Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea III

The Battle of the Gabbard, 2 June 1653

The Battle of Outer Gabbard (also known the Battle of North Foreland) on 2-3 June 1653 was fought primarily for control of the English Channel and the North Sea. It was the bloodiest and greatest battle of the entire First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654). On 11 June, the English fleet, led by General-at-Sea George Monck (1608–1670), was anchored at Yarmouth, and the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter was some 12 nm northeast at North Foreland. Monck left the anchorage and moved to a position some 15 nm southwest of Oxfordness and just outside of Gabbard Sand. On 12 June, the Dutch fleet under overall command of Admiral Tromp consisted of 98 ships and eight fireships. The British fleet had 105 warships, including five fireships and some 30 armed merchantmen with 16,550 men and 3,840 guns. For the first time, almost the entire fleet of both sides faced each other. The encounters took place along the entire length of the English Channel and ended at Nieuwpoort, Flanders. In the battle at North Foreland-Nieuwpoort, on 12 and 18 June, the Dutch offered strong resistance. By the end of the day, Monck received reinforcements of 18 ships. A much larger clash took place on 13 June. Tromp was forced to move closer to the Dutch coast because of the shortage of ammunition on board many of his ships. There was panic on board the Dutch ships.

In the three days of clashes, the British inflicted heavy losses on the Dutch fleet: 11 warships (including six sunk and two burned) and 1,350 prisoners. They did not lose a single ship but had some 120 killed and 236 wounded. The British were not able to destroy larger part of the enemy fleet because they had to break off the fight due to the coming darkness and waters that were becoming too shallow for their large ships. This allowed the Dutch fleet to reach its ports the next morning, having withdrawn in great disarray. The British exploited their victory by establishing a close blockade of the Dutch coast from Nieuwpoort to Texel.

The British defeat in the Four Days’ Battle on 1–4 June 1666 (during the Second Anglo-Dutch War) allowed the Dutch to obtain control of the English Channel and close the mouth of the Thames to trade.175 It was the longest and most difficult and bitter naval battle of the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars. The British objective was to destroy the Dutch naval power before it became much stronger. Another objective was to end Dutch commerce raiding against English trade. The British fleet of about 80 ships was commanded by Monck. Prior to the battle, the British king Charles II was mistakenly informed that the French squadron was on its way to join the Dutch fleet. In what proved to be a costly mistake, he divided the fleet by detaching some 20 ships under Prince Rupert of the Rhine westward to meet the French while the remainder under Monck went eastward to meet the Dutch. The Dutch fleet of about 100 ships was led by one of the best commanders in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. He had to start battle without waiting on the arrival of the Duke of Beaufort. The battle commenced off the Northforeland coast with an English attack. In the ensuing engagement, some 20 British ships were lost. The British also had 5,000 killed and wounded and 3,000 prisoners. The Dutch losses were only four ships and 2,000–2,500 men. The arrival of Dutch reinforcements led Monck to withdraw to the Thames Estuary. So did Prince Rupert with his squadron (delayed by bad weather), on 3 June. The next day, de Ruyter blockaded the Thames Estuary. Although the Dutch achieved a great victory, they were unable to exploit it by destroying the remnants of the enemy fleet. The Dutch fought valiantly, but in contrast to the British they lacked discipline. Mahan wrote that the British defeat was largely due to dividing their fleet.

In the War of Grand Alliance, the French achieved their greatest naval victory in the Battle of Beachy Head (the Battle of Bévéziers for the French) on 10 July 1690. The French fleet of 70 ships was lead by Admiral Tourville. The combined Anglo-Dutch fleet of 56 ships was under the command of Admiral Arthur Herbert (Lord Torrington) (1648–1716). The battle took place some 12 nm south of Beachy Head (near Eastburne, East Sussex). The French objective was to destroy British and Dutch power at sea. The battle was a mêlée, in which the French did not lose a single ship. The English gave allied losses as only eight ships. Yet out of 22 ships, only three remained operational; all were heavily damaged. Tourville was able to capture a number of the damaged allied vessels. However, he made a big mistake in ordering a pursuit but not general chase. The reason was that he wanted to keep his line ahead formation, so his pursuit was very sluggish. This allowed the Anglo-Dutch fleet to escape to the Thames Estuary. The Battle of Beachy Head was a great victory but it was not decisive because Tourville failed to consolidate his combat success. In the aftemath, the French had for some ten weeks unopposed control of the English Channel. Tourville’s victory did not have any influence on the land war in Ireland (where King James II wanted to ultimately regain the British throne). Both Tourville and Herbert were dismissed because their respective governments found their performance wanting.

In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian Baltic Squadron under Admiral Zinovy P. Rozhdestvensky (1848–1909) in the Battle of Tsushima on 27–28 May 1905. As a result, the Japanese obtained full control of the Yellow Sea. The Japanese had two main divisions with a total of four battleships and eight armored cruisers backed by 16 light cruisers organized in four divisions. The Russian squadron consisted of twelve 13,600-ton battleships organized in three divisions, one small battleship, three armored cruisers, one squadron of four smaller cruisers, four scouting cruisers, and nine destroyers.The Japanese also had a great speed advantage: 15 vs. 9 knots.195 The Russian losses were heavy; 21 ships sunk, including six battleships, 4,500 men killed, plus, 5,920 captured. Only one cruiser and two destroyers escaped and reached Vladivostok. The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats. Not a single Japanese ship was heavily damaged. The Japanese had about 120 men killed and 583 wounded. The main reason for the Russian defeat was the poor training and morale of their officers and crews. The Russians had not learned that the most important thing in winning victory in naval combat is spirit and decisiveness.

The largest naval action of World War I was the Battle of Jutland (Battle of the Skagerrak for the Germans) on 31 May–01 June 1916. The original German operation plan developed by Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928), the commander of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) and his staff, envisaged bombarding Sunderland and thereby triggering a strong British reaction. Scheer planned to deploy two battle squadrons, a scouting force, and the rest of the torpedo boat flotillas southwest of Dogger Bank and Flamborough. On 13 May, a decision was made to delay execution of the plan from the 17 to 23 May. Both sides intended to engage only one part of the enemy fleet. Despite an unfavorable tactical position, the Germans hoped to inflict greater losses than the enemy could inflict on their fleet.

The final German operation plan envisaged the major part of the High Seas Fleet sailing out from Wilhelmshaven at about midnight on 30 May and then proceeding northward, staying well off the Danish coast, and arriving the next afternoon off the western entrance to the Skagerrak. Afterward, Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper (1863–1932) with his battle cruisers would head north and advertise his presence by steaming very close to the Norwegian coast in broad daylight. Scheer would sail about 50 miles to the rear but out of sight of shore. Scheer was confident that as soon as the British learned the whereabouts of Hipper’s battle cruisers, they would send their battle cruisers on a high-speed dash across the North Sea to cut off Hipper’s retreat to his home base. Scheer’s plan was to attack the enemy battle cruisers jointly with Hipper’s force the next morning.

By coincidence, Admiral John Jellicoe (1859–1935) also planned a sortie with his Grand Fleet to the Skagerrak area on 1 June 1916. His main objective was to lure the High Seas Fleet to the north and fight a general fleet action. Specifically, he intended to send one battle squadron with two light squadrons off Skagen, with two squadrons of light cruisers to advance through Kattegat to the northern exits of the Great Belt and Sund, thereby enticing the Germans to use strong forces to counterattack. The other battle squadrons and battle cruisers, deployed in the vicinity of Horns Reef and Fischer Bank, would join the battle. As it turned out, Scheer sortied one day earlier than Jellicoe planned.

Scheer’s fleet consisted of 16 dreadnoughts, six pre-dreadnoughts, five battle cruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 61 destroyers. Admiral Jellicoe commanded a fleet consisting of 28 dreadnoughts, nine battle cruisers, 26 light and eight armored cruisers, 78 destroyers, and one seaplane carrier and minelayer each.

The Battle of Jutland was the first and last clash of battle fleets in World War I. This battle came closest to what can be considered as a general fleet action. It also had many elements of a modern major fleet-vs.-fleet operation. It consisted of several major and smaller encounters between the opposing fleets. Neither fleet was able to deliver a crippling blow to the other. Several encounters ended inconclusively. The Germans won a tactical victory by destroying 14 British ships (three battle cruisers, three armored cruisers, eight destroyers/torpedo boats) and killing 6,100 men (out of 60,000). The German losses were 11 ships (one pre-dreadnought battleship, one battle cruiser, four light cruisers, and five destroyers/torpedo boats) and about 2,550 men killed (out of 36,000). However, despite larger losses, the British achieved an operational victory. The situation in the North Sea remained the same as it was prior to the battle.

Since World War I, a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed at destroying an enemy fleet at sea or its base replaced a decisive naval battle as the quickest and most effective – but most difficult – method to establish sea control. Major naval operations are invariably planned and conducted when decisive results must be accomplished in the shortest time possible and with the least loss for one’s forces. They are especially critical for one’s success in the initial phase of a war. Yet major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are to some extent less “decisive” than were some decisive naval battles.

In World War II, most fleet-vs.-fleet encounters took place when one fleet provided a distant cover and support to a major convoy or amphibious force or when the stronger fleet used the threat of an amphibious landing to lure a weaker fleet into a decisive battle. For example, the Japanese Port Moresby–Solomons operation was a major offensive naval/joint operation aimed to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea. For the Allies, in contrast, the Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942) was a major defensive naval/joint operation aimed at preventing the Japanese from landing at Port Moresby. Both the U.S. and Australian naval forces and land-based aircraft took part. The Japanese inflicted larger losses on the Allies than they suffered and hence won a clear tactical victory; however, the Japanese failed to achieve the ultimate objective of their operation, and hence the Allies won an operational victory. All losses on both sides were caused by air strikes. The Japanese sank one fleet oiler and destroyer each and so heavily damaged a U.S. fast carrier that it had to be sunk. The Japanese lost only one small carrier and a few small ships at Tulagi, Guadalcanal. They also lost 69 aircraft (12 fighters, 27 dive bombers, and 30 torpedo bombers) and 1,074 men; the Allies lost 66 aircraft and 543 men. One Japanese fleet carrier was heavily damaged and was unable to rejoin the fleet for two months. The losses of planes on another carrier were not replaced until 12 June 1942. So neither of these two fleet carriers took part in the main carrier action off Midway.

Although the way to Port Moresby was open, the Japanese carrier force withdrew from the Coral Sea. The landing on Port Moresby was delayed until July 1942. However, because of the defeat in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the capture of Port Moresby from the sea was abandoned. The Japanese eventually decided to seize Port Moresby by a much more difficult land route over the 11,000- to 13,000-foot Owen Stanley Range. They made two unsuccessful attempts to advance on Port Moresby, the last one starting in January 1943. After suffering high losses of a large convoy bound for Lae in the Bismarck Sea on 1–3 March 1943, they abandoned all offensive operations in eastern New Guinea.

The Japanese Midway-Aleutians operation (popularly known as the Battle for Midway) represented a turning point in the Pacific War 1941–1945. The primary objective of the CINC of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943), was to “lure” the U.S. Pacific Fleet into fighting a decisive battle and thereby to secure Japan’s defensive perimeter in Pacific. Yamamoto hoped that a landing on the island of Midway would lead the U.S. Pacific Fleet to react by deploying its fast carrier forces. In the ensuing encounter, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) suffered the greatest defeat in its proud history. After June 1942, Japan was forced onto the strategic defensive and was never able to regain the initiative until its unconditional surrender in August 1944. The Japanese losses in the Midway operation were extremely high. They lost four front line carriers, 253 aircraft, and one heavy cruiser. In addition, one heavy cruiser was heavily damaged, and one destroyer suffered moderate damages, while one battleship, destroyer, and oiler each suffered slight damages. Other sources claim that the Japanese lost 332 aircraft, including 280 that went down with the carriers. Yet some 150 Japanese pilots were saved. The Japanese lost about 3,500 men. In contrast, the U.S. had only 92 officers and 215 men killed. However, three U.S. carrier air groups were decimated. The U.S. losses in aircraft were heavy, 147 of them being shot down.

Japanese Carrier Division Three under attack by United States Navy aircraft from Task Force 58, late afternoon, June 20, 1944. The heavy cruiser circling at right, nearest to the camera, is either Maya or Chōkai. Beyond that is the small aircraft carrier Chiyoda.

One of the most decisive defeats suffered by the IJN in the Pacific War came during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19–20 June 1944. This clash of the opposing carrier forces came as a result of the Japanese execution of the plan in defense of the central Pacific (codenamed the A-Go Operation). This operation started on 13 June as a reaction to the U.S. invasion of the southern Marianas (Operation FORAGER). The entire operation lasted about ten days. The U.S. Pacific Fleet possessed superiority in the numbers and quality of ships and aircraft. It had a larger number of fast carriers (seven vs. five) and light carriers (eight vs. four). The Japanese were numerically grossly inferior in carrier-based aircraft (473 vs. 956). They had 43 vs. 65 U.S. floatplanes. The U.S. Task Force 58 also had a greater number of battleships (seven vs. five), light cruisers (13 vs. two), and destroyers (63 vs. 28) than the Japanese First Mobile Force had. The Japanese had a larger number only of heavy cruisers (11 vs. 8). In mid-June 1944, about 880 U.S. Marine, Navy, and Army aircraft were based in the Marshalls and Gilberts. The Japanese had available some 630 land-based naval aircraft.

The Japanese were strategically on the defensive, but the A-Go Operation was a major offensive fleet-vs.-fleet operation. In contrast, the U.S. was strategically on the offensive with a major amphibious landing. The engagement between the opposing carriers forces on 19–20 June resulted in a decisive victory for the Fifth Fleet. The U.S. claimed that the Japanese lost 476 planes and 445 aviators. However, their fighting strength was emasculated because so many pilots were lost. The Fifth Fleet failed to complete the destruction of the much weakened enemy force, which escaped to fight another day. Out of nine carriers, six Japanese carriers survived.

In the Leyte operation, the main objective of the Allied naval forces was to provide both close and distant cover to the Allied forces that landed on Leyte on 20 October. The invasion of Leyte was the first Allied major amphibious operation in the new Philippines campaign that would end with the liberation of the entire archipelago less than a year later. By October 1944 the Allied forces had cut off Japan from its vital sources of raw materials in the so-called Southern Resources Area. From their bases on Luzon, Allied airpower was able to neutralize the enemy airpower on Formosa (Taiwan). The Philippines were also used as a base for preparing the final Allied assault on the Home Islands. Although the Japanese were strategically on the defensive, the IJN planned a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed to prevent the Allies from obtaining a foothold on Leyte and in the central Philippines. Between 24 and 27 October, four major naval battles were fought: the Battle in the Sibuyan Sea on 24 October, the Battle of Surigao Strait on 24–25 October, the Battle off Samar on 25 October, and the Battle of Cape Engano on 25 October. In addition, numerous tactical actions on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air took place in Philippine waters. The IJN lost all four battles. In all, the Japanese lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers, totaling 306,000 tons. The Allies lost one light and two escort carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort, for 37,000 tons. In the aftermath, the IJN ceased to pose any serious threat to Allied control of the sea. The IJN’s defeat sealed the fate of the defenders on Leyte and thereby created the preconditions for the eventual Allied invasion of Luzon. It also significantly affected Japan’s ability to prosecute the war because all the links with the Southern Resources Area and the Home Islands were cut.

