THE CASE FOR A MOBILE STRATEGY – MANSTEIN’S ‘BACKHAND’ OPTION

Of the two planning options he had submitted to Hitler in February to address the situation in Russia for the coming summer, von Manstein and his staff had indicated strong preference for, and had continued to press OKH to adopt, their ‘backhand’ proposal as offering the most effective operational solution. Their advocacy rested on the conviction that only this plan could best use what they believed to be the only trump card left to the Wehrmacht in its contest with the Red Army. Seen as the ‘superiority of the command leadership and fighting value of German troops’ in general, it was considered especially marked in the panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, which they regarded as the Wehrmacht’s ‘best sword’ in the conflict in the East. Given the actual conditions in Russia in the early spring of 1943, von Manstein was strongly of the view that only the ‘backhand’ plan, predicated as it was on maximizing the inherent flexibility and dynamism of German mobile formations, could generate the optimum conditions wherein this superiority could be exploited. Furthermore, while he never made any specific reference to this point, as von Manstein never seemed to equate the prowess of German arms with the equipment it employed, it nevertheless followed that only this strategy could properly exploit the qualitative and quantative improvement scheduled for the Panzerwaffe in the East during the spring and summer of 1943. This would see the panzer divisions taking delivery not only of new and superior tanks and Assault Guns, but also growing numbers of the improved, older types already in production. Adoption of the ‘backhand’ option would see a battle fought on German, and not Soviet terms.

There is no question that for von Manstein, the determining factor assuring the success of such a massive enterprise was his own expertise. Of this, as we have seen, he was in no doubt. Although Hitler was to express the view that ‘Manstein may be the best brain the general Staff has produced,’ in a negative context when speaking of his performance post-Zitadelle, it is nevertheless a judgement with which the Field Marshal would have concurred. Left to his own devices, he was convinced that he could always outfight the opposition, holding in contempt the limited ability of the Red Army’s command staff. However, his view – forged in the summer of 1941 when the Wehrmacht was running rampant in the opening months of Barbarossa – failed to take account of the qualitative change in the higher echelons of the Soviet leadership in the two years since. This over-estimation of his own ability magnified by his unshaken under-estimation of that of the enemy, was to make a significant contribution to the undoing of German plans for the summer of 1943.

Nonetheless, if on 10 March Hitler needed to be reminded how effective his panzer and motorised troops could still be when their commanders were given their head, there could have been no better example than the success they were realising in the still-unfolding winter counter-offensive. While von Manstein was subsequently to express fulsome praise for the fortitude shown by the German infantry at this time, he was in no doubt that the key to German success in this operation lay in the manner in which the Panzer and supporting Motorized Infantry divisions had ‘fought with unparalleled versatility. They had more than doubled their effectiveness by the way they had dodged from one place to the next.’ Observing the maxim of concentrating scarce assets at the schwerpunkt, or decisive point, the commanders of these panzer formations had achieved a local superiority of 7:1 over a Red Army still coming to grips with the complexities of mobile warfare. This had enabled them to seize and retain the initiative, generating confusion in the ranks of the enemy by never giving them time to pause and regroup. Soviet units were then ground down and bled white in a tightly controlled battle of manoeuvre. Von Manstein envisaged his ‘backhand’ plan as repeating this on a much larger scale in the summer. The carrot he was dangling before Hitler was the possibility, so he believed, of repeating what he was at present realising in his winter counter-offensive, writ large.

As of 10 March, both Hitler and von Manstein were correct in their presumption that Stalin wished to return to the offensive with the onset of the dry season. The existence of the Kursk salient, so pregnant with military opportunity for either side, was identified by the Germans as providing the ideal springboard from which Soviet forces could launch a great offensive. There could be no doubt as to their intention: to realise in the early summer what they had failed to achieve in the late winter campaign – the destruction of the entire German southern wing on the Eastern Front.

The Field Marshal’s conviction that the Soviets would be prompted to launch their offensive sooner rather than later also stemmed from his conviction that destruction of Army Group South was the necessary prelude to Stalin’s wider political objective of securing the Balkans, a matter that he thought to be of overwhelming concern to the Russian leader.

In spite of the Grand Alliance, Stalin nursed deep suspicion that his Western allies, in particular the British, harboured their own ambitions in that region. Von Manstein believed the Soviet leader was thus strongly motivated to act quickly before any landings in southern Europe allowed them to gain control there. He argued that the forces the Soviets must assemble to realise such an ambitious plan would have to be huge. Should they be defeated in such an attempt – as he believed they could be – the consequences for the war in the East would be profound. Hoping that Hitler could be seduced by such a prospect into opting for what he believed to be the correct military solution to the strategic dilemma facing the Ostheer, he proceeded to set out the substance of his plan.

Its basic concept had not changed at all from the tentative design submitted to Hitler the previous month, when he had first broached the notion. Von Manstein later wrote:

It envisaged that if the Russians did as we anticipated and launched a pincer attack on the Donets area from the north and south, an operation which would sooner or later be supplemented by an offensive around Kharkov, our arc of front along the Donets and Mius should be given up in accordance with an agreed time-table in order to draw the enemy westwards towards the Lower Dnieper. Simultaneously, all the reserves that could possibly be released, in particular the bulk of the armour, were to assemble in the area west of Kharkov [elsewhere he is more precise, specifying in the vicinity of Kiev], first to smash the enemy assault forces which we expected to find there and then to drive into the flank of those advancing in the direction of the Lower Dnieper. In this way, the enemy would be doomed to suffer the same fate on the Sea of Azov as he had in store for us on the Black Sea.

However, whilst von Manstein could propose, only Adolf Hitler could dispose. In this matter, von Manstein’s knowledge of Hitler’s persona and modus operandi should have forewarned him as to his probable reaction. The ‘backhand’ proposal would be rejected by Hitler as being far too radical and audacious ever to be seriously contemplated. This was especially so, as, according to von Manstein himself, the German leader was by this stage of the War becoming exceedingly wary of embracing any mobile operation unless its ‘success could be guaranteed in advance’. Indeed, it had become the norm that whenever von Manstein advanced a plan predicated upon mobile warfare, Hitler’s immediate response was to quash the proposal with a comment along the lines of ‘We’ll have no talk of that!’

Furthermore, the execution of such a vast operation, governed as it was by the critical issue of timing, would require Hitler to devolve command and control of the forces involved to the field commanders, and especially to von Manstein. Although, as we have seen, he had been prepared to do this just a month before, that had only been because the Führer had been in extremis at that point in the conflict, and it was atypical behaviour on his part. Rather, Hitler had been moving to garner more and more control over the day-to-day operations in the field into his own hands, convinced that he was a far more capable judge of what was required in the conduct of the war in the East than his professional military.

In December 1941 Hitler had assumed the role of Commander in Chief of the Army (Heer) in December 1941 to add to his pre-existing position as Head of the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht). This extension of the notion of Führerprinzship from the political into the military domain, with its assertion of military control being vested in the hands of one individual, robbed the professional military of their prerogative to make command decisions. Hitler’s denigration of his general’s expertise was summed up by his observation to a former Chief of Staff in 1941: ‘This little matter of operational command is something that anyone can do.’

Evidence of Hitler’s wish to micro-manage the day-to-day running of affairs at the front, and the manner in which this served to rob even the highest of commanders of their capacity to exercise their professional military judgement, is conveyed in a photograph. It shows von Manstein at a table in his command train as it rattled through the Ukrainian countryside. Along with his command staff he is seen examining a series of maps, whilst over his left shoulder, and attached to the wall of the carriage in large letters on a poster, is the question Was würde der Führer dazu sagan? – What would the Führer have to say about it? This served, as intended, as an ever constant prompt from Rastenburg that whatever was decided had in the end to be both acceptable to and sanctioned by Hitler. Such an aide-memoire was to be displayed in plain sight wherever command decisions had to be made.

