Process of Christianization and Germanization – The Baltic I



The Baltic crusades acted as one element in a cruel process of Christianization and Germanization, providing a religious gloss to ethnic cleansing and territorial aggrandizement more blatant and, in places, more successful than anywhere else. Crusading in the Baltic, first applied to Danish and German anti-Slav aggression between the Elbe and Oder in 1147 during the Second Crusade, cloaked a missionary war which, given the Christian prohibition on forced conversion, represented a contradiction in canon law. These wars directly served local political and ecclesiastical ambitions. The main areas of conquest after 1200 included Prussia, Livonia, Estonia, and Finland. In Prussia, the expansion of land-grabbing German princes in Pomerania gave way to the competing interests of Denmark and the Military Order of Teutonic Knights. This order had originally been founded by Germans in Acre in the wake of the Third Crusade in the 1190s, but because of its regional associations soon became heavily, and ultimately almost exclusively, involved in fighting for the cross in the north. The fighting in Livonia devolved onto the church under the archbishop of Riga and the Military Order of Sword Brothers (founded in 1202). In Estonia the Danes again clashed with the Military Orders, as well as with Swedes and Russians from Novgorod. Finland became the target of Swedish expansion. By the 1230s, control of war and settlement in Prussia, Livonia, and southern Estonia had been taken up by the Teutonic Knights, with whom the Sword Brothers were amalgamated in 1237. In 1226 their Master, Hermann von Salza, was created Imperial prince of Prussia, which was declared a papal fief held by the Teutonic Knights in 1234. Although some specific grants for crusades in the Baltic continued, most of these northern wars adopted the character of ‘eternal crusades’ once Innocent IV in 1245 confirmed the right of the Teutonic Knights to grant crusade indulgences without special papal authorization. This gave the Teutonic Knights a unique status, not held even by the rulers of the kingdom of Jerusalem, of a sovereign government possessed of the automatic right of equating its foreign policy with the crusade. Cashing in on this in the fourteenth century, the Knights developed a sort of chivalric package tour for western nobles eager to see some fighting, enjoy lavish feasting, earn indulgences, and gild their reputations. The Knights’ appeal slackened with their failure to overcome Lithuania-Poland and the conversion of pagan Lithuania in 1386. Their transformation into a secular German principality was completed in 1525 when the Master of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia embraced Lutheranism and secularization. The Livonian branch followed suit in 1562.

On the face of it, the idea that the crusades in the Baltic were directed to conquer holy lands appears fanciful, given that the regions attacked had no Christian pre-history. Yet perhaps precisely because of its extreme incongruity, this concept gained credence: alone of the regimes established in the wake of crusader conquest, Prussia and Livonia were ecclesiastical states. The association came early. A propagandist exhortation to attack the Wends east of the Elbe in 1108 described the campaign as being to liberate ‘our Jerusalem’. This challenging analogy operated in ways that remained central to the early association of crusading with German expansion eastwards; cashing in on the new impetus to holy war provided by the Jerusalem wars; the need to defend Christendom; and the implication that the wars were aimed at recovering lost Christian land. Some lands beyond the Elbe targeted by German crusaders in the twelfth century had been occupied by the Ottonian emperors before the great Slav revolt of 983 drove them back. Other areas had experienced more recent missionizing of fluctuating success. On the shifting German-Slav frontier, areas that had been conquered, even as far back as the tenth century, and then lost could attract accusations of apostasy. This confusion could work the other way; one contingent of the 1147 crusaders found themselves besieging recently Christianized Stettin.

The distinctive character of the Baltic crusades lay in the explicit alliance of crusade and conversion, or, as saintly Bernard of Clairvaux put it, conversion or extermination. Innocent III freely employed the language of compulsion to ‘drag the barbarians into the net of orthodoxy’. This unsound doctrine acknowledged the religious component in ethnicity, cultural identity, and racial awareness. In contrast with Spain or the Near East, in the Baltic, conversion came as the inevitable corollary and recognition of conquest. Paradoxically, this allowed for greater cultural accommodation and transmission from Slav to German and vice versa. Descendants of the pagan Wendish prince Niklot, victim of the first crusader attack in 1147 and killed by Christians in 1160, became the Germanized princes and dukes of Mecklenberg, one of whom joined a crusade to Livonia in 1218. However repellent to the religiously fastidious, enforced conversion worked; by 1400 the Baltic had become a Latin Christian lake, even if elements of pagan culture swam freely beneath the surface. Conversion not backed by coercion would have had a harder struggle, as the successful resistance of pagan Lithuania showed, only accepting conversion undefeated on its own terms in 1386. The application of crusading incentives from the mid-twelfth century did not manufacture this link between force and faith, it merely recognized a process of cultural and political Imperialism already well established.

Crusading in the Baltic contributed to the twelfth-century German expansion into territory between the Elbe and Oder and western Pomerania; thirteenth-century German penetration into the southern Baltic lands between the Vistula and Niemen, Prussia, Courland, and later, in the fourteenth century, Pomerelia west of the Vistula; the transmarine colonization of Livonia by a combination of churchmen and merchants from German trading centres such as Lübeck and Bremen; the aggressive expansionism of the Danish crown, especially in northern Estonia; and the advance of the Swedes into Finland. Until the thirteenth century crusading, as opposed to more general associations of war with Divine favour, played only an intermittent role. The application of crusade privileges to the summer raids on the western Wends during the Second Crusade in 1147 had more to do with buying Saxon support and internal peace within the empire in Conrad III’s absence in the Holy Land than the institution of a new sustained crusade front. One of the protagonists in the 1147 expeditions, Albert the Bear, did not need crusade privileges to carve out a principality of Brandenberg beyond the Elbe; his territorial acquisitiveness was in any case portrayed by apologists as attracting God’s approval. Such conquests went together with the implanting of bishoprics and monasteries and so earned clerical plaudits. The secular reality was brutal for the conquered, harsh for the German and Flemish settlers, and, as one pious frontier priest lamented, encouraged the avarice rather than the piety of another 1147 crusader, Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Between 1147 and 1193 only one papal crusade grant was directed towards the Baltic, in 1171. However, the often savage wars of conquest and conversion conducted against the Slavs by the German princes and kings of Denmark were recognized by the papacy as ‘inspired with the heavenly flame, strengthened by the arms of Christ, armed with the shield of faith and protected by divine favour’, as Alexander III put it in 1169. Nonetheless, to ascribe responsibility for medieval German Imperialism on the crusade would be misleading; one might as well accuse the Christian Church. It might also be added that the Baltic pagans were no less keen on massacring opponents and eradicating symbols of an alien faith. Although, except in Lithuania, the pagan holy wars ended in defeat this does not mean they did not happen.

Process of Christianization and Germanization – The Baltic II



The real impetus towards affixing technical apparatus of crusading – vow, cross, indulgence, and so on – to Christian conquest in the Baltic came when attention shifted from the western Slavs of the southern Baltic to the heathen tribes further east, in Livonia, Estonia, Finland, and Prussia, the theatres of crusading operations that dominated the period from the 1190s. While defence of the missionary churches established in Livonia or Estonia around 1200 were relatively easily justified, support for extensive conquests in either region, still less in Prussia, demanded these areas acquire a new holy status. Each answered this need in different ways. The campaigns of the kings of Denmark along the southern Baltic coast and the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland in northern Estonia attracted sporadic papal grants of crusade privileges familiar elsewhere, while the monarchs surrounded themselves with the useful aura of Christian warriors, ‘active knights of Christ’, to justify foreign conquest and internal authority. The pagans were to be rooted out by force and Christendom expanded. Here the conquerors were performing holy tasks and thus their conquests, by incorporation into Christendom, became ipso facto holy.

Away from the muddled but powerful religiosity of Christian monarchy, the consecration of crusade targets followed more precise lines. From c.1202, the missionary bishop of Riga recruited a religious order of knights, the Militia of Christ or Sword Brothers, to defend and extend his diocese in Livonia centred on the River Dvina. A few years later his colleague on the Polish-Prussian frontier assembled a similar body, the Militia of Christ of Livonia against the Prussians, also known as the Knights of Dobrin (or Dobryzin) after their original headquarters on the Vistula. Again, the status of the conquests was defined by that of the conquerors, bishops, and sworn professed, as well as professional, knights of Christ. The dedication of the Christian settlement created at Riga by the missionaries and merchants to the Virgin Mary allowed Livonia to be depicted as the land of the Mother of God, her dowry, allowing crusade apologists in the region to describe crusaders there as pilgrims or ‘the militia of pilgrims’. This brought them further into line with crusaders elsewhere; even crusaders against the Albigensians were called pilgrims by some, almost as a sine qua non of legitimacy. The first two churches built in the new town of Riga before 1209 were dedicated to Mary, the patroness, and Peter, the guarantor of ecclesiastical privileges. When the Teutonic Knights took over war and government in both Prussia and Livonia in the 1230s, absorbing the other military orders in the process, and from 1245 the direction of a permanent crusade in the region, the identification with the Virgin Mary was complete, as she was the patroness of the German order. In Livonia the knights bore her image as a war banner. With the papacy designating Prussia a papal fief (as part of its anti-Imperial policy) in 1234, the Teutonic Knights’ territory was doubly sanctified. In the absence of a historic justification for war, a late thirteenth-century rhyming chronicle from Livonia, probably by a Teutonic Knight, insinuated a transcendent context. Beginning his work with accounts of the Creation, Pentecost, and the missions of the Early Church, the author admitted that no apostle reached Livonia, unlike the myth of James converting Spain. Instead, a higher mission was being pursued in the wastes of the eastern Baltic, the holy task begun by the Apostles of proselytizing the world now carried forward through service and death in the armies of the Mother of God in defence of Her land.

