USS Intrepid

Attack Squadron 15 (VA-15).


  • August 1965: Although scheduled to transition to the A-6 Intruder, VA-15 began training under VA-44 for transition to the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
  • 4 April–21 November 1966: VA-15 deployed to Vietnam as a component of CVW-10 embarked on USS Intrepid. CVW-10 was an all-attack air wing composed of four attack squadrons, two squadrons flying A-4 Skyhawks and two squadrons with A-1 Skyraiders.
  • 15 May 1966: The squadron flew its first combat mission since March 1945 when it was designated VT- 4 and a member of Carrier Air Group 4.
  • 1967: VA-15 again returned to Southeast Asia on the USS Intrepid


The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

This picture shows the size comparison between the USS Forrestal on the right, a Forrestal-class carrier, and the USS Intrepid (CVA-11), a modernized Essex-class carrier with an angled flight deck, seen on the left. The USS Forrestal suffered two large accidental fires, the worst of which occurred in 1967 and killed 134 crewmen and wounded another 161. The same fire also destroyed twenty-one aircraft.

Even as Project SCB-27A was progressing, new advancements in both carrier and carrier aircraft designs compelled the US navy to adjust its plans. It was decided that six additional unmodified Essex-class carriers would go through a new upgrading process, as well as the USS Oriskany, already upgraded under SCB-27A.

The previously unmodified Essex-class carriers to go through this new upgrade programme, labelled Project SCB-27C, included the USS Intrepid (CV-11), USS Ticonderoga (CV-14), USS Lexington (CV-16), USS Hancock (CV-19), USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) and USS Shangri-La (CV-38).

Project SCB-27C included the addition of a new more powerful British-designed steam catapult system and the removal of one of the carrier’s two centreline elevators. The deleted aft (rear) near centreline elevator was replaced by another deck-edge elevator located aft of the carrier’s islands on the starboard side. Another design change was an increase in the carrier’s beam of 11 feet.

In October 1952 the US navy classified the majority of its modernized Essex-class carriers as ‘attack carriers’ and assigned them the new letter suffix designation code ‘CVA’. The CVAs normally carried a combination of aircraft (i.e. fighters and fighter-bombers) and attack aircraft, assigned the letter suffix ‘AD’, the latter being capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Also carried on board the CVAs were special-purpose aircraft such as photo reconnaissance and airborne early warning planes, the first of the latter being the WF-1 Tracer.

The first three Essex-class carriers modified under Project SCB-27C – the USS Intrepid, USS Ticonderoga and USS Hancock – were retro-fitted with angled flight decks to conform to the Project SCB-125 standard in 1957. In addition, eight of the nine Essex-class carriers that had previously received the Project SCB-27A upgrades were fitted with angled flight decks under Project SCB-125.

Of the various post-war modernization upgrades, only the USS Oriskany went through Project SCB-27A, Project SCB-27C and Project SCB-125 upgrades. The carrier was also the only Essex-class vessel to be fitted with an aluminium flight deck in place of the standard unarmoured metal flight deck covered with wooden planking.

Another design feature that appeared on the Essex-class carriers brought up to the Project SCB-125 standard was an enclosed hurricane bow in place of the original open bow space. As time went on, all the post-war modernized Essex-class carriers that went through Project SCB-27A and Project SCB-27C were retro-fitted with enclosed hurricane bows. All four surviving Essex-class carriers currently preserved as museum ships – USS Yorktown (CVS-10), USS Intrepid (CVS-11), USS Hornet (CVS-12) and USS Lexington (AVT-16) – were brought up to the Project SCB-125 standard.

USN Attack Planes

Before the Hornet appeared on US Navy carriers, there were a number of aircraft dedicated to the attack role that flew from carriers during the postwar years. The first of these was the Douglas Skyraider that came in numerous models, AD-1 through AD-7, with sub-variants of each model, not all being employed by the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the last three models of the Skyraider built were re-labelled. The AD-5 became the A-1E, the AD-6 became the A-1H, and the last model, originally designated the AD-7, was re-labelled as the A-1J.

The Skyraider was a prop-driven aircraft originally designed during the Second World War, but did not begin appearing on US Navy carriers until 1949. It saw service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before being retired by the US Navy in 1968. Total production of the Skyraider numbered 3,180 units, with many being employed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but not the Korean War.

The Skyraider was not the only prop-driven specialized ground attack aircraft adopted by the US Navy in the early postwar years. There was the Martin AM-1 Mauler, but it did not live up to expectations and was in service only from 1948 until 1953, before the US Navy withdrew it in favor of the better performing Skyraider. Only 151 units of the Mauler were built.

The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

Appearing in US Navy and US Marine Corps service after 1967 was the A-4F model of the Skyhawk that can be easily identified by the upper fuselage hump pod that contained additional avionics. One hundred units of the A-4C were later rebuilt to the A-4F model standard and designated the A-4L. They served only with US Navy Reserve squadrons. The US Marine Corps employed 158 units of the aircraft designated A-4M Skyhawk, that had a more powerful engine and improved avionics.

The last production unit of the A-4M was delivered to the US Marine Corps in 1979, with the Skyhawk series being withdrawn from US Marine Corps service in 1998, and US Navy use in 2003. A total of 2,960 units of the aircraft were built, with over 550 being two-seat trainers.

The eventual replacement for the Skyhawk on US Navy carriers in 1966 was the Vought A-7 Corsair II. It saw combat in the Vietnam War and remained in service long enough to be employed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It was retired soon after that Middle Eastern conflict. In total, the US Navy acquired 997 units of the Corsair II, with 60 being two-seat trainers, designated the TA-7C. The Corsair II was not adopted by the US Marine Corps, which preferred to stay with the Skyhawk, until it could be replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. The Corsair II also served with the USAF and several US allies.

Supplementing the light attack Skyhawk and Corsair II, beginning in 1963, and eventually replacing them on US Navy carriers was the Grumman A-6 Intruder, classified as a medium attack aircraft. The Intruder was an all-weather aircraft that could also operate at night. Its baptism in combat was the Vietnam War, with the initial model labelled the A-6A. Later versions included the A-6B, A-6C, and the final model, the A-6E that entered service in 1970.

Over 700 units of the Intruder eventually entered service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. The latter retired their Intruder inventory in 1993 and the US Navy in 1996. It was the last dedicated attack aircraft in US Navy and US Marine Corps service.

A variant of the Intruder still in service is the EA-6B Prowler, which is an electronic-warfare (EW) aircraft intended to degrade enemy air-defense systems by jamming their electronic signals or killing them with anti-radiation missiles. The aircraft first entered service in 1971 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. It will be retired from US Navy service in 2015, but retained by the US Marine Corps until 2019.

There was also an aerial refuelling version of the A-6 Intruder, designated the KA-6D. It could carry over 3,200 gallons of jet fuel that was transferred to other aircraft by hose-and-drogue pods. In total, ninety units of the KA-6D were placed into service by converting older model Intruders to the new role. Due to age-related fatigue problems, the aircraft is no longer in service with the US Navy.

Blood on the Volga

By the time General Vasily Chuikov, the previous deputy commander of the 64th Army positioned south of Stalingrad, was appointed as commander of the 62nd Army, the 62nd Army had lost half of its men. For some, the Volga appeared to be the best means of escaping certain death. Chuikov knew that the situation was desperate and that the only options for him and his men were to save Stalingrad or die in the attempt. Defeat or surrender was not even to be considered.

The city’s defenders learned that secret police were stationed all along the Volga; anyone who attempted to cross the river without permission would be shot on sight. But the Volga was also bringing reinforcements of fresh troops and elite units. Crossing the river under German fire meant that the crossing itself was a death sentence—the typical life expectancy of a soldier arriving to reinforce the city was twenty-four hours—but the carnage allowed Chuikov to maintain a hold on part of the city.

The elite 13th Guard Division saw 30% of its 10,000 men killed in the first twenty-four of arrival, with a mere 320 surviving the battle for a 97% death rate. The risk of death was so imminent that even Chuikov was obliged to keep moving his command post from place to place at the last minute, to avoid being a casualty of the intense fighting that saw attacks staged along a front line that was sometimes less than a mile wide.

But the deadly dimensions of the battle were part of Chuikov’s strategy. By keeping the gap between Russian and German positions as narrow as possible, Chuikov reasoned that the German air campaign had to exercise caution in their bombing or risk killing their men when they dropped bombs on the Soviet line.

Starving soldiers are desperate men and because crossing the Volga was so dangerous, food was not entering the city, only more soldiers. The Russians weren’t the only ones suffering the lack of food, an issue which would become a dominant factor for the Germans as the battle continued. The fighting took its toll on the Germans, as they saw their initial advantage with their tanks and dive bombers come to be matched by Russian artillery reinforcements and anti-aircraft guns from east of the Volga River, out of range of the German tanks and the Stuka dive bombers. With trial-by-fire training, the Russian Air Force was able to be more offensive in its attacks, thanks to its increased aircraft.

Life in Stalingrad was a nightmare for the soldiers and civilians as the city was reduced to rubble. Bodies rotted, and the smell of decomposing corpses hung over the city. Disease became rampant. The noise from the Stuka dive bombers and Katyusha rockets created a grim orchestra of war. It was a scenario that challenged the stamina and even the sanity of all who endured it because there was no escaping the daunting consequences.

Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII, meanwhile, provided the army with effective air support. It struck enemy troops, vehicles, guns and fortified positions on the battlefield, as well as logistics and mobilization centres and road, rail and river traffic behind the front.

Throughout September, Fiebig’s corps directed most of its attacks against Stalingrad itself, the main targets being the Lazur chemical factory inside the “tennis racket” (a huge rail loop), the Krasnyi Oktyabr (Red October) metallurgical works, the Barrikady (Barricade) gun factory and the Dzherzhinski tractor factory. The corps pounded those targets most days, except when aircraft were urgently needed to support an Axis advance or stem a Soviet counter-attack in the region north of the city. On 18 September, for example, Lieutenant-General Chuikov noticed that the German aircraft crowding the sky above Stalingrad suddenly departed, giving Sixty-Second Army a much-needed “breathing space”. Fiebig had hastily called them away, he realized, in order to deploy them in the region north of the city, where they were urgently needed to counter a surprise attack by the Stalingrad Front. Six hours later, Chuikov noted with disappointment, “it was clear that the [Soviet] attack was over: hundreds of Junkers had reappeared.”

Chuikov quickly noticed that the Luftwaffe carried out surprisingly few raids at night. He could not work out, therefore, why the Stalingrad Front attempted its attacks during the day, “when we had no way of neutralizing or compensating for the enemy’s superiority in the air, and not at night (when the Luftwaffe did not operate with any strength).” The city’s defenders did not make the same mistake, he added later in his memoirs: “The enemy could not fight at night, but we learned to do so out of bitter necessity; by day the enemy’s planes hung over our troops, preventing them from raising their heads. At night we need have no fear of the Luftwaffe”. This was certainly true: at Stalingrad, as at Sevastopol, the Luftwaffe conducted almost no night missions to speak of. Its aircraft lacked the specialized night navigation and bomb-aiming equipment necessary for situations like this, when opposing forces battled in close proximity. Also, its airfields, with a few exceptions, were poorly equipped for night operations.

Fiebig’s air corps also bombed and strafed any Soviet forces seen among the broken buildings and piles of rubble. Chuikov recalled that “the Luftwaffe literally hammered anything they saw in the streets into the ground”. In his detailed memoirs, he also quotes the situation report of a young lieutenant, whose company came under severe air attacks on 18 September. “From morning till noon,” Lieutenant A. Kuzmich Dragan wrote,

clusters of German planes hung in the sky over the city. Some of them would break away from their formations, dive and riddle the streets and ruins of houses with bullets from ground level; others would fly over the city with sirens wailing, in an attempt to sow panic. They dropped high explosives and incendiaries. The city was in flames.

Determined to support German troops now fighting for every house and building by stopping the steady trickle of Soviet reinforcements entering the city from the eastern bank of the kilometre-wide Volga river, Fiebig’s corps also directed attacks against the river crossing facilities. Rear-Admiral Rogachev’s Volga Fleet used numerous crossing points, but mainly “Crossing 62”, its moorings at the Krasnyi Oktyabr and Barrikady factories. The small fleet ferried substantial numbers of men and large quantities of rations and ammunition across the river to the desperate Sixty-Second Army. These courageous sailors, Chuikov maintained, “rendered an incalculable service…. Every trip across the Volga involved a tremendous risk, but no boat or steamer ever lingered with its cargo on the other bank.” Had it not been for them, he concluded, the Sixty-Second Army would almost certainly have perished in September.

