Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part IV

On June 12, Ottoman soldiers managed to grab a prisoner, who gave them the encouraging news that a cannonball had destroyed the bakers’ oven inside Fort St. Elmo, forcing the defenders to rely on Fort St. Angelo for bread. This intelligence was improved upon by a Spanish deserter, a piper, who informed Mustapha that, given the fort’s architecture, they needed to raise the ravelin just a little bit more to have total command of its interior piazza. Mustapha thanked the piper but, having been deceived before, assured him that if his report proved untrue, the man could expect the same bastinado treatment that had been meted out to La Rivière. While sappers redoubled their efforts on the ravelin, the piper had time to consider the various fates that threatened him. Should Mustapha be dissatisfied with the ravelin, the Ottoman camp might not be the best place for him; returning to St. Elmo, however, was out of the question. He slipped off again, this time to Mdina, where he presented himself as an escaped slave. Alas for him, he was recognized, and so, after some time on the rack, was the lie. Governor Mesquita turned him over to the citizens, who tied him to a horse’s tail and then stoned him to death.

Perhaps the sudden disappearance of the piper caused Mustapha to try to reason with his enemy. On June 14, a trumpet sounded, a white flag went up, and a herald trotted over from the Ottoman lines and offered parley, an offer the defenders refused. The herald withdrew. A little later, the defenders heard an Italian voice call out from the trenches, informing them that Mustapha would graciously allow the Christians to sleep that night and that anyone inside the fort was free to leave in peace. If they continued to resist, however, the Ottoman soldiers would cut them to pieces. In response, the Christians let loose a volley in the Italian’s general direction, which ended any further talk of surrender.

There followed a day and a night of sporadic raids, cannon volleys, the sound of shouts and music that sometimes preceded attacks, but often did not. Mustapha’s technique was that of a picador at a bullfight: the administration of modest irritants to keep the defenders off balance, sleep deprived, and confused. There was little the commanders at St. Elmo could do other than petition Valette for more men, more ammunition, and more supplies. He complied and loaded the night boats with the fire hoops and powder and biscuits and ammunition needed to defend the fort. That these small convoys were able to make their nightly runs was a significant failure on the part of the Ottomans, and lack of moonlight notwithstanding, we can only conjecture why they were allowed to proceed. Once arrived, these goods were shifted to points where the fighting, once it came, would be fiercest.

The real attack came on June 16. Two hours before sunrise, the defenders of St. Elmo could hear the Ottoman mullahs addressing the gathered Muslim force and the full chorus of the soldiers’ response. The pattern of call and response, measured by the slowly rising light to the east, seemed interminable, but the meaning was clear—the soldiers were cleansing themselves of sin and preparing themselves for death. Then silence, as the four thousand men carrying arquebuses padded to their stations. Having called up the dawn, the Ottomans ringed the fort at the counterscarp, west, southwest, and south, facing into the rising sun that at dawn would silhouette anyone who looked over the walls. They were also girding themselves mentally for the fight. They knew how tough the Christians were.

Defenders lined the cracked rim of the fort in a regular pattern—three soldiers, then a knight, three more soldiers, another knight, and so forth. Monserrat, Miranda, and d’Eguaras commanded three bodies of reserves, stationed in the piazza and ready for deployment wherever the enemy threat proved greatest. Support staff prepared wine-soaked bread to refresh the hungry and thirsty—and to comfort the wounded and dying. Guns, pikes, swords, grenades, and stones all lay within easy reach of the men on the front. Fra Roberto da Eboli had returned to the fort and was in his element: “If God is with us, who will be against us? . . . recall the ancient kings of Israel, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Jefte, Delbora, Jehosaphat, Ezekiel, the brothers Maccabee whose zeal and valor you, sacred knights, must now emulate. . . . In this most sacred sign of the cross we shall prevail.” Not far away, Mustapha reminded his own men that Muslim prisoners inside the dungeons of Fort St. Angelo were counting on them: “Perhaps you have not heard the cries and entreaties of captives from that fortress, people joined to you by blood and bound by hardest chains, enduring a life sadder than death itself, immersed as they are in squalor and sorrow?”

Then the artillery barrage began. This time Piali Pasha had brought gun-mounted galleys to fire in concert with the land batteries. Cannon fired from the ravelin, from all platforms, and from ships offshore, throwing “around a thousand shots with such force that not only the Maltese, but also the neighboring Sicilians were dumbstruck with horror.” The bombardment stopped an hour later, as suddenly as it had begun, leaving the men’s ears ringing. A few of the defenders snatched glances over the rubble to see what was coming next. The farsighted could make out Mustapha, upright, determined, the green standard fringed with horse tails significant of the rank given to him by Suleiman himself. He stepped forward the better to be seen and drew his scimitar from its scabbard. The roar of eight thousand Muslims filled the air. The assault was on.

The Iayalars, religious fanatics, came first, “dressed in the skins of wild animals and the feathers of birds of prey” and with “blue tattoos of various characters on their faces.” A good number of these alarming men managed to cross the ditch and scrabble up the loose rubble toward the breach, where they were stymied by an “infinity of caltrops,” sharp spikes welded in such a fashion that one point will always face upward and impale the foot of anyone unlucky enough to walk on it. While the Iayalars contended with this new hazard, Christian arquebusiers rose up and fired into their ranks, killing many outright, wounding others, but failing to turn the tide.

Soon enough the fighting drew closer, as guns gave way to pikes and halberds, then swords, stones, and finally knives, poniards, and fists. Fortune seemed to favor the Muslims; a westerly breeze drove smoke from incendiaries into the defenders’ eyes, and more fortunate still, as the Iayalars had filled the breach, the entire store of the Christians’ firepots somehow ignited, exploded, and covered those nearby in flaming pitch. Christians and Muslims alike screamed, ran, rolled on the ground, and threw themselves into the water barrels or the sea.

Their bravery notwithstanding, the Iayalars, exhausted, withdrew soon after this incident. Mustapha now sent in his dervishes. This new strain of religious fanatic made their way over the dead and dying bodies of their coreligionists and took up the fight in a dry fog of powder smoke and the increasingly scorching heat of Malta’s July sun. The Christians managed to push the enemy back down to the counterscarp and would have pushed farther if Monserrat had not ordered them to remain in the relative safety of the fort. Zeal was all well and good, but the numbers were against them, and Monserrat wanted his men to prepare for the third wave of attackers. It was the turn of the spahis. Another charge at the breach, another failure to take it. Mustapha now turned to the warhorses of his army, the Janissaries.

The Janissaries targeted the post of Colonel Mas. Valette, watching from Fort St. Angelo, saw the attackers bringing scaling ladders to the wall, and ordered his gunners to shoot them down. Precision was wanting. Their first volley landed too far to the right and killed a mixture of the enemy and eight Christians, “putting with this misstep the fort in greatest danger of being lost.” Frantic signaling had the artillerists correct the error. Their next shot was better. Twenty Turks died, but no Christians. The remaining Muslims were few enough for the men at St. Elmo to push back successfully with pikes and trumps.

The next wave included a crew heading specifically for the cavalier. Burning hoops repelled some, and a good number were seen rushing down to the water to extinguish the burning gelatin that clung to their flesh. For seven hours “spears, torches and stones flew from all sides,” until Mustapha and Turgut finally called it quits. The defenders, once they realized they had bought another day, jeered at the retreating Muslims and heard the cries taken up by their comrades across the water in Fort St. Angelo. Mustapha’s report to Suleiman was philosophical. He wrote that he had suspended operations “because all things are tied to their destiny and marks of victory are unavoidable.”

Regrettably for him, destiny in this case had decreed a thousand Turks and only a hundred and fifty Christians should lie dead on the edge of the fort. Two Muslim standards, one belonging to Turgut, the other to Mustapha Pasha, were now in Christian hands. The battle had exhausted both sides, and veterans of the fight believed that the Turks would have been able to take the fort if they had made just one more assault. Balbi writes, in a left-handed compliment, that convicts, oarsmen, and even the Maltese fought “as if [they] were [men] of superior reputation,” persona de mayor estima.

Among the dead was Medrano, having received a bullet through the head as he seized one of the Muslim standards. Miranda had led the final counterattack and was wounded (broken leg) but not, according to him at least, incapacitated; he ordered that a chair be brought up and positioned near the big guns. Let the enemy come again—the Spaniard would stay with his men. He could, he noted, fire an arquebus from a sitting position and even kill with a sword if his enemy had the nerve to approach. Other defenders, burned, cut, maimed, of lesser birth and therefore of whom less was expected, did not stay. These, along with Medrano’s body, were ferried back to Birgu; senior among them was the badly wounded Juan de La Cerda. The force was down to some three hundred men.

Outside the battle zone, the Ottomans were on the move. They had now struck camp at the village of Zeitun, their halfway point between Marsaxlokk and Mt. Sciberras, and burned the remains—they would soon be settled closer to the fighting and bring their ships into Grand Harbor. The endgame was under way. St. Elmo would be annihilated shortly.

Valette would no longer order any more men into Fort St. Elmo, though he would accept volunteers. Three hundred men of Birgu and thirty knights stepped forward and presented themselves for service across the water. They were targeted by Turgut’s sharpshooters on Tigné, whom Valette had Coppier chase away until the boats could make it across. On June 17, Valette reported these events to Don Garcia in terms meant to encourage him to get on with sending some aid. The entire Ottoman fleet, he said, had moved from Marsaxlokk at night so “we should not see his weakness” and from “fear of your fleet,” thus leaving Marsaxlokk free for any Spanish relief force. Bombardment of Fort St. Elmo had slackened, morale was high even though supplies were low, and Valette was certain that just a few more men, even just the two triremes of the Order now in Messina, would be enough to hold the fort indefinitely. “Our safety lies in your hands; after that, our hope remains in God.”

The siege was in its twenty-fourth day. The Ottomans kept up a desultory bombardment of six guns on the southern spur, but spent the better part of their day in recovering and burning their dead. As the smoke rose and then bent back and covered the island, Mustapha and his lieutenants considered why Fort St. Elmo had not yet fallen. Exasperated at the tenacity of the enemy and eager to get the operation over with, he was ready to listen to all sides. Theories were fielded, argued, weighed, and finally reduced to three. First, the Christian gun on the fort’s eastern flank was disrupting any mass attacks on the right side. It must be taken out. Second, the guns on Fort St. Angelo had found their range and were interfering with operations on the southern side of Sciberras peninsula. They must be neutralized. And finally, the steady flow of fresh troops from Fort St. Angelo kept the defensive manpower at an insuperable level.

This last point was key, and Turgut had already begun to address it. In addition to his cannons, Turgut had placed sharpshooters on the peninsula of Tigné. Men without pity, they fired on the small boats bringing the dead and wounded back to Birgu.

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Turgut and the Ottoman high command began the morning with a tour of the various trouble spots with a view toward improving offensive capabilities. They also reconsidered the terrain. Turgut ordered that the counterscarp of the ditch facing St. Angelo be extended down to where the relief boats from Birgu entered Fort St. Elmo. The project had been more trouble than it was worth back when the siege was estimated at five days, but reality was forcing their hand. Sappers were already pushing the Turkish trenches forward, and sharpshooters should be able to fire not just on the skiffs that ferried men across the water, but at the subterranean entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Other sappers completed the curtain wall that hid the Turks from the guns of St. Angelo.

Turgut and Mustapha and their staffs, all dressed in the brightest robes possible, were inspecting the new arrangements. Balbi writes the Turgut was dissatisfied with a Turkish gunner who was aiming his cannon too high. He told the man to lower it. Still too high. He ordered him to it lower still more, but this final time the trajectory was too low, with disastrous consequences. The ball glanced against a trench and chipped off a stone that ricocheted back and hit Turgut in the temple. Turgut’s turban absorbed some of the shock, possibly preventing him from being killed outright, but the shock was severe. Blood flowed out of his mouth, perhaps even his ear and eye, and he lost the power of speech. Staff officers, appalled, quickly covered the still breathing Turgut and carried him back to Mustapha’s own tent at the Marsa, worried that news of his injury might spread and alarm the men. Ever the professional, Mustapha continued the inspection, and with his remaining staff oversaw the emplacement of four new guns aimed at the watery route to Fort St. Angelo.

