The Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) explored various projects for adding one or more aircraft carriers to the fleet in the 1930s but took no action beyond developing a basic design for constructing a new vessel and identifying suitable candidate merchant ships for conversion. In mid-1940, as Italy prepared to enter the war as an ally of Germany, a design was prepared for a simple conversion of the fast liner Roma into an aircraft carrier, but again was deemed less of a priority than other construction and set aside in January 1941.

It took the shock of defeat at Cape Matapan (March 28, 1941), which the Italians largely attributed to effective British deployment of its carrier Formidable, to revive demands for a carrier as an urgent requirement. In July 1941 the Undersecretary of the Navy authorized the conversion of the Roma into a carrier, using the design studies of the previous year as a basis. In the event, the project became much more ambitious and required a major transformation of the relatively elderly liner into the carrier Aquila.

Initially, the Regia Marina planned the Aquila (“Eagle”), as the new carrier was to be called, as bare-bones, minimum-effort conversion that would get aircraft to sea in minimal time. However, unanticipated minor problems and the navy’s understandable desire for the maximum possible capability in what might prove its only aircraft carrier led to a spiralling of new features, greater complexity, and mounting delays. To improve the hydrodynamics of the hull, increase fuel capacity, and provide the underwater protection naturally lacking in a merchant hull, large bulges were installed on either side of the hull at the waterline. The interior of the ship was completely gutted to make room for a large hanger with space for 40 airplanes, aviation stores, workshops, and accommodation for a crew of 1165 naval personnel and 243 pilots and support personnel from the Regia Aeronautica. A full-length flight deck topped the hanger, with a large island on a sponson to starboard. For protection against surface threats, the ship received eight 135-mm (5.3-in) L45 guns in single mounts along either side of the deck. Antiaircraft defense was supplied by twelve 65-mm L64 guns in single mounts along the deck edges and 132 x 20-mm L65 Breda machine guns in 22 sextuple mounts along the deck edges and fore and aft of the island. A small amount of armor—some in the form of concrete—was distributed around vital areas of the ship. On the whole, a well thought out, state of the art carrier thus emerged from all of this effort, but, as we shall see, at a fatal cost in time.

Displacement: 23,350 tons (standard), 27,800 tons (full load)

Dimensions: 759’2″ (oa) x 96’6″ x 24’0″

Flight deck: 700’0″ x 83’0″

Machinery: Belluzzo geared turbines, 8 Thornycroft boilers, 4 shafts, 140,000 shp = 30 knots

Bunkerage: 2,800 tons = 4,000 nm @ 18 knots

Aircraft: 36; some sources say Aquila’s air group would have been fifty-one Re2001’s, some of which were to be modified to carry a torpedo.

Armament: 8 x 5.3″, 12 x 65mm AA, 22 x 6-barrel 20mm AA

Complement: 1,420

The superstructure was razed completely and a large hangar 525 feet long and 59 feet wide was erected beneath the steel flight deck. The Roma’s original power plant was replaced completely with two sets of machinery originally intended for light cruisers of the Capitani Romani class, raising the carrier’s speed from 21 knots to 30 knots. The furnace uptakes were trunked to starboard into a very large stack that was incorporated into a substantial island structure. Two elevators connected the hangar and flight deck, which carried two catapults and full arresting gear. All armament was fitted on platforms sponsoned out from the ship’s side. Magazines and aviation fuel stowage were created and protected by 3-inch armor decks. To ensure stability and provide effective defense against torpedo attack, the hull was fitted with deep bulges on each side.

When Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943, the Aquila was virtually complete. The Germans seized the ship but it was heavily damaged by United States Army Air Force bombing on June 16, 1944 and a human torpedo attack on April 19, 1945. On April 24, 1945, the ship was scuttled at Genoa. After World War II the ship was raised and taken to La Spezia in 1949. Initially the Italian Navy considered refitting the Aquila for service as a carrier but this plan was abandoned and the ship broken up in 1952. In late 1942 the Regia Marina decided to add a second carrier to the fleet and began a simple conversion of the liner Augustus along the lines originally proposed for the Roma.

Slow progress on the extensive Aquila conversion and the obvious need for additional carriers led the navy to revive the idea of an austere, minimum-change liner conversion in 1942. The liner Augustus was selected for conversion as the Sparviero (“Kestrel”). It was designed to be, essentially, a large escort carrier. Sparviero was to have a continuous flight deck surmounting a simple, hull-top hanger, but no island. Torpedo bulges were fitted to the hull, but no other major modifications were considered. The air group was to be limited to 20 aircraft. Gun armament would consist of six 152-mm (6-in) single-purpose guns and four 102-mm (4-in) antiaircraft guns. With a waterline length of 664 ft (202 m), a beam of 83 ft (25 m), a draft of 30 ft (9 m), she was roughly the same size as Aquila. But her original, tired diesel machinery would give only a fraction of the earlier carrier’s power—28,000 hp on 4 shafts—and a maximum speed of only 18 knots.

When the ship, by then renamed the Sparviero, was seized by Germany after Italy surrendered only the superstructure had been razed. The hulk was scuttled on April 24, 1945, in an attempt to block the entrance to the harbor at Genoa. It was raised in 1947 and scrapped.

The air groups for these carriers were particularly well-conceived. Rather than developing the plethora of limited-production, specialist types that typified the opposing Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, the Regia Aeronautica standardized on a single type and adapted it to fulfill all the roles required of a naval strike aircraft. This would simplify the provision of spares and the training of naval pilots. It would maximize the number of aircraft that could be accommodated (51, including the deck park), and it would give the air group unparalleled flexibility. For strikes against enemy naval units, all aircraft could carry antiship ordnance, because each of the strike aircraft was capable of defending itself against combat air patrols. At the same time, in the event of an attack on the Aquila, all available aircraft could be used as fighters. There were no clumsy dive bombers or torpedo planes to be cleared from the deck in such a crisis.

For this one, multirole aircraft, the navy settled on the Reggiane Re.2001, the higher-performance, inline-engined version of the familiar Re.2000. The Re.2001 closely resembled the Re.2000 in almost all respects. But the bulky, trouble-prone Piaggio P.IX radial engine gave way to a liquid-cooled, Alfa Romeo RA.1000 RC.41a Monsone V-12, a license-built Daimler-Benz DB 601 offering 1175 hp for takeoff. At same time, the the Re.2000’s wing structure was redesigned to replace the leak- and fire-prone integral wing fuel tanks with more conventional armored fuel tanks, supplemented, when required, by a large torpedo-shaped drop tank under the fuselage. The Falco’s twin, nose-mounted, 12.7-mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns were supplemented by a 7.7-mm gun in each wing. Maximum speed increased to 339 mph (545 kmh) at 17,946 ft (5470 m) and range, on internal fuel, was 684 mi (1100 km).

Difficulties with license production of the DB 601 engine limited initial orders for the Re.2001 to only 120 aircraft. But, of these, fully 50 were Re.2001OR (Organizzazione Roma) models, specifically intended for the carrier project. The Re.2000OR incorporated strengthened landing gear and airframe components to cater to the higher loads anticipated during shipboard landings. A large, A-frame arrestor hook was fitted to the reinforced rear fuselage, and the airframe was finished in the elegant, overall pale grey-blue first seen on the Re.2000 catapult fighters. The naval aircraft retained the bomb shackle standard on land-based Re.2000 fighter bombers and could thus handle the naval bomber role. Weapons would probably have included a standard 551-lb (250 kg) demolition bomb and a special, 1389-lb (630-kg) armor-piercing antiship bomb.

While the Re.2001OR was admirably suited to the naval fighter and bomber roles, it could not fulfil the vital torpedo carrying mission as built. While bombs might cripple a ship, the torpedo was still the only weapon that could reliably strike below the waterline and sink ships. Accordingly Reggiane modified one of the Re.2001ORs (MM.9921) to carry a light torpedo as the Re.2001G. This was ready for flight tests in June of 1943, but crashed before torpedo trials could begin.


1st Cruiser squadron at Jutland

Battleship Thüringen fixes Black Prince in her searchlights in Willy Stower’s painting.

Claus Bergen’s take on the end of Black Prince.

The 1st Cruiser squadron on the eve of the battle of Jutland had remained unaltered since November 1915 when it had comprised the four armoured cruisers, Warrior, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and the Defence. Three of the squadrons names would become synonymous with the date, 31st May 1916 and the battle they fought on that day. When the guns fell silent and the ships started to returned home on the 1st June, the 1st CS would all but cease to have existed. The carnage heaped upon that squadron would see it disbanded until July 1917 and the arrival of ‘Fishers Follies’ the Courageous, Glorious and Furious. But thats a chapter outside our tale.

At the Battle of Jutland the obsolete ships of the 1st CS were deployed to form a screen to the front right beam of the Grand Fleet Battle Squadrons. As the two dreadnought fleets first came into contact on that Wednesday afternoon, the ships of the 1st CS lay in the waters directly between them. Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot ordered that his ships close up, with the Defence and Warrior moving closer to each other, while the Duke of Edinburgh was beginning to lag a short distance behind them. The Black Prince, for reasons unknown, slips here from the battles accounts, and we are only permitted an occassional fleeting glimps of her in the days recollections by others. With her loss we are deprived of both the ships log books and more tragically, her crews recollections.