Alan Clark, British author of a now-outdated popular account of the war in Russia, maintained that, if the Luftwaffe “had been employed with single-minded persistence in an “interdiction” role … the Volga ferries might have been knocked out.” Clark was clearly unaware of Luftflotte IV’s poor state when he wrote these words. Von Richthofen had no aircraft available for a proper interdiction campaign against the Volga crossings. As noted above, by 20 September his air fleet had already lost half its total strength and, because of a drop in serviceability levels, had a mere 516 air-worthy planes (when Blau began, it had 1,155). Moreover, 120 of those were reconnaissance and sea planes, leaving him with only 396 operational combat aircraft. With this small force, he was already extremely hard-pressed to fulfil his army-support obligations. Having stripped Pflugbeil’s Fliegerkorps IV to the bones in order to concentrate an acceptable number of aircraft at Stalingrad, he had left the two German armies in the Caucasus with very little air support and could only increase it during times of crisis by returning units temporarily from the Stalingrad region. Thus, he could spare no aircraft for a systematic interdiction campaign against Volga crossings.

Fliegerkorps VIII did not ignore the crossings, of course. Both Fiebig and von Richthofen realized that, if Paulus’ men were going to destroy the enemy troops fighting fanatically in the ruined city, they had to sever their supply and reinforcement lines. Although they lacked aircraft for a proper interdiction campaign, they continually threw as many bombers and dive-bombers as they could spare each day against the railway lines carrying men and materiel to the eastern bank of the Volga, against the exposed and poorly-defended loading and landing platforms and against any barges and steamers seen crossing the river. Fiebig often managed to keep aircraft continuously above the crossing points. As Chuikov remembered: “From dawn till dusk enemy dive-bombers circled over the Volga” Likewise, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimirov noted in 1943:

The enemy bombers, operating in groups of 10 to 50, ceaselessly bombed our troops, the eastern part of the city and the crossings on the Volga…. The Germans relied on their aircraft to crush the fire system of our defence [that is, the artillery], paralyze our organization, prevent the arrival of reinforcements, and disrupt the movements of supplies.

German aircraft hunted down each boat and barge, but, as the discussion of air attacks on Black Sea shipping revealed, sinking ships from the air was extremely difficult. The relatively small size of Volga barges and ferries made them difficult targets. As a result, Fiebig’s dive-bombers proved far more successful against rail-heads and ferry landing platforms than they did against the vessels themselves.

The doomed Germans soldiers fought on bravely as best they could given their weakened physical conditions and lack of supplies; they had little choice. The Soviet offensive named Operation Saturn got underway on December 16 1942 with the purpose of bringing the final stage of the battle to its conclusion as relief efforts were made impossible and the trapped Germans were contained in a shrinking position. General Winter had frozen the Volga River allowing soldiers and supplies to travel over the ice into the city.

20160510 Grau – River Flotillas in Support of Defensive Ground Operations The Soviet Experience


Warning Graphic scenes of death and suffering.

100 years ago the First World War ended, and a new world began. The example and experience of those who lived through it shaped the world we live in today. On the centenary of the Armistice, it is right that we come together to give thanks to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and those who returned home to help shape the world we live in today.


Documentary by Professor David Reynolds.


The mad orgy of ruins, entangled wires, twisted corpses, dead horses, overturned parts of blown-up bridges, bloody hoofs which had been torn off horses, broken guns, scattered ammunition, chamber pots, rusted washbasins, pieces of straw and entrails of horses floating in muddy pools mixed with blood, cameras, wrecked cars and tank parts: They all bear witness to the awful suffering of a city …

—Tamás Lossonczy, Budapest, 1945

How can one find words to convey truthfully and accurately the picture of a great capital destroyed almost beyond recognition; of a once almighty nation that ceased to exist; of a conquering people who were so brutally arrogant and so blindingly sure of their mission as a master race … whom you now see poking about their ruins, broken, dazed, shivering, hungry human beings without will or purpose or direction.

—William Shirer, Berlin, 1945

It seemed to me that I was walking on corpses, that at any moment I would step into a pool of blood.

—Janina Godycka-Cwirko, Warsaw, 1945

Explosions echoed throughout the night, and artillery fire could be heard throughout the day. Across Eastern Europe, the noise of falling bombs, rattling machine guns, rolling tanks, churning engines, and burning buildings heralded the approach of the Red Army. As the front line drew closer, the ground shook, the walls shivered, the children screamed. And then it stopped.

The end of the war, wherever and whenever it came, brought with it an abrupt and eerie silence. “The night was far too quiet,” wrote one anonymous chronicler of the war’s end in Berlin. On the morning of April 27, 1945, she went out of her front door and saw no one: “Not a civilian in sight. The Russians have the streets entirely to themselves. But under every building people are whispering, quaking. Who could ever imagine such a world, hidden here, so frightened, right in the middle of the big city?”

On the morning of February 12, 1945, the day the siege of the city came to an end, a Hungarian civil servant heard the same silence on the streets of Budapest. “I got to the Castle District, not a soul anywhere. I walked along Werbőczy Street. Nothing but bodies and ruins, supply carts, and drays … I got to Szentháromság Square and decided to look in at the Council in case I found somebody there. Deserted. Everything turned upside down and not a soul …”

Even Warsaw, a city already destroyed by the time the war ended—the Nazi occupiers had razed it to the ground following the uprising in the autumn—grew silent when the German army finally retreated on January 16, 1945. Władysław Szpilman, one of a tiny handful of people hiding in the ruins of the city, heard the change. “Silence fell,” he wrote in his memoir, The Pianist, “a silence such as even Warsaw, a dead city for the last three months, had not known before. I could not even hear the steps of the guards outside the building. I couldn’t understand it.” The following morning, the silence was broken by a “loud and resonant noise, the last sound I expected”: the Red Army had arrived, and loudspeakers were broadcasting, in Polish, the news of the liberation of the city.

This was the moment sometimes called zero hour, Stunde Null: the end of the war, the retreat of Germany, the arrival of the Soviet Union, the moment the fighting ended and life started up again. Most histories of the communist takeover of Eastern Europe begin at precisely this moment, and logically so. To those who lived through this change of power, zero hour felt like a turning point: something very concrete came to an end, and something very new began. From now on, many people said to themselves, everything would be different. And it was.

Yet although it is logical to begin any history of the communist takeover in Eastern Europe with the end of the war, it is in some ways deeply misleading. The people of the region were not faced with a blank slate in 1944 or 1945, after all, and they were not themselves starting from scratch. Nor did they emerge from nowhere, with no previous experiences, ready to start afresh. Instead, they climbed out of the basements of their destroyed homes, or walked out of the forests where they had been living as partisans, or slipped away from the labor camp where they had been imprisoned, if they were healthy enough, and embarked upon long, complicated journeys back to their homelands. Not all of them even stopped fighting when the Germans surrendered.

As they crawled out of the ruins, they saw not virgin territory but destruction. “The war ended the way a passage through a tunnel ends,” wrote the Czech memoirist Heda Kovály. “From far away you could see the light ahead, a gleam that kept growing, and its brilliance seemed ever more dazzling to you huddled there in the dark the longer it took to reach it. But when at last the train burst out in the glorious sunshine, all you saw was a wasteland full of weeds and stones, and a heap of garbage.”

Photographs from across Eastern Europe at that time show scenes from an apocalypse. Flattened cities, acres of rubble, burned villages, and smoking, charred ruins where houses used to be. Tangles of barbed wire, the remains of concentration camps, labor camps, POW camps; barren fields, pockmarked by tank tracks, with no sign of farming, husbandry, or life of any kind. In the recently destroyed cities, the air was suffused with the smell of corpses. “The descriptions I’ve read always use the phrase ‘sweetish odour,’ but that’s far too vague, completely inadequate,” wrote one German survivor. “The fumes are not so much an odour as something firmer, something thicker, a soupy vapour that collects in front of your face and nostrils, too mouldy and thick to breathe. It beats you back as if with fists.”

Provisional burial sites were everywhere, and people walked through the streets gingerly, as if traversing a cemetery. In due course exhumations began, as bodies were removed from courtyards and city parks to mass graves. Funerals and reburial ceremonies were frequent, though in Warsaw one was famously interrupted. In the summer of 1945, a funeral march was slowly wending its way through Warsaw when the black-clad mourners saw an extraordinary sight: “A living, red Warsaw tram,” the first to run through the city since the war’s end. “The pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped, others ran alongside the tram clapping and cheering loudly. Extraordinarily, the funeral march stopped too, the mourners accompanying the dead, captivated by the general mood, turned to the tram and began to clap too.”

This too was typical. At times a weird euphoria seemed to grip the survivors. It was a relief to be alive; sorrow was mixed with joy, and commerce, trade, and reconstruction began immediately, spontaneously. Warsaw in the summer of 1945 was a bustling hive of activity, Stefan Kisielewski wrote: “In the ruins of the streets, there’s commotion like never before. Trade—buzzing. Work—booming. Humor—everywhere. The mob, teeming life, flows through the streets, nobody would think that these are all victims of a massive disaster, people who have scarcely recovered from a catastrophe, or that they are living in extreme, inhuman conditions …” Sándor Márai described Budapest in one of his novels at this same period:

Whatever remained of the city, of society, sprang to life with such passion, fury, and sheer willpower, with such strength and stamina and cunning, it seemed as if nothing had happened … out on the boulevard there were suddenly stalls in gateways, selling all kinds of nice food and luxury items: clothes, shoes, everything you could imagine, not to mention gold napoleons, morphine, and pork lard. The Jews who remained staggered from their yellow star houses and within a week or two you could see them bargaining, surrounded as they were by the corpses of men and horses … People were quibbling over prices for warm British cloth, French perfumes, Dutch brandy, and Swiss watches among the rubble …

This enthusiasm for work and renewal would last for many years. The British sociologist Arthur Marwick once speculated that the experience of national failure might have given the West Germans an incentive to rebuild, to regain a sense of national pride. The very scale of the national collapse, he argued, might have helped contribute to the postwar boom: having experienced economic and personal catastrophe, Germans readily threw themselves into reconstruction. But Germany, both East and West, was not alone in this drive to recover and to become “normal” again. Over and over, Poles and Hungarians in memoirs and conversations about the postwar period speak of how desperately they sought education, ordinary work, a life without constant violence and disruption. The communist parties were perfectly poised to take advantage of these yearnings for peace.

In any case, damage to property was easier to repair than the demographic damage in Eastern Europe, where the scale of violence had been higher than anything known on the western half of the continent. During the war, Eastern Europe had experienced the worst of both Stalin’s and Hitler’s ideological madness. By 1945, most of the territory between Poznań in the west and Smolensk in the east had been occupied not once but twice, or even three times. Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Hitler had invaded the region from the west, occupying western Poland. Stalin had invaded from the east, occupying eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and Bessarabia. In 1941, Hitler once again invaded these same territories from the west. In 1943, the tide turned again and the Red Army marched back through the same region once more, coming from the east.

By 1945, in other words, the lethal armies and vicious secret policemen of not one but two totalitarian states had marched back and forth across the region, each time bringing about profound ethnic and political changes. To take one example, the city of Lwów was occupied twice by the Red Army and once by the Wehrmacht. After the war ended it was called L’viv, not Lwów; it was no longer in eastern Poland but in the western part of Soviet Ukraine; and its Polish and Jewish prewar population had been murdered or deported and replaced by ethnic Ukrainians from the surrounding countryside.

Eastern Europe, along with Ukraine and the Baltic States, was also the site of most of the politically motivated killing in Europe. “Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow,” writes Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, the definitive history of the mass killing of this period, “but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between.” Stalin and Hitler shared contempt for the very notion of national sovereignty for any of the nations of Eastern Europe, and they jointly strove to eliminate their elites. The Germans considered Slavs to be subhumans, ranked not much higher than Jews, and in the lands between Sachsenhausen and Babi Yar they thought nothing of ordering arbitrary street killings, mass public executions, or the burning of whole villages in revenge for one dead Nazi. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, considered its western neighbors to be capitalist and anti-Soviet strongholds whose very existence posed a challenge to the USSR. In 1939, and again in 1944 and 1945, the Red Army and the NKVD would arrest not only Nazis and collaborators in their newly conquered territories but anyone who might theoretically oppose Soviet administration: social democrats, antifascists, businessmen, bankers, and merchants—often the same people targeted by the Nazis. Although there were civilian casualties in Western Europe, as well as incidents of theft, misbehavior, and abuse perpetrated by the British and American armies, for the most part the Anglo-Saxon troops were trying to kill Nazis, not potential leaders of the liberated nations. And, for the most part, they treated the resistance leaders with respect and not suspicion.

The East is also where the Nazis had most vigorously pursued the Holocaust, where they set up the vast majority of ghettoes, concentration camps, and killing fields. Snyder notes that Jews accounted for less than 1 percent of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and many of those managed to flee. Hitler’s vision of a “Jew-free” Europe could only be realized when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, and eventually Hungary and the Balkans, which is where most of the Jews of Europe actually lived. Of the 5.4 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, the vast majority were from Eastern Europe. Most of the rest were taken to the region to be murdered. The scorn the Nazis held for all Eastern Europeans was closely related to their decision to take the Jews from all over Europe to the East for execution. There, in a land of subhumans, it was possible to do inhuman things.