Such literary devices could reassure participants and attract recruits while not fully reflecting the nature of war in Prussia, Livonia, and Estonia. Not all enemies were pagan. In Estonia, the Teutonic Knights competed for power with fellow crusaders, the Danes. In 1242 an attack on the Orthodox Christians of Russian Pskov ended in the famous defeat on Lake Peipus/Chud by Alexander Nevsky, evocatively imagined in Eisenstein’s memorable propagandist film. In Prussia, especially in the west, German and Flemish settlement appeared substantial; in Livonia and Estonia, only accessible by a tricky and expensive sea voyage when the water was free of ice, negligible and almost exclusively limited to the fortified religious trading posts on the main rivers. Prussia witnessed a slow process of acculturation similar to that between the Elbe and the Oder. Slavs became Germans, an uncomfortable thought for later racial nationalists on both sides of the linguistic divide. The judicial pluralism and segregation familiar from other crusading fronts did not prevent the Prussians adopting elements of German inheritance laws. Over generations, the brutality of forced conversion, occupation, alien settlement, and discrimination against natives transformed Prussia into a distinctively German province. By contrast, only a small military, clerical, and commercial elite survived in Estonia and Livonia, where the Teutonic Knights remained until 1562, 37 years after the order’s secularization in Prussia. In the shadow of this past, Hitler, with his obscenely warped historical squint, rejected the loss of any part of Prussia from the Reich, demanding Memel, established by the German invaders in 1252, from the Lithuanians in March 1939, an act that provoked Britain’s guarantee to protect Poland. Yet a few months later, he consigned the Baltic states to the lot of the Russians as if they were less ‘German’.

However, the link from the Teutonic Knights to the SS and the nationalized racism of the Third Reich, lovingly traced by Himmler and his historically illiterate ghouls, relied on rancid imagination not fact. The crusades did not drive the expansion of German power, nor the expansion of Spain. Wider cultural, economic, demographic, social, and technological forces did that. In so far as these impulses were articulated in religious terms, crusading offered a particular vocabulary, both practical and inspirational, that could service self-referential ideologies and self-righteous policies of domination. Holy symbols achieved cultural and political significance, the Catholic churches and churchmen transmitted a distinctive western culture, yet, for all their importance, in the expansion of Latin Christendom across its frontiers, the grammar and syntax remained resolutely secular.

Liege 1914 – 21-cm Morser -The Destroyer of the Forts


21 cm Mörser 10.


In the 1913–14 war plan, the younger Moltke determined that Germany would concentrate the mass of her army – sixty-eight divisions – against France and only nine against Russia (with two reserve divisions watching the North Sea coast against a British landing). Unless the French attacked first, and in strength, in Lorraine, the main German attack would be made through Belgium north of the Meuse. Moltke could not risk having an intact Liège cutting the supply lines of the German 1st and 2nd Armies.

Heereskavalleriekorps 2 (HKK 2 – 2nd Cavalry Corps) would advance with 2 and 4 Kavalleriedivision (KD – Kavalleriedivision – cavalry division) to cross the Meuse north of Liège to take up a position north-east of the fortress and send patrols into Belgium. 9 KD would operate south of Liège.

To take Liège quickly, six brigades, that had not had time to mobilise and were still at peacetime strength (about 25,000 infantry, 124 field artillery pieces and four 21cm mortars) would conduct a quick attack on the night of the fourth to fifth mobilisation days in order to pass between the individual forts, before the Belgians had time to prepare field fortifications between them. The routes had been reconnoitred and established by German General Staff officers in peacetime, who were to act as guides in wartime. In almost all cases the routes followed a major road; little or no attempt was made to infiltrate cross-country. They would seize the city – which was not protected by a wall – and the individual forts would presumably see the futility of further resistance and surrender. ‘Presumably’ because the only notes that still exist concerning the coup de main against Liège are in 1913–14 German deployment orders (1913–14 Aufmarschweisungen), which do not state why or how, if the forts did not surrender outright, that five brigades of infantry (six in 1914), supported by four 21cm mortars, were going to take twelve forts.

The only logical explanation is that Moltke was assuming that Liège would be completely unprepared to defend itself. Moltke apparently expected that in addition to the garrison of the forts, the Belgians would have the peacetime garrison of 6,000 men and 3,000 Garde Civique. Not only would there be no Belgian forces in the intervals between the forts, allowing the German brigades unopposed passage into the city proper, but that the forts too would be unready: best case, still in peacetime caretaker status, worst case without their complete garrison and store of munitions and supplies. Under such circumstances, one or two forts might be overrun or surrender and the rest of the forts would recognise the futility of further resistance. Moreover, it was no state secret that the Belgian 3 DA HQ was at Liège. The German attack had to be made before 3 DA was combat-ready.

The General Staff brochure, Liège-Namur, written in 1918, says that Ludendorff was responsible for ‘the concept and preparation of the attack’. Ludendorff says that the coup de main against Liège was his idea, with the caveat that, once inside the central city and in possession of the citadel it would be possible to easily reduce the individual forts. Ludendorff said that in 1914 he was assigned to the 2nd Army, which had the responsibility of conducting the operation, because of his knowledge of the Liège attack, which was otherwise a closely guarded General Staff secret.

In fact it seems likely that Ludendorff, who had no particular expertise in fortress warfare and was the chief of the Aufmarschabteilung (deployment section) of the General Staff, had no more responsibility for planning the attack than preparing the rail-march tables. Kabisch says that the detailed plan for conducting the attack was written by Brigadier General Schwarte and Section 4 (Western Fortresses) of the great General Staff. The plan was first developed in the 1908–09 Aufmarsch (deployment plan).

If the first attack failed, it would be repeated on the tenth day of mobilisation. If Liège had not fallen by the twelfth day of mobilisation, it would be necessary to transit Dutch territory at Maastricht.

The Liège Myth

Any history of the Battle of Liège attributes the fall of the fortress almost exclusively to the effect of the super-heavy German 42cm guns, an explanation that the Germans fostered themselves, since it emphasised the effectiveness of a German ‘wonder weapon,’ which would presumably demoralise the enemy. This is clearly the intent of the German official history Der Weltkrieg I, which emphasises the 42cm to the exclusion of the rest of the German siege artillery. The Belgians, Moranville in the lead, attributed the fall of Liège entirely to the German super-heavy artillery, which excused the rapid surrender of the Belgian forts. These monster guns continue to fascinate historians of the Marne campaign and their readers.

Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August combines ‘common knowledge’ with dramatic prose and is therefore the most popular book on the Marne campaign. She gives her imagination free rein: for example, according to Tuchman the Austrian Skoda 30.5cm mortars were employed at Liège (they weren’t), and the destruction of Liège was caused solely by super-heavy artillery; the German 21cm mortars are not mentioned.

John Keegan’s The First World War, an exceptionally popular and influential military history, repeats the Liège ‘common knowledge’ verbatim: according to Keegan, the destruction of the Liège forts was due solely to the German 42cm guns. Keegan dutifully footnotes his sole source concerning Liège, Christopher Duffy’s ‘The Liège Forts’ in Purnell’s History of the First World War, I, 131–8. This is a useful demonstration of how ‘common knowledge’ becomes entrenched. Purnell’s was a populist weekly magazine, first published in 1970, which had 128 issues. Each magazine was about thirty pages long and covered perhaps four different topics. Each article was heavily illustrated with drawings and photos: Duffy’s had four fully illustrated pages, two half-illustrated and only two of text. Duffy cited eight sources, only two of which had specific information about the siege of Liège. This is not a well-researched article, which would explain why the 21cm are mentioned once. For good measure, Duffy throws in the participation of the Austrian 30.5cm, which never fired at Liège. The strongest part of the article are drawings of the 30.5cm and 42cm. But the 42cm get credit for everything.

In fact, nine of the twelve Liège forts were destroyed by just thirty-two German 21cm mortars, exactly the gun calibre that Liège was designed to defeat. Only one fort, Loncin, fell to the 42cm gun fire – Pontisse had been wrecked by 21cm fire before the 42cm arrived – and even here the 42cm fire was supplemented by the fire of other weapons. The last two forts surrendered, one while under a short period of 21cm fire, the other while not under fire at all.

And Liège fell with dizzying speed. Fort Barchon was reduced on 8 August by the fire of six 21cm mortars, d’Evegnée on 11 August by four 21cm mortars in two days of bombardment. The mass of the siege artillery, almost exclusively 21cm mortars, arrived on 12 August. Three forts fell on 13 August, two on 14 August, three on 15 August and the remaining two on the morning of 16 August. The German siege artillery, and principally the four battalions (thirty-two guns total) of the hard-hitting, mobile 21cm mortar of FAR 4 and 9, had reduced Liège in less than four days.

Development of German Siege Artillery

Armies fight the way they have trained to fight. Behind the brilliant successes of the German heavy artillery at Liège, then Namur, Maubeuge and Antwerp, lay nearly twenty years’ worth of work in developing doctrine, equipment, and good, hard training, especially the live-fire shoots at the artillery MTA and the fortress General Staff exercises. Lombard reported that from the very start German artillery fire was ‘devastatingly accurate’.

By 1883 the German siege artillery faced the daunting prospect of massive French fortifications from Verdun to Belfort, and Antwerp, which led the Chief of the General Staff, Schlieffen, and the General Inspector of the Artillery, to develop the ‘Heavy Artillery of the Field Army’ (schwere Artillerie des Feldheeres), which would consist of a battalion of 15cm guns at the corps level and 21cm guns at the army level.

In 1902 the corps batteries began to receive the new 15cm schwere Feldhaubitze 02 (sFH 02). This was a revolutionary new design, with a recoil brake which kept the gun stable in position and allowed a far more accurate and higher rate of fire. The steel gun tube reduced weight and increased mobility. Maximum effective range went from 6,000m to 7,400m. A battery consisted of four guns and two munitions wagons, a battalion of four batteries and a light munitions column. The mission of the howitzers was to provide corps general support artillery, conducting counter-battery fire against field artillery equipped with armoured shields, and against dug-in infantry. It was not a siege weapon.

