The Listening Post is a Podcast about Battlefield Guiding. There have been battlefield guides throughout history, but the modern trade started in the second half of the C20th. In 2003 the International Guild of Battlefield Guides was founded a professional organisation to analyse, develop and raise the understanding, practice and profession of battlefield guiding and to promote the education of battlefield visitors and students in military heritage.
John Richardson’s full credentials are Professor & Colonel (Retired) J.C. Richardson, MA, MB BChir, MRCS LRCP, MSc(GP), MMedSc(Occ Hlth), FRCGP, FFOM(RCPI), DRCOG Emeritus Defence Professor of Primary Care & General Practice. He has been leading and taking part in expeditions for nearly sixty years. During that time his expeditions have faced most of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
John was known as Doctor John to Royal British Legion staff as he organised medical support to the Legion’s pilgrimages to war graves, memorials and battlefields across the world. Each Pilgrimage was supported by a doctor nurse or paramedic recruited by John. He briefed Pilgrimage tour escorts, manager/guides about the medical problems and support for tours. A is copy is here for your interest and education.
Greenhill books have published a revised edition of Durnford Slater’s 1953 memoir Commando: Memoirs of a Fighting Commando in World War Two. This edition includes a new foreword by Neil Barber.
In June 1940 Captain John Durnford Slater RA was adjutant of a training regiment. His CO wrote such a supportive letter that Durnford Slater was appointed commanding officer of the first Army Commando to be formed – No 3 Commando. His memoir covers the formation, training and actions of No 3 Commando, from Guernsey in 1940 through the Lofoten Islands, Vaagso, Dieppe and Sicily, and of his commando brigade in Italy. He tells his story of his own experiences as a D Day planner and deputy commander of the divisional sized commando force in North West Europe.
Commando is the first-hand account by one of the men who created the commando concept and led them in battle. Commandos have copied by armies and navies world-wide as commandos or rangers, the US knock off. It is also a study in leadership and command by a great fighting commander. It also includes delightful elements of what can be described as unofficial history – those stories that get left out of more guardedly written works, because of the reputational risk. Durford Slater’s men played hard and there are some escapades that would hit the front pages of the tabloids . Durnford Slater’s willingness to share these tales with his readers may also account for why he retired as a substantive major.
Appointed on 28th June 1940 Durnford Slater was given a fortnight to recruit and form No 3 Commando. After pillaging Southern Command for officers, these were sent to recruit volunteers for their own troops. By 5th July his unit was in existence with thirty-five officers and five hundred men. Their first operation took place ten days later. He and his officers seem to have been left alone to develop raiding techniques and a training regime that has been copied world-wide. It is hard to see how a comparable capability could be developed without a multi-million consultancy engagement. In 1940 a buckshee captain went off with the authority of the Deputy CIGS. The British Army seems have been ambivalent about Commandos, allowing the Royal Marines to own the concept. Durnford Slater’s work provides some explanations about why they may have been resented.
This work has much to offer anyone studying leadership and command. Durnford Slater sought intelligence, initiative and a sense of humour in his officers, perhaps recognising that sense of humour is the seventh core value of the Army. Every officer joined his unit as a subaltern, and every soldier as a private. He turned down Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat who would not relinquish his captain’s rank. His approach to paperwork and discipline will strike a chord with many readers.
One glorious aspect of the memoir are the tales from the margins of military history, The punch-ups with Irish navvies and Royal Marines, the plot to blow up the German embassy in Dublin, booze ups in enemy territory, and the staged visits for VIPs to patrol no man’s land in Normandy against a controlled enemy. It turns over a corner of the rug under which much history is swept.
I can’t remember reading Commando before. Its one I wish I had read much earlier.
The book has 211 pages, and thirty-six black and white photographs. There are seven clear sketch maps to illustrate Commando operations.
The 2020 edition has a RRP of £13.99, though you will not need to pay that to obtain it online, and the 1953 edition can be obtained for around £3.00
Innovation is a key factor in modern warfare. It is said, often unkindly, that every army prepares to fight the last war. Changes in technology will determine the characteristics of the next war, which will be different to the last. The side that can adapt and innovate fastest is likely to be at an advantage. The story of the 3.7 inch Heavy AA Gun is about the British Army responded to two sets of technical challenges. One is a great success story. The second a failure that has been a puzzle for 80 years.
Two big ideas emerged after the first world war that offered an opportunity to avoid the bloody stalemate of first world war. The advocates of air power claimed that long range bombers could strike the enemy heartlands and industry avoiding the need for bloody land campaigns. Similarly tank enthusiasts argued that a highly mechanized army would cut through slow moving massed armies destroying their command control and logistics, again avoiding the massed slaughter of attrition warfare. Neither idea led to bloodless victory in the Second World War.
The British 3.7 inch (93 mm) Heavy AA Gun had a similar role and performance to the German 88 mm Flak 36 AA gun. However, while the German “88” was famous as an anti-tank gun and the armament for some of the most feared German tanks, the 3.7 inch AA gun was rarely used in that role. Given the reverses that the British army suffered against Rommel’s Panzers in North Africa, this, in retrospect was a mistake. There is much interest in how armies innovate. The story of how the British did not use their heavy AA Guns against Rommel in 1941-42 is a case study in innovation – how not to do it.
Aimee Fox Godden’s ‘Learning to Fight’ is a study of military innovation in the First World War. She referred to top down, bottom up, horizontal, incidental or external learning. She reviewed the formal and informal mechanisms that the army of 1914-1918 used to transfer learning. There is a language to explore organisational learning in warfare. There isn’t space in this piece to do justice to the topic, but the aim is to with the appetite and inspire someone with the time to carry out the research.
The 3.7 inch AA Gun as an Air Defence Weapon
Between 1915 and 1918 Britain had been the target for the first strategic bombing offensive in history. The modest capabilities of the aircraft of the first world war caused sufficient alarm and damage to force the deployment of hundreds of AA Guns and aircraft and were the catalyst for Britain to form the Royal Air Force the world’s first independent air forces to take charge of the air defence of Britain.
The air defences were swiftly cut back after 1919 as funding was reduced on an annually renewed assumption that would be no war for ten years. However, there were two developments in the 1920s. A joint RAF and Army committee examined the plans that might be needed in the event of a future threat to Britain. Anti-aircraft artillery text-book written in 1925 defined the theoretical requirements of an capabilities of air defence artillery.
The 3.7 inch AA gun originated in a 1928 Royal Artillery Committee minute. By 1933 this had become a General Service Specification for a 3.7 inch gun weighing 8 tons capable of being put into action in 15 minutes and towed at 25 mph. The pilot model passed proof in 1936 and the first production guns were delivered in 1938. Production continued until 1945, with peak monthly production of 228 in March 1942.
The gun was an advanced weapon for 1936, the gunners received information electronically and only needed to operate the gun controls to keep the gun pointers aligned. The 3.7 inch gun should be seen as part of a weapon system, including the ammunition, warning, detection and fire control technology. Progressive improvements in all of these greatly improved its effectiveness over the course of the war. In its original form the 3.7 inch gun fired a 28lb (12.7kg) HE shell fitted with a powder-burning Fuze Time No 199 to an effective ceiling of 23,500ft using Predictor No1 at a maximum 8 rounds per minute with manual fuse setting and loading. By the end of the war the Mk1-3 equipment firing the same shell with a proximity fuse and predictor No 11 and auto-loading had an effective ceiling of 32,000 and a rate of fire of 32 rounds per minute. In the 1940 blitz 18,500 rounds were fired for each aircraft shot down. By 1944-45 the guns averaged 156 rounds per V1 brought down, over 100-fold, (10,000%) improvement.
+Initially targets were acquired visually, and the fire control computations made using a mechanical predictor developed in the late 1920s. The discovery of radar made it possible to consider new ways of engaging targets at night or through cloud. The first gun laying radar could only indicate a rough bearing and range, refinements enabled an indication of elevation. The invention of the cavity magnetron in 1940 at Birmingham University led to Canadian and British centimetric gun laying radar introduced at the end of 1942.At the same time fire control equipment was replaced with electromechanical predictors. The American SCR 583 radar arriving in 1943 offered outstanding performance, when used with the American Bell Telephone AAA computer. Another innovations included the Plan Position Indicating screen that showed the now familiar display with the rotating linear time base. American industry developed proximity fuses each containing a radar. These innovations enabled British HAA to play its part in defeating the world’s first strategic bombing campaign mounted by jet powered cruise missiles, the V1 Blitz.
Heavy AA Guns in the Anti-tank Role
There is less credit in the British story of innovation in the face of the German armoured threat. Indeed the failure to use British Heavy AA in the anti-tank role is also a case study on innovation. Every combatant had heavy AA guns roughly comparable to the 3.7” gun, and by the end of WW2 almost all armed their tanks and anti-tank artillery with guns based on their Heavy AA Guns. The German 88, Tiger, Jagdpanther & Hornisse; the Russian 85 mm in the SU 85 & T34/85,and the US 90 mm in the M 36 tank destroyer and T26 Pershing tanks. Except for the British, who neither used their excellent 3.7” AA Gun nor the 3 inch 20 cwt gun it replaced as an anti-tank gun in North Africa.
Although, the British faced German armour in 1940, it was the battles in North Africa that tested then British Army against German tanks. Failure to defeat Rommel cost a succession of senior British Generals their jobs – Aukinleck, Wavell, Cunningham, Ritchie and Corbett, and undermined the reputation of the British Army and confidence of its soldiers. Dunkirk revealed that the British army had far too few anti-tank weapons. A problem exacerbated by the loss of guns in the debacle of Dunkirk. Even by May 1942 the 8th Army in North Africa was over 100 anti -tank guns short of establishment.
German doctrine provided for AA Guns to supplement anti-tank guns. In the 1940 campaign one third of the ammunition for Luftwaffe heavy AA Guns was anti-tank shot. German tactic used tanks and anti-tank guns in conjunction. By summer 1942 more perceptive observers had noted that the Germans possession of anti-tank guns that out ranged British tank guns goaded British armour to undertake costly charges to close the range. (1) By El Alamein the Royal Armoured Corps was very wary of the presence of 88s.
There were some attempts to deploy the 3.7” Gun in the field, but only on a small scale and belatedly. Nor was there any systematic attempt to deploy a proportion of British heavy AA guns in the Middle East.
