomas Trevet, who was at this time only in his late twenties but had fought for the Black Prince at Najera, were no longer required to defend Navarre, they embarked on a foray through Castile, reducing numerous Castilian towns, damaging Enrique’s reputation considerably and acquiring large quantities of booty before returning to England. Charles of Navarre, meanwhile, made his peace with the French, who retained the Navarrese lands in Normandy. While the tactical achievements of Trevet’s expedition were minor, the acquisition of Cherbourg was a major strategic gain: along with Brest, Bayonne, Bordeaux and Calais, England now had an outpost line of strongly fortified ports with which to counter French naval ambitions and which could serve as springboards for invasions of France.

Charles of France, having at least gained the Normandy possessions of Navarre, decided to try the same ploy in Brittany, and in 1379 declared that he was confiscating that duchy. This time he went too far and the Bretons, touchy about their independence and with no wish to be part of France, took up arms and demanded the return of Duke John from England. Having secured a promise of English military support, John returned to Brittany, where he was welcomed with acclamation at Saint-Malo. The English army to support him had been agreed at 2,000 men-at-arms supported by the same number of archers for four and a half months from 1 August, but, when the English council discovered that they could not afford to pay and transport so many, the size of the contingent was reduced to 650 of each arm.66 They were to be under the overall command of Sir John Arundel, the defender of Southampton, who had been part of the relieving force sent to Brest in 1377 and was in Cherbourg in 1378.

The troops duly mustered at Southampton, but the weather and problems in finding troop transports delayed their departure and Sir John is said to have billeted his immediate retinue in a convent, dismissing the mother superior’s protests that the presence of such a large number of young men might lead to ‘an unforgivable sin which would bring shame and disgrace to the nunnery’. The unforgivable sin duly occurred. Arundel did nothing to stop it (commanders of other units in the area managed to keep their men under control), and it extended to the soldiery looting the silver from a local church and generally behaving like their modern successors on a Saturday night in a garrison town. When ships were finally found, Arundel’s men took some of the nuns along with them, no doubt to sew on buttons during the journey, and divine retribution caught up with them when a violent storm raged in the Channel. Most of the ships carrying horses sank, either off the coast of Cornwall or off Ireland, and in an effort to lighten the troop-ships the men are said to have thrown most of the nuns overboard. When that had no effect, the ladies were followed by the accumulated plunder of Hampshire. Arundel’s own vessel ran aground off Ireland in December and he was drowned. Sir Hugh Calveley and most of the other captains survived.

While the French assault on what was left of English France had been halted, lack of coordination between the various expeditionary forces on land and at sea meant that much of the expenditure on men, ships and weapons was to no great purpose. When Edward III was alive, there was a strong king who made decisions, supported by an administration that could carry them out. Now rule was by committee, never a recipe for strong government, and, although decisions were made in the king’s name, they were too often a distillation of conflicting opinions resulting in weak compromise. Dissatisfaction with the way the war was being conducted and the tax burden imposed to pay for it eventually boiled over in 1381.

The catalyst was the decision in June 1380 to send another expedition to help the duke of Brittany. The king’s uncle, the twenty-six-year-old duke of Buckingham, would be in command with around 5,000 soldiers, probably 3,000 men-at-arms and 2,000 archers, all to be mounted. Given the difficulty of finding enough ships and the ever-present threat of storms in the Channel, the troops would be ferried by the most direct route from Dover and Sandwich to Calais, from where they would make a chevauchée to link up with Duke John at Rennes. On 24 June, the army marched from Calais, creating the usual swathe of destruction as it went across the Somme, to Rheims, south of Paris, and then to Rennes, but without meeting a single French army, Charles V having instructed his commanders that on no account were they to offer battle. Buckingham was now running short of money, and a request was sent back to England asking for sufficient funds to maintain the army throughout the winter and to continue campaigning in the spring. At home, the treasury was empty and, after much argument, it was decided by Parliament that the government’s demand for £150,000 – to cover the expenses of Buckingham’s army and the maintenance of the fortress ports (where the garrisons had not been paid for months), with possibly a little to be secreted for John of Gaunt’s ambitions in Spain and Portugal (he intended to pursue a claim to the throne of Castile by reason of being married to Pedro the Cruel’s daughter) – was too much. They would agree to find £100,000: two-thirds from the laity and one-third from the church. And then Charles V died, Duke John came to terms with his successor, and Buckingham’s army was left high and dry with no option but to go home. It was to be the last major English expedition of the fourteenth century.


Six Days War – The race to The Mitla Pass, 7 June 1967

The key to the Israeli victory in the war was long-term planning. Every maneuver, every battle plan had been drilled and re-drilled for years. Intelligence had been gathered on the routine activity of Arab armies for over a decade. And Israeli planners used this information to good effect, building a strategy and war machine that could exploit the weaknesses on the other side of the border. Their achievements enabled Israel to defeat armies much larger than the IDF. There was no equivalent degree of preparation and planning in Arab countries, the primary reason for which was the differing relations that the militaries in Israel and in the Arab countries had with their respective governments. First and foremost, Arab armies were built to ensure the survival of the regime. They were better suited to serve as internal police than as a fighting force. The regimes that sustained these armies held loyalty in higher esteem than efficiency or battle readiness.

The constant purges of officers – to deter coups – prevented the development of capable cadres. In the Syrian army, for instance, 2,000 officers and 4,000 non-commissioned officers had been purged from the ranks since 1966. That was also the reason why the Egyptian and Syrian armies could not make efficient use of the military technology they had received from the Soviets. In Israel, though party affiliation did play a role in appointments within the IDF, in general officers were promoted according to their abilities and skills. Ezer Weizman, for example, had reached the rank of major general and was appointed deputy chief of staff despite being known to be a supporter of the main opposition party, Herut. The Israeli army had no other function but to prepare for the next war.

The IDF achieved all its aims in June 1967. After cracking open the Arab lines of defense, Israeli formations pushed forward at a surprising speed. As Arab generals tried to take back control of the situation, they discovered that the Israelis had already moved deep into their territory. Since the Arab armies were needed at home to ensure that the regimes would survive the humiliation of defeat, Arab leaders in Amman, Cairo, and Damascus were quick to order a hurried retreat after just a few days’ fighting. They were unwilling to sacrifice their armies to halt the Israeli ground forces. Whenever regime survival was in conflict with state interests, Arab governments chose the former. Arab regimes preferred to cede territory in order to save what was left of their Praetorian Guard.


The commander of the Egyptian Air Force, Lieutenant General Sidqi Mahmud, had known for two years that Egyptian radar systems were unable to detect planes flying at low altitude (500 meters and below). Mahmud was part of Amer’s loyal guard and he had been serving as commander of the air force for over a decade. Despite the fact that in 1956 British bombers had destroyed 200 Egyptian planes while they were on the ground, Mahmud remained in office, protected from Nasser’s rage by Amer, who valued loyalty above all else. Under Mahmud, the air force did nothing more than appeal to the Soviets for more advanced radars. No attempt was made to create a doctrine that would address this chink in Egypt’s armor.