The German 21cm mortar in the 1890s was ‘extremely unwieldy’. In 1909 the army-level artillery received the new 21cm mortar, which also had a recoil brake, an armoured gun shield, weighed about 9000kg and fired a 100kg shell 9,400m. It was broken down to three pieces for movement. A particular innovation was the Radgürtel: a wheel with flexible rectangular wooden plates affixed. One plate was always in contact with the ground, and significantly reduced the ground pressure generated by firing the weapon, and therefore no longer required a special base plate. A battery included six OFF, thirty-five NCOs, 218 EM and 150 horses. Each mortar battalion had two batteries, each with four guns, and a light munitions column. The mission of the 21cm mortars was to engage French border fortifications, especially the Sperrforts located between the four main fortresses. There was also a 13cm flat-trajectory gun with a range of 15km, which in siege operations would allow rear-area lines of communications to be engaged in depth.

For a considerable period the largest German siege weapon was an older-type 30.5cm mortar which had been introduced in 1893. It had a maximum effective range of 7km and a shell weighing 400kg. Its official designation was a ‘heavy coastal mortar’ and its code name was ‘β-Gerät’ – ‘β apparatus’. Initially it was moved on narrow-gauge field railways, later on tractor-pulled trailers. Only nine were purchased. It was followed in 1909 by ‘β-Gerät 09’, which was also pulled by tractors and trailers. Only two of these were acquired.

In 1909 the heavy artillery also acquired a 42cm ‘short naval mortar’ (kurze Marinekanone) with a range of 14km and a 930kg shell. Its code name was γ-Gerät. It needed to be moved by regular rail line into the firing position. Firing tests showed that the weapon had outstanding accuracy as well as a very effective shell, so that in 1913–14 four more were delivered. The disadvantage of the mortar was its great weight and consequent dependence on rail mobility.

The success of the Radgürtel for the 21cm mortar led the artillery commission to use it for heavier weapons. To test this, in 1910 Krupp developed a 28cm howitzer on a wheeled Radgürtel chassis, in 1911 a 30.5cm howitzer.

In 1914 the German field army had 408 15cm howitzers, 112 21cm mortars, sixteen 10cm guns, one 28cm howitzer on a wheeled carriage, twelve 30cm mortars and seven 42cm mortars. The reserve foot artillery units included 400 15cm howitzers, 176 10cm guns and thirty-two 13cm guns. There were 420 pieces of heavy artillery without horse teams and 834 pieces of heavy fortress artillery.



‘Big Bertha’ – The 42cm Mortar and Short Naval Cannon Battery 37

In 1913 Krupp produced a 42cm howitzer on a Radgürtel wheeled chassis under the code name ‘M-Gerät’. It had an 800kg shell, with 150kg of explosive filler, and a 9,300m range.

It was road-transportable in five sections, although each of the five pieces weighed between 16–21 metric tons (16,000–21,000kg). Each prime mover was 5m long, the entire vehicle 12m. In total the mortar weighed 70 metric tons (70,000kg). The mortar could be reassembled using a crane in four hours, but six to eight hours of hard work was necessary to prepare the entire mortar position. It is easy to see the mobility advantage possessed by the 21cm howitzer, which weighed about an eighth as much.

The availability of high-capacity mechanical prime movers was the prerequisite for the towed 42cm mortar. Even heavy draft horses were limited to loads of 6,000kg, and only for a limited time. In the absence of mechanical prime movers, heavy guns and mortars could only be moved by rail and fired from on or next to the tracks. The first experiments with mechanical prime movers were conducted in exercises at Metz in 1908.

Short Naval Cannon Battery 3 was pulled by requisitioned agricultural steam ploughs and locomotives. Although they weighed 2,000kg, they had never been designed as artillery prime movers and therefore were of limited tactical usefulness, as they could not pull such colossal loads for long distances. They also varied considerably in size and manufacturer. They required large quantities of coal and water and gave off clouds of black smoke. The crews were their usual farm drivers. Nevertheless, this field-expedient mobility for the 42cm was a resounding success. Due to Belgian demolitions the rail-mobile guns would never have got near Liège in time to affect the outcome of the battle.

All this made the choice of a firing position difficult. In addition, once the mortar was emplaced, the barrel could move left and right only as much as necessary to adjust fire. Shifting targets required a prime mover to haul the trail of the mortar around, necessitating an even larger gun position.

Ten to fifteen 900kg shells were brought forward on each rail wagon to be offloaded at a rail siding about 15km from the battery position, onto lorries, three to a vehicle. Unloaded near the gun position, each shell and powder charge were put onto a shell carrier and pushed by three men along a plank road to the gun position. They were hauled up to the loading tray by the ammunition crane on the mortar. The range was regulated in part by the size of the powder charge, in part by the elevation of the mortar

The first test-firing of two M-Gerät mortars took place at Krupp’s private firing range at Meppen in February 1914, followed by more test-firing at the artillery MTA at Kummersdorf. These required ‘certain improvements’ on the mortars. Mobility exercises were conducted using the steam agricultural tractors near the Krupp works at Essen. Large farms were given subsidies to have the tractors on hand when needed.

A total of four batteries with seven 42cm mortars were on hand in 1914: three rail batteries with five mortars and one battery with two wheel-mobile mortars.

The development of the mobile, fast-firing, highly accurate 21cm mortar, directed by FOs with telephones, led the German siege artillery to develop a new form of siege warfare, the verkürztes Verfahren, a hasty attack. Where normal siege doctrine required a laborious and methodical deployment and advance, in the verkürztes Verfahren the 21cm would rapidly occupy a defilade position, followed by an immediate, intense bombardment and, if necessary, quick assault by infantry and combat engineers. At Liège the Germans employed the verkürztes Verfahren, and not the conventional siege doctrine, with devastating effectiveness, and which caught the Belgians and French completely by surprise.

RAF 1936 Bomber Specifications



A feature of the 1936 bomber specifications that had unlooked for beneficial repercussions was the requirement that the medium bomber P. 13/36 should be capable of modification to carry torpedoes. When tenders to specification P. 13/36 were received, it was found that provision to carry two 18 in. torpedoes (which were 18 ft long) without altering the main structure of the aircraft, or losing performance, was causing design difficulties. This led the DDOR (Oxland) to review the discussion on this issue that had taken place at the two Operational Requirements Committee meetings on P.13/36. He told the DCAS (Peirse) that the Coastal Command representative had given his C-in-C’s view that the aircraft was too large and expensive for a torpedo bomber. Even so, the then DCAS (Courtney) had argued that whilst there was the possibility of a limitation on the numbers of first-line aircraft, it was desirable that every unit should be as effective in war as possible. As we have seen, a muted form of the torpedo-carrying requirement was therefore included in the requirements.

Oxland recommended that as a dedicated torpedo bomber was now under development (B.10/36 — Bristol Beaufort) the torpedo requirement should be deleted from P.13/36. Alternatively, he said, provision could be made for a limited number of the aircraft to have larger bomb doors and so on.

The Operations and Plans branches of the Air Staff did not agree with deletion of the torpedo requirement. They advised Peirse that the Admiralty had yet to be persuaded that, ‘the “B” bomb is in every way a more efficient weapon with which to attack ships’, and that a torpedo bomber version of P. 13/36 should be developed until the Admiralty was convinced otherwise. (The ‘B’ bomb was designed to be dropped in the path of a ship, sink, and then rise to strike the bottom of the ship as it passed over.)

This discussion was made redundant when the Operational Requirements branch announced that it had new information on the size of torpedoes. It now found that the Avro P. 13/36 could carry only one internally, and that in any case existing torpedoes could not be released at 150 mph from 200 ft. If this was relevant, the DCAS (Peirse) must have wondered how the idea of torpedo carrying for P.13/36 had arisen in the first place. It appears that the Operational Requirements branch had given no more thought to the operational problems of torpedo dropping than they were later found to have given to catapult launching. Peirse decided that torpedo carrying would no longer be asked of the P.13/36 bombers. Nevertheless, the long bomb bay that had been required was to prove valuable when bombs larger than the 2,000 lb were found to be needed.

A common misconception regarding RAF bomber specifications is that they always sought to combine bomber and troop transport requirements, and it is suggested that this applied to the 1936 bomber specifications. We have seen that the requirement that a heavy bomber should be designed so as to carry troops was indeed included in the first draft specification for the B.3/34 (Whitley). The Air Staff had been led to believe that this additional role could be obtained without a reduction in its performance as a bomber. It was dropped from the specification after discussions with industry, and after the DTD admitted it would result in a loss of 10 mph in speed.

The 1936 bomber specifications (B.12/36 and P.13/36) stated:

Consideration is to be given in design for fitting a light removable form of seating for the maximum number of personnel that can be accommodated within the fuselage when the aircraft is being used for reinforcing Overseas Commands.

This was certainly not demanding provision for troop carrying. Seating was to be fitted in the fuselage, not that the fuselage was to be designed to take seating. Moreover, it referred to the need to transport RAF ground crew to RAF Overseas Commands — a concomitant of the introduction of a reinforcement range into bomber requirements. Significantly, only after the 1936 bomber specifications had been issued did the Air Staff investigate using them as transports, and proposed a provisional allocation of funds for a new transport in case this was not possible. But when this proposition was discussed it was decided that one of the bombers ‘must’ be used as a transport. In a later lecture to the Higher Commanders’ Course the point was made that these bombers ‘will have all the necessary cabin space, lift capacity and range to fulfil the bomber transport primary role and its secondary functions as well’. Nevertheless, the lecturer noted that ‘by reason of the multiplicity of internal installations in the fuselage the troops may not enjoy the same degree of comfort available in present types’. Indeed, when Bomber Command officers inspected the mock-up of the Supermarine design to B.12/36, far from finding accommodation for fully armed troops, they were concerned as to whether there was adequate room for the crew. They reported that headroom throughout the fuselage was restricted, and that even the captain and navigator did not have room to stand. Clearly a troop carrying requirement did not dominate — or even influence — the design of RAF bombers.

Another aspect of the future development of the aircraft designed to the 1936 bomber specifications was of great significance. We have seen that when Sir Edward Ellington saw the Air Staff Requirement for the new heavy bomber B.12/36, he asked for 20mm cannon armament to be considered. The Air Staff advised that this was neither possible nor necessary. Their reasoning was unsound, and the policy was soon reversed, but it was then too late to modify any of the designs to the 1936 bomber specifications, although attempts were made.