There was no technical reason why the 3.7 inch Gun and the 3 inch 20 cwt gun it replaced could not have been used as anti-tank guns. Besides the 3.7inch AA Gun, around 200 obsolete 3“(76mm) 20 cwt AA Guns were replaced by 3.7 inch HAA Guns. In 1940 in France at least once HAA engaged Germans tanks to great effect. In the UK HAA gun positions were laid out in order to engage an local ground attacks by parachutists and tanks. In the summer of 1941 the General A F Brooke, Commander Home Forces made it his business to test the capabilities of Britain’s anti-tank weapons including HAA. By July at least one 3.7 inch HAA Regiment, 103, was tasked with a secondary anti-tank role, to tackle any German heavy tanks.
Alanbrooke’s intervention also lead to a plan to assign fifty 3-inch 20 cwt AA guns to be mounted on towed carriages and fifty to be mounted on Churchill tank chassis. None of these activities led to an additional anti-tank weapons in North Africa by summer 1942. The Germans could do this. Major Becker, a German artillery officer with a background in engineering had developed a range of self-propelled guns based on captured British and French AFVs. These included 75mm anti-tank guns and 105mm self propelled howitzers sent to the Afrika Corps. It was not beyond the wit of man for the British to have mounted one of their HAA guns on an armoured chassis. But they did not do so.
What Might have Gone wrong?
So what might have gone wrong? No one can ever be certain of cause and effect of historic events, and counter factuals are speculation. However, here are some of the factors that may have played a part in the failure to apply HAA as part of the solution to German tanks.
#1 Misunderstand the Problem.
No one at a senior level seemed to grasp the significance of German Heavy AA Guns, used first in North Africa in May and June 1941 to defeat heavy British tanks. After these battles the armoured division commander noted German tactics of luring British armour onto anti-tank guns and an artillery commander noted the Germans were using high velocity AA Guns. But the British did not two and two together and copy these tactics. Instead, there were grumbles about the quality of British tanks, their armour and armament. Over the next year the British learned to fear the “88s”, as any and every German anti-tank gun was regarded. This wasn’t helped by the lack of common doctrine between the Royal Armoured Corps and the other arms.
#2 Ignore the Past.
The German Army was the first army to face massed tanks, in the First World War. They had experience of anti tan k warfare. One of their remedies was to employ any artillery in the anti-tank role. Mobile 75mm anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks were the anti-tank reserve and rushed to the site of tank attacks. The 88mm Flak 36 used by the Wehrmacht was designed to be dual role. German army and Luftwaffe AA units were trained to operate in the ground and anti-tank role. One third of 88mm AA ammunition in 1940 was anti-tank shot. The British closed their minds to the possibility.
#3 Create Organisational Stovepipes.
During the first half of the Second World War the Royal Artillery was divided into AA and Field Artillery. There was no transfer of officers between the branches. Transfer of ideas may also have been hampered by the cultural and social distinction between the field and AA branches. The AA Branches offered fewer routes to front line action for the bold and adventurous. AA Command was so far in the rear that the women of the ATS to serve in many roles. Besides professional status, there was a difference in social status between the officers of the Royal Horse Artillery who supported the armoured divisions and the lower status fish and chip mob regiments of the Heavy AA..
#4 Set blinkered doctrine and procedures
British regulations saw no role for Heavy AA Guns in any field operation and provided no guidance for their use. Most AA Artillerymen were neither trained nor equipped to fight in the ground battle.
#5 Let Internal Politics Get in the Way.
The project to mount 3inch 20 cwt guns on a Churchill tank chassis failed to result in any AFVs in service. The official history of British Armour notes that this gun would have “proved a powerful and effective tank destroyer” but the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery could not agree who should operate the weapon. Fifty heavily armoured self-propelled guns might have made a big difference in mid-1942 in North Africa.
This article appeared in the Royal Artillery Journal September 2019. Unfortunately some of the maps were not reproduced correctly. This article includes the corrected maps, which are illustrations from the book “Gunners in Normandy” due for publication in Februrary 2020.
Seventy-five years have elapsed since D Day and the battle for Normandy. Since then there have been countless publications, including several in the Royal Artillery Journal.[i] The Gunner contribution was recognised with the highest praise by commanders, and widely acknowledged. The Gunner contribution to the battle has been included in the more thoughtful works about the campaign.[ii] However, many of the most popular and respected histories are flawed and contain inaccuracies, if not outright howlers. The Gunners are ubiquitous, but faceless and voiceless. One reason for this has been the absence of a Regimental history of the Normandy campaign, which documents the actions of individual Gunners and Gunner units. This article is based on the narrative from Gunners in Normandy, the History of the Royal Artillery in North West Europe Part 1, a work started by the Late Lieutenant Colonel Will Townend.
Artillery were the largest single cap badge in Normandy. Comprising some 18% of the force, in comparison to 15% of infantrymen. If the proportion of service troops is considered, just under half of the British troops serving in Normandy were either gunners or supporting the artillery. Of the 135 RHA or RA regiments in the British Liberation Army, 11% had seen service in France and Belgium in 1940, and 13% had been in the Middle East. Only 5th RHA and 74th Field Regiments had served in Belgium and France in 1940, in the Middle East and in Normandy. Some individuals had served in both. There was a policy of cross posting officers to share knowledge and experience. Most of the officers and men were conscripts, from a generation whose fathers First World War experiences served as a benchmark.
A handful were pre-war regular regiments including 3rd, 4th and 5th RHA, 7th and 33rd Field, 7th Medium, 20th and 21st Anti-Tank Regiments. Many of the Gunner units were reservist units mobilised at the start of the war. Some had a strong regional character like the World War I Pals, for example the 15th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment, the Manx TA, the 90th (City of London) and 76th (Highland) Field Regiments. At least thirty-eight Regiments were originally raised under a different cap badge. Several, such as 151st (Ayrshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment were mobilised as mounted, yeomanry cavalry; only became gunners in 1939-40 and retained their own cap badges. In 1942 twenty infantry battalions were converted to light anti-aircraft regiments, and nine to field and medium artillery regiments. Some of these units retained a dual identity, such as the 92th (7th Loyals) Light AA or 181st (6th Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry) Field Regiments. Their unit histories record their dual identity with pride. Others, such as 110th Light AA Regiment originally raised as 7th Dorsets appear to have been subsumed completely as Gunners. Some Gunner regiments tolerated or sported non-issue items of clothing. Some extended their individuality to fire discipline, with questions raised about the extent to which the use of code words in 7 Armoured Division originating in the Western Desert, hindered them in Normandy.[iii]
By comparison with the British Expeditionary Force on 1940 the British Liberation Army of 1944 had a few more field and medium guns, but far more anti-tank and light Anti-aircraft guns. Not shown is the substantial increase in communications and locating equipment, Air OPs and a 50% increase in numbers of BCs and FOO parties.
The two principal field artillery equipment, guns, used in Normandy were the 25-pounder, the workhorse of the divisional artilleries and the 5.5-inch, the mainstay of the Army Groups Royal Artillery (AGRA). Others were:
The 75 mm (US) Pack Howitzer, used by the Airborne Artillery.
5-inch, Gun. This equipped two medium batteries for counter battery work on account of its range.
155 mm (US Long Tom – 6-inch), designated heavy artillery and used primarily for counter battery work
2-inch (Mk 6 on US M1 carriage, or a box trail carriage), used for heavy bombardment
25-pounder Sexton self-propelled gun (on a Canadian Ram tank chassis and often known as the Ram), mainly used by the regiments supporting the armoured brigades in the armoured divisions, with two from disbanded formations as Army Group assets, and 90th Field Regiment from 50th Division converted for D Day.
105 mm (US) M7 Priest self-propelled gun (on a US M3 tank chassis), used by 3rd British and 3rd Canadian Division Artillery and the 19th Canadian Field Regiment. The Priest was replaced in most units by the towed 25-pounder at the end of July-beginning of August.
The 3.7” HAA Gun was used extensively in the field artillery role. It out-ranged the 5.5” Medium gun and had a useful HE round and mechanical time fuse
The Centaur CS tank mounted a 95mm howitzer. This equipped the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group, formed initially for the D Day assault.
Field Regiments comprised 24 guns organised into three batteries, each of two troops of four guns. Medium regiments of 16 guns organised into two batteries of eight guns, each of two troops. Heavy Regiments. Heavy Regiments had 16 guns, eight each of 155mm and 7.2”, organised into four batteries of four guns. Within field regiments the battery and troop commanders provided the observation and liaison element in direct support of infantry or armoured units. Medium and heavy Regiments could provide liaison and additional observers. Each infantry division had three field regiments of towed 25 pounders. Each armoured division had a field regiment of towed 25 pounders and in direct support of the infantry brigade and a field regiment of SP 25 pounders in direct support of the armoured brigade. The AGRAs were of mixed composition, but normally included a heavy regiment, two or more medium regiments and a field regiment.
The principal anti-tank guns in use in Normandy were:
6-pounder anti-tank gun, used by both infantry and Royal Artillery anti-tank units in 1944
17-pounder anti-tank gun, used exclusively by the Royal Artillery anti-tank regiments
US M10 self-propelled (on an M3 tank chassis) 3-inch anti-tank gun
US M10 self-propelled (on an M3 tank chassis) with British 17-pounder anti-tank gun (Achilles)
The 57mm calibre 6 pounder had entered service in 1942 and proved effective in North Africa against the German Mark III and IV tanks and could inflict damage on the German Mark VI Tiger heavy tank with Ballistically Capped Armour Piercing Steel shot (CAPC).[iv] By D Day this ammunition was supplemented by Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot ammunition (APDS) which could had improved penetration. The six-pounders were light and manoeuvrable and could deal with all but the Tiger and the front armour of Panther tanks. They were towed by the Universal carrier, although this was under-powered and possessed a “paralytic” cross country performance when towing a gun.[v]
The 17-pounder was a very effective anti-tank gun, but, was heavy and unwieldy to manhandle into position. Introduced in 1943, an APC shot from the 17 pounder could penetrate the armour of the heaviest German tanks. The gun detachment had no protection from shell splinters and a gun pit took 12 hours to dig. The soft skin Field Artillery Tractor was inadequate in a forward area swept by shell splinters and bullets. Obsolete Crusader tanks were converted into gun tractors and issued to the towed batteries of the Corps Anti-tank Regiments. The towed 17 pounders in armoured divisions used M14 half-tracks as tractors.