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News of Turgut’s injury marked the beginning of a small winning streak for the Christians. The day after the corsair was hit, Grugno, the knight in charge of the cavalier, was able to lay cannon fire into knots of the enemy and kill the aga (commanding officer) of Turkish ordnance. The Ottomans’ reaction to this—piercing howls of grief—encouraged Grugno to strike out at other brightly uniformed men. To do so, he had to expose himself more than was strictly prudent. A Muslim sharpshooter soon winged him, and he was sent back to the infirmary at Birgu, replaced by a Fortunio Escudero, a knight of Navarre who was even more troublesome than his predecessor. The Muslims eventually trained thirty-four guns on the cavalier, he had become such a nuisance.

There was some encouragement for the Ottomans as well. On the evening of that same day, across the waters they heard a massive explosion, the more surprising as they had not been firing in that direction. A cloud of dust and smoke hung over the area, and only later did they learn that it had been the powder mill at Fort St. Angelo. Two kantars—about a hundred kilos—of powder were lost along with ten workers. The Turks cheered the display “with their bestial voices,” which Valette answered with a volley of cannon fire across the waters. Fra Sir Oliver Starkey was appointed to investigate the matter (possibly Valette was handing the Englishman a vote of confidence; before the siege, he had been charged with accepting bribes). He determined that the explosion was accidental, but it was unnerving nevertheless, and that much powder was hard to lose. Valette sent word to Mdina asking them to make up the shortfall and to provide some twenty-three more kantars besides. With St. Elmo nearly ready to fall, he would need them.

Turkish guns surrounded the fort and kept firing the entire day, though almost to no purpose—at some points the bombardment had reached bedrock, and only the ditch lay between Christian and Turk, a ditch the Ottomans were doing their best to fill up with brush and rubble and whatever else came to hand. As the inevitable climax approached, the defenders of Fort St. Elmo seemed to have fallen into a calm acceptance of what was to come, which in turn encouraged daring and insouciance. The night of June 19, Pietro di Forli had himself lowered into the ditch, where he hoped to torch the bridge. He could not—the Ottomans had packed it with wet dirt (terra ben bagnata) and its defenders soon noticed him and began to shoot. Di Forli managed to return to the fort, where his companions followed up his efforts by dismantling a section of wall and firing chain shot at the bridge. This turned out to be a waste of powder, as they were unable to depress the angle of fire enough to actually hit the structure. However futile these efforts were, they at least gave proof that these men had by no means lost their spirit.

By now the space between Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo had become a watery no-man’s-land, but somehow Ramon Fortuyn, the knight sometimes credited with the invention of fire hoops, was able to cross over from Fort St. Angelo without incident to get a sense of how things stood. Miranda, more or less in charge despite himself, seemed a little surprised to see him and assured Fortuyn that it would be simple cruelty to send more men to die. Those remaining officers on St. Elmo—d’Eguaras, Monserrat—all said the same. Fortuyn would better serve the island by returning to St. Angelo and readying himself for the fight that would soon begin again at Birgu. All that remained was prayer. Accordingly, Fortuyn went back to Fort St. Angelo along with two Muslim standards captured in the last assault, standards that he ceremoniously presented to Faderigo de Toledo as a proxy for Don Garcia and King Philip.

Fortuyn’s report clearly disturbed Valette, and the grand master followed up the next night by dispatching a second emissary, the Chevalier de Boisbreton, along with an Italian brother Ambrogio Pegullo. A dangerous trip—the moon was just past full and the Turks were vigilant. Fra Ambrogio’s head was taken off by a cannonball. Boisbreton’s arrival must have stirred new, if unreasonable, hope within these men—why else had he been sent if not with good news? But nothing had really changed. The fort, they agreed, might be able to hold off one more Muslim assault, but no more. If they did hold off such an attack, and no help arrived from Sicily, it would be best to evacuate the fort at that time.

This was wishful thinking at best. Boisbreton managed to bring the news back to Valette, but only barely. Turgut’s engineers finally had extended their trenches to command the grotto from which Fort St. Elmo anchored its lifeline to Fort St. Angelo. By the same token, it would be impossible to get enough boats to ferry the men in St. Elmo safely across the water. In Turgut’s words, Fort St. Elmo, the child of Birgu, was now cut off from the mother’s milk and must soon fall and die.

June 20 also appears to be the last day that anyone in the Order had enough leisure to compose a daily situation report.

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June 21, the feast of Corpus Christi. Soldiers, civilians, and men, women, and children lined the streets of Birgu. Inside the Church of St. Lawrence, the priest intoned the liturgy, raised the monstrance containing the host above his head, and then solemnly carried it into the daylight and through the streets—a demonstration to the faithful that God was not confined to the inside of a church but was everywhere with them. Valette and other knights, trading the red-and-white cloaks of martyrdom for the black-and-white of devotion, raised the poles to hold the canopy that shielded the container from the sun or rain. At the conclusion, Valette, “carrying his staff, served food to thirteen poor men,” as did others of the Order, replaying the message of love and charity at the core of the Order’s mission. To the sound of distant cannon fire, the procession trod the narrow stone streets among the people of Birgu, solemn, but with a care for current dangers—the route deliberately avoided those areas most at risk of Ottoman artillery.

Across the water, Ottoman forces had managed to create a breach on the scarp walls of the cavalier and hurried to exploit this bonanza. Quickly erecting a barricade against the gunfire and fire hoops of the Christians above them, they brought up four or five small culverines (capable of firing sixty-pound balls) and began to fire down into the central piazza. It took the men inside a few minutes to realize what had happened, and when they did, they fired back with small arms. When that failed to discourage the enemy, Monserrat ordered one of the few remaining cannons wheeled about. The gunners knew their business. They stuffed the barrels with scrap iron and stone, fired on the tower, and silenced the enemy position—at least, for the time being.

The end, however, was getting near. The sun went down, and as the exhausted Christians lay and waited, the cool night air carried the sounds from the Ottoman army of “the same prayers, rituals, and acts of superstition and false religion that had been heard the night before the previous assault.” There was no sleep, and so the defenders made the best use they could of the dark. Fifteen men under the Rhodian Pietro Miraglia (emulating the Italian Pietro da Forli) slipped into the ditch and attempted (unsuccessfully) to set the Ottomans’ bridge on fire before being chased back to the fort. The rest of the night was spent listening to the enemy’s prayers and chants as both sides prepared for the morning.

The attack came just after dawn and on every side. The Ottomans threw scaling ladders against the walls and were met by flying sacchetti, gunfire, trumps, and pikes. For six hours of repeated assaults, they chipped away at the defenders, never quite getting the upper hand. Several times the Ottomans planted their standards on the parapet, and each time the Christians pulled the banners down. On one occasion, the Muslims succeeded in mounting a portion of the wall, only to find that the siege cannon had left the masonry so unstable that it collapsed under their weight, throwing them down into the ditch below. From across the water, the guns on St. Angelo fired on the wooden bridge leading to the post of Colonel Mas. This was welcome help to the Christians inside the fort, who were running low on powder and soon forced to defend the breaches with steel.

Janissaries had also retaken their position near the cavalier and were again firing into the fort proper. Monserrat ordered the same gun that was so successful the day before to prevail again. For Monserrat it was a personal victory, and his last. Seconds later a bullet struck him in the chest, killing him instantly. The still-living were saved the trouble of burial when moments later cannon fire brought down a wall on his remains. After the siege was over, survivors “dug through the ruins of the fort and found his body, fully armed, his hands joined as if still in prayer to God.”

With Monserrat gone, rumors spread among the foot soldiers that d’Eguaras, Miranda, and Colonel Mas, all three of whom had not been seen since the last assault, had also been killed. This was easy to disprove. The three were all badly wounded, struck by bullets, arrows, and artificial fire, but still alive, or half-alive. They dragged themselves into view to encourage their men and to restore some sense of order. Mas and Miranda returned to their places on the line; d’Eguaras returned to his command post at the center of the piazza. Those still alive had neither the time nor the energy to bury the dead. Instead, they stacked the bodies against the walls to bolster the defenses. Even this gruesome expedience might delay the enemy and cost them a few more casualties, which was some consolation to the survivors.

Seven hours after the assault had begun, five hundred Christians lay dead, one hundred others wounded. They comprised the last of the fort, and yet, against all logic, the Turks still fell short of victory. Balbi claims that all Christian officers were now killed. The men waited in what is described as a day as hot as any fire. The next attack could come at any time, on any side, on all sides. Anyone not utterly incapable was at his post, weapon in hand. Mustapha toyed with these men, launching a series of feints, so many that no one bothered to keep a tally. Nightfall provided welcome relief from the sun at least, and time enough to tend their wounds, many of them serious.

All stocks of gunpowder were now empty, and the surviving defenders were forced to scavenge the powder horns of their dead comrades. They were able to get out one last communication to Fort St. Angelo. A single light swift boat shot out from the grotto under St. Elmo and managed to elude ten heavier Muslim craft. As backup, an unnamed Maltese swimmer followed suit, navigating a good part of his trip underwater. They reported that in St. Elmo “almost none healthy remained, and of those who were still healthy, all were exhausted, all soiled and stained by the blood, brains, marrow, and viscera of the dead colleagues and the enemy they had killed.” That the defenders would have only cold steel to fight with—Cirni refers to picks and spades—was almost an afterthought.

Men trapped in situations that must end in certain death can inspire a strange envy in outsiders. Having heard the last testimony from the fort, of its remaining defenders with their broken weapons, a large number of knights, soldiers, and citizens stepped forward to join the chosen few certain to die the next day. Romegas himself volunteered to lead them. Valette, who had masked his emotions with bluff heartiness and further talk of Don Garcia’s imminent arrival, refused to allow it. He did, however, agree that they might carry supplies to the beleaguered men, the first supplies in three days.

In the event, it didn’t matter. The moon was full and the Ottomans were on highest alert; and while a lone swift boat might, with some luck, successfully dart its way through, there was no hope of five cargo-laden boats lumbering over the water between St. Angelo and St. Elmo in safety. Piali Pasha, already humiliated by the last vessel out of St. Elmo, was in no mood to let another one back into the fort, and now led the flotilla to prevent any action in person. Romegas, outnumbered sixteen to one and target of a furious storm of cannon fire, gunfire, and arrows, chose to return back to Fort St. Angelo.

The chosen few remaining at Fort St. Elmo were now utterly alone. Without hope for victory, for rescue, or for mercy, they could only prepare themselves for a good death. “Seeing that all hope of survival was broken, being already certain, clear, and secure that they were to be taken and killed, and their fate delayed only so far as the hour of dawn; with great contrition they confessed to one another, asking forgiveness of God for their sins, and with his Divine Majesty, they devoutly reconciled themselves with no Sacraments other than a shared fraternal and devout embrace.”

Along with the soldiers, two friars, Pierre Vigneron and Alonso de Zembrana, one French, one Spanish, remained at St. Elmo. The two had tasks of their own to fulfill before sunrise. They entered the chapel, which now served as a hospital for the most grievously wounded, and delivered what last rites they could. This accomplished, the two brothers prised up a large paving stone and, putting it to one side, dug a hole in the earth below. Into this cavity they laid the gold and silver chalices and candlesticks and a reliquary containing a bone of St. John the Baptist. With the stone back in place, they proceeded to gather all remaining sacred objects—the tapestries that covered the walls, the wooden crosses and cloth vestments, the sacred books. All these they carried out of the chapel, piled up in the center of the fort, and set on fire. The Turks took this as a signal fire calling for help.

The pair made the circuit of the fort. They took confession from and conferred absolution on all those who remained alive in Fort St. Elmo in anticipation of imminent death. Then they, too, waited for the dawn.

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June 23 was the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist. Fort St. Elmo had held out for twenty-nine days, and the Ottomans were impatient to be done with it. Throughout the night, their thirty-six heavy guns fired from three points on land and several of Piali’s ships on the water, illuminating both the sky and the fort and proving if nothing else that they still had a vast amount of ordnance to waste. Dawn broke. The Muslim soldiers on Sciberras gazed up at the smoking ruins and saw the white-and-red crossed flag still flying, still defiant. Presently they made themselves ready for what would have to be the final assault. Across the water, the men at Fort St. Angelo, all too aware of what was coming and helpless to stop it, stood and watched the final act play out.

Inside St. Elmo scarcely sixty men remained, scattered among the breaches and placed in the remains of the cavalier, outnumbered by the dead, who lay where they had fallen. Few of those left alive had escaped injury; all were determined to hold on to the last instant. The captains were focused on a hard fight, a good death.