Arbuthnot pointed his command towards the sound of the guns and on a direct course for the German light Cruiser Wiesbaden. The manoeuvre was also to place the four ships on a collision course with the oncoming Beatty and his the Battlecruiser Force. At around this time, 17:42, the Black Prince lost contact with the rest of her Squadron as it came into contact with the German forces. At 17:47 the two leading ships of the squadron, the flagship, Defence, and Warrior, having sighted the German II Scouting Group exchanged fire with them. With their 9.2″ shells falling short, the two cruiser’s turned to port in pursuit of their targets, cutting across the front of the battlecruiser HMS Lion, just as the fleet was deploying into line, ready for facing Scheer’s battle squadrons. To avoid a collision Beatty’s ships swung sharply away to avoid the armoured cruisers. Beatty’s Flag Captain Alfred Chatfield from on board Lion recalled “As a result of Arbuthnot’s orders, the armoured cruisers cut right across the battlecruisers just as the Grand Fleet began to deploy into its battle line. This manoeuvre could have caused an absolutely disastrous collision. At that exciting moment I saw the 1st CS leading from port to starboard across my bows. It was clear that unless I altered course drastically I should collide with one of his ships, so I jammed the Lion’s helm over and swung her under the stern of their second cruiser, which only cleared us by a cable’s length. By forcing the Battlecruiser Squadron off its course in the low visibility, which was then only five miles, Arbuthnot caused us to lose sight of the enemy fleet and he himself took the place of the battlecruisers as their targets.”

Boy 1st Class John Davies from on board the Duke of Edinburgh recorded “To tell the truth I had been brought up to believe that the British Navy was untouchable in warfare, I was expecting the German ships to go down one after another. So that when our Squadron, with the Grand Fleet, arrived at the scene of action, I was surprised to see some of our ships (Beatty’s battlecruisers) burning and out of control, sinking and helpless I was not frightened, but surprised to discover that the Germans had men and ships that were as good, maybe better, than ours. Our Squadron steamed on. Three heavy cruisers, the Black Prince had fallen out, we were firing our 9.2″s to starboard where the enemy were. Then our Admiral, Robert Arbuthnot, made the signal for the Squadron to turn into the enemy”.

Arbuthnot’s manoeuvre drew the German battlecruiser fire down onto his ships. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis, one of the Duke’s Royal Marines wasn’t surprise at his admiral orders, “Admiral Arbuthnot had made it abundantly clear in a series of addresses to the ships’ companies of the vessels under his command, that when he encountered the enemy he would close to the rather meagre range of our guns and engage remorselessly. In the action he put his precepts into practice, but the old ships of the 1st CS were no match for the German battlecruisers” The Defence and Warrior while cutting across the battlecruisers bows had begun to pour their 9.2-inch shells into the stationary Wiesbaden, which had only just survived an assault by the British destroyers. As the two armoured cruisers remorselessly pounder their German victim, the smoke of their 9.2″s drifted across the battlefield obscuring the German fleet from the Grand Fleet. We don’t know if Arbuthnot was aware of the consequences of his action. One modern historian describes him as “in a colloquial if not a clinical sense, insane”. Maybe he was trying to regain his rightful position within the fleets deployment, or maybe having the battered cruiser within his sights, he as as a dog with a bone. We don’t know and we can never know now. As the Admiral manoeuvred his ships, the Duke of Edinburgh was unable to follow the first two ships of the squadron and she turned to port (northeast). Duke of Edinburgh then to spotted the disabled Wiesbaden at 18:08 and the Duke’s Gunnery Officer on the day Lieutenant-Commander (G) J. K. B. Birch directed his guns on the German cruiser, firing twenty rounds at her. At around 18:30 the Duke had steamed to a position off the starboard bow of King George V, the leading ship of the 2nd Battle Squadron, where her funnel smoke was to obscured the German ships from the leading dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron.

If the Grand Fleet’s view of their German opponents was limited by the Warrior and Defence’s smoke, the German gunnery officers had a fine view of Arbuthnot’s two ships. Commander Günther Paschen on board the Lützow, noted how ” From left to right there appears in the field of the periscope, a ship, improbably large and close. At the first glance I recognise an old English armoured cruiser and give the necessary orders. My arm is clutched, “Don’t fire, that is the Rostock!” But I can see the turrets fore and aft. “Action! Armoured Cruiser. Four funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Range 76hm. Salvo!” Five salvoes rapidly follow, of which three straddled; then there was repeated the now familiar sight of a ship blowing up”. Derfflinger following in the Lutzow’s wake didn’t even have time to train her guns and fire on the Defence before she exploded. In an instant, at 18:20, Arbuthnot and his men were gone.

Now the Warrior was alone and the Germans switched their attention as she followed in the wake of her lost flag ship. Lieutenant Patrick Lawder, from on board the 4th BS Benbow wrote “I stopped to have another look and saw one of our four funnelled cruisers being heavily shelled. Splashes were all round her and one salvo straddled her quarterdeck, with one or two shots this side. At the same time, as the splashes rose a tall column of smoke, 200 to 300 feet high, rose from her quarterdeck, the smoke being lit up by the flame inside it in a very pretty way. She went on, however, and immediately afterwards was again straddled, but I didn’t notice any hits. There was a good deal of smoke about and I didn’t see what damage had been done by the explosion”

As the two ships from her squadron suffered, the Duke of Edinburgh was now a considerable distance behind the Defence and Warrior. Able Seaman Ewart Eades, a spare sight setter on ‘Y’ Turret noted how, “Our Gunlayer, Petty Officer Gunners Mate Rawles, said that the lens of the gunlayer telescope was getting fogged up with the spray and cordite smoke. I was sent out with some cloth to see if I could wipe the telescope lens from the top of the turret. Now I had a desire to see what was happening being young and without nerves or fear. However I looked and found that it seemed to me that we were between the Grand Fleet and German Fleet. Shells were going over us both ways. I saw that the Defence went up in flames and then the Warrior took a broadside and dropped out of line. I never did make the top of the turret for it seemed that the helm was put hard over. I was nearly decanted into the sea”. As the Duke swung away to extract herself from the fate of the Defence, her smoke added to the already reduced visibility through which the Grand Fleet was trying to peer.

The Duke manoeuvred to survive, having like her sisters blundered into the German fleet’s big guns, she watched as a torpedo attack undertaken by the German destroyers on Admiral Beatty’s battlecruisers failed. But it did force the Duke of Edinburgh to evade one torpedo at 18:47. The Duke reported a submarine sighting at 19:01, although no German submarines were operating in the area. She was to make a second erroneous submarine contact between 19:45 and 20:15.

But what of the fourth cruiser of the squadron, the Black Prince? There were to be no positive sightings of her after 17:42 and the 1st CS initial contact with the enemy. But a wireless signal from her was received at 20:45, reporting a submarine sighting. During the night of 31st May–1st June, the British destroyer Spitfire, having been badly damaged in a collision with the German dreadnought Nassau, sighted what seemed to be a German battlecruiser, with the two widely spaced funnels typical of the German designs. The sighted “battlecruiser” was described as being “…a mass of fire from foremast to mainmast, on deck and between decks. Flames were issuing out of her from every corner.” The “battlecruiser” exploded at around midnight and it was later believed that the burning ship may have been Black Prince, with her two midships funnels having collapsed or been shot away.

The German account of the ship’s sinking describes how the Black Prince briefly engaged the German dreadnought Rheinland at about 23:35 GMT, scoring two hits with her 6-inch guns. She was by now separated from the British fleet, and Black Prince approached the German lines at around midnight. On sighting the German capital ships, she made to turn away, but it was already to late. The German dreadnought Thüringen illuminated Black Prince with her searchlights and then opened fire. Up to at least five other German ships, including the Nassau, Ostfriesland, and the fleet flagship, Friedrich der Grosse, joined in the slaughter. Black Prince replied to the German main calibre shells with her 9.2″ but her efforts were ineffective. Most of the attacking German dreadnoughts were within between 750 and 1,500 yards (690 and 1,370 m) of the lone cruiser, all but point-blank range for naval gunnery. The Black Prince was struck by at least twelve heavy shells and several smaller calibre, sending her to the sea bed within 15 minutes of the first German salvo. The German Official Naval History’s describes her end, “She presented a terrible and awe-inspiring spectacle as she drifted down the line blazing furiously until, after several minor detonations, she disappeared below the surface with whole of her crew in one tremendous explosion”. Of the 857 men on board that day, none were to survive and all were to find a grave in the cold north seas depths.

Having learnt of the loss of the Black Prince and the Warrior it was assumed by many that the Duke of Edinburgh, the only surviving ship of the 1st Cruiser Squadron would have been heavily mauled by the German fleet. Lieutenant Leslie Hollis serving on board the Duke of Edinburgh recalled afterwards how “by the time we arrived in the Flow it was common knowledge that three out of the four ships of our Squadron had gone down. It was to be expected, therefore, that the Duke of Edinburgh had certainly shared in the casualties, details of which we were asked to report by signal. The reply was, “One case of Rubella.” This was a mild form of fever contracted by a musician in the transmitting station. Compared with our consorts we certainly got off very lightly. Those that had survived felt guilt. Able Seaman Arthur Ford had missed the battle, as he had been sent on a gunnery course five days before it. When he learnt that his ship, the Black Prince, had been sunk with all “hands” he felt guilty. “My first thoughts were that I’d dodged the column and I ought to have gone with them. I did. I don’t know why but I did. I thought, “Why should I escape when all the others went west?” That’s the feeling I had for some time. “What a horrible end I’ve missed…” Imagine the different crews at their gun stations, I would know a lot of the men and what guns they were on. They were so exposed, the six inch guns were on deck with no shelter of any description, totally in the open. The guns had been brought up from the lower deck to the upper deck because they couldn’t fire them in rough weather in that type of ship. Can you imagine being half a mile away from the German High Seas Fleet with their 12″ guns. It would just blow them clean out of the water a broadside. Oh, it must have been a shocking, nobody able to do a thing, I doubt if they fired a shot hardly. But of course these things when you’re young these thoughts don’t last to long”.

The Duke of Edinburgh was to be the lone ship of the 1st CS to survive the battle, and was detached on the 1st to search for crippled ship’s or survivors. None of which she was to find. She returned to Cromarty in the afternoon of the 3rd June, where on the 5th of June, in Jellicoe’s post battle reorganization of his fleet, she was attached to the 2nd CS which comprised of the Minotaur (Flag), Cochrane, Shannon, Achilles, Donegal.