When the cannon fighter (F.37/35) was devised, the replacement of eight 0.303 in. machine guns by half that number of 20mm cannon was regarded as a major increase in armament. Yet, in response to Ellington’s request for consideration of cannon armament for bombers, Oxland examined only the replacement of machine guns by the same number of 20mm cannon. From this premise he argued that for a four-gun tail turret, the extra weight of cannon so far aft of the centre of gravity was unacceptable — hardly an insurmountable obstacle for aircraft which were yet to be designed. He added that recoil loads would give grave problems except for firing almost directly astern. For a two-gun midships turret, Oxland claimed that whilst the weight would be half that of the tail turret, the weight of the ammunition needed for an aircraft which would spend long periods over hostile territory was unacceptable. We will see that this self-contradictory argument was replaced in 1938 by recognition that it was worth exchanging half the bomb load for ammunition if that made it more likely that the remainder would get through. For the nose turret, Oxland said that cannon would obstruct the bomb aimer, and would be too heavy if beam fire was wanted. He then claimed that these difficulties could be avoided because a bomber did not need the extra range of a big gun.

This argument had appeared in the Operation Requirements branch’s review of fighter and bomber armament that we noted in our discussion of fighter firepower. It reasoned that when attacked from astern the effective range of a bomber’s firing was considerably shortened as compared with that of the attacking fighter. If we think of a fighter flying directly astern of a bomber, and at the same speed, then from the moment a projectile leaves the bomber the fighter is flying towards it, thus closing the effective range. Conversely, the range of the fighter’s firing opens, because the bomber is moving away from it. This theory was irrelevant to defence against beam or frontal attacks, and therefore to midships and nose turrets. Nevertheless, Oxland claimed that it largely disposed of one of the two supposed advantages of 20mm guns. As regards the other advantage of cannon — an explosive shell — he said that the stage had not been reached ‘where this can be utilised effectively without severe disadvantages’. There had been no mention of such difficulties when he and Sorley had advocated cannon armament for RAF fighters in the previous year — they then claimed that one hit from a 20mm round could be decisive.

Little more than a year after Oxland had argued against 20mm cannon armament for the B.12/36 he was advising Plans branch of the Air Staff that bombers of the immediate future would need to be armed with 20mm guns, and later with 37—40 mm guns.96 This was confirmed in a review of bomber armament in June 1938.

Plans were made to fit 20mm cannon to Mark II versions of the Stirling, Halifax and Manchester, but by then the centre of gravity issue was decisive because it had not been designed for in 1936. Experiments with twin 20mm cannon upper and lower midships turret for the Stirling and Halifax found that it was difficult to balance the aircraft even with the tail turret omitted entirely. W.S. Farren (then DD/RDA) explained to the Air Fighting Committee in 1940 that nevertheless this was the only way of having 20mm guns on existing bombers. He said that to have cannon in a tail turret, ‘they would have to start again from the beginning’.

The outcome of the 1936 bomber specifications was remarkable. On the one hand, the prospect of catapult take-off led to a requirement for a relatively small heavy bomber to carry a very large bomb load or have a longer range than that sought in earlier specifications. On the other hand, the desire for a multi-role high-speed medium bomber with a maximum range of 3,000 miles led to a relatively large aircraft of this type. Misleading interpretations of the Air Staff’s intentions in 1936 most likely arise from a retrospective view of the development of the aircraft designed to meet these requirements. It transpired that the aircraft designed to the medium bomber specification (P.13/36) embodied the potential for development into more successful heavy bombers (Halifax and Manchester/Lancaster) than that designed to the heavy bomber specification, B.12/36 (Stirling). That this was possible can be traced to three technical features of the medium bomber specification — gross overloading with catapult take-off, fuel tankage for a range of 3,000 miles, and provision for the internal stowage of torpedoes.

Initial designs to specification P.13/36 needed to be stressed for catapulting at maximum overload, and to have internal stowage for the overload bomb and fuel load. In addition, provision had to be made for an unobstructed bomb bay if some of the aircraft were to be modified to serve as torpedo bombers. These additions to the normal requirements gave scope for the future development of the aircraft which followed from the specification after both torpedo carrying and catapult take-off had been abandoned. There was space for much larger bombs than were envisaged in 1936, and the potential for operation with large bomb loads using a longer conventional take-off run.

The first step towards the transformation of the intended medium to a heavy bomber came from Handley Page. Soon after commencing design to P. 13/36 the company concluded that the aircraft would be very similar to their on-going design to B.1/35 — the ‘Americanised’ B.3/34 heavy bomber specification. They asked the Air Ministry if they could stop work on their contract for B.1/35 and absorb it into their P.13/36 design. This was agreed.

Both the Handley Page and Avro P.13/36 bombers were initially designed to be powered by two Vulture engines as anticipated by Verney. But on Air Ministry instructions the Handley Page design was soon changed to four Merlins, and was thought to meet the P.13/36 maximum overload requirement without assisted take-off, albeit with a long conventional take-off. Avro continued with the Vulture engine, but this proved a failure, and the P.13/36 Manchester was modified to the Lancaster, also with four Merlins. Thus the Air Ministry’s misplaced faith in the catapult scheme finished back where Liptrot’s first estimates for a new heavy bomber had started — with bombers powered by four Merlins — albeit derived from requirements for a medium bomber.

Poland – Out of Dismemberment! I




The dismemberment of the Commonwealth presents the historian of Poland with something of a dilemma: should he henceforth chart the progress of each of the orphan nations—the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Jews, Germans and other minorities which inhabited its territory—or should he concentrate on the Poles? The latter would appear to be the sensible course, but it raises the immediate question: which Poles? Somewhere around 90 per cent of ethnic Poles were illiterate peasants with no national consciousness, while the Polish ‘political nation’ of the szlachta and the new educated middle class was made up of every nationality represented in the Commonwealth.

To most of the peasants, the question of which kingdom or empire they might be living in was irrelevant, and they would pray for the Austrian Emperor in church on Sunday as readily as for the King of Poland. Much the same went for the Jews, who had no reason to feel any reluctance to transfer their loyalty to new masters. The German minority had no difficulty in becoming faithful subjects of the King of Prussia or the Emperor of Austria, or even the Tsar of Russia. The Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians faced a less congenial future under Russian rule, since this was accompanied by a programme of cultural and religious assimilation. But while that made some retain bonds of loyalty to the Polish world of which they had been part, it led others to search for a new identity of their own.

The constitution of 3 May 1791 had been, as much as anything else, a kind of regenerative act of faith and a pledge of a new start for the Polish project. It would have gradually turned the multicultural Commonwealth into a more homogeneous multi-ethnic nation bound together by a set of shared political values. And although both constitution and country were swept away, the political class that had brought it into being remained faithful to that vision; as a result their struggle for the restoration of a Polish state was based not on Polish ethnicity, but on the entire population of the former Commonwealth.

This introduced tensions, not only between the Polish supporters of this project and ethnic groups such as the Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, but also within these. Some in these groups embraced loyalty to their new masters, but others yearned for a national identity of their own, distinct from both the Polish and the Russian. While these tensions form an integral part of it, the history of Poland in the period when there was no sovereign Polish state must be the history of the efforts and struggles of those who saw themselves as the guardians of the ideals of the Commonwealth and its political testament—particularly as those struggles flowed from the events of 1792 and 1794.

Champions of the Polish cause were back in the field against the three powers before the ink had dried on the treaties of partition. In Paris Józef Wybicki was planning a rising in Poland in connection with a French attack on Austria. A secret confederation was formed in Kraków, and in 1796 Colonel Denisko assembled a force of 1,000 men in Moldavia under the covert protection of the Porte which he led into action against the Austrians. In 1797 a regular Polish army was formed under French aegis.

The thousands of Polish soldiers who had taken refuge in Revolutionary France after the collapse of Kościuszko’s insurrection had been absorbed into the French army, but when it emerged that many of the prisoners taken by the French in the Italian campaign were Poles conscripted by the Austrians in Galicia, General Bonaparte decided to concentrate them in discrete units. In 1797 a Polish Legion was formed in Milan under the command of Jan Henryk Dąbrowski. The soldiers wore Polish uniforms, Italian epaulettes and French cockades, and marched to a song written by Józef Wybicki which would, in the twentieth century, become the Polish national anthem. In 1798 a second Polish Legion was formed in Italy under General Zajączek and in 1800 a third, the Legion of the Vistula, on the Danube under General Kniaziewicz.

The Poles who fought in these legions believed that after liberating northern Italy from Austrian rule they would march through Hungary into Galicia, from where they would launch an insurrection throughout Poland. But after the Treaties of Campo Formio (1797) and Lunéville (1801), in which France made peace with Austria and other members of the coalition, the legions became an inconvenient embarrassment. Dąbrowski’s temporarily became the army of the new state of Lombardy, some of the Polish units were disbanded, others were scattered throughout the French army, and one contingent 6,000 strong was sent to subjugate the black rebellion in Saint Domingue. Many felt let down by Bonaparte, but this was not to be the end of the Polish Napoleonic dream.

Although the image of the legions fighting for Poland’s freedom in faraway lands haunted the young, more pragmatic supporters of the cause applied themselves to diplomatic solutions. Chief among these was Prince Adam Czartoryski, son of Adam Kazimierz. After the 1794 Insurrection, in which he took part, he was sent to St Petersburg as a hostage for his family’s good behaviour. There he befriended his contemporary the Grand Duke Alexander, an idealistic young man enthused by the ideas of the Enlightenment and eager to right what he saw as the wrong of the partition of Poland. When he ascended the throne in 1801, Alexander nomin—ated a ‘Committee for Public Salvation’ consisting of five close advisers which was to transform Russia into a modern constitutional monarchy. Czartoryski was given the brief of foreign affairs, and also placed in charge of education in the former Polish territories, the eight Western Gubernias of the Empire.