Inevitably, Hitler’s subsequent command style reflected the mindset he brought to bear on military problems. Thus, his operational decisions were governed more by the need to address concerns of personal prestige and ends of an economic and political nature than by realistic military necessity.

Coloured as his views were by his experience as a First World War frontkampfer, his rigid injunction to his troops was ‘to stand firm and fight, not one step back’. Hitler had first issued this instruction to his troops in the face of the Soviet counter-offensive before Moscow in December 1941, and it was soon to become the touchstone of his command style. Nicholas von Below, the Führer’s LuftWaffenadjutant throughout the conflict, was able to observe at close quarters Hitler’s modus operandi. He was later to observe in his memoirs:

Hitler forbade retreats from the front, even operational necessities to regain freedom of manoeuvre or to spare the men in the field. His distrust of the generals had increased inordinately and would never be quite overcome … he reserved to himself every decision, even the minor tactical ones.

In September 1942, this approach had been formalised when Hitler issued his ‘Führer Defence Order’. He had been stung into taking this action by his suspicion that the surrender of territory in pursuance of a flexible defence by units in Army Groups North and Centre in the late summer constituted evidence of a growing ‘retreatist mentality’ that pervaded the higher echelons of the Ostheer, which manifested itself at the first sign of pressure from the Soviets. In consequence, his demand to ‘stand and fight’ was elevated to the level of official doctrine. Thereafter, it became the basis from which he responded to every contingency, with adherence to this dogma being raised to the level of a virtue. Indeed, the fate of most field commanders with the temerity to ignore the Führer’s will in this matter and exercise their own initiative was more often than not, the sack. A fate which, in due course, even von Manstein, for all his brilliance, was unable to escape.
Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943

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Rudel’s Stukas

When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber was obsolete. However, during the Blitzkrieg campaigns in Europe between 1939 and 1942 it established itself as a weapon that struck fear into the hearts of enemy soldiers and civilians alike. Even when the tide of war turned against Germany after 1943, the Stuka continued to take to the skies in an anti-tank role. The most famous Stuka pilot was Hans-Ulrich Rudel, whose bravery established him as one of the Luftwaffe’s greatest airmen.

One of the enduring images of the German Blitzkrieg is of swarms of dive-bomber aircraft swooping down on hapless Allied columns. The ultimate dive-bomber was the Junkers Ju 87 Sturzkampfflugzeug, or Stuka. Not surprisingly, the name took on a life of its own and entered popular culture.

The dive-bomber was a purpose-built aircraft, designed to drop bombs with pinpoint accuracy on frontline battlefield targets. To support their panzer offensives, the Germans developed close air support into an art form and the Stuka was central to this effort. The secret of German successes in this field was the close integration between air and ground units. Stuka squadrons worked hand-in-hand with ground units so they could intervene rapidly at the decisive point of the battlefield. These highly specialist squadrons were in the thick of the action and developed an impressive reputation. The need to fly deep into the heart of battle meant Stuka pilots suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the Luftwaffe, and as a consequence became some of the most highly decorated German servicemen. Hans-Ulrich Rudel was the most famous Stuka pilot and squadron commander of the war. He was also the most highly decorated German soldier of the war, being the only serviceman to receive the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds.

The Stuka

Experience with close air support during World War I led many German officers in the newly formed Luftwaffe in the 1930s to develop plans to build a specialist aircraft for this key role. The result was the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which first flew in 1935. Although progressively upgraded, the Stuka retained its distinctive gull-winged silhouette that became famous in the early years of World War II.

The single-engined Stuka was fitted with a specialized bomb sight to enable the aircraft to dive vertically on its target, and to automatically open air brakes after bomb release to allow the aircraft to safely pull up when it was 450m (1470ft) from the ground. As a result of this device, the Stuka could drop its bombs within 100m (330ft) of its intended target, and a good pilot could drop his bombs within 10m (32ft). Two wing-mounted 7.92mm machine guns allowed the Stuka to return after dive-bombing runs to strafe their targets. The normal Stuka bomb load was a 1000kg (2200lb) bomb under the fuselage or a 500kg (1100lb) bomb under the fuselage and four 50kg (110lb) bombs under the wings.

To complement this capability the Stukas were fitted with sirens, so-called “Jericho Trumpets”, which produced a frightening whine. This, coupled with its vulture-like appearance, made being on the receiving end of a Stuka attack a terrifying experience.

If the Stuka had shortcomings it was in its short range, only 448km (227 miles) in normal close air support operations, and poor air-to-air capabilities. Whenever Stukas came up against determined fighter resistance they were at a distinct disadvantage, and were dependent on the Luftwaffe maintaining air supremacy to allow them to operate freely.

When the war began, just over 330 Stukas had been built and it remained in production until late in 1944, with some 5000 being built in 15 different versions.

From 1942, the Germans began to find themselves faced by huge Soviet tank formations made up of hundreds of T-34s. These were difficult to destroy with traditional dive bombing techniques, so work began to provide the Stuka with more accurate weaponry. The result was the Ju 87G-1, which sported two 37mm high-velocity cannons mounted in underwing pods. These could punch through the armour of any Soviet tank in service, and allowed Stuka squadrons to directly engage the massed tank waves used by the Red Army. It was with this version of the Stuka that Rudel became famously associated. The Germans also developed an early version of what are now known as cluster bombs to counter the large Soviet tank formations. The 500kg (1100lb) SD-4-H1 contained 78 hollow-charge submunitions that could penetrate the thin roof armour of even the heaviest Soviet tank, including the heavily armoured Josef Stalin II.

German close air support tactics were first put into practice during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), when the first generation of Luftwaffe pilots had a chance to experience modern combat. While the Stuka’s top speed of 400kph (250mph) compared poorly to the 574kph (359mph) of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the Luftwaffe’s top-line fighter, this was far from a disadvantage in the close air support role. Too much speed would have reduced the time Stuka pilots had to find their targets. The loitering presence of a Stuka squadron hunting for its targets and then swooping down, could be very terrifying for those on the receiving end of such an attack.

In Spain, Stuka pilots learned that the key to providing successful close air support was having good communications with friendly ground troops, who could pinpoint enemy positions and then direct air strikes against them. Combat experience in Poland and France later reinforced this and confirmed the validity of Stuka tactics. This saved the Stukas valuable time finding targets and also ensured that only targets that would influence the ground battle were engaged. So-called Stukaleiters, or Stuka controllers, were posted to each panzer division by the Luftwaffe. These men were usually serving Stuka pilots from the squadrons assigned to that sector of the front, to bind together the Stukas and panzers into a single force. Stukaleiters were given armoured halftracks to work in so they could keep up with the panzer commanders and had air-to-ground radios so they could talk-in attack aircraft to their targets. The Stukas have been described as the panzers’ “flying artillery”, but they brought more to the Blitzkrieg than just firepower. The Stukas ranged far ahead over hostile territory and provided German ground forces with early warning of troop strengths, movements and terrain obstacles.

While the Stukas reigned supreme in the Blitzkrieg battles of 1939 and 1940, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering sent them into action against British airfields during the Battle of Britain the thin German fighter cover available meant they suffered heavy losses.

Over the Mediterranean in 1941 the Stuka came into its own as an anti-ship weapon. Luftwaffe air superiority meant Royal Navy warships could be attacked without interruption by Stuka squadrons flying from Italian and Greek air bases. The Stuka’s dive-bomber systems proved highly effective against British warships, revisiting the successes enjoyed during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, when almost 250 Allied ships had been lost to German air power. The high point of the Stuka campaign in the Mediterranean theatre was the support for the airborne invasion of Crete in May 1941. After blasting open the Allied defences for the German paratroopers, who lacked tank or artillery support, the Stukas turned their attention to the Royal Navy warships sent to evacuate the defenders. Nine British warships went to the bottom and 15 were heavily damaged after becoming victims of dive-bombing.

