Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 – a classic British fighter of World War I

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5aRanking second to the Sopwith Camel as the most successful British fighter of World War I, the S.E.5 and improved S.E.5a were the finest warplanes designed at the Royal Aircraft Factory in its period of existence between 1912 and 1918. The primary attributes of the S.E.5 and S.E.5a were their ease of handling in the air combined with adequate if not exceptional agility, good performance especially in terms of speed and climb, structural sturdiness, and excellent stability as gun platforms. This last helped to offset the idiosyncratic armament arrangement of two machine guns, disposed not as what had by this time become the standard arrangement of two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers fixed forward-firing weapons on the upper part of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment (as used in the Camel and most other fighters of the period), but rather as a single synchronised Vickers gun firing through the disc swept by the propeller and one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun on a quadrant mounting above the upper-wing centre section to fire directly forward over the disc swept by the propeller, but also capable of being pulled back to fire obliquely forward and upward into the belly of a higher-flying aeroplane in the fashion devised and made popular by Captain Albert Ball, one of the finest solo rather than patrol aces of World War I.

The stimulus for the design of the S.E.5 can be traced to the emergence in 1915 of the Hispano-Suiza 8 water-cooled V-8 engine designed by an expatriate Swiss engineer, Marc Birkigt. This was a water-cooled unit with monobloc cast aluminium cylinder blocks, and for a weight of 445 lb (202 kg) delivered 150 hp (112 kW) with the promise of considerably more power in its fully developed versions. This was impressive performance by the standards of the day, and in August 1915 the British authorities ordered 50 examples of the engine (deliveries beginning almost exactly one year later) and started negotiations for the licensed manufacture of the engine in the UK. The negotiations were protracted as they involved Hispano-Suiza’s parent company in the neutral Spanish city of Barcelona, and as a result British production of the Hispano-Suiza 8 did not begin until a time early in 1916. At that time, however, the French lent or gave at least one example of the Hispano-Suiza 8 engine to the Royal Flying Corps, and the availability of this unit for test and examination allowed the design team of the Royal Aircraft Factory to start planning two single-seat fighters with this engine as their powerplant.

The first of these was a neat and workmanlike tractor biplane, the S.E.5 (Scout Experimental 5), while the second was the F.E.10 (Fighting Experimental 10), which was an extraordinarily retrograde biplane design with the pilot carried in a ‘pulpit’ ahead of the tractor engine installation in the fashion of the observer’s position in the B.E.9 experimental biplane and SPAD A.2 and A.4 fighters. The F.E.10 was soon dropped from the Royal Aircraft Factory’s plans, allowing work on the S.E.5 to continue in the hands of a design team headed by Henry P. Folland with John Kenworthy and Major Frank W. Goodden as his chief assistants. The intention of the design team from the start of work in the summer of 1916 was the creation of a fighter that could be flown safely by pilots with only limited experience, which is all that trainees of the period were given, and for this reason the S.E.5 was planned with a degree of inherent stability, although nothing like the completely inherent stability of aircraft such as the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 series that had proved so vulnerable to the attentions of German fighters in the period of the ‘Fokker scourge’ from the spring of 1915.

At the time that the S.E.5 was being planned, the British lacked an effective gun synchronisation system, so the armament planned for the S.E.5 was a single 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis machine gun located between the cylinder banks of the Hispano-Suiza 8 engine to fire through the hollow propeller shaft, which was raised well above the line of the crankshaft by gearing.

S.E.5 wooden frame constructionThe resulting aeroplane was an equal-span biplane of wooden construction covered mainly with fabric except on the sides of the forward fuselage and around the engine, where plywood and light alloy respectively were used. The core of the structure was the fuselage, which was of rectangular section with a rounded upper decking and carried, from front to rear, the powerplant, fuel and oil tanks, pilot’s semi-open cockpit with a high windscreen trailed by modest overhead and side glazing, and tail unit. This last comprised single horizontal and vertical surfaces, the former including a wire-braced tailplane that was adjustable in flight and carried plain elevators, and the latter including a wire-braced small ventral fin and wire-braced large upper fin carrying a plain rudder that was hinged at its lower end to the vertical knife-edge in which the fuselage terminated.

The staggered wing cellule was based on essentially similar upper and lower wings that were of constant thickness and chord to their strongly raked tips and carried wire-connected ailerons on the outboard ends of their trailing edges. The dihedralled panels of the lower wing extended from short centre-section stubs that extended from the lower longerons and incorporated a cut-out in the trailing edge of each root, while the dihedralled panels of the upper wing extended from a flat centre section that was carried above the fuselage by four cabane struts, incorporated a substantial cut-out in its trailing edge over the cockpit, and carried the engine’s gravity-feed fuel tank in a fairing above its port side. The upper and lower wings were separated on each side by a single set of parallel interplane struts, and the whole wing cellule was braced with the normal arrangement of twin flying and single landing wires.

The airframe was completed by the landing gear, which was of the fixed tailskid type with a steerable tailskid hinged to the ventral fin and controlled by movement of the rudder, and a main unit of the through-axle type. This latter was based on a two-wheel axle bungee-bound to the aerofoil-faired spreader separating the closed ends of two wire-braced V-type struts extending downward and outward from the lower longerons.

The powerplant was based on one Hispano-Suiza 8A engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW) and driving a two-blade wooden propeller of the tractor type: this engine was installed under a light alloy cowling that left the cylinder heads exposed, discharged its spent gases outward via the single forward exhausts in the two manifolds, and was cooled by a frontal radiator.

One of the first Hispano-Suiza 8Aa engines was installed in the first of three S.E.5 prototypes, which recorded its maiden flight on 22 November 1916. Early trials confirmed that the aeroplane handled well and possessed good performance, but this initial prototype crashed in January 1917 as a result of structural failure in the wings, Goodden being killed. Production of the S.E.5 had already been set in motion, but was now halted as an investigation of the crash revealed the need for less acutely raked tips, improved strut/spar joints and stronger lift bracing. The first aircraft were too far advanced for the revised wing tips to be introduced, so these were completed with reinforced rear spars to support the original type of longer-span tip, but later aircraft were completed with the reduced-span wing cellule and a revised gravity-feed tank incorporated entirely within the contours of the upper-wing centre section. These were the only major changes required to turn the S.E.5 into an extremely strong structure that soon acquired an excellent reputation once the type had entered service.

Production of the S.E.5 by the Royal Aircraft Factory totalled 58 aircraft (an initial batch of 24 followed by a follow-on batch of 34 out of an order for 50 whose other units were completed to S.E.5a standard) to a standard that included the powerplant of one Hispano-Suiza 8Aa engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW) and built by either Hispano-Suiza or Wolseley, span of 27 ft 11 in (8.51 m) with an area of 249.80 sq ft (23.21 m²) in the first aircraft reducing to a span of 26 ft 7.5 in (8.115 m) with area of 245.80 sq ft (22.83 m²) in later aircraft, length of 20 ft 11 in (6.375 m), height of 9 ft 5 in (2.87 m), empty weight of 1,399 lb (635 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,935 lb (878 kg) in early aircraft reducing to 1,892 lb (858 kg) in later aircraft, maximum speed of 106 kt (122 mph; 196 km/h) at 3,000 ft (915 m) declining to 85 kt (98 mph; 158 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1830 m) in 8 minutes 0 seconds and to 10,000 ft (3050 m) in 13 minutes 42 seconds, service ceiling of 19,000 ft (5790 m), and endurance of 2 hours 30 minutes.

By the time the S.E.5 was being prepared for service, the Constantinesco synchronisation system had been almost perfected, and the first S.E.5 aircraft were delivered from March 1917 with the armament fit that became standard for the S.E.5 and S.E.5a, namely one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine gun in a synchronised installation in the upper port part of the forward fuselage, and one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun on a Foster mounting over the upper-wing centre section. It was perhaps fortunate that the S.E.5 had the unsynchronised Lewis gun in addition to the synchronised Vickers gun, for the hydraulically operated Constantinesco gear gave considerable trouble before its teething problems were solved and the system became completely reliable.

The S.E.5 entered service with No. 56 Squadron in March 1917, and the unit moved to France early in the following month. No. 56 Squadron was not yet ready for operations, however, for the pilots were decidedly unhappy with the semi-enclosed cockpit glazing that interfered with the forward field of vision and was therefore replaced by a conventional flat windscreen of smaller size, and were also unhappy with the two guns’ parallel lines of fire, which were turned into converging lines of fire by the simple expedient of raising the rear of the Foster mounting so that the fire of the two guns met about 50 yards (46 m) ahead of the fighter. With these changes No. 56 Squadron became operational later in April 1917, and was later joined by Nos 24, 40, 60 and 85 Squadrons. These five units soon began to reveal the formidable nature of the S.E.5 as a front-line type, using the new fighter’s steadiness as a gun platform to tackle and destroy all types of German warplane and using their strength either to survive combat damage or undertake a high-speed escape dive.

Even as the S.E.5 was being readied for production, Hispano-Suiza was finalising an improved variant of the basic engine as the Hispano-Suiza 8B rated at 200 hp (149 kW) and driving its propeller via reduction gearing that also raised the thrust line and made the propeller turn in the opposite direction to that of the Hispano-Suiza 8A. The new engine was tested in the third prototype, which recorded its maiden flight on 12 January 1917 and in its evaluation revealed a considerable improvement in performance over that of the standard S.E.5 with the 150 hp (112 kW) engine. The uprated engine was therefore adopted for the S.E.5a main production model, which thus differed from the S.E.5 primarily in its revised powerplant in a deeper nose installation with a shutter-controlled radiator and two long pipes exhausting the engine’s spent gases to the rear of the cockpit, but secondarily in a slightly revised structure including shortened rear spars that reduced the rake of the wing tips in a fashion that also appeared on the last production examples of the S.E.5. The pilot’s comfort was enhanced by the addition of a head rest that was often removed by service pilots. Many pilots did not like the long exhausts and therefore had them trimmed to a point just to the rear of the engine, where short angled-out sections were welded.

The first S.E.5a fighters were delivered to No. 56 Squadron in June 1917, and the type then replaced the S.E.5 over the following months as the improved model entered service with an increasing number of units on the Western Front: these eventually comprised Nos 1, 24, 29, 32, 40, 41, 56, 60, 68 (later No. 2 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps), 74, 84, 85, 92 and 94 Squadrons. The S.E.5a was also operated by Nos 37, 50, 61 and 143 Squadrons for home defence, Nos 111 and 145 Squadrons in Palestine, Nos 17, 47 and 150 Squadrons in Macedonia, and A Flight of No. 72 Squadron in Mesopotamia. The other operational user of the S.E.5a was the US Air Service, whose 25th and 148th Aero Squadrons flew 38 examples of the type in France. The S.E.5a was additionally operated by the Schools of Aerial Fighting at Freiston, Marske, Sedgeford and Turnberry, and by the Australian Flying Corps Depot at Minchinhampton.

Production of the S.E.5a lasted to the end of World War I and totalled 5,302 aircraft delivered by the Royal Aircraft Factory (177 machines), the Austin Motor (1914) Co. Ltd. (1,550), the Air Navigation Co. Ltd. (Blériot and Spad) (560), Martinsyde Ltd. (400), Vickers Ltd. (Aviation Department) (2,215), and Wolseley Motors Ltd. (400). Of these aircraft, 1,999 were sent to France for the use of the Royal Flying Corps (from April 1918 the Royal Air Force), 172 to the Middle East, 74 to home-defence units, and 728 to training units, with the rest placed in store.

The greatest problem in the acceleration of S.E.5a deliveries was the slow pace of engine deliveries, for the high power/weight ratio of the Hispano-Suiza 8 engine, especially in its Hispano-Suiza 8B form, had led to its adoption for many different types of Allied warplane. This demanded production on the largest possible scale (ultimately 28,977 such engines were produced in World War I ) by companies in France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, UK and USA. In the last two countries the main licensees were respectively Wright, with the so-called Wright-Hispano, and Wolseley, with the W.4A Viper that was a high-compression unit of the direct-drive type initially delivered at a rating of 200 hp (149 kW) but later at the increased rating of 220 hp (164 kW). Thus deliveries of the S.E.5a totalled 767 aircraft in 1917 and 4,377 aircraft in 1918 as the efforts of various airframe and engine manufacturers began to bear fruit.

The use of engines from a variety of sources resulted in a number of slightly differing standards. The specification above details the S.E.5a with the Wolseley W.4A Viper, and the differences in standard are revealed by comparison of the S.E.5a with the Hispano-Suiza 8B and the Wolseley-built Hispano-Suiza 8B, in each case rated at a nominal 200 hp (149 kW): the two variants were dimensionally identical, but whereas the aircraft with the engine of Hispano-Suiza manufacture had an empty weight of 1,400 lb (635 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,953 lb (886 kg), maximum speed of 105 kt (121 mph; 195 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 10,000 ft (3050 m) in 10 minutes 20 seconds, service ceiling of 22,000 ft (6705 m) and endurance of 3 hours 0 minutes, the equivalent performance data for the S.E.5a with the engine of Wolseley manufacture included a maximum take-off weight of 2,034 lb (923 kg), maximum speed of 114.5 kt (132 mph; 212.5 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1980 m) declining to 100 kt (115.5 mph; 186 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 10,000 ft (3050 m) in 11 minutes 20 seconds, service ceiling of 19,000 ft (5790 m), and endurance of 2 hours 15 minutes.

Albert BallAces who flew the S.E.5 and S.E.5a to good effect included Major Edward Mannock, the highest-scoring British ace with 73 victories, Major James T. B. McCudden with 57 victories, Captain Andre W. Beauchamp-Proctor with 54 victories, Captain Albert Ball who scored the last of his 44 victories in the S.E.5 after initially characterising the type to Major General H .M. Trenchard with the words ‘It’s a bloody awful machine’, Captain Percy J. Clayson with 29 victories, Major Gerald J. C. Maxwell with 26 victories, and Captain William E. Shields with 24 victories.

The S.E.5a was phased out of British service shortly after the end of World War I, and a few of the aircraft were sold to Poland, where they saw some service into the early 1920s. Other aircraft remained in service with the air forces of Australia (50 machines), Canada (12+ machines), Ireland and South Africa.

The S.E.5b was an experimental sesquiplane development of the S.E.5a of which only a single prototype was completed out of the last airframe ordered from the Royal Aircraft Factory as an S.E.5a. Evaluated in 1918 with the Hispano-Suiza 8B engine, the standard two-gun armament, and the rear fuselage and tail unit of the S.E.5a, the S.E.5b had its engine cooled by a retractable radiator under the revised forward fuselage carrying the engine driving the two-blade propeller with a large spinner that completed a fine nose entry, and was carried by a new wing cellule in which the upper wing (fitted with ailerons on the outboard ends of its trailing edges) was of greater span and chord than the lower wing, from which it was separated on each side by a single pair of parallel interplane struts that were angled out from bottom to top.

Trials revealed that the handling was essentially unaltered from that of the S.E.5a, and that performance was also substantially similar as the greater drag of the revised wing cellule offset the lower drag of the engine installation. In 1918 the S.E.5b was fitted with a standard S.E.5a wing cellule and used for trials of a modified tail unit. The known data for the S.E.5b in its sesquiplane form include a span of 30 ft 7 in (9.32 m) with area of 278.00 sq ft (25.83 m²), length of 20 ft 10 in (6.35 m), height of 9 ft 6 in (2.89 m), and maximum take-off weight of 1,950 lb (885 kg).