In a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation off Matapan on 27–29 March 1941, the Italians suffered a major defeat at the hands of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian force, composed of one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers, and 13 destroyers, sailed out on 26 March 1941 to attack British convoys bound for Greece in the area south of Crete. The entire operation would be supported by the German X Air Corps. The British obtained accurate and timely information on the impending action by decoding German orders to the Luftwaffe’s X Air Corps. A strong British force sailed out to intercept the Italian fleet, and in the ensuing battle on 28–29 March, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk, while one battleship, heavy cruiser, and destroyer each were damaged. The German X Air Corps’ attacks on the British ships were unsuccessful. This victory led to a temporary Allied control of the surface in the central part of the Mediterranean.

In some cases, a stronger side has conducted a major naval operation aimed to obtain sea control and also to exercise that control at the same time. For example, in the aftermath of their successful attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began planning to deploy their fast carrier force into the Indian Ocean. Instead of capturing Ceylon, Admiral Yamamoto made a decision on 14 February 1942 to carry out a raid in the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese planners expected the British fleet to interfere with their invasion of the Andamans and Burma. The Japanese carrier force would operate east of Ceylon and wait on a favorable opportunity to launch a surprise attack on Ceylon and the British Eastern Fleet. As part of the preparations, the Combined Fleet conducted war games on 20–22 February. The Japanese planners intended to accomplish two main objectives: (1) destroy the British Eastern Fleet (believed to consist of two carriers two battleships, three heavy cruisers, four to seven light cruisers, and a number of destroyers); and (2) destroy the British air strength near the Bay of Bengal, (believed to consist of some 300 aircraft). The Japanese secondary objectives were to attack shipping and port installations on Ceylon and enemy shipping in the Bay of Bengal.

The Japanese striking force assigned to destroy the British Eastern Fleet was led by Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (1887–1944). He commanded a force of six fast carriers accompanied by four battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, plus nine destroyers. This was the same carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carriers had some 300 aircraft onboard, and their pilots were well trained and combat experienced. The Japanese assigned another force consisting of one light carrier, six cruisers and eight destroyers to sweep British shipping in the Bay of Bengal.

The British naval forces in the Indian Ocean looked formidable on paper. However, they were grossly inferior to their Japanese opponents. Vice Admiral James Somerville (1882–1949), who took command of the British Eastern Fleet on 27 March, upon receiving reports on the impending Japanese attack on Ceylon, divided his fleet two days later into two groups: Force A (two carriers, four cruisers, and six destroyers) and Force B (four battleships, one carrier, three cruisers, and seven destroyers (including one Dutch cruiser and destroyer each). In addition, seven British submarines were deployed in the Indian Ocean. On 31 March, Somerville concentrated his fleet south of Ceylon. The single biggest weakness of the Eastern Fleet was its air component. Only 57 strike aircraft and three dozen fighters were available. Also, there was an inadequate number of the land-based long-range reconnaissance aircraft.

The British received a steady stream of reports about the strength and the movements of the Japanese forces in the area. Intelligence reports indicated that the attack on Colombo and Trincomalee was to be expected on or about 1 April. On 31 March, a new intelligence report indicated (as Somerville also suspected) that the enemy attack would be made next day.

The Japanese carrier striking force entered the Indian Ocean on 31 March. As planned, it carried out a series of carrier strikes on the ships and installations in Colombo. From 6 to 8 April, Nagumo directed a search for the British Eastern Fleet’s main body southeast of Ceylon. However, Somerville’s main body was far west of Ceylon. Hence, the Japanese searches were (fortunately for the British) unsuccessful. On 8 April, the Japanese carriers struck Trincomalee. After detecting Nagumo’s force, the British ordered all ships to leave Trincomalee. Nevertheless, many of the ships were attacked at sea.

In the meantime, the British Admiralty concluded that that there was little security against air or surface attacks at their naval base at Ceylon or at Addu Atoll (the southernmost atoll in the Maldives) used by the Eastern Fleet. The British battle fleet was slow, outgunned, and had short endurance. It was a liability if it remained in the area of Ceylon. Hence, a decision was made on 8 April to move Force B to Kilindini (part of port of Mombasa), Kenya; Force A at Addu Atoll was directed on 9 April to Bombay (Mumbai today) to operate in the Arabian Sea. For all practical purposes, the Allies temporarily abandoned the Indian Ocean.

After the raid on Trincomalee, the Japanese carrier striking force left the Indian Ocean for Japan to prepare for the planned attack on Midway. The results of the raid to the Bay of Bengal were very favorable to the attackers. At the loss of only 17 aircraft, the Japanese sank one British carrier, two heavy cruisers, two destroyers, one corvette, and one armed cruiser. They also damaged 31 merchant ships of 153,600 tons, plus seven transports. However, the Japanese failed to accomplish their main objective because the British Eastern Fleet escaped. Their single biggest mistake was trying to accomplish several objectives almost simultaneously and thereby fragmenting their formidable strength. A more promising course of action for the Japanese would have been to focus most of their efforts in destroying or substantially weakening the enemy’s greatest critical strength, the British carrier force—or the enemy’s “operational center of gravity.” Afterward, they would have obtained almost undisputed control of the Indian Ocean.

In a war between coastal navies or between a blue-water navy and a small coastal navy, it might be possible to obtain sea control by planning and executing a series of quick and decisive tactical actions. For example, in the 20-day Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of 1973, from the first day of hostilities, the Israelis seized the initiative and inflicted heavy losses on their enemies. In the Battle of Latakia on the night of 6/7 October, a group of five Israeli missile craft sunk three Syrian missile craft and one torpedo craft and minesweeper each. A naval battle between six Israeli missile craft and Egyptian missile craft took place off Damietta-Baltim (off the Egyptian coast) on the night of 8/9 October. In the ensuing exchange, the Israelis sunk three Egyptian missile craft, while one was heavily damaged and subsequently destroyed by artillery fire. These victories drastically changed the operational situation at sea to the Israeli advantage. The Israelis essentially obtained control of those parts of the eastern Mediterranean declared by Syria and Egypt as war zones.

A blue-water navy can obtain a large degree of control of the surface relatively quickly through a series of tactical actions in case of a war with very weak opponent at sea. For example, in the Gulf War I (1990–1991), the U.S. Navy/Coalition aircraft conducted a number of strikes against the Iraqi navy on 22–24 January, destroying two minelayers, one oiler (serving as a scouting ship), two patrol craft, and one hovercraft. On 29 January, in the engagement off Bubiyan Island, U.S. and British missile-armed helicopters and ground attack aircraft destroyed four and ran aground 14 patrol craft carrying commandos probably to take part in the Iraqi attack on Kafji; in a separate incident, a British helicopter destroyed a large patrol craft. A day later, U.S. and British helicopters and ground attack aircraft attacked a force consisting of one former Kuwaiti patrol craft and three Iraqi amphibious craft and one minesweeper; all ships suffered various degrees of damage. In another encounter, a force of eight combat craft, including some missile craft, were attacked by U.S. ground attack aircraft in the northern part of the gulf; four craft were sunk and three damaged. The end result of these small-scale tactical actions was that the U.S./Coalition forces obtained control of the northern part of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf.

Traditionally, the decisive naval battle, aimed at destroying a major part of the enemy fleet, was the principal method used in the era of oar/sail and until the turn of the twentieth century. However, experience shows that relatively few major naval battles resulted in the annihilation of destruction of a major part of the enemy fleet. Very often, the far more important results were not losses in materiel and personnel but the military, political, economic, and even psychological effects of such battles. After World War I, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations emerged as the main method of combat employment to a destroy major part of the enemy fleet and thereby obtain control of the sea. In contrast to a decisive naval battle, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are fought in all three physical dimensions: on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air. In relatively few cases, decisive naval battles and major fleet-vs.-fleet operations were planned from the outset to obtain sea control. That came as a result of one’s fleet providing cover or preventing a major enemy landing or in providing cover for a large convoy. Although major fleet-vs.-fleet operations have not been conducted since World War II, they still remain the optimal method of combat employment of maritime forces to destroy a major part of the enemy’s naval forces at sea. In the absence of two blue-water opponents and in a war between a blue-water and small coastal navy or between two numerically smaller coastal navies, a series of successive tactical actions might be decisive and achieve sea control relatively quickly. Such tactical actions should be optimally planned and carried out at the beginning of the hostilities at sea.


Joint Special Operations Command

Most Americans, including many in the Carter administration, had despaired of rescuing the hostages in the wake of the Desert One fiasco. But the men at the heart of Eagle Claw had not given up; nor had their president. Within seventy-two hours of the catastrophe, Carter told Army Major General Jim Vaught, the task force commander, to be prepared to launch again within ten days, in the in extremis case that the hostages’ lives appeared in immediate danger. Such a swift turnaround had not been necessary, and the men spent the summer preparing for a second attempt, armed with the knowledge of what had gone wrong previously. In the process, they were hoping to help the United States regain not only its self-respect, but also its faith in the U.S. military and, in particular, its long-neglected special operations forces.

The new effort was code-named Snowbird. Separated from their families, who knew next to nothing about where their husbands and fathers were, the men gave serious thought to what had to be different this time around. Some of these things were tactical details, but others were larger concepts. Eagle Claw had been a pickup game, with each armed service claiming a role: the Army provided Delta Force and the Rangers as the ground rescue force; the Air Force contributed MC-130 Combat Talon transports, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and a small ground element called BRAND X; the Navy proffered an aircraft carrier from which the eight Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters launched; the Marine Corps, keen not to be excluded, provided the helicopter pilots. These forces were not used to working together. The headquarters that ran the operation was a similarly ad hoc organization commanded by Vaught.

The Eagle Claw veterans knew all that had to change, none more so than Colonel “Chargin’” Charlie Beckwith, the hard-bitten Delta commander. In the run-up to Eagle Claw, Beckwith had opposed the creation of any headquarters that might interfere with the direct line to the White House he desired for Delta. But after the trauma of Desert One, his resistance softened. Like others in Delta, he realized that having no specialized headquarters above the unit left it at the mercy of ad hoc arrangements in which it would have no say, for instance, in who provided its air support. Within a few weeks of returning, a group of senior Delta figures had sketched a design for what Beckwith called “a tier-type organization”—a command that encompassed all the units required for special operations missions of strategic importance, in which failure was not an option. In mid-May, Beckwith’s main bureaucratic supporter, Army Chief of Staff General Edward “Shy” Meyer, ordered him to bring his proposed design for such a headquarters to Washington.

A more formal and high-powered review of the Eagle Claw fiasco would soon reach much the same conclusion. On August 23 the Special Operations Review Group—six active and retired senior officers commissioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to examine Eagle Claw—released an unclassified version of its findings and recommendations. Led by retired Admiral James L. Holloway III, the group recommended “that a Counterterrorist Joint Task Force (CTJTF) be established as a field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with permanently assigned staff personnel and certain assigned forces.”

The military brass put up fierce resistance. With the exception of Meyer, the service chiefs were very concerned that the creation of such a force would give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his own private intervention force. The commanders of the military’s regional commands around the world, called commanders-in-chief, or “CinCs” (pronounced “sinks”), feared that such a permanent task force would deploy to and conduct missions in their own areas of operations without them even knowing about, let alone approving, such actions. It was that venomous atmosphere in the Tank into which Nightingale, who served on Vaught’s staff, walked a matter of days after the Holloway report’s release.

But Nightingale was armed with knowledge that his high-ranking audience lacked. That morning, he, Vaught, and Colonel Rod Paschall, Vaught’s chief of staff, had briefed Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General David Jones in Brown’s office. Sitting side by side on a sofa, Vaught and his two staffers gave the two senior officials a preview of the briefing Nightingale was scheduled to deliver to the Joint Chiefs that afternoon. The briefing for the chiefs was a so-called decision brief, meaning it was intended as a starting point for discussion, with the individual service chiefs allowed to have input—which amounted to veto authority—over the details of the proposal.

Brown was well aware that the service chiefs, with the exception of the Army’s Meyer, were unlikely to approve the creation of a counterterrorist joint task force. (Although the briefing focused on proposed bureaucratic arrangements for Snowbird, everyone concerned knew that the Holloway Commission’s recommendation of a standing joint task force meant any structure created for Snowbird was almost certain to survive beyond another mission into Iran.) Brown interrupted the briefing. This could be difficult to get past the chiefs, he said. Would it be easier if it were made a directive from my office to the chiefs, rather than simply a presentation? Certainly, said those on the couch. Brown had a knowing smirk on his face. “I had anticipated that, so maybe I’ve solved some problems for you,” he said, reaching for a typed document that codified the contents of the brief as a direct order to the services to take the actions laid out in the briefing. “Well, this is certainly going to make things a lot easier,” said Vaught. Paschall just chuckled.

In the couple of hours between briefings, Nightingale converted his decision brief into a mere “information brief,” then strode into the Tank to await his audience. The officers who entered and took their seats at the long table were Jones, the four service chiefs, and their operations deputies (the three-star officers in charge of operations and plans for each service). Using a flip chart stand to his right and a viewgraph screen to his left, Nightingale launched into his briefing without mentioning the morning’s discussion with Brown. It slowly dawned on the chiefs and their operations deputies that Nightingale was speaking as if the new command was a fait accompli. The tension in the room rose sharply. “Wait a minute,” said Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau. “This is an information brief, not a decision brief.” Dead silence followed. Nightingale glanced at Vaught, who turned to Jones. “Yes, the secretary has made a decision,” Jones confirmed.

“The Navy and the Air Force were just apoplectic,” Nightingale recalled. Moreau and his boss, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward, “just went basically purple. They were really pissed. You could just see their blood pressure go up about 100 points.” But Brown’s preemptive action meant they had little recourse. “They just had to eat it,” Nightingale said. For the fledgling command, it was an inauspicious beginning.

Early one September morning Brigadier General Dick Scholtes, the 82nd Airborne Division’s assistant division commander for operations, was already in his office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he received a surprise visit from his boss, division commander Major General Guy Meloy. “You’re going to be getting a call from the chief of staff in a couple of minutes,” Meloy told him. Usually when the two generals discussed the “chief of staff,” they were referring to the colonel who held that position in the division. But when the phone rang Scholtes found himself talking to Meyer, the Army chief of staff. “Dick, I want you to know you’re leaving the division,” Meyer said. “You’re going to be leaving it very shortly. I need you to come to Washington Thursday. I can’t talk to you anymore about what’s going to happen but I’ll tell you all about it when you get up here Thursday.”

Scholtes flew to Washington as directed. Already scheduled to meet Brown and Jones the next morning, Scholtes was told to head straight to the Pentagon for a meeting set for the oddly late hour of 9 P.M. After he had trouble getting past Pentagon security, someone finally came to collect the bemused general and lead him to a conference room beside Jones’s office.

About thirty people were in the room. Most were strangers to Scholtes, though he would come to know some quite well. Beckwith, the Delta commander, was there, as was Commander Richard Marcinko, who was in the process of creating a Navy SEAL equivalent to Delta Force.

The officers told Scholtes they had a briefing prepared for him. Curious, he sat down. The briefing covered several options for a second attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Perplexed as to why he was being told all this, Scholtes sat through the first four or five, which all struck him as “absolutely asinine and outlandish,” according to an officer who was there. (One involved rescuing the hostages and flying them on helicopters to a ship in the Black Sea, then tipping the empty helicopters into the water. Scholtes knew the Black Sea was dominated by the Soviets and therefore not a particularly welcoming environment for the U.S. Navy.)

No longer able to contain his curiosity, Scholtes asked why on earth they were briefing these schemes to him. Now it was his briefers’ turn to be confused. “Didn’t the secretary tell you about all this?” one asked. Scholtes replied that he wasn’t due to see Brown until the following morning, but told them to continue the briefing and he’d wait for Brown and Jones to explain what this was all about.