Armstrong 100-ton guns

Rinella gun, Malta, still on the original mount.


In the late 1800s, large muzzle-loading cannons were built by Armstrong’s Elswick Ordnance Company for the British government. They were built on the Armstrong system of a primary steel tube, with successive, shorter, wrought-iron tubes, heated and shrunk on the main tube. They had a 18-in (45-cm) bore, a little over 30ft (9m) long. The guns were first fired in 1884, but the weapons were not fully operational until 1889 owing to hydraulic system problems. The four original British guns were divided between Gibraltar and Malta and none of them were ever fired in earnest.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Woolwich manufactured several marks of large naval and seacoast Armstrong muzzleloaders, ranging from the 12-ton, 9-inch Mk IV to the 81-ton, 16-inch Mk I. Other big Armstrongs included the 38-ton, 12.5-inch Mk I; the 35-ton, 12- inch Mk I; the 25-ton, 12-inch Mk II; the 25-ton, 11-inch Mk II; and the 18-ton, 10-inch Mk II. The largest rifled muzzleloaders in British service were 17.72-inch, 100-ton giants that, with a 460- pound charge, fired a 1-ton projectile at a muzzle velocity of nearly 1,700 feet per second. Four were manufactured and were mounted in the defenses of Gibraltar and Malta.

The largest muzzleloading black powder cannons ever built were the Armstrong 100-ton guns which saw service with the Italian Navy and with British coastal fortifications on Malta and Gibraltar. They were purchased by the Italians first, to outfit a pair of new super battleships, each vessel having two turrets with two of these guns in each. To avoid being outclassed, the British ordered two guns for installation to protect the Grand Harbor of Malta and two more to protect Gibraltar. Today one survives at each location, and we are visiting the Rinella Battery in Malta, which was built to house one of the Maltese guns.

These guns had a maximum range of 8 miles, and was capable of piercing 15 inches of iron armor at 3 miles. It had a 17.7 inch (45cm) bore fired a 2000 pound (900 kg) shell with a 450 pound (200kg) charge of black powder. The gun itself weighed approximately 102 tons, and with its cradle and a shell the whole assembly came in at 150 tons.

Aside from the massive scale of the piece, the most interesting part of its design is actually the loading machinery. Because of the titanic size of the gun and ammunition, Armstrong designed a fascinating hydraulic reloading facility which makes up the body of the fortress in which the gun is set. A pair of steam engines drove a pair of hydraulic accumulators, which provided hydraulic pressure to move the gun on its carriage, to douse the barrel after firing, to hoist ammunition into position for loading and power a 60-foot (18m) ramrod to mechanically ram the charge and shell into place. Two mirror-image reloading galleries under the fortification operated in turn, giving the gun a sustained rate of fire of 1 round every 6 minutes – at least until its 120-round barrel life was exhausted.

Malta Batteries

In 1866, four coastal batteries were proposed, two on either side of the main harbor area. On the northwest side were established Sliema Point Battery and Fort Pembroke, while on the southeast side were Fort St. Rocco and Fort St. Tombrell. The Sliema Point Battery was built in 1876 with two eleven-inch and two ten-inch guns. In 1879 work began on Fort Pembroke, overlooking St. George’s Bay. It was completed at a cost of 13,730 pounds. The seventy troops stationed there serviced three thirty-five-ton twelve-inch rifled muzzle loader (RML) guns with a range of 10,000 yards.

Originally, these new coastal batteries were to be armed with twenty three-ton RML guns, but with the rapid development of technology, it became necessary to increase their size during construction, some being eventually armed with thirty-eight-ton RML guns firing 12.5-inch shells. Likewise, the protection of the batteries was repeatedly upgraded. While five inches of protective iron had been sufficient previous to 1866, the introduction of the twenty-three-ton gun led this to be increased to twelve inches. By 1878, twenty-eight inches of armor plating was deemed necessary to withstand the bombardment of the largest ironclad battleships.

It would seem that in their long possession of the islands, the knights had fortified every conceivable spot in the main harbor area. But if there was a chink in the armor, it was the Corradino Heights, directly across from Floriana and Valletta. The Turkish army had established batteries there in 1565, and the Hornwork at Floriana had been constructed to deal with any future threats from that direction. The British decided to build entrenchments on these heights and in 1871 began work on the Corradino Lines. These were completed in 1880 at a cost of 17,634 pounds and featured two sixty-four-pound RMLs.

Additional artillery positions were built around the main harbor area. On the northern or Marsamxett side, Fort Cambridge was built on the Sliema peninsula. It featured a single 100-ton RML, the heaviest muzzle loader ever built, with a maximum range of 14,000 yards, a gun crew of thirty-five, and firing a 17.72-inch shell. Begun in 1878, it was not completed until 1898 at a cost of over 19,000 pounds. Another new position on this side of the harbor area was Garden Battery, which was sandwiched between Fort Tigne and Fort Cambridge. It was completed in 1894 at cost of 7,806 pounds and armed with one 9.2-inch breech-loading (BL) gun and two 6-inch BL guns, all on disappearing mountings.

On the opposite or Grand Harbour side, the British built Fort Rinella, featuring another 100-ton gun similar to that in Fort Cambridge. Its massive artillery piece was mounted on January 12, 1888, with great ceremony. Delia Grazie Battery was then constructed between forts Ricasoli and Rinella. Completed in 1893, it was armed with two ten-inch and two six-inch BL guns, costing 16,344 pounds.

Trapped in Alesia

Julius Caesar’s stepping stones : Alesia – Celtic relief force attacks the outer ring of the Roman besiegers camp.

52 BCE

The Battle of Alesia in 52 BCE was the final conflict that determined whether the Roman or the Celtic way of life would dominate northern Europe. It was the culmination of the five-year conquest of Gaul (France, Belgium, Denmark, and Luxembourg) by Gaius Julius Caesar. The entire war and Julius Caesar’s intelligence and courage were made famous even as it was fought by that brilliant bit of self-serving propaganda, Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

In 60 BCE, three men agreed to share control of Rome. These were Crassus, Pompey, and Julius Caesar. While theoretically equals, each strove to be the first among equals. Crassus was very rich. Yes, the old phrase “rich as Crassus” refers to him. Crassus had also proven himself a competent general by defeating Spartacus and his slave rebellion. Pompey also was a proven general, having won a number of victories in the name of Rome. The younger Julius Caesar had the greatest need to prove himself and the most to gain.

So Crassus went off to Syria, where he managed to get himself killed while losing two entire legions to the Parthians. Pompey mostly stayed in Rome. He was already rich with the spoils of his earlier victories and had a great reputation. Caesar saw where the greatest opportunity was and chose to take over the province known as Transalpine Gaul. This was really the most northern parts of Italy and much of the south coast of France. This province gave him a base from which he could conquer the rich lands of the Gallic tribes.

From 58 BCE until Alesia, Julius Caesar defeated one Gallic tribe after another. While not happy about the situation, no one tribe or local alliance could stand against his army of more than 50,000 highly trained legionnaires. It wasn’t until Julius Caesar was in northern Italy dealing with Roman politics that all the Gauls found themselves a leader. This was the charismatic and often brilliant Vercingetorix.

Through strong oratory and good politics, Vercingetorix managed to get almost all the tribes in Gaul to swear to follow him into rebellion. That summer, the Gallic leader put tens of thousands of his warriors through a regimen of training. Then in the late fall, he led his army against the Roman garrison at Orleans (then called Cenabum). The city fell, thousands of Romans were killed, and Caesar suddenly had a major problem. His political strength came from being the conqueror of Gaul, and Gaul was looking very unconquered. To make things worse, Vercingetorix was a very good general, and he had chosen Orleans because the city was the main Roman grain storehouse. His army was now living off the Roman army’s supplies, and Caesar’s legions could expect short rations without them. In fact, Vercingetorix used food as a weapon throughout his rebellion, often effectively using scorched earth tactics against Caesar. Ironically, starvation would ultimately cause his surrender.

Caesar rushed back to Gaul and united the legions that had been spread out in winter quarters. For the rest of the winter, Caesar either chased Vercingetorix or captured the cities that were in rebellion. After capturing Loire, today’s Paris, the Roman army turned toward the richest city still controlled by the rebelling tribes, Provence. Vercingetorix correctly guessed Caesar’s intentions, but the mistake he made was in how he reacted, and that reaction was what lost the war.

To understand the mistake Vercingetorix made, you need to look at the strengths of the two sides. You have the Romans, who were technological, highly organized, and efficient at fortification and siege weapons. The Roman soldier was not individually a great warrior. He was smaller and shorter than most Gauls and carried a far shorter sword. One-on-one, the Gauls often won any fight. But the Romans never fought in a “heroic” manner involving individual duels. Fighting as part of the Roman legion, they could take on twice their number or more and be assured of victory.

The Gallic warriors were a different breed. They were warriors and not soldiers. While Vercingetorix’s training had helped make them more effective as an army, personal heroics were still highly valued. They were not experienced at siege warfare, and while quite capable of building fortifications, they were not as adept in attacking or holding them. This is demonstrated by the number of Gallic cities that had fallen to Caesar that decade. The Gauls were masters at moving quickly and hitting hard.

Knowing where Caesar was going and that he had an army about twice as large as the Romans’, Vercingetorix moved his army to a strategic point along the route to Provence. Then he made a move that almost ensured defeat.

The city of Alesia had great natural defenses. It was set on steep cliffs with rivers on two sides. Vercingetorix knew that the Romans could not just bypass his army or it would attack them from the rear while they besieged Provence. So if they could not go past, he assumed they would have to stop and lay siege to his army, held up in what was perhaps the best defensive position in Gaul. What he did not realize was that by doing this, he was in a situation that played into just about every strength of the Romans, while neutralizing the personal courage and endurance that set apart his own forces.