Conversely, the IAF built its entire war plan around Egypt’s Achilles heel. For countless hours Israeli pilots trained to fly in full radio silence at low altitude. Nothing was left to chance. Numerous experiments were made in order to reach the conclusion that the best way to shut down Egyptian airfields would be to bomb runways first and planes only later. Each Israeli bomber was loaded with special bombs, purposely designed to explode after being dropped at low altitude. Various scenarios for the attack were run through a computer no less than 1,500 times, accurately predicting that at least 10 percent of Israeli aircraft would not make it back.

On the morning of June 5, two Israeli Votour planes flew at high altitude through the Sinai sky, carrying devices whose electronic signals suppressed the activity of the Soviet-made SA-2 missiles and jammed Soviet-made radar systems. Egyptian radar operators were aghast as that morning their screens went blank. Reports from Egypt also claim that on that day the Bedouin, who had been on the Israeli intelligence’s payroll, used special electronic equipment to jam radio communications between Egyptian land forces in Sinai and headquarters in Cairo. The giant military force that Amer had so painstakingly created in the desert lost its nerve system in the first hours of the war.

The Israeli air attack went smoothly and Egyptian losses were considerable: 286 out of 420 Egyptian aircraft were destroyed. After smashing the Egyptian Air Force to pieces, the IAF went ahead and did the same to the Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi air forces. Weizman, who was in the pit when it all happened, called his wife and declared triumphantly: “We won the war!” Reuma responded: “Ezer, have you gone insane? At 10 a.m. you finished the war?!” Weizman was partially right: the IAF performed magnificently in the first hours of the campaign and Israel did go on to win the war. Coincidence, however, does not equal causation. Fighting the IDF without air cover was certainly a major handicap for Arab armies, but had they stood their ground, they could have halted the onslaught of Israeli ground troops. Despite the looming presence of Israeli aircraft, Arab armies could move forces by night, unmolested. Israeli ground forces, wary of being hit by friendly fire, preferred that Israeli aircraft attack the rear area of the front rather than the main battle zones. As it was, the most decisive land battles on the Sinai and West Bank fronts were won by Israeli land forces in the first twenty-four hours of the war while Israeli planes were busy achieving air superiority.


A prime example of a skirmish won without air support was the battle of Abu-Ageila, which was fought during the first night of the war. For the Israeli army, everything was at stake. First was the need to penetrate the Egyptian defense line. This task was made easier thanks to an Israeli deception plan and Nasser’s and Amer’s intervention. In the tense ten days that preceded the war, the two armies had been watching each other through binoculars and conducting reconnaissance flights. The Egyptians shadowed the Israelis. They responded to any change in Israeli redeployment with a shift of their own troops. If the Israelis augmented their presence in the northern Negev, the Egyptians assumed that the Israelis would invade from that direction and moved more tanks to northern Sinai. The Israelis took advantage of that and launched Operation “Red Tongue.” Two transport planes, four or five lorries that shifted position, and several chatty soldiers who talked on the radio all the time simulated the movement of a full division to the southern Negev. They were able to fool the Jordanian and Egyptian intelligence services: the Jordanians even claimed that they witnessed the movement of 500 lorries in the direction of Eilat. The success of “Red Tongue” was impressive. On May 25, the Egyptians had positioned 663 tanks along the northern and central axis of Sinai through which the IDF planned to invade. By June 4, the Egyptians deployed only 404 tanks along these routes. While on May 25 there were only 35 tanks along the southern axis of Sinai, by June 4 there were 397 tanks.

But the fatal shift of troops to the southern axis – where they were of little use once the invasion was underway – can only partly be credited to Israeli acumen. Amer sent reinforcements to the southern axis also because he had not relinquished his plan to attack Eilat. He pushed forward units to positions by the border so they would be available for offensive operations. Nasser had also intervened in this debate on May 25 by insisting that the loss of Gaza would be harmful to Egypt’s prestige. Gaza was predominantly populated by Palestinians, explained Nasser, and if Israel conquered that territory it would seem that Egypt was not loyal to the Palestinian cause. The defense force at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser said, also needed to be fortified. The end result of that debate was that more troops were sent to Gaza and Sharm al-Sheikh.

As a result of all these changes, the “Qaher” (Arabic for conqueror) plan became disorderly. This elaborate defense plan devised by Soviet advisers was hollowed out. The third line of defense at the passes was thinned down to four battalions of reserve soldiers who were inexperienced in fighting. Brigades that should have been in the second line of defense were pushed forward to the first defense line, which now stretched a further 100 kilometers. The Egyptian army simply did not have enough troops to man the full length of the front and empty spaces were opened up along the border. The role of the first line of defense, according to the “Qaher” plan, was to blunt Israel’s attack. Then, units in the second line of defense were to launch a counter-offensive and wipe out the enemy. As things stood in early June, too many brigades were located in areas that were far away from the main roads in Sinai and were therefore unable to stop the advance of Israeli forces. There were not enough brigades in the second line of defense to mount counter-offensives. If the Israelis broke through the first line of defense, the road to Suez would lie open. Um-Katef, overlooking the road to Ismailia, was a prime location to target. But there was another reason to strike at Abu-Ageila: namely, the aspiration to envelop and annihilate the Egyptian army. The Egyptian compound controlled one of the shortest routes to the passes; blocking them was a key element in the annihilation plan. Arriving there before the Egyptian brigades were able to escape would be crucial.

The battle at Abu-Ageila was Ariel Sharon’s brainchild. General headquarters wanted to avoid a frontal attack on the most heavily fortified compound in Sinai. But Sharon insisted. He lobbied aggressively, as only he could, to attack along this route and demanded enough troops to carry out the mission. Sharon’s division was strengthened with forces belonging to Major General Avraham Yoffe, commander of the 31st Brigade, who was more passive. Sharon knew everything about the compound. The painstaking efforts of Israeli intelligence services to collect every morsel of information on enemy fortifications, and the numerous reconnaissance flights flown by the IAF planes over Sinai, had paid off. Sharon knew the compound so well that he was able to build a small-scale model of it. Abu-Ageila was what the Romans called pars pro toto – a part representing the whole. It was basically a miniature version of the “Qaher” plan, with three consecutive lines of trenches that were dug into the slopes of a ridge. The trenches were manned by a 16,000-strong infantry brigade. In the rear was an 87-gun artillery battalion which was fortified by 83 tanks. In the front there was a 4 kilometer-long strip strewn with mines and barbed wire. Even before the invading force reached that strip it would have to deal with further outposts and three smaller compounds at the rear. Both flanks of the rear were surrounded by two seemingly impassable terrains: one mountainous, the other consisting of treacherous dunes. Impregnable? Not for Sharon.

Israeli generals identified the key weakness of the Soviet doctrine as practiced by Arab armies: it made troops static. The best way to deal with these formidable fortifications was to attack them from the rear and to outflank them. Sharon also planned to attack by night to use darkness as another element of surprise. Both Rabin and Gavish asked Sharon to wait until early light so that the IAF could soften the area with massive bombing, but Sharon was so confident that he declined. Besides, waiting the night meant giving the enemy a chance to escape, and Sharon would have none of that.