The American M10 Gun Motor Carriage which mounted a 3-inch gun in an open topped turret on a Sherman tank chassis. The M10’s armour gave little protection against German tank guns. The 3-inch gun was replaced with a 17-pounder as production capacity – and industrial relations permitted. There is no evidence of the inferiority complex that seems to have affected the RAC tank crews facing Panther and Tiger tanks. “The 3” M10 is a good SP Gun; The 17 Pounder M10 is a terror”[vi]
There were two types of anti-tank regiment: those supporting infantry divisions and those supporting armoured divisions and the corps anti-tank regiments. Both types had four batteries of three troops each of four guns, a total of 48 guns. In the infantry divisions all four batteries comprised one (or two) troops each of four 6-pounders and two, (or one) each of four 17-pounders. The D Day assault divisions were given US M10 3-inch SP anti-tank guns in place of the towed 17-pounders. The anti-tank regiments of the armoured divisions and corps anti-tank regiments comprised two SP batteries each with three troops of four M10s and two towed batteries with three troops of four 17-pounders.
The anti-tank defences were supplemented by field and anti-aircraft equipment which had a secondary anti-tank role. AP shot from 3.7” HAA Guns would penetrate armour almost as thick as a 17 Pounder could penetrate.
The AA forces for Operation ‘Overlord’ included the largest concentration of British AA Artillery assigned to any operation. Thirteen AA Brigade HQ, seventy AA Regiments, several independent batteries and an RM AA Regiment. Almost half of the gunners landed in Normandy in the first few days were AA gunners. By the 25th June twenty-nine AA regiments had been landed. Twelve of these were assigned to the Corps and Divisions. A further seventeen were part of three AA brigades under army command in Normandy.
The principal anti-aircraft guns used by the Royal Artillery were the 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft gun and the 40mm Bofors. The heavy anti-aircraft regiments had three batteries each of two troops of four 3.7-inch guns, a total of 24 guns, and the light anti-aircraft regiments had three batteries each of three troops of six 40 mm Bofors guns, a total of 54 guns, in various combinations of SP and towed guns. They also had three troops each with 20mm Oerlikon guns, although, these did not arrive in Normandy until mid-July. The anti-aircraft brigades had varying numbers of heavy and light anti-aircraft regiments and searchlight batteries under command, depending on the task. LAA regiments manned the off-shore anti-aircraft guns on the Mulberry, Gooseberries and Landing Barges Flak, and deployed ashore to protect the beachhead and Mulberry harbour had special establishments and equipment. In August 1944, the Light AA regiments were reduced and reorganised; the 20mm troops and one troop of 40mm guns per battery handed in their equipment and sent the manpower to the reinforcement holding units for reallocation.
The 3.7” Heavy AA Gun was comparable to the German 88mm Flak 36 AA gun. Progressive improvements to ammunition, warning, detection and fire control technology improved its effectiveness over the course of the war around a hundredfold. It was towed by a four-wheeled AEC Matador, a 10 ton capacity four wheel drive vehicle.
The 40mm Bofors gun was the British version of the eponymous Swedish Light AA gun used by almost every combatant. It had an effective ceiling of 5,000ft. The Bofors gun was towed by the Bedford QLB, based on the Bedford QL chassis. The SP variant mounted the 40mm Bofors on the chassis of the Morris Field Artillery Tractor. The SP Bofors was much quicker into action that the towed equipment and popular in service. These were disproportionately issued to the Light AA Regiments in the three Assault divisions and the Light AA of 76th and 80th AA Brigades
In order to ensure that the first wave of Light AA could get ashore without waiting for beach roadways to be laid, the first wave of Light AA to land were provided with thirty 40mm Bofors guns mounted on old Crusader tank chassis with the turrets removed. The hulls were modified to take the maximum ammunition.[vii]
In order to engage low flying fast aircraft the British Army adopted 20mm AA guns. The 20mm Oerlikon, used by the Navy and installed in RAC AA tanks, lacked the self-destructing fuses that detonated after a set time. They could only be safely fired into ground known not to be occupied by friendly forces, which restricted its use. In 1944 the Polish designed Polsten was introduced with a self-destruct round. Fifty-four triple mount Polsten guns were equipped the batteries of 93rd Light AA Regiment. Twenty-seven were mounted on Crusader tank chassis and a further twenty-seven mounted on 40mm carriages.[viii] These would provide low level point air defence to the beaches.
The Royal Artillery used several types of radar equipment to detect and locate enemy aircraft. Few, if any photographs exist of these in service in Normandy. The loading lists for 80th AA Brigade suggest that each troop of four guns was accompanied by its own pair of radars.
The Gun laying Radar AA No3 MkII, also known as the GL III, was a 10cm mobile radar for accurate fire control of heavy anti-aircraft guns. Depending on the source, this radar could pick up and engage a medium bomber at 27,000 yards (25km)[ix]. or pick up at 36,000 yards( 33km) and engage at 14,000yards (12.5km)[x] It was mounted on a four wheeled trailer. It could transmit continuous information the range, bearing and elevation to a predictor, which could then further transmit information to individual guns. This radar had a very narrow field of view and was used in conjunction with another radar with a wider beam which provided early warning and tracking information
The main radar used for local warning and “putting on” the GLIII was the. Radar AA No 1 MII, commonly known as GL (Gun Laying) II. It had a pick-up range of 50,000 and could be used for fire control out to 14,000 yards, but was inferior to the GLIII. The radar comprised separate transmitter and receivers mounted on trailers.
Passive air defence equipment included barrage balloons and smoke generators deployed as part of the Gunner controlled air defences, but manned by other arms.
The operational methods of the British Army in Normandy were the product of doctrine, the lessons learned during the war and the personality of its successful field commander General B L Montgomery. Montgomery had a preference for set piece battles, characterised by a master plan, concentration of force, and fire-power based attrition. He described his set piece battles as consisting of a break in, a dog fight and a break out. The Break in would take place on D Day. Montgomery’s theatre strategy for the Normandy “dog fight” envisaged a series of holding attacks on the British sector, designed to draw the bulk of the German forces to that front, thus permitting the Americans to advance in the West. His approach also strove to keep t he initiative, forcing the Germans to react to Allied moves.
The key to Montgomery’s conduct of battle was the use of overwhelming concentration of massed artillery fire power, supplemented by aerial bombardment when possible. He had seen how massed fire power together with the anti-tank action of anti-tank guns had brought success at El Alamein, and this impressed itself indelibly on his mind.[xi]
It would be wrong to attribute these tactics solely to Montgomery. While he was the commander of the formations which achieved success, the artillery techniques were the product of the developments made within the Royal Artillery and the evolution of thinking within the British Army, supported from the top by the CIGS, Brooke.
D Day would be the “Break in Battle “for the battle of Normandy. The story of the fire plan and the run in shoot has been covered in the pages of the RA Journal, in several articles including by one by Brigadier H J Parham BRA Second British Army responsible for the D Day Fire plan.[xii] Parham also kept a planning diary, held by the Firepower archives. This documented the planning efforts made during four months of intense planning with the RA staff working daily until 02.00.[xiii]
On 31st May 1944 Brigadier Parham confided to his diary his predictions for D Day. “As long as the cloud allows the Fire plan will, given perfect weather and freedom from cloud (which is essential), as follows when it comes off in a few days time.
A vast quantity of moderately aimed assorted missiles will fall on or near or not so near the beach localities from H-30 to H.
There will be a vast pall of smoke . As a result the very high proportion of the fire which is dependent on direct laying , will go haywire. But so will the Huns’.
Defiladed AT guns on beaches will cause a lot of trouble as many will survive. They will be hard to KO and will account for a lot of our own DDs and Centaurs on some beaches.
Counter battery and counter mortar will be our biggest headache.
The successful engagement of hull down tanks (Tigers and Panthers) lying back 3,000-4,000 yards from beaches and covering our painful progress through minefields will be difficult.
We shall be badly short of aerial observation early on.
The battle on D Day and for the next days will be a very rough house indeed. On it the war’s result depends. BUT…we are absolutely certain to be ashore in enough places to stay there. Nothing else matters and we will then win the war , sooner or later & we hope soon. The Hun commanders on the spot are in for an interesting, exciting and highly depressing day”
Parham took a realistic view of the effectiveness of the fire power being applied to the D Day objectives. He knew that there was very little in the allied armoury that could target an anti-tank gun in a concrete bunker sited to fire in enfilade across the beach. There could not be a solution until the development of precision guided weapons.
The D Day fireplan has been heavily criticised by American and Canadian historians for the apparent failure to destroy more of the beach defences. Yet as Parham’s note makes clear, the fireplan required clear visibility. The decision by Eisenhower to launch the invasion in marginal weather meant that the US Heavy bombers, which provided some 5 kilotons of bombs would be ordered to aim 1,000 off their targets. Parham’s expectations are also a reminder that the outcome on D Day exceeded all contemporary expectations.
Parham had strong views about the need for early Air OPs. There were few natural vantage points on the Normandy battlefield, other than heavily shelled church towers and vegetation restricted what could be seen. He lobbied strongly, but unsuccessfully[xiv], for an aircraft carrier to operate Air OPs on D Day[xv] and even for Sikorski’s prototype helicopters to be operated from Landing craft.[xvi] Air OPs were essential for adjusting fire. Most artillery shoots ordered from the ground were predicted rather than observed fire, using the spread of fire from multi battery missions to offset inaccuracy, with undoubted waste on agricultural targets.
Parham was a champion of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group (RMASG) who would man obsolete tanks firing in the run in shoot from H-15, thickening the fire after H-10 when the field artillery barrage would end. The RMASG is not well understood, although two of their Centaurs remain as memorials in Normandy. The RMASG was manned by a mixture of RM, RAC and RA and commanded by a CRA. The formation was organised into five batteries each of four troops of four Centaur tanks and a GPO’s Sherman. The Centaurs were fitted with dial sights. There was one battery per assault brigade group to provide direct fire on the run in shoot and indirect fire once ashore. There was no administrative support and most of the men were to be released after a few days in action. The RMASG was not a tank brigade, but a disposable assault gun brigade The CRA, Brigadier Sanders and many of the RM Gunners were from the artillery of the disbanded Royal Marines Division. Only half of the RMASG landed as scheduled, as the high armoured decks of the modified LCT (A) were barely seaworthy. However, as noted by RA 2nd Army, they were “A strange unit: amphibious, web footed, armoured, partly SP, partly RAC, fires off seas as HM craft, on the land as tanks or SP Artillery according to taste….a GRAND LOT OF CHAPS and it would not be their fault if they were not a great success.[xvii] Due to rough seas only half of the Centaurs landed. Those that did gave a good account of themselves and instrumental in an action that resulted in Canadian Gunner Holtzman’s military medal action on Juno Beach. Brigadier Sanders was killed in June, one of the highest-ranking Gunner officers to be killed in action by shellfire while visiting the Orne Bridgehead.