Julius Caesar did arrive at Alesia and found more than 100,000 Gauls entrenched in the city and ready to resist any attack by his 60,000 Romans, auxiliary, and German cavalry. He could not leave that large an army in his rear. Vercingetorix was right; Caesar could not continue to Provence. It was also obvious that attacking the high walls of Alesia with almost double their number in defenders behind them would have been suicidal for the Romans.

So Caesar did not attack.

Instead he ordered his army to begin building a wall around the entire city. Crossing two rivers and fronted by a twenty-foot-deep trench, Caesar’s inner wall ran for ten miles and completely cut off Alesia. There was a tower every 120 feet and all sorts of traps and sharp objects scattered in front of the wall that served to break up any Gallic attack. And the Roman legionnaires could dig. Every night they fortified their camps within walls made from stakes they carried on the march. The walls around Alesia soon proved as immune to attack as the walls of that city itself.

So the Gauls waited vainly for a Roman attack that never came. By locking himself up in a city, Vercingetorix had managed to take a great field army and trap it inside Roman walls. He had turned it from a battle of swords and spears to one of shovels and picks. He had managed to put his larger army in a position in which they had to fight on Roman terms, and no one could dig, build, or defend any wall better than the Roman legionnaires.

When it became obvious he was under siege and unable to break out, the Gallic leader sent out riders to summon all the warriors not trapped in Alesia to come to his relief. They got out just before the first wall was completed, but not without the Romans learning of their mission. Knowing that someday another army would most likely appear to relieve the siege of Alesia, Caesar ordered yet another wall built. This wall faced outward and ran for fourteen miles. By the time the relief army arrived, the second wall was finished. It all came down to a climactic battle fought among the Roman walls.

Vercingetorix also now had a serious problem: Inside Alesia they had run out of food. He had already driven out the women and children, whom Caesar refused to let pass out through his walls. So they starved, exposed just below the city’s walls and in sight of their husbands and fathers. The Gauls had to break through both walls and free Vercingetorix’s army or starvation alone would force it to surrender.

Over 200,000 more Gauls, less well organized but ready to fight, appeared outside one section of the walls. The Romans were facing perhaps nearly 300,000 Gallic warriors inside and out with 40,000 legionnaires and 15,000 other auxiliaries, including 5,000 Germanic horsemen. They were outnumbered six to one, but they were fighting their kind of battle. The battle was fought on Roman terms and amid the Roman fortifications. Even so, the final confrontation at Alesia was a close thing and only a last-minute charge by the Germanic cavalry saved the day.

The relief army was stopped, broken, and scattered. The men in Alesia remained trapped and starving. A few days later, Vercingetorix personally rode into the Roman camp and surrendered his army. His 90,000 warriors became slaves and never again did the Celts of Gaul resist rule by Rome.

Vercingetorix made one mistake in an otherwise brilliant revolt. He voluntarily trapped his army inside Alesia in a position that played to the Romans’ strengths and nullified his own. Had Caesar attacked, the Romans would have suffered terrible casualties, but in war you should never assume the enemy will do what you want. Had the Gallic army of 300,000 warriors met Caesar in an open field, they might well have triumphed. If Vercingetorix had not made the mistake of locking his army inside Alesia, France, then the world today would have a lot more Gaul and a lot less Roman in it.


Sierra Leone, 2000

RAF Boeing Chinook HC.2s were the mainstay of the UK mission to Sierra Leone.

Securing Lungi airport was the first object of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.

Freetown and Lungi area (US Defense Mapping Agency)

At 10 am on 5th May, the decision was made to send the Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team. We left at 6 pm and after a refuelling stop we arrived at Lungi airport in Freetown at 6 am the following day. Government forces were rapidly falling back on the capital. The rebels were a major threat. The UN troops were the last line of defence but were in near panic. There were violent demonstrations in the capital and everyone was afraid of a coup. Brigadier Richards tried to bring together all the government leaders. On 7th May, we asked the lead company of 1 PARA to deploy. By 15th May, the situation had changed dramatically.

Lt Col Neil Salisbury, Chief of Staff, UK Joint Force Headquarters

16 Air Assault Brigade was only nine months’ old when it got the call to send troops into the heart of one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. Few members of the Brigade had heard of Sierra Leone in May 2000, as reports began to circulate in the Ministry of Defence in London that the country’s government was in danger of being toppled by a brutal rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Buoyed by the success of his ‘ethical foreign policy’ in the Kosovo crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair was taking an increasing interest in the problems of Africa. The former British colony of Sierra Leone was seen by Blair and his then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, as a failed state that needed to be rescued. For more than a decade, the West African country had been convulsed by civil war, as rebel groups vied for control of the lucrative diamond mines. The RUF had gained a notorious reputation for brutality and its trademark was the amputation of a prisoners’ limbs by machete. For much of the 1990s, Sierra Leone had no viable government and its population had lived in fear as rival militia groups fought for control of the country and its mineral resources. While billions of dollars-worth of diamonds was illicitly exported from the country, the population’s standard of living hovered near the bottom of most international league tables.

In 1995, the Sierra Leone government was so desperate it employed the services of the South African mercenary company Executive Outcomes and managed to drive the rebels back from the capital Freetown. The British private security company Sandline then provided more assistance with the tacit approval of the Foreign Office in London. Stalemate on the battlefield had allowed the UN to negotiate a cease-fire and begin the deployment of a peacekeeping force, dubbed UNAMSIL. British diplomats played an important role in setting up the UN-led peace process and London was watching its progress closely.

During April 2000, the civil war re-ignited and more than 5,000 RUF fighters appeared to be advancing on the capital. Other rebel forces took hundreds of UN peacekeepers hostage and besieged the remainder in their bases. The whole country and the 11,000-strong UN force looked like being on the verge of collapse.

David Richards

In London, the Blair government decided this was shaping up to be a test of British commitment to the people of Sierra Leone. The Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood was ordered to dispatch part of its Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) to Freetown on 5 May to monitor events and prepare contingency plans for British intervention. An Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team (ORLT), led by PJHQ’s Chief Joint Force Operations Brigadier David Richards, arrived the following day and more JFHQ personnel followed soon afterwards. The JFHQ is a small, highly mobile headquarters team that is held on two days’ notice to fly anywhere in the world to co-ordinate UK intervention missions. It has enough communications equipment and supplies to run a brigade-sized operation for a couple of weeks before it has to be replaced by a better – equipped headquarters.

Richards led the British participation in the UN mission to East Timor late in 1999. He had a reputation for being very self-confident and relishing missions that apparently had little chance of success. The former Royal Artillery officer radiated optimism and was always cheerful, according to visitors to the British High Commission or embassy in Freetown during the UK intervention.

Over the weekend of 6 and 7 May, Richards sent a stream of reports to London that the rebels were within days of capturing the capital. Hundreds of UK passport holders were at risk, the government looked like it would fall and the UN troops were cowering in their bases.

Blair decided to act. PJHQ was ordered to dispatch an intervention force, initially to evacuate British passport holders, but the scope of the mission soon expanded to include supporting the Freetown government and the UN mission. Richards would command the operation from Freetown but PJHQ and Land Command turned to the newly formed 16 Brigade at Colchester to provide the initial land forces for the operation. The newly formed Joint Helicopter Command at Wilton would have to generate four Boeing Chinook HC.2 helicopters to provide the force with tactical mobility and RAF Strike Command’s No. 2 Group was tasked to get the force to Sierra Leone. This was just the type of mission 16 Brigade was designed to conduct and it would soon be held up as a ‘classic intervention’ mission. The pace of the operation was such that 16 Brigade’s headquarters would not get the chance to deploy to the West African country but several of its major units were in the thick of the action from the very start of the crisis until the autumn of 2000.

Richards’ team hunkered down in the High Commission in Freetown using its satellite communications equipment to bounce ideas back and forth to planners at Northwood during the days running up to the launch of the intervention. The plan went through numerous evolutions, as different force configurations, deployment schedules and tactical plans were considered, thrown out, modified or adapted. Central to all the planning was control of Lungi airport on a peninsula to the south of Freetown. With control of the airport, UK and UN forces could sustain themselves, bring in reinforcements and conduct evacuations of civilians. A second key requirement was securing a forward-operating base in a friendly, neighbouring country from which to mount the force. On 6 May, Senegal agreed to host the UK force and preparation ramped up considerably. Alan Jones, British Ambassador in Freetown, and Richards then got what was left of the Sierra Leone government to ‘request’ British military assistance.

Early on the morning of 5 May, the alert status of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), had been raised and its commanders warned that they could soon be heading to Sierra Leone. It was then the UK Spearhead Lead Element, and was held at seventy-two hours’ notice to move, but the spearhead battalion was rarely mobilised for real. Spearhead duty is usually characterised by a stream of false alarms and chaotic preparations for operations that never happen. So not surprisingly, when news spread around the battalion’s Aldershot base after the Sierra Leone mission, morale rocketed. The Toms of 1 PARA began a period of frenetic activity to get themselves ready for action.

They moved to the UK’s Operational Mounting Centre at South Cerney in Wiltshire on the evening of 6 May to prepare to be loaded on board RAF aircraft in a ‘tactical configuration’. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Gibson was expecting his men to go straight into action as soon as they got off their aircraft in Freetown. On Sunday 7 May, Gibson and his battalion flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in RAF Lockheed TriStars to Dakar in Senegal.

One of 1 PARA’s three rifle companies was on a training exercise in Jamaica as the crisis developed and could not get home in time, so 16 Brigade offered up a company of one of its air assault battalions, 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, to replace it. The Royal Irish company got as far as Brize Norton before Gibson declined the offer of its services. This was to be a Parachute Regiment only operation. More than 200 troops of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, would be used to reinforce 1 PARA over the coming week.