As early as the afternoon of the 5th, an infantry brigade was ordered to start marching 15 kilometers over the dunes in order to reach their marked position by nightfall. Their mission was to attack Egyptian infantry in the trenches, and it was their actions that would decide the fate of the battle. Israeli infantry carried stick lights with them so they would not be hit in the dark by friendly fire. The enemy’s artillery battalion was to be neutralized by an airborne attack by paratroopers. A battalion of Centurion tanks was to complete a deep maneuver in the northwest and end by attacking Egyptian cavalry from the rear. Another attack was to commence from the front by Sherman tanks, but only as a deception.

At 10 p.m. Sharon told his artillery officer: “let the ground tremble.” “It will tremble alright,” said Yaacov Aknin. Within twenty minutes, 6,000 shells fell on the compound. Sharon was pleased. “This is hellfire,” he appreciatively remarked to Aknin. “I’ve never seen such an inferno.” An Egyptian officer caught in the midst of it all was interrogated after the battle and described it as “like being enveloped by a snake of fire.” Then all of Sharon’s forces attacked from all directions. There was one moment of panic when the Centurion tanks were held up by a minefield. Combat engineers kneeled down and plucked mines out of the ground with their bare hands as if harvesting potatoes. Within half an hour, the tanks could break through. By dawn the battle was winding down, and Yoffe’s brigade could pass through on the Ismailia road.


Sometime in the afternoon of June 6, the second day of the war, Abd al-Hakim Amer made the decision that sealed its fate. At this stage the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed and the first line of defense had been breached. But the majority of Amer’s troops were yet to see a fight, including three brigades and two mechanized divisions. Amer could have pulled his troops from southern Sinai and had them regroup by the passes to stop the IDF from advancing. When Stalin found himself in a similar situation in the summer of 1941 he gave his troops a simple order that considerably slowed the advance of the German army: “Not a step back.” Anyone who dared to retreat was shot by a firing squad. The Man of Steel was willing to shed the blood of millions of Red Army soldiers to buy precious time. Then again, the Red Army was not the only source of his power: Stalin had the party, the NKVD, and the heavy industry lobby at his side. Amer, though, was nothing without his army, especially his officers, who were not simply military men; Amer was their patron and they were his clients. Without them, Amer was a Samson shorn. To sacrifice them for the sake of “Egypt” would simply mean that, immediately after Egypt’s defeat, Nasser would make Amer the scapegoat and finally get rid of him (as indeed happened). To survive politically, Amer had to bring his officers back.

In his memoirs, Fawzi – who was the chief of staff, and bore at least some of the responsibility – chose to describe Amer as suffering a mental meltdown, thus laying the blame squarely on his superior. Yet, in retrospect, Amer was simply a very political general. When he discovered, on the morning of June 5, that the pilot of his plane was flying him back to Cairo instead of landing him in Sinai, Amer suspected he was the victim of a plot. The onset of the war was far from his mind: Amer’s attention was completely devoted to political intrigue.

Further, Amer had the past in his rearview mirror, not the future. And in the past – in 1956, to be exact – Nasser and Amer had given the Egyptian army the order to beat a hasty retreat, which had meant that most of the troops returned to the Suez Canal’s western bank unscathed. In popular memory this came to be seen as an Egyptian Dunkirk. But there was one big difference between 1956 and 1967. Then, the Israelis wanted the Egyptians to escape and focused instead on taking territory. Now, the Israelis had no intention of letting the Egyptian soldiers slip away. When Amer made his decision, he did not know that.

But that was part of the problem. There was an asymmetry of knowledge on the level of command between the Israelis and Arabs. For instance, Sharon knew everything about the Abu-Ageila compound, while the Egyptian commander, Major General Sadi Nagib, had no clue as to how the Israeli attack would unfold. Israeli intelligence services were busy spying on the Arabs; Arab intelligence services were busy spying on their citizens and on each other. Israeli pilots on the morning of June 5 knew every last detail about the airfields they bombed, while all their counterparts had were aerial photos from 1948. Israel had invested millions of dollars in the years that preceded the war to create a special commando unit – Sayeret Matkal – whose main role was to attach bugging devices to telephone lines in Lebanon, Syria, and Sinai. And Israeli intelligence had at least two high-level spies working inside Damascus and Cairo. Elie Cohen and Wolfgang Lutz arrived at the Syrian and Egyptian capitals, respectively, between 1960 and 1961. Thanks to lavish funding from the Mossad, they hobnobbed with the political and military elite. Up to their capture in 1965 both were able to send back top-drawer information about political and military affairs. Their reports painted a picture of a political elite too busy with petty corruption to prepare efficiently for war. In 1961, Lutz had a frank talk with Egyptian General Abd al-Salam Suleiman. Drunk on whisky, Suleiman offered an assessment of Egypt’s armed forces that proved prescient:

We [in Egypt] have enough military equipment to conquer the whole Middle East, but equipment isn’t everything. The army right now – in terms of training, military competence, and logistics – will not be able to win a battle against a fart in a paper bag . . . the trouble is that Gamal [Abd al-Nasser] and the Marshal [Abd al-Hakim Amer], together with the other generals . . . are rejoicing in the new equipment – the new Russian aircraft and tanks – like a bunch of kids with a new football. But the best ball ain’t worth a damn thing if you don’t know how to kick it.


Israeli reconnaissance forces from the “Shaked” unit in Sinai during the war.

Israeli paratroopers flush out Jordanian soldiers from trenches during the Battle of Ammunition Hill.

Most Egyptian and Israeli generals agree that had Amer decided to fight until the last bullet, the war would have ended differently. Protracted land warfare would have developed in the desert. The Israelis would have conquered part of Sinai but not the whole of it. Then a UN-sanctioned ceasefire would have been imposed. The Israelis might have been more cautious in the West Bank, biting off chunks of territory in the environs of Jerusalem. With fierce fighting still going on in Sinai, Israel would not have dared to start a campaign to take the Golan Heights.

But none of these things happened, because in the afternoon of June 6 Amer gave Fawzi a categorical order to retreat from Sinai within one night. Troops were to grab their personal weapons and flee. What increased the confusion and chaos still further was that the order was not reported in an orderly manner. Operations branch distorted what Amer said and reported that a retreat was to take place within three nights. Then it was amended to two. Different units heard different versions of the order at different times. For this reason some units fell apart while others continued to fight. On top of it all, Amer contacted his favorite officers and encouraged them to hop on a vehicle and rush back to Cairo. A young Egyptian officer described accurately what happened to the troops on the third day of the war as a result of Amer’s order: “Everyone lost their heads . . . It was a massacre, a disaster. Israel never would have achieved a quarter of its victory if not for the confusion and chaos.”


On the third day of the war, June 7, Israeli brigades conducted a frantic race against time to reach the passes before Egyptian units got there. The convoys of Israeli and Egyptian troops sped down the roads shoulder-to-shoulder and sometimes it was hard to tell which was which. Whenever possible, Israeli aircraft strafed and bombed Egyptian convoys trying to escape. The IAF had a special routine to ensure the lethality of its attacks. Aircraft would make one sortie over the convoy to assess its size and speed. In the second sortie, Israeli planes would make sure that they were bombing the head of the column to stop the movement of the whole convoy. Then they would drop napalm bombs on the vehicles. Egyptian tanks and lorries caught fire and black smoke filled the sky.