A “corps level battle drill” was promulgated in October 1943, based on experience in North Africa and Sicily.[xviii] This battle procedure included carrying out the procedures to survey guns and targets, identify enemy batteries and, where necessary, carry out preliminary operations to secure ground for gun positions. The techniques were practiced by all but one of the corps headquarters and their associated AGRA at Larkhill during the spring of 1944. The British Army would fight its battles at corps level. If a division fought on its own it would not prevail against a determined German defensive. This proved to be the case in Normandy as can be seen by the lack of success by 3rd British Division against Caen 6-7th June and by the 7th Armoured Division at Villers Bocage.
Inevitably, during battle the process was disrupted by an uncooperative the enemy, who kept artillery and mortars silent until after the attack started, deployed in depth to out range field artillery, and cunningly hid reserves of infantry and heavy tanks. At this point attacks would break down while new targets were acquired and fire-plans adjusted.
The battery commanders and troop commander FOOs played a key role, accompanying the infantry and armour and providing the network of informed observers around which concentrated artillery fire could be applied. The direct support element of field artillery suffered casualties comparable to the infantry. After fourteen days in action Major P Pettit of 481st Battery of 116th Field Regiment was the only un-wounded member of his party. Becoming a Troop Commander FOO, or Battery Commander would bring an officer promotion to Captain. The same was not true of OP signallers or drivers. Officers could be ordered to the OP and? in many units the OP parties were relieved by volunteers from Command posts.
One heroic example took place on the slopes of Hill 112 on 10th July. Major Mapp, BC 171st Battery supporting 7th Somerset Light Infantry was fatally wounded by mortar fire and the infantry CO killed. Both OP parties were deployed and pinned to the ground. Bombardier, Acting Sergeant Trevis at Battalion HQ then took command and assumed the BC’s responsibilities, co-ordinated the work of the O.P.s and brought down ﬁre when required by the battalion. Captain Robinson, the B K, was killed coming up to relieve him. It was not until late in the evening that another ofﬁcer could be made available. “Bombardier Trevis therefore commanded the battery for a period of 12 hours for the greater part of which he was under enemy mortar and shell ﬁre. He did a job which would have been a credit to any Battery Commander.” An act recognised with the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal [xix] A similar act, two weeks earlier resulted in the same decoration for Gunner, Acting Bombardier Moorin of 190 field Regiment.[xx]
In mobile warfare the idea of the infantry securing every area was as outdated as long lines of trenches. Artillerymen could often find themselves face to face with the enemy. On 27th June 25th Field Regiment was ordered to deploy as far forward as possible to be able to support 31st Armoured Brigade in operation Epsom. Infantry progress had been slowed by a deep minefield. But reconnaissance of a gun position beyond this minefield and about one mile south of le Mesnil Patry from the village had been completed.
The guns started arrived on the position and, with the exception of “A” Troop, were got into action without any difficulty. As the leading gun of “A” Troop, 12/25 Battery (now 8 Alma Commando battery) entered the field in which it was to deploy the troop came under rifle fire. The GPOA, L/Bombardier Hobson, fell at the director not far from the edge of wood bordering the position. Efforts to reach him brought more fire, as did further movement of men or vehicles. Gun detachments, therefore, dismounted from their tractors and crawled away under cover of a hedge along which the guns were now halted.
The CPO. Lieutenant KJH. Astles, immediately formed two small patrols from Battery H.Q., each of two men, with himself in charge of one and the ACPO, Lieut. F. R. Gutt, in charge of the other. These had hardly entered before heavy rifle and automatic fire was opened. Only Gunner Erskine returned, reporting that both officers and two gunners had been killed and another seriously wounded.
Sergeant Duke, the NCO i/c Signals, who had been laying lines which ran through the wood appeared shortly after Gunner Erskine. He had been pinned down by fire and unable to reach the men whom he had seen shot. He later brought in L/Bombardier Hobson under fire. A section of infantry attempted to enter the wood but was forced to withdraw by heavy fire.
Meanwhile, the Second-in-Command, Major A F Johnson, had enlisted the help of a troop of Sherman tanks. A troop of M5 Stuart light tanks, hearing the noise, also arrived. Two of the Shermans, the Stuarts and the Battery’s Bren guns were sited to provide covering fire, while the third Sherman was to cover a party of gunners, under the command of Sergeant Duke, would enter and clear the wood. Gunner Erskine, also in the party, had made another expedition into the wood with two signalers and had located the area where most of the fire came from.
After a short intense bombardment by the tanks, the gunners entered the wood and very soon afterwards a white flag was hoisted by the enemy. To everyone’s astonishment, forty-three prisoners were rounded up, and some dead Germans.
When the whole Regimental area had been searched, it was plain that it had been an enemy reserve company locality, which had been overrun but not mopped up. In the action 25 Regiment lost two officers and four other ranks killed and three wounded, but took around fifty prisoners from the 12th SS. Sergeant Duke was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Gunner Erskine was awarded the Military Medal.[xxi] This action deserves to have been better known, and could have been a setting for many post war test exercises.
The Monty set piece battle envisaged that anti-tank guns should play a major role in defeating enemy armour. Each infantry battalion possessed six 6 pounder anti-tank guns and dozens of hand held anti tank weapons for self-protection. In the assault anti-tank guns would accompany the infantry, relieving the accompanying tanks as soon as possible. Self propelled 3” or 17 pounder guns were much in demand for this purpose. Both infantry and RA manned 6 pounder guns would be adequate, but the towed 17 pounder was very vulnerable for around 12 hours until it could be dug in. German doctrine called for immediate counter assault and planned counter attacks, supported by armour when available. The easily concealed and manhandled 6 pounder would have been adequate had the Germans not deployed Tiger or Panther tanks in the battles around Caen. Instead many of the battles around Caen included duels between heavy tanks and ill protected 17 pounder guns in the open.
In defence the infantry’s own anti-tank guns were intended to provide local protection, while the towed 6 pounders were sited on tank killing areas, with SP guns moving as appropriate and the towed 17 pounders forming a back stop. The last ditch anti-tank defences for the beaches themselves were the heavy AA guns, which were assigned anti tank positions.
There were several occasions during the Normandy Campaign when the Germans attempted to launch their armour in an attempt to throw the allies into the sea. On D Day Sergeant Mitchley[xxii] No 1 of an M10 of 20 Anti tank regiment became one of the anti-tank regiment first fatal casualties stopping the 21st Panzer Division. There was particularly heavy fighting between the 7th and 11th June between Bayeux and Caen.
One of the biggest anti tank actions took place on 1st July 1944 at Rauray, when the II SS Panzer Corps launched an attack with elements of four panzer divisions into a British held salient SW of Caen. The Germans ran into the anti-tank guns of 55th Anti-tank Regiment reinforcing the infantry. Sergeant Hall of C Troop 217 Anti-tank Battery, 55th (Suffolk Yeomanry) Anti-tank Regiment was awarded the DCM after an action in which he manhandled his 6 pounder gun 350 yards to stalk a heavy German tank, as well as knocking out some four or five other others.[xxiv] In this action the Gunners were helped by an allocation of Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot ammunition which enabled the 6 pounder to penetrate the armour of the heaviest tanks they faced that day.[xxv]
The M10 units were exhorted to remember that the M10 wasn’t a tank and was not supposed to be used as one. However, photographs from D Day provide testimony of its use bunker busting. Two No’s 1 were awarded the Military Medal for actions which would have been unlikely to win the approval of Anti tank Wing at the RSA. Sergeant Todd, the No 1 of an M10 of J Troop, 198 Battery 73rd Anti-tank Regiment was isolated after the infantry withdrew after a counter-attack. When German infantry burst through a hedge about 50 yards in front he engaged them with his 0.5” Browning, which was mounted on the open turret. He withdrew through a hedge, but only to charge back again and engage the enemy in an open field. He continued to move up and down the field causing some 30-40 casualties before withdrawing. On 18th July Sergeant Smith of 73rd Anti-tank Regiment was tasked to support an assault by 1/7th Staffordshire on the village of Bretteville. When the supporting armour did not arrive, he considered that the infantry, mortared in their FUP would not advance without armoured support he charged at H bringing his SP into action on the flank of the objective and providing covering fire.[xxvi]
Perhaps the best example of an anti-tank battery action is Beaulieu-Maison-Celles on 3rd August. (shown as Maisoncelles on the sketch map) 153rd Field Regiment of the Guards Armoured Division were targets of a counter-attack by Panther tanks supported by infantry. 129th Battery lost two guns and a command post; the attack then reached 131st Battery in a neighbouring field. OP/CP Sherman tanks attempted to engage the Panthers but were knocked out. 129th and 131st Batteries deployed their 25 Pdr SP guns to anti-tank positions. The 2IC, ordered these two batteries to withdraw to Le Desert under covering fire from 130th Battery; two further guns were lost and nine ammunition lorries had to be abandoned. 130th Battery then withdrew under cover of its own smoke.
As the last gun withdrew, the first M10s of Q Battery, 21st Anti-tank Regiment arrived. The Panthers were difficult to locate and the Battery had to deal first with the enemy infantry, but after an hour Major Taylor’s gun destroyed a tank as it traversed a gateway. An hour later three more Panthers entered the field directly in front of HQ Troop. Major R I G Taylor got the first, Lieutenant L Hawker the second and the third withdrew. BSM Woolley and Lance-Sergeant Prudhoe were killed in their M10s. That evening Sergeant Farrow fired three rounds at where he thought he could see and hear – a tank in an orchard and was rewarded with a satisfying explosion; next day there was confirmation that he had destroyed a Panther but through the two stone walls of a cow-byre. Major Taylor and Lt Hawker were awarded the Military Cross. 153rd Field Regiment lost two OR s killed, Captain Cawley, Lt Leveson-Gower and 18 OR s wounded and Lt MacAlpine and 10 OR s missing, and four guns, two tanks, seven carriers and twenty B vehicles destroyed. [xxvii]
The story of the air defence of Normandy is a story of a forgotten army. The impression created in many histories of Normandy is that the allied air superiority was so overwhelming that the Luftwaffe did not have any noticeable impact. While this may reflect allied success, it does not do justice to the efforts needed to render a significant German air threat into insignificance.
AA was given a high priority in the D Day landings in anticipation of German air attacks. 76th AA Brigade was placed under 30 Corps Command for the Assault with the task of protecting Gold Beach, the Mulberry Harbour and the fuel facilities at Port-en-Bessin. 80th AA Brigade placed under 1st Corps command for the Assault was responsible for the air defence of Juno and Sword beaches.