The most famous Stuka pilot of the war did not begin his career at all auspiciously. In 1938, Hans-Ulrich Rudel was posted to one of the first Stuka squadrons, but was a slow learner, and far from popular with his peers because he did not join in the boisterous mess life typical of the prewar Luftwaffe. The 32-year-old Rudel was a teetotaller who did not smoke and spent all his time when not flying playing sport. A few months later he was shipped out to be trained as a reconnaissance pilot. After flying reconnaissance missions during the Polish campaign, he pressed to be transferred back to Stukas. His wish was granted, but it meant he missed the French campaign because he was undergoing flight training. Rudel was now assigned to perhaps the most famous Stuka wing of the war, Stuka Group 2 (SG) Immelmann, named after the famous World War I fighter ace. An argument with his commanding officer resulted in Rudel being grounded during the Greek and Crete campaigns, and being employed instead as a maintenance officer.

Hans-Ulrich Rudel in 1944.

Rudel on the Eastern Front

Rudel was determined to get into the action, and eventually a friend who commanded one of the wing’s squadrons relented, allowing him to fly as his wingman between his maintenance work on the flight line. He flew on the first day of the invasion of Russia and was in action on almost every day for the remainder of the war, except when he was in hospital or receiving medals from his Führer. The wing was in the thick of the action on the central sector of the Eastern Front, supporting panzer columns heading towards Smolensk and Moscow. Rudel became renowned for his determination to press home his dive-bombing runs, pulling up only at the very last minute to ensure his bombs landed on target.

In August 1941, Rudel’s wing was transferred to the Leningrad Front where German troops were besieging the cradle of the Soviet revolution. With Germans on the outskirts of the city, several Soviet Navy ships trapped in the Gulf of Finland regularly turned their big guns on their enemies. The Immelmann wing was given the task of knocking out the warships. Its main target was the 26,416-tonne (26,000-ton) battleship Marat. The wing’s first attack on 21 September with 500kg (1100lb) bombs failed to penetrate the warship’s armour, in spite of Rudel putting a bomb square on target after flying through an anti-aircraft barrage thrown up by 1000 guns.

When 1000kg (2200lb) bombs arrived at the wing, Rudel led a new attack on the Marat. He pressed home the attack with his typical determination and only released his bomb 300m (980ft) above the target. Rudel’s bomb penetrated the warship’s magazine. As it exploded in a massive fireball, Rudel struggled to regain control of his aircraft after blacking out, and only managed to pull it up 4m (12ft) from the sea. If that was not enough of a problem, three Soviet fighters now jumped the Stukas. The attack won Rudel the Knight’s Cross.

The Soviet winter offensive of 1941–42 saw the Immelmann wing supporting hard-pressed German defences in central Russia. When a Soviet tank column broke through the front and threatened the wing’s airfield, Rudel led air strikes that drove them back. For three days, the Stukas kept the Soviets at bay until the Waffen-SS Das Reich Division arrived to relieve the situation. By now Rudel had notched up more than 500 missions and was posted home to train a new Stuka squadron. Not wanting to be out of the action, he soon managed to pull a few strings and got his squadron transferred to southern Russia, where the Germans were pushing south to seize Stalin’s Caucasus oil wells. In the middle of the battle for Stalingrad, Rudel was diagnosed with jaundice but after spending a few days in a field hospital, he absented himself, returned to the front and took command of a squadron of the Immelmann wing. These were desperate days for the Luftwaffe in southern Russia. As Soviet tanks moved to surround the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, units such as Rudel’s Stukas were needed to hold back the Red Army. The Soviet advance was rolling up one German airfield after another, making it more difficult for the short-range Stukas to help the trapped German soldiers.

Cannon Birds

Erich Rudel was now recalled to Germany to form the first experimental anti-tank Stuka unit equipped with the 37mm cannon-armed Ju 87s, dubbed “Cannon Birds’’ by their crews. Rudel took the unit to the Crimea to help counter a Soviet amphibious landing on the Kuban peninsula. The Cannon Birds proved to be an outstanding success against Soviet landing craft bringing troops and supplies ashore, with Rudel alone claiming 70 destroyed. Personally awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross by a grateful Führer for his work in the Kuban, Rudel was now posted back to the Immelmann wing in charge of its Ju 87 G-1 anti-tank squadron, in time to lead it during the July 1943 Kursk Offensive.

As expected, his squadron was in the thick of the action supporting II Waffen-SS Panzer Corps as it attacked on the southern axis of Operation Citadel. His Cannon Birds ranged ahead of the panzers, intercepting and destroying Soviet reserve tank columns moving to the front. Scores of tanks were claimed destroyed by Rudel and his wingmen, with the squadron commander alone claiming to have destroyed 12 T-34s on a single day. Experience taught the Stuka pilots to aim for vulnerable parts of the Soviet tanks, such as engine bays and turret roofs. The exhaust smoke of the Soviet tanks proved a useful aiming point for the Stuka gunners, and a hit against the engine often resulted in a catastrophic explosion. The Soviet practice of loading extra fuel drums on the rear of their tanks made them very vulnerable to Stuka cannon fire. To get a good shot at the T-34s, Rudel recommended dropping down to 15m (50ft) to give the Stuka pilot a good look at the target. Here the slow speed of the Stuka came into its own, because it gave the pilot plenty of time to lay his guns on target.

These attacks proved devastating to the morale of Soviet tank columns and the infantry who rode into the battle on the rear decks of the T-34s. To counter the Stuka threat the Soviets started to move anti-aircraft guns close to their tank columns. In turn, Rudel began to have a pair of bomb- and machine-gun-armed Stukas circling overhead as his Cannon Birds lined up for their attacks. The supporting Stukas would strafe and bomb Soviet anti-aircraft batteries that attempted to open fire. They also provided early warning of the appearance of Soviet fighters that were starting to challenge German air superiority on the Eastern Front. In spite of this covering fire, Rudel’s aircraft routinely returned to base full of bullet holes.

After Hitler’s Kursk Offensive stalled, the Soviets immediately opened a huge offensive against the northern wing of the German forces around Orel, opening a huge breach in the front. Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were rushed northwards to help stabilize the situation and give ground reinforcements time to mobilize. In the midst of this chaos, Rudel’s aircraft was badly shot up, but he managed to make a forced landing behind German lines and return to the fray. Soviet offensives continued to require the close attention of the Immelmann wing, and Rudel was appointed to command its 3rd Group after his predecessor was killed in action. He had now flown some 1500 sorties and personally destroyed 60 Soviet tanks, earning him the Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross.

Time after time, his Stukas saved the day during the Soviet winter offensive in the Ukraine, culminating in a decisive intervention during the Battle of Kirovograd in November 1943, when Rudel and his pilots blunted an attack by hundreds of T-34s. By now Rudel and his Stuka pilots had been turned into national heroes, featuring almost daily in Nazi propaganda broadcasts announcing more tank kills, desperate situations saved and medals won. To the ordinary German soldiers, Rudel’s tank-killing Stukas were known as the “front fire brigade” because they were always called on to dampen down the most combustible sections of the front. While other Stuka units had switched to flying the two-engine Henschel Hs 129 armed with a 75mm cannon, or ground-attack versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Rudel stuck with his trusty Ju 87. Rudel’s squadron operated from rudimentary forward air strips, and his leadership was instrumental in keeping his ground crews working in freezing weather to put damaged aircraft back in the air time and time again, with minimal spares, tools and facilities. Once in the air, Rudel’s pilots followed him into attack after attack. He appeared fearless. Even when shot down over enemy territory, he somehow managed to escape and return to the cockpit of a Stuka. This incident followed a successful attack to destroy a bridge over the River Dnieper in March 1944. Twenty Soviet fighters swooped on his squadron, forcing one of Rudel’s pilots to land in territory held by the Red Army. Rudel landed to try to pick up his man, only to have his aircraft get stuck in mud. Russian soldiers captured Rudel and his two comrades. He swam a river and walked 50km (31 miles) in an escape bid. Two days later, he reached German lines and was soon back in the air.