Finally, in the late afternoon, an Israeli cavalry battalion was able to reach the Mitla Pass and assume position on the slopes. As night was falling, the soldiers decided to set a lorry on fire to supply some light. Suddenly they realized that a long Egyptian column – three Egyptian divisions, totaling more than 30,000 men – was moving toward them and the Canal, trying to escape. The Israelis charged their cannon and did not stop firing until dawn broke. Another major annihilation battle took place the next day when 6th Armored Division tried to escape westwards from the south. Sharon, leading the forces of 38th Division, laid an ambush at the Nakhal oasis. The forces opened fire on the retreating Egyptians, blowing up 70 tanks and 400 lorries and killing about 1,000 Egyptians. The stench of burning bodies filled the air. At 2 p.m. Sharon could proudly report to Gavish: “We have finished off an enemy brigade . . . The enemy was totally annihilated. It’s an unusual scene. I would urge you to come and see.”

The desire to wipe out Nasser’s army was not confined to Dayan or Sharon. It percolated down to the lower echelons. A week before the war, Colonel Shmuel Gorodish, commander of 7th Armored Brigade, gave a speech before his soldiers in which he explained that “Nasser wants to annihilate us. We should therefore annihilate him . . . Do not waste cannon shells on [Egyptian] infantry! Run over them wherever they are. Kill, kill the enemy. We will not repeat the mistakes of [the 1956] Sinai [campaign], when we did not run over them.” This was something that Yael, Dayan’s daughter, who was embedded with Sharon’s division as a journalist and witnessed the battle of Abu-Ageila, also recognized:

now we were to destroy enemy forces wherever they were – another carrier, another tank, another company. An unpleasant task, perhaps, but a preventive one. Eleven years ago we were in this area and the enemy was defeated rather than fully destroyed. This time we had to ensure maximal destruction.

As one Israeli reserve corporal wrote in his diary on the third day of the war: “There’s nothing to worry. The sky is clear. The Egyptians are running toward the [Suez] canal. [We] don’t let them. [We] want to annihilate them.” Another wrote to his girlfriend: “We have turned the Sinai peninsula into a charnel house, into one big cemetery. People without weapons, who raise their hands [to surrender], are shot despite the orders . . . I saw so many instances of murder that I can no longer cry.” There were 100,000 Egyptian soldiers and officers in Sinai when the IDF began its campaign; by the end of it, 10,000 of them had been killed. One in ten Egyptians who had crossed the Suez Canal in mid-May 1967 lay dead at the war’s end.


Israel’s central command was at a disadvantage in the beginning of the campaign, as most of the IDF’s brigades were in the south. Thanks to the rapid disintegration of the Egyptian army, the southern command could let central command use some of its forces, especially Motta Gur’s paratroopers brigade. The Israelis thus reached parity with the Jordanians, with both sides commanding 56,000 troops.

What played into the hands of the Israelis was King Hussein’s decision to appoint a foreign officer, Egyptian General Abd al-Munim Riad, as commander of the Jordanian army. On the opening morning of the war, Eshkol wrote a letter to Hussein urging him to sit out the fight. For Hussein, it was too late: he was no longer in command of his troops. As the war started in the south, the Jordanian army launched its weapons from all its positions in Jerusalem. Its Long Tom gunners opened fire on Tel Aviv (although most of the shells landed in the sea). In the afternoon Jordanian troops entered the UN compound in Jerusalem at Jabel Mukaber. It was a reckless move that played right into the hands of the hawks in Israel. Dayan used Riad’s orders to convince Eshkol to authorize two attacks that would kick off the campaign to conquer the West Bank: one in Jenin, and the other in the environs of Jerusalem.

What made matters worse conflict that Riad conducted the war according to Egyptian interests. As the old guard in the Jordanian army knew, their best chance was to concentrate troops around Jerusalem and try to encircle the Jewish part of the town in order to hold it to ransom. Instead, Riad ordered Jordanian troops to deploy in the southern areas of the West Bank in expectation of an Egyptian attack on the Negev. Jordanian troops were supposed to complete a pincer movement that would cut off the southern Negev. But the Egyptian attack on the Negev never happened. Instead, this move threw the north and center of the West Bank open to Israeli attacks in Jenin and Latron. One of the veteran Bedouin officers threw down his kafiyah (a headscarf) in despair after seeing how clueless Riad was in directing the war.

By the second day of the conflict, the IDF was able to encircle Jerusalem and invade deeper into the West Bank. Inside the city, secured in their trenches and positions, Jordanian soldiers fought bravely, giving as much as they got. The Israelis were at a disadvantage here, as they dared not call in the IAF for fear of destroying holy sites. However, supplies of ammunition could not get through to the Jordanian forces and little by little the Israelis wore them down. By midday on June 6, the IDF had conquered the whole of Jerusalem except the Old City. Elsewhere, the Jordanians fared even worse, losing all key tank battles in which they engaged. When they tried to transfer their troops from the south of the West Bank to the Jerusalem area, the IAF strafed and bombed them. As with the Egyptians, the Jordanians panicked too soon. In the morning of the second day of fighting, Riad warned Hussein that “If we don’t decide within the next 24 hours, you can kiss your army and all of Jordan good-bye!” The claim was exaggerated. Hussein had enough troops to delay Israeli advances until the UN imposed a ceasefire. But, just like Amer, King Hussein was nothing without his army. Its annihilation would spell the downfall of his monarchy.

At this point, Hussein decided upon a desperate course of action: he tried to offer a ceasefire. This could have been an opportunity for Israel to avoid having to conquer the West Bank, with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in it. At that time, Dayan was insisting that Israel had to conquer the West Bank in order to bring about the fall of Jerusalem. In retrospect, this was not the case: Israel could have destroyed the annoying Long Tom cannon, whose shells reached the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Zahala, in which most senior officers resided, by bombing it from the air, and conquered Jerusalem without taking over the whole of the West Bank. Yet, Narkiss and other senior commanders had been dreaming of and planning for that goal for such a long time. Although in the first hours of the war central command did not believe that the West Bank could be taken in this round of hostilities, the plans were in place and the circumstances were propitious: an accommodating minister of defense; a hawkish cabinet now dominated by Dayan, Begin, and Allon; and a king careless enough to give Israel a perfect pretext. Israel effectively turned down Hussein’s proposal for a ceasefire. Dayan was most resolute in his opposition, telling Rabin: “First we finish the work he [Hussein] imposed on us, then we’ll send him an appropriate reply.”

By noon the next day, Motta Gur’s paratroopers were able to enter the Old City and reach the Western Wall. Lior called central command asking whether Eshkol would be able to come and make a special announcement. He was told that it would be unsafe as there were still Jordanian snipers lurking around. At about the same time, Dayan, accompanied by Narkiss and Rabin, entered Jerusalem through the Lions’ Gate and headed toward the Western Wall. Dayan, with his distinctive talent for public relations, had made sure that a gaggle of reporters and photographers accompanied his arrival at the Old City.