Each assault infantry brigade group was accompanied by an AA Battlegroup comprising a mixture of 20mm and 40mm Light and 3.7” Heavy AA guns with their radars. AA Guns were some of the first Gunner equipment ashore. Major P F Tiarks BC 218th LAA Battery and four 40mm guns each of A and C Troops landed on Queen White and Red respectively at H+45, 0810 hours. Both beaches were under heavy fire from mortars and small arms. Major P F Tiarks was wounded in the hand by a mortar fragment. He and Captain Eburne were both were awarded the MC for inspiring troops in battle for the first time under trying conditions. On Gold beach the first artillery ashore seem to have been triple 20mm AA SP tanks from 320 Battery of 93 Light AA Regiment, who would provide low level air defence of the beach.
On Juno beach Sergeant James Finlay and Lance Bombardier Frederick Arthur Harrison from 114 Light AA Regiment were awarded the George Medal for saving the lives of men trapped on a burning “Rhino” ferry.
76th AA Brigade was responsible for the AA defences of Mulberry Harbour. These included the soldiers from 127th Light AA Regiment who manned the 40mm guns on the Phoenix caissons, and were towed across the channel. Several men were killed when a caisson was sunk en-route. The Gunners also endured the terrible conditions during the great storm 19-24 June.
F Troop of 318th LAA Battery of 92th (7th Loyals) LAA Regiment, equipped with wheeled SP 40mm guns, was the only element of 3rd British Division’s Light AA Regiment to land on D Day. Their mission was to provide air defence cover to the Benouville bridges. The troop landed on schedule at H+6½ but was held up by congestion and the arrival of 6th Air Landing Brigade and then ran into contact with Germans at the village of Le Port. The troop commander, Captain Reid took twelve prisoners on his recce. The troop was held up by snipers in the church of Le Port which were only taken prisoner only after a Bofors was brought into action and opened fire. The Troop reached Benouville Bridge just as the light was fading, but did not come into action until first light 7 June. The bridges were a target for numerous air attacks. Over the five days F troop was credited with destroying 17 aircraft.
As the battle wore on and the German air threat diminished, the anti-aircraft regiments were given tasks in direct support of the ground troops. Increasingly 3.7-inch heavy anti-aircraft regiments were used as long-range field artillery and the 40 mm light anti-aircraft regiments were used to fire tracer to give direction to assaulting troops at night, an increasingly popular time for attacks, and were used in the anti-tank and counter-mortar role. Even searchlights, a particularly unglamorous task, were used to provide artificial moonlight by reflecting their beams off low cloud – Monty’s Moonlight.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 2,021 British and Canadian artillerymen killed between 5th June and 1st September 1944 from units serving in Normandy. For each fatality there were three to four others wounded. The Royal Artillery lost an average of around 23 dead and 70 wounded the best part of a modern-day battery per day. The highest fatal casualties occurred on D Day, when 61 men died, while on three days in early July there were over forty fatalities. Anti-tank regiments suffered the highest numbers of fatalities. Some of the Field Regiments, also suffered high casualties and disproportionately these are endured by the OP parties and the command post parties.
Frank Baldwin is the co-author of Gunners in Normandy the forthcoming Regimental history of the campaign. He served in 40th and 2nd Fields regiments,17 Training Regiment and HQRA 4th Armoured Division. He is a member of the British Commission for Military History.
“1. The aerial bombardment and Naval Gun Fire failed to reduce the German fortifications and failed to neutralise enemy artillery and machine gun fire. 2. A German Infantry Division thought to have been in reserve around St Lo had moved up the beach defenses on a “maneuver” and added materially to the opposition. ….. things had not gone altogether as planned. Items 1 and 2 were chiefly responsible and particularly 1…..Those bluffs were captured and those exits opened solely through the plain undaunted heroism of the infantry the 1st and 29th Divisions and their attached engineer teams”[i]
This is an extract from the report by Colonel E G Paules the Engineer member of the War Department Observers Board after visiting Omaha Beach on D +6. Many would agree with Colonel Paules’ verdict, especially the heroism and initiative of the infantry and engineers. The same sentiments can be found in the official history. The failure of the aerial and naval bombardment to neutralise defences of Omaha Beach remains controversial. But a re-examination of critical data about D Day reveals a different interpretation of what happened on Omaha Beach on D Day.
One problem in studying the story of Omaha Beach is that there is still only sketchy information about the true strength of the German defences at Omaha Beach. Some aspects are extremely well documented. The positions on the bluffs and beach have been documented in create detail over the years. We even know the names and faces of the individual German soldiers defending some positions. Much less is known or documented about the artillery support for the same defenders. Artillery was the dominant lethal arm in the twentieth century, responsible for well over half of all casualties. The US Official History made no attempt to locate artillery positions that were not on the coast or in the Op Neptune Target List. Even modern detailed studies such as Stephen Badsey and Tim Bean’s Battle Omaha Beach Zone Normandy[ii] and Peter Caddick Adams’ Sand and Steel[iii] are vague about the German guns.
TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE D DAY AERIAL AND NAVAL GUN FIRE A FAILURE.
George A Harrison in the US Official History “Cross Channel Attack”[iv] described the beach drenching bombardment as “Generally ineffective”, against an enemy that was twice as numerous, unexpectedly strong and included soldiers from a different and higher quality formation than they had expected to face. Harrison mentions this faulty intelligence as a curious failing.[v]
The D Day naval bombardment plan worked – up to a point. The planners knew that the preliminary bombardment would not destroy all, or even the majority of, the German defences. Precision guided munitions had not been invented in 1944. There was nothing in the Allies armoury that could eliminate the hardened concrete bunkers and shelters which were the framework of the defences. The bombardment might destroy a proportion of the defenders weapons, as well as disrupting communications and keep the defenders heads down long enough for the assaulting infantry to close with them.
This was shared down the chain of command, and there are several accounts of briefings before D-Day with gloomy estimates of up to 80% losses by the assault troops.
The aerial bombardment by the heavy day bombers of the Eight Air Force was a key part of the bombardment plan. To make up for the short naval bombardment 327 B24four engine heavy day bombers were scheduled to drop 13,000 bombs on the Omaha Beach defences. However, one consequence of the decision to launch the operation in marginal weather conditions was that the heavy bombers would have to bomb blind through cloud. As a safety measure the point of aim adjusted 1000yards inland, with the hope that some bombs would fall on the defences, and the knowledge that most would not.[vi]
Harrison acknowledges that the preparatory navel bombardment did have some effect, including the detonations of minefields and destruction of enemy rockets.[vii] The testimony of one of the best-known German survivors, Franz Gockel described how the trigger mechanism for flame throwers were destroyed by the bombardment.[viii]
There is information that can help to understand more. Immediately after D Day British 21st Army Group Operations Research scientists carried out a series of studies to check the effectiveness of various allied tactics and technology- a sort of CSI Normandy. At the end of the war a study was made of the casualties and effects of fire Support on the British Beaches in Normandy, from which the authors deduced a model for casualties inflicted per weapons type using the concept of “machine gun equivalents” to compared mortars with machine guns . The study (AORG 261)drew the conclusion that the preliminary bombardment and drenching fire knocked out around 10-20% of weapons and reduced the effectiveness of machine guns by two thirds and mortars by three quarters. By comparing casualties from beaches on which no reports of mortar fire with this with a mix of machine guns and mortars they could build a best fit model, 17-19 casualties per machine gun equivalent across the three British beaches. For example, the 14 machine guns and seven mortars that could engage Sword beach should, under range conditions have resulted in 70% casualties among the assaulting infantry, but only inflicted around 22%. The German defensive fire was only one third as effective as it could have been, had no one been firing at them.[ix]
A follow up study comparing the British with Americans beaches (AORG 292 )drew the conclusion that the effects of machine gun fire had been reduced by about a half, which was less than on the British beaches because of the terrain and strength of the defences.[x] However, this analysis was flawed because it assumed that German artillery had been neutralised by the naval and aerial bombardment. We know this to be untrue from the testimony of American soldiers under bombardment and from the German records that the artillery under command 352nd Infantry Division had fired almost all of their first line stocks of ammunition.[xi]
One reason that the Omaha Beach story has missed the effects of German artillery is because the wartime fiction that the 352nd were at Omaha Beach on temporary maneuvers carried over into the post war narrative.
The Vth US Corps Plan was based on the assumptions that Omaha beach was defended by a single second rate infantry Regiment of the 716th Static division.[xii] Instead they faced soldiers under command of the 352nd Infantry Division, formed in late 1943 from around 2,0000 east front veterans and drafts of young recruits. In March 1944 Rommel, the German commander of the invasion front, had ordered the 352nd division to take over the Bayeux sector, between Asnelles and the river Vire. 352nd Division took command of the 726th (Static) Infantry Regiment and two of its three regiments of the 352 were superimposed over the existing defences, from the river Vire to Asnelles east of Arromanches.[xiii] War is a kind of democracy, the Germans had a say.
FAULTY ALLIED INTELLIGENCE
Allied staffs were reluctant to admit that the intelligence picture was wrong. The highly detailed maps showing German defences and the awareness of senior commanders of Ultra intercepts gave a misleading impression of accuracy and reliability if not omniscience. However, allied intelligence was flawed. Ultra was of little help identifying details of gun pits and trenches or an enemy using line communications. It was easier to find concrete emplacements using a photo reconnaissance aircraft than camouflaged field positions. It was also hard to locate an enemy that they were not looking for. The target lists identified the positions of the 716th that they expected to find. They weren’t looking for the field positions occupied by the 352nd, and when they did find gun pits they assumed that they were for something else.
However, one explanation for disproportionate information about coastal defences is that the Germans made extensive use of French contractors to complete the fortifications on the coast, which also happened to be easily spotted by allied aircraft. The resistance may not have had the same access to the troops deploying into field positions inland, which were also much harder to spot from the air.
FIRE SUPPORT FOR THE GERMANS DEFENDING OMAHA BEACH
As regards Omaha beach itself, the defences were doubled, as an additional battalion deployed in the sector. The number of machine guns was doubled from some 40+ machine guns to 85. V Corps estimated that there were some 24-36 field guns “completely integrated into the strong points along fifty miles of coast,” Instead thirty-six 10.5 cm howitzers and sixteen 15cm howitzers were deployed a few miles behind the coast in range of Omaha Beach, in addition to the artillery integrated within the coastal strongpoints. There were seven batteries.