Tank killing with the G-1 model Stuka became a Rudel speciality, and by August 1944 he claimed his 320th tank kill. The collapse of the German Army Group Centre in July 1944 brought the Immelmann wing northwards to the Courland peninsula, where it was thrown into one desperate battle after another. In October Rudel was promoted lieutenant-colonel and given command of his beloved Immelmann wing. There was little time to bask in the glory, and he had to lead his fliers to Hungary to help Waffen-SS panzer divisions blast a corridor through to 100,000 German troops besieged in Budapest. Soviet fighters were now swarming over the Eastern Front, making it highly dangerous for the lumbering Cannon Birds to go into action. In the space of a few days Rudel was shot down twice, but returned to the cockpit of a Stuka with his leg in a plaster cast. With more than 2400 missions in his log book and 463 tank kills claimed, Hitler made him the only recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves with Swords and Diamonds in January 1945. Hitler tried to ground Germany’s most highly decorated soldier, but Rudel insisted on returning to combat duty leading his wing.

Russian tanks were now advancing into Silesia, and Rudel’s wing was transferred to try to contain the situation. Flying from German soil, Rudel’s Stukas were able to rescue several German units cut off trying to retreat westwards to safety. When the Soviets pushed a bridgehead over the River Oder in February 1945, Rudel threw his Stukas into action. He alone destroyed four Soviet tanks, before having an aircraft shot out from under him. After struggling back to base, Rudel took off again to continue knocking out more than a dozen Josef Stalin tanks. In the midst of another attack run his aircraft was blown apart by Soviet flak. Rudel woke up in a field hospital to find out his left leg had been amputated. Despite being told his flying days were finished, Germany’s top Stuka pilot had other ideas. Only six weeks later he was back flying from bases in Czechoslovakia. When Germany surrendered in May, he led the remnants of his Immelmann wing on a last flight to American-controlled airfields in southern Germany.

Tank Killers

Rudel was instrumental in developing the tactics of using cannon-armed aircraft in the anti-tank role. The exploits of his Stukas during the Battle of Kursk was the inspiration used by the United States Air Force in designing the A-10 Warthog tank-busting aircraft at the height of the Cold War, when there was a requirement to counter massed divisions of Soviet tanks in central Europe. This aircraft was built around a multi-barrelled cannon specifically to counter enemy tanks.

As a leader of warriors, Rudel was unsurpassed. He led from the front and set a pace that few could equal. In the course of 2530 missions, Rudel personally destroyed 517 Soviet tanks – the equivalent of five Soviet tank brigades. This was on top of a battleship, cruiser, 70 landing craft, 800 trucks, 150 artillery pieces, as well as numerous bunkers, bridges and supply dumps. He also managed to achieve nine confirmed air-to-air kills. Perhaps more striking was the fact that Rudel was shot down 30 times by ground fire, and wounded five times. On top of this, he successfully rescued six of his pilots who had been shot down behind enemy lines. This was the mark of the man, who ranked leading his men into battle as the highest duty of any soldier.

MERCENARIES IN AFRICA

Mercenaries have earned a dubious name for themselves throughout history; their object, as a rule, has been to obtain maximum pay for minimum risks, with the result that those hiring them rarely get value for money. Mercenaries, usually white and recruited from the former colonial powers, became familiar and generally despised figures in Africa during the post-independence period. They were attracted by the wars, whether civil or liberation, that occurred in much of Africa during this time and, as a rule, were to be found on the side of reaction: supporting Moise Tshombe in his attempt to take Katanga out of the Republic of the Congo (1960–63); in Rhodesia fighting on the side of the illegal Smith regime against the liberation movements; in Angola; on both sides in the civil war in Nigeria; and in other theaters as well.

The Congo

In the chaos of the Republic of the Congo (1960–66) mercenaries were labeled “les affreux.” In Katanga under Tshombe, they were first used to stiffen the local gendarmerie; later they were organized in battalions on their own, numbering one to six commandos, as a fighting force to maintain Tshombe’s secession. There were originally 400 European mercenaries in Katanga during the secession; this number rose to 1,500 during the Simba revolt, which affected much of the Congo. These mercenaries came from a range of backgrounds: British colonials, ex-Indian Army, combat experienced French soldiers from Algeria, World War II RAF pilots from Rhodesia and South Africa, and Belgian paratroopers. The troubles that began in the Congo immediately after independence in July 1960 provided the first opportunity for mercenaries to be employed as fighting units since World War II. These white soldiers fighting in black wars, both then and later, became conspicuous military/propaganda targets in an increasingly race conscious world.

Nigeria

The Nigerian civil war (1967–70) witnessed the use of white mercenaries on both sides, and stories of mercenary involvement and behavior were a feature of that war. Three kinds of mercenary were used: pilots on the federal side; pilots and soldiers on the Biafran side; and relief pilots employed by the humanitarian relief organizations assisting Biafra. Memories of savage mercenary actions in the Congo were still fresh in African minds when the Nigerian civil war began and at first, there was reluctance to use them. Despite a great deal of publicity, the mercenaries played a relatively minor role in the Nigerian civil war, except for air force pilots. French mercenaries led a Biafran force in a failed attempt of December 1967 to recapture Calabar. In Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, the mercenaries were well aware of the low esteem attached to them and were careful not to put themselves at risk of capture. The Nigerian Federal Code (for the military conduct of the war) said of mercenaries: “They will not be spared: they are the worst enemies.” Although both sides in Nigeria were reluctant to use mercenaries, both did so in the end for what they saw as practical reasons, especially because of the shortage of Nigerian pilots. In this war, British mercenaries fought for the federal side against French mercenaries on the Biafran side to perpetuate existing Anglo–French rivalries in Africa; it was the first time since the Spanish civil war of 1936–1939 that contract mercenaries had faced each other on opposite sides.

Mike Hoare, who had become notorious as a mercenary in the Congo, offered his services to each side in Nigeria in turn, but neither wished to employ him. The capacity of Biafra to resist against huge odds was prolonged because Ulli Airport was kept open to the last moment in the war; had it been destroyed, Biafra would have collapsed, but the mercenaries on either side had engaged in a “pact” not to destroy the Ulli runway, since to do so would have put the pilots on both sides—those bringing in supplies to Biafra and those supposedly trying to stop them for the federal government—out of a job. At least some mercenaries in Biafra were involved in training ground forces and helping to lead them, and some of these became partisan for Biafra, though that is unusual. The French government supported the use of its mercenaries in Biafra, since it saw potential political advantage to itself if the largest Anglophone country on the continent should be splintered. Apart from the pilots, however, Biafra got small value for money from the mercenaries it employed.

Why Mercenaries Were Employed

As a rule, the mercenaries offered their services in terms of special skills—such as weapons instructors or pilots—that were in short supply among the African forces at war. The need for mercenaries in most African civil war situations has arisen from the lack of certain military skills among the combatants and the belief that mercenaries are equipped to supply these skills. What emerges repeatedly in the history of the mercenary in Africa—whether in Nigeria, Angola, or elsewhere—is the fact that mercenaries charged huge fees (to be paid in advance) for generally poor and sometimes nonexistent services. As a rule, they were simply not worth the money. The mercenaries always sought maximum financial returns and minimum risks and in Nigeria, for example, helped destroy the notion that white soldiers were of superior caliber to black ones. This was simply not true. Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda notably described mercenaries as “human vermin,” a view that had wide credence in Africa, so that their use by any African combatant group presented adverse political and propaganda risks. An assumption on the part of many mercenaries was that they were superior soldiers and would stiffen whichever side they were on; many, in fact, turned out to be psychopaths and racists whose first consideration, always, was money. In general, mercenary interventions in African wars were brutal, self-serving, and sometimes downright stupid and did more to give whites on the continent a bad name than they achieved in assisting those they had supposedly come to support. The desperate, that is the losing, side in a war, would be more likely to turn to mercenaries as a last resort, as happened in Angola during 1975–1976.

