20 May…..The Battle of Dunnichen 685AD

The Battle of Dunnichen….known also as Nechtansmere….is deemed to be one of the most significant of the many battles fought in Dark Age Scotland, settling as it did, political power for several centuries to come, in the area between Hadrian’s Wall and the Firth of Forth.

Its importance is indicated in its rating a mention in all of the key commentaries of the times: Bede, Nennius, the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Tigernach to name but a few.

As with that earlier battle of great significance, Mons Graupius, fought almost exactly six centuries earlier, its exact location has long been lost….in the mists of time.

We DO have a monument, though. And that is placed where most consider the battle to have been fought, in the village of Dunnichen, a few miles east of Forfar. That the engagement is remembered and commemorated with such splendour is a cause for celebration in itself.

The Battle monument in the village of Dunnichen

While we might be uncertain of exactly where it was fought we do know a number of other things about the battle. Principally that the Picts won a comprehensive victory over a Northumbrian army which had come north the re-instate their previous domination. And with this victory they re-established their position as an independent people, right through until their unification with the Scots under Kenneth MacAlpine in 843.

 

Northumbria, as a political entity, had come into being after the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, which was completed, after a protracted and stormy struggle in 654. Within a few years the Northumbrians appeared to have imposed themselves on the Picts to the north. Bristling under this the Picts rose up in 671 but were heavily defeated at the Battle of the Two Rivers. Yet another ancient battlefield whose precise location is a mystery today. The only source for this encounter, Stephen of Ripon’s Vita Sancti Wilifrithi, records that, following the battle, the Picts were “reduced to slavery and subject to the yoke of captivity for the next 14 years”.

The probable extent of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the turn of the 9th century

In 685 Bridei III was King of the Picts, having come to the throne in the aftermath of the disaster of the Battle of the Two Rivers in 671. The Northumbrians were ruled by Ecgfirth, cousin to Bridei, who had led the Northumbrians at the Two Rivers Battle.

One way or another Bridei was deemed to have cast of the yoke of captivity of his people and Ecgfrith duly led another army north to re-impose his suzerainty. Despite, it is alleged, much advice to the contrary.

The placing of the battle site at the eponymous village of Dunnichen is primarily etimilogical. And a similar case has been made for Dunachtan, 60 miles further north at Loch Insh in Badenoch. And while this more northerly location may stretch credulity a little….stranger things have happened….we may never know.

The widely accepted site of the Battle of Dunnichen (Nechtansmere) in relation to the territories of the two protagonists

After their dismal showing at the Battle of the Two Rivers, Bridei’s Picts seem to have given this encounter more thought and utilised a stratagem of a feigned retreat, drawing the Northumbrian army on then ambushing them at a narrow point between the hills. The absence of any significant hills in the Dunnichen area is an issue but need not be a showstopper.

 

In any event Ecgfrith’s army was completely destroyed and the unfortunate king with it. The Picts were re-established in their sovereignty and, also, from this point is commonly determined the beginning of the decline of the Northumbrian kingdom.

A battle scene on the back of the Aberlemno Stone

There exist in the village of Aberlemno, only six miles from Dunnichen, a number of carved Pictish stones dating back to the period in question. On the rear of Aberlemno Stone 2 is a clear battle scene, believed by many to be representative of the very battle. Perhaps the conclusive piece of evidence concerning the location of the battle field.

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21 March 1918 Kaiserschlacht….the End of Trench Warfare…a Presage of Blitzkreig..

Kaiserschlacht…….launched on 21st March 1918, was the final German attempt to secure victory in World War One. Although a tactical triumph it was, ultimately, a strategic failure. However, it clearly demonstrated two things. First that the British Army commander General Haig’s long-term policy of attrition, pursued on the basis that there was no alternative strategy since the defensive positions on the Western Front were impregnable, was wrong because these defences COULD be overcome by frontal assault, as was all to clearly demonstrated during the Kaiseschlacht offensive. Second, that Haig’s principal two attacks on the German line, on the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917 were utterly futile because every square inch of each of these battlefields which had been won at such dreadful cost over the prolonged months of both campaigns, was recovered by the attacking German forces during the Kaiserschlacht offensive. In the case of the Somme, this took just a few days. And in the case of Passchandaele, all the ground in question was voluntarily surrendered by British troops without a shot being fired.