One more time the kettledrums pounded, brass horns shrilled, men shouted, and the order to advance was given. Mustapha reported to the sultan that his troops, “shouting ‘Allah, Allah!’ and accompanied by the souls of the martyred,” began to charge the walls. Janissaries, spahis, and their corsair allies, impatient for victory, crossed over the rubbish pit of stone, earth, and broken weaponry, climbed over the corpses, scrambled up the incline toward the breaches, and braved a single, weak volley from inside the fort.

If they expected the job to be easy, they were disappointed. The first Muslims into the breach were met with a hedge of sharp steel, pikes, swords, lances, and a hail of stones. An hour passed, and although men on both sides fell, the fort did not. Another hour passed, and the attackers fell back, re-formed, came forward again, and again were held off by the stubborn Christian line. Both sides licked their wounds and dragged their dead away. From time to time there followed small diversionary attacks of no particular consequence, each a prelude to the next general assault.

When the final assault came, the first Janissaries to cross the rise found, to their astonishment, Captain Miranda, strapped into a chair and gripping a pike. The commander was maimed and bandaged, but still possessed of the soldier’s skills of thrust and parry. Even now in a position of weakness he managed to slash and gut a handful of enemy soldiers before his fellow Christians were able to repel the attackers one more time. The Muslims, however, managed a final parting shot that killed Miranda.

Command now devolved on d’Eguaras. His leg had been shattered, and so he too was confined to a chair. Seeing how the number of his men had dwindled, he thought to improve the odds by consolidating his remaining forces. He ordered the gunners on the cavalier to fall back and join their comrades inside the fort. This move was a boon for the Muslims, who quickly moved to fill the cavalier with sharpshooters. From its heights they could look down inside the shattered fort and signal to their comrades just how diluted the Christian force truly was. All tactical advantage now lay with Mustapha. Marksmen on the ravelin and on the cavalier could fire down on the Christians from the rear while Muslim infantry could attack from the front and flanks. (Oddly, Balbi says that the Muslims confined themselves to throwing stones.)

A little past eleven that morning, the final assault began. Janissaries, corsairs, and anyone else who wanted to be in at the kill, drew their blades and overtopped the crumbling edge of the fort and poured into the main piazza. The area soon resembled a Roman amphitheater in the final stages of a gladiators’ show, a confused mass of desperate men fighting in separate brawls “in which there ran rivers of blood from the multitude of the dead and the wounded on all sides.” D’Eguaras was among the first to die. Knocked from his chair, he managed to raise his sword and limp toward four Janissaries. One of the four brought a scimitar down on his neck and severed his head, which Mustapha would later order stuck on the end of a pike.

With their comrades gone, not wishing to survive them, unable to see beyond the moment or to hope for a life in this world, the remaining Christians lashed out with a superhuman fury at any Muslim who came within reach. At the door of the chapel, Chevalier Paolo Avogadro swung a broad sword with both hands and soon created a half-circle of Muslim dead around him. It took a volley of arquebus fire to put an end to this slaughter, and the dying knight collapsed on top of the pile of men he himself had killed.

The few small fights were winding down as force of numbers made good the Ottoman effort to leave no man standing. Colonel Mas, last of the commanders and also confined to a chair, swung a two-handed sword until he was himself cut down. Fortunio Escudero, last gunner on the cavalier, headed a small group of soldiers wielding broadswords on the crest of the fort, clearly visible from across the water at Fort St. Angelo, until he and they too succumbed to greater Muslim numbers. Official reckoning was now only minutes away. Mehmed ben Mustafa, who had captured La Rivière on the first day of the invasion, had the honor of seizing the knights’ ragged banner for his general as well, after which he “entered the bastion of the infidels and chopped off some heads.” The end was marked when a wounded knight, Frederico Lanfreducci, went to his post at the marina and gave the final agreed-upon smoke signal (una fumata) that the fort was lost. Moments later he was taken prisoner, becoming one of nine Christian survivors captured in Fort St. Elmo’s last battle. A handful of Maltese, able swimmers, were able to escape.

The fight was over. It had taken four hours.

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Nanuchka class

Nanuchka I

Nanuchka II

Nanuchka III

Nanuchka IV

During the 1970s, the Soviet Union constructed a new corvette group of compact warship known as the Nanuchka-class (also Project 1234 “Ovod”). Total strength eventually numbered forty-seven vessels completed with a single example cancelled. Five were ultimately lost under various circumstances and twenty-seven were retired (as of 2017). About a dozen remain in service with the modern Russian Navy (2017) and Algeria currently operates three ships.

The class, categorized as “missile boats”, was constructed through three major batches and a one-off ship: Series I, Series II, Series III and Series IV. The Russian Navy took on seventeen of the Series I vessels and eighteen of the Series III. Series IV was a single boat named “Nakat” but this served primarily as a trials bed for the P-800 “Oniks” anti-ship cruise missile – it was retired in 2012. The Series II mark was the primary export model sold to various Soviet-allied countries in Africa and Asia.

The ships displaces 570 tons under standard load and are given an overall length of 195 feet with a beam measuring 41 feet and a draught down to 7.9 feet. Propulsion is from 3 x Marine diesels outputting 30,000 horsepower and driving 3 x shafts under stern. Range is out to 2,500 nautical miles and speeds could reach 32 knots in ideal conditions. Aboard are forty operating personnel.

The ship is outfitted with a surface search and fire control radar. Armament is centered on 6 x SS-N-9 medium-ranged anti-ship missiles though export models were given 4 x SS-N-2 missile systems instead. Beyond this is a single SA-N-4 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher with some twenty reloads provided. Conventional armament includes 1 x 57mm AK-257 twin-gunned turreted deck gun (Series I). This was replaced by a single-gunned 76mm fit in the Series III ships. Short-ranged threats are countered by the single Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) 30mm AK-630 installation (Series III).

The Nanuchka-class has been used by the navies of Russia/Soviet Union, Algeria, India (all decommissioned) and Libya (all lost).

The heavily armed Project 1234 ‘Nanuchka I’-class guided missile corvettes had a heavier armament than previous Soviet missile ships. Primary armament was six P-50/4K85 Malachit (SS-N-9 ‘Silen’) anti-ship missiles, which could deliver a 500kg (1,102lb) HE or a 200kt nuclear warhead at a range of 110km (68 miles). The remarkable amount of firepower and combat electronics mounted on such a small platform was apparently purchased at the price of poor seakeeping characteristics. Seventeen units were built from 1969, along with three ‘Nanuchka lIs’ for India. Nineteen ‘Nanuchka Ills’ were built between 1977 and 1986. All the ‘Nanuchka I’s are being scrapped, while the three Indian ‘Nanuchka lIs’ were decommissioned between 1999 and 2002.

Russian Rocket Projectiles – WWII

Il-2 attack aircraft of the 174th assault air regiment. Leningrad Front, 1942.  Armed with RS-82 rocket projectiles. The USSR pioneered the use of aerial rocket projectiles. Taken into service in December 1937, the RS-82 was used in combat for the first time at Khaikhin-Gol in August 1939. Only in 1942 did the USAAF and the RAF make use of similar arms, and the first operational use of rocket projectiles by the Luftwaffe did not take place until 1943. The RS-82 was outfitted with a 5.55-pound warhead containing a .99-pound explosive charge. Its combat range was 5,500 to 6,500 yards.

 

At the beginning of the war for ground attack even high-altitude MiG-3 fighters. The picture shows such a machine with launchers for the RS-82 under the wing of the 27th Fighter Regiment, Moscow region, winter 1941–42. The aircraft having been fitted with RS-82 unguided rocket projectiles on its underwing racks. Initially, aircraft were made rocket compatible by groundcrew in the field, but from October 1941 Factory No 1 began installing wing rails on new MiG-3s as they progressed along the production line.

The MO (Russian: Malyj Okhotnik; English: Small Hunter, nickname Moshka(Fly)) is a class of small ships produced before and during World War II for the Soviet Navy. Their primary function originally was anti-submarine warfare. During the war they carried out many additional roles from supporting landing operations to escorting convoys. Over 350 ships were built with launchers for 82 mm rockets in the bow.

Armored type BK-1125 with launcher M-13-MI.

The armored boat of the Volga military flotilla number 12 with a launcher for missiles.

Katyushas multiple-launch rocket system were inexpensive and uncomplicated to produce and easily mounted on many platforms, initially including only trucks but quickly progressing to tanks, tractors, armored trains, and even small naval vessels. Later in the war, many Lend-Lease tanks, which the Soviet specialists did not consider to be up to the task of armored warfare on the Eastern Front, were used as mounting platforms. However, American Studebaker two-and-one-half- ton trucks were highly regarded for their off-road performance, and thousands of them were used as mounting platforms for Katyushas.

Soviet Navy developed small gunboats to a science. The 1124 and 1125 classes were heavily armored and had tank turrets mounted on the hull. Some mounted “Katyusyka” multiple rocket launchers. They only drew 2’ of water and were used as landing craft for naval commandos.

BKA 1124

The old Imperial Navy gunboats and the converted merchant steamers had put in sterling service during the First World War and the Civil War. In the 1920s the surviving purpose-built gunboats were rebuilt as and when resources became available, and the converted steamers and tugs were returned to civilian use. In 1934 the navy issued a requirement for a new type of armoured cutter suitable for mass production. It was intended to use many of the components being produced for the tanks of the 1931 Programme. The navy wanted two turrets, light armour protection for the machinery, fuel tanks and magazines, and a shallow draught of just half a metre (1ft 7½).

Designer Yuliy Benoit advised that it would not be possible to build an armoured boat with two turrets on such a shallow draught, but that it could be possible to achieve the modest draught by producing a slightly smaller boat carrying just one turret. He also proposed to produce the original design with two turrets on a slightly increased draught. His Bureau’s proposals were accepted, and production began of the two different series, the BKA 1124 with two turrets and the BKA 1125 with just one.

The turrets originally used on the BKA 1124 were two from the T-26 tank, armed with 45mm guns. Following successful testing of the prototypes, the turrets were changed for those from the T-28 medium tank, mounting a short 76.2mm gun and a 7.62mm MG. When the T-34 tank went into production just prior to the German invasion, it was decided to standardise on its turret with the longer 76.2mm gun, to arm the Bronekater as well. This sensible solution would soon become the source of problems and delays, as with the start of Operation ‘Barbarossa’, all turrets were allocated to the desperately-needed T-34 tanks. The mass-produced BKA hulls were therefore fitted with turrets taken from obsolescent T-28 or even T-35 heavy tanks, or when the supply of these turrets, which were no longer in production, ran out, 76.2mm Lender AA guns on unshielded deck mounts taken from warships were fitted instead. Bronekater with tank turrets needed an AA capability, and this was provided by fitting the small turrets on the BKA 1124s with 12.7mm DShK heavy machine guns, which had a much higher effective ceiling than the 7.62mm calibre weapons.

Launched: 97 BKA 1124 built 1936–45 by various yards.

Dimensions: Displ: 49.7 tons, 52.2 tons full load; L: 25.3m/77ft; B: 4.1m/13ft 5½in; D: 0.9m/3ft 11½in.

Crew: 17.

Power/Speed: Twin screws; 2 × 750bhp or 900bhp petrol engines/18–19.4 knots.

Guns/Armour: As designed: 2 × 76.2mm tank guns; 2 × coaxial 7.62mm MG. Alternatively: 1 × tank turret + 1 × Katyusha rocket launcher; 1 × twin 12.7mm AA HMG; + 10 mines/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Citadel 12mm, Hull 7mm.

BKA 1125

More than twice the number of the smaller BKA 1125 were produced, and like its larger cousin it went into combat on all the rivers and lakes where the Soviet Navy fought. It also went through the same permutations of various types of tank turret, or a 76.2mm Lender AA gun mount, and again a Katyusha rocket launcher could be mounted on the rear deck, providing devastating firepower in a bombardment role.

Launched: 151 BKA 1125 built 1938–45 by various yards.

Dimensions: Displ: 26.5 tons; L: 22.65m/74ft 3¾in; B: 3.5m/11ft 5¾in; D: 0.52m/1ft 8½in.

Crew: 12–13.

Power/Speed: Single screw; 1 × 750bhp or 900bhp petrol engine/19.7 knots.

Guns/Armour: 1 × 76.2mm + 1 × 7.62mm MG in tank turret; 3 × 7.62mm MG in small turrets. Alternatively rear turret replaced by: 1 × 12.7mm DShK AA HMG or 1 × Katyusha rocket launcher; + 6 mines/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Citadel 20mm, Hull 4mm.

