Category Archives: Gunners

The Rocket Brigade at Leipzig 1813 – The Decisive Psychological Weapon?

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The Rocket Brigade at Leipzig – David Rowlands

The Battle of Leipzig 16-19 October 1813, was the largest battle of the nineteenth century, and fought between the Prussians, Russians, Austrians and Swedes and French under Napoleon.  The only mention of that the Emperor Napoleon makes about the course of the battle Leipzig, is that his forces were heavily outnumbered, but the allied victory would not have been as decisive if the Saxon Army had not defected to the Allies in the middle of the battle.

The Rocket Brigade RHA (now O Battery (the Rocket Troop) RHA,) was the only British unit to take part in the battle of Leipzig.  This experimental unit played a part out of all proportion to its size and numbers.  It may have played a key role in the surrender of the Saxon troops that gave rise of Napoleon’s bitter comments.

The Rocket Brigade RHA were at the Battle of Leipzig almost by historic accident. They were an experimental unit tasked with conducting what might be regarded as an operational test of the Congreve rockets on land.

Asian armies were using rockets for military purpose since the thirteenth century. By the time the British East India Company was fighting wars against the Indian states in the late C18th,  rocket technology had developed. By using metal, rather than paper, cases the range of military rockets was extended from c.500m to c. 2,500m.

Stores “For the Annoyance of the Enemy”

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Troops of the East India Company under attack by Mysore rocket artillery

The Armies of Mysore equipped with these caused problems for the British, including inflicting a defeat at Battle of Pollilur (1780). At the invitation of the Admiralty, “to develop stores for the annoyance of the enemy”  Colonel Congreve at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich developed a range of rockets, which are known by his name.

These included rocket projectiles in different sizes from 6 pdr to 48 pdr and a sophisticated range of natures including solid shot,. Shell, incendiary carcass, case shot (shrapnel) and even illuminating parachute flare. The advantage of a rocket is that it does not need a heavy ordnance to launch it, allowing for a much larger weight of projectile. Rockets had a psychological effect, particularly on animals or those unfamiliar with the weapon. The disadvantages were the inherent inaccuracy of the rockets. This could be overcome by launching them en masse, the solution adopted even in WW2. After the fall of Seringapatam, the British found 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets.

“Handsomest Men of His Day”

The Royal Navy made use of rockets to bombard ships in harbour, at Boulogne and Copenhagen. The inherent inaccuracy of rockets resulted in the town set ablaze along with docks and ships, and scepticism about rockets within the army, including by Arthur Wellesley, in command of the army in the Peninsular. None the less, in September 1811 an experimental unit was established at Woolwich to test rockets for land use, formed of 30 gunners under the command of Captain Bogue RHA. Described as “one of the handsomest man of his day and a friend of the Prince Regent” (1) Bogue had served in the Corunna campaign with B battery RHA.

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Captain Richard Bogue RHA – “One of the handsomest men of the day”

 By May 1813 the Ordnance board had decided that everything that could be discovered from exercises had been extracted and that a trial would be needed on active service. The experimental unit would be brought up to strength for service in the field as the Rocket Brigade RHA. The opportunity arose in the spring of 1813 after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. By the time the Rocket Brigade had landed in Stalsund on the Baltic coast of Germany the sixth coalition against Napoleon included Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Sweden. The Rocket Brigade would join the Army of the North under the Crown Prince of Sweden.

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Rocket Brigade RHA Movements before Leipzig 1813

The Battle of Görde 18 September 1813

The Rocket Brigade’s first action was on the 18th September 1813 at the battle of Görde North West of Danenberg in what is now Lower Saxony. Half of the brigade took part in the battle in which an allied force of Hannoverian, Prussian and Russian troops destroyed a French division advancing South from Hamburg. After the battle they rejoined the other half of the Brigade with the Army of the North at the siege of Wittenberg. Their guide across Germany was an officer of the 5th Battalion the Kings German Legion, who became the only member of the KGL to be present at the Battle of Leipzig.

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The battle of Görde 18th September 1813

The Battle of Leipzig 1813

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The Rocket Brigade was attached to the Swedish Guard. It had a privileged position as a unit of the Swedish Army’s British paymasters. On the 18th October 1813, the third day of the battle of Leipzig, the army of the North approached the Battlefield from the North East. A British senior officer, General Sir Charles Stewart, was present at the battle. In a letter to Captain Bogue’s Father in law, Stewart’s ADC, Lieutenant John James wrote:-

 “at the commencement of the action on the morning of the 18th, Captain Bogue addressed himself to General Winzingtrode, commanding the advance of the Crown Prince, expressing his desire to see the enemy and requesting permission to engage. The General much taken with the gallantry and spirit of the address, granted as a guard a squadron of dragoons and requested Captain Bogue to follow his own plans and judgement.

Captain Bogue lost no time in advancing to the village of Paunsdorf, then in possession of five of the enemy’s battalion, upon whom he opened, in advance of the whole army, a most destructive fire. This was returned by musketry and for a time a very hot combat ensued, which the enemy , unable to withstand the very well directed fire of Captain Bogue’s brigade fell into confusion and began to retreat. Captain Bogue, seizing the moment, charged at the head of the squadron of cavalry, and the enemy terrified of his approach, turned around and taking off their caps gave three huzzas and , every man to the number of between two and three thousand, surrendered to the Rocket Brigade, which I believe did not exceed 200 men.