On Friday the two senior officials made it all clear. His new job was to form the command that would include the nation’s most elite special operations units, and to be ready to conduct another hostage rescue mission by October 31. As for other counterterrorist missions his new command should be ready to perform, Brown and Jones told him to be ready to discuss those once the Iranian mission had been completed. Scholtes’s chain of command ran straight to Jones, the Joint Chiefs’ four-star chairman—unique access for a one-star operational commander.

Scholtes was doubly shocked. First because, other than attending and graduating from the Special Forces Qualification Course as a young captain, he had no special operations experience, having opted to stay in the infantry mainstream rather than continue as a Special Forces officer. He never found out why Meyer selected him for the command. When he asked the four-star, Meyer simply answered: “Because I wanted you.”

The imminence of the Halloween deadline also shocked Scholtes. It gave him “less than sixty days in which to pull this thing off,” recalled a senior member of the command. “And we [had] no forces, no staff, and truly no capability.”

Scholtes’s new headquarters was located first at Bragg, the massive Army post in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Also home to XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division, and Delta, which was housed in a nine-acre fenced-off facility that had been the post’s stockade, the installation’s huge size was an advantage in trying to hide a couple of small, secret organizations.

The new command started small: just Scholtes and an aide, working out of an office in Delta’s compound furnished with a phone and very little else. Soon staff began to arrive, but only at a rate of one or two people a day. Scholtes was concerned.

The new headquarters was acquiring a staff, and it already had a mission. But it lacked a name. In classified circles, the new command was referred to as the Counterterrorist Joint Task Force. But it needed a proper, official moniker. To that end, Scholtes and a couple of assistants detailed to him from Delta, Major Logan Fitch and Sergeant Major Walt Shumate, were tossing ideas around one day. “Why don’t we call it ‘Joint Special Operations Command,’ because it’s joint and it’s special operations?” said Fitch. The others were fine with the suggestion, but when they ran it up the flagpole there was a problem. The Army bureaucracy opposed the name because the service’s main field manual grouped a wide range of generic military tasks, including urban warfare, desert operations, and river crossings, under the heading of “special operations.” The debate went back and forth between Bragg and the Pentagon, but eventually Fitch’s proposal won the day. On the rare occasions it was discussed in public, Scholtes’s new headquarters would be known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.

The units that fell under the command were largely those deemed best suited to JSOC’s counterterrorism mission, which officials at the time envisioned as small, high-intensity operations of short duration. As such, they did not include units like the Army’s Special Forces groups that specialized in unconventional warfare (the use of proxy forces to foment rebellion in an enemy country), or other special operations forces designed primarily to operate against other militaries, rather than against terrorists.

At the core of the new command was Delta (full name: 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta), which the Army had formed under Beckwith’s leadership in 1977 in response to the rising number of international terrorist incidents. Unlike Israel, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, the United States had no specialized force to handle such episodes until Delta’s creation.

Beckwith modeled Delta on the British Army’s Special Air Service, with whom he’d spent a year as an exchange officer in the early 1960s. Thus, instead of being divided into companies and battalions, like most U.S. Army units, Delta was broken into troops and squadrons. The troops were divided into teams of anywhere from three to six soldiers. Four teams made a troop, and three troops made a “sabre” squadron (the same term the SAS used). Only soldiers already in the Army were allowed to apply to Delta, guaranteeing the unit a more seasoned outlook than combat outfits filled with soldiers in their late teens and early twenties. But the key to Delta was its rigorous selection process. The unit looked for men who possessed not only extraordinary physical endurance, but also mental agility and the psychological ability to cope with ambiguity and the unknown. So its selection course combined increasingly difficult physical tests, culminating in “the Long Walk”—a grueling forty-mile hike across the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia—with a battery of psychological examinations. If a prospective unit member made it over those hurdles, he still had to pass the “commander’s board,” in which the Delta commander and other senior unit figures peppered the candidate with off-the-wall questions in an attempt to unhinge him.

The small percentage of applicants who made it all the way through selection into Delta then went through a six-month operator training course in which they learned skills ranging from expert marksmanship and room clearing to how to take down a hijacked airliner, breach walls, and pick locks. They also learned espionage tradecraft, including elicitation, clandestine communications, surveillance, and how to live under a cover identity. Only after completing the course (which not all did) were the greenhorns considered full members of the unit who could call themselves “operators.” They called Delta “the Unit.”

Eagle Claw was to have been Delta’s first taste of actual combat. Although the operators bore no blame for Eagle Claw’s failure, they were acutely aware that they were 0 for 1 on “real-world” missions. They were hungry to even the score.

Backing up Delta were the Army’s two (1st and 2nd) Ranger Battalions, based at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, and Fort Lewis, Washington, respectively. The battalions traced their lineage back to World War II, but had existed in their present incarnation only since 1974, when Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams reactivated them with the intention that they would be the world’s most elite airborne light infantry.

Beckwith envisioned the Rangers compensating for Delta’s lack of manpower on any mission requiring more than a handful of operators. He wanted the Rangers to help Delta get to and from an objective and to secure the perimeter while the operators took down the target. Beckwith called this his “donut theory,” with the Rangers forming the donut’s ring.

Almost simultaneous with JSOC’s creation, the Navy established a SEAL special mission unit that was the sea service’s answer to Delta, and which would also report to Scholtes. The SEALs were the Navy’s special operations forces, with roots in the service’s World War II underwater demolition teams. In 1980 there were only two SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) teams, Team 1 on the West Coast and Team 2 on the East. Neither team was a dedicated counterterrorism force. In fact, less than a third of their platoons had received counterterrorism training. But Richard Marcinko had a vision. A colorful SEAL officer who, from a desk in the Pentagon, had been one of two Navy representatives on the Eagle Claw task force and was now working on Snowbird, Marcinko saw an opening for a SEAL team that would fill roughly the same counterterrorism niche for the Navy that Delta filled for the Army. He masterfully worked the Navy bureaucracy to establish such a unit and to get himself assigned as its first commander. He even got to name the unit. Because there were only six SEAL platoons that had received counterterrorism training and because he wanted to fool the Soviets into thinking there were more SEAL teams than there really were, Marcinko named his new command SEAL Team 6.

Marcinko and the Navy intended Team 6 to be the maritime equivalent of Delta, but there was a big difference between how the two units assessed and selected their members. Team 6 members didn’t have to pass any formal tests or graduate from any courses to get into the unit. Marcinko chose SEALs for his new command based solely on his personal opinion of them, an opinion often formed during barroom interviews with prospective members. “The man liked to drink,” said an officer who worked under Marcinko in Team 6. “To be with him, you had to drink—to be in the ‘in’ crowd.” Marcinko acknowledged to an author his capacity to down large quantities of Bombay gin on the job, but added, “I use booze as a tool.” Fairly or not, such behavior colored the opinions of Team 6 held by many others in the special ops community for years after Marcinko left the unit in July 1983.

Although the SEALs were maritime special operations forces, and Team 6’s position as a coequal with Delta in JSOC was predicated on its “worldwide maritime responsibilities,” from its inception, Marcinko was determined that his new unit not be pigeonholed or limited in any way. “As long as we carried water in our canteens, we’d be in a maritime environment—or close enough for me,” he later wrote. This approach garnered the unit a role in Snowbird, in which they were earmarked for covert infiltration into Iran to destroy a series of military targets, but it also set the stage for three decades of friction with Delta over appropriate roles and missions for Team 6.

The Air Force’s initial contributions to JSOC were the 1st Special Operations Wing, based at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle, and a secret unit of combat controllers—men whose job it was to act as battlefield air traffic controllers. The unit would go through many name changes. Until Eagle Claw it had been named BRAND X, but as JSOC stood up the Air Force renamed it “Det 1 MACOS,” which stood for Detachment One, Military Airlift Command Operations Staff.

Where capability gaps existed, units were created to fill them. Such was the case with the command’s communications infrastructure, which the Pentagon told Scholtes the Joint Communications Support Element, a special ops communications outfit at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, would provide. Scholtes protested that JCSE was too “cumbersome” a unit for JSOC. After several months of arguing, he won permission to stand up the Joint Communications Unit at Bragg, with part of the unit assigned full time to JSOC.

The lack of a special operations rotary wing aviation unit was an even more glaring weakness, given that the inability to keep enough helicopters mission-ready played a key role in the events that resulted in the fiery debacle at Desert One. But efforts were under way to fill that yawning void. A new organization, based around helicopters and aircrew from the 101st Airborne Division’s 158th and 159th Aviation Battalions and dubbed Task Force 158, was training in great secrecy at the 101st’s home post of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as well as at the military’s vast training areas in the Southwest.

Task Force 158 used the brand-new UH-60A Black Hawk utility helicopters that were replacing the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the “Huey,” in the 101st. To fulfill heavier lift requirements, the task force availed itself of some of the 159th’s CH-47C Chinooks. Together these two airframes should have been able to perform any medium or long-haul lift or air assault requirements. But Vaught, who remained in command of the task force until Scholtes got JSOC off the ground, saw a need for a third type of airframe, one that could maneuver in Tehran’s tight urban terrain, carrying small groups of operators or even functioning as a light attack helicopter. The active Army’s inventory held no such aircraft. But Vietnam veterans were familiar with the OH-6 Cayuse, nicknamed the “Loach” (for light observation and command helicopter), a small, nimble airframe that still resided in a couple of National Guard units. Designed to carry just two pilots, the OH-6 was not armed. However, imaginative TF 158 aviators soon figured ways to fix small benchlike platforms called pods to allow assaulters to ride on either side of the helicopter and to equip the aircraft to fire miniguns and rockets. No longer “Loaches,” both versions of the reconfigured aircraft were called Little Birds. The assault version (the one with the pods) was designated the MH-6 and the attack variant the AH-6. There would be many twists and turns in the development of JSOC’s world-class special operations rotary wing capability, but the Chinook, the Black Hawk, and the Little Bird would remain the basic Army special ops airframes for more than thirty years.

In July 1980, in a move that would have significant consequences, the Army established another secrecy-cloaked special operations unit but did not initially assign it to JSOC. Led by Colonel Jerry King, Vaught’s chief of staff for Eagle Claw, the Field Operations Group (sometimes called the Foreign Operating Group) comprised about fifty Special Forces and military intelligence soldiers. The new unit’s mission was to operate undercover abroad to gain the sort of intelligence for the military that the CIA had been unable to deliver for Eagle Claw, and to sabotage key Iranian military infrastructure such as radar and communications facilities. In the summer and fall it successfully infiltrated several operatives into Iran to conduct surveillance and recruit agents.

Halloween came and went with no orders to launch. Uncomfortable with the CIA’s intelligence on the hostages’ locations, Scholtes had told his bosses he was unwilling to do the mission on the basis of the Agency’s “we can’t tell you exactly [but] we think they’re here, here, and here” intelligence. “We may end up killing a lot of people and getting a lot of our people killed and not getting anybody out,” he said. Meanwhile, the lines of command between Scholtes’s new organization and Vaught’s headquarters, which was still in existence, were blurred. Each general seemed to think he would run the second rescue mission. The Pentagon officially transferred authority to JSOC on December 18, but Vaught continued to play a vague oversight role. “It was very ambiguous because both elements felt that they were in fact in command,” Nightingale said. A personality conflict between the two generals didn’t help, but their staffs nevertheless expected to be integrated for the mission, which they anticipated tough-talking Republican president-elect Ronald Reagan would green-light as one of his first acts in office.

Although Scholtes had been assembling his staff since September, the Pentagon did not formally establish JSOC until December 15. No ceremony marked the creation of what would become one of the U.S. government’s most effective instruments of power. The command was completely focused on training for what everyone expected would be a second rescue attempt in Iran. On January 20, the day of Reagan’s inauguration, the task force was at Hurlburt Field running what a senior JSOC staffer called “the final dress rehearsal” for the mission. “We were hoping to launch the next week,” he said. But within minutes of Reagan taking the oath of office, the Iranian regime released the hostages, who were immediately flown to Algeria and on to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany. The Pentagon canceled the final rehearsal, frustrating JSOC officers, who saw it as a lost opportunity to put the task force through its paces. But in the long run, that mattered little. The new command was up and running.


By the time of the American Revolution, Britain’s .75 calibre Land Pattern Musket head earned the unofficial nickname of “Brown Bess.” Even the 18th century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue described the popular expression “to hug Brown Bess,” as slang for enlisting in the army

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s Brown Bess musket had delivered nearly a century of service. The tactics of the time were for musket troops to fire as many volleys as possible into an advancing enemy formation. The 10.5-pound Brown Bess could propel a one-ounce lead shot to a maximum effective range of 175 yards. Since the weapon was virtually impossible to aim with any degree of accuracy at such distances, most engagements took place at the range of 50 yards or less. Still, an experienced shooter could unload three shots a minute.

The Long Land Pattern “Brown Bess” musket was the British infantryman’s basic arm from about 1740 until the 1830s.

Brown Bess is a 1742 Long Land pattern. The 1742 pattern added a pan bridle to the First Model Bess lock. Fitted with a correct wooden ramrod, issued with an armory bright finish, this gun should have a polished bright barrel and lock.

During the age of the Brown Bess musket the British army took part in five major wars: the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Crimean War (1853-56). It fought the Seven Years’ War as an ally of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Operations against the French and their Indian allies in North America began in 1754, absorbed much of Britain’s military effort and helped initiate far-reaching tactical change. French possessions in Canada were snapped up, with Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759 as the brightest star in a year of victories still remembered in the naval march ‘Heart of Oak,’ first heard in David Garrick’s play Harlequin’s Invasion

Come cheer up my boys ‘tis to glory we steer

to add something more to this wonderful year…

In India, too, there were successes, with Robert Clive’s defeat of the pro-French ruler of Bengal at Plassey in 1757 and Lieutenant General Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at Wandeswash in 1759 bringing much of India under the control of the British East India Company. On the continent of Europe, where the British always fought as part of a coalition force, their fortunes were more mixed. The Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, was badly beaten at Hastenbeck in 1757, but a British force played a notable part in the victory at Minden in the annus mirabilis of 1759.

It is worth pausing to consider just what these battles were like for the men who fought in them. At Minden, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick with 41,000 Anglo-German soldiers faced Marshal Contades with 51,000 Frenchmen. What made the battle unusual was that it was decided by an attack on a vastly superior force of French cavalry by six British regiments, launched as the result of a linguistic misunderstanding. Hospital Assistant William Fellowes of the 37th Foot wrote that:

The soldiers and others, this morning, who were not employed at the moment, began to strip off and wash their shirts, and I as eagerly as the rest. But while we were in this state, suddenly the drums began to beat to arms: and so insistent was the summons that without more ado we slip’t on the wet linen and buttoned the jackets over the soaking shirts, hurrying to form line lest our comrades should depart without us. There was a keen wind blowing at the time, and with my wet shirt and soaking coat, it was an hour or more before I could find any warmth in me. But the French warmed us up in good time; tho’ not, you may be sure, as much as we warmed them!

Lieutenant Montgomery of the 12th Foot described the advance, with the redcoats stepping out to the rub-a-dub-dub-dub of the drums, and through:

a most furious fire from a most infernal Battery of 18 18-pounders…It might be imagined that this cannonade would render the Regt incapable of bearing the shock of unhurt troops drawn up long before on ground of their own choosing, but firmness and resolution will surmount any difficulty. When we got within about 100 yards of the enemy, a large body of French cavalry galloped boldly down upon us; these our Men by reserving their fire immediately ruined…These visitants being thus dismissed…down came upon us like lightning the glory of France in the Persons of the Gens d’Armes. These were almost immediately dispersed…we now discovered a large body of Infantry…moving directly on our flank in Column…We engaged this Corps for about 10 minutes, kill’d them a good many, and as the Song says, the rest then ran away.

The next who made their appearance were some Regt’s of the Grenadiers of France, and as fine and terrible looking fellows as I ever saw. They stood us a tug notwithstanding we beat them to a distance…we advanced, they took the hint and run away.