BKA S-40 with Katyusha launcher. Noted she lacks an MG turret in front of the T-34 main turret, and the turret on top of the bridge has only one MG, as on the type BKA 1125.

BKA S-40

Designed under the overall supervision of Yuliy Benoit, this variant of the BKA 1125 type was originally intended for the Amur Flotilla, but with the diversion of diesel engines to tank production, just seven units were built in 1942.

Launched: 7 units launched in 1942.

Dimensions: Displ: 31.9 tons; L: 24.7m/81ft; B: 3.85m/12ft 7½in; D: 0.60m/7ft 9in.

Crew: 13.

Power/Speed: Twin screws; 2 × diesel engines, total 800bhp/19 knots.

Guns/Armour: 1 × 76.2mm + coaxial 7.62mm DT MG in T-34 turret; up to 4 × AA MG or Katyusha rocket launcher + 2 × AA MG or 2 × 76mm L/30 Lender AA/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Bulletproof plating 4-8mm thick.

Air-To-Ground/Air Rockets

In 1930, GDL [Leningrad Gas Dynamics Laboratory] achieved its first practical results during the range testing of 82- and 132-millimeter rockets. In 1932, Mikhail Tukhachevskiy, Revvoyensovet Deputy Chairman and Red Army Chief of Armaments, was present when the first official in-air firings of RS-82 missiles from an I-4 aircraft armed with six launchers successfully took place. By late 1937, RS-82 and RS-132 missiles had been developed under their leadership. The Air Force had accepted these missiles as standard armaments for I-16, I-15, I-153, and SB aircraft.

The 82mm and 132mm Katyusha rockets were originally developed as air-to-air rockets and were used as such at Khalkin-Gol in 1939 against the Japanese. Five 1-16s fitted with RS-82 unguided rocket launchers under their wings attacked a force of Japanese bombers escorted by Ki-27 fighters. A volley of the rockets, which had proximity fuses, was launched at the close formation of enemy fighters. Fortune this time favoured the brave and after two Japanese aircraft had been destroyed the rest promptly returned to base. This new weapon was extensively tested and claimed, in all, 13 aircraft.

In 1941 the Western Allies were intrigued to hear that Soviet aircraft were attacking tanks with rockets. Such weapons had been developed in the USSR ahead of all other countries, and by 1941 they had been made to fly in a predictable manner, stabilized by spinning about the longitudinal axis. The commonest pattern, the RS-82 (3.23in, 82mm, calibre), was used by the million. Most of the mass-produced Soviet fighters were cleared to launch these weapons, which were on occasion used against enemy aircraft.

In 1942 or 1943 a British delegation was shown a demonstration strafing/bombing/rocket attack by a unit of Il-2 attack aircraft, in which the Soviet planes failed to score a single direct hit with their rockets.

The Il-2 could carry small bombs in bomb bays in the wing roots, and rockets under the outer wing panels. The latter could be the 82 mm RS-82 or, from early 1942 onwards, the heavier RS-132. This rocket was powerful enough to defeat the armour of a medium tank, and later the Soviets produced improved versions of these rockets with shaped-charge warheads, the RBS-82 and RBS-132. But like the rockets used on the Western front, these were insufficiently accurate for use against point targets, although they could be fired at armour concentrations.

Initially the IL-2 was equipped with R0-82 launch rails for eight 82-mm (3.22-in) RS-82 rockets. Experimentally, early in 1942 the number of launch rails on some single seat IL-2s was increased, enabling them to carry 14 projectiles of the 132-mm caliber (RS-132) or a combination of eight 82-mm and eight 132-mm projectiles. Presumably, this was done at the expense of the bomb load. IL-2 pilots did not consider the RS-82 projectiles to be a very effective weapon and expressed their preference for the heavier 132-mm rockets; they were particularly impressed by the armour-piercing RBS-132 and high-explosive/fragmentation ROFS-132 projectiles introduced in the course of the war (from the spring of 1942 the armour-piercing RBS-82 and RBS-132 came into use, supplemented by the V-8 and M-13 projectiles later in the year. The last-mentioned two types were improved versions of the RS-82 and RS-132 respectively). An idea cropped up of using rocket projectiles for the protection against enemy fighters attacking from the rear; in August 1941 some IL-2s were fitted with a pair of launching rails for the rearward firing of rocket projectiles which proved useful in scaring away the attacking fighters. In mid-1943 a two-seat IL-2 AM-38F was fitted with eight (!) launch rails for rearward-firing rocket projectiles.

In October-November 1941, the Yak 1s were provided with rocket armament. Here note must be made of the initiative displayed by Major A. Negoda, commander of the 562nd lAP. He performed four to five sorties after one refuelling, strafing the enemy’s forward lines with the new 82-mm RS-82 rockets (RS – raketnyy snaryad, rocket projectile). This was possible because the forward line of defence passed about 10 km (6 miles) from the regiment’s airfield in Khimki near Moscow. The German anti-aircraft defences were hard put to it to repulse effectively the attacks of Soviet fighters which made a surprise appearance at extremely low altitudes.

By that time the 562nd lAP had accumulated appreciable combat experience. The regiment’s pilots downed eight enemy machines in aerial combat and destroyed one German aircraft on the ground during strafing sorties. The Soviet losses comprised 13 machines that were shot down or damaged, nine pilots were killed in action. Two Yaks made forced landings, but eight machines (including those from other regiments) were repaired by the technical personnel.

In all, 195 Yaks were fitted with rocket armament at the Plant by the end of 1941; another 953 fighters were retrofitted with this armament by the late spring of the following year. The installation of six RS-82 projectiles on the machine found a positive response from the flying personnel; as a result, rocket armament began to be fitted to the fighters directly at the front. Although the external stores increased the all-up weight by 65 kg (143 Ib) and decreased the maximum speed by some 30 km/h (18mph), firing these projectiles against aerial targets (especially during head-on attacks) produced a strong psychological effect on the enemy. In the event of a direct hit (which happened extremely rarely) the enemy aircraft simply disintegrated in the air.

In the course of combat it became clear that there was really no need to score a direct hit by all means. The projectiles were provided with fuses for self-destruction, and explosions at close range inflicted serious splinter damage on enemy machines. Even German bombers, despite their high survivability, were often unable to continue their mission after being damaged by splinters. However, the absence of a guidance system in the RS projectiles and imperfections in their design led to a great dispersal of the rockets and the probability of hitting a maneuvering air target remained low.

Martin Marauder Part I

Certainly one of the most elegant bomber aircraft to appear in the early years of World War II, Martin’s B-26 Marauder stemmed from a US Army Air Corps high-speed medium bomber specification which had been circulated to US manufacturers in January 1939. This called for a number of characteristics which, together, made the US Army requirement very difficult to meet. To accommodate a crew of five, which meant that it must be fairly large, it was required also to be fast and with good high-altitude performance, to have a range in excess of 2,000 miles (3219 km), and be able to carry good defensive armament plus a worthwhile load of bombs.

Martin’s design, by Peyton M. Magruder, was far in advance of competing submissions, and as the company not only guaranteed that performance would be as good as, or better than performance estimates and also promised early production, it was not surprising that this company was chosen to build the USAAC’s new bomber. The startling feature of the contract, awarded in September 1939, lay in the fact that it was for a substantial number of production aircraft (201) ordered ‘straight off the drawing board’, a course then unprecedented in USAAG history. No prototypes or preproduction aircraft were called for, so the first of the Martin Model 179s, designated B-26 by the US Army, flew for the first time on 25 November 1940.

As then flown it was a cantilever shoulder-wing monoplane of all-metal construction, except that all control surfaces were fabric-covered, and the conventional but small-area wing had plain trailing-edge flaps. The fuselage was a near perfect aerodynamic cigar-shape form of circular cross-section, marred only by the ‘step’ of the windscreen, and with a conventional tail unit which had a high-set tailplane. Landing gear was of the retractable tricycle type, the main units retracting forward and upward into the centre of the engine nacelles, and the nosewheel unit aft into the forward fuselage. To provide the necessary performance a new Pratt & Whitney engine had been selected, the 1,850 hp (1380 kW) R-2800-5 Double Wasp, and the two of these each drove a four-blade constant-speed fully-feathering propeller. An innovation was the use of a ‘cuff’ at the root end of each propeller blade, this enabling the normally useless area of each blade to provide extra airflow for improved engine cooling. Initial armament comprised two 0.30 in (7.62 mm) machine-guns, one in the nose position and one in the tailcone, plus two 0.50 in (12.7 mm) guns in an electrically operated dorsal turret, the first powered gun turret to be installed in an American bomber. Maximum bomb load, all carried internally, was as much as 5,800 lbs (2631 kg) for deployment at short range.

Following the first flight, it was not until February 1941 that succeeding production aircraft began to come off the line, and while some of these were diverted for test purposes, there were sufficient available to begin deliveries to the USAAC. This initial equipping of the US Army Air Corps’ squadrons was not without problems, for while they had been supplied with an aircraft which attained the desired high performance specification, this performance had been achieved at the expense of good low speed handling characteristics, leading to what is usually termed a ‘hot’ aeroplane. This made conversion training a difficult and slow process, for even at loaded weights well under maximum the aircraft’s stalling speed was not far below 100 mph (161 km/h), a very high figure for that period.

In spite of this Marauders, as the B-26 had been named in preference to the originally chosen Martian, gradually began to equip USAAF squadrons and as experience was gained a number of modifications were considered to be desirable, resulting in the B-26A of which 139 were built. All had engines of the same power as the B-26, but R-2800-5, -9 and -39 units were installed in different batches. The electrical system was changed from 12-volt to 24-volt, two additional fuel tanks were installed in the bomb bay, provision was made for the carriage of a 22 in (559 mm) torpedo and, as a result of combat reports from the war then being fought in Europe, the nose and tail guns of 0.30 in (7.62 mm) calibre were replaced by similar 0.50 in (12.7 mm) installations. The result of these changes, of course, was to increase the gross weight and also, as a consequence, the problems that were soon to come to a head.

Before that, however, the Japanese on 7 December 1941 attacked Pearl Harbour and, on the following day, the USAAF’s 22nd Bombardment Group was despatched to the Pacific zone, becoming operational initially from northern Australia in April 1942. This unit’s B-26As soon found ready employment in a variety of roles, including unsuccessful torpedo attacks against the Japanese fleet engaged in the Battle of Midway. At about that same time the RAF received three examples of the B-26A for evaluation, these being designated Marauder 1. Successful testing resulted in this type being chosen for tactical use in the North African campaigns, and the additional 48 of this version allocated under Lend-Lease were delivered direct to the Middle East and used first to equip No. 14 Squadron.

While these events had been taking place, a special board of investigation had been set up in the USA, under the chairmanship of Major General Carl Spaatz, to enquire into the abnormally high accident rate associated with the B-26, especially during training, and to decide whether production should be terminated. Fortunately this latter course was not adopted for, with growing experience of how best to handle the Marauder, it was later to have the lowest attrition rate of any American aircraft operated by the US 9th Air Force in Europe. The eventual findings of the investigation board resulted in continuing production, but with some recommendations regarding modifications intended to improve low-speed handling.

During the foregoing enquiry all production had been suspended but soon after it was resumed, in May 1942, Martin began to deliver its first B-26Bs, the major production version of which 1,883 were built. These incorporated initially improvements which combat experience had proved to be necessary, but many other changes were introduced on the line throughout the long manufacturing run. Major items included the installation of 1,920 hp (1432 kW) R-2800-41 or R-2800-43 engines, the introduction of slotted trailing-edge flaps, and a lengthened nosewheel strut to increase wing incidence and so improve take-off characteristics. The most important change, one which had been recommended by the enquiry board, was an increase in wing span/area but this, in fact, achieved nothing because the USAAF immediately upped the gross weight. The comparisons of maximum wing loading are interesting, the B-26’s being 53.16 Ibs/sq ft (259.5 kg/m2), the early B-26B’s 56.48 lbs/sq ft (275.7 kg/m2), and the late B-26B’s 58.05 lbs/sq ft (283.4 kg/m2), which all goes to prove that the initial handling problems were largely those of inexperience. Today little is thought of a wing loading of 149 lb/sq ft (728 kg/m2), and that for a civil transport aircraft, not a ‘hot’ military aeroplane.