The USA ordered 1,000 examples of the S.E.5a from Curtiss with the powerplant of one Wright-Hispano E V-8 engine rated at 180 hp (134 kW), but only 57 of these aircraft had been completed (56 machines assembled from British-supplied components and one wholly American-built aeroplane) before the Armistice of November 1918 led to the cancellation of the order. The American-built version of the S.E.5a was dimensionally identical to the British-built model, but than its powerplant differed in details such as its maximum take-off weight of 2,060 lb (934 kg), maximum speed of 106.5 kt (122.5 mph; 197 km/h) at sea level declining to 101.5 kt (117 mph; 188 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3050 m), and climb to 10,000 ft (3050 m) in 13 minutes 0 seconds.

In 1922/23 the Eberhart Steel Products Company used spare parts to complete an additional 50 more aircraft to the revised S.E.5E standard as advanced trainers with a plywood-covered fuselage.


RAF S.E.5a

Type: fighter

Accommodation: pilot in the open cockpit

Powerplant: one Wolseley W.4A Viper liquid-cooled V-8 piston engine rated at 200 hp (149 kW) for take-off

Performance: maximum level speed 120 kt (138 mph; 222 km/h) at sea level declining to 107 kt (123 mph; 198 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m); climb to 10,000 ft (3050 m) in 11 minutes 0 seconds; service ceiling 19,000 ft (5790 m); range 260 nm (300 miles (485 km); endurance 2 hours 30 minutes

Weights: empty 1,406 lb (638 kg); maximum take-off 1,940 lb (880 kg)

Dimensions: span 26 ft 7.5 in (8.115 m); length 20 ft 11 in (6.375 m); height 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m); tailplane span 11 ft 0 in (3.35 m); wheel track 5 ft 0 in (1.52 m); wing area 245.80 sq ft (22.83 m²)

Armament: one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers fixed forward-firing machine gun with 400 rounds on the port upper side of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis fixed forward-firing machine gun with 388 rounds above the upper-wing centre section; there was also provision for up to 100 lb (45 kg) of disposable stores carried on two hardpoints under the lower wing and each rated at 50 lb (27 kg), and generally comprising four 25 lb (11.3 kg) Cooper bombs

[Photos by TSRLNJR ZA and an unidentified photographer]

Anzio – the final stage

Operations in Anzio 18-30 May 1944The last stage in the Battle of Anzio, which had started with the landing of the US VI Corps in ‘Shingle’ and then passed through the German ‘Fischfang’, ‘Morgenröte’ and ‘Sonnenaufgang’ counter-offensives, was the break-out on 23/25 May 1944 of the VI Corps, now commanded by Major General Lucian K. Truscott, to link with other elements of Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army. This army had at last emerged victorious from the vicious fighting for Monte Cassino, thereby breaking through the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences and driving north-west toward Rome though the ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ defences.

The VI Corps now comprised Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 1st Armored Division, Major General John W. O’Daniel’s 3rd Division, Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division, Major General Fred L. Walker’s 36th Division, Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s (from 24 May Brigadier C. F. Loewen’s) British 1st Division, Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s British 5th Division, and Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force. The corps was contained by General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps and General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps within Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’. The I Fallschirmkorps comprised Generalmajor Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision, Generalmajor Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division and Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, and the LXXVI Panzerkorps used Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division and Generalleutnant Kurt Hoffmann’s 715th Division.

On 23 May the VI Corps attacked on a primarily north-eastern axis from its lodgement in the direction of Cisterna and Valmontone, and two days later made contact at Borgo Grappa with the leading elements of another of Clark’s formations, Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps attacking north-west from the line of the Garigliano river. Even before Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns’s Canadian I Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army broke through the left of their ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ defences to the north of Monte Cassino and the ‘Gustav-Linie’, so opening the way toward the Anzio beach-head and the ‘Cäsar-Linie’ defences just to the south of Rome, Kesselring and his subordinate commanders had become increasingly concerned by the penetration of the defences in the south, where Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps and the II Corps had broken through to reach the highway linking Pico and Formio on 19 May. Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 26th Panzerdivision was having some success in restabilising this part of the front’s central sector between Pico and Pontecorvo area, but Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision could not check the Allied advance nearer to the coast.

With some hesitation, because of his uncertainty about the overall situation, Kesselring ordered the 14th Army to despatch Generalmajor Fritz Polack’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from Civitavecchia to block the II Corps’ advance in the potentially strong defensive position along Highway 7 between Fondi and Terracina, where there was a final defile before Highway 7 debouched onto the flat land of the Pontine Marsh area, leading directly to the southern edge of the Allied beach-head at Anzio. If the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision could stop the Americans here, Kesselring believed, there remained a chance to prevent the junction of the two Allied forces. Von Mackensen disagreed with this, believing instead that it would be better to hold back the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision for the defeat of the break-out he was sure was coming from the beach-head. When it received Kesselring’s order, therefore, the 14th Army’s staff protested to Heeresgruppe ‘C’, and it was only on his return from a visit to the front that Kesselring learned that his order had not been obeyed. After the battle, Kesselring replaced von Mackensen with General Joachim Lemelsen. The two commanders’ disagreement had a decidedly dire effect on the fate of the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision. If it had moved south at the time of Kesselring’s original order on 19 May, it would have had the time it needed to prepare its positions before the US formations reached the Terracina defile but, as it now happened, the division was forced to deploy straight off the march into battle without even adequate reconnaissance. It also found that it was too late to stop the Americans, who had already taken possession of the high ground above the defile that should have been the basis of the German defensive position. The 29th Panzergrenadierdivision nonetheless fought courageously and did indeed manage to hold Terracina until the night of 23/24 May before being compelled to fall back, together with the remnants of Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division, through the Monti Lepini toward Highway 6 in order to avoid being cut off.

On the Allied side of the line, matters were progressing along more amenable lines. The time was approaching for the VI Corps to break-out of the Anzio lodgement, and on 18 May General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, heading the Allied Armies in Italy command, permitted the movement of the 36th Division into the beach-head. The advance of the II Corps along the coastal sector meant that the 36th Division, which was the 5th Army’s reserve division and not to be committed without reference to the Allied Armies in Italy, would not be needed on the main front, and could therefore be used to strengthen the break-out force. Its move into the beach-head would take four days, so the earliest that the break-out could take place would be 23 May, which coincided nicely with the fact that Leese’s 8th Army and Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps would be attacking the ‘Führer-Senger-Linie’ defences on that day, and the II Corps advancing toward Terracina. But while there was no problem with the decision when to launch the break-out, there were difficulties with the decision about the direction in which the break-out should be made. This resulted in disagreement between Alexander and Clark, and between their staffs.

Battle of Anzio, the move on Rome

In his thinking and consequent orders for the ‘Diadem’ offensive to take Rome, Alexander had stressed that his primary aim was the destruction of German divisions, with the capture of Rome a secondary aim which would probably occur as a by-product of the achievement of the primary aim. Clark discerned matters in exactly the opposite way, and saw Rome as the primary objective with the destruction of German formations as the secondary, but nonetheless very important, objective. Clark believed vehemently that the 5th Army’s trials and tribulations during the winter of 1943/44 deserved this prize. So far as the break-out from the Anzio beach-head was concerned, therefore, Alexander felt that the VI Corps’ operation, for which there were five US and two British divisions available, should be made north-east in the direction of Valmontone to cut Highway 6 and thus sever the major line of retreat for Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army falling back in front of the 8th Army.

Clark objected on the grounds first that this would require a dangerous flank march across the front of the German forces holding the dominating Alban Hills and second that when the II Corps reached Valmontone the 10th Army could easily escape the trap by withdrawing up the two good roads and many subsidiary tracks leading north-west from Highway 6 to Highway 5, the primary lateral road linking Rome and Pescara, and at one time been Montgomery’s proposed axis of advance on Rome. Clark believed that if the Germans reached this lateral, they would easily be able to deploy their formations into the ‘Cäsar-Linie’ defences. Alexander accepted Clark’s first point but disagreed with the second, and in general held that the fewer the lines of retreat available to the Germans, the greater would be the destruction visited on them by Allied air power. The main problem at this point seems to have been that Alexander vacillated, and Clark therefore gained the impression it would not take much of a setback to the break-out toward Valmontone to persuade Alexander to change his mind and allow a direct attack west of the Alban Hills on Rome, as wanted by Clark.

Meanwhile, within the beach-head, the VI Corps had developed break-out plans appropriate to a number of contingencies, but it was finally agreed that the attack should be made, as Alexander directed, toward Valmontone. The break-out started on 23 May with an attack on Cisterna by the 3rd Division, 1st Armored Division and 1st Special Service Force. It was then intended to pass the fresh 36th Division with the 1st Armored Division through the breach in the German defences and on through the gap between the Alban Hills and the Monti Lepini toward Valmontone, giving the Alban Hills as wide a berth as possible. Major General William W. Eagles’s US 45th Division would protect the northern flank by widening the breach toward the Alban Hills, while two British formations, Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 1st Division and Gregson-Ellis’s 5th Division, held the northern perimeter against any relieving attack which Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps might choose to make.

When they attacked, the 1st Armored and 3rd Divisions achieved total tactical surprise and opened a sizeable gap in the defences of Greiner’s 362nd Division and Hoffmann’s 715th Division. The latter broke first and tried to pull back toward the Monti Lepini, but the former stood its ground and, with the aid of airborne forces arriving from the northern side of the lodgement, held the northern shoulder of the US breach. Heavy fighting continued on 23/24 May, and on 25 May the leading elements of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Schmalz’s 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ began to arrive. Thus Kesselring had been compelled to commit his last reserve mobile division, a formation earmarked by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for redeployment to France to bolster the defences against ‘Overlord’, in order to check the US breakout. So acute had the German position round Anzio become that this Luftwaffe division had to run the major risk of moving south in daylight, and as a result suffered severe losses: during 25 May some of these German reinforcements were spotted moving south from Valmontone toward the location of the US break-out and were heavily bombed and strafed by Allied warplanes. The VI Corps claimed some 600 German vehicles destroyed and 400 damaged. The figures will never be known with any accuracy, but as the US forces drove forward past Cisterna they found the roads blocked with burned-out German equipment.

By dusk on 25 May a wide breach had been secured, Cisterna, Cori and the northern edge of the Monti Lepini were in US hands, and the leading elements of the II Corps, advancing to the north-west from Terracina, made contact with a patrol from the beach-head. Thus the 5th Army was reunited after three and a half months of separation. The Germans had lost 2,500 prisoners by this time, but US losses had been by no means negligible: the 1st Armored Division had lost many tanks, and the 3rd Division had suffered more than 1,000 casualties on the first day alone, but both formations were nonetheless still full of fight. It was at this moment that Clark decided to change direction and to make his main effort north-west along Highway 7 and the road linking Anzio and Albano, and thus straight to Rome. To sugar the pill for Alexander, he proposed to continue the offensive toward Valmontone with the 3rd Division, while the 34th, 36th and 45th Divisions and the 1st Armored Division opened a direct attack on the ‘Cäsar-Linie’ defences to the west of the Alban Hills on 26 May. Alexander accepted Clark’s plan on the assurance that he would maintain the Valmontone thrust. It would be overstating the case against Clark to say that he paid only lip service to Alexander’s orders, but in practical terms this was what in fact happened.

As a result of excellent staff work, the VI Corps was able to move off along its new axis by 12.00 on 26 May while the 3rd Division continued toward Valmontone, took Artena a mere 3 miles (4.8 km) south of Highway 6 near Valmontone, but was then halted by a quickly improvised German assembly of the 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision, Generalleutnant Hellmuth Böhlke’s 334th Division from the Adriatic sector, and Oberst Freiherr de la Salle’s 92nd Division recently activated near Rome. Thus the line of retreat was held open for the 10th Army, which lived to fight on for the rest of the Italian campaign.

By the later stages of May, it should be noted, the VI Corps had 150,000 men, whereas the German containment force had 135,000 men supplemented by the 1,600 men of just two Italian battalions. By the time of the battle’s end, the Allies had suffered 43,000 combat casualties (7,000 dead and 36,000 wounded or missing), while the Germans had suffered 40,000 combat losses (5,000 dead, 30,500 wounded or missing, and 4,500 taken prisoner).

The Anzio beach-head – the Germans fight back

US forces landing at AnzioAs Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps came ashore in ‘Shingle’ at Anzio and Nettuno, established its beach-head and started to consolidate its position, the Germans reacted with the speed that characterised so many of their counteroffensives and counterattacks in World War II.

The staff of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ in Italy had already undertaken a number of studies into the possibility of future Allied landings with strategic ramifications. Each of these possibilities, which the Germans believed to include Istria, Ravenna, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Viareggio, was deemed to require a rapid response, so decisions had already been made about which formations should be committed to handle the situation at each of these locations, the routes they would have to take had been marked out, and their operational tasks had been fixed. Each hypothetical situation had been given a keyword. Thus Kesselring had only to signal ‘Richard’ for the Anzio beach-head to become the focus of movement by General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps with General Paul Conrath’s 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ from the area of Frosinone and Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision from the area of Terni; of General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps from the Sangro river front with Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision; of Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision from the Garigliano river front; and of the staff of General Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army as well as Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division, which were to cross the Apennines from northern Italy as quickly as the winter conditions allowed.

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht then intervened to boost the German strength in Italy: Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ in North-West Europe, was ordered to transfer Generalleutnant Kurt Hoffmann’s 715th Division, then stationed in the area of Marseille, and Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, the Oberbefelhshaber ‘Südost’ in the Balkans, was instructed to despatch Generalleutnant Alexander Bouquin’s 114th Jägerdivision.

On 23 January, when von Mackensen arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters, all that lay between the VI Corps at Anzio and Rome was a detachment of the 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision and a miscellany of artillery ranging from a few 88-mm (3.45-in) dual-role anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns to larger numbers of captured Italian, French and Yugoslav field guns. Despite the improvisatory talents of Kesselring and his staff, it would be some seven days before the 14th Army could offer realistic opposition to any Allied offensive. However, Lucas was concerned less with the likelihood of a German offensive than with the consolidation of his corps’ beach-head by supplementing the formations which had already landed (Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division and Major General W. R. C. Penney’s British 1st Division) with the rest of the VI Corps in the form of Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 1st Armored Division and Major General William W. Eagles’s US 45th Division. On 28 January the 1st Armored Division took Aprilia, more than 10 miles (16 km) to the north of Anzio, but on the eastern end of the beach-head the 3rd Division had been driven back opposite Cisterna.

On the same day von Mackensen had three divisions in the line and enough units to make up a fourth, but by the last day of the month he had eight divisions. Thus Kesselring, far from being intimidated by the boldness of the concept embodied in ‘Shingle’, had assembled his forces with a speed wholly underestimated by the two senior Allied commanders responsible for operations on the western side of Italy, namely the British General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander and the US Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark.

504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at AnzioWhether or not the Allies ever possessed any realistic chance of breaking the stalemate on the western side of Italy by a rapid break-out from the Anzio beach-head to threaten the lines of communication feeding Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army on the Garigliano front, nothing was even attempted. This gave rise during February and March 1944 to a pair of the most furious battles of World War II, both ending in defeat for the attacker: on 29 February von Mackensen had to abandon his attempts to crush the Anzio beach-head and Clark reported that his repeated attempts to force the Cassino defile had failed.