The intelligence of this success being communicated to the Crown Prince, he sent his thanks to Captain Bogue for such eminent services, requesting at the same time that he would continue his exertions: and the brigade proceeded in consequence to the attack of (I believe) the village of Sommerfeld (2) , still further in advance. Sir C Stewart accompanied the brigade and I was of the party. The situation taken up on the flank of the village was exposed to a most heavy fire , both of cannon balls and grapeshot from the enemy’s line, and from the riflemen in the village. A ball from the latter soon deprived us of the exertions of poor Bogue;it entered below the eye and passing through the head caused instantaneous death.” (3)

Karl_XIV_Johan,_king_of_Sweden_and_Norway,_painted_by_Fredric_Westin
Carl Jean Crown Prince of Sweden – sometime Jean Baptiste Bernadotte Marchal of France Prince of Ponte-Corvo

“Some Prussian battalions of General Biilow’s corps were warmly engaged at Paunsdorf, and the enemy were retiring from it, when the Prince Royal directed the rocket brigade, under Captain Bogue, to form on the left of a Russian battery, and open upon the retiring columns. Congreve’s formidable weapon had scarcely accomplished the object of paralysing a solid square of infantry, which, after our tire, delivered themselves up, as if panic struck, when that estimable man and gallant officer, Captain Bogue, of the British royal artillery, received a mortal wound in the head, which at once deprived society of a noble character, and this country of his valuable services. Lieutenant Strangways who succeeded in the command of the brigade, received the Prince Royal’s thanks, conveyed through me, for the important assistance they had rendered. I felt great satisfaction at witnessing, during this day, a species of improved warfare, the effects of which were truly astonishing; and produced an impression upon the enemy of something supernatural.(4)

Diabolical Things

Not everyone saw Congreve’s formidable weapon as an unmitigated improvement in warfare. Dr Wenzel Krimer, was a surgeon in a Prussian Reserve Infantry Regiment, commented.

“It was at this juncture that I realised the terrible effects of the Congreve rockets. I was not alone in asking myself in horror and disgust: Haven’t we enough instruments of death without needing to resort to these diabolical things, worthy of the inventiveness of an Adramelach (5) We were standing on a flat plateau and could overlook a large part of the enemy forces. In front of us was just such a devilish rocket battery. Each time a rocket was fired and went hissing and shooting forth fire into an enemy column and exploded, one saw whole files hurled down. The scorched and battered bodies lay in great piles where they fell. At first the French did not seem familiar with this new weapon of death and stood up against it; but when they saw what fearful destruction it wrought and in what a ghastly manner the victims died, even if only a drop of the fuel came too near, there was no holding them. Whenever they saw a rocket coming, whole columns ran away and abandoned everything. (6)

The Terrible Effects of the Congreve Rockets.

Colonel Hermann von Boyen was Chief of Staff for General von Bulow’s III Corps, the lead troops of the Army of the North. He described how, as soon as the Army of the North came into the battle line, a heavy artillery-duel began.  

“About an hour later the French advanced from the so—called peasants’ houses with a column made up of two or three battalions and appeared to be heading for the Swedish corps which stood some distance back. In support was the English rocket battery under Captain Bogue. This gallant soldier immediately went forward undaunted with his battery against the enemy column and came so close that before he could open fire an enemy sharpshooter shot him dead. However, his subordinates were not dismayed by this loss, and the rockets produced a most unusual effect near where they were ignited. The French column, which hitherto had been advancing in very good order, even if latterly with a shorter step, was utterly dispersed just as occurs when one breaks up an ant heap with a blow, and it ran in total disorder back towards the peasants’ houses, amid our almost universal laughter.

When we marched next day across the scene of the French advance, we convinced ourselves of the important effects of the rockets. A considerable number of corpses lay there, but in addition several of them were completely burnt on their faces and uniforms in a most uncommon way, so that one could readily understand how the enemy’s morale had been shaken by this extraordinary operation.” (7)

What happened at Paunsdorf on 18th October 1813?

The action around Paunsdorf was one of the climactic episodes of the battle of Leipzig. The village was defended by the French VIIth Corps under the command of General Reynier of on the junction of the attacks by the Army of Poland by General Bennigsen and the Army of the North.  It is also notable for the defection of the Saxon Army, which in his memoirs Napoleon claims that the allied success “would have been less decisive had it not been for the defection of the Saxons. In the midst of the battle, these troops having moved towards the enemy, as if intending to make an attack, turned suddenly around, and opened a heavy fire of artillery and musketry on the columns by the aids of which they had a few moments before been fighting.”(8)

The French troops opposing the Rocket Brigade in the afternoon of 18th October were from General Reynier’s VIIth Army Corps. These comprised two divisions, and C 30 cannons. The 24th (Saxon) Division commanded by General zon Zeschau, comprised of two brigades. One under Colonel v Brause, of five Battalions and a second under General von Ryssel, of three battalions, and the 32nd (French) Division under General Durutte, of six battalions organised into two brigades. The Saxon division has been estimated at a maximum of 4,200 men with no more in Durutte’s division.

Pausendorf Tactical Map
Sketch of the Fighting around Paunsdorf 18th Oct 1813.  . The Brigade of von Brause was deployed on the Taucha Road West of the village. The two battalion brigade of von Ryssel was deployed near Stuntz while the artillery was between Stuntz and Paunsdorf. The bulk of the 32nd French Diviison under Durutte was in the Chonefield- Sellershausen area. During the morning Paunsdorf was attacked by the 2nd Austrian Advance Guard Division from the East.(1) Any Austrian gains were repulsed with a counter-attack. Sometime early afternoon 14.00(?) Prussian Troops of the III Corps under von Bulow attacked Paunsdorf, from the North.(2) This attack too was initally unsuccessful. Captain Bouge deployed the Rocket Brigade, with its escort of Russian Cavalry in advance of other allied troops aginst Paunsdorf. (3) The defenders of Paunsdorf with draw, and after a pursuit by Bogue and his escort,2,000-3,000 surrender. Bogue is ordered to repeat his actions against Sellerhausen, and is killed by a ball fired from the village. The Rocker Brigade continuies to engage the French and may break up a cpounter attack. (5) v Ryssel’s Brigade and the Saxon Artillery defect to the advancing Russians of Bennigsen’s Army (6)