The introduction of the larger wing necessitated an increase in vertical tail surface area, achieved by increasing fin and rudder height by 1 ft 8 in (0.51 m). The armament, through a succession of modifications, became almost as potent as that of the USAAF’s heavy bombers, with no fewer than 12 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine-guns. The increasing demand for Marauders resulted in the establishment of a second production line by Martin at Omaha, Nebraska, which built 1,235 aircraft as B-26Cs from late 1942, these duplicating various batches of the B-26Bs built at Baltimore, Maryland. The D and E designations were taken up by two one-off aircraft: the XB-26D was an experiment in thermal wing de-icing; and the XB-26E was a ‘weight watchers’ version with some 2,000 lbs (907 kg) weight reduction and with the dorsal turret moved forward to a position adjacent to the wing leading edge.

The final production versions were the generally similar B-26F (300 built) and B-26G (893), plus 57 TB- 26Gs without armament and other purely operational equipment to serve as target tugs or trainers. The major difference between these aircraft and the B-26B/B-26Cs which had preceded them lay in a final attempt to improve take-off performance, wing incidence being increased by 3°30′, so giving a noticeable nose-in-the-air look to the engines. There were also some armament and fuel system changes. Last of the B-26 designations was taken by a single XB-26H with tandem bicycle type landing gear with each of the main units carrying twin wheels and an outrigger, for balancing, was housed in each engine nacelle. This experimental installation was made to evaluate a landing gear of this type which was being developed for the Boeing XB-47.

All of the USAAF’s early deployment of the B-26 had been confined to the Pacific theatre, but B-26Bs and B-26Cs began to appear in North Africa during November 1942, equipping 12 squadrons of the 17th, 319th and 320th Bomb1l.rdment Groups of the 12th Air Force, providing admirable support to the Allied ground forces as they followed the bitter but victorious trail to the south of France via Sicily, Italy, Sardinia and Corsica. However, the B-26’s first operation with the 8th Air Force in Europe was disastrous, all 11 aircraft sent to make a low-level attack on installations in the Netherlands failing to return to base. Subsequently, in a tactical role, Marauders went from strength to strength in operations with the USAAF’s 9th Air Force, also in Europe.

Under Lend-Lease the RAF received a total of 522 Marauders, these comprising the Marauder I mentioned above, plus Marauder IA (B-26B), II (B-26C) and III (B-26F/B-26G). Used by the RAF’s Nos. 14, 39, 326, 327 and 454 Squadrons and the South African Air Force’s Nos. 12, 21, 24, 25 and 30 Squadrons, they were deployed most successfully alongside the B-26s of the US 12th Air Force, after initial failure in a torpedo carrying role.

In 1943 the USAAF converted 208 B-26Bs and 350 B-26Cs for use as high-speed target tugs, stripping out all armament and operational equipment, and these were redesignated initially as AT-23A and AT-23B respectively, but subsequently TB-26B and TB-26C. Of these the US Navy acquired 225 AT-23Bs which they designated JM-1, and 47 TB-26Gs, the last Martin production version, as JM-2s.

Nicknames: Widow-Maker; The Flying Coffin; B-Dash-Crash; The Flying Prostitute; The Baltimore Whore (The last two because it had no visible means of support; “Baltimore” because the Martin Company was located there.)

Specifications (B-26G):

Engines: Two 2,000-hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-43 Double Wasp radial piston engines.

Weight: Empty 25,300 lbs., Max Takeoff 38,200 lbs.

Wing Span: 71ft. 0in.

Length: 56ft. 1in.

Height: 20ft. 4in.

Performance:

Maximum Speed: 283mph

Ceiling: 19,800 ft.

Range: 1,100 miles

Armament:

11 12.7-mm (0.5-inch) machine guns

Up to 4,000 pounds of bombs

Number Built: 5,157

Martin Marauder Part II

Briefly during 1943 the Eighth operated a force of medium bombers – Martin B-26 Marauders. The aircraft had first appeared in November 1940 in response to a specification for a fast and heavily armed medium bomber. It had sharp clean lines and was very streamlined, which led the press to name the aircraft ‘the flying torpedo’. The AAC had been so impressed by the design specification that they ordered 1,100 directly from the drawing board, then a unique departure. The B-26 was a rather difficult aircraft to handle with its high landing and take-off speeds, and early into the training programme an alarming number of accidents occurred. As the accident rate rose steadily the aircraft gained the name of ‘widow maker’ or the ‘Baltimore Whore’ (Glenn Martin’s plant was at Baltimore). The position became so grave that the AAC set up a Board of Enquiry to investigate the design, and production of the aircraft was halted. However, the Service retained its faith in the aircraft and with a number of design modifications, production was resumed.

When the first B-26Bs arrived in England in March 1943 they had already seen action in the Pacific and North Africa. They were powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-43 Double Wasp engines, producing a maximum speed of some 280 mph, and a cruising rate of 195 mph. The bomb load had been increased to 4,000 pounds and its total armament to twelve .50 inch guns, although later this was reduced. Despite its early grim reputation the B-26 proved to be a most successful medium bomber with an amazingly low loss rate, and perhaps the aircraft never received the renown that it deserved.

The Eighth Air Force and disaster over IJmuiden

Four B-26 groups were destined to join the Eighth Air Force in East Anglia under the control of the 3rd BW (Bombardment Wing) with its HQ at Elveden Hall. The first B-26 unit to arrive was the 319th BG, however, their stay was short and the group was transferred to North Africa in early November 1942.

By early December 1942, a second group, the 322nd BG, began to arrive. Ground personnel made Rattlesden and Bury St Edmunds their home and it was not until 7 March 1943 that the first B-26s arrived from the 450th BS. One month later, the 452nd BS followed and the 322nd BG began training for a method of flying that was alien to the Eighth Air Force.

The RAF had been flying low-level attacks throughout the war, while the philosophy of the Eighth Air Force was to maintain a high-altitude offensive. This offensive was flown by B-17s and B-24s, but having a medium bomber on the inventory opened up new possibilities. The RAF made good use of the Mosquito and Boston at low level while the medium Ventura and Mitchells were used against heavily defended targets at between 10,000 and 15,000ft. The Eighth Air Force was not enthusiastic but was prepared to look at using the B-26 for low-level operations where surprise and a good turn of speed were essential. The sight of B-26s thundering low over the East Anglian countryside brought some locals out of the houses, while others shook their fists as they dived for cover in open fields. Brushes with trees and cables became commonplace and this was not helped by the control response of the B-26 which lagged an agonizing split-second behind the control input.

By mid-1943, the 322nd BG was deemed fit for operations and a `baptism of fire’ target was chosen, for a daylight attack on 14 May. Despite being located on the Dutch coast, the power station at IJmuiden, 10 miles north-west of Amsterdam, was by no means a cosy target. The RAF, having already attacked the plant on two previous occasions, had experienced a very warm reception from flak, thanks to an E-Boat station also being based there. It was now the turn of the USAAF, which detailed 12 B-26s, each carrying four 500lb delayed-fuse bombs, to attack the plant.

At 0950hrs on 14 May, the first B-26, flown by Maj O. Turner, CO (Commanding Officer) of the 450th BS, took off from Bury St Edmunds and set course for the Dutch coast, settling only a few feet above the waves to avoid German radar. Behind the formation, but still below radar, another B-26 with the 3rd BW commander, Brig Gen Brady and the group CO, Col Stillman of the 322nd BG, followed behind. Land was reached at Leiden, 20 miles south of the target, and a very alert gun crew quickly opened fire, damaging Lt R. C. Fry’s aircraft, Too Much of Texas. The flak knocked out the port engine and removed a large portion of the rudder as Fry turned his bomber away from the formation to jettison his bombs into the sea. Fry then settled down to concentrate on flying his damaged bomber more than 120 miles back to base on one engine.

The remaining bombers turned north followed a canal and railway track to IJmuiden where the air-raid siren went off at 1057hrs. Three minutes later, the formation was over the target and turning west for home after stirring up a hornet’s nest of anti-aircraft fire. Meanwhile, Lt Fry managed to safely land at Great Ashfield while the mauled formation followed not long after. One B-26 put down at Honington while Lt J. J. Howell ordered his crew to bail out near Bury St Edmunds, leaving it to crash near Rougham. After regaining Bury St Edmunds, Maj G. C. Ceilo, the 452nd BS’s commander, could not lower one of the undercarriage legs due to an enemy round. Ceilo circled the airfield for 80 minutes to build the hydraulic pressure back up before landing safely. Over 300 bullet holes were later recorded in Ceilo’s B-26, but only one of his crew was wounded – he was one of just seven airmen injured on the whole raid, including Maj Turner himself.

Everyone who took part in the raid felt that they had done a good job but were not enthusiastic about repeating the exercise. The crews must have been stunned when, two days later, Col Stillman returned from a meeting at Elveden Hall, after being told that all of the bombs dropped on 14 May had missed their target. Stillman also received orders to attack the power station again on 17 May. Despite his protestations that it was too soon to fly another high-risk mission on the same target, he was overruled by Command, who stated that the operation was an integral part of operations all over Europe and it was too late to alter the target.

Late on 16 May, the order came through from Command for another 12 B-26s with the same bomb load. On this occasion, the force was to split into two on reaching the Dutch coast, with one group attacking another power station near Haarlem while the other would return to IJmuiden. With many aircraft still being patched up from the first raid, only 11 B-26s were declared serviceable for the mission which, this time, was led by Col Stillman.

From 1056hrs, the B-26s set course in bright sunshine again for the Dutch coast with all taking part, well aware that they would be pushing their luck to get home safely this time. Just over an hour later, a single B-26 returned early after being forced to turn back 30 miles from the enemy coast with a double generator failure. ETA for the remaining B-26s to land back at base was 1250hrs, but as this time came and went all those waiting at Bury, including Brig Gen Brady, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the potential outcome that no bombers would return that day. Once the `all fuel exhausted’ point had also passed, the optimists amongst the 322nd BG were hoping that their crews had diverted to airfields elsewhere in East Anglia. Unfortunately, this final hope was dashed when Command declared that the B-26s were listed as `Missing in Action, cause unknown.

A photo-reconnaissance sortie was flown that afternoon, which revealed that there was no evidence of bomb damage on either target. As the post mortem of the operation progressed, back at Bury St Edmunds it was discovered that the aborted B-26 might have been instrumental in the failure of the whole mission. Following the generator failure, the B-26 climbed to 1,000ft, which was standard operating procedure. However, in doing so the bomber had shown itself on RAF radar, which would mean that it had also appeared on German radar screens. Being 30 miles off the coast, this would have given the German defences plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of the 322nd BG. The story began to unfold further when a Royal Navy destroyer found two tired airmen in a dinghy several miles off the Suffolk coast. S/Sgt J. Lewis and S/Sgt G. Williams, rear and top turret gunners, were the only survivors of a B-26 that came down in the sea while attempting to get home.

Out of the 62 airmen who were forced down in enemy territory, 20 of them survived to become prisoners of war. Lt Col Purinton, who was the group executive officer and leader for the Haarlem attack, was rescued with his crew by a German boat. Incredibly, Col Stillman and two of his gunners were dragged from the remains of their B-26, alive but seriously injured.

In the meantime, a second unit, 323rd BG, had arrived at Horham on 12 May, destined to move to Earls Colne a month later. The 386th and 387th BGs arrived in June, settling at Boxted and Chipping Ongar respectively, giving the Eighth over 250 medium bombers at their disposal. Despite the mechanical problems that had been occurring, the 322nd BG’s accident rate was no worse than that of any other groups. Another positive was that the last squadrons of the group to arrive and any subsequent groups were equipped with later production models with the bigger wing, larger tail surfaces, more fuel and many more improvements.

The Eighth Air Force commander, Gen I. C. Eaker, decided that the B-26s could add little weight to the USAAF’s strategic bombing campaign in the ETO. All of the Marauder groups were placed under the Eighth Air Support Command (ASC), which was established to support ground forces – classed as a low-priority task within the Eighth Air Force. Reading between the lines, this may have been a subtle way of telling Washington that the B-26 was not cut out for operations in the ETO.

Turning it Around

Taking note of how the Twelfth Air Force had been employing their B-26s in North Africa, the Eighth ASC considered the same tactic. The RAF was brought in to provide fighter cover with the B-26s flying tight formations of up to 18 aircraft at a height of 12,000ft, thus avoiding light flak. While the other groups continued to train at low levels, only Col Thatcher’s 323rd BG were instructed to begin practicing the medium-level tactics. The D-8 bombsights slowly began to be replaced, and strike cameras and .50in machine guns firing downward from the ventral rear hatches were also fitted. Another two months had passed before the 323rd BG was ready for its first mediumlevel operation on 16 July 1943. The target was the marshalling yards at Abbeville. There were 18 aircraft that took part with a squadron of RAF Spitfires flying as escort. In all, 16 B-26s managed to drop their bombs while the formation endured heavy flak and the Spitfires drove off several enemy aircraft. The bombing was poor but all returned safely to Earls Colne. The decision had already been made to re-train the other three groups in the medium-level role.

A week later, the target was the Ghent coke ovens in Belgium, which escaped untouched but, on 26 July the airfield at St Omer/Longuenesse took a pasting. The bombardiers were now getting the hang of their role, their accuracy was increasing and their escorts were enjoying high kill rates. The following day, during a raid on the airfield at Tricqueville, the Spitfires brought down nine Fw 190s for the loss of one aircraft, whose pilot was later rescued from the sea. Incredibly, the 323rd BG had flown nearly 100 sorties in five consecutive days over enemy territory without losing a single aircraft. The honeymoon period could not last, but it did show that the B-26 could survive operations when employed at the right height and with an escort.

During these early missions, the 322nd and 386th BGs had been flying diversions but from the end of July they also joined the fray. Neither had the same luck as the 323rd BG, especially on 30 July when, out of 21 aircraft dispatched to Woensdrecht airfield, only 11 managed to bomb and one 553rd BS B-26 was shot down. The 322nd was back in action on 31 July against Tricqueville. This time, rather than being nearly wiped out, one gunner, S/Sgt C. S. Maddox, claimed a Fw 190 shot down, which was confirmed by an escorting Spitfire pilot.

The bombing at this level, up to 3 August, had produced some indifferent results. On this day, the target was the Trait shipyards and 33 B-26s of the 322nd BG were dispatched. The raid went without a hitch, but the crews were unaware just how good it really was until strike photos were analyzed two days later. The shipyards were heavily damaged, and with the exception of just a few bombs, all had fallen within an area measuring 350x650yd. These results were not only encouraging for the crews but also for the senior staff who had their doubts about the B-26 even being in service, let alone becoming an effective combat aircraft. By the end of August, the B-26s had achieved the lowest loss-per-sortie rate of the entire Eighth Air Force. Having been the butt of many jokes, especially from B-17 crews, since their arrival, the B-26 had finally appeared to have silenced its critics.

Throughout September and early October, the Marauder groups had been successful against the airfield targets allocated to them and equally successful against enemy fighters. Using cloud to avoid the Spitfire escorts, the Luftwaffe struggled to knock the sturdy B-26s out of the sky and, during their Eighth Air Force service, 13 enemy fighters were claimed shot down by Marauder gunners. On 9 October, 1943, the 323rd and 387th BGs flew the last B-26 operation with the Eighth. In just three months, the reputation of this bomber was completely turned around and, after 90 medium-level raids made up of 4,000 sorties, only 13 B-26s were lost. Only one of these was brought down by an enemy fighter, which equated to a loss rate of just 0.3 per cent. On 16 October 1943, the four B-26 groups were transferred to the newly formed Ninth Air Force where they would go from strength to strength.

The History of the British Free Corps Part I

The German Waffen-SS “British Free Corps” (hereafter shortened to BFC), was the brainchild of John Amery. Amery, whose father was a Conservative MP in the English Parliament, found himself living within the shadow of his successful political parent and as such, he strove to excess to prove himself capable of making it on his own. With failures in these endeavors, it only drove him to more and he joined Franco’s Nationalists in Spain in 1936, being awarded a medal of honor while serving as a combat officer with Italian “volunteer” forces. Amery was a staunch anti-Communist and with all of his failings and money problems, he accepted the fascist doctrines of Germany. Following his tour in Spain, he resided in France, under Vichy rule. He ran afoul of the Vichy government (Amery was displeased with their mind set anyhow) and made several attempts to leave the area but was rebuffed. It was German armistice commissioner Graf Ceschi who offered Amery the chance to leave France and come to Germany to work in the political arena. Ceschi wasn’t able to get Amery out of France but later, in September of 1942, Hauptmann Werner Plack got Amery what he wanted and in October, Plack and Amery went to Berlin to speak to the German English Committee. It was at this time that Amery made the suggestion that the Germans consider forming a British anti-Bolshevik legion. So much so was Amery’s suggestions (in addition to the unit ) taken that Adolf Hitler himself made the motions for Amery to remain in Germany as a guest of the Reich and that Hitler thought highly of the idea of a British force to fight the Communists. The idea languished until Amery met up with two Frenchmen, friends of his, who were part of the LVF (Legion des Volontaires Francais ) in January of 1943. The two LVF men lamented about the poor situation on the Eastern Front but that they saw that only Germany was battling the Russians and thus, despite all, they should still lend support with their LVF service. Amery rekindled his British unit concept, wanting to form a 50 to 100 man unit for propaganda uses and also to seek out a core base of men with which to gain additional members from British POW camps. He also suggested that such a unit would also provide more recruits for the other military units made up of other nationals. It seemed that the Germans were already ahead of Amery and had already undertaken some consideration, a military order saying “The Fuhrer is in agreement with the establishment of an English legion…The only personnel who should come into the framework should be former members of the English fascist party or those with similar ideology – also quality, not quantity.” As it is to be seen, this last bit would prove to be very difficult to obtain.

With the go-ahead, Amery set down write two works which covered his German radio talks (which were allowed to be broadcast but with a disclaimer which stated his comments were not those of the German government) and that he suggested the unit be called “The British Legion of St. George”. Amery’s first recruiting drive took him to the St. Denis POW camp outside Paris. 40 to 50 inmates from various British Commonwealth countries were assembled. Amery addressed them, handing out recruiting material. The end result was failure. Still, efforts continued at St. Denis and finally bore some fruit. Professor Logio (an old academic man), Maurice Tanner, Oswald Job, and Kenneth Berry (a 17 year old deck boy on the SS Cymbeline which was sunk at sea ) came forward. Logio was released while Job was recruited away by the German intelligence, trained as a spy, and ended up being caught while trying to get into England and hung in March of 1944. Thus, Amery ended up with two men, of which only Berry would actually join what was later called the BFC. Amery’s link to what would become the BFC ended in October of 1943 when the Waffen-SS decided Amery’s services were no longer needed and it was officially renamed the British Free Corps.

With Amery’s initial recruiting methods being seen as a failure, another idea was to be tried in an attempt to woo POWs to join the BFC. Given the harsh conditions of POW camps in Germany and the occupied areas, it was decided to form a “holiday camp” for likely recruits from POW camps. Two holiday camps were set up, Special Detachment 999 and Special Detachment 517, both under the umbrella of Stalag IIId in the Berlin locale. These camps were overseen by Arnold Hillen-Ziegfeld of the English Committee. English speaking guards were used, overseen by a German intelligence officer, who would use the guards as information gatherers. But a Englishman was needed as possible conduit for volunteers and in this, Battery Quartermaster Sergeant John Henry Owen Brown of the Royal Artillery was selected. Brown was a interesting character. He was a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) but also a devout Christian. His ability to play both sides would serve him well. Captured on the beaches of Dunkirk in May of 1940, Brown eventually ended up in a camp at Blechhammer. Given his rank, he was made a foreman of a work detail and he also began to work into the confidence of the Germans. What Brown was doing, in reality, was setting up a black-market scheme, smuggling in contraband and using it to give to his men and also to buy off the guards. Later, Brown was taught POW message codes created by MI9 of the British intelligence service and he began to operate as a “self-made spy” as he called himself. With his status, he was called to be the camp leader of Special Detachment 517. At this time, another Englishmen, Thomas Cooper (who used the German version of Cooper, Bottcher, as his last name), arrived at the camp. Cooper, unable to obtain public service employ in England due to his mother being German, joined the British Union (the shortened name of the BUF) and eventually left England on the promise that he could get work in German with the Reichs Arbeits Dienst (RAD). As it turned out, this was not to be in the end and finally, he joined the Waffen-SS (who, unlike the Army, would take British nationalities). He was posted to the famous SS “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH), underwent basic training, then was placed into artillery training. This did not last for long and he was transferred to the infamous SS “Totenkopf” infantry training battalion. Trained all over again in infantry tactics, he was moved to the position of machinegun trainer with the 5th. Totenkopf Regiment and made an NCO, staying there until February of 1941 until moved to the Wachbattaillon Oranienburg unit outside Krakow, Poland. During this time, Cooper was reported (by post-war BFC men) to have participated in atrocities against Russian and Polish POWs and civilians, including the Jewish. In January of 1943, Cooper was transferred to the SS-Polizei-Division as a transport driver. The unit was posted to the Leningrad front and once in a Russian town called Schablinov, they were told they’d be put into the line to replace the mangled forces of the Spanish Blue Division. By February 13, 1943, the Russians went on the attack again and broke through the SS-Polizei lines. Cooper was wounded in the legs by shell splinters, evacuated out, and was awarded the Wound Badge in Silver, the only Englishman to obtain a combat decoration. During his recovery, Cooper came into contact with the camp and upon learning about the purpose, was given orders to join the project.

Brown, being a crafty and streetwise person, saw the real deal behind the camp and he correctly came to the conclusion that he was in a very unique position to both hinder the formation of the unit as well as obtain intelligence (and he also would make sure the men who came to the camp actually got a holiday). Brown set about winning the confidence of his German handlers and surrounds himself with trustworthy POWs and when the first batch of 200 POWs rolled into the camp, things did not turn out for the better. Brown and his men were doing their best to entertain the prisoners while Cooper and other pro-Nazi men worked the crowd, seeking ex-BUF members or other ex-Fascist group members as well as finding out attitudes about the Communists. However, this resulted in displeasure and many of the POWs wanted to be sent back to their camps. To try and qualm this, it was asked of the most senior British POW, one Major-General Fortune, to send a representative to the camp to inspect it and assure the men it was on the up-and-up. Brigadier Leonard Parrington was selected and was sent to the camp. He gave a speech, had a look at the facilities, and said it was indeed a holiday camp and not to worry. He did not know the real truth and took it for what it looked like. Brown did not feel safe in informing Parrington of the purpose of the camp. This visit was successful in calming the situation but when the POWs were sent back to their respective camps, only one confirmed recruit was gained, Alfred Vivian Minchin, a merchant seaman whose ship, the SS Empire Ranger, was sunk off Norway by German bombers. Others kept the BFC in mind as they were sent off. Brown, following the first batch, learned of the full scope of the project from Carl Britten. Britten said he’d been forced into the BFC by Cooper and Leonard Courlander. Brown was unable to persuade Britten to quit the BFC, but MI9 got a very revealing transmission from Brown.

A bombing raid against Berlin damaged a good portion of the camp prior to a second batch of POWs being brought in. It was decided to move the campmen to a requisitioned cafe in the Pankow district of Berlin, overseen by Wilhelm “Bob” Rossler, a Germany Army interpreter. Prior to the move, the BFC gained two members, Francis George MacLardy of the Royal Army Medical Corps ( he was captured in Belgium ) and Edwin Barnard Martin of the Canadian Essex Scottish Regiment ( Martin was captured at Dieppe in 1942 ). At this time, the BFC numbered seven. POWs continued to roll into the camp once repaired until December of 1944, when it was called to a halt. The reasoning was that the handling of the camp, as stated by Brown, was counter-productive to getting recruits for the BFC since the way the camp was run, fostered distrust. The reality was they had Brown as their front man, who was out for himself but also loyal to the Crown to continue his dangerous game of intelligence gathering and also deterring recruits from joining, which gained him, post-war, the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Oskar Lange, who was overseeing the camps, hit upon another idea to gain recruits, and, it was hoped give him more stature. The earlier holiday camps only entertained long term POWs. Lange’s idea, however, was to take newly captured prisoners, who were still in a state of confusion, and work on them while they were vulnerable. This new camp was in Luckenwalde. The camp was headed up by Hauptmann Hellmerich of the German intelligence and his chief interrogator was Feldwebel Scharper. Scharper was not above using blackmail to get what he wanted and his tactics included fear, intimidation, and threats to coerce prisoners into joining.

The first group of POWs to be taken to Luckenwalde were mainly from the Italian theater. One such case of Trooper John Eric Wilson of No.3 Commando illustrated the techniques used by the camp. Upon arrival, he was stripped, made to watch his uniform get ripped to bits, then was given a blanket to cover up with. Placed in a cell with only the blanket and fed 250 grams of bread and a pint of cabbage soup, he was only allowed out to empty the waste bucket. After two days like this, he was taken before a “American”, who was in fact Scharper. Wilson was asked his rank, name, number, and date of birth (to which Wilson lied about his rank, saying he was a staff sergeant) then returned to his cell. Left alone, a “British POW” would come in from time to time, offer smokes and conduct idle chit-chat. The end result was that the isolation and the mistreatment led to him holding on to the “POW” who showed kindness to him and when dragged before Scharper some days later and offered the choice of joining the BFC or staying in solitary, it can be understood that Wilson chose the BFC. With this initial success, it was deemed this method would be the gateway to expanding the BFC and in turn, 14 men were made to join, including men from such esteemed units as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Long Range Desert Group.

However, things fell apart when these men, told they would be joining a unit of thousands, ended up in the billets of the cafe and the unit amounted to a handful of men who were more out for the opportunity of freedom or Fascist in leaning. At this time, Edwin Martin attempted to take advantage of the discord (perhaps to atone for his role in the camp) to disrupt the BFC but it did not have the desired effect. Two of the men broke away from the cafe and get into the holiday camp 517 to report to Brown who then complained to Cooper. Cooper then addressed the men at the cafe billet and in turn, those who did not want to remain could leave (though, to prevent the truth about the BFC reaching the general POW population, these men were isolated in a special camp) and by December of 1943, the BFC had only 8 men.

In spite of the tiny size of the unit, the Waffen-SS continued to work on the BFC. The first step was to appoint an officer. Because of the nature of the BFC, the candidate had to be trustworthy, have a good understanding of English, and also be a skilled leader and have excellent administrative. This job fell to SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Werner Roepke. A very educated man, Roepke’s grasp of English came from his time as an exchange student prior to the war. His military service included being a private in the Reichswehr, then as a law man with the Allgemeine-SS, before being called up to duty as a flak officer with the SS-Wiking division. He was made the commander of the BFC in November of 1943. Roepke’s first order of business was to determine just what goal of the BFC was and its principles. The first order of business was the name. “The Legion of St. George” was tossed out as being too religious and the “British Legion” was rejected as well since it was in use by a UK World War 1 veterans group. It was Alfred Minchin who suggested “British Free Corps” after reading about the “Freikorps Danmark” in the English version of Signal magazine. Thus, it was accepted (though, in correspondence, the unit was sometimes called the “Britisches Freikorps”) officially as the “British Free Corps”. That settled, Roepke moved on the purpose of the unit. All the current members told Roepke they wanted to fight the Russians (as you will see, this was more of telling the Germans what they wanted to hear) and so, with that settled, it was ordered that the BFC must swell to create at least a single infantry platoon, or 30 men. It was also decreed that no BFC member could be part of any action against British and British Commonwealth forces nor could any BFC member be used to intelligence-gathering. The BFC would be, until a suitable British officer joined the unit, under German command. Other things worked out included the fact that the BFC members would not have to get the German blood tattoo, they did not have to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, nor were they subject to German military law. They would receive the pay equal of the German soldiers for their rank. Finally, it was decided to equip the unit with standard SS uniforms with appropriate insignia.

Roepke put in the order for the BFC to be moved to the St. Michaeli Kloster in Hildesheim and he also put in the order for 800 sets of the special BFC insignia to the SS clothing department. Officially, the BFC came into existence on January 1, 1944. By February of 1944, the BFC made the move to Hildesheim and the Kloster, which was a converted monastery, now the SS Nordic Study Center and also the barracks for foreign workers laboring for the SS. Prior to the move, things for the BFC men were pretty idle but after the move, recruiting was to be stepped up. Of the group who left the BFC in December, the rumor that they would be sent to a SS run stalag, caused some of them to rethink their decision and three of them returned. Two new recruits were gained, including Private Thomas Freeman of the 7 Commando of Layforce. Freeman was to be the only BFC man who did not receive any punishment post-war for his membership, as MI5 stated his only purpose for joining the BFC was to escape and also to sabotage the unit. At this time, Roepke ordered all of the BFC men to assume false names for official documents but some did not do so. The BFC were also issued their first SS field uniforms, but without any insignia. Tasks were now assigned to the BFC members as well, which lead to some factionalism. Despite having duties, the majority of the time was spent being idle once simple chores such as cleaning the billets and such were done.

This idleness was to Freeman a chance to ruin the BFC by going after those who weren’t Fascist or strong anti-Communist. By gaining them to his side, especially since the main pro-Nazi BFC men were often away from the barracks, Freeman sought to form a rift in the unit. He was able to go on one of the recruiting drives (which were still being carried out) and even get ahead of the line to being made the senior NCO of the BFC. Freeman’s purpose for going on the recruiting drive was to gain men for his own ends. It netted three men, though one left soon after, being returned to his camp.

In April of 1944, the BFC was issued its distinctive insignia, the three-lion passant collar tab, the Union Jack arm shield, and the cuff title bearing “British Free Corps” in Gothic-script. Britten, who had been tasked as the unit tailor, spent most of a day sewing all the items onto the BFC member’s tunics. On the morning of April 20, 1944 (which was Hitler’s birthday), the BFC was paraded in full uniform and addressed by Roepke who said that now that the BFC was full-fledged ( by being issued uniforms, weapons, and pay books ), recruiting can begin in earnest. Promotions were also handed out at this time, with Freeman getting his NCO slot. Following the parade, the BFC members went off to various camps throughout Germany and Austria. The idea was to send the men to camps which they had been formally interned in. The idea, however, was very flawed and did not help recruiting in the slightest. All told, this recruiting drive netted six new members. During one such drive, Berry confided in a camp leader about his predicament, the leader saying he should seek out the Swiss embassy in Berlin, which Berry did not follow up on. Two of these recruits, John Leister and Eric Pleasants, both not wanting to get involved with the war, got caught up in it when the Germans took over the Channel Islands and put them both the camps since they were of military age. While not initially taking up the BFC offer, they talked it out and if the BFC should return, they’d join up. Why? Because the both of them were tired of slim food rations, did not like being away from the company of women, disliked the camp life, and also because the both of them hated being deprived of their freedom for a war they wanted no part in. In fact, Pleasants even admitted to Minchin and Berry that he “was in it to have a good time.”

All of the drives found the BFC numbering 23 men. This worried Freeman because if the unit reached 30, then the BFC would be incorporated into the SS-“Wiking” division and sent into action. To prevent this, Freeman took it upon himself to stop it. He drafted a letter, signed by him and 14 other BFC men (mostly the newcomers), requesting they be returned to their camps. This threw the BFC into chaos and it took pressure from Cooper and Roepke to just have Freeman and one other instigator tossed out and into a penal stalag, both being charged with mutiny on June 20, 1944. Freeman escaped the stalag in November of 1944, making it to Russian lines where he was repatriated in March of 1945. Still, the BFC was rattled and tensions between members were evident, made worse by Cooper seeking to instill SS-style discipline and methods, which was alien to the Englishmen whose experience with the British army was more lenient. With Freeman gone, Wilson was made senior NCO, which was a mistake given Wilson had lied upon his capture about his rank, and thus had little experience leading men and had a large appetite for women, which only being with the BFC could provide him with the freedom to partake of the female virtues.

The History of the British Free Corps Part II

In August of 1944, four more recruits joined on with the BFC. However, three of the four had done so not because they wanted to, but because they were blackmailed into doing it. Two of them were made to join as they had relationships with local area women. One of them was pregnant by one of the men and this was an offense punishable by death while the other man’s liaison with a woman was discovered by the Gestapo. The results of men forced to join the BFC did nothing for morale, in fact, it made it worse. This touched off lack-luster recruiting drives and a flap over the wearing of the Union Jack arm shield flared up. The flap concerned the wearing of the shield below the German eagle. By this time, many other units wore their national flag on the right sleeve and some of the BFC men thought the original position of the shield took a shot at England. It took a direct order from Heinrich Himmler to quell it by allowing the shield to be worn on the right sleeve if desired. Another downturn was Lieutenant William Shearer, who joined the BFC, and was their first, and only British officer to accept a position in the unit. Hoping that, at the least, Shearer would provide a token officer presence, but Shearer was a schizophrenic and wouldn’t put on his BFC uniform or even leave his room to which end he was removed and sent to the mental asylum from whence he came, to be sent back to England on medical grounds. Another sour on the BFC camp was the successful invasion of France by the allies.

With the success of the D-Day landings, some of the BFC men saw the writing on the wall and began to look for ways out. A flash in the pan involving the arrest of BFC man Tom Perkins for theft of a pistol caused a full blown fire within the BFC which culminated in eight men, including Pleasants, refusing to work to set up a football field and all of them were dismissed and sent to SS punishment camps. This incident led to an investigation as to why the BFC was floundering and the upshot was that recruiting had to be stepped up, assemble as many volunteers as possible, and get them trained for combat and sent off to the front lines, whether as a unit or just as replacements for other units. It was here that Vivian Stranders, a SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, sought to make his bid for power by making a move against Cooper and Roepke, so as to position himself for possible monopolization of the British recruiting and perhaps assuming command of the BFC. Stranders, originally a English citizen, joined the Nazi party in 1932 and became naturalized and later, after the war began, was posted in the Waffen-SS as an expert in British affairs. Stranders, however, may not have had a unit to go to as two new problems rocked the boat.

MacLardy abandoned the BFC, volunteering to join a Waffen-SS medical service unit. Two other men, one of them Courlander, could read the tea leaves and sought out of the BFC. They, however, took another tact and volunteered for service with the war correspondent unit “Kurt Eggers”, which was operating on the Western Front. The ultimate goal for these men was to run for the lines when the first chance arose. Britten removed all of the BFC insignia from their uniforms, replacing them with the standard SS patches and rank then the the two men hopped a train for Brussels in the company of a Flemish Waffen-SS unit. Once there, they ultimately turned themselves over to the British, being the first two BFC men to return to England. Still, problems reigned. Two more recruits were gained, again by being forced into it as they had sexual contact with German women and the new quartermaster found a ready source of things to sell to those barracked at the monastery. With all these problems, the barrack commander went to Roepke to request the BFC be sent elsewhere. As it turned out, the BFC were indeed going to be moved.

On October 11, 1944, the BFC arrived at Dresden, to begin training as assault pioneers at the Waffen-SS Pioneer School at the Wildermann Kaserne. Here, they would receive instruction in clearing obstacles, removing minefields, usage of heavy weapons, demolition, and other tasks required of such combat engineers. SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Hugo Eichhorn reviewed the now 13 man BFC unit (not counting the support staff of four ) and despite what, to him, might have been a pretty unfearsome lot, greeted them and introduced their two training officers. The BFC was now working up into shape. They were issued with rifles, steel helmets, camouflage uniforms, and gas masks then set about getting back into physical shape and taking courses in the use of machineguns, flamethrowers, and explosives. Picket and guard duty were assigned to the BFC as well. All this came crashing down when news of Roepke’s dismissal came through.

Stranders had been successful in outing Roepke, replacing him with SS-Obersturmfuhrer Dr. Walther Kuhlich, who was wounded so bad during his stint with SS-“Das Reich”, that he was unfit for active frontline duty. This only added another nail to the BFC coffin. Freeman, following the war, said he had seen a list of over 1,100 British who applied to fight against the Soviets. Why did the BFC remain rife with problems and could never get any recruits? Freeman summed it up that the core base of the BFC were “poor types” and that this contributed to lack of any respect for the BFC from the get-go. And by this time, POWs were hip to the propaganda, especially the BFC.

Cooper, seeing that he needed to bow out of the BFC, asked Wilson, who said he was of a similar frame of mind, to meet in Berlin to request a return to the stalags. The gig was up when Wilson, whose sole reason for going to Berlin was to go womanizing, left Cooper high and dry and under arrest, the charge being sabotage of the BFC. Brought before Stranders and Kuhlich, Cooper was shown signed statements by several BFC men accusing him of anti-Nazi acts. A day later, he was formally charged by a SS prosecutor and sent to the LAH, working as a military policeman. Wilson, now in charge of recruiting, had no real intention of working hard to get new blood. Instead, he set about getting ex-BFC men who’d been kicked out, back into the fold, notably Pleasants. In this, Wilson was successful. In the winter of 1944 and 1945, several new BFC recruits arrived, and the BFC returned to its training, all the while trying to put up a front to the other soldiers who felt the BFC led a soft life. Pleasants even managed to woo the secretary who worked for Kuhlich, marrying her in February of 1945.

Plans were afoot, however, to use the BFC in a last-ditch propaganda ploy. An attempt was made to form a rift between Josef Stalin and the allied leadership, namely Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. The main effort, called “Operation Koniggratz”, attempted to sway British POWs being evacuated from the Polish stalags as the Soviets advanced. The plan was an abject failure and it was pondered how the BFC might be used to play a role in the effort, especially as they were training for combat on the Eastern Front. Again, this came to naught and the whole idea, which even included faking Communist acts within Germany, crumbled.

The BFC, meanwhile, found its morale taking a nose dive once more, thanks in part to Wilson’s lack of leadership and with Kuhlich almost always in Berlin. Still, recruits for the BFC arrived, near the close of 1944, including two South Africans. Of these five, three turned out to be genuinely anti-Communist, one of them being swayed by BFC literature, the other two having wanted to initially join the SS-“Totenkopf” division until they were talked into joining the BFC by Kuhlich. By January of 1945, the BFC was up to 27 men, three shy of the magic 30. But by this time, it was seen the whole BFC idea was a total and complete failure and many began to concoct ways to get out. Hugh Cowie, a Gordon Highlander from Scotland, was in the middle of several scandals, including the refusal to accept six Maoris into the BFC on the grounds it was a “white only” unit and having to deal with drunkards and AWOL BFC men, notably one man who kept sneaking away to be with his girl. With Wilson away, Cowie hatched a plan to use his temporary position to get access to travel documentation for him and five others, hop a train to the Eastern Front, and lay low somewhere and let the Soviets overtake them, using the pretext of going on a recruiting drive. Once on the train, all the men (save one who didn’t show) removed their BFC insignia and it went downhill from there, the end result being all of them were picked up by the Gestapo. After harsh tongue lashings by their armed escort and Kuhlich, half of the escapees were sent off to isolation camps while the other three agreed to remain with the BFC. The major hammer fell when the allies bombed Dresden on February 12, 1945, killing some 40,000 people and some took advantage of it all to make an escape but one man, who thought he could confide in his Norwegian nurse girlfriend, found out otherwise and she informed the Gestapo of his plans and the entire BFC was arrested but not before two BFC men managed to sift into the POWs being sent west and were never to return to the BFC.

This was the straw which broke the camel’s back. After the BFC men were sprung from jail, it was time to make some use out of the unit. The BFC was taken to Berlin and barracked in a school on the Schonhauser Allee, to wait there until the required steps were taken to put them into the line. It was here that the last “volunteer” came forward, Frank Axon who was captured in Greece in 1941. Accused of hitting a cow which caused it to give birth to its calf too early, he could either join the BFC or be severely punished and so, he chose the BFC. With the prospects of combat looming for a lost cause, the BFC men sought ways out once more. Three men were provided British army uniforms by a sympathetic officer who sent them off to escape. Another man, who had a girlfriend with connections to the “Kurt Eggers” Regiment, managed to get transferred there while Pleasants went to the “Peace Camp”, doing exhibition boxing bouts with Max Schmeling for the delight of German officers. On March 8, 1945, the remaining BFC men were brought before Kuhlich who gave each of them a choice: fight on the front or be sent to an isolation camp. All of them chose to fight. Wilson, in no hurry to go to battle, managed to get himself a slot as liaison between the BFC and the Berlin office of Kuhlich. This put Douglas Mardon in charge of the unit and in shaping up what he had, he was left with eight men in all (two men he refused to take and Minchin had scabies ). Mardon had to move the unit to a training camp in Niemeck, to get a crash course in anti-tank, close-combat tactics. Here, the BFC men were given training in the use of the Panzerfaust and other tank killing methods. They were also issued the StG44 (MP44) assault rifle and given training in its use. The unit strength was cut down to seven when one member smoked aspirin until he became ill, being able to get transferred out. With the hurried training done, the BFC was given two days leave before moving out to the front lines.

On March 15, 1945, a truck was loaded up with the tiny BFC and it moved out to meet up with the headquarters of III. (Germanisches ) SS-Panzer-Korps. During the ride, most members removed their BFC insignia. Upon arrival, the HQ staff was rather shocked at getting a British unit and so they put the BFC up in billets on the western edge of Stettin pending orders on what to do with them. While waiting, the BFC came under some brief Soviet mortar and artillery fire but no injuries were reported. However, the manpower was again reduced by one when one man came down with a severe case of gonorrhea and was sent away to a military hospital.

On March 22, 1945, orders came in from the HQ that the BFC should move to the headquarters portion of the SS-“Nordland” division, located at Angermunde. From there, they would be placed with the divisional armored reconnaissance battalion (11.SS-Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilung) which was stationed in Grussow. The commander there was Sturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Saalbach and when the BFC arrived, he gave them a quick welcome and assigned them to the 3rd. Company, commanded by the Swede Obersturmfuhrer Hano-Goesta Perrson. Perrson issued the BFC with a single Sd.Kfz.251 half-track and a “Schwimmwagen”, giving them orders to prepare trench lines within the company’s perimeter. The “Nordland” division was currently being held in reserve but the BFC, from their positions, could clearly see the Soviets. The BFC remained in the line for a month but the notion that they could be attacked by the Russians, failed to unify them and discord was rampant, so much so that Mardon was pressured into seeing if the BFC could be pulled out. During this time, Cooper was to return to the fold. After being told he was being transferred to the Germanic Panzer Corps, Cooper burned his SS papers and packed a suitcase with civilian clothing and went to the Corps HQ located in Steinhoffl on the Oder. He learned, to his surprise, that “ten [Englishmen were] somewhere near the front.” He was then informed his presence was requested by Obergruppenfuhrer Felix Steiner and during this time, Steiner ordered Cooper to accompany him to the front to inspect the BFC troops. Cooper, on the ride there, informed Steiner about the BFC and that it was unwise to have them at the front, to which Steiner agreed, but more because Steiner was concerned about post-war legalities of his usage of such men on the front. After inspecting the BFC, Steiner gave a short speech and ordered that the BFC be used as medical orderlies. Cooper, after catching up on the news, spoke with Mardon and then the two of them approached Brigadefuhrer Ziegler at his Nordland headquarters. They gave Ziegler a rundown on the unit, pointing out that many were forced into joining the BFC and thus, were of dubious combat value, to which Ziegler agreed. Ziegler set in motion the process by sending Cooper and Mardon to Steiner and upon meeting with him, discussed the points they made to Ziegler. The upshot was that Steiner issued the orders to pull the BFC out of the line and utilize them as truck drivers in the rear lines.

The next day, the BFC left the front lines and reported to the Corps headquarters and from there, they were issued with travel orders, rations, and were to go to Templin, to join the transport company of Steiner’s headquarter staff. They arrived there on April 16, 1945. In the meantime, Wilson, who was supposed to be sending the BFC men their Red Cross parcels (for all intents and purposes, the BFC were still classified as POWs and thus still got the parcels), chose to horde them and ultimately, he deserted into Berlin on April 9, 1945. To calm the rumblings, Cooper and four BFC men rode into Berlin to try and locate the parcels on the 17th. and upon returning on the 19th., they found a Hauptsturmfuhrer, in full SS panzer uniform, sporting BFC insignia, waiting to take them back to the front.

The tanker was Douglas Berneville-Claye who had a pension for embellishment, fraud and theft, and the ability to pass himself off as something he wasn’t. Having been booted out of the RAF, he ended up as a commander with the SAS in the Middle East where he was branded as “useless” and “dangerous” by his comrades, to the point they’d refuse to conduct operations with him. He was captured in 1942 by DAK units and taken to an Italian POW camp, to which he claimed to have broken out of four times. He was then sent to Oflag 79 in Brunswick until removed from there for his own safety since the POWs saw him as, and correctly so, as a German informer. From the time of his removal to his appearance in Templin in March of 1945, no record is known. As he stood with the BFC, he launched into a speech saying he was a earl’s son, a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and would collect two armored cars to take the BFC into battle with, even making the claim that the BFC would have no problems with the British authorities and that England was going to declare war on Russian in a few days. Cooper called Berneville-Claye’s bluff and Berneville-Claye turned away, taking one of the BFC men with him as a driver, and drove away ( Berneville-Claye eventually changed into a full SAS uniform while the driver took up farmers clothing and they turned themselves in ). “Bob” Rossler remained with the Nordland division when it went into battle in Berlin, fighting alongside the Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, and all the other mixed bag units which remained to fight it out.

The BFC, however, remained true to their orders, following Steiner’s headquarter unit to Neustrelitz. They drove trucks, directed traffic, and assisted the evacuations of civilians from the Neustrelitz and Reinershagen area until, on April 29, 1945, Steiner ordered his forces to break contact with the Russians and make for the western combat lines to surrender to the US and British. From this point on, the BFC men sought ways to get to the western lines and avoid capture by the Soviets. Those who fell into or were turned over to the British, among other British traitors, stood trial. Amery was hung, Cooper went to jail (being released in 1953), Britten got ten years (reduced to two months when he was released for medical reasons), Wilson got ten years, Freeman got ten years, and other members got from 15 years to even no punishment at all.

And so ended the British Free Corps service to Germany

The Turncoat Claye

Douglas Webster St. Aubyn Berneville-Claye called himself Lord Charlesworth (no claim to any title) 1 SAS (B + A Squadrons) October 1942-December 1942 (2Lt) born 1917 Plumstead, London (Douglas Berneville Webster Claye) son of Frederick Wainwright Claye, MBE, Little Ouseburn, Yorkshire.

Every army has its bad hats, those men who prove to be inherently unworthy of comrades, a disruptive influence in any unit. In World War II such men did not appear only among the `other ranks’: there were occasions when the Army selection boards erred in promoting candidates to hold officer rank in His Majesty’s forces.

In wartime the Army boards were passing out as fit many young subalterns to lead men in battle or staff work, whether on dangerous missions or among the `we also serve’ ranks of the humble Pay Corps or other noncombat units. Such a candidate for advancement was Douglas Berneville-Claye, who was granted his commission as a second lieutenant in October 1941, and presently posted to the West Yorkshire Regiment in the Middle East. That the selecting officers in England had erred in permitting Claye to bear an officer’s pips did not then seem obvious. But a year after first donning his officer’s cap Claye volunteered for the Special Air Service. At this point his true merit began to emerge. As a leader of special service troops he proved quite undistinguished, so untrustworthy that veterans of hazardous SAS operations refused to accompany him on new ventures.

Nevertheless, despite misgivings, Lieutenant Claye’s commanders allowed him to embark on ops, this resulting in his capture behind enemy lines. Hitler had ordered the execution of all captured commandos, but Claye was lucky and was sent first to an Italian POW camp, then to the German Oflag (Offizierlager) 79. And here Claye’s true personality emerged: he went over to the enemy, becoming an informer to the German camp security staff. ByJanuary 1945 he had fully weakened to German propaganda, inviting Allied prisoners to join them in the great `anti-Bolshevik crusade’. Claye entered the Waffen SS, specifically the socalled `British Free Corps’, a handful of turncoats let out of POW cages, men who succumbed to German promises of a better, more adventurous life – in reality to be used as more cannon fodder on the Russian front. Even here Claye proved a misfit, unable to agree with his fellow traitors or lead them in combat. He used his SAS training to desert his German masters, re-outfitting himself in British battledress before returning to Allied positions in the West.

Claye’s past eventually became known and various charges were put to him, all of which he denied. Owing to lack of evidence he was released from custody and permitted to resume Army service, but one year later he was caught out on a comparatively small offence, that of stealing a typewriter, and was dismissed from the Army.

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The renegade SAS officer who eventually arrived on the Oder Front in March-April 1945. He had actually joined the Waffen-SS after being released from a POW camp where his fellows, probably correctly, suspected him of being an informant for the Germans; but his excuse, post-war, was that he had been given an SS uniform after escaping from a camp and had eventually, after various highly unlikely adventures, bluffed his way back to the British lines. Not surprisingly, MI5 and other investigating authorities didn’t believe him, but after two years intensive effort they could not gather enough hard evidence to make a conviction likely and dropped the matter (though Berneville-Claye himself was already in prison for various other offences). Berneville-Claye strikes me as the most likely inspiration for the story: he was an inveterate liar, con man and BS artiste and told everyone he met a range of grandiosely inflated accounts of his wartime experiences (there is now, at an Australian school where he ended up teaching in the 1970s, a ‘Douglas Berneville-Claye Memorial Prize’ for the most distinguished pupil of the year, named after ‘Major the Honourable Douglas Berneville-Claye, DSO, MC’. He died in 1975.