As in 1956, Dayan’s ability to control his troops was limited: Gaza was taken on the first day of the war despite his instructions not to waste men on that mission, and over the next two days IDF forces advanced in Sinai up to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal despite Dayan’s explicit order not to head there. But his ability to control the PR machine was unmatched. An iconic photo was taken documenting the three conquistadors – Dayan, Narkiss, and Rabin – marching side by side through the gate. Narkiss and Rabin were in uniform, of course. But so was Dayan. Since May 23, a uniform and helmet had accompanied him everywhere, even after he had become minister of defense. The picture of the three generals entering the old city symbolized where power lay in those days. It was the generals’ war, and they had won it. At the Western Wall Dayan declared: “we have reunited the city, the capital of Israel, never to part it again.” The paratroopers cried, ultra-Orthodox Jews danced. It was all so moving. Except for Eshkol, who sat frowning in his office. He visited the Western Wall the next day and made an anodyne speech. This event drew far less attention.

The Heights

For four years, Syria had been the heart of the problem. It was unstable, and it spread its instability across the region. Its proclamations of its intentions to divert the waters of the Jordan River and the help it provided to Fatah units played into the hands of the hawks in Israel and embarrassed the doves in the Arab world. It would be wrong to suggest that the Syrians were sitting idly by, but they had not pulled out all the stops to help their Arab brothers. Syria tried to launch an offensive from the Golan Heights on the morning of the second day of the war. But its efforts in that field proved pathetic.

The Syrian attack, planned by Soviet advisers, was code-named Operation “Nasser” (victory). There was a considerable disparity between the operation’s promising name and its actual implementation. As in Egypt, the doctrine of the Syrian army was defensive. Syrian troops were trained to defend the Golan Heights. Although there had been planning for offensive operations, a drill to acquaint officers and soldiers with how to mount an attack never took place. As in Egypt, the Soviets took care to supply the Syrian army with defensive weapons and helped them build massive fortifications. Syria’s high command held little esteem for the professional abilities of its officers and did not believe Syria could emerge victorious should it launch an offensive against Israel.

A diversionary attack on the kibbutzim in the Galilee on June 6 was repulsed by groups of Israeli reserve soldiers, pensioners, and high-school students. Meanwhile, three Syrian brigades prepared for a major offensive that would begin with crossing the Jordan River and end in the Israeli city of Safad, about 20 kilometers west of the Israeli–Syrian border. Incredibly, it was at that moment that commanders of the brigades found out that their tanks were too wide to pass over the bridges. Other units that were to participate stayed in their camps and refused to leave. Accurate hits by Israeli artillery and one sortie by Israeli bombers was enough to convince Syria’s high command to order a withdrawal. Fifty-one Syrians were killed during Operation “Nasser.” After this ignominious failure, Syrian military headquarters did not try their luck again, other than to bomb nearby Jewish settlements the next morning.

David “Dado” Elazar, the commander of the northern front, continuously lobbied for permission to start activating the “Makevet” plan. Even before the beginning of the war, Dado had met with Allon and promised him that not only would he be able to break through the Syrians’ fortified positions on the Golan Heights, but he was certain he would be able to reach Damascus. Allon tried to cool the enthusiasm of his young protégé and told him that aiming for the Syrian capital was too much. On June 7, the third day of the war, Dado had secured permission to start a limited offensive but cloudy skies, which precluded air support, and the fact that two brigades that had been promised by general headquarters had failed to materialize, made him hesitate. He decided to postpone the attack until the next day – but then it transpired that Moshe Dayan was opposed. The minister of defense supported the war of annihilation in the south and the conquests in the east, but he could live with letting Syria emerge from the war unscathed. He had little sympathy for the settlers in the north: they never supported Dayan or Rafi anyway.

Angry, Dado took a helicopter to Tel Aviv to plead his case with the prime minister. Talking to Eshkol, it quickly became clear to Dado that he was preaching to the converted. The matter, however, would have to go before cabinet. For some reason, the only one manning the phones in Eshkol’s office that day was his wife, Miriam; perhaps the other secretaries needed a rest. Dado chatted with her about his predicament on his way out. Miriam tried to encourage him: “Look, I have a birthday soon and I want the Banias [River, which runs through the Heights] as a birthday present.” Dado smiled. “Miriam, I’ll do everything to make that happen but you should work for it too.”

The cabinet convened that night to discuss whether to authorize Dado’s request. Eshkol resolved that he too could be as hawkish as Dayan, and embraced the cause of the kibbutzim. To embarrass Dayan, Eshkol permitted representatives of the kibbutzim to enter the cabinet meeting and lobby for the attack on the Golan – something not done before or since. Years later, Dayan claimed that when those settlers entered the room, he could see the lust for land on their faces. Most of the ministers were for the Golan campaign. It simply seemed improbable to them that the Syrians, who did so much to destabilize the Middle East, should emerge from this war unpunished. But Dayan fought like a lion. He warned the ministers that the Soviet Union would react harshly to an attack on Syria. A more reasonable course of action would therefore be to move the settlers 10 or even 20 kilometers from the border. Dayan’s prestige was such that even though he was in the minority, the cabinet decided not to venture into the Golan Heights – a decision that effectively ended the war, as the fighting on all the other fronts had already died down.


Dado was informed of the outcome, and he went to bed gloomy and depressed. In fact almost all the protagonists – Eshkol, Rabin, Allon, and Begin – retired for the night; as far as they were concerned, the war was over. But one man could not sleep. At about 6 a.m., Dayan’s assistant entered the pit and asked that the ops room be prepared for the arrival of the minister of defense. “I thought he was kidding,” recalled one of the officers in the room. He was not. Tormented by his own self-doubt, Dayan entered the ops room. An officer told him there was evidence to suggest that the Syrians were deserting their fortifications and retreating. Restless, Dayan started poking around the intelligence tray. He spied a translated telegram from Nasser to the Syrian president recommending that he immediately accept a proposal for a ceasefire to save the Syrian army. There was also an aerial photograph which showed that the bases around Quneitra, the only city on the Heights, were empty – though there was no way of knowing whether that was because all the troops had withdrawn to Damascus or because they had all advanced to the front. The intelligence memo attached to the aerial photograph, written by analyst Elie Weisbrot, nevertheless claimed that this was proof that the Syrian army on the Golan Heights was retreating. The end of the memo was also highly unusual: “It is unclear,” Weisbrot wrote, “if such a situation would happen again.” That was not a professional but a political assertion.

Yariv had seen the memo before it went out. Yariv was certainly for taking the Golan. He, Rabin, and Dado had been waiting for the right opportunity for years; it is just that he was not sure that what Weisbrot wrote was true. “Elie, are you certain that the Syrian army is ‘collapsing’?” an incredulous Yariv had asked Weisbrot. Regardless, Yariv let the memo be distributed with Weisbrot’s unorthodox comments in it.