The battle for the beach-head arose from a perhaps inevitable initiative by Adolf Hitler. On 28 January the German leader sent Kesselring an un-numbered Führerbefehl (the 52nd in the overall sequence) demanding an unremitting defence of Rome to show the Allies that the will of the German people remained undiminished. This is the reason why the 14th Army, while driving back the repeated attempts of the VI Corps to break out from Aprilia and sever the railway between Rome and Gaeta at Campoleone, actively prepared to go over to the offensive. On 3/4 February, this first counter-offensive, codenamed ‘Fischfang’ (fish trap), pinched off the head of the thrust by the 1st Armored Division, supported by the 1st Division, toward Campoleone near the main west coast rail line and the road linking Anzio with Albano. Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps, including Raapke’s 71st Division, Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision and Conrath’s 1st Fallschirm-Panzerdivision, began ‘Fischfang’ with exploratory probes near Isola Bella and Carano during the afternoon of 3 February, and then the German forces attacked at 23.00 to destroy the salient not with swift blows on its shoulders so to pinch it out, but rather on the basis of a process of attrition. Some hours after the German undertaking’s start, the fighting had disintegrated into a number of small unit actions, most of them in and around the gullies that predominate in this area.

The next stage of ‘Fischfang’ was launched on 3 February, Schlemm’s intention being to pinch off the salient toward Campoleone (held by Brigadier J. G. James’s 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division) with attacks from the east by the 104th Panzergrenadierregiment of Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and from the west by the 145th Grenadierregiment of Pfeiffer’s 65th Division. The Germans managed to take the salient, but failed to crush the 3rd Brigade, although the British losses were high. The arrival of Major General G. W. R. Templer’s British 56th Division to bolster the strength of the Allied lodgement allowed Truscott to replace the battered 3rd Brigade with a fresh brigade.

The Germans were still attracted by the lure of the main road south to Anzio, especially in the area of Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, now just behind the Allied front since the loss of the Campoleone salient. From 5 to 7 February each side concentrated its efforts on heavy artillery bombardments and bombing attacks in an effort to disrupt the other side’s preparations for renewed ground operations. The Germans launched their new effort at 21.00 on 7 February as ‘Morgenröte’ (dawn). This second German counter-offensive was fought by formations of Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps to take Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, which lay just to the British side of the junction between Eagles’s 45th Division and Penney’s 1st Division. Units of the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision, 26th Panzerdivision and the 715th Division were formed into the Kampfgruppe ‘Gräser’, and on 8 February this group was supplemented by an extemporised grouping under Oberst Henning Schönfeld. The two groups pushed deep into the 1st Division’s positions, and by 11 February had taken Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, in the process reducing the British division to about half its establishment strength.

At this alarming stage of the Allied operations at Anzio, Alexander urged Clark to strengthen the leadership of the VI Corps, and Clark responded by making Truscott the corps’ deputy commander. It should be noted that after ‘Morgenröte’ had taken the Aprilia Factory and Carroceto on the road linking Anzio with Albano in the Alban hills, Lucas had relieved Penney’s battered 1st Division with Eagles’s 45th Division. As Templer’s British 56th Division arrived from the Garigliano river front, Lucas brought this into the line on the 45th Division’s western flank so that the Albano road sector was held by completely fresh troops. Truscott’s 3rd Division remained in the Cisterna sector, which had not yet been seriously attacked. This situation prevailed even as the Germans pondered their third and, as it turned out, last counter-offensive at Anzio.

Kesselring and von Mackensen both looked carefully at the front before deciding where to deliver what they hoped would be their decisive counter-offensive. The two coastal sectors provided most cover, but the German experience at Salerno made them avoid any axis within easy range of the supporting gunfire of Allied warships. Moreover, they wished to make the best possible use of the considerable armoured strength which Adolf Hitler was now making available to them. The two local commanders now decided that the optimum axis was the line of the road linking Anzio and Albano. Their plan was to attack initially with four divisions on a wide front extending on each side of the road, complemented by diversionary attack on the extremity of each of the Allied lodgement’s flanks. As soon as they had achieved a break-in, the Germans would exploit with a concentrated attack by the 26th Panzerdivision and 29th Panzergrenadierdivision.

During the development of the plan, however, von Mackensen was summoned to present the plan to Hitler at a meeting of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht. The German leader raised no basic objection to von Mackensen’s plan to drive south along the road from Albano to Anzio, with diversionary attacks on each side, but then began to interfere with details of the tactical plan. von Mackensen thus saw Führer-mandated changes in the front on which he was to attack, the troops he was to use, and even the deployment of these forces. Hitler now demanded an attack on a much narrower front, on each side of the road between Anzio and Albano and thus on the same sector of the front on which ‘Fischfang’ and ‘Morgenröte’ had been attempted, and that the attack should be spearheaded by the Infanterie-Lehr-Regiment, a unit in which Hitler had great faith. The definitive plan to Hitler’s prescription called for infantry formations to break the Allied line between Fossa di Spaccasassi in the east and Buonriposo ridge in the west, so opening the way for German armoured and motorised formations to pour through the breach either to drive on Nettuno or to crush pockets of Allied resistance with flank attacks. The operation was entrusted to the LXXVI Panzerkorps, which was to attack on a front of less than 4 miles (6.5 km) with two infantry divisions up and the 26th Panzerdivision (now commanded by Generalleutnant Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz) and the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision in reserve: this disposition, Hitler insisted, would ensure that the infantry formations would receive the supporting fire which would pulverise the Allied defence. von Mackensen vainly attempted to point out that such a massive concentration would offer a sitting target to the Allied air forces, which Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II lacked the strength to check. Hitler also refused to listen to the argument that it was pointless to line up the guns wheel to wheel with insufficient ammunition for them to fire at the required rate.

The Luftwaffe was to provide maximum support, and was specially reinforced for this purpose, a notably heavy concentration of field artillery was assembled, and a new battlefield weapon was to be used for the first time. This last was the Goliath remotely controlled miniature tank filled with explosives, and intended as a device to help clear a way through the Allied barbed wire and minefield defences. The Germans were very optimistic about their chances of success, but the general air of confidence engendered in the troops by the concentration of German strength and Hitler’s assurances of inevitable victory had two unfortunate consequences: prisoners betrayed the date of the offensive to Allied interrogators; and when the offensive was defeated the despondency of the German forces was that much greater.

‘Sonnenaufgang’ began on 16 February, as ordered by Hitler, and in daylight as the assault divisions, only newly arrived in the area, lacked the knowledge of the terrain required for a night assault. There was a preliminary softening of the Allied defences by 300 German guns, but the 114th Jägerdivision and 715th Division, which were to advance side by side, were not provided with a creeping barrage behind which to move forward. The spongy ground of the Pontine Marshes also prevented the infantry’s supporting tanks and the assault guns from moving off the roads. The 14th Army’s offensive received the intermittent support of 20 to 30 German fighter-bombers, but the German troops were on the receiving end of no less than 1,100 tons of Allied bombs. German bombers and long-range guns struck at the rear areas in a fruitless attempt to panic the administrative echelons, and in return the Allied air forces were switched from Cassino and flew about 500 sorties mainly against Carroceto and the Aprilia Factory, which the Germans were using as their primary assembly areas. Moreover, the Allied tactical air forces successfully isolated the battlefield from any chance of German reinforcement, and interdicted the movement of supplies to the 14th Army’s front-line units.

Even so, by nightfall the LXXVI Panzerkorps had advanced some 3 to 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 km) into the Allied lines, reaching ‘The Flyover’, the point at which a road crossed the parallel road and rail line between Anzio and Albano, but was still about 7 to 8 miles (11.25 to 13 km) short of its objectives, Anzio and Nettuno. The German guns had fired some 6,500 shells, but had been deluged by 10 times as many Allied projectiles. During the night the position changed dramatically. Infiltration on each side of the Albano road led to the appearance of a significant gap between the central and left-hand regiments of the 45th Division. The Germans quickly found this gap, and set about the further widening of this breach during the morning of the offensive’s second day. Lucas ordered the 1st Division to move out of corps reserve into a blocking position astride the Albano road on the lodgement’s ‘final’ defence line (a strengthened version of the line the Allies had reached on 22 January in ‘Shingle’), and ordered the 45th Division to undertake a night counterattack on the salient which the Germans had driven into the Allied front. Right through the second night of the offensive, the Germans moved up more units for a decisive effort on the following day. They drove back the 45th Division’s counterattack and infiltrated both into and round the US and British positions, blocking their advance. During the afternoon von Mackensen believed that the moment had come to commit a larger force of fresh troops. Supported by Panzergrenadier battalions, the Infanterie-Lehr-Regiment launched an all-out attack down the Albano road. Some 14 German battalions were involved in widening the salient driven into the 45th Division’s front but, packed into a small area and unable to make any effective use of their armoured strength off the road, the German attack provided an excellent target to the massed artillery of the VI Corps, the guns of the Allied warships lying offshore, and Allied warplanes. The weather prevented the Allies’ medium and heavy bombers from intervening. Most of the 45th Division was driven back to the ‘final’ defence line east of the Albano road, and the 1st Division came under attack astride the road itself. During the afternoon of this day the 26th Panzerdivision was committed, and only the demolition of a bridge over the Carroceto creek prevented a German breakthrough. By the evening the stubborn defence of the 45th and 1st Divisions was finally telling on the Germans, who started to pull back for a measure of reorganisation. The fighting went on for two more days, in which Harmon’s 1st Armored Division and Penney’s 1st Division counterattacked with some success. Despite the extreme severity of their losses, the Germans continued to launch successive attacks in a desperate endeavour to break through.

Krupp K5 railway gunFor three days von Mackensen sought fruitlessly to regain the upper hand, but Truscott, who was undertaking much of the tactical command responsibility and was to replace Lucas on 22 February, was too vigilant for him. On 19 February the I Fallschirmkorps took up the attack again farther to the east in the area of Cisterna, but was checked after advancing just a few hundred yards. On 20 February a last despairing effort made by the Panzergrenadier divisions came to nothing, and this marked the end of the last German counter-offensive as the battle around the beach-head then died down, and Clark reinforced the position with Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s British 5th Division and Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division. The beaches and the Allied rear positions were still harassed by German heavy artillery, whose fire was registered by observation posts in the Colli Laziali (Alban Hills), and a 280-mm (11-in) railway gun in particular wrought havoc among the defenders. The air force was unable to silence ‘Anzio Annie’, as the Allies called this ‘Leopold’ gun, because it withdrew into a tunnel near Castel Gandolfo immediately after it had fired.

The Germans had learned what the Allies had been experiencing for some time, but were still refusing to admit: a winter attack, when armour and heavy weapons are confined to the roads, is extraordinarily difficult and costly. At Anzio 10 German divisions had failed to break through 4.5 Allied divisions, had once more suffered under the hammer of Allied air and artillery superiority, and had their morale severely tested and in fact weakened.

Trying to break the Italian stalemate – the Allied landing at Anzio

Just over 65 years ago, on 22 January 1944, the Allied made a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to break the stalemate on the Italian front with Operation ‘Shingle’, an attempt to outflank the Germans’ powerful ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. ‘Shingle’ took the form of an amphibious landing at Anzio and Nettuno on the western side of central Italy, and was designed to outflank the German forces in the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences along the line of the Rapido and Garigliano rivers north-east and south-west of Cassino, and so allow the lines of communication nourishing Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to be severed or rather, in a late modification, facilitate an Allied advance on Rome.

At the end of 1943, following their ‘Baytown’, ‘Slapstick’ and ‘Avalanche’ landings at Reggio di Calabria, Taranto and Salerno respectively, the Allied forces were bogged down in front of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences extending across the Italian peninsula to the south of Rome. The terrain of central Italy had proved ideally suited to defence, and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, had proved more than capable in exploiting the fact. From a number of Allied proposals made to break the stalemate, that of Prime Minister Winston Churchill for ‘Shingle’ was accepted by his Allied opposite numbers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the USA and Premier Josef Stalin of the USSR. The operation was therefore planned in November 1944 by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied 15th Army Group on the basis of a major attack in the south by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army and General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army, which would draw the already depleted German forces away from the areas round Rome, and from the hills between Rome and the coast. This would make possible a surprise landing by Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps in the area of Anzio and Nettuno, just to the south of Rome, opening the way for a rapid advance into the Alban hills to cut the Germans’ lines of communication with their forces farther south, and to threaten the rear of the General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps and General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. Allied planners argued that if Kesselring was compelled to thin the forces holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ to provide the wherewithal to check an Allied landing at Anzio, the Allied forces farther to the south would be able to break through the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, and at the same time the Allies concluded that unless Kesselring pulled forces out of these defences, ‘Shingle’ would face only comparatively insignificant local opposition and thus would pave the way for the capture of Rome and the isolation of the German forces left holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. The planners believed, moreover, that even if the Germans had adequate reinforcements available for the defence of both Rome and the ‘Gustav-Linie’, ‘Shingle’ would still be useful in pinning forces which could otherwise be committed on another front.

It is worth noting that at the same time the Germans finally came to a conclusion in their dispute as how best to defend Italy, Adolf Hitler deciding in favour of holding southern Italy in accord with the scheme proposed by Kesselring, rather than securing northern Italy in accord with the plan proposed by the commander of Heeresgruppe ‘B’, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. As a result Kesselring was appointed to the command of a new Heeresgruppe ‘C’ controlling all German forces in southern and northern Italy, and immediately set about preparing a new army headquarters (the 14th Army under Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen) for the control of operations in those parts of Italy lying to the west of the Apennine mountains, leaving Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army to concentrate on the defence of eastern Italy. So just as the Allies were preparing a bold outflanking movement at Anzio, the Germans were establishing an effective theatre command with a capable but as yet uncommitted army headquarters under its direct control.

‘Shingle’ was initially to have used a single US division landed no later than 15 January 1944, when the required amphibious shipping was to be removed from the Mediterranean in preparation for ‘Overlord’ in Normandy, the exact date of the landing being determined by the arrival of the 5th Army at a point some 30 miles (48 km) to the south of the proposed beach-head after breaking through the ‘Gustav-Linie’ positions after penetrating its outlying ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ forward defences. The operation was officially cancelled on 18 December, but then various delays had postponed the removal of Allied amphibious transport capability to the UK, and the operation was revived but shifted in scheduled implementation toward the end of January 1944 as Clark’s forces had as yet failed to make the necessary inroads through the ‘Bernhardt-Linie’ and ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. A major failing in the plan, however, was the fact that Lucas lacked wholehearted confidence in both his superiors and the plan.

One of the operational problems with which the plan had to contend was that concerning the availability of landing ships. US commanders in particular were determined that nothing should delay the ‘Overlord’ and ‘Dragoon’ amphibious landings in northern and southern France. ‘Shingle’ would require the use of landing ships necessary for these operations, however, and it was initially decided that ‘Shingle’ was to release these assets by 15 January. This was deemed problematic, however, and Roosevelt authorised the retention of the craft to 5 February. Even so, only LSTs sufficient for the landing of one division were initially available to ‘Shingle’ but later, at Churchill’s personal insistence, enough were made available for the delivery of two divisions into an area which, Allied intelligence believed, contained five or six German divisions.

There now entered a dangerous diversion of aims, for whereas Alexander instructed Clark that the aim of the operation was ‘to carry out an assault landing on the beaches in the vicinity of Rome with the object of cutting the enemy lines of communication and threatening the rear of the German XIV Corps’, Clark told Lucas that he was merely ‘to seize and secure a beach-head in the vicinity of Anzio’ and later ‘to advance on the Alban Hills’. So while the British wanted a landing followed by a swift and fully committed advance, the Americans envisaged a landing which would be consolidated before any advance was undertaken, for Clark was determined that the problem of German counterattacks which had beset ‘Avalanche’ at Salerno should not be repeated with ‘Shingle’ at Anzio. The Allied plan was finalised on 12 January, three days after the VI Corps had been replaced in the line south of Cassino and moved to its embarkation points at Salerno, as part of a five-phase Allied winter offensive against a German army believed to be exhausted and virtually without reinforcements or reserves. ‘Shingle’ was designed as the third of these phases: the first two were the Allied offensives against the ‘Gustav-Linie’ and ‘Senger-Linie’ positions, and the last two the link-up with the US VI Corps and the destruction of the XIV Panzerkorps.