Three from 1st Battalion AR 352, (I/352) each equipped with four 10.5 cm German howitzers, marked as (1./352, 2./352 and 3./352)
Three from IVth Battlaion AR 352 each equipped with four 15cm German howitzers, marked as (7./352, 8./352 and 9./352)[xiv]
One from 10th Battery from Artillery Regiment 1716 (10./1716) equipped with four 15.5 cm (f) captured French howitzers.[xv]
1 shows the location of these batteries.[xvi] Map 2 is a German map which shows the detail of Omaha beach area and the ranges from 10./1716’s position. The map also shows the Omaha beach defences and three triangles marking the artillery observation posts on Omaha Beach. One for the 10./1716 and two from Artillery Regiment 352. The 352 Divisional signals log includes reports from observations posts from each of I and IV/352 indicating that they were observing Omaha Beach.
Each howitzer was about three times as lethal as an MG 42 machine gun. A machine gun firing an average of 250 rounds per minute created a beaten zone some 25 wide by 250 meters long. A howitzer shell flung thousands of supersonic shell fragments up to 250 metres. A battery of four howitzers could deny an area 50m x 200m. British world war two figures estimate that ten rounds per gun would inflict 20%+ casualties on troops in the open crossing that area. The fragments from howitzers could reach men hiding behind cover such as the shingle bank.
The Germans had a further nasty surprise for the assault troops. There were 38 pits each containing a wooden or steel frame, a 28/32cm Schwer wurfgeräte or heavy throwing equipment. Each frame held four unguided rockets, either 28cm containing 110 lb TNT high explosive or 32 cm incendiaries, containing 11 gallons of oil. These had a short range , just over 2,000 yards and were very inaccurate. A detachment of
84th Werfer Regiment are thought to have operated these at Omaha from position near the village of St Laurent.
The German 352nd Artillery Regiment fired almost all its first line ammunition on the morning of D Day. That is the best part of 225 rounds per 105cm Howitzer and 135 rounds per 15 cm Howitzer. 20 rounds per 105mm Howitzer would be enough to cause 20% casualties on a body of men caught under one of the 200m x 50m defensive barrages (according WW2 era calculations.) But each battery could fire ten such concentrations before ammunition became perilously low. By 10.00 ammunition was running low, in particular for the heavy battalion[xvii].[xviii] The Artillery Regiment commander ordered ammunition to be conserved for emergency use – three rounds per gun only to support units under immediate attack.[xix]
Although strongly sited on commanding ground overlooking the beaches, the Omaha Beach defences were far from perfect. Even on this most strongly held beach, the defences were spread far thinly than normal. Infantry and anti-tank guns were sited on a forward slope where they could be engaged from the sea. The fortification programme was incomplete. Only 15% of the fortifications in the 352nd Divisional area were bomb proof and 45% splinter-proof.. Many of the defenders were in field defences vulnerable to allied direct fire weapons on the beach or afloat. Furthermore, there was little depth.
The big advantage the artilleryman of Artillery Regiment 352 had over the German infantrymen defending Omaha Beach was that they were not under fire. Return fire reduced weapon effectiveness by around two thirds. Over the course of D Day the number of assault troops would soon match and then outnumber the defenders and offshore naval firepower and tanks would eventually supress direct fire weapons targeting the beach. Previously hidden howitzers in the countryside up to five miles from the beach were not easy to find quickly on the morning of D Day. The gunners of Artillery Regiment 352 would not be under fire as they engaged in the industrial warfare of dispatching howitzer shells.
A REVISED MODEL OF WHAT HAPPENED
Reworking the British study referred to earlier, to include the seven batteries in range of Omaha Beach, with one howitzer equivalent to three machine guns results in a very similar figures to those modelled in the study of the British beaches.
I have assumed that all 28 howitzers fired on Omaha Beach. We know Pluskat’s I/352 were firing. IV/352 was short of ammunition by 10.00 and was not firing at Gold or Utah beaches which were out of range.
Despite the claims of total ineffectiveness, we don’t know how many of the German weapons were damaged by the aerial bombardment. Nor do we know how many of those weapons were fired. The study of the British beaches found that a proportion of weapons were serviceable but had not been fired. There is no reason to believe that the naval bombardment at Omaha was delivered less effectively than on other beaches. Nor that the soldiers on Omaha Beach were less resistant to panic or the confusion of battle.
Table 1 Percentage of casualties caused by different weapons on Omaha Beach
Proportion of weapons on beach destroyed or unmanned by preliminary bombardment
Numbers of weapons (1)
Casualties per MG Equivalent (4)
1. The number of machine guns and mortars are taken from AORG report 292. The number of artllery pieces is taken from Zetterling
2. The 152 Wurfergerate 41 is considered to be the equivalent of a mortar or artillery piece with 152 rounds of ammunition. The increased destructive power cancelled by inaccuracy.
3 Mortars and artillery calculated as three machine gun equivalents as per AORG 292
4. Total 3,000 casualties taken from AORG 292
The tables 1 models the distribution of casualties by weapon on D Day with assumptions of the effectiveness of the preliminary bombardment from having no effect at all, to 40% of weapons, the upper end of the AORG findings from British beaches.
There is still debate about the precise number of casualties on Omaha Beach. I have taken the figure of 3,000 from AORG 292. The leftmost figure for casualties per MG equivalent , assumes that the preliminary bombardment was totally ineffective, as is sometimes claimed. If this were so, it would mean that if all of the weapons on Omaha Beach survived the bombardment they would be on average less effective than comparable machine guns or mortars on Gold or Sword beach. It would seem more reasonable for the figure to be as high as the British beaches – which would assume that 10-20% of weapons were knocked out by the bombardment and 10-20% left unmanned – just as in the bombardments on the British beaches.
There is a rationale behind there being a similar average number of casualties inflicted by each machine gun. The allied forces on each beach landed with very similar forces, trained to a common standard using similar tactics supported by very similar forces off shore. Is it unreasonable that across all of the individual engagements on the four beaches the number of casualties that a machine gun might inflict before being suppressed is similar?
There are of course a lot of assumptions in a simplistic model. If you want to put in your own figures the model is here.
The key implication is that around half of the casualties on Omaha Beach were inflicted by artillery that had not been located before D Day; could not be engaged by the ships or armour landed on Omaha Beach. The casualties from artillery alone on Omaha Beach were probably higher than lost to all causes on any other beach.
The assault troops could do nothing about the rain of artillery shells until either the observation posts were captured or the Germans ran out of ammunition, which they did around lunchtime on 6th June. Allied air power did play a part, by interdicting German road movement inland.
HOW MUCH LOWER MIGHT CASUALTIES HAVE BEEN IF THE BOMBARDMENT WAS LONGER?
The bombardment on Omaha Beach lasted for a bare hour, an hour less than on the British beaches. The time of H Hour, the landings was determined by the tide, which reached low tide earlier at Omaha Beach. It has been argued that an additional hour of bombardment might have made a big difference to the number of casualties on Omaha Beach. Modelling the effect of increasing the level of damage by a further 10-20% shows a reduction in casualty numbers by perhaps 300-450, around 20% of the total historic casualties – but could have little effect on the undetected artillery.
WHAT IF THE NAVAL BOMBARDMENT HAD FOLLOWED THE PACIFIC WAR MODEL?
Some have argued that the Omaha Beach should have been prepared in the same way as the Japanese defences on the islands captured in 1944-45. A lengthy bombardment systematically demolishing the defences talking a week if necessary. This is similar to the tactics developed in the first world war and implemented at Vimy Ridge and Messines in 1917. While this would indeed demolish the beach defences, it would do little to neutralise the undiscovered artillery. Furthermore, it would give the Germans ample warning of the target area and allow them to concentrate their artillery, and deploy reserves in depth. This would risk an attritional battle on the beach itself reminiscent of Paschendaele. A mere doubling the number of defending batteries might be expected to cause an additional 1,500 casualties.
WHAT IF THE WEATHER HAD BEEN BETTER?
The fire plan was predicated on fine weather and good visibility. With good weather the Eighth Air Force bombers might have dropped more ordnance on Omaha Beach. On the British beaches many of the defences were further inland than at Omaha Beach.On the British beaches air attacks were considered to have knocked out 13% of defences. Had that been repeated on Omaha Beach that might have resulted in the destruction on nine machine guns and a mortar, which according to the model might have saved 193 casualties
WAS THERE A WAY TO FIND THE HIDDEN GUNS?
Locating enemy guns was a science and an art. The Allies had a range of scientific techniques for finding artillery, sound ranging wireless DF and flash spotting. Unfortunately none of these were of any use against artillery which had not previously disclosed its positions or indeed could be deployed on ships.
There was an art to finding hidden positions in aerial photographs, or for human agents to locate positions on the ground. About the only tool for locating artillery the allies had on D Day were aerial observers, artillery officers flying planes. The Senior British Artillery Officer in the Second British Army was Brigadier HJ (Hatchet Jack) Parham. He was acutely aware of the need for aerial observers on D Day. He did his best to argue for an aircraft carrier for Air OP aircraft and even the prototype Sikorsky helicopter to provide more eyes in the sky on D Day. This is perhaps the only route that might have led to the discovery and neutralization of the artillery that bombarded Omaha beach.
With hindsight, perhaps the best way to have prevented high casualties among the assaulting infantry on Omaha Beach might have been to land paratroops inland.[xx] This isn’t original Stephen Badsey made this point in 2004 The parachute drops on the Cotentin peninsular landed on and behind many of the artillery positions severely disrupted the German artillery which could have made Utah as fatal as Omaha beach.
TOO HIGH EXPECTATIONS
It is worth remembering that the assault on Omaha Beach was a success. The beachhead was secured and over 34,000 troops landed at a cost of around 8-10% of the assaulting force.
The balance sheet for failure in C20th battles looked somewhat different. On July 1st on the Somme the British VIII Corps lost 14,000 casualties in about 20 minutes from some 24,000 assault troops attacking a comparable frontage to Omaha Beach after the barrage lifted prematurely. No ground was gained.[xxi]
Even successful assaults on defended positions with heavy artillery support incurred high casualties. The set piece attack on the Hindenburg line 29 Sep-2 Oct 1918 cost the 27th Infantry Division 3,076 casualties[xxii] and the 30th Infantry Division 2,494 casualties[xxiii], mainly on the 29th. Between 18 and 22 July 1918, the Big Red One took part in the very successful Franco-American counter stroke on the River Aisne at a cost of 6,800 casualties over the five days.[xxiv] Three weeks before D Day the IInd Polish army corps lost 4,199 casualties in the final assault on Monte Cassino.
A little too much is made of the failure of plans to work as intended. War is inherently chaotic. There is an Anglo-American misguided belief that military commanders can impose their will on the elements and an un-cooperative enemy. Perhaps it is time to move on from hunting scapegoats for the high casualties at Omaha beach and appreciate the role of fortune elsewhere on the D Day beaches.