Czartoryski encouraged Alexander’s dislike of Prussia in the hope that sooner or later Russia might recover the parts of Poland taken by Prussia, add them to her own share, and recreate a Polish state more or less loosely tied to Russia. It was, however, Napoleon who beat Prussia, in 1806. After the battles of Jena and Auerstadt his armies entered Poznań, led by a Polish corps under General Dąbrowski. Napoleon allowed Dąbrowski to issue a call for insurrection, adding his taunt: ‘I want to see whether the Poles deserve to be a nation.’While many were cautious, large numbers of volunteers did come forward. On 28 November Marshal Murat marched into Warsaw and a few weeks later Napoleon himself entered the capital, greeted with triumphal arches and delirious crowds.

He was convinced, if not that the Poles deserved to be a nation, that they could provide him with plenty of good soldiers. Poland was no more than a minor element in his schemes, and his most pressing imperative was to force Russia to join him in alliance against Britain. He achieved this during his meetings with Tsar Alexander at Tilsit in 1807, and one consequence was a compromise on Poland. The Prussian share of the second and third partitions of the Commonwealth was reconstituted as the Duchy of Warsaw, under Frederick Augustus of Saxony (the candidate proposed by the constitution of 3 May 1791).

The Duchy was in no sense a sovereign Polish state, but Polish patriots saw it as a basis for further development. Many of those hitherto wary of Napoleon’s intentions agreed to serve in its government, including Małachowski and Stanisław Potocki, and the last King’s nephew, Józef Poniatowski, became commander-in-chief and Minister for War. Małachowski wanted to convoke a sejm similar to that of 1792, but Napoleon was having none of it. Before leaving Warsaw he dictated a constitution which included a bicameral sejm based on a suffrage that included non-noble voters, but this had virtually no legislative powers. He also introduced the Code Napoléon, which effectively removed the peasants’ disabilities and made all equal before the law.

Napoleon exploited the Duchy of Warsaw for his own ends, mainly financial and military. Property and land confiscated by Prussia in 1792 was now sold back to the duchy by France at exorbitant rates. The economy could hardly flourish while Napoleon’s European blockade constricted the grain trade, and while the duchy was expected to pay for a standing army rising to 60,000 men. In addition, Napoleon required six regiments of foot and two of horse for his Spanish campaign, some 10,000 men in all serving as the Legion of the Vistula, as well as a regiment of Chevaux-Légers for the Imperial Guard. When the duchy went bankrupt, France lent money and collected the interest in cannon fodder.

The Duchy of Warsaw was invaded by Austria in 1809. Poniatowski counterattacked and went on to capture Kraków and Galicia. However, when peace was made between France and Austria at the Treaty of Schönbrunn, the Poles had to give up most of these conquests. The enlarged duchy was nevertheless a source of alarm in Russia, where it was viewed as a magnet which would, sooner or later, attract all the former Polish lands. Matters came to a head in 1812, during what Napoleon called his ‘second Polish war’.

Napoleon’s intention was not to conquer Russia but to cow Alexander into submissive alliance. He was prepared to use the reestablishment of a strong Poland as a threat, but meant to keep his options open were Alexander to give in. So while he whipped up Polish hopes, he bypassed a Warsaw full of delegations from the provinces of the former Commonwealth. In Wilno he called the Lithuanians to arms, but refused to be drawn on the question of independence for Lithuania.

The war turned into a catastrophe for Poland. Some 96,000 Poles marched in the ranks of the Grande Armée, by far the largest non-French contingent. Countless others joined it in Lithuania and the eastern reaches of the former Commonwealth. They played a significant role in the operations. Polish lancers were the first to swim the Niemen and carry the French tricolour onto Russian territory: Colonel Umiński’s dragoons were the first into Moscow; the Chevaux-Légers saved Napoleon’s life from a pack of marauding Cossacks; the Legion of the Vistula defended the Berezina crossings. At least 72,000 never returned, and many more died of wounds or typhus in the following months. Yet they were the only contingent not to lose or abandon a single field-gun or standard to the enemy during the disastrous retreat.

As the remnants of the Grande Armée streamed westwards and Napoleon hurried to Paris, the Duchy of Warsaw was left defenceless. Dąbrowski’s division followed the French army into Germany, but Poniatowski fell back on Kraków with 16,000 men. Alexander was not vindictive, and in the spring and summer of 1813, using those who had remained on the Russian side, he tried to persuade Poniatowski and his army to cast off their loyalty to Napoleon.

Poniatowski rejected Alexander’s proposals and led his army off to join Napoleon in Saxony. On 19 October, the last day of the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, the heavily wounded Prince died while trying to swim the river Elster when the French, whose retreat he was covering, blew the remaining bridge. The Poles continued to follow Napoleon. When he went into exile on the island of Elba, half of the symbolic guard he was allowed were Polish Chevaux-Légers.

Poland – Out of Dismemberment! II



The national boundaries within Europe are set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815.

Napoleon’s attitude to Polish aspirations had been cynical from the start, and the whole episode had been of no benefit to the Polish cause. Yet the Napoleonic epos was important to the Poles. Since the relief of Vienna in 1683, military glory was something they could only read about. Between 1797 and 1815 they were able to demonstrate their bravery, loyalty and spirit on battlefields all over Europe. Feats of valour such as the charge of the Chevaux-Légers through the defile of Somo Sierra on 30 November 1808 (when a single squadron of 125 men cleared 9,000 entrenched infantry and four batteries from the defile, capturing ten standards and sixteen guns in the space of seven minutes at the cost of eightythree dead) have gone down in legend. Countless other exploits earned them the respect of enemies, from the Peninsula, where the Spaniards of General Palafox spoke with awe of the ‘infernales picadores’ (the Lancers of the Vistula), to the depths of Russia, where General Colbert of the Guard Cavalry ordered all French units to borrow the capes and caps of Polish lancers before going on picket duty, to keep Cossacks at a respectful distance.

These heroics provided a comforting mythology for generations with no state or army of their own, and Napoleon’s image recurs in Polish art and literature well into the twentieth century as a focus for dreams of glory. The fall of Napoleon, which showed that even the greatest can be brought down by an alliance of lesser creatures, was a source of consolation to Poles who felt their cause had similarly been brought down by cynical collusion. The Romantic vision of Prometheus in chains could cover up a multitude of unpleasant realities.

At his abdication Napoleon committed his Polish troops to the clemency of the Tsar, and Alexander was neither vengeful nor blind to the opportunities of the Polish question. His paramount position in 1814 permitted him to entertain hopes that he would be able to reunite most of the territory of the former Commonwealth in a kingdom under his own sceptre, and he brought Czartoryski as one of his negotiators to the Congress of Vienna. But the Tsar’s wishes were thwarted by Austria, Britain and France, which could not countenance Prussia being given swathes of Germany in compensation for those she would relinquish in Poland, nor indeed the huge westward expansion of Russian power attendant on the creation of a Russian-dominated Poland. The re-establishment of a fully independent Poland was mooted by Britain and France but never seriously considered, and for all his good intentions Alexander would never have been able to sell the idea at home, where opinion reacted to his Polish plans with indignation.

In the end, a Kingdom of Poland consisting of 127,000 square kilometres with a population of 3.3 million was carved out of all three partitions. In addition, Kraków and a tiny area around the city was turned into a republic. The Tsar of Russia was the King of Poland, and all three partitioning powers were the protectors of the Republic of Kraków. The remainder of the Polish lands held by Austria were administered separately, as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, with the help of docile assemblies. The major share of the Polish lands retained by Prussia was given separate status as the Grand Duchy of Posen. All three partitioning monarchs made fulsome declarations pledging themselves to treat their Polish subjects with benevolence and to respect their institutions.

The new Polish state, usually referred to as the Congress Kingdom, was a curious entity. The constitution, drawn up by Czartoryski, was the most liberal in Central Europe. There was a bicameral Sejm of 128 deputies, seventy-seven of them elected by the szlachta and fifty-one by non-noble property owners, and sixtyfour senators. It lacked any legislative powers, and its function was primarily administrative, regulatory and judicial. Foreign policy and the police were both run from St Petersburg; Alexander’s brother Constantine was installed in Warsaw as commander-inchief of the Polish army; the former legionary General Zajączek was Alexander’s viceroy; and the Russian Nikolai Novosiltsev was Alexander’s commissioner in the government of the Kingdom.

There was something unnatural about the close association between huge, autocratic Russia and the tiny constitutional Congress Kingdom. It was perhaps inevitable that either Poland would act as a springboard for the liberalisation of Russia or that Russia would gradually swallow up and digest its small satellite. At first, the former seemed the more likely. Large sections of Russian society had come under foreign influence as a result of the Napoleonic wars and appeared open to change. As a consequence of absorbing so much Polish territory, by 1815 no less than 64 per cent of the nobility of the Romanov realm was of Polish descent, and since there were more literate Poles than Russians, more people within it could read and write Polish than Russian. The third largest city, Wilno, was entirely Polish in character and its university was the best in the Empire.

In his speech at the opening of the Polish Sejm in April 1818, Alexander held out a succulent carrot to the Poles. ‘Live up to your duties,’ he exhorted them. ‘The results of your labours will show me whether I shall be able to abide by my intention of expanding the concessions I have already made to you.’ But his enthusiasm for liberalism waned, while Novosiltsev, who had no time for Polish aspirations and did not like Czartoryski, did all he could to undermine Polish autonomy. He exploited the incipient conflicts between Alexander and Constantine, and between both of them and various Polish statesmen, promoting the view, which gained acceptance in Russia, that the Poles were not grateful for the favours they had been granted. When, in 1820, the Sejm began to openly debate political issues and stood up in defence of the constitution, which had been infringed by Alexander and his officers, he dissolved it. When he opened the next session, in 1825, he insisted that its deliberations be held in camera and excluded all those deputies he deemed subversive.

The violence done to the territory of the Commonwealth between 1792 and 1815, and the succession of governments to which its various parts had been subjected in the same period, had surprisingly little impact on the life of the nation. The frontiers themselves figured only as administrative impediments in the minds of most Poles, who referred to them as ‘the Austrian cordon’ or ‘the Prussian cordon’. A Pole travelling from Warsaw to Poznań or Wilno in the 1820s crossed into a different country, but as far as he or his hosts were concerned, he was still travelling around his own.