Angola

The mercenaries, who became involved in Angola during the chaos that developed as the Portuguese withdrew in 1975, appeared to have learned nothing from either the Congo or Nigeria. As the Frente Nacional da Libertação de Angola (FNLA)/National Front for the Liberation of Angola was being repulsed by the Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola (MPLA)/Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and its Cuban allies, the American CIA decided to pay for mercenaries and proceeded to recruit 20 French and 300 Portuguese soldiers for an operation in support of the anti-Marxist FNLA. The CIA recruited French “hoods” for Angola and the French insisted that the CIA should use the services of the notorious Bob Denard. He had already worked for Joseph Désiré Mobutu in the Republic of the Congo. It was thought that French mercenaries in Angola would be more acceptable or less offensive than Portuguese mercenaries. Despite this, the Portuguese, having lost their colonial war, allowed and encouraged a mercenary program of their own in Angola, in opposition to the newly installed MPLA government. In fact, the use of mercenaries in Angola in 1975 proved a fiasco. By January 1976, for example, over 100 British mercenaries were fighting for the FNLA in northern Angola. They were joined by a small group of Americans.

One of the most notorious of these British mercenaries, a soldier by the name of Cullen, was captured by the MPLA and executed in Luanda. In February 1976, 13 mercenaries including Cullen were captured by MPLA forces in northern Angola: four were executed, one was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the others got lesser though long terms of imprisonment.

Later Mercenary Interventions

In 1989, white mercenaries under the Frenchman Bob Denard seized power in the Comoros Islands following the murder of President Ahmad Abdallah. At the time, South Africa was paying mercenaries to act as a presidential guard in the Comoros. As the Mobutu regime in Zaire collapsed during the latter part of 1996 and 1997, senior French officers were recruiting a “white mercenary legion” to fight alongside Zaire’s government forces. In January 1997, it was reported that 12 or more French officers with a force of between 200 and 400 mercenaries—Angolans, Belgians, French, South Africans and Britons, Serbs and Croats—had arrived in Zaire. As Laurent Kabila’s forces advanced on Kisangani there was a mass exodus of the population, including the Forces Armées du Zaire (FAZ)/Armed Forces of Zaire troops of Mobutu and many of the mercenaries who had been recruited by the Zaire government. These latter then quit the country.

In summary, mercenaries in Africa, by their brutal behavior and racism, have done great damage to the white cause on the continent; they have proved less than able soldiers; they have often quit when their own lives were in danger rather than do the job for which they had been paid; and with one or two exceptions, the combatants would have been better off without using them.

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO, (LATER ZAIRE)

Swedish UN troops during Congo Crisis

On 30 June 1960, the Belgian Congo, which had emerged out of the Scramble for Africa as the Congo Free State of King Leopold II, became independent as the Republic of the Congo. The country was ill-prepared for independence; political parties had only been allowed during the second half of the 1950s, and not until after riots in 1958 and 1959 did the Belgians begin to modernize their colonial structures in preparation for the coming change. The June date for independence was fixed at a meeting in Brussels in February 1960. The Belgians had created six provincial governments with competencies equal to those of the central government, an arrangement which naturally encouraged an immediate power struggle between the provinces and the center, once the Belgians had gone. In elections that May, one month before independence, Patrice Lumumba and his party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC)/National Congolese Movement, won the most seats and on 30 May, Lumumba was made prime minister, while Joseph Kasavubu, a politically more moderate rival, became president. They had to rule a vast and unwieldy country with extremely difficult communications, a range of differing ethnic groups, and virtually no trained personnel.

Collapse into Violence

Within days of independence there were riots and then a mutiny by the Force Publique (armed forces) for better pay and conditions. A breakdown of law and order followed, leading to an exodus of Europeans. The problems the new country faced—a left–right struggle at the center, ambitious provincial leaders, a breakdown of law and order, and desperately few people with any kind of training—ensured that breakdown would lead to civil war. The immense mineral wealth of the Congo was another factor of great political importance since a number of western nations—the former colonial power, Belgium, with large-scale investments, the United States, and Great Britain—were simply not prepared to see this wealth lost to them or destroyed. They had, in consequence, compelling motives for intervention. Almost at once, a power struggle developed between Prime Minister Lumumba, who was accused of “selling” the country to the Soviets, and Moise Tshombe, the leading politician of Katanga (now Shaba) Province where the bulk of the country’s minerals were located, who was right-wing in his politics and had close ties with western business interests. The Congo was also to be the first black African country into whose affairs (originally quite legitimately through the United Nations) the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) would intervene: up to that time it had been largely a stranger to African politics. This meant that the Congo crisis became inextricably bound up with the Cold War. On 11 July, Tshombe announced that Katanga Province was seceding from the Congo; the following day, Lumumba appealed to the United Nations to help restore order and prevent the secession. Belgian troops, whose presence was deeply resented, had remained in the Congo after 30 June and their attempts to restore order made matters worse.

The United Nations

Under its secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations responded swiftly and sent a mixed force of Swedish and African troops to the Congo to keep the peace. The attempted secession of Katanga was followed by another would-be secession, this time by Kasai Province. As the UN force discovered, the task of maintaining order was formidable: the Congo, Africa’s third largest country, covered 2,345,095 square kilometers and consisted of more than 200 ethnic groups. Government forces managed to get control of Kasai Province quickly enough, but were insufficient to subjugate the rebellious Katanga Province. The Belgians, in fact, assisted Tshombe’s secession. Belgium had huge stakes in Katanga’s mineral wealth; it recruited mercenaries to safeguard Tshombe and the mines, while Tshombe himself was an adroit politician. Meanwhile, a power struggle developed between Lumumba and Kasavubu and in September Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba. The military commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Désiré Mobutu, then carried out his first coup and created a College of Commissioners to rule the country. Lumumba fell into the hands of the Commissioners and then was taken to Katanga where he was tortured before being murdered. The United Nations failed to intervene on his behalf and was widely blamed for allowing his murder, a black mark against the organization that remained for a considerable time. On 2 August 1961, Kasavubu appointed a new government with Cyrille Adoula as prime minister, and Antoine Gizenga, a Lumumbist, as his deputy. A new crisis arose in September 1961 when Dag Hammarskjöld, on a flight from Ndola in Northern Rhodesia to Katanga in order to negotiate with Tshombe, was killed in a crash that has never been adequately explained. At the end of 1962, UN forces finally moved against Katanga and brought its secession to an end on 15 January 1963. Tshombe went into exile.

Civil War

Events from independence to January 1963, when Katanga’s secession was brought to an end, were as much a United Nations effort to restore order as they were a civil war. But after the restoration of central government control, there followed a general deterioration in law and order. First came the Mulele rebellion in Kwilu Province, one of the country’s richest regions. Pierre Mulele had served briefly in Lumumba’s government. Early in 1964, his followers killed about 150 officials and his rebel army of not more than 4,000 became a major threat to the country’s stability. Meanwhile, in March 1964, about 400 members of the Katanga Gendarmerie crossed into Angola where Tshombe’s white mercenaries gave them military training. In June 1964, the last UN troops left the Congo and in the wake of their departure a new round of violence erupted. In July, Kasavubu invited Tshombe back from exile to replace Adoula as prime minister; Tshombe then raised a force of mercenaries to put down the Mulele rebellion in Kwilu and the northeast, on the Uganda border.