General Sir Douglas Haig. Commander of the British Army.Having failed with his attacks at the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai now faced the storm of Kaiserschlacht.

Furthermore, the key modifications to the German Army’s attack methods, which were so effective during Kaiserschlacht, can be seen quite clearly to lead directly to the blitzkrieg tactics which they were to employ again so successfully in attacking the British and French armies in May 1940, when, having sat on their collective derrieres during the nine months of the Phoney War, both allies were then driven to the Channel coast in only ten days and forced to completely evacuate their forces.

Masses of British POW’s taken during the opening phase of Kaiserschlacht.

100 hundred years on from the titanic struggle of WW1 and so much of what happened then is still argued about. The mythology is wrapped so tightly around the accepted facts that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other.

Those of us domiciled in the UK are educated about WW1 in terms of the major British offensives. Kaiserschlacht is rarely mentioned. Indeed it is generally only dealt with grudgingly in the context of final victory, achieved with the welcome, but apparently unnecessary assistance of 3 million fresh combat troops from the USA. Yet the German attack, while it failed in its ultimate strategic goal, was a dazzling tactical success which vividly underscores the persistent and chronic inability of the British military leadership to find for themselves a solution to the problem of trench stalemate, despite taking three years and sacrificing some 600, 000 lives in their uninspiring efforts to do so.

And there is that most contested of viewpoints: was Haig a criminal bungler, or a highly capable general and inspired leader of men?

One of the principal arguments put forward by those who would have Sir Douglas hailed as a hero is that the commanders of all the armies involved in the struggle were faced with the same difficulties. And that  barbed wire, machine guns and the endless mud presented those who stood on the defensive, with the strongest of advantages, against which any competent general would have struggled. …..as Germany struggled against the British Army from the failure of their offensive at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in May 1915 until the collapse of the British effort at Cambrai in December 1917.

The Battle of the Somme. In 5 months the British Army pushed the front line back less than 9 miles.

Thus the fruitless British campaigns at the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917 are presented as regrettable necessities in the process of wearing down the German Army and without which the final victory achieved in 1918 would not have been possible.

However…..even the most casual study of the Kaiserschlacht campaign in the Spring of 1918 demonstrates irrefutably that these conclusions are incorrect.

The Britsih Army’s Passchendaele campaign of 1917. In 5 months less than 5 miles were gained.

 

Following the failure of Germany’s initial invasion of France and Belgium in  August 1914 with Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen’s eponymous plan, Chief of the German General Staff, Moltke the Younger, was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn.

Under his command the German Army carried out another two frontal assaults on the British positions at the First and Second Battles of Ypres in October 1914 and May 1915. With the failure of both of these to break the British line, Von Falkenhayn came to the conclusion that none of the protagonists on the Western Front could achieve such a breakthrough at that point in time because the strength and width of defensive positions required that a successful assault would necessitated the use of TWO attacking armies: the first to punch the necessary 18 to 20 mile gap through the three lines of defence and a second to exploit the gap thus opened. And in May 1915 neither side had a spare army with which to implement such a plan.

 

Thus von Falkenhayn turned his attention eastwards that he might achieve progress there, thereby conceding the strategic initiative to the British, still under the command of General Sir John French prior to his replacement by General Haig in the aftermath of the failure of the British attack at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 and as a consequence of the Haig’s shameless conspiring to have the former replaced.

General Erich von Falkenhayn. Commander of the German Army September 1914 till September 1916 who realised as early as May 1915 that frontal assaults on the Western Front were futile.

 

Neither French nor Haig drew such conclusions concerning the feasibility of frontal assault and gamefully set about devising stratagems to break the German line, roll up their flanks and return the war to one of rapid movement where superior British cavalry forces could bring about final victory . And so began to smash their faces in futile fashion against the German defences.