[i] War Department Observers Board Report No 23 report Observations on the Invasion of France and the Fall of Cherbourg. 25 July 1944
[ii] Badsey S and Bean T Omaha Beach: Battlezone Normandy (2004)
The battle of Le Quesnoy on 4th November 1918 was the last battle fought by the New Zealand expeditionary force. It is commemorated in New Zealand and France as a successful operation in which the New Zealanders advanced ten miles, captured 2,000 prisoners and 60 field guns and liberated the fortified town of Le Quesnoy (pronounced Ken-Wah by its residents). In a dramatic climax to the operation New Zealander soldiers stormed the ancient ramparts with scaling ladders.
British media coverage of the lead up to the centenary of the Armistice of November 1918 is dominated by stories of the sadness of soldiers who died shortly before the end of the War. Yet this misses a key point. Had these soldiers not fought with determination to the end, the war might not have ended when it did. Until July 1918 most people on the allied side thought the war would continue until at least 1919. After the battles of July and August an increasing number of soldiers, from Foch and Haig down, thought victory might be possible in 1918. The efforts of the New Zealanders at Le Quesnoy deserves commemoration as much as the death of, say, Wilfred Owen, and other soldiers who fought on.
New Zealand military historian, and sometime Christopher Pugsley had written a new book about this action. Le Quesnoy, New Zealand’s Last Battle 1918, Oratia ISBN: 978-0-947506-49-0 As might be expected of an ex infantry officer and Sandhurst Lecturer, it is very well written account of this important engagement. It is impeccably sourced from the New Zealand perspective, reconciling inconsistencies in the official accounts and flavoured with personal stories from veterans. The book includes a chapter on the organisation and character of the New Zealand Division. It is well illustrated with clear maps and diagrams.
Last Friday the OP visited a remarkable show at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street London NW5. It was a one man show by Jonathan Douglas, MBE a veteran actor and radio journalist, best known as a radio host in Hong Kong. This was a series of monologues exploring the last 24 hours of life of Lieutenant Colonel Wilfreth Elstob VC, DSO MC who died, aged 29, in the heroic defence of Manchester Hill on 21st March 1918. It was great to see a play written about a real soldier from the First World War who wasn’t a war poet. Elstob himself was an interesting man, whose character, motivation and deeds offers a different view of the men who fought and died in the Great War.
Why Elstob? The 16th Manchesters were one of dozens of battalions that faced the onslaught of the German kaiserschlacht, the action for which “Journey’s End” is a theatrical prologue. Elstob was one of ten men awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the 21st March, and one of some four hundred and fifty recipients of that award on the western Front.
‘Wilfreth Elstob joined the Manchester Regiment as a private soldier in 1914; ‘a burly former schoolmaster.’ He was quickly commission into the 16th battalion (1st City Pals) and a captain and acting company commander on their successful assault on the first day of the Somme. 1st of July when the battalion stormed the German lines at Montauban. In October 1916 he took comm and of the battalion. He commanded his battalion through the 1917 battles at Arras and Passcendaele, and temporarily a whole brigade Elstob was a gallant popular, efficient and effective commander. His comrades cared enough about his posthumous reputation to collect the information and lobby for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the war ended.
Richard Holmes singled out the action on Manchester Hill as the focus for the Kaiserschlacht part of the 1918 episode of ‘The Western Front.’ Holmes used a couple of quotes from Elstob. As the band turning back to camp after the battalion marched to Manchester Hill Elstob remarked. “Those are the only men who will get out of this alive”; About the quarry. “Here is battalion HQ: Here we fight and here we die.” Was this a fatalistic reflection of the mood of the time? Were these sentences evidence that Elstob was close to cracking? After all, either of these phrases deserve a listing in the Army Rumour SErvice’s list of “Phrases you would rather not hear”
Its a brave attempt to get inside the mind of a hero and charismativc leader. Jonathan Douglas’ interpretation of Elstob’s mind is thought provoking. Douglas had done a good job of researching the details of his subject’s service. References to places such as Montauban and Trones Wood reflect diligent research, beyond the expectations of typical Camden Fringe goers. The dialogue reflects the known comments about Elstob’s character.
Sure, Douglas is not Au fait with the details of military life. It was “stand to” rather than “reveille” in the trenches themselves and a singing competition is more plausible in camp than in the quarry. However, the result is a characterization of a complex character, a far cry from the caricature often portrayed. This is more ambitious than another version of RC Sherrif’s Stanhope.
Douglas had gone well beyond the call of duty and made a reconnaissance of the quarry on Manchester Hill. He bypassed the metal gates to break in across the barbed wire and worked his way through the tangled undergrowth to take a picture of the site where Elstob and his comrades may still lie.
I could not find a review or a website, but if anyone wants to contact Jonathan Douglas, the OP has contact details.
There is a small interpretation centre at the entrance to the German cemetery at Langemarck. One of the slides shows Langemarck church as a heap of rubble – with an doorway suggesting at some dug out complex in in the crypt. It’s a striking image to compare with the rebuilt church.
Sure, anything in the “strip of murdered nature” that was the battlefields of the Western Front was going to end up as rubble. But there are RGA War Diaries that record their target as “Langemarck Church” not a strong point in the church, or the village but the church itself. It was repeatedly targeted along with targets such as “trenches u.16.d.76.23- u 16 d.54.14 and “wire u 16 a.52,05 – u16 a.15.16” So why was the church such a popular target?
A week or so ago I was carrying out some research for a guided family history tour to the battlefields of where their relative Bombardier Griffiths had served in 324 Heavy battery RGA. The battery’s war diaries were available, but the diary for March 1918, the month he died , was missing. Furthermore, there was evidence that suggested that Bombardier Griffiths did not join 324 battery until january 1918.
However, the diaries were very legible and full, recording the details of each shoot, including rounds fired and the target.
324 Heavy Battery was formed from 1916 conscripts and deployed to France in May 1917 equipped with four 6″ 26 cwt Howitzers. After a few weeks on the quiet sector of Bois Grenier the battery moved to Woesten, north of Ieper on 14th July 1917. From there it took part in the preliminary bombardment for the 31 St July , then stepping forwards to Elverdinge. The first day of 3rd Ypres 31st July, was successful on Pilckem Ridge, with the British line moving forward roughly along the Steenbeek south west of Langemarck.
A first world war artillery piece aimed at a target some 6km away was probably going to miss with its first round, even if the target had been plotted on a surveyed trench map. The position of the guns and the direction in which they are recorded as pointing may not be particularly accurate. Changes in the wind speed and direction will change the trajectory. An observer with communications to the guns could adjust the fire of the guns until the rounds from the guns were landing in the target area. Of course, by this the enemy will have worked out what was going to happen next and take cover.
A further problem was that the guns in a battery would not all have the same characteristics. Guns may be manufactured to different standards and might have different wear in the barrel. The WD entry for 5th August records that between 2pm and 2.30 pm 324 battery fired 30 rounds unobserved at Langemarck Church as ordered in Operation Order No 23. After this, someone,at Periscope House, probably Major William Orpen Sikottowe Sanders, the battery commander decided to calibrate the guns using the church. Firing ten rounds and watching one hit the church with others plus and minus, the unit could apply a correction for each gun. (Though ten rounds might be few to base a statistically reliable.
It wasn’t always possible to see targets clearly. Pilckem ridge isn’t much higher than the surrounding ground and it would have been quite difficult to pick out specific targets from the ground. Furthermore, the landscape was devastated, with buildings and trees leveled and landmarks obliterated.
One technique which could help is to use a “Witness Point” This was a point some distance from a target, but accurately located in relation to it, which could be ranged without losing surprise against the target and the correction applied to data for the target. If the correction to hit the church was “left a bit and add a bit”, the same correction could ensure that targets in the same area picked off a map could be hit first time.
The entry for 7th August shows that between 3.30 and 6.30pm 324 battery fired a total of 24rounds at Langemarck Church as a Witness Point. Their next shoot 7.30pm to 8.30 an unobserved concentration on trenches straddling the Langemarck-Poelcapelle road was unobserved, but could be expected to be reasonably accurate, as might the shoot at 9pm. a response to a call for the SOS.
The targets on the 8th August were east and west of the German positions which ran through the north end of the German Cemetery at Langemarck, as evidenced by the three bunkers.
The search for the part an individual soldier played turns up some surprising detail about how the battle was fought and the reason why Langemarck Church was shelled. It also explain the rationale that supports the old military axiom to never deploy at an obvious terrain feature. Landmarks are shelled because they are landmarks .
I cannot recommend too highly John Kiszely’s book: Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940. This is a great book that anyone interested in modern strategy and military affairs will find interesting. It also casts a contrasting light on the popular view of 1940 influenced by films about Dunkirk and Churchll.
On Tuesday, at RUSI, he received the Duke of Wellington Award for the best military history work of the year. This is a military history, but with a specific purpose. The work was inspired by his time at the Higher Command and Staff College for a study of a campaign as a whole, and that the Norway Campaign which ended in a defeat might offer more lessons than a success. In his book he dissects the campaign from policy decisions in cabinet through to the events on the ground and on the waves.
It should be a valuable case study for anyone with an interest in business or political strategy. While written for the general reader, John Kiszely explores causality and the interplay between the personalities and institutional cultures of the organisations that took part.
For anyone with an interest in the events of 1940, it adds sharp critical insight to the state of Britain’s armed forces and leadership. This pulls no patriotic punches. The frank admission that companies of Guardsmen ran away must have been painful to document. The book is an essential sobering complement to the sometimes public smugness about 1940 Dunkirk and Churchill.
It is a cautionary tale about military intervention and compulsory reading for anyone advocating that something must be done about some international crisis. It is well written without labouring points or underlining obvious lessons, there is much that is familiar from recent history. A divided cabinet. Public opinion demanding action. Institutions barely fit for purpose. It is also an object lesson about the longer view. The OP asked how much damage did the occupation of Norway do in the long term to the allied cause. The answer was probably very little: indeed, the German naval losses may have saved Britain from the Germans attempting an invasion the same year.
Its published by Cambridge University Press £28.00
The main focus for commemoration in 2018 will be the centenary of the Armistice on 11th November. If you take your history from Blackadder, Sebastian Faulks, or even the Royal British Legion or Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you might be forgiven for thinking that Passchendale was the climax of the First World War and that the fighting ended in the vicinity of the same lines of trenches fought over since the end of 1914.
What do the official commemorative websites say happened in 1918?