The Allied forces for ‘Shingle’ comprised a naval element commanded by Rear Admiral Frank J. Lowry of the US Navy with Lowry’s own Task Force 81 (Force ‘X’) responsible for the transport, landing and support of the American land forces, and the British Rear Admiral T. H. Troubridge’s Force ‘P’ for the transport, landing and support of the British land forces. On 21 January TF81, with Lowry on board the headquarters ship Biscayne, left the Bay of Naples and the landings started early on the next day. Lowry’s Southern Attack Force comprised five LSIs, 51 LSTs, four LCG/Fs, 60 LCIs, 32 LCTs, two LCT(R)s, 23 MLs and PC/SCs, 10 other craft and the beacon submarine Uproar, and landed Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division. Escort and support were provided by the cruisers Brooklyn and British Penelope, US fleet destroyers Plunkett, Gleaves, Niblack, Woolsey, Mayo, Trippe, Ludlow and Edison, British escort destroyers Croome, Greek Themistokles and Kriti, US destroyer escorts Herbert C. Jones and Frederick C. Davis, Dutch gunboats Flores and Zoemba, British anti-aircraft ship Palomares and 23 US minesweepers. Troubridge’s Northern Attack Force comprised the headquarters ship Bulolo, three LSIs, three large LSTs (Boxer, Bruiser and Buster), 30 LSTs, four LCG/Fs, 29 LCIs, 17 LCTs, one LCT(R), 17 PCs, SCs and MLs, 13 other craft and the beacon submarine Ultor, and landed Major General W. R. C. Penney’s British 1st Division. Escort and support were provided the British cruisers Orion and Spartan, anti-aircraft ship Ulster Queen, fleet destroyers Jervis, Janus, Laforey, Loyal, Inglefield, Tenacious, Urchin and Kempenfelt, escort destroyers Beaufort, Brecon, Wilton and Tetcott, and 16 minesweepers.

On the first day of ‘Shingle’ these Allied naval assets landed 36,034 troops and 3,069 vehicles. The minesweeper Portent was lost on a mine and LCI-20 sank after being hit by a bomb. The AA ship Palomares also suffered mine damage. In an air attack on 23 January the destroyers Janus was sunk and and Jervis damaged by Henschel Hs 293 guided weapons. When the first supply convoy arrived on 24 January the 2,702-ton hospital ship St David was sunk by air attack, and the destroyer Plunkett and minesweeper Prevail were damaged. The destroyer Mayo was damaged by an air-launched torpedo. At Naples the 7,176-ton freighter F. A. C. Muhlenberg was damaged by bombs. On 25 January the minesweeper YMS-30 was sunk on a mine and the submarine chaser PC-676 damaged by a bomb. On 26 January LST-422 and LCI-32 were lost on mines, while LST-336 and the freighters John Banward (7,191 tons) and Hilary A. Herbert (7,176 tons) were damaged by fighter-bombers. On 27 January the submarine chaser SC-534 was damaged by bombs. On 29 January the cruiser Spartan and 7,181-ton transport Samuel Huntington succumbed to air attacks by, respectively, a Dornier Do 217K-5 of the III/Kampfgeschwader 100 and Junkers Ju 88 aircraft of the I/Lehrgeschwader 1 armed with guided weapons and bombs.

Despite the scale of the German air attacks, by 29 January the Allies had landed 68,886 men, 237 tanks and 508 pieces of artillery. The initial land element, under the command of Lucas, totalled 40,000 men and more than 5,000 vehicles divided into three attack groups. The northernmost of these, scheduled to land 6 miles (10 km) to the north of Anzio, was part of Penney’s British 1st Division (Brigadier E. E. J. Moore’s 2nd Brigade, Brigadier J. G. James’s 3rd Brigade, Brigadier A. S. P. Murray’s 24th Guards Brigade and the 46th Royal Tank Regiment), and part of Brigadier T. D. L. Churchill’s 2nd Special Service Brigade (No. 9 Commando and No. 43 [RM] Commando). This formation was to land its 2nd Brigade in the north between Anzio and the Moletta river with the 2nd Special Service Brigade following it ashore. The US central group, intended for the attack on the port of Anzio, for which an airborne landing to the north-west of the port by the 504th Parachute Battalion had been proposed but rejected, was the North-Western Force comprising the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions and 509th Parachute Battalion with supporting elements. This force was to land the three Ranger battalions in the centre between Anzio and Nettuno, with the 509th Parachute Infantry following them ashore. The southernmost group, intended to land on the coast 3.75 miles (6 km) to the south-east of Anzio, was the South-Western Force comprising Truscott’s 3rd Division (7th, 15th and 30th Infantry, 504th Parachute Infantry, 509th Parachute Battalion, 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions, and 751st Tank Battalion). This formation was to land its three infantry regiments in the south between Nettuno and the Mussolini Canal, with the 504th Parachute Infantry following them ashore.

The rest of the 1st Division was in floating reserve and follow-on forces, to be committed at Clark’s discretion, were Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 1st Armored Division (less Combat Command B and thus comprising the 1st Armored Regiment and 6th Armored Infantry) and Major General William W. Eagles’s 45th Division (157th, 179th and 180th Infantry, and 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion).

The assault forces were to consolidate a beach-head between the Mussolini Canal and the Moletta via Padiglione. The British would hold the left of the beach-head and then exploit toward Campoleone along the road to Albano, and the Americans would hold the right of the beach-head before exploiting toward Cisterna via Conca. Only after this enlarged beach-head had been secured would Lucas envisage the landing of the 1st Armored and 45th Divisions for the assault toward the Alban hills.

The 5th Army’s attack on the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences began on 16 January 1944 at Monte Cassino. Although the operation failed to capture its target, it partially succeeded in its primary objective: von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commanding the German forces holding the ‘Gustav-Linie’, called for reinforcements, and Kesselring transferred Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from Rome. On 16 January Clark renewed his offensive against Cassino, the heart of the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences, in an effort to draw more German reserves to the south, for it was appreciated by the Allies that the Germans could move forces against the beach-head more rapidly than the Allies could pour troops into it. Thus the Allies felt that it was vital for the German lines of communication south of Rome be seriously interdicted by air power to slow the development of the inevitable German counter-offensive. Kesselring was fully aware that an amphibious landing might be launched (German contingency plans envisaged such an outflanking operation in places as diverse as Istria, Ravenna, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Viareggio) and had organised a number of extemporised local commands to deal with any such operation: in the Anzio sector were General Alfred Schlemm and the headquarters of I Fallschirmkorps.

‘Shingle’ began on 22 January 1944. While resistance had been expected, as during ‘Avalanche’ at Salerno during September 1943, the initial landings were in fact essentially unopposed with the exception of desultory German air attacks. In themselves, therefore, the ‘Shingle’ landings were almost the most successful of World War II in any theatre, for there was opposition only from two German battalions and some shore batteries, which were silenced by the guns of the light cruisers and destroyers. By 24.00 on 22 January the VI Corps had thus landed 36,034 men, 3,069 vehicles and 90% of the corps’ assault equipment at the cost of 13 men dead, 97 wounded and 44 missing; about 200 Germans had been taken prisoner. The British 1st Division penetrated some 1.85 miles (3 km) inland, the Rangers captured Anzio’s port, the 509th Parachute Battalion took Nettuno, and the 3rd Division penetrated 3.1 miles (5 km) inland. It is clear that Lucas’s superiors expected offensive action by the VI Corps, possibly even an assault on Rome as the whole object of ‘Shingle’ was to either divert German strength from the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences or to take advantage of German weakness in the areas behind the ‘Gustav-Linie’ defences. Lucas instead poured more men and matériel into his small beach-head, and strengthened his defences. Churchill was obviously very unhappy with the situation, and wrote that ‘I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale.’ Lucas’s decision remains controversial. Lucas lacked confidence in the operation’s strategic planning, and his orders from Clark also laid on him the requirement to ‘land, secure the beach-head and advance’. With two divisions landed, and facing two or three times that many Germans, it would have been reasonable for Lucas to consider the VI Corps’ beach-head insecure. But what Lucas in fact achieved was the worst of both worlds, exposing his forces to risk without imposing any on those of the Germans. In it not surprising, therefore, that on 23 February Lucas was replaced by Truscott.

Kesselring had been informed of the landings at 03.00 on 22 January, and at 05.00 ordered elements of I Fallschirmkorps (Generalmajor Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Fallschirmjägerdivision from Terni and replacement units of Generalmajor Paul Conrath’s Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ from Frosinone) to move up and hold the roads leading from Anzio into the Alban hills. Even so, there was nothing that the Germans could do within the next two days as forces were brought in to contain the beach-head. Later in the morning of 22 January Kesselring ordered von Mackensen and von Vietinghoff-Scheel, commanding the 14th and 10th Armies respectively, to send him additional reinforcements. The German units in the immediate vicinity had in fact been dispatched to reinforce the ‘Gustav-Linie’ only a few days earlier, but all available reserves on the southern front or on their way to it were rushed to Anzio. These included Generalleutnant Fritz-Hubert Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division, as well as the bulk of the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’. Thus the VI Corps was offered 48 clear hours in which to smash north-west some 12 miles (19.25 km) and sever the XIV Panzerkorps’ lines of communication at Velletri and Valmontone. Instead Lucas consolidated the beach-head and worked to build up his corps’ supplies, and only on 24 January did he order a cautious initial advance just as the first German forces arrived in the area: these forces included General Traugott Herr’s LXXVI Panzerkorps from the Sangro river (Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 26th Panzerdivision, Gräser’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalmajor Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision) and von Mackensen’s 14th Army headquarters from northern Italy together with Generalleutnant Hellmuth Pfeiffer’s 65th Division and Generalleutnant Heinrich Greiner’s 362nd Division. But so severe was the threat to the integrity of the German defences in southern Italy that at Kesselring’s urging the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht had already ordered the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, to send Generalleutnant Hans-Georg Hildebrandt’s 715th Division from Marseille, and the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Südost’, Generaloberst Alexander Löhr, to hand over the Generalmajor Alexander Bouquin’s 114th Jägerdivision from the Balkans.

By 23 January the first elements of the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ (supported by a miscellany of Flak guns and field artillery) had arrived, but von Mackensen and Kesselring could start to think of a counterattack only on 28 January, by which time the 1st Armored and 45th Divisions were assembling in the area of Padiglione Wood, and the north-eastern perimeter of the beach-head had been pushed out some 2 miles (3.2 km) by the advances of the British 1st and US 3rd Divisions toward Campoleone and Cisterna respectively. These formations were checked short of their main objectives by the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and the Fallschirm-Panzerdivision ‘Hermann Göring’ respectively, and von Mackensen now had three divisions and the equivalent of another in miscellaneous units, the total rising to eight divisions by the end of the month. Kesselring initially considered that a successful defence could not be created if the Allies launched a major attack on 23/24 January, but by the end of 22 January the VI Corps’ lack of aggression had convinced him that a successful defence could be made. The 14th Army assumed control of the defence on 25 January. Elements of eight German divisions were employed in the defence line around the beach-head, and five more divisions were on their way to the Anzio area. Kesselring ordered an attack on the beach-head for 28 January, but this was then postponed to 1 February. Lucas initiated a two-pronged attack on 30 January: as one force cut Highway 7 at Cisterna, north of the beach-head’s north-eastern extremity, before moving east into the Alban hills, a second force was to advance north up the road to Albano. It was too late, for the corps was now effectively trapped in the beach-head by aggressive and skilful counterattacks. The corps survived these counterattacks, of which the last was the ‘Sonnanfang’ failure on 16/19 February, and was eventually taken over by Truscott, received substantial reinforcements (Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s British 5th Division, Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division, Major General Fred L. Walker’s US 36th Division, and Colonel Robert T. Frederick’s US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force), and was finally able to break out of its beach-head in ‘Buffalo’ on 23 May, linking with the US II Corps two days later.

[To be continued with details of ‘Sonnanfang’, the German counterattack.]

Operation ‘Sportpalast’ – the German naval attack on the Allied PQ.12 and QP.8 arctic convoys

View from HMS Sheffield during arctic convoy dutyLasting for just over three weeks between 1 and 22 March 1942, some 69 years ago, ‘Sportpalast’ was a German naval operation by the battleship Tirpitz and escorting destroyers against the Allied QP.8 homebound and PQ.12 outbound Arctic convoys. The operation was the German navy’s first attempt to disrupt the passage of Arctic convoys.

On 1 March the QP.8 convoy of 15 unladen ships (six British including one tanker, one Norwegian tanker, two Panamanian, four Soviet and two US) departed Murmansk, on the Kola Inlet, with the local escort up to 3 March by the Soviet destroyers Gremyashchy and Gromky as well as the British minesweepers Harrier and Sharpshooter. The convoy’s ocean escort comprised the corvettes Oxlip and Sweetbriar, and minesweepers Hazard and Salamander. Between 2 and 7 March more distant cover for the convoy was provided by the cruiser Nigeria and destroyers Offa and Oribi. On 3/4 March ice combined with a severe storm to scatter the convoy, and Gromky was damaged on her way back to port.

The PQ.12 convoy of 17 laden ships (seven British, seven Panamanian and three Soviet) also departed on 1 March, in this instance from Hvalfjördur in Iceland, with the local escort up to 4 March of three armed trawlers. The convoy was to have been joined by five ex-Norwegian whalers (Shera, Shusa, Stefa, Sulla and Svega) that were being transferred to the USSR, but of these only two joined the convoy, two others turning back and one sailing directly to the USSR. The British covering force comprised the battleship Duke of York, battle-cruiser Renown, cruiser Kenya and destroyers Echo, Eclipse, Eskimo, Faulknor, Fury and Punjabi under the command of Vice Admiral A. T. B. Curteis, and this joined on 4 March to remain in touch up to 12 March, though Kenya was detached between 8 to 12 March. Oribi was damaged by pack ice on 6/7 March, and Shera capsized in a storm on 9 March after a great weight of ice had accumulated on her superstructure.

On 5 March a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range maritime reconnaissance bomber located and reported the PQ.12 convoy some 80 miles (130 km) to the south of Jan Mayen island, and in response the Germans established a patrol line with U-134, U-377, U-403 and U-584 in an effort to achieve an interception. On 5 March, moreover, the 52,600-ton battleship Tirpitz, commanded by Kapitän zur See Karl Topp and with Vizeadmiral Otto Ciliax, the Befehlshaber der Schlachtschiffe (commander of battleships), on board, steamed out of the Fættenfjord and was joined on the following day by the destroyers Paul Jacobi, Friedrich Ihn, Hermann Schoemann and Z 25 that had sailed from Trondheim in a foray to intercept and destroy the convoy. The German intent to locate and destroy the convoy had been revealed by ‘Ultra’ decrypts, however, and this allowed the British to plan countermeasures: of the five Allied submarines in the area (Sealion, Seawolf, Trident, Free French Junon and Norwegian Uredd), Sealion sighted and reported the departure of the German force. In the meantime Curteis’s covering force and the main body of Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet (battleship King George V, fleet carrier Victorious, heavy cruiser Berwick, and destroyers Ashanti, Bedouin, Icarus, Intrepid, Lookout and Onslow) joined near Jan Mayen island after departing Scapa Flow on 6 March. Kenya was at first detached as part of the PQ.12 convoy’s close escort, but the cruiser Sheffield, despatched to relieve Berwick as the latter was suffering engine problems, was damaged by a mine and had to turn back. The visibility was very poor, and this was one of the factors which meant that the Home Fleet failed to locate Tirpitz. The German ships only just missed the QP.8 convoy and its very light escort force, and the German destroyers found only a straggler, the 2,815-ton Soviet Izhora, which was carrying a cargo of timber and was sunk by Friedrich Ihn after she had straggled.