By that time, the eastern rebels had come to control about 500,000 square kilometers of territory. The Congolese Army, on the other hand, had virtually disintegrated. On 5 August, the rebels, who had named themselves the Popular Army of Liberation, captured Stanleyville (later Kisangani), the Congo’s third town. They allied themselves with the National Liberation Committee, consisting of left-wing exiles and Lumumbists. However, in pitched fighting between the Congolese Army and the rebels on 19 August, some 300 rebels were killed, including Mulele. The United States now intervened; Tshombe had sought its support early in August, and it now sent a number of air force transport planes and 50 paratroop guards, which it put at the disposal of the U.S. Ambassador. Tshombe appealed for African troops to help him fight the rebels and claimed that the rebellion had been stirred up by the People’s Republic of China. This was at least a possibility, as the Chinese, operating from their Burundi embassy, saw the chance of increasing their influence in the region. On 7 September the rebels, who still held Stanleyville, announced the formation of a government under a former Lumumbist, Christopher Gbeng. Meanwhile, Tshombe’s agents were recruiting South African and Rhodesian mercenaries at $280 a month. Tshombe’s agents worked hard to secure Organization of African Unity (OAU) backing for his position, but when the heads of state meeting took place in Cairo that October, he was refused permission to participate. In fact, Tshombe was dependent upon Belgian support and between 400 and 500 mercenaries led by the notorious Mike Hoare. Some of these mercenaries were then training the Congolese army to retake Stanleyville. On 24 November 1964, the United States used its transport planes to fly in 600 Belgian paratroopers to retake Stanleyville, where the rebels were holding 1,200 Europeans hostage. A number of these Europeans lost their lives in this operation while the remainder were either rescued or turned up later. The Congolese army, led by mercenaries, followed the Belgian paratroopers into Stanleyville.

Kasavubu, who saw Tshombe developing into a dangerous rival, now dismissed Tshombe whose Confédération Nationale des Associations Congolaises (CONACO)/Council of National Alliance of the Congo appeared to be winning the elections that were held that month. By the end of the month, the rebellion became increasingly disoriented. Even so, it was still dangerous, with forces consisting of the Simbas, including a number of ex-soldiers, and the Jeunesse, young untrained Mulelists who could be fanatical. The rebellion continued into March 1965, but by then the rejuvenated Congolese National Army, led by mercenaries, was winning the war. This army was a law to itself and carried out widespread terror tactics and slaughter among the civilian population. The mercenaries, who by then were being paid $560 a month, were responsible for a growing catalog of brutalities, which included torturing prisoners before killing them.

The Aftermath

On 24 November 1965, General (as he had since become) Mobutu took power, suspending President Kasavubu and his prime minister, Evariste Kimba, who had replaced Tshombe. Mobutu assumed all executive functions and was set to rule the country until his overthrow in 1997, 32 years later. It is impossible to be precise about the nature of the Congo Crisis, as it was called at the time; there were so many interventions—by the United Nations, the Belgians, the United States, big business interests, mercenaries—that it is difficult to say whether it was really a civil war or something else. How much were the attempted secessions of both Katanga and Kwilu foreign inspired? The crucial question about the crisis, which must remain unanswered is: what would have happened in the Congo had there been no interventions from outside?

Estimates of December 1964 suggested that the rebels had killed about 20,000 Congolese and that 5,000 of these had been killed in Stanleyville. The Congolese Army is reputed to have killed many thousands, often in reprisals, though no figures have been produced. The mercenaries killed people in the villages through which they passed and often did so out of wanton cruelty. Certain European deaths came to 175, less than the figure of 250 originally estimated for Stanleyville, when the Belgian paratroopers retook the town in 1964; many more Europeans were wounded. Possibly 300 Europeans died altogether from beginning to end of the crisis, and their deaths attracted most international media attention. A total figure of 30,000 deaths has been suggested, though the real casualties may have been much higher. Destruction to property and the general collapse of order did enormous long-term damage to the Congo. The interventions of the West were self-serving, having more to do with the preservation of western interests in the country’s mineral wealth than any desire to ensure peace. The mercenaries, whose behavior was barbaric, did the white cause in Africa great harm. Apologists for the mercenaries would argue that they were responding to equal barbarism perpetrated by the Congolese rebels whose brutalities against Congolese government officials were often appalling. The end result of this brutal civil war and collapse of order, which for a time made the name Congo synonymous with breakdown in Africa, was to be 32 years of dictatorship and what later came to be called state kleptocracy under Mobutu.

Lioré et Olivier LeO 451

Lucio Perinotto

Although the French had been early pioneers of military aviation and had developed important combat aircraft during World War I, few French designs played important roles in World War II. The most significant French bomber was the Liori et Olivier LeO 451. Introduced in 1937, this medium bomber, crewed by four, was driven by two 1,060-horsepower Gnome-Rhone 14N engines and could achieve a top speed of 298 miles per hour. Service ceiling was 29,530 feet, and range was 1,802 miles. The LeO 451 carried a bomb load of 3,086 pounds and was armed with a single 20-millimeter cannon and five 7.5-millimeter machine guns. Only 373 of these aircraft had been delivered to French forces before the armistice was signed with Germany on June 25, 1940. However, more were delivered to the Vichy French Air Force.

The LeO.451 was France’s best medium-bomber, powered by a pair of Gnome-Rhone 14N 48/49 or 38/39 14-cylinder air-cooled, 1,060-hp radial engines for a maximum speed of 300 mph at 13,125 feet, although its 20-mm Hispano-Suiza HS.404 cannon firing from a dorsal turret, single 7.5 mm MAC 1934 in a “dustbin” retractable ventral turret, and one fixed-forward firing 7.5mm machine-gun comprised inadequate defense. Fuselage and wingroot bays stowed a 3,475-pound payload. As testimony to its general excellence, the LeO 451, a favorite import with Italian Air Force crews, was the last, pre-war French design to leave active French Air Force duty when it was finally retired in September 1957.

LeO 451. Armee de l’Air de Vichy. Aircraft with mine search ring, 1942.

The LeO 451 was the best French bomber of World War II and one of few available in quantity. It fought well during the Battle of France and also flew capably in the hands of Vichy French pilots.

No sooner had the Armee de l’Air become independent in April 1933 than it pressed for immediate expansion and modernization programs. Part of this entailed development of a new four-seat medium bomber capable of day and night operations. The medium strategic bomber LeO 451, designed by engineer Pierre Mercier and manufactured by the SNCASE company, made its first flight in January 1937 and entered service in the French Armée de l’Air in 1938. It was an all-metal, midwing, twin-engine craft with a glazed nose and twin rudders. In contrast to the ungainly aircraft of the early 1930s, the LeO 451 was beautifully streamlined and performed as good as it looked. Operationally, however, the type suffered from technical detriments that were never fully corrected. It had been designed for 1,600- horsepower engines at a time when no such power plants were available. Hence, employing 1,000-horsepower motors, LeO 451s remained significantly underpowered and never fulfilled their design potential. Worse still, when the French government decided to acquire the bomber in quantity, bureaucratic lethargy militated against mass production. By September 1939 only five LeO 451s had been delivered.

The German onslaught in Poland energized French aircraft production, and when the Battle of France commenced in May 1940 around 450 LeO 451s were available. They had been designed for medium-level bombing, but the speed of the German blitzkrieg necessitated their employment in low-level ground attacks. The bomber served well in that capacity, but, exposed to enemy fighters and antiaircraft fire, serious losses ensued. Yet the type remained in production after France’s capitulation, with an additional 150 being acquired. These were actively flown against the Allies in North Africa before Vichy France was occupied by the Germans. They confiscated about 94 LeO 451s; stripped of armament, these were flown as transports. A handful survived into the postwar period as survey aircraft.

The all-metal monocoque had a retractable landing gear, and double fin and rudder. It was operated by a crew of four (pilot, bomb aimer/radio operator/nose gunner, ventral gunner, and dorsal gunner), and had a length of 17.17 m (56 ft 4 in), a span of 22.52 m (73 ft 11 in), and a height of 4.24 m (17 ft 2 in). The two Hispano-Suiza 14 Aa 6/7 radial engines were on later models replaced with two 1,030-hp 14-cylinder, air-cooled Gnome Rhone 14 20/21 radial engines. The aircraft had a maximum speed of 480 km/h (480 mph), a maximum ceiling of 9,000 m (29,530 ft) and a maximum range of 2,900 km (1,800 miles). Although mainly relying on high speed and altitude, the LeO 451 was armed with one 20-mm Hispano-Suiza Hs 404 machine gun placed in dorsal turret, one forward-firing 7.5-mm Mac 34 machine gun mounted in the glazed nose, and one 7.5-mm Mac 34 machine gun placed in a retractable “dustbin” ventral turret. The aircraft could carry a load of 1,500 kg (3,305 lbs) in bombs, stored in fuselage and wing root bays. Produced between 1938 and 1942, 561 LeO 451 were built.