No. 2 Group and JHC were also ramping up their preparations. Over the weekend of 6/7 May, eight RAF Hercules from 47 and 70 Squadrons took off from Lyneham bound for Dakar. Four Chinooks then left RAF Odiham early on 6 and 7 May to fly to the British forward base in Dakar, via Portugal, Gibraltar and the Canary Islands. After a brief refuelling stop, the helicopters were airborne for Freetown on 8 May to support the evacuation operation.

The first phase was the insertion into Freetown – in a classic Tactical Air Land Operation (TALO) – of C Company of 1 PARA during the evening of 7 May. Richards called them forward to Lungi airport when rumours spread of a coup d’état in Freetown. The single Hercules was packed with 102 fully armed paratroopers whose job was to seize the airport ahead of the main body. It took them two hours to fly to Freetown from Dakar and the arrival of the paratroopers caused much surprise among the hundred Nigerian UN personnel who were still nominally in control of the airport.

The following morning, Ambassador Jones formally requested the start of the evacuation operation. At 10.30 am, four Hercules carrying D Company of 1 PARA and Gibson’s Tac HQ, as well as the heavily armed troops of 16 Brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon, landed at Lungi. Just ahead of them was a pair of Chinooks flown by 7 Squadron pilots. At the High Commission in Freetown, Richards and his team were getting ready to begin evacuating up to a thousand UK passport holders and other foreign nationals from the city.

With the arrival of the Chinooks, at 7 pm Gibson started to fly his troops from the airport peninsula to reinforce the High Commission in Freetown and begin the evacuation from a UN-run assembly area. The 75-mile road into the city went through what was thought to be rebel-held territory so the Chinooks were vital to the success of this phase of the operation. The evacuees were picked up by Chinook and then shuttled to Lungi airport, from where they were transferred to Hercules and flown to Dakar. This phase of the operation received much publicity at the time and the Blair government publicly declared this was the only mission of UK forces in Sierra Leone. Blair’s spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, was reportedly worried about how the wider intervention mission would be reported by the media so he ordered the focus to be on the rescue mission.

As the evacuation was under way, Gibson’s troops were pushing in-land from Lungi airport to set up a screen of blocking positions around the capital. They were not ordered to attack the rebels, just to hold their ground and return fire if attacked. There were little more than 500 paratroopers on the ground at this time but as they moved forward through the suburbs of Freetown, the effect on the population was electric. People came out to cheer. The presence of hundreds of heavily armed British troops rallied the morale of the government and its rag-tag army. Richards told them the British were not going to leave them in the lurch. The scope of the operation now began to expand and Blair in London decided that the British troops would stay to prop up the Freetown government and help the UN.

Lungi airport was not bustling with British activity. Some twenty-one Hercules flights over two days brought in 1 PARA and its vehicles, as well as evacuating British passport holders. It had taken 1 PARA sixty-four hours from getting its first call on 5 May to having its first troops on the ground in Freetown. The paratroopers were amazed at the speed of things, which had been organised mainly through a series of telephone calls and quick verbal orders. Some veteran paratroopers were even heard praising the speed at which the RAF had managed to get its aircraft and helicopters to Freetown. They were a tough audience to please.

Two giant Antonov An-124 airlifters were chartered from the Ukraine to fly from Brize Norton to Dakar with more of 1 PARA’s vehicles on 8 May. Back in the UK, PJHQ and 16 Brigade were preparing a second wave of reinforcements. A medical detachment of the Brigade soon followed 1 PARA. A battery of 105-mm Light Guns from 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery was sent to South Cerney and a Scimitar squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment was ordered to prepare to deploy. The RAF had no heavy-lift aircraft to carry the armoured vehicles and artillery ammunition to Africa so the Americans were asked to help. They could not provide any aircraft in time but PJHQ decided not to press the issue because a Royal Navy carrier group, centred on HMS Illustrious and a Marines amphibious task group, based around the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean with 42 Commando Royal Marines’ were only a few days’ sailing away from West Africa.

In the outskirts of Freetown, the rebel fighters of the RUF had not yet picked up fully on the fact that the British were now committed to defend the city. B Company of 1 PARA set up three blocking positions to the east of the airport and the Pathfinders moved past them to set up an early-warning post at Lungi Loi. When a group of RUF fighters approached the Pathfinder position during the night, they were engaged. The small group of British troops fired some 1,800 rounds. The rebels, many appearing to be high on drugs, could not return accurate fire and soon fled. The following morning, when the Pathfinders cleared the enemy positions, they found four dead rebels. Many more were believed to have been killed.

The impact on the rebels of this setback was profound. Their morale collapsed, just as the spirits of the government forces were raised by the arrival of the British forces. RUF troops were now in headlong retreat from the capital, with government troops in hot pursuit.

British forces continued their build-up at Lungi airport and continued to sustain a high profile around the capital to maintain civilian morale. Conditions were primitive and 1 PARA found Sierra Leone’s equatorial climate more of a challenge than the RUF. The sudden nature of the battalion’s deployment meant that it had not been able to secure enough of the right sort of anti-malaria tablets for its troops. Some twenty paratroopers and RAF pilots contracted the tropical disease.

By the end of the month, the Royal Marines had arrived off the coast and the hand-over with 1 PARA took place on 28 May. The RAF then flew the battalion back to the UK via Dakar. The operation was hailed as a great success. For no loss of UK life, 1 PARA had successfully stabilised a dangerous situation and contributed to the rout of the rebels.

Britain’s involvement in Sierre Leone was only just beginning. The RAF Chinook detachment remained and the British government decided to deploy a strong training team to build up the Sierra Leone army.

On 10 July, the RAF Chinooks took part in a daring mission to lift Indian Special Forces to relieve an Indian UN garrison, which had been under siege for several weeks in the interior of Sierre Leone

The 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, got its chance to deploy to Sierra Leone in the summer of 2000. It was tasked with establishing three company-sized groups of soldiers to act as training teams to the Sierra Leone army. The ‘training teams’ would be very different from other such missions in that they would be deployed as formed units that would be able to fight their way out of trouble in a crisis. Trouble soon found the Royal Irish.

By August, the RUF had evaporated after its apparent non-stop stream of set-backs but the interior of the country was still dominated by heavily armed militia groups of very shifting loyalty. One such group was known as the West Side Boys (WSBs), which had supported the government during the fighting with the RUF earlier in the year. The Royal Irish mounted regular vehicle patrols around Freetown to gather intelligence and try to establish some sort of contact with these militia groups.

On one such mission, an eleven-strong patrol was surrounded and captured by the WSBs. The soldiers were held hostage in a jungle camp, while the WSB leadership tried to negotiate with the British government. As these talks were going on, the British were preparing a rescue plan. A large contingent of Special Forces was moved in conditions of great secrecy to Freetown and was reinforced by A Company of 1 PARA. When the negotiations collapsed, the Special Forces were ordered to attack in order to rescue the hostages early on the morning of 10 September 2000.

The SAS and SBS rescue force was landed by Chinook and Lynx AH.7 on top of the village, while the paratroopers were landed at a nearby village to block any WSB escape routes. As soon as the first helicopters landed, a fierce firefight broke out. The hostages were soon freed but one SAS man was killed. Outside the main village, A Company were soon trading fire with rebels and the company commander and platoon commander were injured after British 81-mm mortar rounds detonated prematurely after hitting the jungle canopy.

One of the Chinook pilots afterwards told RAF News:

The fundamental key to the success of the operation was that the two-pronged assaults on the north and south camps had to be simultaneous. The Chinook was literally crammed full of paratroopers, all apparently totally focused on what they had to do, despite being in the unenviable position of having no control over their destiny while on board the aircraft. Approaching the target, we could see the enemy tracer being fired towards the aircraft. Fortunately, the Army Lynx did a superb job of suppressing the enemy positions, although seeing tracer passing above us did make us contemplate exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. The landing site turned out to be a waist-high swamp. Therefore after we lifted, we returned fire onto the enemy positions with the M-134 mini-gun, which firing at 4,000 rounds a minute, had a devastating effect.

The SAS neutralised all resistance in the village and the paratroopers helped clean up the objectives after the operation. The now-liberated British vehicles were under-slung under Chinooks to be returned to their rightful owners.

Although Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone did not directly involve the Brigade headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, many of its major units were involved. The operation was a classic example of the type of rapid intervention mission that 16 Brigade, and other elements of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, was formed to undertake. The combination of lightly equipped paratroopers, helicopters and air transport worked well, but some in the Armed Forces worried that British forces did not really face a first-class opponent in Sierra Leone. Many British soldiers were worried that they still lacked many items of battle-winning equipment that would make the difference against more determined and better-armed opponents.

Imperial Japanese Navy Aircraft

The air force component under the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. The birth of Japanese naval aviation occurred in 1912. The navy had been part of the Provisional Military Balloon Research Society, which had been established as a joint effort with the army. The army dominated the society, and the navy decided to withdraw and create its own organization, the Kaigun Kokujutsu Kenkyu Kai (Naval Aeronautical Research Association). This event would be a bone of contention between the army and navy for many years to come.

The naval association sent six officers to France and the United States to acquire seaplanes and learn to fly and maintain them. The operation was a success, and a new naval air station was established on the Oppama Coast near Yokosuka. Within the year, the Imperial Japanese Navy commissioned their first seaplane tender, the Wakamiya Maru.

In 1916, the first Navy Air Corps was activated, the Yokosuka Kokutai. In 1917, the first completely Japanese designed aircraft was built at the Yokosuka naval arsenal.

After World War I, the navy became intrigued with the idea of launching aircraft from ships. In June 1920, a deck was mounted to the Wakamiya Maru, and a Sopwith Pup was launched successfully from the deck. Then, in late 1921, the Hosho-the world’s first true aircraft carrier-was launched. Other ships had been modified to carry aircraft, but the Hosho was designed from the ground up to be an aircraft carrier.