The Royal Saxon Army, were from the part of Germany where much of the 1813 campaign had been fought, and now overrun by Napoleon’s enemies. The Saxon officers had formed the opinion that the campaign was lost and the best course of action would be to defect to the allies. The French had already become distrustful of their Saxon allies.  The 24th (Saxon) Division under General Von Zeschau had been ordered to march to Torgau, NE of Leipzig.  The arrival of Austrian and Russian troops of the Army of Silesia and the Army of the North had blocked that move. As a consequence the Saxons deployed around Paunsdorf, which had been garrisoned by a battalion of French soldiers  from Durutte;s 32nd French Division and two companies of Saxons on the Morning of 18th .  Von Brause’ Brigade of five battalions was deployed across the road to Taucha West of Paunsdorf, and von Ryssel’s Brigade of two battalions and a jaeger company near the Windmill at Stuntz.  Three batteries of artillery were deployed between Stuntz and Paunsdorf. Five out of six of the six battalions forming Durutte’s French 32nd Division were deployed  formed in the area around Sellerhausen.

During the morning the Austrian Army 2nd Advance Guard Division made repeated attacks on Paunsdorf. With support troops from Durutte’s division the  French hung on to a position in the village or close to it until around 2 pm. The fire from the French Saxon artillery seems to have been effective in suppressing the Austrian artillery, killing or wounding artillery detachments and horses. This changes with the arrival of the Prussian troops from the army of the North attacking from the NE and the Rocker Brigade.

There seem to have been three stages in the Rocket Brigade’s actions.

First, acting on his own initiative Bogue deployed rockets against the “five Battalions of the enemy defending Paunsdorf”. This, in conjunction with an attack by infantry resulted in the defenders fleeing.

Second. Bogue followed up the withdrawal with a charge at the head of the (Russian?) cavalry squadron detailed to escort him by General Wintzingtrode. After this charge, according to Jones the enemy “ turned around and taking off their caps gave three huzzas and , every man to the number of between two and three thousand, surrendered to the Rocket Brigade.”

Third, on the orders of the Crown Prince of Sweden, the Rocket Brigade engaged troops near Sellerhausen. Here the battery comes under fire, Bogue killed, and the battery continues to engage the French under the command of Lt Strangeways.

What part did the Rocket Brigade play in the defection of the Saxon Army? At some point in this area, during the Rocket Brigade action the majority of the Saxon Army defected to the allies. Digby Smith includes a lengthy account sympathetic to the Saxons, apparently based on accounts by someone with von Ryssel. The Saxons were keen to avoid abandoning their artillery and artillerymen to French retribution. They also preferred  to surrender to the Austrians, Russians or Swedes than to the Prussian who they saw as keen rivals. This account describes the defecting Saxons marching East from Stultz, out of contact.

That might explain the defection of von Ryssel’s Brigade. But how did von Brause’s Brigade, committed to the defence of Paunsdorf disengage and defect? Were these the troops that James wrote of as greeting their mounted pursuers with three Huzzas? Perhaps this was an announcement of a defection rather than the surrender of a mob. Otherwise why would an infantry unit organised enough to organise three cheers find more security in a square bristling with bayonets? The five battalions of this formation might add up to the 2,000-3,000 prisoners mentioned by James.

Did the presence of the Rockets give the Saxons an opportunity to defect? The British Joint Operational Research from WW2 found that German prisoners of War reported that rocket projectiles fired from aircraft was one of the more terrifying experiences. Despite Saxon disillusionment with Napoleon’s cause, Von Brause’s men seem to have fought determinedly at Paunsdorf – until under fire from the Rocket Brigade.

Aftermath of the Battle

Monument to Bogue In Taucha Cemetery
Monument to Captain Bogue In Taucha

The Rocket Brigade started with a  strength of 142 officers and men, over 100 horses horses, four women and two children. During the battle of  Leipzig the Brigade’s casualties were one officer and one man killed, six wounded and 26 horses killed and wounded. The Rocket Brigade was not involved in the Battle on the 19th of October, but spend the day buring their dead. Richard Bogue was buried in Taucha churchyard, four miles away from where he fell, and a stone monument was erected over his grave in 1815 by national subscription. As the nineteenth century drew to a close the grave was found to have fallen into a state of neglect, but on this fact being made known members of the Bogue family and officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery contributed money for its restoration.

First medals for Gallantry Issued to British Soldiers

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Leipzig and Waterloo medals awarded to Sgt Dannatt of the Rocket Brigade who served in both battles.

In January 1814 the Crown Prince of Sweden sent the Swedish Military Order of the Sword, 4th Class (Knight) to Captain Bogue’s widow, and also a gift of 10,000 dollars. Six years later, he, as the King of Sweden awarded silver medals of the same Order to Sergeants Michael Taylor and Robert Chalkley, Corporals Edward Marks and William Wareham, and Bombardier John Guy. The reverse of each medal bore the inscription ‘FÖR TAPPERHET I FÄLT (‘For bravery in the field’).  These medals were the first medals for bravery issued to British Soldiers.