As of 2 February 2018, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission lacks any pages for 1918 in the Western Front campaign pages, which end at Cambrai. Nor does the British Government First World War Commemoration website make any reference to any events of 1918 before the Armistice. The Royal British Legion seems to have lost interest in the Centenary too. It’s focus for the year is to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its own Great Pilgrimage in Ieper, a location peripheral to the events of 1918. It offers a “100 days” option, alongside one to visit the battlefields of 1914-17, suggesting Loos and Mons as destinations. It looks self indulgent, if not neglectful for the Royal British Legion, as custodians of national Remembrance to organise an event celebrating 90 years of battlefield pilgrimages at a peripheral location that competes with the commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Amiens.
If you want to see the impact of official amnesia of 1918, read the coverage of centenary events in the media. The printed The Times report of the centenary of the sinking of the SS Tuscania on 5th February, in with the loss of over 200 American servicemen merely as “shortly before the end of the First World War.” This misses the point that the Americans men were on their way to fight the decisive battle. T he Daily Mail use the same language in their coverage of the airmen who wore slippers to face von Richthofen. The implication is that the war of 1918 is more of the same old trenches until November, and ignores entirely the intense air war that would kill von Richtofen and many of the other leading aces in the meantime.
1918 – the year that Challenges Preconceptions
But this overlooks the dramatic events of 1918 itself. These do not sit comfortably with the popular stereotype of the Western Front. And that is one reason why the events of that year and the actions of those who fought deserves special recognition
1918 wasn’t about waves of Tommies going over the top in a vain attempt to break through lines of trenches. Instead, the battles of 1918 started with the Germans on the attack. Nor was it a tale of mud, blood, barbed wire and trench foot. Much of the fighting took place in open country and some distance from the battle fields of Passchendaele and Loos. The year contained some of the lowest points in British military history – and some of the highest.
It’s a pity that the events of 1918 have not attracted more support from the institutions that have led the commemorations of the First World War. It is shameful for their events to be bundled together as merely the overture to the centenary of the Armistice.
1. The German Spring offensives were among the biggest and bloodiest battles in history
The Russian revolution and armistice ended Germans’s Eastern Front. For the first half of 1918, until the Americans arrived in force, the Germans would have superior numbers on the Western Front. Between March and May 1918 they stuck the British and then the French with a series of hammer blows. A combination of infiltration tactics, clever use of artillery and broke the stalemate of the trenches. These battles were the most intensely fought and bloodiest of the Western Front, if not in history. The casualties were very high.
Between 21st March and 5th April the British Army lost 160,000 casualties, an average of over 10,000 casualties a day, compared to some 2,700 casualties per day for the Somme and Passchendaele. The opening day, 21st March 1918, was the second worst day in British military history, costing 35,000 casualties.
Between 9th -30th April the next German attacks, in Flanders cost the British a further 80,000 casualties. Again, a higher rate of casualties than endured by the British Army in the offensives between 1915-1917. In May , a further attack on British Troops sent to a “quiet sector” cost the British a further 27,000 casualties in nine days. Between 21st March and 6th June the British lost some 260,000 casualties, higher losses than in Flanders in 1917. Between March and July 1918 the German Army lost nearly 1,000,000 casualties. This is a story worth as much dedicated attention as Passchendaele, Loos and Cambrai
2. The July and August battles on the Marne and the Somme were the turning point of the first World War
Between 15 July and 7th August six French armies, with American, British and Italian Army Corps, halted and turned back the last great German offensive. This was followed by the British led offensive at Amiens on 8th August – the black day of the German army.
From this time the Germans were on the back foot and under continuous pressure from the allies. The last 100 days of the war cost the British 360,000 casualties. About one quarter of the strength of the BEF. Only the 1916 battle of the Somme cost more.
3 The feats of arms of the British Forces of 1918 were one of the high points in British Military history
It isn’t fashionable to praise the First World War as an allied victory; or to admire its generals. But there is much merit in the performance of British and commonwealth armed forces on the Western Front in 1918.
The retreat from Mons by the BEF in 1914 is famous, but the fighting retreats of March and April 1918 were fought by an amateur citizen army which fought a series of continuous engagements instead of two battles and a series of skirmishes. According to the Official History the retreats of 1918 were a greater achievement.
Turning defeat into victory is a remarkable achievement. The BEF of 1918 lost twice as many casualties as the BEF in 1940, but then turned around and beat the Germans. The experience was unique and unlike the trench warfare that preceded it.
The British army of 1918 won the war. In the last 100 days it took almost as many prisoners as other allied armies put together. Its tactics were closer to 1940 than 1914. Its leaders, castigated as “butchers and bunglers” turned out to be good effective experienced commanders. The leadership and tactics in 1918 are hard to fault. At the end of the First World War the Britain’s Armed Forces were at a peak. They had mastered modern mechanised warfare. The Royal Air Force was the worlds largest, and only independent, air force, and had mastered most of the elements of air power. These were remarkable achievements for a citizen army.
4. The experience of 1918 was unique and deserves the same recognition extended to the Somme and Paschendaele.
There are qualitative differences in the solders’ experience, and in how we perceive them and the losses they suffered. The battles of 1916 were fought by citizen armies largely new to the fray and with a sense that they would deliver the big push that would end the war. There was a false dawn in 1917 with Vimy Ridge and Arras, but by Passchendaele the British and commonwealth armies had lost their sense of optimism. Their losses in retrospect have been seen as an almost biblical sacrifice. “what passing bell tolls for those who die like cattle?” -” I died in Hell men called it “Passchendaele.” The late Bob Bushaway wrote a perceptive paper on this elevation of the war dead from the casualties of war to sacrifices for mankind. Passchedaele epitomes loss and futility that is perhaps the mostly widely popular narrative of the First World War. That the war continued for another decisive year is an inconvenience for this interpretation, doubly so as British soldiers return to undertake operations in the national interest and end as victors not sacrifices. It is easy to understand the temptation to lose interest after Passchendaele.
But that does not do justice to the story of the men who fought in 1918. The last hundred days was an unrelenting battle. Those who fought did not know that the war would end imminently. Many in authority thought it would continue to 1919 or 1920. Some of the soldiers’ letters refer to the thought that they had the Germans on the run and would try to finish them off before winter weather gave the Germans a respite. One striking feature of the graves of the men who fell in 1918 is the proportion with at least one decoration. These men had already done their bit but were determined to finish the job. Their knowing sacrifice deserves some focused reflection.
Places to evoke memories of 1918
Battlefields are places of historic memory. Yes, they inform the visitor about how the micro-terrain influenced events, and the sights, sounds and smell of the landscape. They are also powerful symbols evoking memories and emotions. They have a deep cultural significance as places of sacrifice, reinforced by memorials and ceremony. The places dedicated to the sacrifices of 1916 and 1917 won’ t serve the memories of 1918. It is hard to think about successful open warfare at Amiens while standing at the Menin Gate, literally on the road to the mud of Passchendaele.
In 1918 the fighting crossed the 1916 battlefields twice. But the 1918 battlefield covered a much wider area. To interpret the battle the visitor should explore the area around St Quentin. West of that town were the British lines that formed the setting for the play Journey’s End and the German onslaught in March. In late September the British with Australian and American troops forced their way across the Hindenburg line a few miles north of St Quentin. Peronne, ten miles to the west was the site of British rear-guard fighting in March and a great feat of arms by the Australian Corps in August. It also has a fine museum, the Péronne Museum of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, overlooked by many visitors to the 1916 battlefields. The graves dating from March and August 1918 are evidence of the fighting that took place across the old battlefield. The memorial to the Fifth Army missing of 1918 is in the Pozieres war cemetery on the road from Pozieres to la Boiselle – often ignored by visitors. The fighting extended west of Albert to Villers Bretonneaux outside Amiens, the site of Australian feats of arms and their national memorial in France. The graves of many British soldiers in Villers Bretonneaux is ample evidence of the part played by British troops in the area, which is also the location of the first battle between tanks.
There is no single memorial to the battle of Amiens. The paths of British and Commonwealth troops east can best be evidenced by the graves dated August 1918. The formidable Hindenburg line lay east of the March 1918 Allied lines. You can find remains of German defences and memorials to the battle that forced this line.
The second German offensive was in Flanders, in the area between Armentieres and La Bassee, stretching West as far as Hazebrouck and Mount Kemmel. Start with the Portuguese cemetery just south of the Indian Army memorial at Neuve Chapelle. Under equipped and under-trained the Portuguese defenders of this quiet sector were some of the unfortunate victims of the Germans Georgette offensive. The 55th Division memorial at Givenchy commemorates the gallant stand by the territorial soldiers from West Lancashire holding the flank of the German breakthrough. The German Alpine corps took Mont Kemmel, south west of Ieper, which then fought over by British and French troops for the next three months. Mount Kemmel is an overlooked battle. The French war cemetery with 5,000 graves testifies to the ferocity of the fighting. The US memorial at Vierstraat Kemmel is a reminder of the 60,000 American soldiers who served in the area in August 1918. On 27th September Ieper was the starting point for the last act in the Salient. A single day was all that was needed to capture the whole of Passchendaele Ridge. The fighting that followed half-way to Brussels was hard enough for several VCs to be awarded and for Brigadier Freyburg to be awarded two bars to his DSO. The Americans captured Oudenarde, and their Flanders Fields cemetery at Waregem has those that fell.
Arras to Le Cateau and Mons
Thousands of people visit the impressive memorial and preserved battlefield of Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadian corps in 1917. Far, far fewer follow the story of the Canadian and British troops that advanced from Arras to Cambrai, Mons and Le Cateau. This was no triumphal parade. The memorial to the missing at Vis-en-Artois was the site of a bloody set back at the end of August, while at Iwuy in October the Germans counterattacked with tanks, throwing the British back.
British troops were also deployed to the Aisne area North East of Paris. In May an army corps of some 80,000 battered in the earlier German attacks was sent to a quiet sector to recover and integrate reinforcements. Unfortunately for them they were in the path of the next German offensive. The experiences of Captain Ulick Bernard Burke of the Devonshire Regiment were recorded and the digitised recording is held by the Imperial War Museum available . From 11 minutes into reel 17 he describes the last stand of the battalion.
Further east, in July two divisions, some 35,000 soldiers fought under French command near Rheims, supported by American tanks and Italian artillery in the second battle of the Marne. From Paris eastwards the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in halting the Germans and turning them back. The AEF battlefields of the Aisne-Marne, Champagne, Meuse-Argonne and St Mihel are well preserved and interpreted. If you are interested in visiting these, check out americanvictory.com
There is far more to the fighting in 1918 than the 100 days as a prelude to the Armistice. It is a shame that there is so little public awareness or interest in public education by the bodies that should take the lead.
If you are interested in visiting the battlefields of 1918 contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring