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
1. HIS MATERNAL GRANDFATHER WAS A FAMOUS CHILDREN’S WRITER
His maternal grandfather, Dean Farrar was a famous preacher and author. Montgomery’s mother was the daughter of Dean Farrar, who was a well-known theologian who could fill a church when it was known he was preaching. He was master at Harrow and headmaster of Marlborough schools. He spent much of his clerical career at Westminster Abbey becoming archdeacon as well as a chaplain to the royal household. He wrote works of theology and several works of fiction, including Eric or Little by Little. This tale set in a school that was one of the best-known boys books in mid Victorian England.
2. HIS FATHER : KINDLY CALL ME GOD
The is a substantial memorial to Montgomery’s father Henry Montgomery in St Paul’s cathedral. After his return from serving as Bishop of Tasmania, Henry became the Prelate to the order of St Michael and St George. It was during his time in office that the Order was given their chapel St Paul’s Cathedral on the south side of the nave. Henry was made a knight commander of the order of St Michael and St George in the king’s birthday honours of 1928. He became a KCMG – known as “Kindly Call Me God.” Each member of the order has a brass plate in the chapel.
3. HIS COMMANDING OFFICER DESERTED HIS BATTALION IN BATTLE
In Monty’s first battle, his commanding officer deserted Montgomery and half the battalion on the battlefield of Le Cateau. At the end of the battle they escaped the Germans by marching among the German columns undiscovered. Lieutenant Colonel John Elkington was court-martialled and cashiered for deserting his men, and surrendering a post at Sant Quentin. Elkington eventually redeemed his honour. He joined the French Foreign Legion as a private soldier. When his platoon commander became a casualty Elkington rallied the men and led them in an attack in which he was badly wounded.
4. IT WAS A STUDENT PUNISHMENT TO SIT NEXT TO MONTY AT BREAKFAST
Montgomery was an argumentative and garrulous student at Staff College. According to the recollections of one alumni, one student was sentenced to sit next to Monty at breakfast for a week. In its conundrums page the college magazine posed: “If it takes ten truck loads of 9.2” Mk V star India pattern to stop one bath on the second floor of the staff college from leaking, How many haynets with full echelons will be required to stop Monty burbling at breakfast. its had a page of “Things we would like to know” one of them was “If and where does Monty observe two minutes silence on Armistice day?”
5. MONTY’S BOHEMIAN CIRCLE
Monty met many artists of the 1920s through his wife Betty. She was a graduate of the Slade Art School. Her home at Chiswick as a meeting place for many “bohemians” such as AP Herbert, Eric Kennington and Augustus John.
6. MONTY WROTE THE INFANTRY TRAINING MANUAL
In 1929 Major Montgomery wrote the infantry tactics text-book. Infantry Training Volume 2 War. He knew and had written to Basil Liddell Hart, the author of the previous edition. Liddell Hart fell out with Montgomery over the omission of some of Liddell Hart’s favoured ideas, the Expanding Torrent approach to pursuit.
7. CRUISING WITH THE ARCHITECT OF THE REICHSWEHR
In 1934 Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery and his wife took a cruise to the far east. One of the passengers on the same cruise was German General von Seeckt, the architect of the German Reichswehr. Montgomery interrogated the German at some length about his ideas through an interpreter.
8. MONTY THE SMOKER AND DRINKER
Famously a tee total non-smoker, Montgomery drank and smoked in moderation until 1939. However in June 1939 Montgomery was invalided back to the UK from Palestine with pleurisy. On his recovery he gave up drinking and smoking.
9. THE SEX SCANDAL
In 1940 a sex scandal, or rather a scandal about sexually transmitted disease, threatened to engulf his wartime military career. As commander of the 3rd Division Monty became concerned about the prevalence of venereal disease in his 3rd Division. He wrote an order ordering commanding officers to make condoms available on sale in the NAAFI and ensure that sexual hygiene was promoted. “My view is that if a man wants to have a woman let him do so by all means, but he must use commonsense and take all precautions.” Nothing to frighten the horses in the 21st century, but not in the mid C20th for an army of national servicemen. It never occurred to Monty that this was a subject best left for the medical services. Lord Gort the commander of the British Expeditionary Force demanded that Montgomery publicly retract the order, which Brooke, the corps commander thought would have left Monty;’s position as commander untenable. His Corps commander Alan Brooke persuaded Gort to allow Brooke to deal with Monty.
10. SWIMMING WITH CHAIRMAN MAO
After writing his memoirs Montgomery undertook a self-appointed role as a mediator for world peace. He obtained invitations from the Soviet and Chinese leadership. He met Nikita Krushchev in Moscow and Chairman Mao-Tse Tung in China, seven years before Nixon’s historic visit. Monty swam in the Yangtse river with Mao, enjoyed the meeting enough to invite Monty for a second visit and composed a poem for him entitled “swimming.”
11. WOULD BE MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY
At the 25th Anniversary of El Alamein, four months after the six day war, Monty offered his services to President Nasser of Egypt as a personal emissary to broker a peace between Egypt and Israel.
Most of these are taken from Nigel Hamilton’s biography of “Monty”
If you would like to visit some of the sites associated with Bernard Montgomery, I am organising walks and talks.
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.
“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.
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
One army has been almost completely absent from any mention in the commemorations of this weekend’s centenary of the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This army is the French 1st Army which also took part in the battle. Although the operation was led by the British, it was an allied operation With 135,000 men and over 1000 guns the French Army that took part was larger than the Australian, Canadian or New Zealander contingents that fought. Yet their role and sacrifices have been ignored.
The French First Army’s deployment on the British left was a commitment to the alliance, despite the strikes and mutinies afflicting their army after the failure of the Nivelle offensive April 1917. Their tactics were designed around using artillery fire to destroy and neutralise defences and seizing limited objectives to minimise infantry casualties. The tactics used on 31st July were the first use of those methods that Petain would use to rebuild the confidence of the French Army.
The two divisions of the 1st Army attacked on a 4 km frontage. Particular attention was paid to artillery support. The artillery included 60 batteries of 75mm guns, 240 pieces, 277 pieces of trench artillery – mortars, 164 heavy howitzers, 148 long ranged guns (105- 240mm) for counter battery fire and 64 heavy guns (305mm,320mm and 370mm) to smash concrete bunkers. This artillery train was supported by aircraft detachments for heavy artillery and counter battery fire, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons and the elite Cigognes fighter squadron.
The French were faced with the problem of assaulting across the Yser canal against defences based on concrete bunkers. The French thought the concrete bunkers were less of a tactical challenge than the deep shelters capable of protecting entire platoons the Germans dug is drier country. The assaulting troops were preceded by a creeping barrage of shrapnel 150m ahead of the infantry.
On the 31st July the French First Army was tasked with protecting the Northern flanks of the British 5th Army. They succeeded in this mission, advancing 2500 metres, almost as far as the Guards division to their right. The French took part in several attacks in concert with the British , until the end of October.
The French had advanced some 10 km, capturing 1,500 prisoners. Their casualties were low, 1,625 killed or missing and 6901 wounded or taken prisoner. These are very light compared to those suffered by British formations, and raise some questions about British tactics.
The French army of Flanders was deployed to support the British led operation “as a matter of honour.” It is a shame that their gesture has not be remembered a century later.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being the historian guide for the US National World War 2 Museum “Band of Brothers Tour”. They are partners of the Liberation Route Europe. I accompanied the group to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were billeted in 1943-44. The Aldbourne Heritage society were splendid hosts.
Travelers were curious about the reaction of villagers to the influx of American soldiers doubling the population. One of the overwhelming thoughts must have been reminders to them of their own menfolk, doing their bit for the war effort far from home.
The names on the memorial plate in the church provide evidence of the war service of villagers. Most of those who served came back, and the memorial is merely a fragment of the part that Aldbourne played in the war. By the time that Easy Company arrived in Aldbourne many men were serving in one of the armed forces, and eight people from Aldbourne had already died.
At 00.45 hours on 17 Jan 1941 the unescorted M V Zealandic was hit underneath the forward mast by one torpedo from U-106 about 230 miles west-northwest of Rockall. The ship stopped for a short time, sent distress signals and then continued. The ship sank slowly after being hit amidships by more two torpedoes at 00.59 and 01.27 hours. The Germans observed how the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats, but they were never seen again. The master, 64 crew members, two gunners and six passengers were lost. The passengers included 31 year old Wing Commander D. P. Lascelles RAF, and his wife Diana Trelawny,who lived on the Green, Aldbourne. Wing Commander Lascelles’ younger brother Flying Officer John Richard Hasting, had been lost over the Atlantic three month earlier, aged 20.
Two others died at sea before 1943. 17 year old Desmond Trevor Wooton was serving as a Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy on 24th May 1941 aboard H.M.S. Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland. He was the youngest of the village war dead.
Commander Arthur Jelfs Cubison, (D.S.C. and Bar) RN was a naval hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as the Gunnery officer of the 770 ton destroyer HMS Tigress, when the Tigress and three other small craft gave chase to a German-Turkish squadron including the 22,500 ton battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim (Ex German SMS Goeben) and 4,500 ton cruiser Midilli (Ex German SMS Breslau). Cubison showed marked ability, quickly straddling and hitting an enemy destroyer. Between the wars his career included service on river gun boats in Iraq during the Arab Rebellion in 1924 and ended with his retirement in 1934, after 21 years in the Royal Navy. At the outbreak of war, he re-joined the Navy and served at HMS Vernon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine recovery school. He took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and was awarded a bar to his DSC. In 1942 he was the Captain of the 835 ton minesweeper HMS Niger. In fog on 5 July 1942, with visibility of less than a mile, he mistook an iceberg for Iceland’s North Western Cape and led six merchant ships of the Murmansk to Reykjavík convoy QP 13 into Northern Barrage minefield SN72 laid one month earlier at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. Every ship detonated British mines. 46 civilian crew and 9 Naval Armed Guards died aboard the American Liberty ship John Randolph, and the freighters Hefron and Massmar. There were only eight survivors of the 127 men aboard Niger. Only one freighter could be salvaged. An expensive accident and a tragedy for mariners who had survived the Arctic passage to Russia.