Variants

LeO 45.01

First prototype, powered by two Hispano-Suiza 14AA-6 / Hispano-Suiza 14AA-7 radial piston engines.

LeO 451.01

The first LeO 45.01 prototype was redesignated, fitted with two Gnome-Rhone 14R engines.

LeO 451

Production version variously fitted with Gnome-Rhône 14N-48 / Gnome-Rhône 14N-49 or Gnome-Rhône 14N-38 / Gnome-Rhône 14N-39 or Gnome & Rhône 14N-46 / Gnome-Rhône 14N-47 engines

LeO 451C

Twelve LeO 451T aircraft were redesignated, used as mail transport aircraft for Air France.

LeO 451E

Post-war flying laboratory, 11 modified.

LeO 451T

German-captured bombers modified for freight duty, seating for up to 17 troops. Around about 50 aircraft were modified.

LeO 453

Post-war conversion to high-speed transports and search-and-rescue aircraft, powered by two 895 kW (1,200 hp) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-67 engines, seating for 6 passengers, range 3,500 km (1,890 nm, 2,175 mi) at 400 km/h (215 knots, 250 mph) cruising speed, 40 modified.

LeO 454

Bristol Hercules II engines, one prototype left unfinished.

LeO 455

High-altitude version with turbo-supercharged Gnome-Rhône 14R engines producing 1,375 hp (1025 kW) each, 400 ordered, one prototype built. The aircraft flew on 12 March 1939 but was later destroyed on the ground.

LeO 455Ph

Post-war photo-reconnaissance variant, powered by two 1,600 hp (1195 kW) SNECMA 14R engines. Five LeO 451s were modified and were used by the Institut Géographique National.

LeO 456 (LeO 451M)

Naval version for the French Navy, 68 ordered. Also known as the LeO 451M.

LeO 458

Wright GR-2600-A5B engines, ten ordered

PZL P. 37 Los

The Los (Elk) was a world-class attack bomber and Poland’s most formidable air weapon of World War II. It arrived in only limited quantities but nonetheless performed heroic work throughout a hopelessly lopsided campaign.

The amazing P. 37 Los had its origins in the experimental P.30 civilian transport of 1930, which failed to attract a buyer. That year a design team under Jerzy Dabrowksi conceived a modern bomber version of the same craft and proffered it to the government in 1934. A prototype was then authorized, first flying in 1936. The P. 37 marked a pinnacle in medium bomber development for, in terms of design and performance, it was years ahead of contemporary machines. This was a sleek, all-metal, low-wing monoplane employing stressed skin throughout. Although relatively low-powered, its broad-chord wings permitted amazing lifting abilities, and it could hoist more than 5,000 pounds of bombs aloft-the equivalent of half its own empty weight! No medium bomber in the world-and few heavy bombers for that matter-could approach such performance. The Los entered production in 1937, and the first units became operational the following year. The government originally ordered 150 machines, but resistance from the Polish High Command, which viewed medium bombers as expensive and unnecessary, managed to reduce procurement by a third. Meanwhile, other countries expressed great interest in the P. 37, with Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, and Yugoslavia placing sizable orders. A total of 103 machines were built.

By the advent of World War II in September 1939, the Polish air force could muster only 36 fully equipped P. 37s. Several score sat available in waiting but lacked bombsights and other essential equipment. Nonetheless, the Los roared into action, inflicting considerable damage upon advancing German columns. When the outcome of the fight became helpless, around 40 surviving machines fled to neutral Romania and were absorbed into its air force. Within two years these fugitives were reconditioned and flown with good effect against the Soviet Union.

Dimensions: wingspan, 58 feet, 8 inches; length, 42 feet, 4 inches; height, 16 feet, 8 inches Weights: empty, 9,293 pounds; gross, 19,577 pounds Power plant: 2 x 925-horsepower Bristol Pegasus radial engines Performance: maximum speed, 273 miles per hour; ceiling, 19,685 feet; range, 1,616 miles Armament: 3 x 7.7mm machine guns; up to 5,688 pounds of bombs Service dates: 1938-1939

Brygada Bombowa

In the spring of 1939 a new concept for the application of aviation into a conflict was established. Within this plan it was determined that a large force of bomber aircraft should be formed. Specific guidelines, which modified this plan, were not published until July 1939. The bomber group (later named Brygada Bombowa) was given the following tasks, in accordance with the guidelines as they then stood.

# intervening operations at the battlefield and close rear, against human forces of the enemy # attacking enemy aviation, most of all bombers and fighters, at airfields

# attacking railway and road transport of the enemy

# reconnaissance of the targets of bomber aviation operations will be generally carried out by the discretionary aviation of the Wodz Naczelny, using mostly army reconnaissance aviation.

Brygada Bombowa was formed virtually at the outbreak of war and included the following air units:

# X (210) Dywizjon Bombowy with:

# 11 (previously 211) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# 12 (previously 212) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# XV (215) Dywizjon Bombowy with: # 16 (previously 216) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# 17 (previously 217) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37 Los

# II (112) Dywizjon Bombowy Lekki with:

# 1 (previously 21) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 2 (previously 22) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# VI (11/6) Dywizjon Bombowy Lekki with:

# 4 (previously 64) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 5 (previously 65) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 55 Samodzielna Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

Final evacuation of the Brygada Bombowa to Rumania took place on 17-18 September 1939. During the operations Karas crews dropped some 61 tonnes of bombs, and shot down at least 7 Bf 109s, while Los crews dropped 119 tonnes of bombs, and shot down three Bf 109s and an He 111.

PZL Aircraft (Panstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze)

Polish aircraft manufacturer; founded in 1928 as the Polish National Aircraft Establishment, it was chartered to manufacture both airframes and engines. Its airframes were PZLdesigned, but most of its engines were license-built Bristol designs. Several PZL (Polish Skoda) engine designs were run, but it is not known that any were put into production.

The chief designer of PZL airframes, Zygmunt Pulawski, produced a series of fighters from 1929 to 1936 that were world-class in their early years, partly because they were high-wing monoplanes when much of the world’s air forces still used biplanes. Designated P. 1 through P. 24-the P. 1 being the first fighter of indigenous Polish design-they featured gull wings and all-metal construction. The P. 24 was the first with an enclosed cockpit. Pulawski continued to refine the aerodynamics of his aircraft, but these fixed-gear fighters were not competitive with the new generation of German fighters they faced in 1939.

The P. 1 first flew on 29 September 1929, the P. 6 in August 1930, the P. 7 in October 1930, the P. 11 in August 1931, and the P. 24 in May 1933. The P. 24F had a 297 mph maximum speed at 13,945 feet and was the last of the series.

The differences between them were minor except that each made use of the most powerful engine then available, the largest being the Gnome-Rhone 14N 07 of 970 shp. Armament was two small-bore machine guns throughout production until the P. 24, which added two 20mm cannons in the wings. The P. 7 was still in service with the Polish air force when the Germans invaded in 1939. Other users were the Romanian (license-built by IAR), Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Turkish air forces. Total production of the fighter series comprised approximately 500, about 200 for foreign customers.

The P. 38 Wilk, a twin-engine low-wing two-place multirole fighter powered by inverted air-cooled V-8 engines of PZL manufacture, first flew in May 1938 with the Ranger SGV-770B engine and in January 1939 with the intended PZL engines. Maximum speed was 289 mph. PZL built several advanced prototypes, including the P. 43, a single-engine low-wing all-metal three-place reconnaissance and attack fixed-gear monoplane; the P. 27, a twin-engine midwing all-metal three-place bomber; and the P. 44, a twin-engine low-wing all-metal 14-passenger transport with a twin-fin tail, designed to replace the DC-2 and Lockheed 10 and 14 airliners in Polish service.

Marching With Braddock

On the left: Braddock with Washington. On the right: The death of General Braddock

Wednesday, July 9, 1755, dawned hot and clear, a splendid summer’s day with the sunlight peeking over the mountains to the east. Gage and his advance party had marched much earlier, at two o’clock in the morning, in the pitch of the night. Consisting of two Grenadier companies and one hundred other troops, together with two 6-pounders, the advance party marched some five miles in the dark and even before the road had been cleared to the first crossing of the Monongahela, which they passed before dawn. They then continued a further two miles to the second crossing, arriving at eight in the morning. When they approached the river some of the troops thought they saw many French Indians on the other side. Others were unsure. To be on the safe side, Gage ordered the two cannon readied to cover the crossing. The men marched in strict line of battle across the three hundred yards of knee-deep water until they reached the opposite bank, which rose some eight yards from the river in a perpendicular wall. They immediately set to work chopping and sloping it to make a ramp before they could surmount it. Another two hundred yards inland from the bank stood the abandoned house and blacksmith shop of one John Frazer, a Philadelphia German who had set up there in 1742 before the troubles to farm and trade with the Indians. He was possibly the first white settler west of the Allegheny Mountains. Washington and Gist had spent the night there both going and returning on their Rivière aux Boeufs mission in 1753.

Once back on the east side of the Monongahela, Gage posted sentries to secure the camp while the men rested. Those who had any food took breakfast, it being then about nine-thirty. Most had nothing to eat, and some had had nothing the day before. The batman and his master breakfasted on “a little Ham that I had and a Bit of gloster Shire cheese and I milked the Cow and made him a little milk Punch (of) which he drank a little.” Gage dispatched a rider back to Braddock to inform him that he had secured both crossings of the Monongahela without incident and had posted his troops according to the general’s orders.

Meanwhile, at daybreak the main army broke camp and began its march. The going was slow, as the troops waited for St. Clair and his pioneers to clear the road. About eight they reached the first crossing, which one British officer described as “extreamly fine having a view of at least 4 Miles up the river.” Braddock, who now assumed more of a personal role in the command, ordered 150 men over in the front, followed by half the guns and limbers, then a further 150 men. Next came the packhorses and cattle, followed by the baggage and remaining guns and limbers and, finally, the rear guard troops who had stood watch on the heights to cover the crossing.

Once over, the general ordered a halt and reformed his units in the proper line of march. Gage’s dispatch rider arrived with his reassuring note after they had advanced just one mile. On reaching the second crossing a further mile to the west at about eleven o’clock, the general saw that the men were still working to clear and widen the slope on the opposite bank to accommodate the heavy howitzers and 12-pounders. He ordered the artillery and baggage drawn up along the beach to wait. The work was completed within about an hour.

Now was the moment of decision. Sitting atop his great bay charger on his leopard skin saddle pad, His Excellency surveyed the scene and with the wave of his hand gave the signal to order the 44th Regiment over first, with the picket of the right. The wagons and packhorses and then the 48th Regiment, with the left pickets which had covered the crossing from the heights, would immediately follow.

The crossing at high noon was the culmination of General Braddock’s career. It was a spectacle, a deliberate statement of the inexorability of British arms. The crossing impressed all who witnessed it, as many who did were later to remark. This was, after all, its intended effect, for Braddock suspected that the enemy was watching. Once the redcoats had assembled, Braddock literally marched the men across the river in formation, with their forty regimental drums beating and their fifes playing the “Grenadiers’ March.” The ripping reverberations of the forty regimental drums, a sound unaccustomed to either Indian or modern American ears, would have resounded through the wilderness for miles and carried down the river valley a good way of the distance to the Forks of the Ohio. The soldiers’ close-shouldered arms stood upright, and their bayonets glistened in the hot July noon sun. The oversized King’s Colour (a Union Jack with the King’s insignia) fluttered at the head of the column. The exhausted horses plunged and clattered across the pebble-strewn riverbed drawing the big naval cannon and shining brass howitzers. Each regiment proclaimed its presence and identity with its regimental flag snapping in the breeze. As Braddock led atop his charger and surveyed the clockwork precision of the crossing, with its tight discipline, splash of color, and time-honored war march, he must have felt pride at the prowess of British military might. Never before had the American wilderness seen such a spectacle.

Once across and reformed on the east side of the river, Braddock and the men let slip a sigh of relief. They figured that if there were any place the enemy would challenge them, it would be on this second crossing of the river. Thinking that all the dangerous passes were behind them, Braddock reined in his advance party and ordered it to march within a few yards of the main body. The army was now within seven miles of Fort Duquesne. The soldiers thought that they might at any moment hear the explosion of the French blowing up the fort in retreat. If not, by that evening or tomorrow at the latest, the army would be encamped before Fort Duquesne and limbering up the cannon that it had so impossibly brought to bear across ocean, mountains, and rivers. For the first time in months there was an air of anticipation and a spring to the soldiers’ step as they moved out.

The landscape through which they marched was sloping, intermittent woodland carpeted with grass and rising to outcroppings of rock at its crest. Water from a spring in the heart of the gentle slope tumbled down to the river. Ancient trees lay fallen along the edge of the forest line, while wild grapevines marked the demarcation line of the plain scoured by the spring floods and the thick-et-tangled upper reaches of the slope. Three concealed ravines, four or five feet deep and eight to ten feet wide, creased the slope. Basking in the early afternoon sun, more than one soldier might have mistaken the hillside for a frontier Elysium.

The army marched only eight hundred yards.

Captain Beaujeu quickened his pace to a run as he heard the “Grenadiers’ March” wafting from the distance. Catching the first far glimpse of the river through the forest, he knew that the English had forded the river and deprived him of the challenge that he planned for the crossing. Fortunately, the three hundred Indians who had split from his force and crossed to the west side of the Monongahela had thought better of their diversion and had rejoined him only minutes before. Spotting the English marching in tight order through the broken grassland before him and the pioneers beginning to attack the tree line with their axes, he took off his three-cornered hat and waved it to his troops, signaling them “Go left!” and “Go right!” The Indians and French instinctively fell into a half-moon formation as they fanned out and took cover behind the trees at hand. Others quickly found the ravines and jumped into their natural protection.

At one o’clock an engineer at the head of the British column thought he saw the fleeting figure of a French officer, stripped to the waist like an Indian but wearing a three-cornered hat and silver gorget, dart between the trees. Gordon, the chief engineer, soon saw what he estimated to be three hundred Indians running through the woods. At the same time the shrill scalping halloo rang out. The English froze in their tracks.

The crash of a volley of fire erupted from nowhere. However, the front lines of the vanguard were out of range, and it had no effect. Nonetheless, the flying column shuddered and came to a halt. Gage ordered the Grenadier companies at the van to fix their bayonets and form in line of battle, with the intention of gaining a hill to the right that was already partially in possession of a party of redcoat pickets scouring the right flank. The Grenadiers quickly followed the first order, but “visible terror and confusion appeared amongst the men,” and they refused to move to the posts Gage assigned them or leave their line of march. However, Gage succeeded in forming them into position in the middle of the road.

“God save the King!” cried a British officer. “Huzzahs” resounded from the ranks as they moved a little further along the road to within musket range of the forest line. Every few steps they executed the classic British formation, kneeling, firing, reloading, kneeling, firing, in ranks according to Bland. The deafening volleys of Brown Bess fire delivered with speed and precision split the wilderness.

On the first volley from the Grenadiers the French Canadian auxiliaries, one half of the non-Indian French forces, turned tail and ran, shouting “Sauve qui peut!” (“Every man for himself!”). On the third volley a lucky shot struck Beaujeu, killing him just minutes into the battle. His second in command, Captain Jean Daniel Dumas, who had been an ardent advocate of the plan to intercept the British, assumed charge…