It was not until 1932 that a major push was made to develop true carrier aircraft. The navy issued Specification 7-Shi for a carrier-based aircraft to be built. The navy had developed a system where it would submit a specification to a number of manufacturers, which would compete to have their design accepted for service. This specification was thought to be extremely important to the navy in its development of attack aircraft and fighters. However, only one aircraft, the E7K1 Alf, was placed into production in quantity. The failure was primarily due to high expectations and limited technology at the time. Two years later, navy specifications would be met, and the first of the dominant Japanese aircraft would start to appear in the arsenal.

It was about this time that the navy entered the second Sino-Japanese conflict. The results were outstanding. Japanese fighters and bombers forced the Chinese to withdraw their aircraft or lose them. There was also one additional benefit to the war with the Chinese. Beyond the experience gained, it gave the Imperial Japanese Navy a chance to further organize and develop effective air combat tactics. These would become very useful during the Pacific War.

Because of its collection of long-range aircraft and aircraft carriers, the navy would become responsible for all campaigns in the Pacific islands. It would also be responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

By November 1941, the JNAF had ready about 1,750 frontline fighters, torpedo planes, and navy dive bombers, as well as over 500 flying boats or sea planes. These were deployable to forward sea bases and on six fleet carriers and four larger fleet carriers. The JNAF organized its planes into kokutai or air corps, usually of all one type, either of fighters or bombers. In 1941 all JNAF pilots were highly trained-at a minimum of 800 hours flying time-and some JNAF planes were superior to anything the U. S. Navy could then put into the air. That gave the JNAF an initial skills and numerical advantage in the Pacific War. However, Japanese reserves were insufficient to sustain a long war with the U. S. Navy: the entire aircraft industry produced under 1,500 military planes in 1937, which had to be divided with the Japanese Army. Production rose to 4,768 aircraft by 1940, again divided between the JAAF and JNAF. Just 5,088 military aircraft left the assembly lines in 1941. Japan also uniquely failed to expand its pilot training schools. It began the Pacific War with just 2,500 Navy pilots-the Sea Eagles-to fly its aircraft, and throughout the war suffered from a shortage of pilot training plans or facilities.

In the first six months of the war in the Pacific, the navy was extremely effective. Its experience in China and its organization made it a formidable foe. However, in June 1942 at Midway Island, U. S. carriers dealt the navy a heavy blow, sinking four aircraft carriers. This loss of ships and aircraft stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific.

At this point of the war, it appeared that the industrial production of the United States and the abundance of pilots available to Allied forces could not be equaled by the Japanese. Japan was quickly running out of trained pilots as well as materials to produce aircraft and ships.

In October 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy developed a new tactic: kamikaze attacks. A kamikaze would dive his aircraft, loaded with bombs, into Allied ships. The tactic did minimal physical damage given the number of aircraft and pilots that it sacrificed. Hostilities in the Pacific War continued until August 1945, when the order for surrender was given. This spelled the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy until the postwar years.

The Mitsubishi G4M medium bomber (“Betty”) entered service with the Japanese army early in 1941 and was involved in pre-World War II operations in China. It was designed in great secrecy during 1938-1939 to have the maximum possible range at the expense of protection for the crew and vital components, and it was mainly used in the bomber and torpedo-bomber roles. G4M1s were mainly responsible for sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse off Malaya in December 1941. The G4M had an extraordinary range, but more than 1,100 gallons of fuel in unprotected tanks made the aircraft extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. The G4M2 appeared in 1943 and was the major production model, with more-powerful engines and even more fuel. Losses of the aircraft continued to be very heavy, and Mitsubishi finally introduced the G4M3 model late in 1943 with a redesigned wing and protected fuel tanks. A total of 2,479 aircraft in the G4M series were built.

The Kawanishi N1K1-J (“George”) evolved from a floatplane and was one of the best fighters of the Pacific Theater. Entering service early in 1944, it had automatic combat flaps and was outstandingly maneuverable, its pilots coming to regard even the F6F Hellcat as an easy kill. Its climb rate was, however, relatively poor for an interceptor, and the engine was unreliable. The later N1K2-J was redesigned to simplify production, and limited numbers entered service early in 1945. A total of 1,435 aircraft of the N1K series were built.

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had several carriers at the start of the war, the air groups of which were weighted toward attack aircraft rather than fighters. Its aircraft were lightly built and had very long range, but this advantage was usually purchased at the expense of vulnerability to enemy fire. The skill of Japanese aviators tended to exaggerate the effectiveness of the IJN’s aircraft, and pilot quality fell off as experienced crews were shot down during the Midway and Solomon Islands Campaigns.

The Nakajima B5N (“Kate” in the Allied designator system) first entered service in 1937 as a carrier-based attack bomber, with the B5N2 torpedo-bomber appearing in 1940. The B5N had good handling and deck-landing characteristics and was operationally very successful in the early part of the war. Large numbers of the B5N participated in the Mariana Islands campaign, and it was employed as a suicide aircraft toward the end of the war. Approximately 1,200 B5Ns were built.

The Aichi D3A (“Val”) carrier-based dive-bomber entered service in mid-1940, and it was the standard Japanese navy dive-bomber when Japan entered the war. It was a good bomber, capable of putting up a creditable fight after dropping its bomb load. It participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the major Pacific campaigns including Santa Cruz, Midway, and the Solomon Islands. Increasing losses during the second half of the war took their toll, and the D3A was used on suicide missions later in the war. Approximately 1,495 D3As were built.

When it first appeared in mid-1940, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier-based fighter capable of beating its land-based counterparts. It was well armed and had truly exceptional maneuverability below about 220 mph, and its capabilities came as an unpleasant shock to U. S. and British forces. It achieved this exceptional performance at the expense of resistance to enemy fire, with a light structure and no armor or self-sealing tanks. Its Achilles heel was the stiffness of its controls at high speed, the control response being almost nil at indicated airspeed over 300 mph. The Zero was developed throughout the war, a total of 10,449 being built.

The Nakajima B6N (“Jill”) carrier-based torpedo-bomber entered service late in 1943 and was intended to replace the B5N, but the initial B6N1 was plagued with engine troubles. The B6N2 with a Mitsubishi engine was the major production model, appearing early in 1944. Overall, it was better than its predecessor but not particularly easy to deck-land. It participated in the Marianas Campaign and was encountered throughout the Pacific until the end of the war. A total of 1,268 were built.

The Yokosuka D4Y (“Judy”) reconnaissance/dive-bomber entered service on Japanese carriers early in 1943 and was very fast for a bomber. Initially assigned to reconnaissance units, it was intended to replace the D3A, but it was insufficiently armed and protected and suffered from structural weakness in dives. In common with most other Japanese aircraft, it was used for kamikaze attacks, and a D4Y carried out the last kamikaze attack of the war on 15 August 1945. A total of 2,819 D4Ys were built.

In addition to transporting troops and supplies, the four-engine Kawanishi H6K and four-engine Kawanishi H8K flying boats also served important roles as long-range reconnaissance aircraft, with the former having a maximum range of 4,210 miles and the latter having a maximum range of 4,460 miles.

Japan relied on three primary reconnaissance floatplanes during the war. The three-seat Aichi E13A, of which 1,418 were produced, was Japan’s most widely used floatplane of the war. Entering service in early 1941, it was employed for the reconnaissance leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it participated in every major campaign in the Pacific Theater, performing not only reconnaissance but also air-sea rescue, liaison transport, and coastal patrol operations. Introduced in January 1944 as a replacement for the E13A, the two-seat Aichi E16A Zuiun offered far greater performance capabilities but came too late in the war to make a significant difference, primarily because Japan’s worsening industrial position limited production to just 256 aircraft. Based on a 1936 design that underwent several modifications, the two-seat Mitsubishi F1M biplane, of which 1,118 were produced, proved to be one of the most versatile reconnaissance aircraft in Japan’s arsenal. Operating from both ship and water bases, it served in a variety roles throughout the Pacific, including coastal patrol, convoy escort, antisubmarine, and air-sea rescue duties, and it was even capable of serving as a dive-bomber and interceptor.

The three-seat Nakajima C6N Saiun, of which 463 were produced, was one of the few World War II reconnaissance aircraft specifically designed for operating from carriers. With a maximum speed of 379 mph, a maximum range of 3,300 miles, and service ceiling of 34,236 ft, the C6N proved virtually immune from Allied interception. Unfortunately for Japan, it did not become available for service until the Mariana Islands Campaign in the summer of 1944.

The twin-engine, two-seat Mitsubishi Ki-46, of which 1,742 were produced, served as Japan’s primary strategic reconnaissance aircraft of the war. Entering service in March 1941, the Ki-46 was one of the top-performing aircraft of its type in the war with a service ceiling of 35,170 ft, a range of 2,485 miles, and a maximum speed of 375 mph. This aircraft was first used by the Japanese Army in Manchukuo and China, where seven units were equipped with it, and also at times by the Japanese Imperial Navy in certain reconnaissance missions over the northern coasts of Australia and New Guinea.

Although Japan employed a variety of multipurpose aircraft, such as the Nakajima G5N Shinzan and the Tachikawa Ki-54, for transporting troops and supplies, it relied primarily on four main transport aircraft during World War II: the Kawanishi H6K flying boat, the Kawanishi H8K flying boat, the Kawasaki Ki-56, and the Mitsubishi Ki-57.

When Japan entered the war, the four-engine Kawanishi H6K served as the navy’s primary long-range flying boat. Although used at first primarily for long-range reconnaissance, it was soon relegated to transport duty because of its vulnerability to Allied fighters. Capable of carrying up to 18 troops in addition to its crew, the H6K remained in production until 1943. Of the 217 constructed, 139 were designed exclusively for transport.

The four-engine Kawanishi H8K entered service in early 1942 and gradually replaced the Kawanishi H6K. While it also served in a variety of roles, its transport version, the H8K2- L, of which 36 were built, could carry up to 64 passengers. With a cruising speed of 185 mph and a range of up to 4,460 miles, it was well-suited for the Pacific Theater, and its heavy armament afforded better protection than the H6K.