The Rocket brigade was also given the battle Honour “Liepzig” and adopted as a battery Honour Title after the Royal Artillery adopted “Ubique” (Everywhere)  in place of individual Battle Honours.

descendant of Captain Bogue, happened to read the piece in the Daily Telegraph about the talk on Leipzig for the Battlefields Trust. Bogue’s descendant  also called Richard, has in his possession Captain Bogue’s papers, including his Journal, and the letters sent to Bogue’s widow by the Prussian General Prince Blucher, and The Swedish Crown Prince Carl Jean. He also inherited Bogue’s nine volume travelling works of Shakespeare that accompanied him on campaign.

This and Bogue’s journal gives an insight into the character of a highly professional officer, whose decisions made a difference.  He was also a cultured man, commenting in his journal on the tomb of Thomas a Becket and Saxon church architecture. 170 years after Liepzig an Ex Battery Commander of the Rocket Troop exorted the officers of his regiment to have professionalism, polish and panache. Richard Bogue RHA epitomised these qualities.  

(This is the first of two posts based on the research for the talk given on behalf of the Battlefields Trust at the Fusiliers Museum  at HM Tower of London on 15th October 2013.  The Second part will cover the story of the Rocket Troop that fought at Waterloo, and ask why it is missing from many accounts of the battle) .

Notes

  1. R
  2. In fact the village was Sellerhausen
  3. Letter from Lieutenant John James held by Mr R Drake copies in Firepower and O Battery.
  4. Londonderry, Lieutenent-General Charles William Vane Marquess (Sir Charles Stewart) Narrative of the war in Germany and France in 1813 and 1814 (London 1830)
  5. Boyen, Generalfeldmarschall, Herman von Denkwürdigkeiten und Erinnerungen, 1771-1813, 2 vols (Stuttgart 1899)
  6. Adramelach was an Assyrian god to whom children were sacrificed on a fire.
  7. Krimer, Wenzel Erinnerunger eines altern Lützower Jägers, 1795-1819, 2 vols stuttgart 1913 (in Brett James, Anthiony Europe against Napoleon
  8. Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet de, “Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte” 

 

70th Anniversary of the Second Front – Italy 3rd September 1943

Canadian Troops about to open the Second Front in Calabria
Canadian Troops about to open the Second Front in Calabria

The 3rd September was the 70th Anniversary of Operation Baytown, the landings by the 8th Army on the toe of Italy.  It was largely unremarked in the press, even in Britain.

Operation Baytown was the first landing in force by the western allies on the mainland of Europe.  The landing was largely unopposed and the Germans withdrew leaving blown bridges and felled trees. It has been overshadowed by the Anglo American landings at Salerno on the 9th September which faced  a week long battle before the Germans withdrew – as the 8th army drew close.

The Italian campaign lasted for twice as long as operation Overlord, the allied invasion of North West Europe, which overshadowed it.  The campaign cost the Allies around one third of a million casualties and the Germans over half a million, as well as an estimated 150,000 Italian lives.     The campaign included several controversial episodes, with the battles to prise the Germans out of their positions in the winter of 1943-44  giving rise to the battles for Monte Cassino and the destruction of the abbey and to the landing at Anzio.  The conditions around Monte Cassino were compared by several participants as reminiscent of the Western Front battlefields of the First World War.  Many commentators have been critical of Allied generalship in the campaign,  with US General Mark Clark and British General Harold Alexander singled out.

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The value or otherwise of the actions and sacrifices of those who fought in the Italian campaign has been coloured by the counter factual debate about whether Italy should have been invaded at all.  From their entry  into the war in December 1941, the US Army Chief of Staff Marshal had been pressing for an allied  cross channel assault at the earliest possible opportunity and resisted British calls for activity in the Mediterranean.

This determination of the US Army to try to open a second front in Europe ASAP may have been influenced by several factors. 1) Europe was the only place that the huge 100 division US Army could be deployed. 2) If the Army did not put up a convincing argument that it would use the resources in a sensible time frame, the priorities would be switched to the US Navy or USAAF. It was politically unacceptable to argue “Germany first” while doing nothing for two to three years. 3) This was a coalition and the Red army, in 1941-43 looked as if it needed urgent help to defeat the Germans. The US army expected setbacks and to take losses and were prepared for initial failures. Their historic tradition and models were based on the US Civil War and “Bull Run” “Fredericksburg ” and Chancellorsville were part of a learning experience that led to Appomattox via Gettysburg and the Wilderness. The US had not been a major participant in WW1 and military planning could be quite callous by Western European standards.

Monte Cassino from Cassino War Cemetery
Monte Cassino from Cassino War Cemetery

Lets return to the C word. The US were part of a coalition, with the British as partners. The British were horrified at the risks the Americans proposed to run in 1942 and 43. (Brooke, who liked and admired Marshall, wrote of interrogating Marshal about what he wanted to do with a ten division landing in Northern France in 1942. What direction did he want to exploit? etc.) Brooke did not appear to grasp the scale and simplicity of the US plan: Mobilise and deploy 100 divisions to France where they can fight the Germans – France because that’s the only space big enough in Western Europe. If the first ten divisions were defeated there was another 90 and the resources of America mobilised for a crusade. This wasn’t an approach the British could afford to take. The British had already been kicked out of Europe on three occasions (France Norway and Greece), and were at the limits of their resources. To the British; the American plans all seemed to ask the British to deploy their last army in Europe on a series of risky ventures where the initial casualties would be disproportionately British.

Coalitions need to find plans which satisfy their partners or they fall apart. The compromise achieved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of two democratic governments was remarkably effective. The solution adopted was very successful, and worked out far better than the US planners might have expected. There was simply no prospect of a successful D day until the U Boats had been driven from the Channel, which was not until May 1943. It is hard to see a 1942 D Day as anything other than a bigger version of Dieppe, which is also the likely fate of a 1943 battle for Normandy mounted with the troops available in Europe in July 1943 and Italy still in the war.

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Canadian Armour Ortona

The historic development of the war worked out far better. The North African campaign allowed the US Army to be blooded where the geography and resourced favoured the allies. The setback at Kasserine pass was not fatal. The US could deploy and test a First IX (Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Truscott, etc) with manageable numbers of troops. The rest of the Tunisian campaign allowed the US Army the time to learn and apply lessons. A similar set back on the French coastline might have ended up with the entire army in the bag. The invasion of Sicily allowed the allies to try out the techniques they would need for Overlord, against a modest outnumbered enemy. Op Husky was a huge strategic success. It was cited by Hitler as his reason for abandoning his 1943 offensive in Russia (Op Ziterdelle) at a point where some commentators have argued that his forces were on the brink of victory.

The Italian campaign was a second front on the mainland of Europe. The invasion of Italy took Italy out of the War and opened a second front which absorbed a German Army Group of 20+ divisions and forced the Germans to deploy a further 20+ divisions in SE Europe to to take on the occupation activities undertaken by the Italian army. The Italian campaign was fought in a geographically remote peninsular, which enabled the allies to deploy a single Army Group of 20 Divisions into Europe without the Germans being able to mass the resources to throw the allies into the sea.

British troops approach Austria May 1945
British troops approach Austria May 1945

The troops involved in the Italian “side show” disproportionately damaged the Germans more than the Allies. The key battle for Op Overlord was to secure a lodgment area where the remainder of the US Army could be deployed direct from the USA – the Normandy campaign. The balance of forces available in the Normandy campaign was the result of a race to build up forces between the Allies using sea and air and the Germans, by road and rail. The Allies had a lot more troops , but could only limited shipping. The Germans had fewer troops in total, but it was easier for them to be concentrated. The allies won the battle for the build up and after an attritional battle lasting seven weeks the Germans ran out of troops to plug gaps and the Allies broke out. The 20+ divisions German troops in Italy and the casualties incurred throughout the campaign were not available on D Day in France to fight the crucial battle. Even if the troops of the 15 AG not been deployed in Italy, they could not have been used at the lodgement phase of Op overlord, because the number of troops was limited by shipping capacity. Even at the end of the Normandy campaign there were many US Divisions forces still waiting to be deployed. (E.g. (99th 100th & 106th ID 9th, 10th & 11th AD). If there had been no Italian campaign there would just be more US troops waiting to be shipped.

There is a parallel with the US Civil War. Arguably the war was won in the West, with the Confederate states split and dismembered by larger Union forces. The Eastern campaign, (and various incursions along the coast) however inconclusive, tied down CSA troops that might otherwise have made a difference on the West. Given that the Union had the preponderance of forces, it made sense to deploy on as many fronts as the CSA could be forced to deploy their smaller resources.

PANO_20120808_151340Instead of looking at the Italian campaign as a side show, it might be more constructive to consider it as a successful diversion, which succeeded in tying down Germans which might have made a difference elsewhere. it did not matter to the allies for this purpose exactly where they were fighting the Germans in Italy. Sure the air force wanted bases near Foggia, but whether the battle was North or South of Rome only really mattered to Mark Clark – and the Italians themselves. Whatever faults there might have been in the execution of allied operations around Monte Cassino, the overall aim was achieved. On D Day there were hundreds of thousands of German combat troops in Italy and even some en route from France. The battles around Monte Cassino played their part in defeating the Nazis and liberate Europe.

I think this might be a better way to remember the remember the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought and died in the Italian Campaign.

Will archaeology confirm Crécy (1346) as the first honour title of The Royal Artillery?

Battle of Crecy an Illustration from Froissanrt's chronicles
Battle of Crecy an Illustration from Froissanrt’s chronicles (wikipedia Commons)

The battle of Crécy (1346), alongside Agincourt (1415) has gone down in history as the triumph of the English foot soldier armed with the longbow over the French Knights. It has been known for a long time that Edward III had four cannons with his army, but their role on the battlefield has been dismissed, as having no effect beyond announcing that fire-power had arrived on the battlefield. However, in a speech to the Battlefields Trust, Professor Michael Prestwich argued that we should re-examine our interpretation of the Battle of Crécy and that Edward III’s cannons had a much bigger impact than as a mere gimmick of alchemy.

Edward III’s unexpected victory over the French at Crécy-en-Pontieu near Abbeville overturned the presumption that knights would ride down foot soldiers. This established the Longbow as an important weapon, the yeoman archers of England as heroes, and demonstrated the fighting power behind Edward III’s claim to the French throne which started the Hundred Years War.

King Edward III landed in Normandy in July. Having captured Caen he moved East to cross the Seine and then headed North along the coast, pursued by a larger French Army under King Philip VI of France. Edward crossed the Somme after winning the Battle of Blanchetaque on August 24. Tired from their marching and fighting the English army encamped near the Forest of Crécy. Philip raced towards Crécy with his men, keen to defeat the English and angry that he had failed to trap them between the Seine and Somme.

It is generally accepted that Edward deployed his men along a ridge between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt and divided his army into three divisions. The right division was assigned to his sixteen-year old son Edward, the Black Prince. The left division was led by the Earl of Northampton, while Edward, commanding from a vantage point in a windmill, commanded the reserve. These divisions were comprised of dismounted men at arms supported by large numbers of archers equipped with the English longbow. The English improved their position by digging ditches and laying obstacles in front of their position. The baggage train was in the rear of the English position. Sometimes accounts mention that four cannons were positioned in the front line.

The leading parts of Philip’s army, advancing North from Abbeville arrived near the English around mid-day on August 26. The French started the battle before the whole French army had arrived on the battlefield. The French advance was led by several thousand mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, followed by thousands of French knights organised into divisions under the leading nobles, while King Philip commanded the rearguard.

Battle_of_Crécy,_26_August_1346When the Genoese crossbowmen approached close enough they fired a series of volleys at the English. These proved ineffective compared to the English response which was devastated the Genoese and forced them to retreat. This in turn provoked some French Knights to cut down the retreating Genoese as for their cowardice. The failure of the Genoese is attributed to several factors. A brief thunderstorm before the battle had wet their bowstrings. The decision to start the battle early, meant that they fought without their pavise’s wooden shields behind which they could shelter while reloading. Also, the rate of fire of a longbow was far in excess of a crossbow, with a longbow-man loosing thre or four arrows to each crosw-bow bolt.

The French knights fell into confusion as they collided with the retreating Genoese. Continuing the attack, the French knights were forced to negotiate the slope of the ridge and the man-made obstacles. Cut down in large numbers by the archers, the felled knights and their horses blocked the advance of those to the rear.EarlyCannonDeNobilitatibusSapientiiEtPrudentiisRegumManuscriptWalterdeMilemete1326

At some point in the battle Edward received a message from his son requesting assistance. This King Edward refused, stating “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help,” and “Let the boy win his spurs.” As evening approached the English still held their position after repelling sixteen French charges, and felling their attackers with arrows. This was a huge English victory.

But, this interpretation is based on conflicting and fragmentary sources surviving from medieval records. Michael Prestwich pointed out the accepted interpretation is largely based on a selective choice about which sources to accept and which to reject. Even the location is uncertain. Geoffrey le Baker, refers to the field of Crecy, while Froissart writes that battle took place near a wood, somewhere between Crécy and La Broie, (five miles apart) and the king was on the mound of a windmill, at the rear of his army. While another source, Henry Knighton mentions another place name, Westglyse, identified as Watteglise, which is to the north-east.

Michael Prestwich also drew attention to Italian sources which give a very different version of the battle from the English and French, and for work done by Richard Barber in an as yet unpublished work on Crécy. These accounts are dismissed as being written at third hand and in a third country. But there were large number of Italian Genoese present at the start of the engagement. One of these accounts, by Giovanni Villani, who died in 1348, “stressed above all the English encampment of carts. The whole army, he said, in three battalions, was enclosed in a ring of carts, with a single entrance. Bombards were placed under the carts, and the archers shot from them, their arrows stacked in barrels.” The same account also includes a description of the effectiveness of the artillery “The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire…They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses…The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners…[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.”

English_gun_used_at_Crecy

Professor Prestwich also quoted a second Italian account which dates from about 1360, and thanked Richard Barber for this. According to this account “Edward surrounded his army with iron chains, fixed to posts, in a horseshoe plan. Carts were then placed outside the chains, tipped up with their shafts in the air. Ditches were dug to reinforce the defences. Archers were hidden in the woods and cornfields – the author noted that as it was very cold in northern France, corn was not ha

rvested until September, and in Crécy it was still standing (the battle was 26 August). The Genoese had to climb a slope to approach the English position. They could not shoot their crossbows and were mostly cut down. The English archers, advancing through the corn, shot at the French cavalry and did so much damage that the battle was lost. There is a telling detail in this account. The Genoese crossbowmen’s problem was not that their bowstrings were damp – this account explains that the difficulty was that the ground was so muddy and soft that they found it impossible to put the crossbows down and hold them there with the stirrup for reloading. “

 

Leonard da Vinci´s organ gun (wikipedia Commons)
Leonard da Vinci´s organ gun (wikipedia Commons)

These Italian accounts are usually discredited because it is hard to reconcile the accounts of the carts with known practices of the time.

But perhaps the Genoese were describing something they had not seen before and could not understand. What they may have been looking at is the vehicles needed to support a gun battery – the worlds first wagon lines. Guns need a lot of vehicles, to transport the pieces, protect the ready use ammunition from the elements, carry ammunition and all the services to support the men who serve the guns. Edwards battery may have needed the ability to cast or carve their own shot, carry and possibly manufacture gunpowder. Edward’s army was on the move. It had prepared to fight at Crecy and it may have made sense to retain the ammunition and stores needed for the guns close by rather than banishing them to the baggage train.

As artillery evolved all the vehicles were held in the wagon lines where they would be protected from enemy fire. But at Crecy there was no enemy artillery fire, and contrary to Hollywood, flaming arrows were not a normal medieval battlefield weapon. A separate wagon lines would be additional risks to an English army marching through hostile territory and faced with a superior mounted enemy. And the wagons and carts might also have provided cover for archers.

 

English Organ Gun C15th illustration (wilkipedia Commons)
English Organ Gun C15th illustration (wilkipedia Commons)

Edward’s army may have been accompanied by more than the four bombards. According to Michael Prestwich, Edward had ordered 100 small guns, known as ribalds, in October 1345. These had, it seems, wheeled carriages, and were probably multi-barrelled.

So maybe the battle of Crecy was the worlds first battle where artillery played a significant part in the battle. So far this is a bit of speculation based on an after dinner speech by an eminent historian and information sources hiding in plain sight on the Internet. But the early gunpowder era is interesting for lots of reasons, not least because modern archaeological techniques have been able to establish new facts about medieval battlefields from the evidence that gunpowder weapons leave. In the last couple of years Glenn Foard rediscovered the battlefield of Bosworth from the cannon balls. Perhaps it is time to start a project to search for cannon balls from Crecy that may have sunk in the wet soil.

 

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The Forgotten Anti Tank Gunners of St Pierre

 

The climax of the film “Saving Private Ryan” is set in a village in Normandy, a few days after D Day. A small group of American paratroops are under attack from all directions by German heavy tanks, and are saved by an air attack. Saving Private Ryan is fiction. However, on 9-10th June, four days after D Day, in true life, a similar drama took place in the village of St Pierre separated by the river Seulles from the town of Tilly Sur Seulles.

On 8th June the 8th Armoured Brigade seized the high ground North of St Pierre, Point 103 in a rapid move. The reason for the significance of Point 103 is that it gives good visibility to the South, despite the hedges of the bocage country. This move coincided with the attack North by the Panzer Lehr division, the best equipped of the German Panzer divisions. This formation had 250 tanks and assault guns and could mount all its infantry in the 635 armoured half track APCs it possessed. Over the next five days the fighting would rage around St Pierre and point 103.

Map showing the fighting in the St Pierre area 9-10 June 1944. (1) the attack by 8th DLI supported by 24L 1745-2100 hrs 9th June (2) German counter attack 0615-0800 hrs 10 June (3) Counterattack 0845-1100hrs 10 June.(4) German attack on Pt 103 evening 10 June
Map showing the fighting in the St Pierre area 9-10 June 1944. (1) the attack by 8th DLI supported by 24L 1745-2100 hrs 9th June (2) German counter attack 0615-0800 hrs 10 June (3) Counterattack 0845-1100hrs 10 June.(4) German attack on Pt 103 evening 10 June

During the evening of 9th the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, supported by the 24th Lancers and 147 Field Regiment captured St Pierre where they were joined by two troops of 288 Anti Tank Battery equipped with 6 Pdr guns. The route to St Pierre South from Point 103 was over bare slopes and the troops in the village were subject to attacks from three sides.

On 10th June the Germans attacked St Pierre shortly after first light at 0700 hours. This was beaten off by 8 DLI with the support of 24 L and 147 Fd Regt. St Pierre was partially overrun, one of the FOO’s Lt Sayer, was killed and Maj C H Gosling, BC 511 Bty and three other FOOs were wounded. The tanks of the 24 Lancers withdrew up to Point 103 to take up hull down positions.

288 ATk Bty’s guns withdrew, some of the gunners fighting on as infantry. When ordered to withdraw by the infantry company which they were supporting Sgt Down (1), from Ashington Northumberland, refused to leave his gun as “his duty was to kill tanks”. Keeping LBdr Gilmour, his layer, with him, he sent the rest of his detachment back and then proceeded to knock out the only tank that appeared on his front, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and LBdr Gilmour the Military medal (MM). The citation to Sgt Down’s DCM states that his courage and example helped to restore the confidence of the infantry at a critical moment, enabling them to re-establish their position. Later the same day Sgt Down was ordered to take his gun forward and destroy an enemy armoured SP gun. He appears to have carried out a recce on foot then manoeuvred his gun forward unseen and destroyed the enemy. Sgt Down had already made his mark as an aggressive soldier by undertaking several patrols hunting snipers on the night of the 8th June. The next day an enemy tank closed into a covered position where it could not be engaged by Sgt Down’s 6 Pdr. He then stalked the tank with a hand held PIAT and hit it at 30 yards range forcing it to withdraw. (2)

On the other side of the village, Sgt Seaton had to move his gun forward to engage the tanks that were troubling him and after being wounded, had to leave his gun; but he and his layer, Gnr Beresford, later returned to the gun and hit a tank which stopped firing then withdrew; they were both awarded the MM, as was Bdr Hinder who knocked out one tank and forced another to withdraw.(3)

Throughout, Lt Brameld, the troop commander had remained forward, giving advance warning of the approach of tanks. At one point Brameld found that there were enemy tanks out of range of his 6 pdrs. He borrowed a 17pdr Sherman from a neighbouring armoured regiment and directed its fire from outside the tank whilst under small arms fire, until at least one and possibly two enemy tanks were destroyed. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). (4) At 1130 hrs, to prevent the counter-attack being resumed, 147 Fd Regt surrounded St Pierre with defensive fire, while Air OPs directed the fire of HMS Orion and Argonaut on to targets in the area Tilly-Juvigny-Fontenay-le-Pesnel and fighter-bombers attacked German reinforcements moving towards Tilly.

6pounder_antitank
6 Pdr (57mm) Anti Tank Gun of the type used by 288 Battery at St Pierre.This gun could penetrate German Mk IV tanks and SP guns as well as the side armour of Mk V Panther tanks. The anti tank gunners of 50th Division preferred it to the much heavier and larger 17 Pdr(76.mm) anti tank gun in the bocage country south of Bayeux

Later the same day 10 June the Panzer Lehr division launched an armuored attack on point 103, leaving 8 DLI surrounded in St Pierre and engaged the battalion from the North before returning South.  The fighting stabilised with the British holding St Pierre and the Germans holding Tilly with the river Seulles dividing the armies.

Unteroffizier Petrov of the Panzer Lehr Division described the effect of the artillery fire: “Early this morning we put in our attack. We had three SP guns under command. We attacked a village … as soon as we got beyond the village the artillery opened up and I’ll say there was some confusion. Oh, that certainly was not much fun … Then came a counter-attack by the English … After a long search we found our vehicles but the enemy planes found us and the artillery fire came down on us again. We proceeded in short bounds to Regimental Headquarters and await further orders … Shall I have to go forward again? Thank God we are staying here overnight.” (5)

The story of the anti tank gunners at St Pierre is largely missing from accounts of the battle of Normandy. The fighting around St Pierre is one of the battles covered in the battlefield studies undertaken by the Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but the anti tank gunners have not formed part of the story. They aren’t in the history of 8 DLI. They aren’t even in the war diaries of 8 DLI or 102 Anti Tank Regiment, which illustrates the fallibility of war diaries. The author of the cabinet history of the Normandy campaign (CAB 44/246)collated from war diaries refers to the uncertainty about the identity of the anti tank battery in support of 8 DLI only mentioned as 288 battery in the 8th Armoured Brigade War Diaries. The citations for the awards for Lt Bramald, Sgts Down and Seaton, Bdr Hinder, LBdr Gilmour and Gnr Beresford were all recommended by the CO 102 Atk Regiment commanders and supported by the CRA 50 Div, and approved by the GOC 50 Div and Corps commander.