Montgomery added a postscript. The noise of battle frightened the regimental sutler’s pregnant wife into premature labour: ‘She was brought to bed of A Son, and we have christened him by the name of Ferdinand.’

The Seven Years’ War was ended by the Treaty of Paris, a triumph for Britain, who gained territory at French expense. But France was soon to have her revenge. A constitutional dispute, focusing on the right to tax, led to war between Britain and her North American colonies in 1775. Although the British won a costly victory that year at Bunker Hill, just outside Boston, and, indeed, won the majority of the war’s pitched battles, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat on George Washington’s Continental army, and their strength was eroded by repeated small actions in a landscape that was often decidedly hostile. France, heartened by the surrender of an army under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, joined the war. In 1781 Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the southern states, was besieged at Yorktown by Washington and his French allies. Admiral de Grasse’s fleet prevented the Royal Navy from intervening, and in October Cornwallis surrendered in what was the greatest British military humiliation until the fall of Singapore in 1942. The Peace of Versailles ended the conflict, depriving Britain of many of the gains achieved in the Seven Years’ War.

France’s victory was dearly bought, for her finances collapsed under the strain of the war. Her government’s attempt at reform led to the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 and began the slide into revolution. War broke out between revolutionary France and old monarchical Europe in 1792, and Britain was drawn in the following year. The French Revolutionary Wars saw Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, assemble two successive anti-French coalitions, but with little success. Overall the war’s pattern was clear enough. There was little to check the French on land, and they overran the Low Countries, scarcely inconvenienced by the intervention in 1793-95 of a British force under the Duke of York, although a French expedition to Egypt ended in failure. At sea, however, the Royal Navy was supreme, and by 1801 the war had run its course, with neither side able to do serious damage to the other, and peace was ratified at Amiens in 1802.

It did not endure for long, and war broke out again the following year. Napoleon Bonaparte, an artillery officer who had risen to eminence by a mixture of stunning military success and deft political opportunism, had become ruler of France, and in May 1804 he assumed the imperial title, gaining popular approval for a new constitution by a plebiscite. By 1812 he had defeated all the major continental powers save Britain, imposing the ‘Continental System’ designed to prevent British commerce with Europe. But that year he over-reached himself by invading Russia. His former enemies, sensing that the tide had turned, took the field against him, and in 1814 was beaten and forced to abdicate. The following year he staged the dramatic revival of the Hundred Days, but was decisively defeated by the British and Prussians at Waterloo, and abdicated once more, this time for good.

During the Napoleonic Wars Britain’s principal theatre of operations was the Iberian Peninsula where a British force, from 1809 under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later created Duke of Wellington, operated from its base in Portugal against French armies which always outnumbered the British but were constrained by a broader conflict against a hostile population. The British army fought a dozen major battles and endured several painful sieges. The battle of Albuera, on 16 May 1811, came about when a British, Spanish and Portuguese army under Lieutenant General Sir William Beresford blocked Marshal Nicolas Soult’s attempt to disrupt his siege of the French-held fortress of Badajoz.

It was one of the hardest infantry contests of the entire period. Soult fixed Beresford’s attention by feinting at the village of Albuera, in the Allied centre. He then unleashed a massive attack against Beresford’s right flank, where a Spanish division swung round to face the threat and fought gallantly, buying valuable time. A British infantry brigade under Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne – one of the stars of the age, who was to become a field marshal and a peer – moved up to support the Spaniards. It was locked in a firefight with enemy infantry when French hussars and Polish lancers fell on its open flank, at the very moment that a sudden cloudburst drenched the mens’ muskets so that they would not fire. Lieutenant George Crompton of the 66th Regiment told his mother of the catastrophe that ensued. It was:

the first time (and God knows I hope the last) I saw the backs of English soldiers turned upon the French…Oh, what a day was that. The worst of the story I have not related. Our Colours were taken. I told you before that the 2 Ensigns were shot under them; 2 Sergeants shared the same fate. A Lieutenant seized a musket to defend them, and he was shot to the heart: what could be done against Cavalry?

Two fresh British brigades then came into line, and Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th Regiment relates how the powder smoke, so utterly characteristic of these battles, was snatched away for a moment to reveal:

the French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was a momentary, but a grand sight: a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly…This murderous contest of musketry lasted long. We were the whole time progressively advancing and shaking the enemy. At a distance of about twenty yards from them, we received orders to charge; we had ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity. Already, however, the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers, which always indicate the charge, had broke and fled.

Perhaps five hundred yards to Sherer’s right was Ensign Benjamin Hobhouse of the 57th Regiment, which was engaged in a prodigious close-range firefight.

At this time our poor fellows dropped around us in every direction. In the activity of the officers to keep the men firm, and to supply them with the ammunition of the fallen, you could scarcely avoid treading on the dying and the dead. But all was firm…Tho’ alone, our fire never slackened, nor were the men in the least disheartened…Our Colonel, major, every captain and eleven subalterns fell; our King’s Colours were cut in two, our regimental ones had 17 balls through them, many companies were without officers…

Lieutenant Colonel William Inglis, hit in the chest by grapeshot, lay in front of the colours and encouraged his men by shouting ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard’. The 57th Regiment and its post-1881 successor the Middlesex Regiment, were to be proudly known as Diehards.

Finally, the Fusilier brigade – two battalions of 7th Royal Fusiliers and one of 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers – arrived to clinch the victory. In the ranks of 1/7th was Private John Spencer Cooper, an avid student of military history who had enlisted in the Volunteers in 1803 at the age of fifteen and transferred to the regulars in 1806. His book Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, written up when Cooper was 81, gives a soldier’s view of the battle.

Under the tremendous fire of the enemy our line staggers, men are knocked about like skittles, but not a step backward is taken. Here our Colonel and all the field-officers of the brigade fell killed or wounded, but no confusion ensued. The orders were ‘close up’; ‘close in’; ‘fire away’; ‘forward’. This is done. We are close to the enemy’s columns; they break and rush down the other side of the hill in the greatest moblike confusion.

The word ‘moblike’ goes to the very heart of the matter. As the French columns disintegrated, so Soult’s army reverted to the shoal of individuals in which all armies have their origin, and to which, but for the efforts of drillmasters, leaders, and steadfast comrades, they return all too easily. Soult told Napoleon that he had been robbed of victory. ‘The British were completely beaten and the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’ Well might Sir William Napier, himself a Peninsular veteran, celebrate ‘that astonishing infantry’.

Britain’s command of the sea, re-emphasised at Trafalgar in 1805, enabled her to mount smaller expeditions. Sometimes these were successes, like the descent on Copenhagen in 1807, and sometimes failures, like the disastrous Buenos Aires expedition of 1806–7. The epoch had a tragic adjunct. An Anglo-American conflict – ‘the War of 1812’ – had begun promisingly for Britain with the repulse of an American attack on Canada and the temporary seizure of Washington, but ended in British defeat at New Orleans in January 1815, a battle fought before news of a negotiated peace reached North America.

It was not until 1854 that the British army faced its first major post-Napoleonic trial, and the final major war of our period, when an Anglo-French force, with its British contingent under General Lord Raglan, invaded the Crimea in an effort to take the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. The Allies won an early victory on the River Alma in September and beat off two Russian attacks on their siege lines at Balaclava and Inkerman. After a dreadful winter on freezing uplands, they took the outworks that dominated Sevastopol and forced the Russians to withdraw the following summer.

There was sporadic fighting in India throughout the period. In 1764 the British strengthened their grip on Bengal at the battle of Buxar, and in 1799 Tipoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, was killed when the British stormed his capital Seringapatam. There were three wars against the fierce Mahrattas, whose confederacy sprawled across central India, and in the second (1803–5) they were beaten, with the future Duke of Wellington striking the decisive blow at Assaye (1803). The Pindaris, piratical freebooters who lived on the fringe of the Mahratta armies, were beaten in 1812–17, and a third Mahratta war in 1817–19 saw the British extend their power to the borders of the Punjab and Sind.

In 1838 the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided to install a pro-British ruler, Shah Shujah, on the throne of Afghanistan to provide a bulwark against the threat of Russian expansion. The advance to Kabul went well, but in the winter of 1841–42 there was rising against Shah Shujah. The British and Indian force, weakly commanded, retired from Kabul towards Jellalabad, but was cut to pieces as it did so: only one man, Dr Bryden, managed to reach safety.

Better fortune attended the next expansionist step, and in 1843 the British annexed Sind. This brought them into conflict with the martial Sikhs, rulers of the Punjab. In the first Sikh War (1845–46) the British won hard-fought battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon. When hostilities broke out again in 1848 the British had the better of a scrambling battle at Chilian wallah and a decisive clash at Gujerat, and went on to annex the Punjab.

Brown Bess was now almost a thing of the past, superseded from 1842 by a musket ignited by a percussion cap, which was far more reliable than the flintlock, and from 1853 by a percussion rifle. Ironically it was the introduction of this rifle into the Indian army that helped produce the last conflict of the period. The rifle’s paper cartridge was lubricated with grease, and rumours that this was the fat of pork (unclean to Muslims) or cattle (sacred to Hindus) induced some soldiers of the Bengal army to refuse the cartridges and precipitated the Indian Mutiny in March 1857. The mutineers took Delhi, and overwhelmed a British force at Cawnpore, where the survivors were massacred. Lucknow, capital of the princely state of Oudh, held out, and was eventually relieved after the British had taken Delhi by storm in September 1857.

The Mutiny was the last time that Brown Bess was carried in battle by British soldiers. Lieutenant Richard Barter, adjutant of the 75th Foot, – ‘the Stirlingshire Regiment, good men and true as ever had the honour of serving their Queen and Country’ – describes how a hundred men from his battalion were issued with the new rifle, ‘all the rest of the regiment retaining old Brown Bess’. But the new weapon was not deemed a success, and ‘the men, with few exceptions, contrived to get rid of their rifles and in their place picked up the old weapons of their dead comrades.’ Hobden would surely have approved.

Brown Bess had held sway for more than a century. But within a decade she was as obsolete as the longbow, superseded first by percussion weapons and finally by breech-loading rifles in a process of accelerating technical innovation. There were other major changes too: the purchase of commissions was abolished in 1871, and the regimental system was recast shortly afterwards to produce county regiments, with two regular battalions (the 37th joined the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment to produce the Hampshire Regiment) linked to form a new regiment which would normally have one battalion at home and another abroad. The process was not popular, and traditionalists demanded the return of ‘our numbers wreathed in glory.’ In 1884 Colonel Arthur Poole angrily declared that he could not possibly attend a Hampshire regimental dinner. ‘Damned names,’ he wrote, ‘mean nothing. Since time immemorial regiments have been numbered according to their precedence in the Line…I will not come to anything called a Hampshire Regimental dinner. My compliments, Sir, and be damned.’

Operation Crossbow Part I

Interdiction and Crossbow

On Sunday morning, June 18, 1944, Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, visited London’s Hyde Park to see her daughter Mary, who was a young officer serving with the local anti-aircraft battery. It had been a busy week on the home front. Almost two weeks prior, the invasion force had departed British ports and landed on the Norman coast. Early optimism over the landing’s success had receded slightly as the Germans had launched a new aerial assault, this time with unmanned, pilotless bombs. Mrs. Churchill arrived while the guns were firing at one of these strange contraptions, which sounded like a truck struggling, with its engine sputtering, to climb a steep hill. This particular aircraft passed overhead unharmed and destroyed a nearby house. As the mother and daughter were talking, another bomb appeared in the sky, and the battery again fired frantically at this machine as it flew overhead. Not hit, its engine stopped as scheduled, dove to earth, and exploded beyond the view of the women. Mrs. Churchill did not realize until later that morning that the explosion took place at the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace. A service was in progress, and the bomb killed or wounded more than two hundred active and retired members of the brigade. This incident was the most destructive V-1 attack of the war.

The German flying bomb and rocket offensive came as no surprise to Allied leaders. Although the first attack did not take place until the middle of June 1944, British intelligence had known about German research in this area since 1939. Throughout 1942 and 1943, evidence continued to accumulate that this research had progressed beyond the simple experimentation stage. For several years, German scientists had been laboring at several locations, especially Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea, to perfect these systems to strike at the English enemy. By early 1943 it became apparent to British intelligence specialists that these programs were potentially dangerous and that the government needed to take action. It was ironic that this news arrived just as the prospects for Allied success in the war against Nazi Germany were improving. America had been in the conflict for more than a year, and its forces were now fighting the German army in North Africa. Its buildup of troops in the British Isles continued, and the US Eighth Air Force had joined RAF Bomber Command in its campaign against German industry. The Soviet Red Army had thrown back the Nazi offensive at Stalingrad and appeared to have turned the tide in the east. But it was premature to celebrate as new weapons emerged that seemed to threaten the foundation of the Anglo-American war effort. From the week after D-Day in June 1944 until the end of the war, British civilians lived under the constant bombardment of Hitler’s so-called vengeance weapons (Vergeltungswaffe). Most students of the Second World War are aware that the V-1 pilotless bomb and the V-2 rocket wreaked havoc on London, eastern England, and Antwerp until March 1945, when Allied forces overran the last launcher units. When it was over, the V-weapons had killed approximately 9,000 British and 1,400 Belgian civilians and wounded more than twice that many.

This shooting war, however, began almost a year earlier, under Operation Crossbow. From June 1943 until the end of the war, Allied heavy bombers attacked Peenemünde and other construction and testing facilities in Germany. These attacks fit into the already established parameters of the Combined Bomber Offensive, so there was no actual diversion of effort. What was a controversial deviation from the strategic forces’ intended role, however, was their large-scale employment to attack these systems and their facilities in France. Crossbow was a massive effort that from August 1943 until August 1944 consumed more than 15 percent of the total tonnage dropped by the RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force. This operation also drained the resources of the two tactical air forces, the US Ninth Air Force and RAF Second Tactical Air Forces, as medium bombers and fighter-bombers attacked suspected V-weapon facilities. So important was it to the Combined Chiefs of Staff to find these launchers that from May 1943 until April 1945 it dispatched more than four thousand reconnaissance sorties in search of these weapons, more than 40 percent of the total. Across northwestern France, most of these attacks, often with more than fifty bombers at a time, took place near the small villages that dot the departments of Pas-de-Calais, Somme, and Nord. Few remember these events. Unlike the bombing of Rouen, Le Havre, Caen, and Saint-Lô, whose citizens have commemorated the Allied destruction of their cities, there are few memorials to the French citizens of this region. The number of casualties caused by this and related bombing efforts is not insignificant. Although exact losses are always difficult to estimate, Allied air attacks collectively killed approximately 8,460 civilians in the departments of the Pas-de-Calais, the Nord, and the Somme. If just 10 percent of those were as a result of the Noball offensive, which is reasonable considering the dispersion of the various launchers, then it is a figure worth noting in the historical record.

The descriptions of the V-weapon war fall into several incomplete historical narratives. One group of historians focuses on the technical aspects of these advanced weapons systems and the construction of the French launching sites. These works, while essential to understanding the vengeance weapon programs, generally fail to describe the effect of the bombing of these facilities on the French. British historian Norman Longmate typifies the second group of authors, who focus on the German use of these systems against targets in the United Kingdom. His books chronicle the suffering of the British living under these attacks and the determined efforts of fighter pilots to shoot down the flying bombs before they could do any damage. His is the narrative that most Englishmen who lived through that period can identify with. The third group of books is the official histories, which are the traditional sources for understanding the relationship of Allied bombing operations against these weapons, their launchers, and support facilities. In general, these historians see the commitment of bombers against these rocket sites as a diversion of precious air resources from their primary tasks, and they downplay their overall importance. All these traditional accounts fail to grapple with the damage bombing raids caused among the French towns and villages. Some historians have begun correcting this imbalance and are going beyond English-centric narratives and descriptions of construction and technical data. Regional historians, those who have grown up among the concrete ruins and have heard from their elders the stories of the bombing, have done the best work in this field. Finally, absent from almost all discussions are the forced laborers who constructed the massive concrete facilities. The thousands of people the Germans worked to death pouring concrete and digging into hillsides have been all but lost to history and assimilated into general discussions of the Holocaust. This group probably suffered from the Allied bombing in the same manner as other French civilians.