Dayan, for whom Weisbrot’s memo had really been written, decided that this was incontrovertible proof that the Syrian army was collapsing. Later, Dayan confessed that this was simply a pretext. “I capitulated,” he admitted. He did not want to bear the sole responsibility for not having conquered the Heights. Like Rabin and Eshkol, Dayan, the tough and cunning general, succumbed to the pressure of the generals–settlers coalition. At 7 a.m., without consulting anyone else, Dayan called the ops room at northern command. Bewildered, shirtless, and half-naked, Dado ran to the phone. “Dado, can you attack?” asked Dayan. “I can attack immediately,” replied Dado. “Then attack,” said Dayan. The minister of defense tried to explain that the Syrian army was falling apart but Dado cut him short: “I don’t know if it’s collapsing or not. It doesn’t matter. We are attacking. Thank you very much.” Dado hung up the phone and yelled: “They will not stop me now!”

In the following two days the Israeli attack on the Golan Heights gathered pace. With warfare on the other fronts settled, all the might of the IDF was turned on the 50,000 or so Syrian soldiers and officers locked in their fortresses upon the mountain. At the start of the Six-Day War, Dado had only one infantry brigade and one armored brigade under his command. Following the end of hostilities on the West Bank, three armored brigades and two infantry brigades were sent by the General Staff to the northern front. On the eve of the Golan offensive, Dado had at his disposal 30,000 men and 500 tanks. Moreover, the IAF had no other business to attend to other than helping to ensure the success of the Golan campaign. Dado had asked Hod to slam everything he had into the Golan and Hod complied. In four hours, the IAF made 300 sorties over the Heights, dropping no less than 400 bombs. Clouds mushroomed over the land, gray from the napalm bombs and black from the regular ones. A Syrian officer in the 12th Brigade reported fifty-two dead, eighty injured, and six missing. The military hospital in Quneitra was a mess. It quickly filled up with casualties with napalm burns.

Dado’s forces proceeded to use the tried-and-true methods of the Israeli doctrine, driving tanks through impassable terrain and attacking Syrian compounds from their rear or flanks. The fighting in the first twenty-four hours of the campaign was intense and bloody. As it turned out, Dayan was wrong: the Syrian army was not collapsing – yet; it was fighting back. Also contrary to expectations, the Syrians did not send their best units to the front. The ones that were considered the most effective and loyal, like the 70th Brigade, which was equipped with the sturdy T-54 and T-55 tanks, were retained near the capital to keep the Baath regime safe from its internal enemies. All in all, three of the best brigades in the Syrian army – two armored and one mechanized – were camped near Damascus, the troops being used to secure the party’s headquarters, as well as the TV and radio stations. Even at this point, the regime feared its internal enemies more than it feared its Israeli foe. Thus, units considered less loyal, such as the ones manned by Druze soldiers, were sent to the front. In the Zaura and Ein-Fit outposts, Alawite soldiers suspected the Druze of delivering secret information to the enemy and, in retribution, they tied up Druze soldiers outside the trenches, where they were exposed to Israeli bombing. “Die at the hands of your masters!” the Alawites shouted at their victims.

Soon the Syrian forces in the Golan began to disintegrate under the weight of the formidable Israeli war machine. Troops on the Golan Heights suffered from low morale before the war had even started. The regime made sure to transfer families of Alawite Baath members from the front to the Damascus area. Hundreds of trucks were used for this purpose while the troops at the front were having serious trouble with logistics. When non-Alawites turned to the local governor and asked to be evacuated from the Quneitra area as well, he refused their request and threatened them with execution. Such behavior inflamed the hatred between Alawites and non-Alawites.

Despite orders by Syria’s high command to shoot anyone who tried to retreat, on the evening of June 8 commanders of first-line units were no longer certain that headquarters was determined to hold the line. Rumors started spreading about a retreat order that had already been given. Baathist senior officers received an invitation to come to an urgent party meeting in Damascus: they took that as a coded message that allowed them to retreat. Colonel Ahmed al-Mir, commander of the Golan front, left his headquarters at Quneitra on the back of a donkey, because he was worried that if he used a military vehicle Israeli planes would spot and strafe him. When officers called on regional headquarters at Quneitra and found that it was empty, they took that as permission to flee.

While rear units withdrew, front-line troops were cut off, unaware that the regime had deserted them. They discovered they were fighting alone only on June 9, the first day of fighting on the Golan. Some of these units fought bravely that day and Israeli ground forces were able to advance no more than 13 kilometers along an 8-kilometer front. Nevertheless, on the night of June 9–10, Syrian soldiers and officers retreated under cover of darkness, mostly from the northern and central Golan, where the bloodiest battles of the previous days had taken place.

Colonel Izzat Jadid’s story is illustrative of that time. He commanded the 44th Armored Brigade that was equipped with T-54 tanks, which Syrian officers considered superior to the Israeli Sherman and Patton tanks. On June 9, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Awad Bar gave Izzat an order to move his brigade to the front line during the night and launch a counter-offensive on the morning of the 10th. Darkness should have helped the tanks of the 44th to redeploy without fear of the marauding Israeli planes. Instead of obeying, Izzat contacted his powerful cousin and Syrian strongman, Salah Jadid, and told him he was afraid that Bar would court-marshal him for disobedience. Salah promised to protect Izzat. As a result, on the night during which the 44th was supposed to drive to the front, it retreated to Damascus.

The retreat of army units occurred amid a broader civilian flight. On June 10, tens of thousands of people, both civilians and soldiers, were attempting to flee from the Golan. As in Sinai, the conceit of the General Staff had led to the transfer of second-line units to the first line of defense in preparation for the attack on Israel that failed miserably on the second day of the war. Syrian General Staff failed to order troops to move back to man the second line of defense. The result was that once the first line had disintegrated, there was nothing to stop the Israelis from rolling forward to Damascus.

This is precisely what Syria’s high command believed that the IDF wanted to do on the morning of June 10, the last day of the war. The fear of Israel’s military prowess was now considerable. The Syrians knew they were fighting an army that had already chewed up the Jordanian and Egyptian forces and had conquered Sinai and the West Bank in a mere four days. Fear of an Israeli conquest of Damascus was so great that the central bank, the archives of the secret services, and Syria’s foreign currency and gold reserves were hurriedly evacuated from Damascus to northern Syria under heavy security. In these circumstances, it made more sense to pull units away from the front in order to make a last-ditch effort to defend the capital. As in Sinai, the order to withdraw was given in a haphazard manner, which led to a loss of faith in the high command.

In the early morning, observers in Quneitra erroneously identified a Syrian battalion as an Israeli force that had breached the city’s defenses. (At that point, the Israelis were still four hours away.) At 8.30 a.m. Radio Damascus was ordered by the regime to announce that the Israelis had taken Quneitra. At 11 a.m. Syrian high command realized that they had made a mistake and Radio Damascus aired a correction, but it was far too late to have any effect. Syrian soldiers were already running away. Front-line desertion turned into a rout.

At around the same time as the mistaken message was broadcast, units in the southern Golan, yet to see any major battle, were given orders to withdraw. The officers drove along the road connecting the trenches and called out to the soldiers to take their personal weapons and leave. They were to go on foot up to the village of Hital and launch a counter-offensive from there.