Similarly, people who had fought on opposing sides sat together in the Sejm and Senate. Alexander’s viceroy in Poland had started out as a Jacobin, fought in Kościuszko’s army in 1794, had commanded a Polish Legion in Italy, and been wounded fighting for Napoleon at Borodino. Adam Czartoryski, who had also fought with Kościuszko, was one of the pillars of the Congress Kingdom, although his father had presided over the provisional government set up by Napoleon in 1812. Stanisław Potocki, a prominent Patriot in the 1780s and a minister in the Duchy of Warsaw, was now Minister of Education. Even the chief censor appointed in 1819, Józef Kalasanty Szaniawski, had been a Jacobin in 1794.

In a sense, the Commonwealth continued to exist in defiance of political boundaries, and its traditions were carefully nurtured. The University of Wilno flourished under the direction of Adam Czartoryski and took over as the centre of academic life. New institutions such as the Krzemieniec High School, founded by Tadeusz Czacki, provided Polish education to a high standard. The Załuski library had been looted by the Russians, but in 1811 Stanisław Zamoyski opened his considerable library in Warsaw to the public. The Czartoryski historical museum at Pulawy recorded past glories, while its archive served historians. In 1817, the year the Austrian authorities founded a German university at Lemberg (as they had renamed Lwów), Józef Ossoliński opened a Polish archive and library in the city, the Ossolineum. In 1829 Edward Raczyński did the same in Poznań, which was also endowed with a museum by the MielŻyński family. Adam Tytus Działyński founded the Poznań Society of Friends of Learning, which began publishing manuscript sources in the 1840s from his library at Kórnik, which he had opened to the public in 1828. Everything, from old coins to folk songs, was collected, documented and studied.

The literary revival of the late eighteenth century continued to flourish with a new generation of poets. The same was true of the musical scene, which gave birth to the genius of Fryderyk Chopin. The architects fostered by Stanisław Augustus came to maturity at the beginning of the century and over the next three decades embellished Warsaw and dotted the countryside with elegant neo-classical houses. As a result, the Warsaw of the 1820s was an imposing and vibrant city, very much the capital of a Polish world still defined by the boundaries of the defunct Commonwealth.

But the post-Napoleonic generation was not temperamentally suited to compromise. There was much heated discussion among students, particularly at the University of Wilno, where secret societies burgeoned. It was all fairly harmless, but the Russian secret police has never been known to consider any discussion harmless, and when, in 1821, Major Walerian Łukasiński founded a Patriotic Society in Warsaw, it began to investigate further.

In 1823 the Professor of History at Wilno, Joachim Lelewel, was sacked and a number of students arrested. Other arrests followed, including that of a young poet, Adam Mickiewicz, a former student, now a teacher in Kowno, and the author of an Ode to Youth whose allusive phrases the censor could not understand but did not like. The university was further chastened by the removal of its curator Adam Czartoryski, which followed the dismissal of Stanisław Potocki from the ministry of education. These measures had the effect of irritating the young and many hitherto content with the status quo. Discussion and conspiracy spread to the army and after the failure of the Decembrist coup of 1825 in Russia, which sought to place Constantine on the imperial throne, investigations led the Russian police back to Warsaw. As the new Tsar Nicholas clamped down on freethinking in Russia, his lieutenants in Poland began ferreting about in earnest.

They arrested a number of ringleaders of conspiratorial groups, and Novosiltsev demanded, at Nicholas’s behest, that these be dealt with in accordance with Russian criminal procedure. The Polish government demurred on constitutional grounds and the men were tried by a tribunal appointed by the Sejm. Since their actions could not be construed as criminal under Polish law the case against them was dismissed in 1829. In his fury, Nicholas actually had the members of the tribunal arrested before countermanding their verdict and imposing his own sentences on the prisoners.

The government in Warsaw found itself in an untenable position, losing authority at home and undermined by its Russian patrons. This played into the hands of revolutionary elements, and tension mounted throughout the early months of 1830. News of the July Revolution in France and the subsequent upheaval in Belgium in September brought matters to a head. Nicholas announced his intention of sending an expeditionary force made up principally of Polish troops to crush the revolution in Belgium, and mobilisation was decreed on 19 November 1830.

Jerusalem 1967 – to the Western Wall


Charging through Lions Gate on June 7, 1967.


Chief Military Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the Western Wall in 1967.


At dawn on Wednesday 6 June 1967 morning, the Israeli high command still had not made the decision to attack the Old City of Jerusalem. By taking most of the surrounding heights the Old City had been isolated. To go in there, through twisting streets no wider than a man’s outspread reach and houses built like rabbit warrens, meant a hard and bloody fight. In essence, reasoned Yitzhak Rabin and the General Staff, if we encircle it and seal it off, the Old City is ours. Most of the West Bank of the Jordan had already fallen to Israeli troops and tanks battling down from Galilee. Ramallah and Hebron had been occupied. The heights of Augusta Victoria were under assault by the paratroops. Unless they contemplated a suicidal last stand, like Custer at Little Big Horn, the Arab Legion had no choice other than surrender.

But events on another far battlefield suddenly changed the course of decision and history in Jerusalem.

The Sinai front had broken wide open. After a wild, bruising clash of men and armor in the coastal defensive position of El Garadi, General Tal’s force had captured the Egyptian air base of El Arish on Tuesday morning. The desert sands were littered with the debris of abandoned and burning vehicles, smashed tanks and gun emplacements. Trucks were twisted into the bizarre black and rust forms of modern sculptures. When it grew dark the desert looked like a vast carnival with bonfires smoldering and sparking all through the night. Dead Egyptian soldiers were sprawled all along the wadis and the dusty Sinai roads.

Abu Agheila had already fallen to General Sharon and his men, who then turned southward toward Nakhl. General Yoffe’s force had split into a pincers movement to take the important junction of Jebel Lidni. After a fierce, all-night tank battle near the airfield there, the position was in Israeli hands by late Tuesday morning. Egyptian prisoners were streaming into camps with their hands clasped behind their heads, or staggering barefoot and with empty water canteens through the inhospitable Ioo- degree desert toward the Suez Canal. The Israeli air force joined the battle in the early afternoon, swooping down to spread destruction and confusion among the retreating columns of armor and vehicles that choked the few roads.

Now the Israeli command in the south deftly baited the final trap. The mass of Egyptian tanks and trucks, including the so-called Shazli Division, Nasser’s finest, still stood in the center of the Sinai Peninsula, virtually intact but fearful of encirclement and annihilation.

There were only three possible avenues of retreat to the Suez Canal and the safety of Mother Egvpt on its west bank. One was to the north along the coastal plain—but this had already been cut off by Tal’s rapid advance westward from El Arish. Another was over the Mitla Pass, which cut a tortuous path through the jagged, lifeless Jebel Tih mountain range running north-south in western Sinai. The third, and most preferable, was to skirt the mountains on the northern fringe through a place called Bir Gafgafa, Egyptian military headquarters in western Sinai.

After the battle of El Arish, Tal’s force split in two. His fastest armor raced for Bir Gafgafa to head off escape in that direction. At about the same time, on Tuesday afternoon, Sharon and Yoffe abruptly slowed the speed of their advance through central Sinai. Grateful for the respite, the Egyptian army accordingly slowed its retreat and made some effort to regroup, giving Tal the time he needed to reach and seal off the Bir Gafgafa exit. Once that was done— by a force of light tanks that outmaneuvered and outgunned the heavier Stalins and T-54s which the Egyptian generals had sent ahead to clear the path— there remained only one possible route to the Canal: the Mitla Pass.

Toward it, then—ruthlessly and relentlessly, through all of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning—Sharon and Yoffe began to drive what was left of the seven armored divisions that were the backbone of what once had been Nasser’s mighty machine of war.

There was to be no escape.

In Jerusalem the Israeli commanders contemplated the situation. The UN, meeting in continuous emergency session in New York, was pressing for an immediate ceasefire. It seemed possible, even probable, that in view of the precarious position of his army in Sinai, Nasser would accept it. King Hussein of Jordan would have to follow suit, and so, undoubtedly, would the Israeli government. The Old City of Jerusalem, even though it was surrounded by Israeli soldiers, would still be garrisoned by the Arab Legion and thus remain Jordanian territory after a ceasefire.

To have done so much and to have achieved so little would be a disappointment and an irony too difficult to suffer. Of what value were the surrounding hills if Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and the Western Wall still remained beyond reach?

Time was running out. At the onset of the war few had seriously believed that Jordan would fight, much less that Jerusalem would be the prize of battle. But now, in the early light of Wednesday morning, as the sun rose over the gold and rose colored walls built by Sultan Suleiman in the sixteenth century, it was the dream in nearly every Jewish soldier’s heart. Somewhere inside those walls lay the Kotel Ma’arabi, the Western Wall. At 9:00 a.m. Dayan, Rabin and Narkis made the historic decision.

The 55th Parachute Battalion was ordered down from the battle for Augusta Victoria, to break into the Old City through St. Stephen’s Gate, which opened outward on the Mount of Olives.

The tanks came first, then the paratroopers crowded into half-tracks. Before reaching the gate, Motta Gur spoke once more to his men. Quietly, but with apparent emotion, he said, “Paratroopers, today we stand at the gates of the Old City—where so many of our dreams lie. hor two thousand years our people have prayed for this moment. Be proud.”

Later, Gur recounted the moment of entry.

“We now started shelling. All our tanks opened fire, as did our recoilless guns. We swept the whole wall and not a shot was directed at, or hit, the Holy Places. The breakthrough area underwent concentrated fire: all the wall shook and some stones were loosened—but all the firing was to the right of St. Stephen’s Gate… .