Vengeance Systems

Ultimately, three major systems emerged as Hitler’s vengeance weapons, his attempt to punish the English tormentors who refused to surrender to the logic of Nazi domination and continued to bomb German cities. Collectively, they represented a significant threat to the United Kingdom, the Allied war effort in general, and the invasion of northwest Europe in particular. Building the infrastructure for these systems was a massive effort that strained the German wartime economy. Constructing the dozen or so large launcher facilities, approximately ninety smaller launching sites, and a host of supply and storage installations drained workers and resources away from other construction priorities. Organisation Todt, the Nazi building contractor, had hoped to accomplish this work with volunteer and conscripted workers. There was never enough civilian labor, and ultimately it needed to resort to slave labor to keep the work on schedule. The first weapon placed into use was the Luftwaffe-designed flying bomb, the FZG-76 (Flakzielgerat 76), better known as the V-1 (Vergeltunswaffe 1) or Vengeance Weapon 1, intended to be launched from permanent sites. It was essentially a pilotless aircraft with a one-ton warhead and a unique-sounding pulse-jet engine. A magnetic-gyro compass guided it toward its destination. It flew at approximately 300 miles per hour until it ran out of fuel, a distance of 120 to 140 miles. Once it stopped, its one-ton high-explosive warhead crashed into the ground.

The second system was the Aggregat 4 or A-4, better known as the V-2 (Vergeltunswaffe 2) or Vengeance Weapon 2. Werner von Braun, who would later contribute to the American space program, developed it for the German army based on ideas developed by American scientist Robert Goddard. It was a long-range ballistic missile originally designed to be fired from fixed facilities in France and Belgium. In the last years of the war, this was the Nazi regime’s most expensive armament project and, in Hitler’s view, the best way to defeat the Anglo-American invaders. Each of these forty-five-foot systems traveled at more than three thousand miles per hour and carried a one-ton, high-explosive warhead. In open terrain, it could create a crater thirty-forty yards in diameter and ten to fifteen yards deep. Obviously, it was capable of doing widespread damage if it hit a city.

Crossbow Overview

As early as 1939, the British government was aware of several military rocket programs under development in Germany, and by the end of 1942 the intelligence services were receiving regular reports of rocket tests along the Baltic coast. Between January and June 1943, long-range reconnaissance flights had confirmed the existence of a testing area at Peenemünde, ninety miles east of Rostock, and had clearly identified the presence of rockets. At the same time, reports continued to accumulate about large-scale excavations and construction in the Pas-de-Calais and Manche departments of northern France. In April 1943 Churchill received his first detailed briefing on the possibility of long-range rockets aimed at London. The British Chiefs of Staff formed a special committee to monitor the developing threat and appointed a member of Parliament and Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys, to head it. The primary task of this group was to figure out what the Germans were up to, what was the actual threat, and how the Allies could defeat it. A few members of the government doubted the existence of a rocket program, arguing it was a German hoax, but the evidence continued to accumulate as Sandys continued his investigation. Soon he had silenced their protests.

By early November 1943, the nature of the threat had become relatively clear as intelligence analysts realized that Organisation Todt was constructing three different types of installations in the Pas-de-Calais and the Cotentin Peninsula. Some of these were enormous, with deep excavations surrounded or covered by large amounts of concrete. These experts were still unable to determine their precise purpose but strongly suspected some innovative weapon. As a result, the Air Ministry, which had the best means of responding to enemy actions across the channel, took control of the investigation from Sandys’ committee and began to focus on the military aspects of the problem. Information continued to flow into London from a variety of sources, and by the beginning of 1944 it was evident that there were at least two different long-range weapon threats. Analysts reported that they had identified Flak Regiment 155W, with a headquarters in Amiens, which commanded 108 flying-bomb catapults designed to launch these unique aircraft. The prospect of rockets raining down on the United Kingdom could affect the nation’s will to fight and the Allies’ ability to invade the continent. Experts presented Churchill with estimates indicating that these rockets could inflict severe casualties upon the capital’s population, upwards of 30,000 killed and wounded. The British Chiefs of Staff were also concerned about the potential damage these weapons could do to the preparations for the landings in France. In the middle of December, they asked Frederick Morgan, still serving as the chief Overlord planner before Eisenhower’s arrival, about the potential effects of the rockets on the staging and execution of the invasion. They also inquired if he should consider mounting Operation Overlord from bases out of range of the vengeance weapons, such as harbors in Ireland, Northern Britain, or even the United States. The staff needed to know the chief planner’s thoughts and when they would have to make this decision. Morgan argued that the invasion had to be launched from the south, and he needed to know “at once” if he needed to make any significant changes in his plan. The chiefs directed no changes to the current preparations.

As the plan to deal with these weapons, known as Crossbow, emerged, it contained several distinct sets of action. Most immediately, the government developed a civil defense and security plan that integrated observers, detection devices, balloons, and interceptor aircraft. These improved on the measures developed earlier during the German air force’s bombing of London, but the staff was not overly optimistic about their effectiveness. The second aspect of the plan was the destruction of test sites and factories in Germany. The third and final portion of the operation was to destroy launching sites on the continent. They called this process Noball, which is the code name used for all missions and target lists against vengeance weapons in France.

The British public first became aware of this threat with the first V-1 attack, code-named Diver, a week after the Normandy invasion, during the night of June 12 and 13, when four bombs hit targets around London. A few days later, the barrage began in earnest with Flak Regiment 155W sending as many as one hundred flying bombs toward London each day. The most intense phase of this bombardment took place from June through the end of August 1944. During this period, the Germans controlled the French Pas-de-Calais region and used the plethora of modified launching sites scattered across the countryside. By June 18 the political panic within the British government was such that Eisenhower felt the need to pointedly tell Tedder that destroying Noball targets “are to take first priority over everything except the urgent requirements of the battle.” By July the British cabinet was debating using poison gas to contaminate launchers in France and as retaliation against the German homeland. Allied success on the battlefield muted such discussions, and as the Allies broke out of the Normandy bridgehead in July and began heading north, they overran these sites, sending the launch crews scurrying toward the Netherlands and Germany.

The first V-2 rocket attack, code-named Big Ben, hit London on September 8. There were few defensive measures the British could implement to stop the attacks. The rockets simply traveled too fast to be stopped by any system in the Allied inventory. The only effective defense was to continue to attack supply sites and factories in Germany. Rocket attacks continued against London and other cities in Europe until March 1945, when Allied ground forces overran most of Germany’s industrial area.

Executing Noball

British intelligence eventually identified four kinds of Noball targets in France: heavy sites, ski sites, modified sites, and supply and support facilities. It was the discovery of the nine large construction sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and the Cotentin Peninsula near Cherbourg that first captured the attention of British intelligence analysts. Throughout 1943 Organisation Todt’s building units, supported by thousands of slave workers and conscripted civilian labor, began excavating and building what British documents refer to as the “heavy” Crossbow sites. After the war, the Allies discovered that the German air force had responsibility for four of these, which were intended to store, assemble, and launch a large number of V-1 flying bombs. Code-named “Wasserwerk,” or water works, by the Germans to hide their purpose, these were primarily long tunnels with gaps in the ceiling to fire rockets toward London. In the Cotentin, they built one in Tamerville, northeast of Valognes, and the other at Couville, southwest of Cherbourg. The US Army’s VII Corps overran both of these installations in late June 1944. The other two were Lottinghen, east of Boulogne, and Siracourt, west of Arras in the Pas-de-Calais. Siracourt was typical of these kinds of launching sites. The dozen or so houses at the beginning of the war contained fewer than 140 citizens, mostly farmers and their families. The German army evacuated the French civilians as Organisation Todt arrived in the spring of 1943. On a little hill, just west of the village, contractors began construction in September. This facility was to be the first of four to process, store, and possibly fire the V-1. The main construction was 625 feet long and 132 feet wide and oriented at a right angle to London. The 1,200 workers, primarily Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, and French forced labor, lived in a camp at Croix-en-Ternois a little more than a mile away. Under the supervision of Organisation Todt’s guard force (Schützkommando), the workers ultimately built the structure and poured more than 50,000 cubic meters of concrete to make it invulnerable to Allied bombers. Because of the bombing, however, it was impossible to finish its construction. As a result, the Germans never fired a flying bomb from it, and it fell to Canadian troops in September 1944.

The German army controlled the V-2 rockets, and it designed large concrete installations, capable of launching seven to ten rockets per day, with sophisticated storage and assembly capability. For example, the launchers at Wizernes, next to Saint-Omer, lay beneath a massive concrete cupola twenty feet thick and were capable of launching their rockets from two platforms. Other sites at Watten (Éperlecques), near Calais, and Sottevast, near Cherbourg, were just as massive and required millions of tons of concrete. Forty-four miles north of Siracourt and eleven miles northwest of the Luftwaffe airfields at Saint-Omer is the three-square-mile complex at Watten. On its southwest corner, Organisation Todt built a massive structure that came to be called the Blockhaus. It was an incredibly large structure that absorbed thousands of tons of concrete and the forced labor of thousands of unfortunate workers. Based on experience at the submarine pens along the coast, the German engineers expected it to withstand the bombardment of whatever the enemy could drop on top. The Allies never understood its exact purpose but knew they had to destroy anything that was consuming so much German effort. It was the first site detected by British reconnaissance. Duncan Sandys never believed it had an offensive capability and, even after his visit in October, considered it to be a plant for the production of hydrogen peroxide, which the Germans were using as a fuel. Postwar records and analysis indicate, though, that it may have served as a general storage, assembly, and launching facility in, according to one researcher, “a bomb-proof environment.” Most experts believe it was capable of launching rockets on its own.

Twelve miles south of the Blockhaus near Saint-Omer is the village of Wizernes. In an old quarry, Organisation Todt constructed one of the largest installations of the war, the V-2 launcher site known as La Coupole, or the dome, for the most impressive aspect of the facility. Todt designed it to assemble, fuel, and fire rockets from within the protected site. Upwards of 1,300 forced laborers worked on this project twenty-four hours a day. Like the Blockhaus, it had two launcher ramps that could fire rockets simultaneously and was probably the most sophisticated of the vengeance weapon launching sites. By March 1944 British intelligence was convinced that it needed to be added to the list of Noball targets. The most sinister of V-2 launcher sites was the silo complex west of Cherbourg near La Hague. These, generally overlooked by Allied intelligence, resemble the later American nuclear missile silos of the Cold War. It never became operational, and the US VII Corps occupied this region in July 1944. The problem for the Germans was that the construction crews could not hide the extensive work sites from the hundreds of Allied reconnaissance aircraft searching for signs of activity. The continuous bombing of the extensive excavations in France meant the Germans could not complete the launching facilities, which ended any possibility of the German air force using them. Ultimately, the Germans would fire no V-2 rockets from fixed sites but would employ mobile launchers that were essentially impossible for the Allies to detect in advance.

Eleven miles from Cap Gris-Nez, across the channel from Dover and ninety-five miles from the center of London, is a facility unique among the heavy sites. The British knew the Nazis were developing a long-range gun, but they did not know any details. The German army had done this before, and Allied commanders had visions of a weapon similar to the artillery used to bombard Paris in the previous conflict or the large guns deployed along the French coast. Therefore, most analysts believed the construction at Mimoyecques, France, was a variation on a V-2 launch site, since it bore no resemblance to anything with which they were familiar. Also, since most of the workers were German, few details emerged as to its actual intent. In reality, the site housed something revolutionary, a large battery of long-range guns, called Hochdruckpumpe (high-pressure pump) guns, later referred to by the Allies as Vengeance Weapon-3. Each 330-foot smooth-bore gun was to be capable of firing a six-foot-long dart about a hundred miles. Its range was the product of added velocity created by solid rocket boosters arrayed along the edge of the tube. Each projectile could carry about forty pounds of high explosives. The plan was to construct banks of five guns each with the potential of firing six hundred rounds per hour toward London. British intelligence knew little about what was going on inside the facility. After the war, Duncan Sandys’ investigation of the large sites discovered the true nature of the threat they had faced. Fortunately, Allied air attacks prevented Organisation Todt from ever finishing its work and German gunners were never able to fire these weapons.

The second kind of targets identified by Allied analysts were the so-called ski sites, named from the configuration of several buildings that looked like snow skis on their side. By late 1943 British intelligence officers had identified between seventy and eighty of these, hidden in the hundreds of wooden patches that dot the northwestern French countryside, with their launchers pointed directly at their intended target. If left alone, each one of these small installations could hurl fifteen FZG-76 flying bombs across the channel each day. The cumulative effect of hundreds of these striking London daily would not help civilian morale. They also posed a direct threat to the harbors from which the Allies would launch and sustain the invasion. One of the first sites identified by intelligence analysts was in the Bois Carré (Square Woods) about three-quarters of a mile east of Yvrench and ten miles northeast of Abbeville on the Somme. A French Resistance agent was able to infiltrate the construction site in October 1943 and smuggle out some of earliest detailed descriptions of a ski site layout. The long catapult, generally visible from the sky and quickly identified by reconnaissance aircraft, became the signature target indicator. As a result, even with extensive camouflage, they were identified, targeted, and destroyed by Anglo-American aircraft. As a result, none of these installations ever became operational.

Soon after the first air attacks, German leaders began considering an alternative method of launching the V-1. Security and concealment now became a priority, and these modified launcher sites were better camouflaged and of simpler construction. These new launchers no longer had many of the standard buildings, especially those that resembled skis, which had contributed to their rapid discovery by intelligence specialists. With minimal permanent construction, the only identifiable features were an easily hidden concrete foundation for the launch ramp and a small building to set the bomb’s compass. Other buildings were designed to blend into the environment or to look like the local farmhouses. All this took less than a week to fabricate, and forced labor no longer did the construction work, as German soldiers prepared each site in secret. Supply crews delivered the flying bombs directly to the launcher from a hidden location, assembled and ready to launch. All the teams needed to do was set the compass and mount it on the catapult. Difficult to locate from the air, these launchers would remain operational until overrun by Allied ground troops in early September 1944. After that, the Germans launched their V-1 rockets from sites in the Netherlands or from German bombers specially configured to fire these weapons.

One week after the last V-1 flew from French soil, the V-2 rocket made its first appearance when it slammed into a French village southeast of Paris, killing six civilians. The German army had abandoned any hope of using large fixed sites for anything other than storage, and they now organized the delivery of their rockets as mobile systems, structured around less than a dozen vehicles and trailers. While the rocket was still hidden, crews prepared it for launch, a process that took between four and six hours. Within two hours of mission time, the firing unit deployed to a previously surveyed site and erected the rocket on a mobile pad. As soon as it was on the way, the soldiers disappeared into the woods, leaving little trace of the launch. Unless an Allied fighter happened to catch the Germans during the short preparation process, there was little the air forces could do to prevent launches. The Germans fired none of the mobile V-2s from French soil, but fired them instead from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. While not part of the discussion of bombing France, these rockets are an important reminder that the Germans continued to use mobile sites until the end of the war.