Four airmen died before Easy Company arrived. Corporal Leonard John Barnes died in the UK on 12th June 1942, aged 26, and is buried in Aldbourne Churchard.
There is also a private headstone to Pilot Officer George Roxberry Bland, of 234 Squadron RAF who died on 16th April 1942, age 20, but his body was never found. His was one of two Spitfire aircraft from, 234 Squadron RAF probably shot down by German fighters as cover to an air sea rescue patrol off Cherbourg. Sergeant Robert Herbert Charles Crook of 45 Squadron RAF was lost on 18th April 1941 over the Western Desert. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.
Sergeant Ronald Charles Barrett, 21, was the wireless operator of Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF, returning from a raid by 287 bombers on the city of Cologne when it was shot down at 01.53 on 9th July 1943, by a German night fighter over the Ardennes. He is buried in Heverlee War Cemetery near Louvin Belgium. There is a memorial in the Ardennes village of Harze to the crew of the aircraft. Two other Lancaster bombers were lost by 106 Squadron on the night of 8/9 July. One was flown by 1st Lieutenant Eugene Leon Rosner USAAF, from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania who had initially served with the RCAF before transferring to the USAAC in early July. This was the first mission in which Rosner flew in
USAAC uniform. Rosner is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Plot A Row 3 Grave 38, above Omaha Beach.
During the period that Easy Company were billeted in Aldbourne before D-Day, three more men from Aldbourne would die. 35-year-old Captain Dermot Horace Thomas Hanbury, Royal Engineers died in India in January. Lieutenant Thomas Martin Francis Lowinsky of 1st Battalion Scots Guards died 16th February 1944, age 22, at the height of the fighting at Anzio, Italy. Sapper William Robert May, of 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers also died in the battle for Rome, on 1st June 1944, and is buried in Cassino War cemetery. He left a widow, Florence, in Aldbourne.
Easy Company’s campaign is entwined with the fate of Aldbourne’s war dead through the remainder of the North West Europe Campaign. Sapper Derek Thomas Brind died in Normandy on 24th August 1944, aged 24, and is buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel
Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD commanded the 94th (Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery throughout the Normandy campaign. Born in 1899 he was a veteran of the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his inspirational leadership during the tough fighting south west of Caen during the first two weeks of July 1944. He met all emergencies with calm and resolute action and set an example of devotion to duty $rand contempt for danger. His regiment was part of the divisional artillery of the 43rd Wessex
Division which played an important role in Operation Market Garden. He was killed by a shell splinter on 1st October a dozen miles from where Easy Company made their attack on the same day. “Every single man in the regiment had the greatest confidence and admiration for him, and whenever he visited the gun position during lulls in the battle he always had a cheery word and smile for everyone.” Bishell is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.
Not far very far away, across the German border is the Commonwealth Reichswald War cemetery, which contains the graves of many RAF airmen, including that of Flight Sergeant Kingsley Osbern George Nugent, the Navigator of a twin engine Mosquito fighter bomber downed on 26th November 1944. He is buried alongside the Bahamian pilot, flying in the 305th (Polish) Squadron, an illustration of the patchwork of nationalities in the RAF. Easy Company’s route to Berchtesgarten passed within ten miles of the War Cemetery at Durnbach where Sergeant/Air Gunner Bernard Conrad Ricketts of 170 Squadron, Royal Air Force is buried after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in the last RAF raid on Nuremburg, Bavaria.
The last Aldbourne fatal casualty of the war was Flight Lieutenant Guy Richard Brown, DFC RAF who died, aged 24, on 6th September 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender and is buried in Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt. Brown was awarded the DFC for his service in 50 operational missions over Egypt and Libya leading to the capture of Tripoli. After then he seems to have flown for a electronic countermeasures unit in Britain against Germany. At the time of his death he was serving in an air ferry unit. The bus shelter was built as a memorial to him.
There is another name on the village war memorial, Sergeant Ernest Wakefield Royal Engineers. This name cannot be linked to any name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. Village memorials were erected by the local parish and we may never know anything more about this man.
Of the seventeen names on the memorial, seven have no known grave. Their relatives would have received a message that their loved ones were missing, and that it was possible that they would be found or had been taken prisoner. Much later there would be a letter stating that their status was “missing presumed killed.” It must have been hard to hope that it was all in error, and that one day they would come home.
The Band of Brothers of Easy Company 506 PIR fully illustrates the experience of every and any American soldier in the liberation of Europe. Aldbourne is a village which can represent every and any English village. While every village has its own unique history and Aldbourne seems to have been the home of a higher proportion of officers than many, the war service of its villagers covers all three services, across the globe. The fortunes of war took many of them into contact with American servicemen in general and several of them even cross the paths of Easy Company. They all did their bit.
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