“I told my driver, Ben Tsur, a bearded fellow weighing some two hundred and twenty pounds, to speed on ahead. We passed the tanks and saw the gate before us with a car burning outside it. There wasn’t a lot of room, but I told him to drive on and so we passed the burning car and saw the gate half open in front. Regardless of the danger that somebody might drop grenades into our halftrack from above, he pushed on and flung the door aside, crunched over the fallen stones, passed by a dazed Arab soldier and turned left. Here a motorcycle blocked the way. But despite the threat of booby-trapping, my driver drove right over it, and so we reached the Temple Mount… .”

The troops following Gur rushed the gate, at first meeting with only weak resistance, for the tanks had knocked out the enemy positions on the perimeter. Nevertheless, from behind the Al-Aksa Mosque, a legion post kept letting off bursts of machine-gun fire in the direction of the Israeli soldiers, while well-concealed snipers kept popping away.

Larry Levine’s company was again in the lead. They turned left toward the mosque. In the courtyard of the mosque the legion had established a defensive position and had set up some tents. But the tents were empty and the Jordanian soldiers had gone. Civilians began emerging from the houses and shuttered shops, hands raised over their heads, and a detail was left to guard them. The paratroopers continued to advance cautiously up the Via Dolorosa, a steep, shadowed street full of closed souvenir shops, which led from the Gate toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. At the second intersection, the lieutenant commanding Larry’s platoon stepped from the shelter of a doorway to reconnoiter and was killed instantly by a sniper’s bullet.

“Hold up,” yelled Isaac, the captain. “We don’t even know where we are. Who knows this area?”

It had been a good twenty years since any Jew had been inside the Old City. The soldiers were mostly young men, and they suddenly realized they had no idea where the Wailing Wall was, or—in that labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways—how to set about getting there.

Larry Levine and another soldier saw a movement behind a doorway. They broke in, without firing, and found an old man huddled on a staircase. Larry, who had learned Arabic from the Israeli Arabs who sometimes came from the nearby village at harvest time to work on his kibbutz, said to the man at gunpoint, “Salaam aleichem, bey. We’re going to the Western Wall. And you’re going to take us there.”

Led by the old Arab, the paratroopers threaded their way through rubble and tangles of barbed wire, with an occasional bullet whistling over their heads, squeezed through an aperture in an ancient building, went down some stairs, crossed a courtyard and passed some mud hovels, and finally rounded a corner and saw, towering over their heads, the Wall.

The Kotel Ala’Arabi had seen emperors and kings, wise men and sultans, shaven women and bearded rabbis trembling with religious exaltation, but it had never seen bloodstained, sweating, weeping paratroopers. The men who for two days had battled the Arab Legion and the Palestine commandos, the men who had never hesitated to assault a strongpoint again and again until they had broken through, stood and suddenly, uncontrollably, sobbed aloud. The tears were born of emotion and release, and a partial inability to understand the reality of what their eyes saw. They seemed, in a sense, to be the tears of nineteen hundred years of separation from something holy and beloved.

The captain made his way through the buildings and along the roofs to the top of the wall, where he hung the blue and white Israeli flag with its Star of David. At the bottom of the wall, which rose some seventy feet, some of the men moved forward to caress the great slabs of stone. The stones had been worn smooth by the touch of millions of hands through the centuries. Others kneeled to pray. Others simply stared. Then all— those who cried, those who prayed, those who stared— spontaneously embraced and kissed each other’s stubbled cheeks.

“It’s ours,” one man said, his voice a whisper full of triumph and awe. “Jerusalem—is—ours.”

A few minutes later, oblivious of the sniper’s bullets which still flew, the chief rabbi of the army, General Shlomo Goren, came racing through St. Stephen’s Gate in a jeep and rushed on foot down the path to the wall. There he offered a Hebrew prayer and, drawing forth a shofar, the horn normally sounded only on the most solemn of Jewish Holy Days, he blew a long and powerful blast. He was followed seconds later by Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and then by the prime minister, Levi Eshkol.

By noon the fight for the Old City was over. There were still isolated pockets of resistance, and snipers were every Army Chief Chaplain Goren blowing the shofar near the Western Wall where, but their number dwindled steadily as the exhausted troops moved methodically from house to house, street to street, mopping up. In effect, all of Jerusalem was in Israeli hands.

At two o’clock in the afternoon Larry Levine’s company had reached the part of the encircling wall which faced the King David Hotel in what had been the Israeli half of the city. Climbing the wall, they raised the Israeli flag. From a captured Arab Legion barracks they hoisted two great parade drums to the parapet.

“We stood up on the wall,” Larry said afterward, “and began beating the drums. Boom, boom, boom! Each different company had hung up the Israeli flag, and all along the towers the flags were waving in the wind. A whole bunch of women and kids that were in air-raid shelters on the Israeli side came out—and we stood there, and everybody’s cheering and hollering, and we’re banging on this great big bass drum. Boom, boom, boom! And they were dancing in the street, and they were crying and kissing each other and yelling and jumping up and down. They all realized we had the city. We had Jerusalem. They had this chant you hear all the time for the Israeli team in the international soccer matches. It goes: ‘El! El! Yis-ra-el! El! El! Yis-ra-el!’ And the kids in the street started to shout it in time with the boom boom of the drums. ‘El! El! Yis-ra-el! El! El! Yis-ra-el!’

“You couldn’t believe it. We started to cry all over again, grown men, for the third time in three days, at the same time as we were banging on this drum. Because so many of our guys, good guys that we loved, were dead. But we’d won. And the people, our people, even the kids, knew it. And they were so happy. And that seemed to be worth … everything.”

Tank versus Tank


It was inevitable that the time would come when the Germans, however belatedly, started to build tanks of their own. During the early months of 1918, stories began to trickle through from intelligence reports and the statements of captured prisoners that the Germans were building a monster tank, much larger and heavier than the British machines. In a very small way they had already used tanks in battle—a few Mark IVs captured in the Battle of Cambrai and manned by German crews. Now these tanks were withdrawn from the front line and used for training the newly formed German Panzer Corps.

The year had not started well for the Allies. The exhausting battles in Flanders had taken their toll so that the total number of French, British and Belgian divisions had been reduced from 178 at the beginning of 1917 to 164 by 1918. In addition, the strength of each British division had been reduced from thirteen to ten battalions, inevitably affecting their fighting efficiency. It was true that powerful reinforcements were expected from the United States, following her entry into the war during the previous April, but by March 1918 only four American divisions had arrived and these had not yet entered the front line. Apart from the general weariness of the troops, the Allies were hampered by internal friction among their generals and political leaders. In 1917 the British, who had taken the main offensive role, had a frontage of 100 miles as against 325 miles held by the French. After some argument, in which the French at first demanded that the British line be extended by a further 55 miles, Haig agreed to take on another 25 miles and no more, threatening to resign if overruled by the newly-formed Allied Supreme War Council. He had his way, so that by the early spring of 1918 the British with 58 divisions held 125 miles of the front while 99 French divisions took charge of 300 miles. The disparity was less than it seemed because half of the French line was of secondary importance. But the bickering between the two armies did little for morale, which was already at a low ebb.

The Germans on the other hand had reason for confidence. The collapse of Russia towards the end of 1917 had released divisions from the eastern front, to the point where the balance in the west was altered in their favour. Whereas at the beginning of 1917 the Germans were outnumbered nearly three to two by the Allies—129 divisions against 178—the situation a year later on the Western Front was 192 German divisions against 164 of the Allies. Realising the enormous potential of the United States once the build-up of her forces got really under way, Ludendorff decided to launch a major offensive in the hope of securing a quick victory and favourable peace terms. It was to begin on March 21st, initially against the 54-mile southern sector of the British line between the Oise and Sensée rivers.

By that time the British Tank Corps had been expanded to fourteen battalions with an establishment of 24,000 officers and men. The former lettered titles had been changed to numerical ones—A Battalion becoming the 1st Battalion and so on—but letters were used for companies which became A, B and C companies of each battalion. Two new tanks had been developed for use in the 1918 campaign. The heavy Mark V was again similar in shape to the Mark IV but with a much improved performance, reliability and manoeuvrability. A larger 150hp Ricardo engine gave it an increased speed of 4.6mph and new epicyclic gears designed by Wilson enabled it to be driven and steered by one man, a tremendous asset in battle since the rest of the crew could concentrate on firing the guns. The thickness of armour was increased from a maximum of 12mm on the Mark IV to 14mm, while the Hotchkiss replaced the Lewis machine guns. The worst feature of the new design was in placing the radiator inside the tank, for although it provided a more efficient cooling system than in previous models, it severely reduced ventilation for the crew.

The same problem was also found in the other new tank which came into service in 1918, the light Medium Mark A Whippet which had originally been designed by Tritton at the end of 1916. This was intended for exploiting a breach in the enemy’s line rather than crossing trenches and was armed only with light machine guns. It had a speed of over 8mph and a range of 80 miles compared with the Mark V’s 45 miles. The tracks did not go all round the hull but around a chassis on which the engine room and fighting turret were mounted, so that its shape was reminiscent of the original ‘Little Willie’. Its crew consisted of a commander and two men. While the role of the Mark V in battle was comparable to the heavy cavalry, the Whippet formed the light cavalry for skirmishing purposes.

The French had also developed tanks of their own. The heavy St Chamond (23 tons) and the medium Schneider (14 tons) had first been used in action in April and May 1917 but the results were disappointing. Both were virtually armoured cabins mounted on adaptations of the Holt tractor. Four hundred of each were built but they had poor cross country performance and limited fighting capacity. By 1918 the French had developed a light Renault tank of 6½ tons which was much more successful. It was relatively cheap to build and after its debut in battle later in the year, large numbers were ordered.

Just as the British High Command had underrated the machine gun, so the Germans underrated the tank. The real shock had come in the Battle of Cambrai when the Mark IV, its thicker armour impervious to bullets, showed how easily trench defences could be assaulted. The fact that there were flaws in the British plan which failed to take advantage of the breakthrough could not disguise the potential of this new form of warfare. The Daimler Motor Company had already designed a tank designated the A7V and now it was hurried into production. But in reality it was too late. There was not sufficient time for proper development work to be carried out. Only ten of these tanks were ready to take part in the March offensive. Later in the campaign, five more A7VS became available—making up the total of 15 built by the Germans before the war ended—and about 25 captured British tanks were also used. They were too few for the Panzer Corps to make any great impact in the battles of 1918.