The final kinds of Noball targets were the supply sites that provided rockets for the individual firing units and the transportation network that supported them. By February 1944 the Allies had determined that seven facilities existed, one on the Cotentin Peninsula and the remainder arrayed just east of the belt of launchers. These, however, were relatively difficult to attack and were often located within underground bunkers or railroad tunnels, under fortresses, or deep within thick woods. They also were often protected by extensive anti-aircraft artillery. More vulnerable were the various rail yards that served as offload and staging points for these systems. Rail stations in Saint-Omer, Bethune, Lille, Lens, and Arras were the crucial nodes in this network. Attacking these transportation nodes also supported the goals of the Transportation Plan, the Allied attack of bridges along the Seine and Loire, and Operation Fortitude, the effort to deceive the Germans as to the actual location of the invasion.


Operation Crossbow Part II

V-1 Rocket attacked by Spitfire F Mk XVI

Effect on France

The standard British narrative omits or minimizes the effect of this campaign on the environment and people who lived near the concrete launcher facilities. War is not merely a sport played on a designated field between military teams, but is a multidimensional tornado of violence that scars the land and people through which it passes. The skies of this small corner of Europe—three departments, the Nord, the Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme, together smaller in size than the state of New Jersey—were never empty of combat aircraft as the Allies searched for these vengeance weapons. As pointed out earlier, these aircraft were not extremely accurate. American and British air commanders, especially those in charge of the heavy bombers, seldom made claims about bombing precision. In almost every case, no matter how small the target, a minimum of a dozen B-17s or Lancasters, the general flight configuration of operations over Germany, executed the attack. Unlike during raids against the Ruhr or industrial complexes across the Rhine, few Luftwaffe fighters defended these sites. Flying high above the objective, in the same formations they used in the heart of Germany, crews dropped their munitions with the intent to pulverize the installation by the cumulative effect of the explosive tonnage. As the authors of WPD-1 anticipated, most bombs missed the target. Some got close and affected the facility’s supply routes, while others only tore up farmers’ fields and killed their livestock. Many others physically destroyed the farms and villages near the objective, killing or wounding those who lived there. Therefore, in evaluating Operation Crossbow’s effect on France, we can examine it from three different aspects: the intensity of the air attacks, the inaccuracy of the attacks on these targets, and the killing and wounding of those near the bombing attacks.

The intensity of the bombing effort against Noball targets is difficult to understand in the contemporary era of precision munitions. According to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, published soon after the war, this operation consumed 13.7 percent of all sorties, almost 37,000, launched by the Allied strategic air forces from August 1943 until August 1944. From December 1943 through June 11, 1944, more than 15.5 percent of all bombs dropped by heavy bombers were aimed at fixed sites in France. The tactical air forces conducted more than 4,000 reconnaissance sorties, 40 percent of the total between May 1943 to April 1945, to find the launchers and their supporting facilities. The northern French departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and the Somme was one of the most heavily bombed parts of France if measured by individual missions. During the first three months of 1944, more than 50 percent of all bombs dropped in the country fell on these three small departments. The bombing’s scale is reflected in three ways: the number of attacks in the region, the number on a given target, and the intensity of a bombing mission. For example, in the space of just one month, February 1944, the towns of the Pas-de-Calais, an area smaller than the state of Delaware, absorbed 124 separate attacks, ranging in size from one or two aircraft to several dozen. Some areas, such as the installations at Siracourt and Éperlecques, were each hit several times. By spring, the weather had improved and the Allies had more aircraft available. On just one day, April 20, the region endured thirty-six separate attacks. The following month, during the week of May 7–13, this same small area absorbed more than seventy-one separate raids. The Allies increased the pace of these attacks as the June landings approached, and, shortly after that, the German air force began to launch flying bombs from the improvised sites toward London.

A second way to understand scale is to consider the number of missions flown against the individual sites. The large installations in the Pas-de-Calais absorbed an incredible number of bombs. The facility at Mimoyecques, what British investigators later discovered as the home of the Hochdrukpumpe (V-3), is typical of the offensive against the most prominent targets. Beginning with the first raid on November 5, 1943, the entire complex remained in a state of increasing pulverization. Determining the exact number of sorties that attacked this or any target is difficult. Records usually include reports of the intended target and what pilots thought they were attacking. Some hit the wrong objective without even knowing it. Other crews, especially those in the tactical air forces, hit targets of opportunity. Observers on the ground reported Allied air attacks on days not mentioned in the documents now stored in London or American archives. In the case of Mimoyecques, Allied bombers attacked seventeen times between November 1943 and July 6, 1944. Most missions ranged in size from 10 to 40 aircraft. Several raids were enormous in relationship to the targets, with more than 280 heavy bombers pulverizing the area on November 5, 1943, another 300 on March 19, and 350 on March 26. Two raids on July 6 essentially ended all work on the site. The morning strike of more than 85 Lancasters was with conventional munitions, mainly 500-pound bombs. An afternoon attack of the RAF’s crack 617 Squadron, equipped with 17 Lancaster bombers carrying 12,000-pound Tallboy bombs, finished the destruction of the facility.

In the case of the Wasserwerk at Siracourt, for example, 74 US B-24 Liberator bombers arrived overhead on January 31, 1944. Each bombardier aimed to place his payload on top of a building the size of a modern football field. As the Air Force knew, the probability of actually hitting the target was quite small. The 189 tons of ordnance had little effect on the construction, as most bombs fell in fields far from the actual target. The attack destroyed one building and damaged nine in the village. Bombs also hit two buildings in the local village of Croix-en-Ternois, where the workers who built the facility lived. This attack was the first of thirty-three, conducted by more than 1,200 bombers, which would take place over the next year. The Eighth Air Force struck six times in February, twice in March, four times in April, and six times in May. The Ninth Air Force attacked Siracourt on March 18 and April 22. These were, from the airmen’s perspective, relatively easy missions. During a May 21 mission, for example, each aircraft carried eight 1,000-pound bombs. The 99 B-17 bombers had P-47 Thunderbolt fighters as escorts all the way and encountered no enemy fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. Dropping their bombs at 21,000 feet at ground obscured by clouds, crews had no idea of what kind of damage their explosives caused. As one crewman remarked in his journal, “This raid was short and sweet. . . . Hope I have 27 more just like this one.” The Allies continued to attack this target, just in case, until the end of June.

Another good example is the Blockhaus at Watten in the Éperlecques forest. The Eighth Air Force sent more than 180 B-17 bombers to take out the site on August 27, 1943. The first aircraft hit as scheduled at 1845 hours. Allied planners, based on reports from the French Resistance, planned to arrive at 1830, when the work site was unoccupied because of a shift change, to avoid killing the workers. But because they were behind schedule, Todt’s contractors had kept the day shift on the job to catch up. The 374 2,000-pound bombs found the slave laborers at their stations. Hundreds died as American bombers continued to drop their cargo for almost an hour. When it was over, five bombs had hit the target, with the remainder landing in the forest and nearby farmland. Contrary to initial positive reports, the raid inflicted little actual damage, and the Germans continued the construction. Over the next year, British and American bombers would attack this massive structure at least twenty-four more times, and each time the workers repaired the damage and continued working.

The last attack in this series was an Operation Aphrodite mission on August 4. Aphrodite was an American attempt to use worn-out bombers, loaded with explosives and equipped with newly developed radio guidance systems, to destroy important targets. Essentially each bomber was an early version of a cruise missile. Unfortunately these bombers required live pilots to fly the aircraft from the airfield to a point over the English Channel. Then, the two-person crew was supposed to parachute out of the plane, while a crew in another flew the unmanned bomber by radio control. The goal was to crash the explosive-laden aircraft into the target. Unfortunately the technology was still in development, and these missions were almost always unsuccessful. Such was the case of these two old B-17s that never made it to the objective. The US Navy followed the Air Forces’ lead in these experiments, with as little success. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., brother of future president John F. Kennedy, died when the converted B-24 he was flying to the launch position exploded in mid-air.

The massive La Coupole near Wizernes is another example of a heavily bombed target. The Allies were late as the massive dome was already in place and and mostly invulnerable to attack by March 1943. The first strike, consisting of 34 B-24 bombers, hit on March 11. The 248 1,000-pound bombs did little but damage the local countryside. Nine more raids, comprising 348 heavy bombers and more than 2,000 large bombs, did little damage, and work continued inside, although affected slightly by the damage outside. Bomber Command began attacking La Coupole in June and July with raids of between 80 and 100 aircraft and dropping hundreds of tons of bombs, including several dozen Tallboy 12,000-pounders. The July 17 attack caused the dome to shift and block the entrances, but it did little to affect the site itself. Of course, the countryside was a bombed-out mess, and it was almost impossible for workers and material to get to the construction site. The Germans were long gone when Canadian and Polish troops arrived in the Saint-Omer region at the end of August.

A final way to consider the scale of this operation is the intensity of the attacks on individual sites by specific missions. In addition to the intense bombing of the large sites described above, the V-1 sites absorbed an incredible amount of ordnance. Typical was the installation near Wisques, west of Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais. With fewer than three hundred people, it was a typical farm community. Its most prominent feature was a beautiful nineteenth-century Benedictine abbey on the western part of town on the edge of the local forest. Hidden in that forest was a standard “ski” launch site. Thirty-six A-20 Havoc light bombers arrived overhead on the evening of March 19, 1944, and for almost three hours these aircraft took turns dropping their payloads on the small patch of woods, obscured by fire from antiaircraft guns and smoke from the burning forest. When they had departed, they were not quite sure if they had damaged the target. The Eighth Air Force sent six B-17 heavy bombers on April 20, and the Ninth Air Force returned with B-26 medium bombers two days later on April 22. Twenty-one B-17 heavy bombers returned to attack the installation five days later, and thirty-three P-47 Thunderbolt fighters worked the woods over on June 2, the last recorded attack on the Wisques launcher. Cumulatively, it was a massive amount of combat power directed against a relatively small and insignificant target.

The intensity of these attacks was made worse by the bombers’ notorious inaccuracy. By early 1944, after years of practice, the Eighth Air Force had improved its bombing accuracy to the degree that 36 percent of its bombs fell within one thousand feet of an actual aiming point. Against targets in Germany, this was acceptable, but from the French perspective, most raids conducted by heavy bombers still resembled area attacks. Add considerations such as inclement weather, German ground and air defenses, and simple human error, it is not surprising that bomb runs were often wide of the intended target. Photographs of craters in target areas testify to the broad impact spread of a typical attack. Beyond the damage done to the weapons sites, these runs often hit nearby French villages and individual structures. In some cases, such as the bombing of rail yards, the damage was apparent to all. In most cases, however, the Noball offensive was characterized by the destruction of small farms and villages far from most observers. This “collateral damage,” to use a modern term, is seldom mentioned in reports or dispatches by attacking units. To those who owned these structures, their destruction was an emotional event. The fundamental community structure of the region, dating back to the premedieval era, was a small central cluster of farmhouses and barns with a forest nearby that provided a source of game and lumber. Most of the surrounding open area was devoted to growing grains and potatoes and raising cattle. The nature of these clusters was that if they were near a target, the odds were high that the carpet bombing would destroy them. Reports provided to the local prefect confirm the damage, as do photographs of the bombed areas taken by poststrike reconnaissance aircraft. Immediately after the war, French farmers and property owners filed reports with the local authorities documenting their losses and requesting assistance in rebuilding, reports that can be seen in departmental archives today.

Often the Allies attacked these small villages only once or twice. For example, the town of Blendecques, the location of a V-1 ski site, had about 3,500 inhabitants at the beginning of the war. The town was southeast of the highly militarized region of Saint-Omer, and it is hard to know how many of the original residents were still there. On April 22 the Ninth Air Force raided it for the first and apparently the only time. At around 1900 hours fifty B-26 bombers attacked the site. When the attackers were gone, at least fifty bombs had hit the town, killing five civilians and wounding another three badly. The attack destroyed eleven homes and damaged forty-three others. Month after month, correspondence from the local prefectures across the region identified the damage or destruction to individual homes and structures. While not as dramatic as the bombing of Caen or Rouen, this damage had a substantial effect on the local population, which had now lost their homes and source of livelihood.

Those villages in the shadow of the large sites provide more dramatic examples of the effects of Allied bombing. One good example is the small village of Helfaut, on the south side of the woods near the La Coupole at Wizernes. At the beginning of the war, it had fewer than fifty structures of all kinds: homes, barns, and small shops. One attack on March 19 destroyed ten of those and severely damaged twenty more. By the end of the war, the bombing attacks had mostly destroyed this town and driven its inhabitants away. Apparently aiming for La Coupole on June 20, an Eighth Air Force bombing mission could not find its target, and fifteen B-24 bombers dropped their bombs over the town of Guarbecque, sixteen miles to the southeast. The bombs hit the center perfectly. When the fires were out, the citizens discovered that the attack had damaged their church, destroyed the town hall, and burned more than ninety buildings to the ground. Two weeks after the Normandy landings, American aircraft had almost wiped this French village of slightly less than a thousand inhabitants off the map.

Most dramatic was the destruction that took place near the rail yards and transportation centers that supported the construction of installations and the supply of rockets for the firing batteries. These missions were not part of the Transportation Plan, discussed later, but an integral part of defeating the vengeance weapon threat. Béthune, located in the center of a triangle formed by the cities of Lille, Saint-Omer, and Arras, provides one example of the level of destruction wrought by these bombings. Located along the battle lines of the First World War, this was a rebuilt version of the ancient city. It was a relatively large town, with a densely populated city center of approximately 20,000 inhabitants. In addition to its rail yard, it was a center of regional mining, especially coal. Bombers struck the town and its suburbs on April 20, 21, 22, 23, and 27. In the wake of the bombing, hundreds of buildings were gone, including the rail yard and the housing for miners and railway workers. These are just several of the examples of communities in northwestern France damaged or destroyed as part of the Allied Noball operation.

Each of the material examples described above has a human cost. Each month the department’s préfet, the state’s representative, compiled a list describing the effects of the bombing. Organized by date and community, the report identifies every town bombed or machine-gunned. Most often, the numbers are not large, especially in comparison to the carnage on the eastern front. Six wounded and seven killed at Sallaumines outside of Lens on April 20, 1944. Another five wounded and three dead on May 6, and another seventeen killed and fifteen wounded on May 12, and so on, often with other notations such as that the bombs landed in the field. These casualties continued to accumulate well into July 1944, more than a month after the invasion at Normandy. Sometimes the numbers in the right column attract attention, such as the attack on April 27 that left forty-eight dead and thirty-six wounded at Béthune, or on June 20 at Guarbecque that left eighteen wounded and twenty civilians dead.

The more detailed reports, written by the local officials, are often quite gripping. The bombing on May 12 of the village of Saint-Venant, on the road between Hazebrouck and Béthune, is one such example. The attack killed only one victim, forty-eight-year-old André Pierru, who was working in the field. He was a veteran of the Great War and the 1940 Campaign and a knight of the Legion of Honor. He left behind a wife and a fifteen-year-old son. Reading the report it is evident that to the local police official, Monsieur Pierru was not a simple number, but a friend. Another perspective is the one presented by police officials in the larger town and cities. Here we find reports that describe the nature of the attack and list the dead by name, often including the deceased’s address. For example, the police commissioner of Arras reported by name those killed and wounded during the bombing of April 30. The raid wounded twenty-three citizens and six “sujets russes.” Then he continues with a list of the eight dead:

  • Vasseur, Yvette
  • Greuin, Gaston
  • Fleurquin, Oscar (48 years old)
  • Seneca, Miss
  • Lefebvre, Marcel (15 months old)
  • Rifflart, Kléber
  • Haudiquet, Lucien
  • Van Rokeghem, François (61 years old)

As the weeks went by, officials refined these reports and passed the new information to the national government. Often they reported the subsequent deaths of the wounded in the hospitals and more detailed information as to the scale of the damage to the community. From the countryside, these documents are brief, often only a simple letter. Reports from the larger cities, such as Lille, Calais, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer, provide a similar but longer list of casualties. In the end, it is hard to assess the actual human cost of Noball attacks in isolation from the other operations going on. A local historian, Hugues Chevalier, believes that approximately 5,000 civilians perished in just the Pas-de-Calais under Allied bombs from 1943 to 1945. Of the approximately 60,000 to 70,000 civilians killed in France by aerial bombing, perhaps 10 percent died as a result of the Allied search for German vengeance weapons. Probably two or three times that number were wounded. For many reasons, we will probably never have an accurate accounting of the human toll in this region.

Absent from both the Allied and French narratives of the Noball operation is any commentary on the forced laborers who constructed these sites for Organisation Todt. As Jim Aulich, one of the few scholars to address this aspect of the war, notes, these camps are at the “margins of memory.” Aulich’s father was a forced laborer and helped construct the Blockhaus near Éperlecques, and he passed on some of the details from this camp, of which there were many along the French coast. Officially named Organisation Todt Watten Zwangsarbeiter 62 (Forced Labor Camp 62), it had more than 35,000 workers living there at some point in 1943 and 1944. During peak construction, between 3,000 and 4,000 slaves worked on each twelve-hour shift, seven days a week, with few breaks. The German masters, and perhaps their French contractors, worked most of these unfortunates to death. At Wizernes, 1,300 workmen labored on the site day and night. Badly nourished and abused, they were forced to continue working, even under air attack, until the Germans abandoned the site in July 1944. The last 500 Soviet workers working in the Coupole were sent by train to Germany and “never seen again.” As the bombers approached, German guards ran for cover, often leaving the workers to their own devices. Many, such as Aulich’s father, escaped. The raids were costly nevertheless. As one Dutch prisoner of war, Luc Vandevelde, working at the camp near Watten, noted, after three attacks carried out by more than 320 bombers in 1943, they had more than 1,500 dead. Without question, the nature of this forced labor, and the fate of those workers caught under Allied bombs, is still one of the least discussed and explained aspects of the Second World War in the west.

In the end, the Noball operation was relatively successful. Because of the bombing, neither the Heer nor the Luftwaffe was able to launch a single rocket from the large facilities or ski sites from Normandy or the Cotentin Peninsula toward the overcrowded ports of Plymouth, Bristol, Portsmouth, or Southampton. The three-month delay in V-1 flying bomb launches and as much as a six-month delay in deploying the V-2 rocket were crucial to the ultimate Allied success. But anyone interested in the Second World War in Europe, or those fascinated with the technical aspects of the conflict’s weapons, knows most of this story. The British experience with these attacks, because they were so concentrated in London and southeastern England, is also amply documented and reported in histories of the conflict.

The continental perspective is less well known, even among the French who, as we shall see, are more prone to remember the effects of raids on the larger ports and rail yards. The rural population near each site was small, and the civilian casualty rates relatively insignificant. Even the French who lived near these war ruins understood these were legitimate targets and were taking a risk by remaining. Fortunately, local French historians are doing a marvelous job of researching and explaining the nature, scope, and effects of the attacks on these sites in the three northern departments. Their efforts illuminate the scope and details of a portion of the air war Spaatz and Harris considered a significant diversion from their larger goal of taking the fight to the Germans. Churchill, however, after hearing the British people’s complaints, had a pressing political need to defeat the V-weapon menace, and it was one of his highest priorities, as reflected by Eisenhower’s memorandum to Tedder on June 18. The bombing of these installations in France was thus an important aspect of the Allied air war against France.



On 25 October 1854, at the Brigade of the British cavalry charged a battery of Russian Battle of Balaclava, the Light artillery that was deployed at the end of a mile-long valley. The valley was flanked on both sides by additional guns that fired down from above. The action, which was in defiance of every basic principle of cavalry action in warfare, was the result of an erroneous interpretation of an ambiguous order given by Lord Raglan, the commander of the British forces in the Crimean War, to Lord Cardigan, the commander of the Light Brigade. Of the approximately 670 men who participated in the charge, almost three hundred were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.  Some observers were nonplussed by this horrific casualty rate. General Sir Richard Airey, second-in-command to Lord Raglan in the Crimea, merely shrugged: `These sorts of things will happen in war. It is nothing compared to Chillianwallah.’ In Airey’s eyes, the Charge of the Light Brigade was just another heroic failure.

Cavalry soldiers in the first half of the nineteenth century were regarded as impetuous, foolhardy and unreliable. Moreover, by midcentury, the replacement of the musket by the rifle had made cavalry charges riskier and less effective. It is conventionally assumed that it was the introduction of the breech-loading repeating rifle and more powerful and accurate artillery that decreased the effectiveness of the cavalry charge by the end of the nineteenth century. Even so, the charge still had numerous proponents in the British military establishment, who developed new tactics that took into account the increased fire- power of the infantry and artillery. In an age before mechanization, the cavalry served the vital purpose of making rapid movement possible. It was not until the First World War that the age of the cavalry charge truly came to an end. One of the last charges in Western military history took place during the retreat from Mons in August 1914, when the 2nd Cavalry Brigade advanced against the German 1st Army in an attempt to protect the British Expeditionary Force’s vulnerable left flank. The result was a swift rebuff and 250 casualties.

Cavalry charges could thus still achieve impressive results on the battlefield in the late nineteenth century. This was particularly true in colonial theatres, where enemy forces were usually less well armed than their British counterparts. Not surprisingly, then, it was at the height of the empire that perceptions of the cavalry began to change. Whereas previously its failures had been blamed on impetuous soldiers who refused to follow orders and exercise restraint, now the cavalry came to be celebrated for its dash.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Captain Soame Gambier Jenyns survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, the most famous heroic failure in British military history. Two years later, in 1856, he returned to his familial home, Bottisham Hall in Cambridgeshire. A large crowd cheered him as he rode into the village on his horse, Ben, another survivor of the charge. The parish priest observed: `it must have been grati- fying to our gallant friend to see the welcome accorded, while there was not a man, woman or child, but what turned out to do him honour’. In 1873, two years after he retired from the army, Jenyns died suddenly while out shooting on his father- in- law’s estate in Shropshire. His funeral cortege in Bottisham featured a military band and a column of Hussars; Ben, now twenty-five years old, was led behind the coffin. Hundreds of people packed the church and the surrounding streets; after the coffin was placed in the family vault, three volleys were fired by a rifle team, followed by a trumpet flourish. A memorial was later installed in the chancel of Bottisham church that referred to Jenyns as a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Jenyns’s example illustrates how the Charge of the Light Brigade was enshrined as an heroic failure. The survivors became celebrities who were feted at annual banquets and, as the decades passed, were given lavish public funerals. This was despite the fact that the charge was a disaster that had resulted from a string of errors and misunderstandings in the British chain of command. It had occurred during the Crimean War, which resulted from conflicts among the European powers as they grappled with the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire. For their part, the British saw the war as necessary to ensure that Russian expansionism did not threaten the route to India. In the autumn of 1854, 27,000 British, thirty thousand French and seven thousand Turkish troops invaded the Crimean Peninsula, with their primary target the Russian naval base at Sebastopol. British forces included a division of cavalry, split into a Heavy and a Light Brigade. Traditionally, light cavalry (smaller men and horses) had been used to carry out reconnaissance work, while heavy cavalry (bigger men and horses) were used to overwhelm the enemy in battle. But in the decades after Waterloo, the army had shrunk from 250,000 men to 110,000, and such specialization was no longer possible. The two types of cavalry were thus now used almost interchangeably.

In the 1850s, cavalry officers continued to be predominantly men from elite backgrounds who had purchased their commissions and promotions. Lord Lucan, who commanded the cavalry at Balaclava, had joined the army the year after Waterloo and had spent much of his career on half- pay, as many wealthy officers did to avoid being sent to colonial theatres. Through purchase he had risen from being a sixteen- year- old ensign in 1816 to the rank of lieutenant colonel only ten years later. He had been promoted to major general in 1851, even though he had not been on active service for fourteen years. In command of the Light Brigade, meanwhile, was the 7th earl of Cardigan, who, like Lucan, had had no battlefield experience. He, too, had been promoted through purchase, rising from cornet to the lieutenant colonelcy of the 15th Hussars in only eight years between 1824 and 1832. Four years later, he paid £40,000 for the more prestigious lieutenant colonelcy of the 11th Hussars.

Cardigan was Lucan’s brother- in- law – Lucan was married to his sister Ann – but in this case the familial connection bred enmity rather than accord. Lady Lucan had complained to her brother that her husband mistreated her, which chilled relations between the two men. Just prior to their departure for the Crimea, Lady Lucan had left her husband, increasing the animosity between them even further. `They do not speak,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Edward Hodge of the Heavy Brigade. `How this will answer on service I do not know.’ Such squabbles among the British commanders were deemed unimportant, however, as the army expected to take Sebastopol in a matter of weeks. Confidence was further boosted by the first confrontation with the Russians, at the Battle of Alma, which resulted in an emphatic British and French victory.

Next, the British turned their attention to Balaclava, a fishing village 6 miles (9.6 km) from Sebastopol that possessed a deep, sheltered harbour in which the fleet could land the army’s supplies prior to the attack on the Russian base itself. The British seized the village without opposition, but the Russians soon mounted a counterattack. On 25 October, the Russian commander, Prince Alexander Menshikov, ordered an infantry advance of thirty thou- sand men. The six hundred Turkish militia who manned the poorly constructed redoubts that defended the British position were quickly overwhelmed. All that now stood between the Russians and Balaclava was a `thin red line’ of 93rd Highlanders, who withstood the Russian charge, thereby passing into British military legend, though their victory did not become nearly as famous as the Light Brigade’s defeat shortly afterwards. The Heavy Brigade then charged the Russian cavalry, pushing them back despite the fact that they were outnumbered nearly three to one and were fighting uphill.

With the initial Russian attack blunted, Lord Raglan endeavoured to retake the redoubts before the Russians could regroup. He wanted to use General Sir George Cathcart’s infantry division for this purpose, but they had not yet arrived on the battlefield. He thus opted to send the Light Brigade forward without infantry support. This was in direct contradiction of standard military practice, but he assumed that the Russians were in such disarray that the redoubts could be occupied quickly. Lucan, however, interpreted Raglan’s order as meaning he should advance only after the infantry arrived, so he kept the Light Brigade waiting at the entrance to the northernmost of the two valleys that formed the battlefield’s terrain. Viewing the scene from the heights above the battlefield, Raglan could not understand why Lucan was not advancing as ordered. When he heard a report that the Russians were dragging away the British guns from the redoubts, his impatience boiled over. (Losing a gun was considered a severe embarrassment for a British general; Wellington was famous for never having done so.) At 10:45 a. m., Raglan issued what became the most infamous order in British military history: `Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the Enemy and try to prevent the Enemy carrying away the guns.’

Fifteen minutes later, the order was pressed into Lucan’s hands by Captain Louis Nolan, aide- de- camp to General Richard Airey, Raglan’s second- in- command. Lucan was unclear what it meant. Most military historians believe that the Russians were not attempting to take away the guns from the redoubts, and in any event Lucan would not have been able to see them from his position even if they had been. Nor could he see any enemy retreating that he could `follow’. He asked Nolan for clarification. Nolan told him that he should `attack immediately’. When Lucan asked what precisely he should attack, several witnesses later claimed that Nolan gestured with his arm towards the end of the valley. Lucan was astonished that Raglan would issue such an order. To launch a cavalry charge of well over a mile without infantry support down a valley that was defended to the front and on both sides by artillery was suicidal. But instead of sending Nolan back to Raglan for further clarification, Lucan rode over to Cardigan and ordered him to attack the battery at the far end of the valley. The astounded Cardigan protested on the grounds that `there is a battery in front, a battery on each flank, and the ground is covered in Russian riflemen’. Lucan acknowledged this, but confirmed that the order had come directly from Raglan.

When the trumpet call for the advance came, even the lowest- ranking private could see that a mistake had been made somewhere in the chain of command. They had proceeded between 100 and 200 yards (90-180 m) when the Russian guns on the sides of the valley opened up and shells began tearing gaps in the line. Some of the men tried to quicken the pace, but Cardigan kept them steady. Because the distance that had to be covered was so great, the Light Brigade had to move forward slowly, at a rate of about 4 miles (6.4 km) an hour, down most of the length of the valley, only increasing the pace to a full gallop for the last 250 yards (228 m). This meant that it took about seven minutes to reach the Russian battery. Fewer than half of the British troops who had started in the front line made it to the battery, while the second line no longer existed in any meaningful form.

The Charge of the Light Brigade had taken barely twenty minutes from start to finish. The participants were unaware that they had just been part of what would become one of the most famous military events in British history. Many of them did feel, however, that something extraordinary had occurred. Captain Jenyns declared: `never was such murder ordered’.

George Goad, a cornet in the 13th Light Dragoons, described the charge as `the most terrible thing you can conceive’. Lieutenant Fiennes Wykeham Martin of the 4th Dragoons wrote to his brother:

My Regiment is cut up and the rest of the Light Brigade are completely annihilated owing to a mistake in the orders. We charged for about a mile and a quarter down a valley flanked on both sides with artillery and infantry and with a tremendous force of cavalry at the bottom. They bowled us over right and left with grape shot, balls and round shot. Of 700 men who went into action only 190 came out and all for no good as we were not backed up. We have twice heard from a Russian officer who was taken prisoner, that our little Brigade charged 20,000 – rather long odds!

Captain Arthur Tremayne of the 13th Light Dragoons, whose horse had been shot from under him as he reached the Russian guns, wrote to his family that the charge had been `the most tremendous cavalry action ever recorded’. Tremayne was well aware that the order had been a blunder: `It was seen by all to be madness, unsupported by guns, or infantry . . . I am sincerely grateful to God for my preservation . . . and though one is always more or less in a dangerous position in war, no danger can be greater than that I have escaped.’ A week later, on 3 November, he added: `All agree in saying that there must have been some mistake in the order, as no such cavalry attack is on record.’ The men recognized the significance of what had occurred as much as did the officers. `Thank God I escaped that dreadful massacre . . .,’ wrote Henry Gregory of the 13th Light Dragoons to his sister. `A more dreadful sight I never saw, for our poor men was [sic] actually mowed down by dozens . . . The ground was actually strewed with dead men and horses, and men and horses running about in all directions, it was a horrible sight for any human being to witness.’

There have been plenty of battles in which generals have sacrificed large numbers of men to achieve victory. In these cases, the heavy losses are accepted as the cost of war. The Light Brigade’s casualty rate of around 40 per cent was certainly high, but it was lower than that of other famous charges, including Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War in 1863, in which over half the participants on the Confederate side were killed or wounded. In fact, given the foolhardiness of the advance of unsupported cavalry against well- placed artillery, the casualties at Balaclava were remarkably low. But it was the utter futility of the charge that made it so famous. If it had succeeded, or had it even been possible for it succeed, it would not occupy the prominent place in British memory that it quickly came to take up. Alone among the examples of charges cited in this chapter, it had no military purpose whatsoever. It was caused by a series of blunders, mistakes and misunderstandings so numerous that historians still fiercely debate which one was the most significant.

The futility of the Charge of the Light Brigade was comprehended immediately, and was highlighted by the two most widely read accounts. The first was provided by William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The Times, who watched the charge alongside Lord Raglan. Russell’s first report of Balaclava reached Britain on 14 November 1854, less than three weeks after the battle. It emphasized the pointlessness of the charge:

As they passed towards the front, the Russians opened on them from the guns in the redoubt on the right, with volleys of musketry and rifles. They swept proudly past, glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war. We could scarcely believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men are not going to charge an army in position? Alas! it was but too true – their desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so- called better part – discretion.