There is a need for the story of the anti tank gunners to be told properly. There has been an academic debate about the proportion of anti tank gunners and their role started by the paper by Dr John Peaty entitled “Ubiquitous and Unnecessary? Anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery in the NW Europe campaign.(6) That is a question which is loaded in the absence of a proper account of their contribution.

The action at St Pierre was controversial. Brigadier James Hargest, the New Zealand observer to 21 Army Group, wrote a report before his death in action in August1944 which was very critical of the British infantry. He wrote that 8DLI ran away and ther village had to be retaken. The report is heavily quoted by Carlo ‘Este and Max Nastings in their books on the Normandy campaign. It is obvious from the citations that there was an unauthorised withdrawal by some infantry, and this would have been known by the divisional and corps commanders. This does not mean that the story in the DLI Regimental history wrong, merely that it isn’t the whole truth. The fact that some infantry ran, does not detract from the deeds of those who stayed to fight or counter attacked.  8 DLI took nearly 200 casualties in the battle. Eight MMs and an MC were awarded to the battalion for this action..

This article arose from research undertaken to complete the Official History of the Royal Artillery in the Normandy Campaign started by the late Major Will Townend.  

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If you would like to visit the site of this battle or other places and hear the story from the Gunner point of view visit www.gunnertours.com

Notes:

1  London Gazette 31 August 1944  The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was (until 1993) an extremely high level award for bravery. It was a second level military decoration awarded to other ranks of the British Army and formerly also to non-commissioned personnel of other Commonwealth countries. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Conduct_Medal)

2  London Gazette 31 August 1944

The Military Medal (MM) was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services, and formerly also to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land.  The MM ranked below the MC and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), which was also awarded to non-commissioned members of the Army.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_Medal

3  London Gazette 31 August 1944

4  London Gazette 31 August 1944.  The Distinguished Service Order tended to be awarded to officers in command, above the rank of Captain. A number of more junior officers were awarded the DSO, and this was often regarded as an acknowledgement that the officer had only just missed out on the award of the Victoria Cross.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Service_Order)

5.  Panzers in Normandy

6.  BCMH Summer Conference 2009:

 

The Gunners who supported the Bayonet Charge that saved the British Army

The Defence of Gheluvelt. - The Critical Day 31st October. Detail of a map compiled for the Official History of the War to accompany Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, Volume II
The Defence of Gheluvelt. – The Critical Day 31st October. Detail of a map compiled for the Official History of the War to accompany Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, Volume II

For ten years from 2000 -2010 every soldier who joined the army as an senior entry soldier took part in a Realities of War Tour to Ypres (modern Ieper) in Belgium. A whole generation of soldiers will have heard of the story of “the bayonet charge that saved the British Army.”, made by the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment,  Far fewer will be aware of the gunners who supported them.

On the 31st of October the Germans Army nearly won the First World War. They had assembled an overwhelming force of artillery and battered a hole in the British front line East of Ypres at a village called Gheluvelt, on the road between Ypres and Menin, the Menin Road. The only British reserved were the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment, and they mounted a gallant bayonet charge which stopped the Germans and allowed the British line to recover, but at the cost of one third of their number.

But they did not do this alone. They were supported by the Gunners, and in particular by a heroic and skilful action by 54 Dragon Battery, which was one of the batteries which became 129 Dragon Battery, currently part of 4th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

The map from the Official History of the War in France and Flanders shows a part of the battle of Gheluvelt. It shows German guns at the Western end of Gheluvelt and the position of 54 Battery ­

According to an infantry officer nearby “Lt Blewitt of 54 Battery came up to say to his battery commander that the Germans appeared to be bringing a gun to the barricade in the middle of Gheluvelt and asked permission to take an 18 pounder onto the road and deal with it. Having got permission, he manhandled the gun onto the road. The German gun fired first and missed. Blewittt did not give them a second chance. He put a stop to any trouble from that quarter for the rest of the afternoon. If the Germans had pushed home their attack during the afternoon there was nothing to stop them.”” Lt Blewitt was awarded the DSO for this action. His letters are in the Imperial War Museum archives. At the time his letters home gave no hint to his family and fiancé of the dangers he ran or his heroic and skillful acts.

Three years later, while a Gunnery instructor on England, he was persuaded to write about the circumstances which led to his award for gallantry. He wrote “My layer at the time was Bombardier Steel, whose efficiency I think solely we all – the detachment and I , owe our lives. The detachment as far as I can remember was: Sergeant, now (1917) BSM Howes, a sturdier man than whom never stepped, as No 1, Bombardier Steel, layer,. Bombardier Priestley, (killed a few days later1), No 6, while think Gunners Hobson and Delamere,(Both at later times my servant, the first wounded by a French battery few days later, and the latter gassed as a sergeant in the battery this year). Made up the crew. Who the last man was I can’t remember, but a damn fine crowd they were, every one of them.”

The German infantry in Gheluvelt. was the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, most famous for one its soldiers, the 19 year old Adolf Hitler. . .

1Gunner (Local Bombardier?) Alfred Priestley, husband of Nancy Priestley of Preston is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

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