Above all, Eastern Europe is where Nazism and Soviet communism clashed. Although they began the war as allies, Hitler had always wanted to fight a war of destruction against the USSR, and after Hitler’s invasion Stalin promised the same. The battles between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were therefore fiercer and bloodier in the east than those that took place further west. German soldiers truly feared the Bolshevik “hordes,” about whom they had heard many terrible stories, and toward the end of the war they fought them with particular desperation. Their scorn for civilians was especially profound, respect for local culture and infrastructure nonexistent. A German general defied Hitler’s orders and left Paris standing out of sentimental respect for the city, but other German generals burned Warsaw to the ground and destroyed much of Budapest without thinking about it. Western air forces were not especially concerned about the ancient architecture of this region either: Allied bombers contributed to the toll of death and destruction too, conducting aerial bombardment not only of Berlin and Dresden but also of Danzig and Königsberg, Gdańsk and Kalinińgrad—among many other places.

As the eastern front moved into Germany itself, fighting only intensified. The Red Army focused on its drive to Berlin with something approaching obsession. From early on in the war, Soviet soldiers bade farewell to one another with the cry, “See you in Berlin.” Stalin was desperate to reach the city before the other Allies got there. His commanders understood this, and so did their American counterparts. General Eisenhower, knowing full well that the Germans would fight to the death in Berlin, wanted to save American lives and decided to let Stalin take the city. Churchill argued against this policy: “If they [the Russians] … take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” But the American general’s caution won out, and the Americans and British advanced slowly to the east—General George C. Marshall having once declared he would be “loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes,” and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke arguing that “the advance into the country really had to coincide to a certain extent with what our final boundaries would be.” Meanwhile, the Red Army charged directly toward the German capital, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

When the numbers are added up, the result is stark. In Britain, the war took the lives of 360,000 people, and in France, 590,000. These are horrific casualties, but they still come to less than 1.5 percent of those countries’ populations. By contrast, the Polish Institute of National Memory estimates that there were some 5.5 million wartime deaths in the country, of which about 3 million were Jews. In total, some 20 percent of the Polish population, one in five people, did not survive. Even in countries where the fighting was less bloody, the proportion of deaths was still higher than in the west. Yugoslavia lost 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. Some 6.2 percent of Hungarians and 3.7 percent of the prewar Czech population died too. In Germany itself, casualties came to between 6 million and 9 million people—depending upon whom one considers to be “German,” given all of the border changes—or up to 10 percent of the population. It would have been difficult, in Eastern Europe in 1945, to find a single family that had not suffered a serious loss.

As the dust settled, it also became clear that even those who were not dead were often living somewhere else. In 1945, the demographics, population distribution, and ethnic composition of many countries in the region were actually very different from what they had been in 1938. To a degree still not well understood in the West, the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe had brought about major population shifts, following waves of deportation and resettlement. German “colonists” had been moved into occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, with the deliberate goal of changing the ethnic composition of particular regions, while natives were expelled or murdered. Poles and Jews were evicted from their homes in the better districts of Łódź to make way for German administrators as early as December 1939. In subsequent years some 200,000 Poles were sent out of the city to become forced laborers in Germany, while the Jews were herded into the Łódź Ghetto, where most died. The German occupation regime installed Germans in their place, including ethnic Germans from the Baltic States and Romania, some of whom believed they were receiving abandoned or neglected property.

Many of these changes would be reversed or revenged in the postwar period. The years 1945, 1946, and 1947 were years of refugees: Germans moved west, Poles and Czechs returned east from forced labor and concentration camps in Germany, deportees came back from the Soviet Union, soldiers of all kinds returned from other theaters, escapees came back from British or French or Moroccan exile. Some of these refugees returned home but, upon discovering that home was no longer what it had been, struck out for new territories. Jan Gross reckons that between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted, or deported. Between 1943 and 1948, a further 20 million were moved as well. Krystyna Kersten notes that between 1939 and 1950 one Pole out of every four changed his place of residence.

The vast majority of these people arrived home with nothing. Immediately, they were forced to seek help from others—from churches, charities, or the state—in whatever form it took. Whole families, self-sufficient before the war, found themselves queuing in government offices, trying to be assigned a house or apartment. Men who had once had independent jobs and salaries were begging for ration cards, hoping to get a job in a state bureaucracy. The mentality of a refugee, forcibly expelled from his home, is not that of an emigrant who leaves to seek his fortune: his very circumstances fostered dependency and a sense of helplessness he might never have known before.

To make matters worse, the extraordinary physical destruction in Eastern Europe was also matched by extraordinary economic destruction, and on an equally incomprehensible scale. Not every Eastern European nation was wealthy before the war, but neither was the region as far behind the western half of the continent in 1939 as it was by 1945. Though some groups had profited during the war from the demand for guns and tanks—several economic historians have commented on the expansion of the industrial working class in those years, especially in Bohemia and Moravia—the second half of the war was a catastrophe for almost everybody. In 1945 and 1946, Hungary’s gross national product was only half of what it had been in 1939. According to one calculation, the final months of the war had destroyed about 40 percent of the country’s economic infrastructure. Budapest, the capital, suffered damage to three-quarters of its buildings, of which 4 percent were totally destroyed and 22 percent uninhabitable. The population was reduced by a third. The Germans took much of the country’s railway rolling stock with them when they left the country; the Soviet army, in the guise of reparations, would take much of the rest.

In Poland, a figure close to 40 percent is also used as a general estimate for damage, but certain areas were even more thoroughly devastated. The country’s transportation infrastructure was especially hard-hit: more than half of the country’s bridges were gone, along with ports, shipping facilities, and two-fifths of the railways. Most major Polish cities were heavily damaged, meaning that they had lost apartments and houses, ancient architectural monuments, works of art, universities, and schools. In the city center of Warsaw, some 90 percent of the buildings were partly or completely destroyed, having been systematically blown up by the retreating Germans.

Germany’s cities were also badly destroyed, thanks both to the Allied aerial bombardment, which resulted in huge firestorms, and to Hitler’s insistence that his soldiers fight until the very end, street by street. Even in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, where the devastation was not so broad and there had been no aerial bombing, the damage was still deep. Romania lost its oil fields, for example, which had contributed one-third of the national income before 1938.

The war had also altered the region’s economies in other ways that were harder to quantify. In two justly celebrated essays on the social consequences of the war, Jan Gross and Bradley Abrams point out that in much of the region—certainly in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania, as well as Germany itself—the expropriation of private property on a large scale actually began during the war, under Nazi and fascist regimes, and not afterward under communism. Mass confiscation of Jewish property and businesses in Central Europe, either by the state or by the German occupiers, was followed by a broader Germanization during the later years of occupation. Sometimes this happened by stealth: in the Czech lands, German banks controlled Czech banks and thus could often “dictate whether or not a Czech bank or firm was solvent or not, and, in cases of insolvency, rescue operations were put in hand by German banks or firms which thereby gained control.” Sometimes control was imposed outright. In Poland, it often happened that German managers and directors were simply put in charge of factories and businesses that technically still belonged to Poles.

The occupation had also reoriented regional economics. Exports to Germany doubled and tripled between 1939 and 1945, as did German investment in local industry. Since the early 1930s, German economists had argued for the establishment of economic colonies in Eastern Europe; during the occupation German businesses began to create them, often by appropriating Jewish, or even non-Jewish, factories and businesses. The region became an autonomous, closed market, which had never been the case in the past. This meant that when Germany collapsed, the region’s international trade links collapsed as well—a circumstance that eventually helped make it easier for the Soviet Union to take Germany’s place.

For similar reasons, the collapse of Germany also created an ownership crisis. At the end of the war, German entrepreneurs, managers, and investors fled or were killed. Many factories were simply abandoned, left ownerless. Sometimes they were taken over by workers’ councils. Sometimes local authorities took control. Most of these abandoned properties were eventually nationalized—if they had not already been packed up and moved, lock, stock, and barrel, to the Soviet Union, which considered all “German” property legitimate war reparations—with surprisingly little opposition. By 1945, the idea that the ruling authorities could simply confiscate private property without providing any compensation whatsoever was an established principle in Eastern Europe. When larger-scale nationalization began, nobody would be remotely surprised.


In all probability, Asshurbanapal lived until 626, and during the whole of his reign he remained firmly established in possession of the Assyrian throne and also of the kingdom of Babylon. Elam had been rendered powerless, Babylon had been conquered, and the desert dwellers of the west were too much weakened and impoverished by the severe lesson taught them, as well as by hunger and disease, to be dangerous. Media was only in her youth, and Assyria was still strong enough to resist the first onrush of this new, conquering state. Besides her northeastern and northern neighbours, the states of Asia Minor and the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast had enough to do to defend themselves against the barbarians who were pressing upon them from the north and east. Egypt was indeed independent, but could not seriously think of conquests in Asia. The condition of the Assyrian Empire resembled the calm before the storm.

In his latter years the king doubtless devoted himself by preference to the works of peace. He had already erected many buildings, even during the period of his great wars. He had continued and completed the work on the temples of Assyria and Babylonia, which Esarhaddon had begun. Unfortunately the inscription which enumerates the principal structures belonging to the first half of his reign only occasionally mentions the places in which the temples he erected stood. In the later years of the king’s reign the walls of Nineveh demanded his attention. They were loosened by annual rains and the violent showers of Adad, and had sunk. Asshurbanapal restored them and made them stronger than before. When he had seen his great campaigns crowned with victory, he at last undertook an important work in Nineveh, the town of Bel and Ishtar. Bit-Riduti, the great palace, which Sennacherib had built and established as a royal dwelling, had fallen to ruins. This king did nothing without the gods. It was now again a dream which made known to him their will that he should repair the damage to the palace. This was done. The forced labour of Assyrian subjects brought the stone in carts from the spoil of Elam; and the captive Arabian kings, decked out with appropriate marks of distinction, shared in the labour as workmen. When the palace was completed to the pinnacles and enlarged, it was surrounded with noble grounds; and when the victims were slaughtered at the consecration, the king made his entry carried in a gorgeous palanquin and with festive rejoicings.

Of all the objects assembled in this palace the king set the highest value on the library which he had founded and which has now for the most part been unearthed and brought to Europe. Asshurbanapal was, without any doubt, an admirer and patron of learning and a prince who loved art. He did not allow the libraries of Babylonia to be plundered, but he had the literary treasures which were buried there, including whole works on philosophical, mythological, and poetic subjects, copied in Assyrian characters and added to the historical records of his own predecessors. He even seems to have studied them diligently himself, and to have encouraged their perusal. The fruit of this study is shown in his own memorials. In fact these have some literary value, which cannot be said of the dry chronicles of former kings. He was not, however, the first to found a library. Not only had the ancient Babylonian kings—it is said even Sargon I of Agade—preceded him in this respect, but the Assyrian kings had also set him an example. This was certainly true of Sennacherib, in whose palace at Nineveh, according to the calculation made by George Smith, probably twenty thousand fragments are now awaiting the investigator who can find the time and means to dig them out and make them accessible to western learning. But it cannot be denied that Asshurbanapal earned the gratitude of scholars by rendering so many treasures of the Babylonian libraries accessible to his compatriots, and also by founding libraries in other places; as, for example, in Babylon, and that he devoted more attention to these things than any of his predecessors.

The popular tradition of the downfall of the Assyrian Empire, which took shape in later years and came from the Persians to the Greeks, represents Sardanapalus (by whom none other than Asshurbanapal can be meant) as the type of a luxurious, effeminate, oriental despot, who forgets his kingly duties in the enjoyments of his harem, abandons his empire to the enemies rising against him on all sides, and finally, shut up in his capital, delivers himself in despair to the flames with his wives and all his treasures. We now know how little this picture agrees with the truth, but from what is historically credible we can gather how it arose. Asshurbanapal did indeed take pleasure in filling his women’s palace with the daughters of all the princes subdued by him, and with those of their nearest relatives; and these princes knew well what was pleasing to the supreme king. It is true that this proceeded as much from love of display as from an inclination to voluptuousness; it is true that policy also had a share in it, because by this means his supremacy was confirmed and a pledge given for further submissiveness; it is true that the custom was a usual one with oriental monarchs; but a king who pursued it to such an extent must have been easily transformed into a voluptuary in the minds of his people.

There was also some reason for regarding him as weak and effeminate. The great Assyrian monarchs, at least during the years of their youth and vigorous manhood, had themselves frequently led their armies to victory. It was seldom, if ever, that Asshurbanapal joined in the fight. His official historians do, indeed, ascribe to him the honour of all the victories during his reign, but they have not succeeded in hiding the fact that his generals fought the battles. Yet he was by no means a weakling. That he was an eager hunter is testified by a number of hunting inscriptions, some of them accompanied by reliefs. In any case, a prince who could find pleasure in so manly a pastime was no effeminate voluptuary, little warlike though he may have shown himself to be.

The king’s tragic end in the flames of his own palace, of which the legend speaks, may have been shifted on to him from his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin, or, still more probably, from the last Ninevite king. That he, the last great king of Assyria, should have been supposed to continue reigning until the end of the empire, while the insignificant kings who really followed him were forgotten, is natural enough. In short, Asshurbanapal was not a hero who strove to reap the laurels of the battle-field through difficulty and privations on distant campaigns. He preferred to linger in his luxurious palace, and to alternate the delights of the harem and the pursuit of learning with the royal lion-hunting. He was very pious, and did nothing without consulting the oracles of his gods or the dreams of his seers. If he thought the dignity of his empire, and with it the honour of his gods, insulted by an obstinate rebellion, he would avenge them as his predecessors had done by punishments of ingenious cruelty, inflicted both on individuals and on whole countries. The fearful suffering which the war on Asshur’s enemies wrought in its train, the pestilence which filled the streets with corpses, the famine which drove parents to destroy their own children, filled him with transports of joy. His ruling idea was the unity and vastness of his empire. If he left the sword in its sheath, the love of pleasure did not make him neglect his duties as a ruler. He took care that his armies should always be ready to take the field, which would not have been possible without good organisation; and they triumphed over almost all his enemies, maintained his sway against a powerful coalition, crushed the formidable Elam so severely that she never recovered from the blows she had received, and, if not during his reign, at least shortly after it, repelled the advancing Medes. He regularly transmitted his orders to all the governors in his empire, and was by them kept carefully informed of anything of importance which happened in their provinces. No one of his victorious military leaders ever ventured to turn his arms against him. All, including the governors, recognised him and honoured him as their king. Such he was in the fullest sense of the word. In his palace at Nineveh, during two-and-forty years, he held the reigns of government with a strong hand. And this is all the more creditable to the influence of his personality, since the empire was internally weakened by his own political mistakes, in particular by the removal of the centre of government from Babylon, which Esarhaddon had made its seat, to Nineveh, and by other causes, so that it went to pieces a few years after his death.

After him at least two kings ruled over Assyria, who were probably brothers, for one of them, Bel-zakir-ishkun, was the son of a king of Assyria, and grandson of a king of Sumer and Accad, and though their names are missing from the inscriptions, they can have been none other than Asshurbanapal and Esarhaddon; and the other, Asshur-etil-ili [who is sometimes known by a lengthened form of his name, Asshur-etil-ili-ukinni] is expressly called the son and grandson of these rulers. Probably Bel-zakir-ishkun reigned first, and then the other. No historical records have been preserved, dealing either with the fortunes and achievements of these kings or with the fall of Assyria. Certain texts have led some to conclude that a third king, a namesake of Esarhaddon, may have swayed the sceptre at this period, but this has been shown to be extremely questionable.

Immediately after Asshurbanapal’s death, or perhaps even in the last year of his reign, Babylon broke away from the Assyrian rule, and this time the separation was permanent. The empire was much weakened by it. The north and northwest, Urartu and the states of Asia Minor, gradually fell into the power of the ever-advancing Medes. The Assyrian lordship over the countries on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea now existed in name only, so that King Josiah of Judah was able to effect his reform unhindered, and to act as master in the territory of the ancient kingdom of Israel, which for years had been an Assyrian province. And in the year 608 Neku II, king of Egypt, was able to think of extending his empire to the Euphrates, as in days long past, and to take arms against Assyria with the idea of wresting from her all her western provinces. The foundation of the new Babylonian Empire and the invasion of the Egyptians, who could no longer be repelled by the Assyrians, but were only to give way before the Babylonian arms, are described elsewhere. Here we only mention them as among the causes which brought about the fall of the Assyrian Empire. That empire no longer had any real existence, at least as a ruling power. Thrust back to its old frontiers, the ancient Assyrian state slowly languished and only awaited the death-blow.

That blow was to come from the Medes in alliance with the Babylonians, and was partly hastened, partly stayed, by the great migratory streams of the Cimmerians and Scythians.

Though Professor Tiele’s admirable history is recent, much new information concerning the last days of the Assyrian rule at Nineveh has come to light, and historians are now able to place the conquest of the city by the Manda in the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun. Without overlooking a certain Sin-shum-lishir, who is mentioned in several places as an Assyrian king, and must have ruled about this time, but whose personality has not yet been unwrapped from the historic gloom, it is safe to say that this Sin-shar-ishkun was Asshur-etil-ili’s successor. From contract tablets found at Sippar and Erech we know that he occupied the Assyrian throne in 612 b.c., and that his dominion included a part of Babylonia as well. Later records would show him to be of much stronger character than the man he succeeded. In 610 or 609 he attempted to wrest more of the Babylonian provinces from Nabopolassar, and the harassed king took the fatal step of appealing to that people from the north, who for the most part had formed part of the great Indo-European migration into western Asia. Already these Scythian hordes, the Manda, had their eye on the rich Mesopotamian Valley, and therefore Nabopolassar’s appeal did not fall upon unwilling ears. Sin-shar-ishkun was indeed driven back, but when that happened the Manda were in the coveted land. The reader will observe that we have just spoken of the Manda and not the Medes as the assailants of Nineveh. This is because of the recent clearing up of a historical error that was our heritage from the Greek historians. They simply confused the Manda, the nomadic tribes that lived northeast of Assyria towards the Caspian Sea and were the classical Scythians, with the Mada, or true Medes. As Professor Sayce says: “It was not until the discovery of the monuments of Nabonidus and Cyrus that the truth at last came to light and it was found that the history we had so long believed was founded upon a philological mistake.” This matter will be more fully explained in the account of Persia.

Like his father, Cyaxares perceived that it would not be possible for the Medes to extend and maintain their conquests westward so long as he had to dread the rivalry of the Assyrian Empire, so lately the mistress of those regions. Consequently he put into practice the lesson which his father had received from the Assyrians. The as yet untrained hordes of Medians were evidently no match for the better military organisation of the Assyrians and the military skill of the Assyrian generals. Cyaxares, therefore, began as became a warlike prince with the remodelling of his army, dividing his troops, after the pattern of the Assyrians, into the various arms—spearmen, bowmen, and horsemen—and fortifying his citadel, Ecbatana. Then he again ventured to attack Assyria, this time with better success. The Assyrian army was beaten in Nineveh at last, and was surrounded. But an unexpected event came to the assistance of the hard-pressed Ninevites—the Scythians invaded Media.

Their invasion compelled Cyaxares to evacuate Assyria, and for a time Nineveh breathed again. But only for a short time. Cyaxares succeeded in putting an end to the Scythian domination in his kingdom in the course of a few years.

About 609 the Median army under the command of Cyaxares appeared for the second time at the gates of Nineveh. According to Berosus, the Babylonian king, whose son Nebuchadrezzar had married the Median king’s daughter, also took part in this siege. It is easy to understand how it was that Herodotus knew nothing of this, for the Persians were his authorities. But he is certainly right in assigning the chief rôle to the Medes, of whom Abydenus says nothing, for from this time forward they kept possession of Assyria itself; and he is also right in placing the taking of Nineveh during the period of Cyaxares’ government, and not, like Berosus and the authors who follow him, in the time of Astyages, since the latter did not ascend the throne of Media before 584 b.c. It is sufficient that Nineveh fell, and Assyria passed to the power of the Medes, who at the same time acquired the dominion over the North and the countries of Asia Minor as far as the Halys. All other provinces of the fallen empire as far as the Mediterranean Sea, including probably that part of ancient Assyria whose capital was the city of Asshur, and also Kharran and Carchemish, fell to Babylonia.

We have no historical account of the details connected with the fall of Nineveh. The story of the last Assyrian king, Asshur-etil-ili, or, as some authorities call him, Saracus, which represents him in his despair burning himself with his palace and his treasures, is a popular tale which is not indeed impossible, but probably arose by confusion with Shamash-shum-ukin’s end. Nineveh was so completely desolated that when Xenophon passed with the Ten Thousand in the year 401 b.c. he took the ruins for the remains of Median towns destroyed by the Persians. Subsequently a fortress, Ninus, seems to have been built there by the Parthians. Calah also once more rose from its rubbish heaps after lying desolate for a long time. Arbela remained untouched, and it is therefore probable that it fell unresisting into the hands of the conquerors. But the Assyrian monarchy was gone forever.

The Assyrian monarchy was gone, but not the empire at whose head the kings of Asshur had stood. It has been matter of astonishment that so powerful an empire, to which through a series of centuries the whole of western Asia had been subdued, could have been so suddenly overturned by the fall of the capital. But this surprise proceeds from an incorrect conception of history. Events had long prepared the fall of Nineveh. The keen eye of Esarhaddon had already perceived that it would be safer to remove the centre of the empire to Babylon. His son Asshurbanapal, a less acute statesman than he, but a great king and a strong administrator, had once more attempted to secure the hegemony for Assyria. In this he had succeeded, being supported by favourable circumstances and the influence of his own personality. But when the sceptre fell from his strong hand, little more was needed to put an end to the Assyrian dominion, and that end was only a question of time. However, the empire survived for a few years longer, though not in its full vigour. The hegemony now passed again to Babylon; but not unimpaired, for, since Media had conquered Nineveh, the lion’s share of Assyria itself fell to the Median kingdom, together with those northern and northwestern provinces which had been lost long before. But the Assyrian survived in the new Babylonian Empire, which continued its policy of conquest, and the Greeks, who not long afterwards called the Babylonians themselves Assyrians, were in this not so very far from the truth. But the days of the Semitic dominion were hastening to their end. Even the new monarchy under Babylon’s hegemony could only be propped up by the force of Nebuchadrezzar’s personality. His feeble successors were in no condition to prevent the spread of the Median power nor the rise of the Persian monarchy, which had grown to such proportions by the conquest of Elam, until the genius of Cyrus founded a dominion which soon embraced the four ancient empires—the Median, the Elamite, the Assyrio-Babylonian, and the Egyptian—and gave the sceptre of western Asia to the Aryans.

The sense of relief which fell on the oppressed nations at the downfall of the scourge of Asia can be gathered from the rejoicing accents of the Jewish prophets. What an Isaiah, a Micah, had not dared to hope, Nahum and Zephaniah saw approach and actually happen. Nahum is convinced that the fate of Thebes will soon overtake Nineveh. Her merchants, multiplied as the stars of heaven, her crowned, her captains, her whole people, they shall be scattered like flying grasshoppers, and no man shall gather them. “All that hear the bruit of thee shall clap their hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?” (Nahum iii. 19.) And Zephaniah (ii. 13-15), his contemporary, sees with satisfaction the desolation of the proud city, who thought herself so safe and boasted herself to be the first and the only one, but now had become desolate and a place for beasts, in whose ruins the bittern and the screech-owl lodge.

18 August 1940 Part I

Perhaps because of the failure of the intended raid on RAF Kenley on 15 August 1940 another mission was ordered, this time to be carried out by a specialist low-level attack unit, the Dornier 17-Z-equipped 9./KG76. Nine of the unit’s aircraft streaked low across the English Channel at lunchtime on 18 August, just above the waves, crossing the Sussex coast at Cuckmere Haven. German war correspondent Rolf von Pebal flew with one of the Do 17 bombers during the operation against Kenley air base on 18 August 1940. Here, the aircraft are photographed passing Beachy Head and its famous lighthouse. An Observer Corps post on top of the cliffs spotted the raiders who were tracked all the way to their target. In total, four of the Dornier 17s were shot down over land or fell into the English Channel, and others made crash landings or emergency landings back in France with wounded, dead or dying crew members on board. Only one Dornier 17 returned to its home base at Cormeilles-en-Vexin. The cost to 9./KG76 had been high, and RAF Kenley remained operational.


The Dorniers turned at Burgess Hill onto a track heading the formation due north, and directly towards RAF Kenley. In this photograph, people in Cyprus Road run for cover as the war photographer on board one of the raiders records a brief moment in the history of the Battle of Britain. Simultaneously, the formation of nine aircraft was machine gunning streets, buildings and vehicles en route to their target.


Although the Junkers 86-P is not an aircraft generally associated with Luftwaffe air activity over Britain, they were used in limited numbers in the high-altitude reconnaissance role. Teenager Alexander McKee took a photograph of a single extremely high vapour trail over Portsmouth at around 1.30pm on 18 August 1940 and this was almost certainly the trail left by a Junkers 86-P as it went about its work.

Despite clear weather on 17 August, it was quiet in the air over the British Isles. Reichsmarschall Göring sent new attack orders to his commanders. He gave them 24 hours to prepare the next major operation against the British Isles, and in the meantime called two of his favourites, fighter aces majors Galland and Mölders, to his hunting lodge Karinhall in the forests east of Berlin. Göring got straight to the point and told them that the losses had so far been worse than expected, especially among Stuka units. He stated bluntly that in his opinion, the German fighters had not been used aggressively enough. However, this did not reflect on Galland and Mölders. He had not ordered them to Karinhall to criticize them – on the contrary, as the old fighter pilot that he was, he wanted to use their young belligerence to improve fighter operations over the Channel. His decision to make Major Mölders, who was only 27 years old, commander of the whole of JG 51 had proven very successful. Since Mölders took over JG 51 had developed into the most successful Bf 109 unit under Jafü 2’s command. Now Göring wanted to forge ahead and do the same with the other Bf 109 units, and he was going to start with Galland – who, besides Mölders, was also a favourite of Göring’s.

’Galland’, said Göring, ‘you shall take over JG 26!’ ‘I did not like the idea, because I wanted to lead my unit in combat’, said Adolf Galland. ‘Göring tried to reassure me that his idea was to have fighting Geschwaderkommodores.’ Mölders disagreed with Göring, but he did undoubtedly have unusual organisational and management skills. ‘I still could not reconcile myself to the idea of being a Geschwaderkommodore.’

Major Martin Mettig, who was replaced as Geschwaderkommodore JG 54 by 28-year-old Major Hannes Trautloft on 25 August considered that this reform was basically sensible: ‘the replacing of five Geschwaderkommodores in the fighter aviation came about because the heavy combat demanded a rejuvenation at senior command level. With my 37 years I was the fighter aviation’s second-youngest Geschwaderkommodore at that time. The new aim was that our Staffelkapitäns would be less than 27 years, our Gruppenkommandeurs under 30 years, and our Geschwaderkommodores under 32 years of age. I maintain that it was a correct measure.’

Göring also found cause for optimism in a new report which he received from the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence Chief, Oberst ‘Beppo’ Schmid, which again stated that all that remained of the RAF was ‘the last 300 Spitfires’. In reality, thanks to the 24-hour reprieve, the number of serviceable aircraft in Fighter Command increased from 631 at dawn on 17 August to 706 twenty-four hours later. This gain came in handy when Göring’s plan of attack came into force on 18 August. The first goal was to once and for all wipe out the 11 Group sector stations Kenley and Biggin Hill, and to do that the Germans had a sophisicated plan of attack.

Sunday 18 August dawned with beautiful weather. On the German airfields in France the unit commanders assembled their men for briefings. This time the RAF would be decisively defeated, the unit commanders explained.

On the other side of the Channel the British felt increasingly nervous. The sun shone from an almost cloudless sky and it was a warm and lovely summer day, but except for a few reconnaissance aircraft it was completely quiet in the air over England. Would there be a two day reprieve? What were the Germans up to?

Naturally, it was just the calm before the storm. Shortly before lunch Park was notified that the Dover radar station had picked up radar echoes suggesting the largest gathering of German aircraft ever. In the air above the Pas de Calais 110 He 111s from KG 1 formed up together with Do 17s and Ju 88s from KG 76. These were joined by nearly five hundred Messerschmitts from JG 3, JG 26, JG 51, JG 52, JG 54 and ZG 26. Major Martin Mettig, still the commander of JG 54, said: ‘of our five Jagdgeschwaders, two were tasked to fly close escort. We climbed to the flight altitude we had been ordered above Cap Gris Nez.’

When the first fifty or so German aircraft began to fly over the Strait of Dover, at high altitude, Park might have been able to guess but could not know that these were the Bf 109s going out first on a free hunting mission. In any event, the commander of 11 Group had no choice but to alert his fighter units. He decided to send up five squadrons to shield the southeast coast. Nos. 17, 54, 56, 65 and 501 squadrons were tasked with patroling the Canterbury area.

In this situation to send up twelve Hurricanes from the coastal Hawkinge airfield, outside Folkestone, was not very well-advised. They took off just as the Bf 109s left the French coast at Wissant, just five minutes flying time away. Oberleutnant Gerhard Schöpfel from III./JG 26 spotted them, dived immediately and shot down four of them in rapid succession.

The remaining pilots of No. 501 Squadron dived to escape. It was the signal for the entire III./JG 26 to go after them. The Germans did not catch up with 501 Squadron, but instead ran into another group of Hurricanes, No. 17 Squadron. When its pilots saw the whole gaggle of ‘109s coming down, they turned and tried to dive away from danger. The Germans shot down three Hurricanes before they broke off the pursuit in order to not lose too much height. One of the downed Hurricanes from 17 Squadron crashed near Dover, but the pilots of the other two managed to land their machines so that they could be repaired.

Dornier Do 17s played a significant role in the early phase of World War 11, used first on 1 September 1939 when the invasion of Poland began. They played only a small part in the Norwegian campaign, but were used extensively in the invasion of France and the Low Countries, against Allied convoys in the English Channel and targets in England during the Battle of Britain. Deployed in the invasion of Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, most had been withdrawn from first-line service by late 1941.

Major production version was the Do 17Z, which appeared in several variants and was built to a total of some 1,700 between 1939-40. They included the Do 17Z-0 which, powered by two 900-hp (671-kW) Bramo 323A-1 engines and armed with three MG 15 machineguns, was otherwise similar to the Do 17S. The Do 17Z-1 had an additional nose-mounted MG 15 but was underpowered and restricted to a 1, 102-lb (500-kg) bombload; this situation was rectified in the Do 17Z-2 which with 1,000-hp (746-kW) Bramo 323P engines could carry a 2,205-lb (1000 kg) bombload and up to eight MG 15 machine guns. Some 22 examples of the Do 17Z-3 reconnaissance aircraft were built, each equipped with Rb50/30 or Rb20/30 cameras, and they were followed by the Do 17Z-4 dual-control conversion trainer. Final bomber variant was the Do 17Z-5 which, generally similar to the Do 17Z-2, differed by having flotation bags in the fuselage and in the rear of the engine nacelles.


18 August 1940 Part II

While this was going on, nine Do 17s from 9./KG 76 under Hauptmann Joachim Roth were about to cross the Channel at wave-top height. The German plan was that twelve Ju 88s from II./KG 76 would begin by dive bombing Kenley air base, after which the nine Do 17s from 9./KG 76 would take advantage of the confusion among the defenders to carry out a low-level attack on the same target. Meanwhile, KG 1 carried out a high altitude attack against the Biggin Hill airfield using sixty He 111s.

But the German plan failed. The purpose of Hauptmann Roth’s formation flying so low was to avoid detection by the British radar stations. This was successful, but when the nine planes surprisingly came thundering in over the coast at Beachy Head, it had a different effect than the Germans expected. The report from the British air observers worried Park, who had take-off orders sent to Kenley and Biggin Hill, where the Hurricanes and Spitfires from 32, 64, 610 and 615 squadrons were scrambled. Thus a second wave of British fighters was airborne further inland, as yet unaffected by the Bf 109s’ intrusion.

To top it all, the high-altitude and dive bombers were very late. The morning’s clear weather had been replaced by increasing rain, which made the other German bombers lose a lot of time climbing above the clouds before they could assemble in combat formations. The crews on board the low-flying Dornier planes were never informed of this, so they therefore became the first attack wave.

Hauptmann Roth’s nine Do 17s followed the Brighton – London railway northwards. The tracks would lead them right to their target – Kenley airfield. At Croydon, near Kenley, but on the other side of the railway, 111 Squadron was alerted. Twelve Hurricanes went up and were ordered to circle 100 feet above Kenley, which unit commander Squadron Leader John Thompson thought was ‘insane’. He soon had reason to change his mind – when the nine Dornier bombers broke out of the haze in the direction of Reigate. While the bombers fanned out towards the four large hangars, fuel depot and operations room, Thompson ordered his fighters out of the target area to get around behind the bombers.

The airfield’s air defences hastily launched their PAC – ‘Parachute and Cable’, a countermeasure against low-level attacks consisting of a 500-foot steel cable that was fired up to its full length in the air and then sank down under a parachute. The nine bombers flew straight into the maze of steel cables that popped up like a snake-charmer’s snakes in front of them, and dropped their bombs. Chaos broke out on the ground and in the air. Oberleutnant Rudolf Lamberty, the pilot of Roth’s ‘F1+ DT’, had no chance to turn away but ran into one of the wires. Anti-aircraft machine guns also opened fire furiously, hitting Roth’s plane and setting it on fire. The entire crew survived – albeit as prisoners of war. The crew of ‘F1+HT’ were not that lucky; it perished when their plane crashed in a field just outside the airfield. Oberleutnant Magin, the pilot of another Do 17 from 9./KG 76, collapsed in his seat mortally wounded and involuntarily pushed the control column forward. His observer, Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Friedrich Illg, threw himself forward and grabbed the control column, and at the last moment succeeded – just ten metres above the ground – in pulling the plane out of its dive. In addition, according to the German report, he succeeded in dropping the remaining eight bombs.

While bomb explosions spread across Kenley airfield, Squadron Leader Thompson’s Hurricanes got themselves into attack position behind the remaining Dorniers, which attempted to climb away to the right, where they hoped to meet their own fighters. Several of the German bombers were damaged by collisions with PAC wires or by gunfire from the ground, and now they met the RAF pilots’ fury. But it was no easy fight for 111 Squadron, which lost three Hurricanes to the Dornier gunner’s fire.

On the other hand, not one of the Dorniers of 9./KG 76 escaped being hit by British fire. Two crashed into the Channel and two others crashed on the French coast with dead or wounded crew members onboard. Miraculously, it was the Do 17 manned by Oberfeldwebel Illg on this his first flight that fared best. Illg even managed to bring the aircraft and crew back to France, to Norrent-Fontes airfield! For this feat he was awarded the Knight’s Cross.

By then a gigantic air battle had developed over a large area south of London. At 6,500 metres altitude No. 615 Squadron, which had also been ordered to Kenley, clashed with the Bf 109s of III./JG 3, which had joined Schöpfel’s unit on a fighter sweep. Four Hurricanes and a Bf 109 fell to the ground like flaming torches. Two thousand metres below I. and II./KG 76 came in with twenty-seven ‘fresh’ Do 17s and twelve Ju 88s to finish the planned annihilation of Kenley sector station. This was the fomation that should have carried out their attack before Roth’s group. Now they were met by an alerted and vindictive British fighter force. A gigantic cloud of smoke, visible for miles around, rose from the devastation of the Kenley station, and this spurred the British pilots to fight with even greater determination.

Twelve Hurricane pilots from 32 Squadron were already present in the air above the airfield. This unit was now led by Michael Crossley, promoted to Squadron Leader, who had, in the last few days, trained his pilots for frontal attacks. Now it was time for a baptism by fire! ‘Tally Ho!’ shouted ‘Red Knight’ Crossley over the radio and the dozen Hurricanes turned on a collision course with the twin-engined Luftwaffe planes.

Twenty Bf 110s from ZG 26 had been assigned as close escort to these Dornier planes, and the Zerstörer airmen turned and dived to attack the first formation of Hurricanes from behind. ‘Flight Lieutenant [Humphrey] “Humph” Russell [of 32 Squadron] was surprised to be hit by extremely accurate and concentrated return fire from the Bf 110s and was forced to bale out over Edenbridge wounded in the left arm and right leg. First blood to the Zerstörer!’

But because they flew with the bombers, the Bf 110s were far too slow, and when they attempted to get speed up by diving, they also ended up at a height disadvantage. At that moment eight of 64 Squadron’s Spitfires plummeted from 7,000 metres, straight towards the Zerstörers. Squadron Leader Aeneas MacDonell hit the Bf 110 flown by Oberleutnant Rüdiger Proske, adjutant of I./ZG 26, and the pilot and the radio operator had to bail out. While they drifted down to imminent captivity under their parachutes, the German formation dispersed as the terrified bomber pilots swerved to avoid fighter attacks. Their bombs were scattered widely and caused no great harm.

The Dorniers and Junkers then fled back towards the coast as fast as they could. For the airmen in the Bf 110 fighters, who were forced to stay close to the bombers, it became a frustratingly slow journey back over hostile territory – while they were easy targets for the nimble Spitfire and Hurricane fighters which constantly harrased them from above. Several fresh British fighter units joined the combat. The German return track soon became marked by the wreckages of crashed Bf 110s, Do 17s and Ju 88s.

Even Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck – who belonged to 92 Squadron, which was not in the front line – joined the battle. He was temporarily visiting Northolt airfield and, without waiting for orders, took off alone as soon as he heard about the severe fighting. Tuck, with 11 kills on his tally, pursued two German aircraft over the sea. Tuck identified them as Do 17s or Ju 88s, but it is more likely that they were a couple of fleeing Bf 110s. One of them may have been the plane flown by Oberleutnant Hans-Jürgen Kirchhoff, head of 3./ZG 26. He was killed along with his radio operator when they crashed into the sea. After a long chase, Tuck managed to shoot down one of the German aircraft into the water, but immediately afterwards Tuck’s own Spitfire was hit by cannon fire. Judging by Tuck’s own description, it seems that he was attacked from behind by another Bf 110 – which he never saw. Tuck abandoned his burning Spitfire and bailed out over land.

The sixty He 111s from KG 1 were meanwhile lucky to avoid serious fighter attacks. ‘We flew zig-zagging with the He 111s’, said Major Mettig from JG 54. ‘Because of their bad formation flight, the He 111 formation became widely scattered. I estimate the distance to 35 km between the first and the last airplane. We knew that the British would concentrate their attacks against stragglers, so this placed great demands on us in the fighter escort. By the time we reached the target, the fuel reserve allowed us no more than ten minutes to spare. But we were replaced by two other Jagdgeschwaders and then flew straight back to our bases, where many landed with standing propellers.’

The attack against Biggin Hill became a total failure. All that was accomplished was a small number of bomb craters and some unexploded bombs on the runways.

Sometime after two o’clock the fighting died down. It had caused terrible losses on both sides. The German had lost 22 aircraft – nine Do 17s from KG 76, one He 111 from KG 1, eight Bf 110s and four Bf 109s. In return, their fighter pilots claimed to have shot down 34 British planes – of which ZG 26 ‘Horst Wessel’ took half. The difference in results between Messerschmitts on close escort and those who had been out free hunting was striking. 6./ZG 26, which flew as close escort, suffered half of the eight Zerstörer losses. Three more had been shot down from I./ZG 26, which had also been tied to the bombers in this way. In contrast, Major Johannes Schalk’s III./ZG 26 – which was free hunting – was the Messerschmitt Gruppe which succeeded best during this mission – 15 victories against one own loss. Oberleutnant Sophus Baagoe from 8./ZG 26 contributed two victories and thereby increased his total to nine. But the most successful German fighter pilot on this mission was clearly Oberleutnant Gerhard Schöpfel from III./JG 26, who had knocked down four.

The German victory claims were exaggerated, but the British units had still suffered severe attrition. A total of 16 Spitfires and Hurricanes were shot down and completely destroyed, and another nine were so badly damaged that they were out of action for some time to come. Worst affected however was Kenley sector station, where ten hangars and the Operations Room were in ruins, and all telephone lines were broken. For the first time the Germans had managed to neutralise one of Fighter Command’s nine ‘nerve centres’. In addition 17 British planes had been knocked out on the ground.

At half past two I./JG 52 made a new low-level attack against Manston airfield, similar to the attack the unit had made with such success two days before. The War Diary of I./JG 52 reads: ‘A radio message was intercepted, revealing that a fighter unit had landed at Manston to refuel. This time too, we carried out the attack with great success. 10-11 Spitfires, three Bristol Blenheims and a hangar were seriously damaged or set burning.’ According to British records, two of 266 Squadron’s Spitfires were completely destroyed on the ground at Manston.

The next blow was dealt by Luftflotte 3. Twenty-five Ju 88s from I. and II./KG 54 ‘Totenkopf’ subjected the naval air base in Gosport to a devastating new attack. They were escorted by eighteen Bf 110s from ZG 76, and all German aircraft returned safe and sound to their bases. The main force of Ju 87s attacked the airfield at Thorney Island and Poling radar station further east, but there things went quite differently.

10 and 11 Group sent up five squadrons against the Stuka formations and their fighter escorts. Although the 85 Ju 87s from StG 77 had been given virtually the entire strength of Bf 109s at Jafü 3’s disposal – more than 200 Bf 109s from JG 2, JG 27 and JG 53 – and thus were many times stronger than the relatively limited number of RAF fighters, the British succeeded in tearing the Stuka formations to pieces. Twelve Hurricanes from 43 Squadron were the first ones there and attacked the Stukas just as they pulled out of their dives after dropping their bombs. From their position 5,000 metres higher the Bf 109 pilots saw how suddenly one Ju 87 after another erupted in flames far below them. When they, shocked, dived as fast as they could to rescue their protectees, they were themselves attacked.

Shouting wildly, No. 234 Squadron’s Spitfire pilots threw themselves into the mass of Bf 109s and created utter confusion among them. Flying Officer Paterson Clarence Hughes shot down two of the German fighters. So did Sergeant Alan Harker, and other ‘109s were downed by Pilot Officers Robert Doe and Edward Mortimer-Rose. Most of the Messerschmitt pilots were forced to fight to save themselves, and meanwhile even 152, 601 and 602 squadrons appeared to complete the massacre of the Stukas.

In the space of a few minutes, the British fighter pilots shot down 16 Stukas. No. 43 Squadron was credited with 8 downed Ju 87s, 152 Squadron was credited with 9, and 601 and 602 Squadron, 6 each. Sergeant James Hallowes from 43 Squadron once again shot down three Ju 87s – thus repeating his feat from 16 August – and reached a combined total of 16 victories. In 601 Squadron Flight Lieutenant Carl Davis and Flying Officer Tom Grier were credited with two victories each in the Stuka massacre. In addition, Davis shot down one of the Bf 109s which had managed to escape 234 Squadron and was trying to rescue the embattled Stukas.

In addition to the 16 Ju 87s which remained in England, two more crashed on their return to France because of severe battle damage. Among the missing crew members was Hauptmann Herbert Meisel, commander of I./StG 77. It was an unmitigated disaster for Stukageschwader 77, which was immediately withdrawn from combat. The scattered and disordered remnants of the fighter escort returned to base at irregular intervals with utterly demoralised pilots. Their unit commanders were completely unable to explain what had happened. They themselves had lost 8 Bf 109s – in combat with an enemy where they had not only had the advantage of height but also a fourfold superiority in numbers! It was a first class defeat.

The price of this amazing success to the participating RAF formations was confined to three destroyed and eight damaged aircraft. The only drawback for the British was that two pilots of 601 Squadron had been killed, and that 43 Squadron’s top ace, Flight Lieutenant Frank Carey (11½ victories), was badly wounded.

Air fighting on 18 August ended that evening when Kesselring sent a hundred or so bombers and more than 150 fighters across the Channel.

58 Do 17s from I. and II./KG 2, with a close escort consisting of 25 Bf 109s from III./JG 51, had factories and railway stations on the outskirts of London as their main objectives. North Weald airfield was the target for 51 He 111s from II. and III./KG 53, with 20 Bf 110s from I. and II./ZG 26 as close escort.

A hundred Bf 109s from all the Jagdgeschwaders in Luftflotte 2 went out free hunting ahead of them. Once again the Bf 110s from III./ZG 26 flew on free hunting. No less than 143 Spitfires and Hurricanes went up to repel the invaders. Even Wing Commander Victor Beamish, the almost forty-year-old commander of North Weald sector-airfield, took off with one of the 151 Squadron Hurricanes. The Irishman Beamish was a fierce fighter. ‘We have to kill all the Germans in the air’, he said.

In a cruel repeat of the previous day’s mission, 4./ZG 26 – which was the close escort for KG 53 – bore the brunt of the British fighter attack. ‘We had strict orders to fly close escort, and that was the cause of the disaster that followed’, said Unteroffizier Theo Rutter, rear-gunner of one of the Bf 110s downed in the air combat. This Staffel was attacked by at least three squadrons, and of four Zerstörers that were lost during the mission, three belonged to 4./ZG 26. The German Bf 109 units fared little better. III./JG 51 was admittedly credited with three victories and no own losses. Hauptmann Walter Oesau accounted for two of these and this raised his personal score to twenty. But three Bf 109 aces were lost in the engagement, and in all cases Polish airmen were involved. II./JG 51 lost two Bf 109s without managing to shoot down a single British plane (at least none that was confirmed). Pilot Officer Pawel Zenker, a Polish pilot in 501 Squadron, explained how he shot down Hauptmann Horst Tietzen, the ace with 20 victories who commanded 5./JG 51: ‘With Green 1 I went straight to the fighters and engaged one of them. He turned back towards France and I chased him as he climbed firing from 300 [feet] and closer ranges and about 10 miles over the sea I saw smoke and fire come from the fuselage and he rapidly lost height. The Me 109 did not adopt evasive action but flew straight on until it crashed into the water somewhere near the North Goodwin Lightship.’ Tietzen’s dead body later washed ashore near Calais. Flying Officer Stefan Witorzenc, another Pole in 501 Squadron, shot down another of the pilots of 5./JG 51, Leutnant Hans-Otto Lessing, who was killed.

III./JG 26 was credited with two victories – which was slight consolation for the loss of two of the unit’s most important aces: Leutnant Gerhard Müller-Dühe dived to attack a Hurricane, eager to record his sixth victory. It was a mistake that would cost him dearly. Peter Brothers, who then served as a Pilot Officer in 32 Squadron, explained what happened: ‘I turned sharply right, on to the tail of an Me 109 as he overtook me. I gave a quick glance behind to ensure that there was not another one on my tail, laid my sight on him and fired a short burst. I hit him, another short burst and he caught fire and his dive steepened. I followed him down, he went into a field at a steep angle and a cloud of flame and black smoke erupted.’

By all accounts Müller-Dühe was then fired upon by the Polish Pilot Officer Boleslaw Wlasnowolski, who described how he followed the Bf 109 down towards the ground: ‘I followed, firing several short bursts, he dived into the ground and went up in flames.’

Müller-Dühe did not survive. His comrade from III./JG 26, Leutnant Walter Blume – also credited with five victories – had slightly better luck. Blume had a Hurricane in his sights when suddenly a tracer passing his cockpit made him look upwards and back. To his horror he found that he was staring right into the eight fire-spitting muzzles of a diving Hurricane. Blume turned as he dived, but could not get away from the Hurricane pilot – 32 Squadron’s Pilot Officer Karol Pniak. The latter’s commander, Squadron Leader Michael Crossley, and Pilot Officer Alan Eckford also raced after Blumes steeply diving Messerschmitt 109. Blume crash landed his 109 near Canterbury; he was seriously injured, but was still alive.

Despite the mediocre performance of the Bf 109s only four German bombers were shot down – all from KG 53. This was mainly due to the free hunting Bf 110s from ZG 26 ‘Horst Wessel’. They accounted for most of the 12 British fighters shot down in this combat – nine of which were completely destroyed. When Squadron Leader Peter Townsend intervened with 13 Hurricanes from his 85 Squadron, he found that the Bf 110s made it almost impossible to reach the bombers. ‘A general engagement was now taking place, enemy aircraft consisting chiefly of Me 110s’, said Townsend. Among the British pilots shot down by Bf 110s was Squadron Leader Gordon, commander of No. 151 Squadron. It was the second time in three days he had been shot down, but this time Gordon was badly burned. Another RAF pilot to be shot down – possibly also by a pilot from III./ZG 26 – was an ace with 15 victories, albeit an unusual one. His name was Rodolphe de Hemricourt de Grunne, and he was a Belgian nobleman who had fought side by side with several Luftwaffe veterans as a volunteer fighter pilot in Franco’s Air Force during the Spanish Civil War. There he had been credited with 14 victories. Now, he served as a pilot officer with 32 Squadron. Badly burned, Count de Hemricourt de Grunne bailed out of his blazing Hurricane and spent six months in hospital.

Even Wing Commander Beamish came close to being shot down, but was fortunate to escape with his Hurricane badly damaged. When Flight Lieutenant George Stoney was shot down and killed by a Bf 110 over the Thames estuary at 18:45 (German time), 501 Squadron had lost six Hurricanes and four pilots during the day.

Upon its return to France, Oberleutnant Theodor Rossiwall’s 5./ZG 26 – which had been free hunting with III./ZG 26 – counted four victories without own losses. Major Johannes Schalk’s III./ZG 26 ‘Horst Wessel’ was as usual the most successful, with 11 new victories – this time without any own losses. In Oberleutnant Ernst Matthes’ 7./ZG 26, Leutnant Kuno Konopka and Feldwebel Franz Sander were credited with two victories each; in the latter case it was the pilot’s third victory that day. With the Spitfire Oberfeldwebel Joseph Bracun reported shot down at 18:58, 7./ZG 26 reached its 30th victory – achieved against only one own combat loss since the war had started.

Typically, both sides proclaimed themselves as victors in the air battles on 18 August. Fighter Command reported 126 German aircraft downed. Of these, 54 Squadron claimed 14, with no own losses. That evening 54 Squadron received a telegram from Lord Newall, Chief of the Air Staff: ‘Well done 54 Squadron. In your hard fighting this is the way to deal with the enemy.’

The German High Command announced that 124 British aircraft had been shot down. With 51 victories ZG 26 ‘Horst Wessel’ claimed the lion’s share of this result, which gained the unit a special mention in the OKW communiqué. According to German estimates the RAF had lost 732 aircraft in the previous eight days.

The actual combat losses on 18 August were 71 German aircraft and 30 fighters from Fighter Command. In addition, 10 RAF fighters crashed or emergency-landed with combat damage in England, and as many again had landed with moderate damage. For Dowding and Park the British loss figures were enough to prevent themselves from getting carried away by the victory communiqués. Without a doubt more hard air fighting that would grind down already beleaguered units lay ahead. 501 Squadron’s Operations Record Book for 18 August gives a clear picture of the pressure the fighters on both sides were under: ‘Squadron 15-mins Available from dawn to 8.30 when aircraft took off from Hawkinge. Combat near Canterbury in broken cloud and haze. P/O [Kenneth] Lee wounded in the leg, P/O [Franciszek] Kozlowski seriously injured, Sgt [Donald] McKay slight burns, P/O [John] Bland killed. Squadron returned to Gravesend. All aircraft scrambled – vectored to Biggin Hill which was under attack. P/O [Robert] Dafforn [shot down and] baled out. 7 Hurricanes took off for Hawkinge patrol at 16.50. Met 50 bombers and fighters. Red section attacked. 2 Me 110 shot down. F/L [George] Stoney killed in that combat.’

The mood was even more sombre on the German side. Göring was utterly shocked by the reports he received that night. In particular he could not understand how a relatively small force of RAF fighters had been able to beat up a mass formation of 200 Bf 109s and inflict a defeat of historic proportions on his dive-bombers. Göring had long been aware of the vulnerability of the Ju 87, and he had watched the losses among the Stuka units mount with growing concern. On 8 August, ten Ju 87s were lost, on the 13th six, on the 15th seven and on the 16th nine. But not even in his worst nightmares could the Reichsmarshall have imagined what happened on 18 August. Perhaps the worst thing was that it took place under the eyes of Jafü 3’s entire fighter force! The Luftwaffe’s total combat losses amounted to nearly 350 aircraft since large scale attacks had started on 8 August. Göring was not the only one to conclude that the air offensive against England was not going as planned. The RAF was proving a far harder nut to crack than the Germans expected.

Not only in Britain, but throughout the world, the British airmen’s stubborn fight against the vastly stronger Luftwaffe was looked on with amazement and admiration. After Poland, Norway and France people had come to regard Hitler’s new Germany as invincible, but on this tiny island, led by its irrepressible prime minister, the people continued to offer resistance. In particular this made a big impression in the USA. Winston Churchill’s speech in the British Parliament on 20 August was full of admiration for the pilots in the RAF, and some of the words he uttered have become legendary: ‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.’ Then he added: ‘but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.’

Only days later the British bomber pilots – whose contribution to the Battle of Britain is often underestimated – would make a vital contribution that helped change the course of the battle.

Trench Warfare: Destruction or Neutralization

At the start of 1915, the French mounted several unsuccessful offensive operations in the Artois and Champagne, while, at the beginning of March, the BEF launched an offensive at Neuve Chapelle. The significance of Neuve Chapelle was not that it failed but that it very nearly succeeded. The problem for the BEF was converting the break-in into a breakthrough. The German defensive line consisted of only one trench line and lacked support and reserve lines, although it did include several strongpoints 1,000 yards behind the trench line. There was some wire in no-man’s-land. After an intense bombardment by 354 British guns lasting only 35 minutes, targetting the trenches, four divisions of 40,000 men from the First Army attacked along a 3,280-yard front. The artillery was supported by eighty-five Royal Flying Corps aircraft which acted as aerial spotters. This was not an innovation as aerial spotting of this kind had been tried during the Balkan Wars a few years earlier. The field guns successfully destroyed the wire but the howitzers, which were supposed to destroy the trenches and the strongpoints, failed to do any significant damage.

Taken by surprise, the Germans were overrun and, in a matter of a few hours, the British had advanced beyond the German line of strongpoints. A rigid timetable and an inflexible plan, made worse by poor communications between the advancing troops and First Army HQ, all contributed to poor control of the battle and prevented the near breakthough from being developed further. After the success of the first few hours, the advantage had been lost by the afternoon. German troops were quick to counter-attack and, within two days, the status quo had more or less been restored, the Germans having lost very little ground.

Sir John French, blamed the failure at Neuve Chapelle on the severe shortage of high-explosive shells. This shortage not only afflicted British artillery at Neuve Chapelle but the whole of the BEF during the first six or seven months of 1915, and became a national scandal when it was made public. The Shell Scandal brought down the Liberal government and led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions in June 1915, which took over all aspects of munitions production in Britain. The shortage of shells had undoubtedly been a significant hindrance at Neuve Chapelle as the guns had been restricted to 200–400 rounds apiece, a paltry figure when later bombardments lasted for days and weeks of sustained firing. The problem highlighted the importance of artillery in deciding the outcome of battles on the Western Front. Without enough guns and without enough shells, no army could attack and expect to win. Moreover, and just as important, no army could properly defend itself or, in this case, deal effectively with counter-attacks. The intensity – although not by later standards – and the brevity of the preliminary bombardment at Neuve Chapelle wrong-footed the Germans, however, who had already come to expect a longer bombardment to precede an infantry assault. Without question the short, heavy bombardment of the trenches and line of strongpoints had been a major factor in the initial success but the fixed barrages on a strict timetable had been unhelpful. However, at that time, there was no means by which the schedule could be amended once the fire plan had been set in motion.

Despite the shortage of shells, the bombardment neutralized the Germans, thereby allowing the British infantry to seize their objectives. However, because the howitzers failed to destroy the German defences, which allowed German infantry firepower to recover from the initial shock, the British drew the conclusion that more intense and longer bombardments were necessary to secure success. The conclusion that neutralization of enemy firepower rather than destruction of his defences was the key to success was not apparent to anybody at that time. Neuve Chapelle led to an expansion of the artillery so that it became the dominant force on the battlefields of the Western Front. It was evident from French and German experience earlier in 1915 that a preliminary bombardment was essential to success. The question was whether it should be short and intense, or carried out over several days, choices that tended to made according to the number and calibre of guns available. After Neuve Chapelle, a doctrine of destruction of the enemy was adopted by the British in the belief that, not only was complete destruction possible, but the inevitable loss of surprise that came with long intense bombardments did not matter as there would be no enemy left to be surprised.

At the Battle of Festubert in May of the same year, the British adopted a policy of destruction with a bombardment that went on for two days. The loss of surprise cost the British 24,000 casualties, although the failure at Festubert was attributed to insufficient destruction of the German defences. When the British launched an offensive at Loos in September, the barrage lasted for four days but its effects were diminished by the fact that the gun density was only one every 30 yards of front engaged, whereas at Neuve Chapelle it had been one gun for every 5.5 yards. This compromise had been necessary because of the shortage of ammunition which did not allow a heavier bombardment. The ideal level of destruction of the enemy defences was not achieved. The bombardment at the start of the Somme offensive, nine months later, lasted a week and included a hitherto unprecedented number of heavy guns, as well as trench mortars. The number of guns per yard during the preliminary bombardment on the Somme was approximately twice that at Loos, while the frontage was twice as long, 25,000 yards compared with 11,200 yards. Unlike at Loos, there was no shortage of ammunition. The prolonged bombardment and the greater gun density on the Somme was intended to obliterate the wire and German resistance, and especially to destroy German machine-guns, before the infantry assault on 1 July.

At Messines, in June 1917, the preliminary bombardment lasted seventeen days as the doctrine of destruction reached its zenith. The mines fired at Messines were in accordance with this doctrine. The gun density was such that, yard for yard, there were twice as many field guns at Messines than for the preliminary bombardment on the Somme and three times as many heavy guns. On the Somme, there was one field gun for every 21 yards and one heavy for every 57 yards, whereas at Messines, there was one field gun every 10 yards and one heavy every 20 yards. Between 3 June and 10 June, the guns fired 3,258,000 rounds, nearly twice the quantity fired during the first eight days of the Somme (1,732,873 rounds). The mortars at Messines fired 800,000 rounds.

At the same time that the number of guns and quantities of ammunition were increasing in order to bring about the realization of the ideal of complete destruction of the enemy, the manner in which the bombardments were conducted and the targets engaged by the guns went through a series of fundamental changes. Such changes were driven by a need to overcome the enemy and his trench systems. The nature of defence also changed. The concept of defence in depth was created after Neuve Chapelle so that by the time of Loos, the Germans had more than one line of trenches. Had not the nature of defence changed, the search for ever greater firepower to destroy the enemy’s defences would have lacked impetus. At the same time, the increases in firepower and the increases in defensive depth drove a change in infantry tactics. By the beginning of 1916, the power of artillery was such that infantry were at its mercy, while the firepower of the infantry in defence had also increased so that attackers stood little chance if they were caught in the open, especially en masse. The purpose of the attackers’ artillery was to destroy the defenders, to enable the infantry to take their objectives. To complicate matters, the enemy artillery attempted to destroy the attacking infantry and the attackers’ artillery. While counter-battery fire had been employed before the Russo-Japanese War, it now came into its own. This was not merely a question of shooting first since weight of fire and accuracy were crucial. Accuracy was not simply making sure that the shells landed where they were intended, but it was imperative to know the location of the enemy batteries. Thus, aerial photography and mapping became essential to gunnery. Then there was the question of how the infantry should work with the artillery. This was the nature of the struggle which attackers and defenders both faced in 1915–17.

While the French and the British both concluded from the battles of 1915 that the way forward was to increase the firepower of their artillery and lengthen the preliminary bombardment phase of an offensive, the Germans took a somewhat different lesson from these battles. On the one hand, the growing power of artillery seemed to offer the German Army a way to defeat France, which ultimately led to the epic struggle at Verdun that began at the end of February 1916 and continued for ten months; while on the other, the Germans realized that a single line of trenches was not sufficient to prevent a determined Allied assault from breaking through, sweeping all before them. The solution to this problem was to build a second line of defence, similar to the first, which would contain any break-in and prevent a breakthrough. By the time the British launched their offensive at Loos in September 1915, the Germans were in the process of building this second line. And by the time of the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, the Germans had developed their defence in depth to include a third line. When in 1917, they built the Hindenburg Line, the defensive zone was up to 15 miles deep and included five lines.

To make matters more difficult, the Germans stopped manning their front-line trenches in strength, but withdrew the bulk of their troops to what was, in effect, the second line, with only about a quarter of the infantry being located in the first two trench lines immediately facing no-man’s-land. Thus, at the start of the Somme in 1916 the German trenches closest to no-man’s-land were held very thinly and, once the preliminary bombardment started, the troops in them sheltered in deep bomb-proof dugouts, leaving very few troops to man the trenches. By 1917, the German front line was no more than a series of outposts, thinly held, located hundreds of yards in front of the main line of defence. At the same time, the development of strongpoints with all round defence began to replace linear defensive lines of continuous trenches, a process of change that led to the construction of the Hindenburg Line. Here, the defensive lines were more in the nature of zones than linear trench lines of the sort commonly employed in 1915. In conjunction with the dissolving of rigid lines of defence, the Germans adopted an elastic defence in which the immediate counter-attack to retake any ground lost played a major role.

The tactics employed by the infantry went through a similar process of change. While the infantry tactics of the assault employed in the early battles of 1915 tended to be based on pre-war tactics, so that infantry engaged infantry and artillery provided support, this was soon found to be costly and ineffective. Nevertheless, the notion of attacking in lines or waves persisted well into 1916, largely because of the relationship between the infantry and artillery, whereby the artillery timetable dictated how the infantry attacked. The growing dominance of artillery placed restraints on the infantry because of the nature of artillery barrages. The barrage was intended to support the infantry by preventing the enemy from engaging the assault troops as they approached. However, it forced a rigid timetable on the infantry and took no account of obstacles that might have to be overcome which slowed the advance. Equally, the assault troops had to contend with enemy fire and as his firepower increased so the likelihood of their crossing no-man’s-land unscathed to engage the enemy on his territory diminished. Thus, while linear tactics favoured reasonable coordination between the attackers’ artillery and their assault troops, it also favoured the enemy as linear waves presented unmissable targets, especially when the enemy was able to enfilade the attacking waves. Far from being a straightforward problem that might offer a straightforward solution, a quite different approach to infantry assaults was required.

The idea of doing away with rigid linear tactics and adopting a more flexible approach was considered as early as May 1915, when Captain André Laffargue devised tactics of infiltration which avoided the massed frontal assault. These were derived from his own experience and were a variation on the wave theme. No one took much notice of his theories. At much the same time, and quite independently, Major Wilhelm Rohr, who commanded the German Army’s Assault Detachment, also devised tactics of infiltration. The purpose of the Detachment was to develop new tactics for offensive operations. Rohr and his unit tried the new tactics against the French in the Vogues before using them at Verdun. Rohr and the Assault Detachment, renamed Assault Battalion Rohr in April 1916, were the first Stormtroopers.

The artillery barrage, as distinct from the bombardment that preceded an infantry assault, was intended to help the assault by preventing the enemy infantry from bringing their weapons to bear on the attackers. Counter-battery fire, on the other hand, was purely a duel between the guns, a duel which the Germans increasingly lost from about 1917 because the Allies, and the British in particular, could bring a heavier weight of fire to bear. It was clear from early 1916 that artillery had become the dominant force on the battlefield, and battles were won or lost according to how the artillery was used, or, at least, the casualty level was decided on how well the artillery could deal with the enemy. Indeed, when the Australians attacked Pozières during the Somme campaign and did so without a preliminary bombardment, they suffered very high casualties and failed to take their objectives because of German firepower, both from infantry in the trenches and from artillery. The protective barrage in support of an assault was not an alternative to a preliminary bombardment, of course. The problem was how to hit the enemy trenches while the infantry advanced without causing friendly casualties in the process.

The first barrages were no more than lines of bombardment across the width of the battlefield, targeting the front-line trenches. After a fixed time interval, it moved on a somewhat arbitrary distance to lay down another line of shelling beyond the advancing infantry but not necessarily on the next line of trenches. The straight barrage was of very limited help to the infantry who were often left behind by the advancing barrage. The next development was the lifting barrage, first used by the French in early 1915 in the battles in the Artois and Champagne. The barrage still advanced in the same way as the straight barrage but it hit trenches each time it lifted to the next target. By now, the infantry were accompanied by Forward Observation Officers whose job it was to direct the artillery to improve its shooting. In both cases, the artillery employed indirect fire and one of the problems this highlighted was the difficulty of accurately locating the targets due to a lack of reliable maps. Shooting by the map with accuracy was more of an aspiration than an achievable goal before the middle of 1916. Unfortunately for the infantry, the lifting barrage was no easier to follow than the straight barrage. The added disadvantage was the necessity for the guns to fire registration rounds beforehand to ensure that they had the range of the target. In registering the guns, the enemy was, of course, alerted to the targets that were about to be hit and, indeed, to the fact that an offensive was likely in the near future. Suspicions were increased if a lot of guns were firing registration shots. They were easy to identity because of their apparent randomness, although they bracketed what was clearly a target. It was because of this easy identification of registrations that trench mortars hid theirs during an artillery bombardment.

Although the preliminary bombardment also gave away the fact that an offensive was starting, prior registration of the guns was insignificant to overall lack of surprise. Any bombardment that lasted more than a few hours gave the enemy time to move his infantry and his guns. By 1917, greater effort was made to conceal registration shots so that the targets were less likely to be identified by the enemy. With this in mind, every effort was made to conceal the location of gun batteries to avoid counter-battery fire. They were sited on reverse slopes and some batteries remained inactive so that they remained hidden until the moment they opened fire for the offensive.

In 1916, the so-called piled-up barrage was introduced to satisfy the infantry’s need for a barrage that focused on the trace of the enemy trenches. Whereas the earlier barrages moved forward in lines parallel with the gun line and passed over the enemy trenches in the same straight line irrespective of the trace of those trenches, the piled-up barrage concentrated or piled up as it hit the enemy trenches, until the rest of the barrage had caught up, thereby concentrating the fire on the trenches. This ensured that the entire trace was hit simultaneously, which had not been possible with straight-line barrages. Both the straight and lifting barrages had allowed the enemy in those parts of the trench that were ahead of the advancing barrage line to enfilade the infantry to their left or right. The piled-up barrage overcame this problem. However, to be effective, the full extent of the enemy disposition needed to be identified beforehand. Trench raiding and patrolling helped in this respect but there was no foolproof way to locate all the enemy’s trenches or to determine the strength with which he held the various sections. There was also the disadvantage that the attacking infantry had to assault the trenches simultaneously, irrespective of the location of the trenches. In practical terms, this meant that those troops which had the furthest to go to hit the enemy trench allocated to them had to leave their own trenches before those troops which had a short distance to cover. This made them vulnerable to enemy fire.

The creeping barrage was a solution to the problems posed by the piled-up barrage. Now, instead of the barrage moving forward parallel with the gun line, it was parallel with the enemy trench line. For the first time, it was possible for the assaulting infantry to hit the enemy trenches immediately after the barrage had passed over these trenches. To achieve this, the infantry still had to leave their trenches according to their distance from the enemy so that they all hit the enemy, irrespective of the trace of his trenches, at the same time. Unlike with the piled-up barrage, the infantry did not have to wait until the entire enemy line was under the barrage before leaving their trenches, although in practice they had left their trenches before then, but had to slow their advance or speed it up according to the distance between them and their targets. Good planning and execution were necessary with every type of barrage. And in every instance, the infantry had to advance as close to the exploding shells as they could safely get. Hence, rehearsals on ground that replicated the enemy line were carried out before the offensive, although this was not done with live shells.

Until about the middle of 1916, the infantry assault was a linear operation in that it consisted of lines, or waves, of men with specified time intervals between each line, each of which was straight irrespective of the trace of the enemy trenches. The first day of the Battle of the Somme has been made infamous by the fact that the British troops approached the German trenches in straight-line waves. While the idea of infiltrating groups of men was considered, the plan was not taken up. It has passed into folk lore that the reason for this was the lack of faith of the generals in the troops of the New Armies to execute anything but simple manoeuvres on the battlefield, with infiltration and group tactics being considered too sophisticated for their abilities. However, not only is this view of the relationship between British generals and the New Armies quite unfounded, but the reason for using linear wave tactics had nothing to do with any supposed lack of ability on the part of the citizen soldier of Britain’s New Armies. The linear nature of artillery tactics at that time precluded an alternative to linear infantry tactics. To have attempted to employ non-linear infantry tactics would have required a highly complex artillery plan. Moreover, there was a real fear among the planners of the Somme offensive that localizing concentrations of artillery firepower, which nonlinear infantry tactics would require, could lead to sections of the German trenches, and machine-guns in particular, being missed by the barrage. One advantage of the linear barrage was that the whole of the hostile territory was eventually swept by fire so that everything was subjected to shelling before the infantry reached the trenches. To this end, there was one 18-pounder for every 25–30 yards and one howitzer or heavy gun for every 65 yards.

The infantry wave tactic would have been successful had the artillery been able to destroy or neutralize all the enemy machine-guns, some of which were positioned in shell holes in no-man’s-land, as well as between the trench lines, but the artillery had been unable to do this. So long as the waves moved forward according to the timetable in the plan, they could keep up with the barrage. In some areas of the front, the lifts were short enough for a creeping barrage to be created. This was as much a function of the accuracy and precision of the guns as it was a deliberate intention to creep the barrage forwards. But as soon as the leading wave was held up by more resistance than anticipated, such as machine-guns or surviving enemy infantry, the whole assault scheme ran the risk of descending into chaos as each successive wave ran into the back of the preceding wave. For the plan to function smoothly, the timetable had to be followed, which was governed by the artillery lifts and the resistance of the enemy. Had the artillery had the technical sophistication to achieve a precise piled-up barrage rather than an imprecise approximation of one, the effect on the German trenches would have been much more destructive. To achieve a precise piled-up barrage, precise gunnery was needed but, at the time of the Somme, such precision was not technically feasible.

The rise in importance of counter-battery fire meant that more heavy guns were allocated to this role than to infantry support, which hindered the weight of fire in the preliminary bombardment and in the supporting barrages. The Germans discovered in 1915 from their experience on the Eastern Front that surprise and weight of fire were more important to success than bombardments which might last for up to a week. Indeed, contrary to the Allied practice of prolonging bombardments and increasing the weight of fire, the Germans increased their weight of fire but decreased the duration of the bombardment. Whereas the Allies bombarded the Germans on the Somme for a week and the British shelled the Germans at Messines in 1917 for a week, the Germans fired a preliminary bombardment on the French at Verdun for only 10 hours. On 21 March 1918, at the start of the German Michael offensive, the assault was preceded by a bombardment of only 5 hours in which 6,473 guns and 3,532 trench mortars fired millions of shells, including more than 2 million gas shells. German artillery outnumbered British guns by more than 2.5 to 1.

This highlighted the different philosophies of destruction and neutralization. While the Allies had gone down the total destruction road, the Germans had opted for neutralization and had developed their infantry assault tactics accordingly. At the same time, they adapted their defensive policy to reflect the same principals. As the Allies tried ever harder to destroy the German lines before an assault in 1917, so the Germans withdrew the bulk of their infantry and artillery from the forward zones at the start of an Allied offensive, shelled the British trenches when they calculated the assault was about to start, withdrew again and shelled their former positions when the Allies were in possession. Reserves were kept out of artillery range, approximately 5.5 miles to the rear but still within the defence zone. By extending their defence zone the Germans diluted the effect of Allied destruction tactics. They developed island strongpoints each of which was located to take advantage of local topography and road links and sited so that each strongpoint could act cooperatively with its neighbours, thereby creating lethal zones through which attacking infantry would have to pass. And always the Germans used the immediate counter-attack, with ad hoc formations of troops when necessary, to deal with any loss of ground. The notion of linear assault tactics and barrages were made redundant by such defensive measures.

Destruction tactics were applied by the British with ever greater intensity at Vimy Ridge, Messines and Passchendaele. While Vimy and Messines were both limited actions, Third Ypres was a major offensive and, while the limited actions achieved limited successes, Third Ypres became a costly battle of attrition in atrocious conditions which, in terms of its original objectives, was far from a success. At Passchendaele, the tactic of destruction was at last shown to be counter-productive.

The last British offensive of 1917, Cambrai, marked a radical departure from previous artillery and assault tactics. Not only were tactics of neutralization employed by the artillery, but Cambrai saw the first use of massed tank assaults in support of the infantry. The tank had been devised independently by British and French engineers during 1915 and 1916, as a solution to the trench deadlock. British tanks first saw action during the later stages of the Somme battles in September 1916. The French first used theirs in April 1917 during the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive. Neither debut was a success, however, and their achievements, such as they were, were modest. From the outset, tanks were under-gunned, under-armoured, under-powered and mechanically unreliable, while they were quite unsuited to crossing the shell-cratered landscape of the Western Front as they easily stuck in craters and trenches, tended to throw a track on rough ground and sank in mud. Indeed, their unreliability was the biggest cause of operational losses; more tanks broke down or were ditched than were knocked out by enemy action. At Cambria, 378 tanks started out from the start line on the first day of the offensive and, although some tanks remained in continuous action for 16 hours, no fewer than 114 were lost through mechanical failure and ditching, while sixty-five were knocked out by enemy action.

Cambrai also saw the use of aircraft in an air-support role to suppress the enemy’s ability to fight, an operational innovation pioneered by Lieutenant Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, one of the advocates of tank warfare. Moreover, there was an emphasis on air observation for communicating the fall of shot to the artillery batteries. The artillery did not fire registration shots before the battle so that complete surprise was possible. Instead, gunners used predicted fire for counter-battery work. Although predicted fire had been tried before, it was not until late 1917 that it could be relied upon as an effective means by which to hit enemy batteries. Predicted fire was a science, not an art, which combined the technical skills of several disciplines to ensure that the target was hit precisely. Not least among these was map-making. Without accurate maps, no amount of clever gunnery was ever going to result in the intended target being hit except by chance. To this end, thousands of aerial photographs were taken by reconnaissance aircraft flying over enemy-held territory, in support of which fighter aircraft flew escort patrols to prevent enemy aircraft shooting down the reconnaissance planes. From these photographs, accurate maps were prepared and regularly updated using new photographs by the map-making branch at GHQ.

Fundamental to accurate gunnery was an understanding of the science of ballistics. Aspects of this included the weight of the shell, muzzle velocity and the effect of barrel wear on range and accuracy. Such issues applied specifically, not to the artillery in general or to a battery, but to individual guns. Since 1915, gunners had become aware that the rifling in a barrel was worn down by each shot fired and that, as barrels became worn, so accuracy and range diminished. Indeed, shooting from very worn barrels could result in shells landing unpredictably on friendly troops. By the end of 1917, gunners were able to factor all this into their calculations, for each gun, along with the wind speed and direction as well as the air temperature to ensure that the first shot fired from each gun would have a very high probability of hitting the target. Thus, the need to fire registration shots became redundant and tactical and strategic surprise were once more realistic possibilities. Cambrai was the first opportunity for British gunners to put all this into practice. The object at Cambrai was not to destroy the Germans in a prolonged artillery bombardment, like those of the past, but to prevent the enemy from engaging the British artillery, tanks and infantry. In other words, the object was to neutralize the enemy’s ability to fight. With this in mind, smoke and tear gas rounds were fired in addition to high explosive, while the tanks created corridors through the wire obstacles for the infantry and acted as mobile artillery to deal with pillboxes and strongpoints. There was no preliminary bombardment. When zero hour arrived, a creeping barrage from more than 1,000 guns led the way and the tanks and infantry moved forward, 300 yards behind the barrage.

The Germans were completely surprised and overwhelmed. The assault broke into the German line and penetrated to a depth of 5 miles on a 6-mile front in 10 hours, by which time tank crews and infantry were exhausted. Tanks outran their infantry, despite their slow speed. There were no tank reserves so that by the third day there were, in effect, no tanks in action. The initial success could not be exploited and when the Germans counter-attacked ten days after the start of the battle, the advantage had passed to them. The British lost most of the ground they had taken but more importantly they had been stopped from converting the break-in into breakthrough.

During the Cambrai counter-attack, the Germans applied infiltration techniques and used them again in their spring offensives of 1918. At the same time, they applied more flexible artillery tactics that, like the Allied artillery, now no longer focused on destruction, but on neutralization. The object was not so much suppression of the ability of the enemy’s ability to fight, as destruction of their morale by subjecting them to a sudden and very intense bombardment of short duration, followed by an immediate infantry assault. Such artillery tactics were devised by an artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bruchmüller, who tried them out on the Eastern Front before applying them to the Western Front. The Germans also used predicted fire without registration. The new artillery tactics were combined with infantry tactics which emphasized infiltration, as well as fire and movement, and both were integrated in a strategy which sought to apply a heavyweight punch on a short sector of front to achieve a breakthrough. Such tactics were named after General von Hutier who first applied them at Riga on the Eastern Front in September 1917. Part of this overall attack plan included so-called stormtroop tactics which were aggressively applied in the assault phase by elite units of stormtroopers, leaving more conventional troops to deal with pockets of resistance bypassed by the stormtroopers. This was how the spring offensives of 1918 were mounted.