The second account was Alfred Tennyson’s `The Charge of the Light Brigade’, one of the best- known poems in the English language, which was based on Russell’s account. Tennyson later claimed to have been so inspired after reading it that he wrote the poem in a few minutes. It was first published in the Examiner on 9 December. Tennyson attributed the blame for the charge to an anonymous `someone’ who had `blundered’, while the men of the Light Brigade were identified only as `the six hundred’:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

The way of presenting the charge espoused by Russell and Tennyson soon became the prevailing mode, shifting it from a military disaster to an episode whose very pointlessness made it something uniquely noble. In 1855, an anonymous publication satirized Russell’s role through a series of cartoon- like depictions of the activities of `our own correspondent’ in the Crimea. In one scene, the correspondent `becomes frantic with enthusiasm at beholding the splendid charge of cavalry at Balaclava’, thereby simultaneously poking fun at and acknowledging the public’s near- reverential view of the charge.

Visual as well as verbal representations played a key role in enshrining the Charge of the Light Brigade in heroic myth. Though he did not arrive in the Crimea until mid- November, three weeks after the event, the Scottish artist William Simpson included a watercolour of it among the dozens of paintings he sent back to be made into engravings by the London art dealers Colnaghi. The engravings were first exhibited at the Graphic Society in 1855, and eighty of them were published in a volume entitled The Seat of War in the East later that year. Their popularity was such that a selection was issued in a smaller octavo volume, with an introduction by the military historian George Brackenbury. Brackenbury demonstrated that Tennyson’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade had by this point taken firm hold: `The Light Cavalry was ordered to advance, without supports, over a plain of nearly a mile and a half in length, and exposed to a crushing fire of artillery and musketry in front and on both flanks. Without a murmur or a moment’s hesitation these lion- hearts rushed on to the discharge of the fearful duty assigned to them; resolved, since the ordinary alternative of death or glory was denied, to do and die.’ (Italics in original.) He concluded: `The Light Cavalry charge was over; a glorious and ineffaceable page has been added to the records of chivalry, and to the annals of England.’

The ensuing decades would see the appearance of a multitude of visual depictions of the charge. In general, the visual representation of warfare during the Crimean War moved away from the traditional emphasis on the heroism of elite officers and towards scenes featuring the common soldier. A particular focus was camp life during the devastating winter of 1854-55. As the Athenaeum declared in its review of Simpson’s paintings:

All looked with painful interest at views of the spots . . . where the flower of England, unscathed by fire, unsmitten and unhurt, rotted away, with their faces turned towards England. For them, there will be no victory, no rejoicing – for them, no open arms and happy faces, no flags waving or jubilee of bells – but in their stead, cold, narrow graves, in an enemy’s country, on a spot perhaps to be blasted by a great nation’s greatest and most terrible disgrace.

In this context, the Charge of the Light Brigade was useful for confirming this perception of the inept commanders who had needlessly squandered the lives of their men, while at the same time emphasizing the heroism of the common soldiers.

The Crimean War did not, however, lead to the complete eradication of conventional forms for depicting heroism in battle. Instead, the older and newer visions of military heroism existed side by side. To be sure, there was much criticism of the elite commanders whose errors had led to the Charge of the Light Brigade. The war is often given credit for engendering the drive for military reform that culminated in the Cardwell reforms of the early 1870s, which abolished the sale of commissions and made promotion contingent on merit and experience rather than birth and wealth. But those reforms were not enacted for another fifteen years; in the intervening period, a fierce debate raged both within the political and military establishment and among the public at large as to whether the old, aristocratically based system was really so terrible. In a speech to the House of Lords in 1856, for example, the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, interpreted the Charge of the Light Brigade as confirming, rather than undermining, the value of aristocratic leadership on the battlefield:

Talk to me of the aristocracy of England! Why, look to that glorious charge of the cavalry at Balaclava – look to that charge, where the noblest and wealthiest of the land rode foremost, followed by heroic men from the lowest classes of the community, each rivalling the other in bravery, neither the peer who led nor the trooper who followed being distinguished the one from the other. In that glorious band there were sons of the gentry of England; leading were the noblest in the land, and following were the representatives of the people of this country.

Contemporary accounts of the Charge of the Light Brigade reflected this tension as to whether oligarchy or meritocracy represented the best path forward for the British Army. Certainly, there was ample criticism of some aristocratic commanders: there was no danger that either Raglan or Lucan would emerge from the Crimea as a hero. But Lord Cardigan was a different matter: he was seen not only as blameless – he had questioned Raglan’s order appropriately and then followed it when Lucan insisted that he must – but also as heroic. When asked how Cardigan had behaved in the charge, Captain William Morris of the 17th Hussars, another hero of the charge who will be discussed below, replied: `He led like a gentleman.’ Stories flew around the British camp that Cardigan’s horse had leapt over the Russian guns at the end of the valley as if he were fox- hunting. Even his bitter enemy Lucan had to concede that Cardigan `led this attack in the most gallant and intrepid manner’.

Deteriorating health led to Cardigan’s departure from the Crimea in December 1854. When he landed at Folkestone on 13 January 1855, he was greeted by a cheering crowd and a brass band playing Handel’s `See, the Conquering Hero Comes!’ All along the route of his train journey to London, people gathered to watch him pass, despite bitterly cold winter temperatures, and every station was bedecked with bunting. His portrait and prints of his horse leaping over the Russian guns were sold all over the country. He was, as a popular music- hall song extolled him, `Cardigan the Brave’; even Punch temporarily abandoned satire to show him charging at the Russian cannon. The `Cardigan jacket’, patterned after the woollen garment he had worn during the Crimean winter, became a popular fashion. Both Houses of Parliament offered their official gratitude, and he was invited to dine with Queen Victoria at Windsor, where the next morning he regaled the royal children with the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In February, a banquet was given in his honour at Mansion House by the Lord Mayor of London. He paraded to the event through the capital’s streets in his full- dress uniform, riding Ronald, the horse that had carried him during the charge – the crowds were so eager to obtain a souvenir that they plucked hairs from the latter’s tail and mane. In the pamphlet Our Heroes of the Crimea (1855), the journalist George Ryan wrote: `It may be said without fear of contradiction, that the Earl of Cardigan is now the most popular soldier in England. As a gallant chevalier he won his golden spurs in a tilt with giants. All salute him as the lion of the British Army; and a clasp to the Crimean medal will tell how he led heroes to fight on that bloody field, which gives to the world an example of devoted valour unequalled in warfare.’

Another hero to emerge from the Charge of the Light Brigade was Captain Louis Nolan, who prior to the Crimean War had a reputation as a skilled trainer of cavalry soldiers and horses and had authored two books on cavalry tactics. Although his regiment, the 13th Light Dragoons, was not sent to the Crimea, he was detached from it and placed on the staff of Brigadier General Airey so that he could help with the acquisition, transport and management of the horses for the cavalry division. After delivering the fateful order to Lucan, Nolan decided to ride forward in the Charge of the Light Brigade. It proved a fatal choice: most eyewitness accounts cite him as the first man killed, after a shell fragment struck him with full force in the chest. Once the recriminations began, Nolan was an obvious potential scapegoat, as he had not only delivered the infamous order to Lucan but had also possibly conveyed to him an erroneous sense of its meaning. Lucan, certainly, found it expedient to blame Nolan. In a letter published in The Times in March 1855, he claimed:

After carefully reading this order I hesitated, and urged the uselessness of such an attack and the dangers surrounding it. The aide- de- camp, in a most authoritative tone, stated that they were Lord Raglan’s orders that the cavalry should attack immediately. I asked him, `Where, and what to do?’ as neither enemy nor guns were within sight. He replied, in a most disrespectful but significant manner, pointing to the further end of the valley, `There, my Lord, is your enemy; there are your guns’.

But although Lucan hinted that Nolan’s conduct had bordered on insubordination, he could not assign him all of the blame for the debacle, for by doing so it would have appeared that he had been unwilling to stand up to a junior officer. Indeed, the Morning Chronicle wondered how such a relatively low- ranking officer could have been responsible for such a massive disaster: `What baffles the understanding is, in what respect Captain Nolan, whose position was merely that of an aide- de- camp, should thus have proved the unwitting instrument of the Light Brigade’s destruction.’

For that reason, few people saw Nolan as the primary culprit for the fiasco. Instead, he was often depicted as a martyred hero. His friends and admirers collected funds for a memorial, which was installed on the wall of Holy Trinity Church in Maidstone in Kent, where the depot for cavalry regiments serving in India was located. Each year, the Balaclava Commemoration Society held an annual dinner for veterans of the battle. In 1875, it was accompanied by a `Balaclava Festival’ in the central hall of Alexandra Palace. The centrepiece of the exhibition was an obelisk topped by a figure representing Honour and surrounded at the base by `relics of the engagement’. The obelisk listed the names of the seven officers who had been killed, with Nolan’s centrally positioned and in larger lettering.

A third individual who emerged from the Charge of the Light Brigade as a hero was Captain William Morris of the 17th Lancers. In March 1854, Morris was made deputy assistant quartermaster general of the forces that were being assembled for the upcoming Crimean campaign. This meant that, like Nolan, he served under General Airey, the quartermaster general. Still recovering from a serious bout of cholera, Morris arrived at Balaclava only days before the debacle. The senior officer of the 17th Lancers, Colonel John Lawrenson, was on leave, and his second- in- command, Major Augustus Willett, had died of cholera on 22 October. Despite his weakened state, Morris stepped in and took command of his old regiment on the day of the battle. When the Heavy Brigade charged in support of the 93rd Highlanders, Morris tried to lead the 17th forward to take advantage of the disarray of the Russians, but he was sharply rebuked by Cardigan. Several witnesses reported that Morris was furious at not being allowed to advance and, slapping his leg with his sword, said as he rode away from Cardigan: `My God, my God, what a chance we are losing.’ His wish for action was shortly to be granted. The Light Brigade was waiting at the entrance to the valley when Nolan, who knew Morris from Airey’s staff, galloped up carrying Raglan’s order. Nolan asked Morris where he could find Lucan. Morris pointed him out, then asked: `What is it to be, Nolan? Are we going to charge?’ As he spurred his horse towards Lucan, Nolan shouted back over his shoulder: `You will see. You will see.’

After relaying the order to Lucan, Nolan rode back to Morris and asked him permission to ride with his regiment, which Morris readily granted. Unlike Nolan, Morris survived the long ride down the valley. When he reached the Russian battery, he was accompanied by about twenty men, who charged the enemy cavalry positioned behind the guns. Seeing a high- ranking officer, Morris thrust his sword into the man’s body up to the hilt. He was then unable to extricate his blade, however, and as the man fell from his horse Morris was dismounted as well. He was still struggling to reclaim his sword when he received a severe blow to the head from a Russian sabre. He blacked out for a moment; when he recovered, he found that his sword had somehow come free, but he was now surrounded by Cossacks, one of whom delivered another head wound courtesy of his lance. The episode was witnessed by Sergeant Major Abraham Ransom:

Then I saw an act of heroism; [Captain] Morris was on foot, his head streaming with blood, engaging five or six Cossacks . . . Morris sought to defend himself by the almost ceaseless `moulinet’ or circling whirl of his sword and from time to time he found means to deliver some sabre cuts upon the thighs of his Cossack assailants. Soon, however, he was pierced in the temple by a lance- point, which splintered up a piece of bone and forced it under the scalp.

Morris was saved by the arrival of a Russian officer, who intervened to prevent the Cossacks from finishing him off. He surrendered his sword, but as more British troops arrived behind the guns the Russians found themselves with more pressing business. His head bleeding profusely, Morris tried to mount a riderless horse, but could only manage to grab the saddle. He was dragged along until his dwindling strength caused him to lose his grip. As a Cossack approached, he desperately lunged for a second horse and struggled into the saddle. The horse was shot from under him as he attempted to ride back to the British lines; pinned beneath on the ground, he lost consciousness temporarily. After he awoke, he began limping down the valley on foot. He was almost back to the British lines when he saw the body of his friend Nolan and collapsed beside it. He was found there by Captain John Ewart, who sent word back that an officer required aid, and shortly there- after Surgeon James Mouat and Sergeant Charles Wooden arrived on the scene. Both would later be awarded the Victoria Cross for saving Morris, as they were forced to fight off several Cossacks when carrying him to safety.

Morris’s injuries included two severe cuts to the head, a broken right arm from a sabre blow and a broken rib on his lower left side. After two months in the military hospital at Scutari, he returned home to convalesce in January 1855 and was invited to dinner by Queen Victoria. By June, however, he was back in the Crimea, where he was a figure of renown. Captain Henry Clifford of the Rifle Brigade reported to his family:

I saw a Capt. Morris yesterday, you have perhaps seen his name in the papers. He behaved most splendidly in the unfortunate charge at Balaclava, and was badly wounded in the head with a sabre cut, had three ribs broken and side very much torn, with a thrust from a lance and his right arm cut to the bone by a sword. No one thought he would live, but he is well enough to walk about now, tho’ looking very ill and after spending a few months in England has come out here again.

That same year, he was promoted to major and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He was also made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur by the French. In his native Devon, Morris became a local hero. In 1856, he was honoured by a banquet at the Globe Hotel in Great Torrington, near his birth- place of Hatherleigh. The ceremony was presided over by Sir Trevor Wheler, a veteran of Waterloo, who declared that they were gathered

to congratulate that gallant officer on his safe return to his native shores and are desirous of placing on record the deep sense we entertain of the zeal and gallantry he has shown on all occasions when his services have been required by the country . . . I do sincerely believe that if the British cavalry had to give this sword to one of their officers more deserving than another, though there might be great difficulty in making their selection, their unanimous verdict would be `Give it to Colonel Morris, the bravest of the brave.’ The local poet Edward Capern composed fulsome verses in his honour:

Hail to thee! Hail to thee! Champion of Liberty!

Fresh from the field of his struggle and pain,

Hail to thee, hail to thee, bold son of chivalry,

Hail to the land of the Hero again.

Capern’s poem displayed the key component of heroic failure in the mid- Victorian era: the link between `chivalry’ and `struggle and pain’. Suffering was heroic and noble, even, or perhaps especially, if it occurred in a context of futility. Morris’s response to the adulation, meanwhile, embodied perfectly the ideal of the self- sacrificing hero who accepted his suffering as being all in a day’s work: `I have been promoted and rewarded by Her Majesty for my services, while other men more deserving than myself have either lost their lives or owing to unfortunate circumstances have gained nothing.’

After the Crimea, Morris returned to his regiment and was sent to India in 1857 to help quell the rebellion that had broken out earlier that year. The following year, while stationed at Poona in the Bombay Presidency, he died of dysentery. His fellow officers collected funds for a memorial tablet, which was installed in the church at Poona. It referred to the Charge of the Light Brigade only obliquely by listing the battles in which Morris had fought, including Balaclava. Back home, however, his role in the charge was the focal point of memorial efforts. In 1860, a 60- foot- high (18 m) granite obelisk was erected on Hatherleigh Moor. A bas- relief on the base by E. B. Stephens showed his limp body being carried from the battlefield, with the single word `Balaclava’ inscribed beneath. It was an odd depiction of a soldier: Morris was wounded to the point of helplessness in what was presented as the most noteworthy moment of his career. But it was in keeping with contemporary notions of heroic failure, in which heroism was defined more by suffering in defeat than by any action undertaken in victory.

Unternehmen Sonnenwende[Operation Solstice]and its Impact on the Soviet Command

Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.

Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945

The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.

Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.

At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:

11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish

23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch

27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish

Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.

Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.

Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.

While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.

Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.

Operation Solstice [OoB]