 

The subsequent failure of their strategic assault at Loos in September 1915 was followed by the utter disaster of the Somme in July – November 1916 and then by the self-destructive futility of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in July – November 1917. With the last reserves of British military manpower then thrown away at Cambrai in December 1917, along with the huge potential of a surprise attack of massed tank formations, Haig had now no choice but to stand his remaining troops on the defensive and prepare for the inevitable and potentially overwhelming German counter attack. Since with the announcement of the USA’s decision to participate in the conflagration, any German victory would need to happen before July 1918 by which time the Allies would be able to field in the order of 3 million reinforcements.

President Woodrow Wilson who persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917 thereby initiating preparations for Kaisershlacht.

Strong arguments have been put forward that the British had no alternative but to attack the Germans, that there was no feasible alternative. And that the limitations imposed on any attacking force by barbed wire and machine guns meant that massive casualties were inevitable. Indeed that it was a viable option to throw tens of thousands of infantry into the killing zone so that they might kill more Germans than they themselves lost, thus paving the way to final victory. Even today, the merits of the  philosophy of attrition is commended.

 

Let us challenge this viewpoint. Let us consider that there WERE solutions to the stalemate of trench warfare and that with the appropriate amount of focused thought that such solutions could be found…….as indeed the Germans found them. Only not Von Falkenhayn who had paid the price for his failure of the Verdun offensive (another case of galloping mythology). But his successors, Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Hindenburg & Ludendorf.
Architects of Kaiserschlacht, who finally broke the stalemate of the trenches but  led Germany to final ultimate defeat.

In most fields of human activity, the numbers inevitably tell the true story. This is as true in war as in any other. So let us look at the key numbers and how they measure up with respect to Kaiserschlacht in relation to the previous main British attacks.

At Loos in 1915 the British attacked for 2 weeks, gaining 3 miles. At the Somme in 1916 offensive action continued after the unprecedented disaster of that first day for a further five months. The front line was pushed back a total of 9 miles. And at 3rd Ypres in 1917 British forces slogged uphill for five months to gain a total of 5 miles. With each of these attacks the strategic value of the ground gained was none. None. The total casualty count was in the order of six hundred thousand combat troops. This was presented at the time, and in the century since, as being an acceptable price to pay in order to wear down the German Army. And in any case we won so we must have been doing the right thing.

Kaiserschlacht Phase One: Operation Michael. In ten days the Germans took 1000 square miles of Allied territory, pushed the front line back 40 miles and almost captured the key transport node of Amiens.

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So how did the Germans manage to turn the whole situation on its head in the Spring of 1918?

In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany. Probably the single most significant event of World War One, although taking place thousands of miles from European battlefield. This started the clock ticking.

 

The principal European protagonists knew exactly how long it took to train hundreds of thousands of civilians to the necessary state of combat readiness, at least fifteen months. So if Germany was to secure victory it had to do so before July 1918.

Having rigorously examined all the previous failed strategic assaults which had been carried out on the Western Front, Hindenburg and Ludendorff identified the reasons for failure and thence developed solutions to the problem.

Firstly, they acknowledged that by this late stage in the war there was a wide disparity in the physical condition of Germany’s combat troops. Recognising that many of their soldiers were capable at best of holding a trench line against frontal assault, they combed the best out of the ranks to be designated as stormtroopers and given specific training in the task that awaited them.

Stormtroopers.
Picked men, specially trained in the new battle tactics and lightly equipped to ensure maximum progress.

 

Secondly, they tackled the issue of the pre-attack artillery bombardment. For many centuries of warfare surprise has often been the decisive factor in battle. By 1914 the merits of surprise had to be weighed against the value of attacking with an opening artillery barrage in order to; destroy the front line defensive positions, take out the defenders’ artillery and disrupt communications and the process of reinforcement. It was this notion that induced Haig to assault the German lines with artillery for 5 days prior to sending in the infantry at the Battle of the Somme and for 7 days prior to Passchendaele. Hindenburg and Ludendorff took the other option and combined the destructive merits of the devastating artillery bombardment with the element of surprise by firing all their shells over the course of just five hours.

 

Also, where the British attackers waited patiently till their artillery bombardment was concluded before leaving their trenches, cued by officers’ whistles, the Storm Troopers crossed the parapet when their barrage BEGAN. And having cut their way through the barbed wire, positioned themselves as close as possible to the British trenches without incurring injury from their own shells. Then they simply waited untill the shelling stopped. At which point they immediately stormed the British trenches.