Fairey Albacore torpedo bomberThe German and British naval forces as well as the two convoys, which passed through each other’s columns on reciprocal course at about 12.00 on 7 March, managed to move around each other in the vicinity of Bjørnøya without meeting each other or being seen by reconnaissance aircraft. Advice from the German high command and the British Admiralty added to the confusion of the commanders on the spot. Eventually, on 9 March, aircraft from Illustrious spotted and shadowed the German force, despite being attacked by Tirpitz’s own floatplanes, and the German battleship was attacked off the Vestfjord, without success, by 12 Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers of the FAA’s Nos 817 and 832 Squadrons from Victorious, which was escorted by Bedouin, Eskimo, Faulknor and Tartar. Two of the British aircraft were shot down. An attempt by three Junkers Ju 88 medium-range bombers to attack the British carrier on 9 March was similarly unsuccessful.

The QP.8 convoy, additionally escorted for a brief period by the heavy cruisers Kent and London, divided on 9 March and its ships reached the Icelandic ports of Hvalfjördur and Akureyri on 11 March. The PQ.12 convoy reached Murmansk on the following day after being joined on 10 March by a local escort in the form of the Soviet destroyer Gremyashchy and British minesweepers Harrier, Hussar and Speedwell. Tirpitz was meanwhile making her return to Norwegian waters with Narvik as her destination. On 11/12 March the destroyers Bedouin, Eskimo, Faulknor, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Punjabi and Tartar attempted to intercept her off Bodø, but the battleship was then transferred to Trondheim on 12/13 March.

Despite the fact that the fact that the two convoys had reached port safely, the incident had demonstrated the threat that such convoys now faced from surface ship as well as U-boat and air attack. On 30/31 March and 27/28 April 1942 Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command made unsuccessful attempts to neutralise Tirpitz. The battleship in fact spent most of World War II in various bases along the coast of German-occupied Norway. Here she was rightly perceived as a persistent and major threat to the Allies’ naval operations in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and this tied down major British and to a lesser extent US naval strength that could have been better employed in other theatres. Yet Tirpitz in fact never fired her main armament of eight 380-mm (15-in) guns at an Allied ship, and was involved in only one combat operation, which was the only time she fired on ground targets. From 1943 onward Tirpitz was the target of numerous Allied air raids and submarine attacks until, on 12 November 1944, Avro Lancaster heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force sank Tirpitz at her moorings with 12,000-lb (5443-kg) ‘Tallboy’ bombs in Operation ‘Catechism’.

Rubbish and litter – the unacceptable faces of British towns and country

Rubbish in an alleyway in Manchester, EnglandRubbish and litter are the among the most dismal banes of life for many of us who live in the UK. Lying sodden in gutters, blowing around the roads and matted against so many walls and fences, these are real eyesores that degrade our enjoyment of life, and in many cases are both insanitary and breeding grounds for disease. There have been many efforts to reduce the problem by means of ‘Keep Britain Beautiful’ campaigns of various types, but these have in general failed. The reason for this is simple: the campaigns appeal to civil pride, and the vast majority of those who litter are the thoughtless and/or imagination-free who possess no civic pride or are just plain careless, and whose littering of the streets and countryside probably reflects the manner in which they keep their homes and clothes.

Yet the answer to the problem is perfectly clear, if only the government would grasp the nettle and enact the appropriate legislation, which must have adequate teeth and be funded by the receipts of the programme outlined below. The programme would in itself reduce the amount of litter that makes our towns and countryside resemble those of a third-world nation, while the use of the revenues derived from the programme’s tax would allow the creation of better trained and better equipped ‘litter wardens’ (so creating more employment) to clear litter more effectively than local councils, and at the same time issue penalties to those who litter and, when tackled about the matter, refuse to recover the litter and place it in a bin.

It seems to me that the items that constitute most of the litter and rubbish are the following:

  • plastic shopping bags
  • cardboard and expanded polystyrene fast food and drink containers
  • sandwich wrappers
  • cartons of various types
  • the tins and plastic bottles of soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and water
  • chewing gum (both the wrappers and the gum itself)
  • cigarette packets

Once their contents have been removed, these all all too often just dropped on the street or hurled out of a car window.

The way to reduce the problem and fund the entire programme is to tax the offending materials to a level that will hurt the ‘end user’, namely the consumer. It is impractical to levy the ‘litter tax’ at the point of sale, so this will have to be done at the manufacturing stage, with all such packaging clearly identified with the name of the company purchasing it so that there can be no tax avoidance through the use of blank packaging. Thus the packaging manufacturer will have to pay the tax in the same manner as VAT, the cost then being passed on to the fast food chain, food manufacturer etc, which will them have to pass the cost on to the end user, i.e. the purchaser who drops the packaging and so creates the litter problem from which we all suffer.

To make the programme work and become self-funding, I suggest that the tax levied on these items should be high. Reasonable tax tariffs, it seems to me, would be something along the following lines:

  • plastic shopping bags £2.00
  • fast food and drink containers £2.00
  • sandwich wrappers £1.00
  • cartons £1.00
  • drink tins and bottles £1.50
  • chewing gum £1.50
  • cigarette packets £2.00

I am convinced that a programme of this type would be good for us all, at both the civic and environmental levels, and also offer the ecological advantages of reducing demand for containers of all types. It might also persuade some of those who live on fast food to switch to real food, which is cheaper, more nutritious and, perhaps most important of all, far better tasting!

Another item which could be added to the list is the aerosol paint container, whose additional cost might even deter graffiti ‘artists’.

[Photo by Tamlyn Rhodes]

A German raiding foray into the Indian Ocean

Admiral Scheer at seaI must admit my fascination with anniversaries associated with all things military, especially in World War II, and the later part of February and the first days of March 1941 mark the 70th anniversary of a fascinating and far-flung naval foray into the Indian Ocean by the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer.

Admiral Scheer was the second of the German navy’s three Panzerschiffe (armoured ships) of the ‘Deutschland’ class to be commissioned, on 12 November 1934. She was preceded by Deutschland, commissioned on 1 April 1933, and followed by Admiral Graf Spee, commissioned on 6 January 1936. Diesel-engined for a maximum speed of 28.5 kt and a range of 10,250 miles (16500 km), each of these ships had a full-load displacement of 16,200 tons and an armament centred on six 280-mm (11-in) guns in two triple turrets fore and aft, and a secondary battery of eight 150-mm (5.91-in) guns in eight single turrets (four on each beam). There were also six 105-mm (4.13-in) dual-purpose guns in three twin mountings, eight 37-mm AA guns in four twin mountings, six (later 10) 20-mm AA guns in single mountings, eight 533-mm (21-in) torpedo tubes in two quadruple mountings, and two Arado Ar 196 floatplanes for reconnaissance and spotting.

Designed for long-range commerce raiding, the ships were armoured to a maximum thickness of 80 mm (3.15 in) on the hull and 160 mm (6.3 in) on the turret faces, and were schemed on the basis of outshooting anything from which they could not run, and outrunning anything which they could not outshoot. Perhaps inevitably, the ships became known to the British as ‘pocket battleships’.

The first of the three sister ships to become celebrated was Admiral Graf Spee, which completed a successful raiding cruise in which she sank or captured 50,089 tons of Allied shipping before being caught in the tactically inconclusive Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939 and scuttled on 17 December in the erroneous belief that there were powerful Allied units waiting for her off the estuary of the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay. Despite this loss, the Germans believed that the concept of commerce raiding by large warships had been validated, and Admiral Scheer was modified during the early months of 1940: with her heavy command tower replaced by a lighter structure, she and Deutschland (now renamed Lützow) were reclassified as heavy cruisers.

Under the command of Kapitän zur See Theodor Krancke, Admiral Scheer sailed on 14 October 1940. Her first target was the HX.84 convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose passage had been detected by the B-Dienst radio intercept service. One of Admiral Scheer’s floatplanes spotted and reported the convoy on 5 November 1940 and Krancke, believing the convoy to be unescorted, ordered his ship to close the target. As the convoy came into sight, however, one vessel steamed away from the convoy to challenge the German raider. This was the 14,164-ton Jervis Bay, launched in 1922 for the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line and, since her commissioning in October under the command of Captain Edward Fegen, serving as an armed merchant cruiser that was now the convoy’s only defence. The ship had a maximum speed of a mere 15 kt, was armed with obsolescent weapons in the form of seven 6-in (152-mm) and two 3-in (76.2-mm) AA guns in single mountings, and lacked any armour protection. The armed merchant cruiser was at best a limited-utility expedient for mid-ocean escort as, for lack of adequate warship numbers at this early stage in the war, British convoys received destroyer escorts only on the last three days of their journey. Jervis Bay was completely outclassed, but Admiral Scheer had to dispose of her before attacking the convoy, which had already begun to scatter and make smoke. Admiral Scheer sank Jervis Bay in a completely one-sided action and then succeeded in sinking five British merchant ships (7,908-ton Maidan, 5,201-ton Trewellard, 5,225-ton Kenbane Head, 10,142-ton Beaverford and 4,995-ton Fresno City) and setting fire to the 8,073-ton tanker San Demetrio, which was abandoned but later reboarded and brought into harbour.

The episode persuaded the Admiralty to change its policy for the escort of larger convoys, which were escorted, in the short term at least, by battleships or battle-cruisers even though this meant that these primary assets were therefore unavailable for ‘pure’ naval efforts.

The Royal Navy sent out several warships in a major undertaking designed to trap and destroy Admiral Scheer, but the German warship slipped away to the south to rendezvous with Nordmark, her replenishment ship. Over the next two months Admiral Scheer sank several ships, capturing supplies and transferring prisoners to Nordmark at the mid-ocean ‘Planquadrat Anadalusien’ rendezvous point, or other ships which she took as prizes. The warship spent Christmas 1940 at sea in mid-Atlantic, several hundred miles from Tristan da Cunha, before Krancke decided in February 1941 that the time was ripe for a foray into the Indian Ocean.

Between 14 and 17 February Admiral Scheer, the auxiliary cruiser Schiff 16/Atlantis (in company with her prizes Ketty Brovig and Speybank) and the supply vessel Tannenfels remained together about 1,150 miles (1850 km) to the east of Madagascar. Here the ships replenished and exchange information. On 15 February the WS.5BX convoy of 20 troop transports, including 11 of between 17,000 and 27,000 tons, departed Durban in South Africa under escort of the cruisers Australia and Emerald. On 21 February WS.5BX was supplemented, off Mombasa on the coast of Kenya, by the cruiser Hawkins, and Emerald headed north-east toward Bombay with four transports. Admiral Scheer had meanwhile passaged north toward the Seychelles and here, on 20 February, one of her floatplanes spotted and reported two merchant ships. Admiral Scheer closed and captured the 6,994-ton British Advocate (the ship reached the Gironde river estuary in German-occupied France on 29 April) and 2,546-ton Greek Grigorios CII. A third ship, the 7,178-ton Canadian Cruiser, was sunk on the following day, but not before she had managed to transmit a distress signal. The signal was received by the cruiser Glasgow, which was cruising in the area, along with a signal from the 2,542-ton Dutch ship Rantaupandjang, transmitted before she succumbed to Admiral Scheer on 22 February. When Admiral Scheer was sighted and reported later on this same day by an seaplane catapulted from Glasgow, Vice Admiral R. Leatham, British naval commander-in-chief in the East Indies, ordered the fleet carrier Hermes and cruiser Capetown to sortie from Mombasa, the cruisers Emerald and Hawkins to detach from the WS.5BX convoy that then became the responsibility of the cruiser Enterprise, and the cruiser Shropshire to move east from the Somali coast. Further British naval movements included the Australian cruiser Canberra (relieved on 20 February off Colombo by the New Zealand cruiser Leander detached from the US.9 convoy of three troop transports that had departed Fremantle in Western Australia on 12 February), which was sent from the Maldives.

The ships search in vain for Admiral Scheer until 25 February, but the German warship had turned away to the south-east and then re-entered the South Atlantic on 3 March before heading north to pass through the Denmark Strait and then turning east and finally south to reach Kiel on 1 April 1941. In this successful foray, Admiral Scheer had steamed more than 53,000 miles (85,300 km) and sunk or captured 16 merchant ships totalling 99,059 tons.

The Battle for Iwo Jima

(See my previous post for more information on the Japanese preparation for the assault on Iwo Jima.)

Black and white image taken from Mt Suribachi on Iwo Jima after the end of World War II, with two ships in the sea and rocky mountain in the foregroundOn 7 October 1944 Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and his staff had issued a staff study for preliminary planning of ‘Detachment’ to maintain constant military pressure against Japan, to extend US control over the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean and, from mid-July 1944 and the capture of Saipan, to provide the USAAF with a forward base. General Henry H. Arnold, commanding the USAAF, urged the paramount importance of acquiring Iwo Jima’s airfields for offensive purposes, and a defensive need soon became apparent as Japanese bombers staging through the island attacked the Marianas and caused great damage, including the destruction of 15 B-29 bombers and the damaging of more than another 40. Air attacks failed to neutralise Iwo Jima’s airfields and early warning radar, so it became clear that an amphibious assault would be required. In American hands, Iwo Jima could be turned into a base from which to attack the Japanese home islands, protect bases in the Marianas, cover naval forces, conduct search operations of the approaches to the Japanese home islands, and provide fighter escort for long-range bomber operations. Three tasks specifically envisaged in the study were the reduction of Japanese naval and air strengths and also of industrial capacity in the home islands; the destruction of Japanese naval and air strength in the Bonin islands; and the capture, occupation and subsequent defence of Iwo Jima for development as a major air base.

On 9 October, Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, heading the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, received the staff study, accompanied by a directive from Nimitz ordering the seizure of Iwo Jima. This directive designated specific commanders for the operation. Admiral Raymond A . Spruance, commanding the 5th Fleet, was placed in overall command of Task Force 50. Under Spruance, Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commanding the Amphibious Forces, Pacific, was to lead the Joint Expeditionary Force (TF51) and had under his command some 1,300 ships for the movement, landing and support of the invasion force. Second in command of the JEF was Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill. Smith was designated as commander of the Expeditionary Troops (TF56). All of these men had shown their exceptional capabilities in previous campaigns. TF56 was centred on Major General Harry Schmidt’s V Amphibious Corps, comprising Major General Graves B. Erskine’s 17,715-man 3rd Marine Division (3rd, 9th and 21st Marines plus the 12th Marine Artillery), Major General Clifton B. Cates’s 18,241-man 4th Marine Division (23rd, 24th and 25th Marines plus the 14th Marine Artillery) and Major General Keller E. Rockey’s 18,311-man 5th Marine Division (26th, 27th and 28th Marines plus the 13th Marine Artillery).