Although clumsy and in many ways badly designed, the A7V was a monstrous vehicle that could strike terror in the hearts of the unprotected British infantry. It weighed nearly 40 tons and carried a crew of sixteen, sandwiched into a space 24ft long by 10½ft wide. Heavy 30mm armour plate that could withstand a direct frontal hit from field guns at long range extended right down over the tracks so that the tank looked like a huge tortoise. It had an impressive speed of up to 8mph and bristled with six machine guns and one 57mm gun, the equivalent of a 6pdr. Because of the underhanging tracks it had a very limited ground clearance and was unable to cross large trenches or shelled ground. The armour over the drivers’ cabin was too thin to provide much protection and numerous crevices in the plating made it highly susceptible to bullet splash. Its most interesting feature, not yet incorporated in British or French tanks, was the provision of sprung tracks to give a smoother ride on flat ground.

Tanks played little part in the opening stages of the great German offensive, for which new techniques had been devised. The artillery bombardment was started without previous ‘registration’ fire so that it came as a sudden, paralysing blow, increased by the use of a high proportion of gas shell. Having learned the value of a surprise attack, just as the British had at Cambrai, the German infantry began to move forwards almost immediately, followed by the second line reserves who were thus on hand when they were needed. Instead of advancing on an even front and waiting while centres of resistance were overcome, the German infantry had been trained in new infiltration tactics to follow along the line of least resistance. They were aided by a thick mist which covered the 54 mile battle front on the morning of March 21st. The front line defences of the British Third and Fifth Armies were overrun even before the defenders were aware of it. With 64 divisions taking part against 29 British infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions, the Germans advanced rapidly and by the end of the first day had breached the battle zone in several sectors. The British front was in danger of collapse.

Meanwhile the bulk of the British tank battalions, comprising at that time 324 Mark IVs and about fifty Whippets, had been distributed in three main groups some ten miles behind the front. As a defensive scheme in preparation for the expected German offensive, most of them were hidden in concealed positions, the idea being that they would emerge ‘like savage rabbits from their holes’ to ambush any German units penetrating the battle zone. In view of their slow speed and inability to move quickly to the areas where most needed, it was not a role particularly suited to tanks. The whole initial period of the battle became known to the Tank Corps, somewhat sarcastically, as ‘Savage Rabbits’.

During the days of crisis that followed, pockets of these tanks did invaluable work in preventing the British retreat from becoming a rout. The most critical moments came on March 26th when the Germans, having advanced nearly 20 miles on a front of about 40 miles, strenuously attempted to make the final breakthrough. It was on that day that the Whippets came into action for the first time, preventing the enemy from taking advantage of a four mile gap which had opened up in the Third Army’s defences at Serre, and it also marked a momentous decision by the Allies to appoint General Foch as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies to co-ordinate the operations of the French and British forces. By nightfall, due in no small part to counter attacks by both light and heavy tanks, the immediate danger had passed. The Germans had made the greatest advances since the war had become deadlocked in trench fighting but could not keep up their supplies across the devastated ground. North of the Somme the front became stabilised by the reformed British defences and little further ground was lost. Southwards, the Germans advanced over the next two days until they were nearly at Villers-Bretonneux, only ten miles from Amiens. It was at Amiens, with its vitally important railway junction, that the British and French armies met and it was largely with the intention of breaking between them that the German offensive had been launched. But the British withdrawal in this area had been conducted largely to conform to the position taken by the French. Although the Germans had driven a wedge nearly forty miles deep in the British lines towards Amiens and taken about 80,000 prisoners, they had for the time being shot their bolt.

Between March 28th and April 18th the Germans switched their attack to other sectors of the front, first at Arras and then, when that failed, towards Hazebrouck in Flanders. Here, the British were forced to abandon the ground that had been won so dearly at Passchendaele the previous year but managed to check the German advance by withdrawing to a shorter line at Ypres.

On April 24th the Germans made a renewed effort in the south by a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux. For the first time in the war they decided to use tanks to spearhead the attack, bringing up twelve A7VS secretly to the front under cover of darkness. It was at Villers-Bretonneux, on high ground overlooking the Somme valley with the rooftops and cathedral spire of Amiens clearly visible beyond, that the first confrontation between tanks took place.

The German attack began early in the morning with an intensive bombardment of high explosive and gas shells. When this lifted at about 6am the troops in the British forward trenches prepared themselves for the infantry assault. But it was not the expected stormtroopers who came through the thick fog which persistently clung over the Somme country. Instead, there came the looming, fearsome shapes of German tanks, the noise of their approach having been drowned by the roar of shellfire. They created the same kind of havoc in the forward trenches as the British tanks had done at Cambrai. With no antitank weapons to combat these monsters, the British troops either ran or surrendered. In the words of the British Official History, ‘wherever tanks appeared the British line was broken’. A three mile gap was speedily opened for the oncoming stormtroopers. By the time the morning fog had lifted, the Germans had captured Villers-Bretonneux and the leading tank was already lumbering on towards the village of Cachy. The situation was desperate.

It so happened that lying up in the wood between Villers-Bretonneux and Cachy were three Mark IVs, appropriately enough the No. 1 Section of A Company of the 1st Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain J. C. Brown, MC. Two of these were female tanks, armed only with machine guns, but the third, under the command of Lieutenant F. Mitchell, was a male tank armed with 6pdrs. The section had been overwhelmed by the earlier gas shelling, which had disabled some of the crews, but the three tank commanders were given orders to proceed to the Cachy switch line and hold it at all costs. The story was described later by Lieutenant Mitchell.

“As the wood was still thick with gas we wore our masks. Whilst cranking up a third member of my crew collapsed and I had to leave him behind propped up against a tree trunk. A man was loaned to me by one of the females, bringing the crew, including myself, up to six instead of the normal eight. Both my first and second drivers had become casualties so the tank was driven by the third driver, whose only experience of driving was a fortnight’s course at Le Tréport (the base camp).”

As Mitchell had previously reconnoitred the ground near Cachy and was most familiar with the lie of the land, he led the way. Captain Brown rode with him.

“We left at 8.45am and after a while took off our gas masks. We zigzagged undamaged through a very heavy barrage, reaching the switch line at about 9.30am. An infantryman jumped out of a trench in front of my tank and waved his rifle agitatedly. I slowed down and opened the flap. ‘Look out, there are Jerry tanks about,’ he shouted. This was the first intimation we had that the Germans were using tanks. I gazed ahead and saw three weirdly shaped objects moving towards the eastern edge of Cachy, one about 400 yards away, the other two being much farther away to the south. Behind the tanks I could see lines of advancing infantry.

“At this point Captain Brown left my tank, apparently to warn the females. I turned right and threading my way between the small isolated trenches that formed the Cachy switch line, went in the direction of Cachy. I was travelling more or less parallel to the nearest German tank and my left hand gunner began to range on it. The first shots went beyond but he soon ranged nearer. I noticed no reply from the German tank. There was still a mist overhead but the view on the ground was fairly clear and I was able to use the forward Lewis gun against the German infantry.

“Halfway to Cachy I turned round as the two females were patrolling the other part of the switch line. My attention was now fully fixed on the German tank nearest to me, which was moving slowly. The right-hand gunner, Sergeant J. R. McKenzie, was firing steadily at it, but as I kept continually zigzagging and there were many shellholes, accurate shooting was difficult.

“Suddenly there was a noise like a storm of hail beating against our right wall and the tank became alive with splinters. It was a broadside of armour piercing bullets from the German tank. The crew lay flat on the floor. I ordered the driver to go straight ahead and we gradually drew clear, but not before our faces were splintered. Steel helmets protected our heads.

“A few minutes later I saw Captain Brown out in the open running towards my tank. I stopped. He told me that one of the females had been hit by a shell and had dropped a wounded man in a trench, whom he asked me to pick up. We drove to the spot indicated and took the man on board. He was wounded in both legs and lay on the floor groaning during the rest of the action.

“Nearing the Bois d’Aquenne we turned once more, but owing to the driver’s inexperience and the clumsiness of the secondary gears, the turn was a wide one. Captain Brown again appeared out in the open and hailed me excitedly. ‘Where the hell are you going?’ he yelled through the flap. ‘Back towards Cachy,’ I replied. He then pointed angrily in that direction and to my astonishment I saw the two females retiring from the battlefield.”

In fact, both had found themselves hopelessly outgunned by the German tank. Their machine guns were of little use against the thick armourplating of the enemy, and although they used their greater manoeuvrability to try to find a chink in the opponent’s armour, both were holed and forced to withdraw. Mitchell’s was the only tank left, against three of the enemy.

“I continued carefully on my route in front of the switch line. The left hand gunner was now shooting well. His shells were bursting very near to the German tank. I opened a loophole at the top side of the cab for better observation and when opposite our opponent, we stopped. The gunner ranged steadily nearer and then I saw a shell burst high up on the forward part of the German tank. It was a direct hit. He obtained a second hit almost immediately lower down on the side facing us and then a third in the same region. It was splendid shooting for a man whose eyes were swollen by gas and who was working his gun single handed, owing to shortage of crew.

“The German tank stopped abruptly and tilted slightly. Men ran out of a door at the side and I fired at them with my Lewis gun. The German infantry following behind stopped also. It was about 10.20am.

“The other two German tanks now gradually drew nearer and seemed to be making in my direction. We kept shooting at the nearer one, our shells bursting all round it, when suddenly both tanks slowly withdrew and disappeared in the direction of Hangard.”

And so history was made. Tank had met tank in a gun battle, and the British had won. It was more than a mere duel, however. While the tanks had been thus engaged, the British infantry had been forced back from Villers-Bretonneux, suffering heavy casualties, and held only the southern half of the Cathy switch with the threat of being outflanked by the enemy who had advanced into the Bois d’Aquenne.