Japanese Aircraft of the Sino-Japanese and Pacific War

Polish Air Personnel in RAF Service

Whatever negative feelings Medhurst, Boyle, Sholto Douglas and the others may have harboured towards the Polish Air Force in the desperate summer of 1940 were substantially mollified by events come the winter. All of the Polish crews proved themselves worthy of allied status ten times over during the Battle of Britain, and though little criticisms remained – such as their tendency to monopolise the radios during combat flying – by 1941 all of the serious doubts had been swept away. Indeed, even in the summer, attitudes had been changing noticeably. At first Medhurst had insisted that the ‘French’ and ‘British’ Poles were not to be mixed in squadrons if at all possible, mainly to protect the latter from defeatist influences, but Gp Capt Leslie Hollinghurst, the Deputy Director of Organisation, recorded that: ‘as a result of closer acquaintance with the “new” Poles, they [Air Intelligence] have decided that they are not such bad fellows after all and have withdrawn their objection’. This view was reinforced during the autumn of 1940 when most of the senior RAF commanders and politicians from both countries conducted high-profile visits to the Polish stations, presenting medals, giving speeches, and generally talking up a relationship which was settling into a satisfactory condition.

Although the alliance was stabilising in military terms, the Poles still had two political issues which were not fully resolved from their point of view. The first was British assistance in establishing recruitment schemes abroad so that their very healthy core stock of air personnel would not be diminished by combat losses and unavoidable demobilisation due to age or disability. The second was the perpetual quest for independent status. The question of recruitment will be dealt with in Chapter Three, primarily because the Polish experience was broadly in line with that of the Czechoslovaks in that both groups suffered when they tried to export their enthusiasm to a largely disinterested North America. But, disappointing though these efforts ultimately were, the all-important need for prestige drove both of them into head-on confrontations with the British over the question of independence. It was a battle which the Poles eventually won, and one which the Czechs lost with great indignity.

Even by late 1940, the British were still reluctant to discontinue the practice of duplicating middle- and high-ranking posts within all the allied air forces (a not unreasonable decision considering the language difficulties and lack of a thorough knowledge of RAF practice on behalf of the allies), but this did not slow the political momentum behind Polish desires to achieve fully independent status. Success in this quest would be measured in various ways: (1) an agreement between the two nations that would formally enshrine the bilateral aspects of the alliance; (2) the creation of a separate Polish Air Force Inspectorate that would have full powers in the field of promotion, selection, training and administration; (3) equal, or at least substantial, representation at strategic level. This last point should not be confused with the creation of an independent stratum of command regarding missions and routine flying, for the Poles, as junior allies, were always prepared to follow the British lead when it came to active operations. Rather, as with their earlier requests for a seat on the Supreme War Council, the Poles felt entitled to a say in what course the war took, especially regarding operations or plans which affected the home territory. It was to be an unfulfilled objective, partly for political reasons on behalf of the British, many of which surfaced in the last years of the conflict, and partly because with the entry of the USA into the war after Pearl Harbor, that power automatically put many of the lesser groups into the shade, assuming an ever-greater dominance in strategic affairs which even Churchill had difficulty in resisting at times.

In 1940, however, no such obstacles existed, and it fell to the Polish High Command and political representatives to make the best possible case for the creation of independent armed forces. Indeed, all of the European allied powers felt entitled to independence in one form or another, and more often than not the air contingents were the focal point of their efforts. For its part, the War Office had no great objections to forming Army units which reflected the national character of each ally, but we should bear in mind that in 1940 there was no land war and it was relatively easy to create free-standing organisations which could, if need be, be smoothly integrated with the home Army. That was not the case in the air. Given the crises of that summer, and the obvious implications that air power would henceforth be a major strategic tool, the RAF felt wholly justified in its insistence that it retained as much control as possible over the allied groups. Equally, each allied government felt to a greater or lesser degree that the air units stood as elite representatives of their own national freedom and their determination to resist the invader, therefore the potential for conflict was vast.

As we have seen, the agreement to split the Polish air personnel between Britain and France was a separate issue dealt with in October 1939. However, the Polish terms of service were another matter, and the British side-stepped any unnecessary complications by simply rewording the Anglo-Polish naval agreement which legally formalised the collaboration at sea. This was not enough for the Poles, for in essence it meant that they were seen and described as an associated power simply assisting the British government with its war against Germany, when what they wanted, quite reasonably, was a level of international standing much higher than that. Even before the attack on France, Sikorski had been campaigning for greater recognition for the Polish presence to be embodied in the military agreements. He tried first with Chamberlain – meeting with little success – and then Churchill, who demonstrated that although the spirit was willing, the influence was weak. As far as Sikorski was concerned, Polish sovereignty rested largely upon the process of officer promotion and selection – a power which the British intended to reserve for themselves. As things stood in May 1940, the RAF had first and last say over who would receive commissions in the Polish section of the RAFVR – something which Sikorski strongly rejected. The British argument rested upon the constitutional point that only the King, ‘as advised by the Air Council, can promote officers belonging to that force’. Furious with this ill-judged and almost feudal declaration, Sikorski complained directly to Churchill, who put pressure on the Foreign Office to intervene. Within days the Air Ministry had relented, but not entirely, for the subsequent re-draft of the agreement merely permitted promotion to be considered by a joint board of Polish and British representatives, with the Poles having the final approval.

The air war over Britain that summer slightly delayed the negotiations leading towards the finished document, but by August all the outstanding issues had been resolved, or at least were in a state of compromise. The Poles had initially pushed for Polish military law to be applied in all cases, but this was refused by the Air Ministry with the not unsound argument that it would be unworkable where both nationalities were serving in the same squadron or on the same station. The compromise here was to insist that RAF law would apply at all times when a Polish individual was serving with the RAF in any capacity, and although in theory he would be subject to Polish military law, when the terms of Polish military law and Royal Air Force law differed, the latter would prevail. Furthermore, all disciplinary courts would consist of an equal number of British and Polish officers as judges, but with a British officer serving as president of the court and holding the casting vote. On the question of promotion, it was decided that all recommendations were to be generated by unit commanders then forwarded to the Polish High Command by the RAF for the former’s approval, but only if the RAF agreed with the recommendation in the first place. As a nod to Polish sovereignty, however, all men were permitted to take an oath of allegiance to the Polish Republic, and the agreement provided for the creation of an independent Polish Inspectorate theoretically responsible for all matters relating to the force, though in practice it represented the interface between the two air ministries, the primary channel of communication through which the RAF could monitor the condition of the Polish Air Force and, perhaps more importantly, the means by which the RAF could make its wishes known. But the Poles, and to some extent the British too, had taken for granted the creation of a formal Inspectorate as early as March 1940. In any case, it served both parties to have such a body in place: from the Polish side, it enabled them to monitor and maintain the development of the air force in exile, and from the British viewpoint, it relieved them of the burdensome task of day-to-day administration, allowing them to concentrate on the major issues of policy and deployment.

The first incumbent was Gen W.J. Kalkus, the existing head of the Inspectorate since September 1939, but when the transfers to Eastchurch were well under way, Polish requests to have him sent to Britain were at first rebuffed. The Directorate of Organisation was clearly displeased with the prospect of a senior commander viewing the shambles at Eastchurch, minuting Porri in March 1940, ‘[His visit] would not serve any useful purpose because any shortcomings that he might discover would certainly be well known to us’ – the implication being that the RAF could not stand before him covered in shame when as far as they were concerned they were only doing what was expected of them.

The attitudes changed when Davidson, the station commander at Eastchurch, supported the proposal and enlisted the help of the British Attaché in Paris. The latter described Kalkus as a man ‘with very pleasant manners’, the only serious drawback being that he spoke no English or French. Davidson concurred with this view, though he warned that the proposed Inspectorate might prove to be larger than imagined because the Poles had a few surplus officers which they wished to employ. However, the argument was clinched when the attaché added: ‘I should say that he is not a very strong man, and this impression is borne out by his nickname among his own people which is “the sheep in lion’s clothing”.’

This was more than enough to sway even the devout sceptics like Boyle who minuted all departments that Kalkus was clearly the man for the job, and that the creation of an Inspectorate within the RAFVR would ‘enhance the levels of control’ over the units in Britain. At a meeting in May, it was decided that Kalkus would be given the immediate rank of Air Commodore and have a staff of twelve, though there was still some foot-dragging over the powers he would be endowed with, and whether this would lead to a form of de facto independence by the back door. Davidson argued that the Inspectorate must be formed with all possible speed because the workload placed upon him was at times intolerable, and that the senior Polish officer, Capt Stachon, was forced to refer to his superiors in Paris before even the smallest decision could be taken. Then, in late May, AVM Paul Maltby, the AOC No. 24 (Training) Group, which shouldered most of the responsibility for the training programme at Eastchurch, wrote directly to the Air Council and complained about the expectations placed upon Davidson at Eastchurch:

[He] is becoming far too involved with all matters concerning the various Polish contingents in this country, no matter where they are stationed [and] he is being consulted not only by various branches of the Air Ministry and the Polish authorities, but even by politicians. I submit that it is quite beyond his capacity to command his station . . . if he is expected to act as an advisor on widespread policy matters at the same time.’

He closed by urging the creation of ‘some central authority’ at once, and henceforth all doubts were cast aside and Kalkus was formally installed at the beginning of June. If anything, this little episode demonstrates yet again that the British were totally unprepared for dealing with the Poles in any capacity, but also that any proposals for improving the situation had first to run the gauntlet of suspicion that by passing greater autonomy to the Polish High Command, the British would lose more of what little control they had to begin with.

The first Anglo-Polish Military Agreement was signed on 5 August 1940, with appropriate appendices covering the respective air, sea and land forces. Apart from defining the powers of the Polish Inspectorate, it also officially removed the entire contingent from the RAFVR and placed them under their own national banner. It went some way towards fulfilling Polish aspirations, but it had one crucial omission: it did not include any promise by the British to restore the territory of Poland once victory had been assured – something which did not pass unnoticed by the Poles. The preamble only committed the two governments ‘to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion’, a vague and slippery objective which meant that the British could avoid indelicate matters of territory and frontiers at the war’s end.

Furthermore, the Poles were not the only group whose postwar ambitions were kept at a distance by the British: the Czechoslovaks too were to discover that their new friends were inclined to shuffle and mumble when the question of ‘afterwards’ was raised, and it was even more galling to both these nations when the agreements with the other allied countries of Western Europe proudly proclaimed restoration and deliverance. This is one reason why the British preferred all of the national agreements to be kept secret between the contracting parties, and why they were never elevated to state treaties, for this would have meant parliamentary ratification, and therefore publicity. In short, although the various allied military agreements were, in the main, little more than carbon copies of each other, the essential differences lay in the amount of power each group had over its own forces, and what policies the British government intended to follow once the war had been won. Nevertheless, and perhaps wisely, the Poles did not seek further conflict over this matter, for had they done so they would have faced a wall of opposition from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. But in 1940, looking around at the grim state of the war, this was a minor point of contention compared to the very real business of getting on with the fighting.

In the years that followed, the Polish Air Force superbly demonstrated that getting on with the fighting was something it could do without prompting from the French, the British, or anyone else. By mid-1941, most of the doubts and suspicions of darker days had been dispelled by the sheer tenacity and determination of these men in exile, to the point where the RAF started to throw open hitherto shuttered doors to selected members of the Polish High Command. This still did not extend to what might be termed ‘secret information’ or strategic briefings, but when Sikorski requested that certain of his officers might serve for a time in Command or Group Headquarters so they might learn more about the central organisation of the RAF, both the DAFL and Portal (then the CAS) signalled their wholehearted concurrence. Polish officers were gradually seconded to British squadrons, and like senior officers in other allied forces, eventually placed in command of some of them.

The social dimension was also a positive one for the Poles. Zamoyski spends considerable time describing how attractive the Poles were to British women in the first half of the war, and there can be little doubt that the Polish airman or officer was very much an exotic creature until the arrival of the Americans in large numbers. But what he lacked in spending power, the Pole amply made up for in charm, ‘traditional’ values and sheer symbolism, for he represented merely by his existence in British uniform all that was mythically wonderful about Britain’s crusade against tyranny. The Czechoslovaks also enjoyed this backwash of sympathy, though perhaps their social acceptance was promoted by a pinch of guilt over the Munich affair. Men from both groups made friends easily in Britain; several hundred married British women. For a while, too, the Pole was a social accessory in the upper reaches of the British class system. The huge amount of radio and newspaper publicity generated by their successes in the air made a token Polish officer de rigueur at any cocktail party worth the name, and although things were to turn very sour indeed for the Poles by the war’s end, the eighteen months between the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor proved to be a happy hunting season for all the Slavs.

If the medals, the public acclaim and the sexual conquests were indicative of the bright side of the Polish exile, there were darker aspects which exercised the diplomatic skills of the politicians. The application of Polish military discipline raised some eyebrows in the service departments and Whitehall, for although the British were the final arbiters in matters of gross infringement, minor issues were dealt with at a local level and occasionally drew unfavourable comments regarding harsh treatment meted out to men who had for whatever reason managed to transgress the Polish codes of honour and service.

Part of the cause was the defeat of Poland itself, which led to an urgent need to rebuild and restore national pride through the service arms in exile. This led some Polish officers to interpret indolence, dissent or simply fatigue as evidence of cowardice or disloyalty, and there were examples of men being humiliated or punished for offences which would have attracted lesser reprimands in the British forces. The Air Ministry decided that this was a hangover from the pre-war days, declaring some of the older Polish officers to be ‘too rigid and inflexible in outlook’. In the early part of the war, the RAF applied pressure to the Polish High Command to transfer or reassign officers whose very presence gave rise to disciplinary problems in Polish squadrons, and they also adduced this conflict between ideals and codes of practice to explain much of the tension which had plagued the exiles in the Eastchurch era. Even as late as Christmas 1940, the British were still having difficulties integrating RAF officers into some Polish squadrons within the system of dual command, and it was not until the summer of 1941 that most of the problems had been resolved. By that time, the RAF had successfully collaborated with the Polish High Command to reduce or remove the small cohort of career officers whose enthusiasm for order had threatened the stability of some Polish squadrons.

The Polish air crews were unique among the European allies in exile because they alone were denied a triumphant return home at the end of the war. After nearly six years of bitter and intense fighting, their reward was to fall into the political abyss created by the sudden upsurge in tension between East and West, and as the major powers positioned themselves ready for a new confrontation, so the Poles were swept along virtually powerless to direct events.

They themselves were aware of what was happening – or likely to happen – as the war in Europe ended. A Polish forces magazine, Robotnik, published several letters from men who complained of anti-repatriation propaganda being spread by some officers. These scare tactics, generally consisting of blood-curdling warnings of deportation or internment by the communists, were interpreted by the Foreign Office as useful indications of the growing political divisions within the Polish forces, attitudes which had been slowly developing since January 1944, when in a meeting of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, at which a Polish representative was present, it became apparent that Poland would inevitably be occupied by Soviet forces after the defeat of Germany. ‘This had, not unnaturally, created a considerable commotion in Polish circles,’ ran a Foreign Office minute. ‘We had better deal with this dangerous rumour immediately. Our explanation would be that the Moscow Conference had a document before them – not subsequently agreed to – concerning the general administration of the liberated territories.’

The conference to which this rather unsettled note referred was the meeting of foreign ministers in the Soviet capital between 18 October and 30 October 1943. Their brief was to set the agenda for the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran at the end of November, and again the Polish government-in-exile tried in vain to have a voice. Polish–Soviet relations at this time were sour indeed. Stalin had used Polish outrage at the discovery of the massacre at Katyn to break off all diplomatic relations with the London group in April 1943, and by the end of that year the arrival of the Red Army in Polish territory was imminent. The Poles attempted to persuade Churchill to take up their case with Stalin, but the former was outflanked and isolated at Tehran by the other two leaders, and the latter had nothing to lose by ignoring the desires of the Polish government in London. In the event, the Tehran Conference decided that Poland would be shifted westwards on the map, with Stalin gaining enormous territories in the east, and the Poles being compensated by German land in the west. At Tehran, the carve-up of Poland had begun in earnest; in fact, the eventual dismemberment of all of Eastern Europe was set in motion there. When the news reached London, the Polish government redoubled its efforts to have the Western allies stand firm, but it was always going to be a fruitless exercise. The overwhelming need to have Stalin continue the war in the east and not make a separate peace with Hitler was enough incentive for Britain and America to petition him with little more than vague hopes for a sunny Polish future; anything concrete would have been waved aside. Furthermore, Churchill’s scheme for a second front rooted in a Balkan invasion was also scuppered at Tehran. Such an expedition might have brought some relief to Poland, or at least the troops of Western allies on her soil, but it was never to be. On the night of 3 January 1944, Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier, and there they were to remain for a long time.

Rumours of the talks in Moscow and Tehran gradually filtered down to the Polish forces in exile, and the de facto occupation of Poland by the Red Army made the rumours metamorphose into grim expectancy. However, this did not lead – as one might have expected – to a sudden downturn in morale. On the contrary, the commitment to the defeat of Germany and an honourable peace remained as high as ever in the Polish forces. But, like the Czechoslovaks, the pervasive effect of the Soviet advance made itself felt in political terms. The Polish government’s efforts to play down the dark reality of events at home by continually pointing to the fact that nothing had been firmly settled and that a satisfactory deal with Stalin was still possible led men to believe that victory might still mean freedom. That attitude was not to last long, however, because the true horror for the Polish people erupted on 1 August with the Warsaw uprising. Throughout the two months of struggle, the powerlessness of the Western allies to be of any assistance was forlornly monitored by the Polish forces in Britain and Europe, and although it is doubtful that the West could have provided any substantial military aid, Stalin’s refusal to allow Western planes to use Soviet airfields for supply drops merely confirmed in the minds of many thousands of Poles that they had been sold out in the West, leaving their beleaguered homeland to be inexorably drawn into the Soviet orbit.

The Warsaw uprising and its subsequent failure dealt a shattering blow to Polish morale. Worse still, other exiles alongside whom they had fought for five years were gleefully anticipating their own return home. August 1944 had seen Gen de Gaulle, dodging Vichy snipers, marching in triumph through Paris; the battle for Belgium, though still with all too much life left in it, was going to be won sooner or later; and also in August, the Free Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade began the liberation of the Netherlands, and it was only the allied failure at Arnhem which greatly stifled the process. Nevertheless, the war was clearly being won; Germans were on the run all over Europe, and yet, as one Polish pilot said: ‘As we sat around the radio, we died a little during each of those 63 days of the rising.’ The slaughter and hideous reprisals meted out by the Germans left Warsaw as little more than an open wound, and it was all the more unbearable with so much joy all around.

It was this pain and uncertainty about what the future held which triggered the factious elements within the Polish forces. As the last full year of the war came to a close, the Chiefs of Staff report for the final quarter of 1944 merely recorded the continuation of ‘restlessness’ in the Polish Air Force, but added: ‘It has not weakened either spirit or discipline in the squadrons.’ This was true enough, but there were deeper elements at work in the minds of men who had given so much for what appeared to be so little. For it seemed to many that the cause had been lost, and that their allies had given their consent to Poland being swallowed by a hostile power. Then the final blow to Polish hearts was cruelly delivered – not by Britain, America or even Stalin – but by those very ordinary people who had once been their unreserved champions: the British public.