Schmidt’s plan for the landings was straightforward: the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions were to land side-by-side on the eastern beaches, the former on the right and the latter on the left, and when released to the V Amphibious Corps, the 3rd Marine Division, as Expeditionary Troops Reserve, was to land over the same beaches to take part in the attack or play a defensive role as demanded by the tactical situation. The plan called for a rapid exploitation of the beach-head with an advance in a north-easterly direction to capture the entire island. One regiment of the 5th Marine Division was assigned to the capture of Mt Suribachi in the south. Since there was a possibility of unfavourable surf conditions along the eastern beaches, the V Amphibious Corps issued an alternative plan on 8 January 1945 for a landing on the western beaches. However, since predominant northerly or north-westerly winds caused hazardous swells almost continuously along the south-western side of the island, it appeared unlikely that this alternative plan would be put into execution. The detailed plan for the landings provided for two battalions of Colonel Harry B. Liversedge’s 28th Marines of the 5th Marine Division to land on the extreme left of the corps on Green 1 beach. On the right of the 28th Marines, Colonel Thomas A. Wornham’s 27th Marines was to land single battalions on Red 1 and Red 2 beaches, and then attack toward the western coast of the island before wheeling north to seize the western end of the O-1 Line between the East Boat Basin and the western coast via Motoyama Airfield No. 2. Action by the 27th and 28th Marines was designed to drive the Japanese from the commanding heights along the southern portion of Iwo Jima, simultaneously securing the flanks and rear of the V Amphibious Corps. As far as the 4th Marine Division was concerned, Colonel Walter W. Wensinger’s 23rd Marines was to land single battalions on Yellow 1 and Yellow 2 beaches, seize Chidori Airfield No. 1, then turn north-east and seize that part of Motoyama Airfield No. 2 and the O-1 Line within its zone of action. After landing on Blue 1 beach, two battalions of Colonel John R. Lanigan’s 25th Marines were to assist in the capture of Motoyama Airfield No. 2, the capture of Blue 2 beach just south of the East Boat Basin and thus on the extreme right of the V Amphibious Corps, and the O-1 Line within its zone of action. Colonel Walter I. Jordan’s 24th Marines was to be held in 4th Marine Division reserve during the initial landings. Colonel Chester B. Graham’s 26th Marines was to be released from corps reserve on D-day and be prepared to support the 5th Marine Division. Divisional artillery was to go ashore on order from the respective division commanders. The 4th Marine Division was to be supported by Colonel Louis G. DeHaven’s 14th Marines, and Colonel James D. Waller’s 13th Marines was to furnish similar support for the 5th Marine Division.

The operation was to start with the simultaneous arrival on the assault beach of the 68 LVTs (Landing Vehicles Tracked) carrying the first wave of men. These vehicles were to advance inland until they reached the first terrace beyond the high-water mark. The LVTs were to use their 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzers and machine guns to keep the heads of the Japanese down, thus giving some measure of protection to succeeding waves of marines, who would be most vulnerable to Japanese fire as they disembarked from their LVTs. Early versions of the V Amphibious Corps’ operations plan had called for tanks of the 4th and 5th Marine Tank Battalions to be landed at H+30, but later consideration of the beaches made it necessary to adopt a more flexible schedule. The possibility of congestion at the water’s edge also contributed to this change in plans. In the end, the time for bringing the tanks ashore was left to the discretion of the regimental commanders.

American battleship bombarding Iwo JimaIn the period leading up to ‘Detachment’, the US forces undertook ‘Jamboree’ as their first major raid on Tokyo with carrierborne aircraft. The final preparations for ‘Detachment’ had meanwhile been completed on 16/19 February. On 16 February Rear Admiral Bertram J. Rodgers’s TF54, comprising the battleships Tennessee, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, New York and Arkansas, cruisers Chester, Salt Lake City, Pensacola, Tuscaloosa and Vicksburg and 16 destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 51 and Destroyer Divisions 91 and 112, approached Iwo Jima and started a gunfire bombardment of the designated areas in preparation for the assault. Rear Admiral William H. P. Blandy’s TF52 (Support Force), with the Minesweeper Group 52.3, Frogman Group 52.4 and LCI Support Group 52.5, and Rear Admiral Calvin T. Durgin’s TG52.2 Escort Carrier Group 52.2, with the escort carriers Sargent Bay, Natoma Bay, Wake Island, Petrof Bay, Steamer Bay, Makin Island, Lunga Point, Bismarck Sea, Saginaw Bay and Rudyerd Bay, with their escort of destroyers and destroyer escorts, provided air cover and flew 158 attack sorties. The effect of the gunfire bombardment was slight because of inadequate observation in poor weather, but a repetition on 17 February in better weather was deemed to be more successful. The Japanese coastal batteries obtained one hit on Tennessee, six on Pensacola and one on the destroyer Leutze. After disembarkation from the APDs (high-speed transports) Bull, Bates, Barr and Blessman, the underwater demolition teams stated on the task of removing underwater obstacles. All 12 LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) used for support were hit by the Japanese coastal batteries, and nine of them were put out of action. The escort carriers flew off 226 sorties, some with napalm. Forty-two B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of Major General Thomas D. White’s 7th AAF also made attacks. On 18 February the shelling and air attacks were continued, the latter totalling only 28 heavy bomber sorties. Including air escorts, the escort carriers’ aircraft flew 612 sorties in all and lost three of their number. The destroyer minesweeper Gamble was damaged beyond repair by a Japanese naval aeroplane during this day, and the high-speed transport destroyer Blessman was damaged.

On the following day, 19 February, the landings on Iwo Jima got under way as Turner’s TF51 delivered and disembarked Schmidt’s V Amphibious Corps. TF51 consisted of 495 ships allocated four task groups (TG52, TG53, TG54 and TG56). On 19 February Rodgers’s TF54, reinforced by the battleships North Carolina and Washington, cruisers Indianapolis, Santa Fe and Biloxi, and 10 destroyers from two destroyer divisions of TF58, completed a heavy preliminary gunfire bombardment of the assault areas, this being interspersed with attacks by the carrierborne aircraft of TG58.2 and TG58.3. The landings were effected by Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill’s TF53: in the north the 4th Marine Division was landed by Commodore H. C. Flanagan’s TG53.2 from 15 attack troop transports, six attack transports, two dock landing ships, 19 tank landing ships and 12 medium landing ships, and in the south the 5th Marine Division by Commodore J. B. McGovern’s TG53.1 from 15 attack troop transports, six attack transports, one dock landing ship, 19 tank landing ships and 16 medium landings ships. Each of these two task groups was escorted by one destroyer squadron. Another task group had the 3rd Marine Division on board as a floating reserve, of which part had to be landed on the first day. On 19 February the Americans landed some 30,000 men, and these had the support of the aircraft of the fleet and light carriers of TG58.2 and TG58.3 as well as of the escort carriers of TG52.2. The marines faced determined opposition, and carrierborne aircraft thus flew 606 sorties on the first day, using 274 tons of bombs, 2,254 rockets and more than 100 napalm bombs. Japanese shore batteries damage the destroyer John W. Weeks and four LSMs, and damage also resulted from collisions involving the cruiser Chester with the amphibious force flagship Estes, the cruiser Indianapolis with the ammunition ship Shasta, the destroyer escort Finnegan with LCI(L)-627, and the cruiser Salt Lake City with the transport Starr. On 21 February TG58.1 and TG58.4 provided support for the disembarked forces while TG58.2 and TG58.3 moved farther offshore to replenish. The only Japanese response from anywhere off Iwo Jima was a kamikaze attack by 32 aircraft on 21 February: the escort carrier Bismarck Sea was sunk and the fleet carrier Saratoga, light carrier Langley and escort carrier Lunga Point, the transport Keokuk , and LST-477 and LST-809 were damaged. Saratoga sustained severe damage, her casualties totalling 123 dead and 192 wounded, and Bismarck Sea lost 218 men. There were several further collisions, causing damage to destroyers and auxiliaries. The Japanese submarine Ro-43 and ‘Kaiten’-carrying I-368, I-370 and I-44 were deployed as the ‘Chihaya’ Group, and later I-36 and I-58 were ordered into the area as the ‘Kamitake’ Group. The escort carriers Tulagi and Anzio led carrier/destroyer escort groups in the submarine hunter/killer role, and on 25/26 February aircraft from Anzio sank Ro-43 and I-368, and the destroyer escort Finnegan, part of a convoy escort, sank I-370. Ro-43 managed to attack an escort, torpedoing the destroyer Renshaw on 21 February.

As noted above, on 16 February 1945 the US forces started a massive three-day air and naval bombardment of Iwo Jima. The second day of bombardment was so furious that the Japanese thought the invasion was imminent and many of the gunners forgot Kuribayashi’s orders to hold their fire. The Japanese thus opened a furious fire on the closer American warships and the specialised landing craft undertaking tasks such as the bombardment of the shoreline with rockets and the delivery of frogmen for underwater reconnaissance of the beaches and their approaches. The cruiser Pensacola was hit by six shells which killed 17 men and wounded more than 100 others, a destroyer took a direct hit which killed seven men and wounded another 33, and the landing craft suffered badly. The US ships pulled back under cover of a smokescreen, and the Japanese concluded that they had beaten off an invasion attempt. The Americans now realised that the earlier bombings and the first two days of the naval bombardment had not been as effective as anticipated, and also that many artillery positions had not yet been pinpointed. The third day of the air and naval barrage therefore saw the bombardment force, including five old battleships, close to within 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of the beach to attempt the destruction of all the defensive positions threatening the next day’s assault area: many of these positions were destroyed, but many others survived as poor weather prevented accurate aerial spotting. After a 72-day aerial bombardment (mostly by B-24 Liberator bombers occasionally supplemented by B-29 Superfortress bombers) and a three-day naval bombardment, D-day was signalled at 02.00 on 19 February by warship guns in a 30-minute barrage that saw the arrival of more than 8,000 shells ranging in calibre from 5 to 16 in (127 to 406 mm). Soon 100 bombers attacked the island, followed by another barrage from the naval guns.

Marines burrow in the volcanic sand on the beach of Iwo JimaAt 08.29, the first of an eventual 30,000 marine riflemen of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions landed and ‘Detachment’ had truly started. The first of four assault waves landed in LVTs and landing craft, the troops immediately running into problems as they tried to scale the soft embankment behind the beach while still carrying their heavy equipment packs; at first it seemed that this would be the marines’ only difficulty, for they were greeted only by sporadic fire. After 20 minutes, however, the Japanese recovered from the daze into which they had been stunned by the 30-minute naval bombardment and opened fire with every weapon that would bear on the men of the four infantry regiments landed by the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions. The assault forces were soon pinned down on the beach, and this greatly increased the problems faced by the landing craft bringing in the assault divisions’ two artillery regiments and the bulldozers tasked with creating the beach exits needed by the tanks that would now be the only way for the US forces to break out of their very shallow beach-head. Some units did achieve this feat, and by the end of 19 February elements of the 5th Marine Division had managed to advance right across the island at its narrowest point just north of Mt Suribachi. Almost 30,000 US Marines were landed on the first day, and of these some 2,500 were killed or wounded.

On 20 February the US position across the island’s neck and on the south-western shore was consolidated, the US Marines started to fight their way into the defences on the northern side of Mt Suribachi, and the advance north began but soon stalled in the face of a Japanese defence that was, as always, extraordinary determined, but in this particular instance also very effective. At the end of the day it was decided that the 3rd Marine Division should also be committed. Men of the 28th Marines completed their encirclement of Mt Suribachi on 21 February, and began their assault up the northern slope on the following day. The first men reached the edge of the crater at the top on 23 February, but it was another six days before this southern pocket of Japanese resistance could be declared secure. Meanwhile the 23rd and 25th Marines of the 4th Marine Division and the 27th Marines of the 5th Marine Division were battling their way north over very difficult terrain and against fanatical resistance, both of which caused a stream of casualties. On 22 February Schmidt ordered the replacement of the hard-hit 25th Marines, on the right wing of the 4th Marine Division, by the 3rd Marine Division’s fresh 21st Marines, but in fact this unit relieved the 23rd Marines on the boundary between the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions. At much the same time Rockey replaced the exhausted 27th Marines with the 26th Marines, and this fresh strength allowed the Americans to push forward over a distance of between 200 and 1,000 yards (180 and 915 m) during the day.

The marines’ next objective was Motoyama Airfield No. 2, and the assault for this important tactical objective began on 24 February after an air attack, a 75-minute naval bombardment and a barrage from the marines’ own artillery. As a result largely of armoured support, the marines advanced some 500 yards (460 m) before being checked by the Japanese anti-tank guns and minefields on the southern side of the airfield. Schmidt decided to commit the 3rd Marine Division’s last unit, the 9th Marines, in an effort to maintain the momentum of the American advance. In the morning of 25 February, the 9th Marines attacked through the depleted 21st Marines, and there followed three days of bloody combat before the 9th Marines had taken all of Motoyama Airfield No. 2 and the hills just to its north. The somewhat rested 21st Marines then returned to the fray in place of the 9th Marines, and pushed the edge of the American progress through the village of Motoyama to the high ground just south of Airfield No. 3. The fighting was bitter in the extreme, and as the Japanese made effective and full use of the area’s caves, which were all but impervious to artillery fire, the marines found that their most effective weapons were the flamethrower and satchel charge. The former either killed the Japanese defenders or drove them underground, whereupon satchel charges could be placed to seal the entrance of any cave. As the 3rd Marine Division was pressing forward from Motoyama Airfield No. 2 to Airfield No. 3, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions were also driving slowly forward to take Hill 362A and Hill 382 respectively. Neither could be bypassed, and the marines suffered very heavy casualties in taking both hills: Hill 362A fell to the 28th Marines, which suffered 224 casualties, and in two days of dire fighting that ended on 1 March the regiment cleared the hill and reached the ridge to its north. Hill 362A was an isolated defensive feature, but Hill 382 was just the core of a defensive complex that included an outer line of dug-in tanks and bunkers for artillery and anti-tank guns, and then the defences proper on Hill 382, the ridges and ravines of Turkey Nob, and the large depression of the Amphitheater, all three features soon becoming known as the Meat Grinder. The battle for the Meat Grinder lasted two weeks and was extremely costly in lives on both sides, though ultimately it was the Japanese who suffered the heavier casualties as the Americans gained the ascendancy.

As the 4th Marine Division fought the Meat Grinder battle, the 3rd and 5th Marine Divisions were pressing forward. The 3rd Marine Division captured Hill 362C in a surprise night attack which caught the Japanese completely unaware on 7 March, even though it was mid-afternoon before the whole feature had been taken, and the 5th Marine Division took Hill 362B. The Americans had now broken through Kuribayashi’s semi-circle of interlocking defensive features extending from Hills 362A, B and C to the Meat Grinder, and also severed all communication between Kuribayashi and his soldiers. In these circumstances some of the Japanese soldiers attempted a suicide charge against the 4th Marine Division during the night of 8 March. The eventuality that Kuribayashi had feared now came to pass, and by mid-morning on 9 March the Japanese had suffered 650 dead as they tried to break though the junction between the 23rd and 24th Marines. Followed by the capture of the Meat Grinder on the following day, this signalled the end of organised Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima.

It did not signal the end of unorganised resistance, however, for the surviving Japanese were still determined to sell their lives as expensively as possible in three strongpoints, one in front of each marine division. In front of the 3rd Marine Division, south-west of Hill 362C, was Cushman’s Pocket named for Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Cushman, commander of the 2/9th Marines. It required the efforts of three marine battalions before this 450-man pocket was eliminated on 15 March when the last 60 men attempted a suicide change. In front of the 4th Marine Division was a comparable tangle of Japanese holding caves and pillboxes in the ravines extending from the northern plateau to the island’s eastern coast. The men of the 4th Marine Division attacked on 12 March, and finally reduced the Japanese pocket in four days of fighting. In front of the 5th Marine Division was the Bloody Gorge pocket near Kitano Point on the island’s north-western tip. The 5th Marine Division attacked on 11 March, and by 25 March had eliminated this last vestige of Japanese resistance.