Instead, the soldiers preferred to cross the border and flee to Jordan. The same thing happened in the central area of the front. A retreat order was given at 8.15 a.m., but the chaotic flight from front-line positions preceded the order by two hours. The first to flee were the senior officers, then the junior ones. Finally, the soldiers took off. Just as in Sinai, any attempt to conduct an orderly withdrawal failed. The Syrian General Staff was receiving partial and mostly unreliable reports from front-line units and therefore could not monitor their movements. The Israeli war machine was moving too fast and the generals in Damascus were too slow in responding.

As in Sinai, the Israelis knew everything about the Syrian positions: their size, location, structure, the type of weapons that were installed, and the number of troops in each position. Information was collected using agents, observations, and reconnaissance flights. Conversely, the Syrians, in the words of the Soviet advisers who were embedded in the Syrian army, “had zero intelligence on their enemy.” As in Sinai, the first priority of the Baath regime was to save its own neck. Preserving the Golan was a secondary issue. Doubtless, Minister of Defense Assad and Chief of Staff Ahmed Sawidani were thinking about the following day. Sawidani commanded the loyalty of the ground forces, and Assad those of the air force. Neither could afford to sacrifice his troops or pilots: they would be needed for the internal battle that was bound to follow the defeat. Thus, because of the internal rivalries at the top, the Syrian front line in the Golan had crumbled. The speed at which that happened explains the low number of casualties among the Syrian troops: only 450 out of 50,000 were killed.

The Superpower Moment

The road to Damascus was now clear. The only thing the Syrians could do was to call on their Soviet patrons and cry for help. On the last day of the war, at 7.30 a.m., the hotline teletype at the White House started ticking a threatening telegram from Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin: if the Israeli assault did not cease, the Soviet Union would sanction all measures, including military.

In fact, there was a fierce debate going on in the Kremlin as to what to do. Nikolai Yegorychev, then head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party, recalled that when he had called Brezhnev’s office sometime during the Six-Day War, he heard in the background a stormy debate in which Kosygin was shouting: “And what if they use atomic bombs against us? Is it worth it?” According to another report, Kosygin and Gromyko squared off with Grechko and Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, when Andropov and Grechko pushed for involving Soviet units in the war by landing a force on the shores of Sinai. During the war itself, Soviet units received conflicting orders. For example, the Soviet navy in the Mediterranean was given an order to prepare for landing on the Israeli coast, followed by another order rescinding it. Soviet pilots in airfields in the proximity of the Middle East also recalled sitting in their cockpits after the hostilities had started and receiving contradictory orders from Moscow. In each case, however, the final order given by the Kremlin was to avoid any involvement in the June 1967 war.

‘Revolutionary War’ beneath the Nuclear Shield I

Operation Linebacker II

‘Operation Linebacker’, as titled by President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, lasted from May to October 1972, and would be the most massive bombing campaign in the history of air warfare. In six months, the United States dropped almost 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, more than five times what the Allies had dropped on Germany during the Second World War. Twenty-six million bombs shredded the soil of the country, which at the time had between 35 and 40 million inhabitants. The scale of human losses is impossible to assess precisely. On the lowest estimates these were up to 1.3 million, while others estimate the number of victims among Vietnamese combatants at 1 million, out of a total of 2 million killed and 4 million wounded. It is likewise impossible to know how many civilians perished, but one thing is sure: the proportion of civilian victims was particularly high, between 46 and 66 per cent.

Operation ‘Linebacker II’, also called the ‘Christmas bombings’, took place from 18 to 29 December 1972. Its express aim was to strike the morale of the civilian populations of Hanoi and Haiphong – only 12 per cent of the attacks aimed at military targets. ‘Now there’s nothing more to lose. Nothing. We’ll hit them, bomb them, exterminate them!’ we hear Nixon shout in the Oval Office.4 This political line decided in the White House was soon translated into military terms. The air force general Curtis LeMay had long argued for a still more massive use of bombing: ‘My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age with airpower or naval power – not with ground forces.’

The Vietnam war was particularly deadly, as it fell at the intersection of two genealogical lines of twentieth-century warfare: ‘asymmetrical’ conflict in the tradition of colonial wars, with their potentially limitless violence; and conflict overdetermined by the specific global configuration of the Cold War. The Vietnamese defined their struggle as one of ‘national liberation’, conceiving it after the European model of the construction of a nation state. As for the United States, they saw the anticolonial aspiration to self-determination as a feint designed to camouflage Soviet and Chinese expansionism: behind the Viet Cong stood the Kremlin with its tanks and missiles. The guerrillas were part of the Communist bloc, embodied by a state that was itself perceived as monolithic.

In sum, there was an odd combination of symmetry and asymmetry in the perceptions of the two adversaries, and the Vietnam War combined the worst of two traditions: that of total war between nation states, and that of the ‘small war’ of insurrectionary or colonial type. These contradictory tendencies – statization and fragmentation – continue to characterize the conflicts that haunt us today. Moreover, the importance of this war for the development of the US army’s strategic doctrine cannot be overstated. For all these reasons, the Vietnam War constitutes a fundamental link in the genealogy of twentieth-century warfare.

The US military leaders drew a conclusion from the Second World War that was both deeply rooted and mistaken: according to them, aviation had been the key agent of victory. The reasons for this misinterpretation are many, and partly connected with a situation of inter-service rivalry, in which a very large share of the defence budget was allocated to an air force that had not yet acquired institutional independence. To present aviation as the decisive factor of victory was thus, as we saw, a way for the USAF to better position itself vis-à-vis other branches of the armed forces. It is clear that the atom bomb helped fuel the imaginary of aerial omnipotence. For the state, the most important question was to justify the exorbitant cost of the ‘Manhattan project’, explaining that not only had nuclear weapons played a key role in the war that had just ended, but that they would also be in future the pillar of US defence policy. Finally, in strategic terms, nuclear weapons fitted perfectly into the framework of Douhetism that was then hegemonic in the Anglo-Saxon world, the atom bomb being simply a larger bomb than any other.

After the war, US defence policy was thus essentially focused on the combination of nuclear weapons and aviation. In 1945 the Strategic Air Command was established and became the nerve centre of the US military system: ‘The Strategic Air Command is the soul of our defence,’ said Thomas Finletter, secretary of state for the air force. This orientation was further strengthened under Eisenhower’s presidency. Because of budget constraints, the ‘New Look’ strategists believed that nuclear weapons were the only way of responding to threat: they should be used anywhere in the world, against any initiative that impinged on US interests. This doctrine was clearly based on the mistaken assumption of a ‘Communist bloc’ that was homogeneous in all respects, and whose ardour could only be inflected by pressure on the Kremlin.

Although this policy became considerably more flexible under Kennedy, it still weighed heavily on the military apparatus at the time of the Vietnam War. Maxwell D. Taylor, author of a thorough critique of the ‘New Look’ who was appointed chief of the general staff by the new president, sought from the early 1960s to rebalance US strategy by rehabilitating the concept of ‘limited war’, placing the concept of ‘flexible response’ at the centre of his analysis. The idea was to escape the strategic trap intrinsic to Douhetism and the nuclear strategy of the 1950s; it was certainly possible to destroy the world, but not to win a real war. According to the New Look strategy, centred on strategic aviation and nuclear weapons, the United States represented a potentially immense threat to any adversary; yet it seemed hardly credible that it would embark on a nuclear war for such a limited goal as countering the national liberation movements in what was then called the ‘Third World’. For this reason, from the 1960s US strategy would consist in defending limited interests by limited wars, below the threshold of global nuclear war. The ‘response’ now had to be ‘flexible’, which also meant unpredictable for the adversary. This unpredictability also lay at the centre of the ‘madman’ theory proclaimed by Nixon, who saw it as useful for the world to imagine a US president mad enough to risk the very existence of the planet for the sake of his anti-Communist obsession. The dialectic immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr Strangelove – that of the total unpredictability of the madman theory and its opposite, the automatic triggering of nuclear weapons – thus had a very real strategic foundation.

Unpredictability was combined with a further strategic requirement, that of credibility. The whole world had to understand that the United States was ready to defend its interests, however limited and located in distant regions, and that it would not let down its allies. If the message sent from the Vietnam jungle was addressed to the world as a whole, it was also addressed to the ‘home front’ of American society, which had to be mobilized for this type of war of intervention. According to Defence Secretary Robert McNamara,

the greatest contribution Vietnam is making … is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war without arousing the public ire … because this is the kind of war we’ll likely be facing for the next fifty years.

These developments explain to a certain degree why the Americans did not draw the lessons of the French defeats in Indochina and Algeria. Despite these precedents, which suggested that aviation could at best play only a very secondary role in this type of conflict, they deployed tremendous military and aviation resources in Vietnam, including the heaviest bombers, the mythical B-52s, built for intercontinental strategic bombing against the Soviet Union and quite unsuited for guerrilla warfare in the jungle.

As for the Vietnamese Communists, their strategy was based on two pillars: a guerrilla war waged in the south of the country, and control of the state in the north. Their combat closely followed Mao Zedong’s precepts on ‘revolutionary war’, which has three successive phases: defence, equilibrium, and offensive. The first phase, strategic defence, is dedicated to the construction and strengthening of the party: recruiting new members, initially from the margins of society rather than from among the ‘masses’, placing cadres in key positions at the local level, getting the party identified with popular causes, such as agrarian reform, in order to win the affection of the population.

The second phase, that of equilibrium, corresponds to guerrilla warfare: conducting sabotage operations, establishing parallel administrations in ‘liberated’ areas, but also placing demands on the civilian population, with a view to intimidating ‘neutrals’ and forcing them to support the insurgents. In this second phase, civilians are deliberately taken hostage and held in a vice between the colonial power and the Maoist rebels. The point for the latter is to rally the population to their cause by recourse, on the one hand, to a mixture of proto-welfare and nationalism, and on the other hand, to terror, for example by forcing the population to provide them with assistance, so as to trigger reprisals which will in turn increase the sentiment that their only salvation can come from revolution and national liberation. This strategy was an integral part of the strategy of ‘revolutionary war’. Between 1957 and 1972, the Viet Cong killed at least 37,000 Vietnamese suspected of supporting the enemy, and kidnapped at least 58,000 persons for various political reasons, particularly to send the political signal that neither the US forces nor the Saigon government could protect them.

The third and final phase is that of an almost conventional war. Until the end of the conflict, the Vietnamese political and military leaders continued to believe that they were still in the second phase, while remaining determined to abandon the guerrilla strategy when the right moment came (which clearly shows that their political perspective was that of a nation state with a monopoly of violence). The rare attempts to launch large-scale operations, such as the Têt offensive in early 1968, which approached conventional warfare, met with military defeat for the insurgents, who learned to their cost that they could not win a conventional war against a US army with crushing superiority. But the main lesson of the Vietnam War was that it was not necessary to seek to obtain victory in the classic sense of the term.

In an asymmetrical conflict, time inexorably works in favour of the weaker party, who ‘wins’ as long as the enemy does not triumph. For this it must be prepared to accept considerable losses at every level: ‘the [Vietnam Communist] Party has been guided by the principle that it is better to kill ten innocent people than to let one enemy escape.’ To be clear: it was acceptable for ten Vietnamese to perish against a single US soldier killed. In the same logic, the insurgents launched attacks from inhabited zones, which incited the United States to bomb their villages by way of response. At the height of their power, the Viet Cong counted close to 200,000 fighters and more than 40,000 auxiliaries; while between 1964 and 1974, they lost at least 440,000 soldiers, amounting to twice the total strength of their army. The number of US troops killed was 56,000 – if the sacrifice had been equivalent on both sides, then a million American soldiers would not have returned home.

Losses of this scale are an integral part of the strategy of revolutionary war, the insurgents being convinced that they are strong enough to endure such blows. Not only were such sacrifices accepted, they were even seen by many anticolonial leaders as desirable, the necessary means for cementing a national people made up of former colonized subjects. The most remarkable formulation in this respect was in fact offered by the apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, who declared in 1942 that a million deaths were needed in order for India to become a viable nation:

[I]t would be a good thing if a million people were shot in a brave and non-violent rebellion against British rule. It may be that it may take us years before we can evolve order out of chaos. But we can then face the world. We cannot face the world today. Avowedly the different nations are fighting for their liberty. Germany, Japan, Russia, China are pouring their blood and money like water. What is our record? … We are betraying a woeful cowardice. I do not mind the blood-bath in which Europe is plunged. It is bad enough, but there is a great deal of heroism – mothers losing their only children, wives their husbands and so on.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese guerrilla forces correctly believed that American society’s spirit of sacrifice was limited, given that the country’s vital interests were not at stake. To sum up, the insurgents banked on two factors: time and the escalation of violence. They could well sacrifice a large section of their population, and two entire armies, yet they would win as long as the enemy had not succeeded in eliminating them politically. In the good old tradition of guerrilla warfare, going back at least to the Napoleonic Wars, the insurgents had recourse to forms of extreme violence, often highly ritualized: GIs caught in ambush were often tortured, and their mutilated bodies exposed publicly – flayed, gutted, and castrated. The American rear was vulnerable, Colonel Bui Tin explained: ‘The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favour. America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.’

This strategy amounted to a considerable challenge for the stronger side in such a conflict. Conscious that time was working against them, and that they could only win rapidly, the US policymakers mobilized ever greater forces with the hope of crushing the insurgents. According to William DePuy, head of US military operations, ‘the solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm … till the other side cracks and gives up’. At the same time, the configuration of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war also imposed restrictions. There could be no question of invading North Vietnam to cut off the insurgents in the South from their source of supply, as the risk of direct confrontation with China was too great, especially in a situation where the intentions of the Soviet Union did not seem clear.

The United States was thus confined to bombing the north of the country with a ‘coercive’ aim while seeking to ‘pacify’ the south. Aviation played a preponderant role on both fronts. ‘Coercive bombing’ meant the strategy of imposing one’s will on the enemy by inflicting unsustainable losses and threatening him with still greater ones. It is readily understandable why such a strategy has no chance of success vis-à-vis an enemy whose entire strategy precisely involves the acceptance of losses, even colossal ones. Apart from institutional and doctrinal reasons specific to the military machine, the US stubbornness in continuing on a path doomed to failure in advance is attributable above all to reasons of domestic policy.