B-29 at Iwo Jima after an emergency landing The battle for Iwo Jima was finally over, the Japanese having lost all but 216 of their 22,000-man garrison and the US Marine Corps having suffered just under 25,000 casualties (6,891 men killed and 18,070 wounded). There were also losses among the US Navy personnel involved in ‘Detachment’, for on 21 February the Japanese had launched a kamikaze mission against the warships supporting the land fighting with their carrierborne warplanes: of the 50 aircraft despatched by the Japanese, three hit the fleet carrier Saratoga causing considerable damage, including 42 aircraft, and inflicting 315 casualties (123 dead and 192 wounded), one hit the escort carrier Lunga Point causing only modest damage, and two hit the escort carrier Bismarck Sea causing fatal damage and another 300 or so casualties. Other kamikaze aircraft sank an LST and the auxiliary vessel Keokuk. Yet the value of the island in American hands was amply proved as early as 4 March, while the fighting was still raging, for on this day the first B-29 landed on Chidori Airfield No. 1 as it ran short of fuel while returning from Japan with a weapons bay door jammed open. Eventually 2,251 B-29 bombers, carrying more than 24,500 aircrew, made emergency landings on Iwo Jima.

[First photo by John Anderson, courtesy of bunnygoth]

Iwo Jima – the penultimate step in the US advance to the Japanese home islands

Old, faded black and white photo of Iwo Jima's coastline, sea just off to the left, land to the rightOn 19 February 2011 it will be the 76th anniversary of Operation ‘Detachment’, which was the US strategic undertaking to take and hold the tiny island of Iwo Jima, which was seen as the last but one step in the advance of the US Army and US Navy’s forces north toward what was expected to end with the amphibious landings on and conquest of the Japanese home islands from a time late in 1945.

‘Detachment’ was completed between 19 February and 26 March 1945. The importance of this undertaking lay in the fact that Iwo Jima’s capture provided the US forces with two completed airfields and one incomplete airfield. These could then be brought into service for emergency landings by Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers damaged over Japan and unlikely to make it back to their main bases in the Mariana islands, which had been seized by US forces in ‘Forager’ between 15 June and 10 August 1944, and could also serve as the bases for long-range fighters. These could therefore escort the bombers operating from the large bases on the Mariana islands. At the psychological level the operation also signalled to the Japanese the fact that the US forces were still driving forward on Japan and that the island’s loss was a clear sign of inevitable defeat, with only Okinawa left between the advancing Americans and the home islands.

Iwo Jima is one of the Kazan Retto (Volcano islands), the southernmost part of the Ogasawara Gunto (Bonin islands), which lies about 670 miles (1080 km) to the south of Tokyo and 625 miles (1130 km) to the north of Saipan in the Marianas, and thus almost exactly half-way between Tokyo and Saipan. On its north-east/south-west axis the island is less than 5 miles (8 km) long, and its width varies from about 2.5 miles (4 km) in the north to a mere 0.5 mile (0.8 km) in the south. The island has an area of less than 8 sq miles (20.7 km²), relies on trapped rain for its fresh water, and in its simplest terms is a very rugged plateau dominated at its northern end by a mass of low but sharp ridges and ravines, and at its southern tip by Mt Suribachi, the 546-ft (166-m) stump of an extinct volcano and the island’s highest point. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a Japanese army force of some 3,700 to 3,800 men garrisoned Chichi Jima, the largest of the Ogasawara Gunto’s islands, and the Japanese navy had some 1,200 men at the Chichi Jima naval base, a small seaplane base, a radio and weather station, and various gunboat, submarine chaser and minesweeper units. On Iwo Jima, the Japanese navy had constructed an airfield about 2,000 yards (1830 m) north-east of Mt Suribachi. Initially stationed on this field were 1,500 Japanese navy air force personnel and 20 aircraft.

Mt Suribachi, the highest point of Iwo Jima

In the wake of the American seizure of the Marshall islands, starting with ‘Galvanic’ in November 1943, and the devastating ‘Hailstone’ air offensive against the Japanese naval strength located at Truk in the Caroline islands during February 1944, the Japanese high command completed a major reassessment of Japan’s strategic situation. It seemed clear that there would be US offensives against the Mariana and Caroline island groups, which were in fact undertaken as ‘Forager’ and ‘Stalemate II’ in July and September 1944 respectively. To counter such a move, the Japanese decided to create an inner defence perimeter extending basically north from the Caroline islands to the Mariana islands, and thence to the Ogasawara Gunto. In March 1944 General Hideyoshi Obata’s 31st Army, headquartered on Truk island, was activated to garrison this inner defence line, and the commander of the Chichi Jima garrison was placed in nominal command of the Japanese army and navy units in the Ogasawara Gunto. Following the American seizure of bases in the Marshall islands, in the ‘Flintlock’ and ‘Catchpole’ battles for Kwajalein and Eniwetok atolls respectively, during February 1944 the Japanese army and navy each sent reinforcements to Iwo Jima. Some 500 men from the naval base at Yokosuka and an additional 500 from Chichi Jima arrived during March and April 1944, and at the same time the arrival of reinforcements from Chichi Jima and the home islands boosted the strength of the Japanese army’s garrison on Iwo Jima to more than 5,000 men with 13 pieces of artillery and 200 machine guns. The defence also boasted 120-mm (4.72-in) coast defence guns, 12 heavy anti-aircraft guns, and 30 25-mm twin anti-aircraft cannon.

The loss of the Mariana islands during the summer of 1944 greatly increased the importance of the Ogasawara Gunto and Kazan Retto to the Japanese, who were only too aware that the loss of these islands would enhance the efficacy of US air raids against the home islands as, from bases in the Mariana islands, the American bomber offensive would be considerably more effective than that flying from Chinese bases. The final Japanese plans for the defence of the Ogasawara Gunto and Kazan Retto were overshadowed by the fact that the Japanese navy had already lost most of its naval strength, especially in the devastatingly unsuccessful ‘A’ and ‘Sho’ operations off the Marianas and Philippine islands respectively, and could therefore no longer be seen as a significant element in any Japanese plan to defeat American landings. Moreover, Japanese aircraft losses throughout 1944 had been so heavy that, even without the increasing effect of the US bombing campaign, the overall strength of the Japanese air forces was not expected to increase to 3,000 aircraft until March or April 1945. Even then, these aircraft could not be used from bases in the home islands against US forces based on a captured Iwo Jima because their range did not exceed 550 miles (890 km). Moreover, all available aircraft had to be retained for possible use on Taiwan and other nearby islands off the coast of China, where land bases were available in close proximity to any fighting which might start. Thus in the battle of Iwo Jima the Japanese used only ground units.

The defence of Iwo Jima was based on the knowledge that victory on the island was impossible, and that the island should therefore be held for as long as possible to increase the time available for the preparation of an effective defence of the Japanese home islands, and even kamikaze air attacks, surprise attacks by submarines, and coup-de-main operations by parachute units were seen only within this context. In the first weeks of 1945, Japan faced the prospect of invasion by Allied forces. On a daily basis ‘Scavenger’ bomber raids from the Mariana islands were striking targets in the Japanese home islands, and in the battle to check if not defeat this US offensive Iwo Jima was a vital early warning station from which radio reports of inbound bomber formations could be sent to the home islands, thus facilitating the task of the Japanese army and navy air forces in getting adequate numbers of fighters into the air above the anticipated targets. At the end of the ‘King II’ offensive which took Leyte island in the Philippine islands by the end of December 1944, the Americans had a two-month interval in their operational schedule before the planned ‘Iceberg’ invasion of Okinawa and, deemed unacceptable, this lull was filled by the ‘Detachment’ capture of Iwo Jima.

Even before the fall of Saipan in July 1944, Japanese planners knew that Iwo Jima would have to be reinforced materially if it was to be held for any useful time, and preparations had then been made to send sizeable personnel and matériel reinforcements to the island. Late in May, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi was given the task of holding Iwo Jima, and by 8 June was on his way to convert Iwo Jima into a fortress which could withstand any type of attack for an extended period. When Kuribayashi reached his new command, some 80 fighter aircraft were stationed on Iwo Jima, but by a time early in July there were just four left. Then a US Navy force approached the island and subjected it to a two-day gunfire bombardment, which destroyed every building and smashed the four remaining aircraft. Much to the surprise of the Japanese garrison, a US invasion did not take place during the summer of 1944. Even so, no one had any doubt that in time the Americans would indeed launch an invasion. As a first step in readying Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi ordered the evacuation of all civilians, an exodus completed late in July. Next came an overall plan for defence of the island. Up to the time of his return to the Mariana islands, Obata had adhered to the well established Japanese tactical doctrine that an amphibious invasion had to be beaten back right on the water’s edge, and had accordingly ordered the emplacement of artillery and the construction of pillboxes dominating Iwo Jima’s beaches. Kuribayashi had different ideas: he felt that any effort to hold the Americans right on the beaches would be futile, and therefore planned to screen the beaches with only modest numbers of automatic weapons and infantry, while his more effective weapons (artillery, mortars and rockets) were emplaced on the foot and slopes of Mt Suribachi, as well as in the high ground north of Chidori Airfield No. 1.

Kuribayashi also believed that any prolonged defence of the island had to be based on an extensive system of caves and tunnels, for the naval bombardment had clearly shown that surface installations could not withstand prolonged shelling. To this end, mining engineers were dispatched from Japan to plan a complex of underground fortifications based on an elaborate network of tunnels at varying depths to assure good ventilation and minimise the effect of bombs or shells exploding near the entrances or exits. Over this period the island was gradually being reinforced. As commander of the 109th Division, Kuribayashi decided first of all to shift Major General Kotoo Osuga’s 2nd Independent Mixed Brigade, consisting of about 5,000 men (309th to 312th and 314th Independent Battalions, as well as artillery, engineer and communications elements), from Chichi Jima to Iwo Jima. With the fall of Saipan, 2,700 men of Colonel Masuo Ikeda’s 145th Regiment (four battalions) of the same division’s 1st Mixed Brigade, were diverted to Iwo Jima. These reinforcements, which reached the island during July and August 1944, raised the strength of the army garrison to about 12,700 men. Next there arrived 1,233 members of the 204th Naval Construction Battalion, who quickly set to work building concrete pillboxes and other fortifications. On 10 August 1944, Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru reached Iwo Jima just before another 2,216 naval personnel including naval aviators and ground crews which were organised into combat battalions. Next came artillery units and five anti-tank battalions. Even though numerous supply ships were sunk by US aircraft and submarines while trying to reach Iwo Jima, substantial quantities of matériel reached the island during the summer and autumn of 1944.

By the end of the year, therefore, Kuribayashi had available to him 361 pieces of artillery in calibres of 75 mm (2.95 in) or greater, 12 320-mm (12.6-in) mortars, 65 150-mm (5.91-in) heavy and 81-mm (3.2-in) medium mortars, 33 naval guns in calibres of 80 mm (3.15 in) or greater, and 94 anti-aircraft guns in calibres of 75 mm (2.95 in) or greater. In addition to these large-calibre weapons, the defences of Iwo Jima had more than 200 20-mm and 25-mm anti-aircraft cannon as well as 69 37-mm and 47-mm anti-tank guns. The firepower of the artillery was further supplemented by a variety of rockets varying from a 203-mm (8-in) type weighing 198 lb (90 kg) and possessing a range of up to 3000 m (3,280 yards) to a giant 551-lb (250-kg) projectile possessing a range of more than 7000 m (7,655 yards). In total, the defences of Iwo Jima included more than 70 rocket launchers.

As a further strengthening of the defence, Lieutenant Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi’s 26th Tank Regiment, stationed at Pusan in southern Korea after extended service in Manchukuo, received orders to move to Iwo Jima. Consisting of 600 men and 28 tanks, the regiment sailed from Japan in mid-July on board Nisshu Maru, but as it approached Chichi Jima in a convoy on 18 July 1944, the ship was torpedoed by the US submarine Cobia. Even though only two members of the 26th Tank Regiment were lost, all of the regiment’s 28 tanks went down with the ship. It would be December before these could be replaced, but 22 tanks finally reached Iwo Jima. Nishi had initially planned to employ his armour as a type of ‘mobile fire brigade’ for commitment at key spots and times. The rugged terrain precluded such employment, however, so finally the tanks were deployed in static positions: they were either buried whole or stripped of their turrets, which were emplaced in the rocky terrain so skilfully that they were practically invisible from the air or from the ground.

Black and white image of Mt Suribachi, with a radar shack on top indicated by a white arrow For the remainder of 1944 the construction of Iwo Jima’s fortifications was pushed forward as rapidly and extensively as possible. The Japanese quickly learned that the black volcanic ash that existed in abundance all over the island could be converted into an excellent concrete when mixed with cement. Pillboxes near the beaches north of Mt Suribachi were constructed of reinforced concrete, many of them with walls 4 ft (1.2 m) thick, and at the same time a complex of caves, concrete blockhouses and pillboxes was established. Thus one of the results of American air attacks and naval bombardment in the early summer of 1944 had been to drive the Japanese so deep underground that eventually their defences became effectively immune to air or naval bombardment. While the Japanese defenders of Peleliu island in the western part of the Caroline islands, also awaiting an American attack (‘Stalemate II’), had turned the improvement of natural caves into an art, those of Iwo Jima developed it into a science. Because of the importance of the underground positions, 25% of the garrison was detailed to tunnelling. Underground positions ranged in size from small caves for a few men to several underground chambers capable of holding 300 or 400 men. In order to prevent personnel from becoming trapped in any one excavation, the subterranean installations were provided with multiple entrances and exits, as well as stairways and interconnecting passageways. Special attention was paid to the provision of adequate ventilation, since fumes from the islands sulphur deposits were present in many of the underground installations. Fortunately for the Japanese, most of the volcanic stone on Iwo Jima was so soft that it could be cut with hand tools. Kuribayashi established his command post in the northern part of the island, about 550 yards (500 m) north-east of Kita village and south of Kitano Point. This installation, 65 ft (20 m) underground, consisted of caves of varying sizes connected by 165 yards (150 m) of tunnels. Farther south, on Hill 382, the second highest elevation on the island, the Japanese constructed a radio and weather station. Nearby, on a rise just south-east of the station, a huge blockhouse was constructed as the headquarters of Colonel Chosaku Kaido, commanding all of Iwo Jima’s artillery. Other hills in the northern portion of the island were tunnelled out, and typical of the thoroughness employed in the construction of the subterranean defences was the main communications centre south of Kita village, which was so spacious that it contained a chamber 55 yards (50 m) long and 22 yards (20 m) wide. This major structure was similar in construction and thickness of walls and ceilings to Kuribayashi’s command post, and was accessed by a 165-yard (150-m) tunnel 65 ft (20 m) below the ground. Perhaps the most ambitious construction project to get under way was the creation of an underground passageway designed to link all the major defence positions and installations on the island. As projected, this passageway was to have attained a total length of almost 17 miles (27 km) and, had it been completed, would have linked the formidable underground installations in the northern portion of Iwo Jima with the southern part of the island, where the northern slope of Mt Suribachi alone harboured several thousand yards of tunnels. By the time the forces of the US Marine Corps landed on Iwo Jima, more than 11 miles (18 km) of tunnels had been completed. A supreme effort was required of the Japanese personnel engaged in the underground construction work. Aside from the heavy physical labour, the men were exposed to heat from 30 to 50° C (85 to 120° F), as well as sulphur fumes that forced them to wear gas masks. In numerous instances a work detail had to be relieved after only five minutes.

When renewed US air attacks struck the island on 8 December 1944 and thereafter became a daily occurrence until the invasion started, a large number of men had to be diverted to repairing the damaged airfields. As Iwo Jima was being converted into a sturdy fortress with all possible speed, Kuribayashi formulated his final defensive plan. A radical departure from the defensive tactics used by the Japanese earlier in the war, this plan provided for the following major points: in order to prevent disclosing their positions to the Americans, Japanese artillery was to remain silent during the expected pre-landing bombardment, and no fire would be directed against the US Navy vessels; when they landed, the Americans were not to encounter any opposition on the beaches but, after they had advanced some 550 yards (500 m) inland, they were to be taken under the concentrated fire of automatic weapons stationed in the vicinity of Motoyama Airfield No. 2 to the north, as well as automatic weapons and artillery emplaced both on the high ground north of the landing beaches and on Mt Suribachi to the south. After inflicting maximum possible casualties and damage on the landing force, the artillery was to move northward from the high ground near Chidori Airfield No. 1. In this connection, Kuribayashi stressed the conduct of an elastic defence designed to wear down the invasion force. Such prolonged resistance naturally required the defending force to stockpile rations and ammunition. To this end the island’s commander accumulated a food reserve to last for two and a half months, ever mindful of the fact that the trickle of supplies which was reaching Iwo Jima during the latter part of 1944 would cease altogether once the island was surrounded by the US Navy’s warships and transports. During the final months of preparing the defences, Kuribayashi saw to it that the building of fortifications did not interfere with the training of units. As an initial step toward obtaining more time for training, he ordered work on the northernmost of the island’s three airfields to be halted. In an operations order issued in early December, Kuribayashi set 11 February 1945 as the target date for completion of defensive preparations and specified that personnel were to spend 70% of their time in training and 30% in construction work.

Despite intermittent harassment by US submarines and aircraft, additional personnel continued to arrive on Iwo Jima until February 1945, by which time Kuribayashi had under his command a force of something between 21,000 and 23,000 men, including both army and navy units: a reasonable estimate suggests 13,585 army troops and 7,345 naval personnel. Kuribayashi made several changes in his basic defence plan in the months preceding the American invasion. The final version, which became effective in January 1945, called for the creation of strong, mutually supporting positions which were to be defended to the death without any thought of large-scale counterattacks, withdrawals or banzai charges. The southern portion of Iwo Jima, near Mt Suribachi, was organised into a semi-independent defence sector whose fortifications included casemated coast artillery and automatic weapons in mutually supporting pillboxes. The narrow isthmus north of Mt Suribachi was defended by only a small infantry force. On the other hand this entire area was exposed to the fire of artillery, rocket launchers and mortars emplaced on Mt Suribachi to the south and the high ground to the north. A primary defence line, consisting of mutually supporting positions in depth, extended from the north-western part of the island to the south-east, along a general line from the cliff north-west, across Motoyama Airfield No. 2 to Minami village, and thence eastward to the coast just south of Tachiiwa Point. This whole defence line was dotted with pillboxes, bunkers and blockhouses. Nishi’s immobilised tanks, carefully dug in and camouflaged, further strengthened this fortified area, whose defensive capability was enhanced by the broken and very rugged terrain. A second defence line extended from a few hundred yards south of Kitano Point at the very northern tip of Iwo Jima across the incomplete Airfield No. 3, to Motoyama village, and then to the area between Tachiiwa Point and the East Boat Basin. This second line contained fewer man-made fortifications, but the Japanese took maximum advantage of natural caves and other terrain features. As further protection for the island’s two completed airfields against direct assault, the Japanese constructed a number of anti-tank ditches near the fields and mined all the natural lines of approach. When, on 2 January, more than a dozen Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers raided Chidori Airfield No. 1 and inflicted heavy damage, Kuribayashi diverted more than 600 men, 11 trucks, and two bulldozers for immediate repairs. As a result, the airfield was rendered operable once more after only 12 hours. Eventually, 2,000 men were assigned the job of filling the bomb craters, as many as 50 men being detailed to each bomb crater.

The end of 1944 saw B-24 bombers over Iwo Jima almost every night, while US Navy carriers and cruisers frequently sortied into the Ogasawara Gunto and Kazan Retto. On 8 December 1944 US aircraft dropped more than 800 tons of bombs on Iwo Jima, a total which caused very little real damage to the island’s defences. Even though frequent air raids interfered with the Japanese defensive preparations and robbed the garrison of much badly needed sleep, progress on the defensive preparations was not materially slowed. On 13 February, a Japanese patrol aeroplane spotted 170 US ships moving north-west from Saipan. All Japanese forces in the Ogasawara Gunto and Kazan Retto were alerted and occupied their battle positions. On Iwo Jima, preparations for the pending battle had been completed, and the defenders were ready.

[Continued next week…]

[First and third photos by John Anderson, courtesy of bunnygoth]

Sunflower – the German entry into the North African Campaign

Erwin Rommel (first from left) in his command half-trackFebruary 2011 sees the 70th anniversary of the German entry into the North African campaign of World War II, which has come to possess a particular importance in the thinking of the British about World War II, for it introduced them to the tactical and operational genius of Erwin Rommel, Germany’s greatest commander in this theatre, and led, in the Western Desert, to the British strategic victory in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. Fought between 23 October and 5 November 1942, this victory by Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery’s 8th Army was the turning point in the North African campaign, and the first major reverse inflicted on the Germans in a World War II land campaign.

The North African war had started at a low intensity between the Italians, who were Germany’s allies in the Axis, and the British with their commonwealth allies. In June 1940, the month in which Italy entered World War II, the Italian forces in North Africa comprised some 250,000 men in nine regular divisions, three ‘Blackshirt’ divisions, and two North African divisions under the command of Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani. The British had 36,000 men in Egypt and 27,000 in Palestine, under the overall command of General Sir Archibald Wavell. The force on the Egyptian border with Italian Libya was Major General R. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force, which comprised the 7th Armoured Division, Indian 4th Division and the New Zealand Division. Despite its very considerable numerical inferiority, the Western Desert Force responded to the Italian declaration of war with a series of raids, and this persuaded the Italians to reach a gross overestimation of the force facing them. However, at the urging of Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, Graziani finally started to move his forces with great caution across the border and occupied Sidi Barrani, but instead of pushing their advance allowed his army to halt and embark on the construction of 10 fortified camps between Maktila on the coast, to the east of Sidi Barrani, and Sofafi to the south-west in the desert.

The British plans for a counter-offensive were aided by the arrival of a major convoy delivering, in addition to other equipment, 50 tanks. Wavell and General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, who commanded the forces in Egypt, now planned a limited offensive to recapture Sidi Barrani. If successful, this could be extended to the capture of Tobruk farther to the west, and then to advance deeper into Libya. The two fronts were separated by some 70 miles (110 km), and Western Desert Force began its approach on the night of 6 December from the area of Abar el Kanaysis midway between the Qattara Depression and the cost, laagered in the desert on the following day, and during the afternoon of 8 December reached a point known as ‘Piccadilly’ on the east/west railway line. This position was to the east of the southern group of four Italian camps, which lay to the south-west of the other six. The 7th Armoured Division then swung through this gap to cut the coast road at Buq Buq, while the Indian 4th Division and 7th Royal Tank Regiment attacked Nibeiwa camp from the rear early on 9 December. The camp fell swiftly and by the evening Tummar West camp had also been taken. Meanwhile an independent column, ‘Selby’ Force, had advanced along the coast road towards Sidi Barrani, which was attacked and taken on 10 December, yielding 38,000 Italian prisoners. Wavell now had to withdraw the Indian 4th Division for service in Sudan, and there was a delay while it was replaced by the Australian 6th Division. This division began the next stage of the advance by capturing Bardia and another 38,000 Italians on 3 January 1941. The Italians had now lost almost eight divisions and were in full retreat, but the British supply lines were becoming overstretched, and Wavell was warned that he would soon have to withdraw troops to be sent to Greece. However, Tobruk was taken on 22 January, Derna was abandoned by the Italians seven days later and occupied the following day, and by 9 February the British reached El Agheila, where they were halted. Despite the fact that there was no apparent resistance farther to the west, forces now had to be withdrawn to aid Greece, which had been invaded by the Italians, and only a thin covering force could be left to guard the new territories.

Adolf Hitler, the German leader, decided unwillingly on 11 January 1942 that he had little option but to aid his Italian ally in North Africa in defensive rather than offensive operations. Thus the first elements of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s Deutsches Afrikakorps were transported by German and Italian ships to North Africa in Unternehmen ‘Sonnenblume’ (Operation ‘Sunflower’), which was implemented on 8/12 February 1942 with the strength (including armoured units) to serve as a a Sperrgruppe (blocking group) for the defence of Tripolitania, the western half of Italy’s Libyan colony whose Cyrenaica eastern portion had been taken by the British. Thus Generalmajor Johannes Streich’s 5th leichte Division and Generalmajor Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron’s 15th Panzerdivision were to become the primary constituents of Rommel’s new Deutsches Afrikakorps. After a protracted night bombing of Malta by aircraft of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps on 7/8 February, designed to keep the British air and sea offensive forces off balance, the first German troops and matériel departed Naples for Tripoli on 8 February in the 4,768-ton Ankara, 2,596-ton Arcturus and 2,140-ton Alicante. These transports were escorted by the Italian destroyer Turbine and the torpedo boats Orsa, Cantore and Missori as well as aircraft of the X Fliegerkorps. From later in the same day to a time on 10 February, the convoy sheltered at Palermo after a report that the British warships of Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’ had been sighted, but on 11 February the convoy resumed its passage, reaching Tripoli on the following day. Already in North Africa were the first elements of the X Fliegerkorps detached from Sicily under the command of Generalmajor Stefan Fröhlich, the Fliegerführer ‘Afrika’. The second convoy carrying the Deutsches Afrikakorps followed in the form of the 4,205-ton Adana, 2,447-ton Aegina, 7,764-ton Kybfels and 5,954-ton Ruhr, which left Naples on 12 February and reached Tripoli two days later under escort of the Italian destroyer Camicia Nera and torpedo boat Procione. Additional equipment and supplies for the Deutsches Afrikakorps followed on 1/3 March when a convoy of four transports, escorted by the Italian torpedo boats Clio, Orione and Pegaso, reached Tripoli from Naples.

At the insistence of Hitler, whose allocation of the 15th Panzerdivision was dependent on their compliance, the Italians had agreed to pull back no farther than Sirte in the Gulf of Sirte, so maintaining at least a vestigial presence in Cyrenaica, where a new commander, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Italo Gariboldi, was trying to restore the cohesion and morale of the Italian 10th Army. Reaching Tripoli on 12 February to take up his new command, Rommel appears to have been little concerned with the letter of his orders and started to send patrols away to the east. By the end of February these patrols were clashing with the British near Sirte, and by the middle of March, Rommel had realised that the British not only intended to remain on the defensive but were in fact reducing their strength. By 1 March Rommel had come to the conclusion that the best way to defend Tripolitania was by the launch of an offensive from Sirte to take the marshy region 20 miles (32 km) west of El Agheila, which could be held by small armoured forces behind mine and wire defences. By 13 March the 5th leichte Division had moved up to this point, found no British opposition and, with Generale di Brigata Francesco Antonio Arena’s 132nd Armoured Division ‘Ariete’, set about improvising defences.

With Tripolitania thus secure, Rommel’s fertile mind began to envisage greater things when Axis intelligence confirmed that most of the Western Desert Force had been pulled back to Egypt, leaving the defence of Cyrenaica to the precarious corps command of Lieutenant General P. Neame’s Cyrenaica Command with Major General M. D. Gambier-Perry’s 2nd Armoured Division (two understrength brigades in the region of Mersa Brega north-east of El Agheila), Major General Leslie J. Morshead’s Australian 9th Division (one full-strength and two understrength brigades in the region of the Jebel Akhdar between Benghazi and Derna) and Brigadier E. W. D. Vaughan’s Indian 3rd Motorised Brigade (in El Adem just south of Tobruk). The British believed that there would be no Axis offensive, and Neame was ordered to maintain a static defence, though in the event of an Axis drive he was given authority to fall back, as slowly as possible, with the object of buying time for reinforcements to arrive after a period of some two months. Rommel now suggested to Gariboldi, his immediate superior, that their combined forces should launch a surprise attack before the onset of summer weather in May. Gariboldi agreed, and the two commanders secured permission for an offensive to retake Cyrenaica and then (with enormous optimism given the state of Axis reserves and lines of communication) advance into Egypt with the longer-term possibility of an offensive to the Suez Canal. The attack started on 24 March, when the Germans seized El Agheila as a prelude to an advance by the 5th leichte Division, Generale di Divisione Brunetto Brunetti’s 27th Division ‘Brescia’ and Arena’s 132nd Armoured Division ‘Ariete’, later supplemented by parts of the 15th Panzerdivision and Generale di Brigata Giorgio Masina’s 102nd Motorised Division ‘Trento’.

Pushing forward from El Agheila, the 5th leichte Division attacked the 2nd Armoured Division at Mersa Brega, and after fierce fighting was halted. The British did not counterattack, however, and were then forced to pull back. By 2 April the Germans were at Agedabia on the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Sirte with the options of advancing north to Benghazi, north-east to Msus and Mechili, and east to Tengeder to threaten British supply lines. In response to the growing Axis threat, Wavell had first taken over direct command himself, and then brought in O’Connor to act as Neame’s adviser.

On 4 April Rommel attacked in all three directions, and his forces met little resistance as the 2nd Armoured Division had fallen back. The fastest-moving Axis formation was that in the south, which reached Tengeder on 5 April and Mechili, on the southern edge of the Jebel Akhdar, during the next day. However, it was too weak to attack the Indian 3rd Brigade, which had moved forward to occupy the place. The appearance of this German force threatened to cut the British lines of communication, and the Australian 9th Division began to withdraw from the coastal town of Derna to which it had already retreated from Benghazi. On 8 April the remnant of the 2nd Armoured Division, which had lost most of its tanks through mechanical failure, and the Indian 3rd Brigade were overwhelmed at Mechili. Meanwhile the British were reinforcing the vital port town of Tobruk with elements of Major General John D. Laverack’s Australian 7th Division. The first German units arrived piecemeal on 10/11 April and an improvised attack on 11 April failed. It was not until 14 April that the 5th leichte Division made a major assault from the south, but its initial penetration ran into heavy artillery fire and counterattacks. By the afternoon the Germans were forced to retreat. The situation now stabilised, with Italian units replacing the German units which were preparing to cross the Egyptian frontier. On 25 April the Germans struck at Halfaya Pass and by the next day had pushed the British back to the line linking Buq Buq and Sofafi. On 30 April Rommel made a full-scale attempt to capture Tobruk, but though a salient was pushed into the western sector, after four days fighting it was contained.

Thus by 25 April the exhausted Axis forces had pushed through the Halfaya Pass on Egypt’s western frontier before finally coming to a halt after a devastating campaign which had returned Cyrenaica to Axis control, and on 11 April had cut off, within Tobruk, the Australian 9th Division, reinforced by one brigade of the Australian 7th Division. The defensive nature of ‘Sonnenblume’ had been completely forgotten, and the emergence of a new pattern of warfare in the Western Desert had been signalled.