 

Finally, also in the face of accepted wisdom at the time, the German attackers were directed to bypass any British strong points which were able to hold out against the initial assault. On the day these few positions were quickly isolated as the wave of attackers pushed the defenders back by a measure of miles.

 

Fortuitously on the morning of the initial attack the Germans were aided by heavy mist. This also has been used to defend the abject performance of the British ………..it really has. Fortuitously also General Hubert Gough, upon who’s 5th Army the devastating storm was to break, deemed it best to position the majority of his infantry in the front line positions, such was his concern about the likely volume of enemy infantry that would be crossing no man’s land to attack. The inevitable result of this was to increase the casualties incurred during the initial artillery bombardment. Much has been made of the lessons learned by the British Army during the Battle of Passchendaele from the defence in depth tactics developed by the Germans during this campaign. The truth of the matter is that if any such lessons were learned then none were implemented.

General Hubert Gough, commander of British 5th Army which bore the brunt of Kaiserschlacht. All possible lessons to be gleaned from German defensive tactics at Passchendale were lost on him.

Ultimately, of course, Kaiserschlacht failed and under the command of Generals Haig and Foch, who had been appointed Allied Supremo during the height of the Kaiserschlacht offensive, with the able assistance of 3 million fresh American combat troops,  the Germans were defeated just a few short months later.

 

Nonetheless, through the lens of Kaiserschlacht it is possible to discern the reckless, foolhardy and wasteful manner in which Haig and his senior commanders pursued the war for over three years. This is the real lesson we should take from Kaiserschlacht.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Tippermuir, 1st September 1644

Early in the morning of Sunday 1st September 1644, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose stood on the field of Tippermuir, some 3 miles to the west of the town of Perth, watching his enemies assembling their force into battle order.

Behind him, already formed up and ready to engage, stood the motley army he had managed to assemble in the previous two months.

Montrose

His ultimate aim was to conquer whatever forces that the Covenant put into the field against him thus restoring the rule of Charles I to the troubled kingdom of Scotland. Then he would march his army south, join with Prince Rupert of the Rhine, defeat the armies of the English Parliament and restore the King to his throne. That process would start today on this sunny Sabbath morning.

Montrose and MacColla’s route to Tippermuir

Ultimately Montrose would require to fight six battles in the 12 months of this campaign, the Year of Victories. And he would win them all. However, final success would elude both him and his sorry monarch.

 

The army he commanded was as eclectic as any that had ever taken to a battlefield in Scotland, before then or since. As King Charles’ properly commissioned Captain-General, Montrose was designated commander of all forces raised in the King’s name, However, a significant element of the men under his command had been brought from Ireland by Alasdair MacColla, who presently stood with them in the centre of the royalist formation.

 

On the flanks of Alasdair’s Irish stood men from both north and south of the Highland Line. Some of these were experience soldiers, most were not. And it was their rawness that had persuaded Montrose to put them on the flanks ensuring that Alasdair’s men took the centre of the formation to face the most experience element of the Covenant force facing them.

This very force, however, exceeded the Royalist army in its lack of battle experience. With the full Covenant Army deployed south of the border in support of the English Parliamentary army, there were few left behind with any experience or appetite for fighting. They did have two advantages though: greater numbers, probably twice Montrose’s 2000 men; and cavalry, some 300 against Montrose’s complete lack of mounted warriors. With the undisputed Covenant leader, Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll, temporarily missing from the scene. The command of the army fell to The Earl of Lothian. He, however, was in Edinburgh “attending important meetings” so it was Lord Elcho who suddenly found the position thrust upon him, wholly unexpectedly. 11 months later he would once again command in battle against Montrose, at the equally disastrous Battle of Kilsyth.

Lord Elcho, Covenant commander on the day

On the face of it, it seemed like an easy victory for the home team. However, it was to prove to be men against boys. While there were some seasoned veterans of the wars in the Spanish Netherlands amongst the Royalist Scots, Alasdair’s men were emphatically battle-hardened, primarily from the fighting in Ireland which had raged since the initial outbreak of warfare there in 1641.

 

The men they faced were for the most part hastily levied peasants and burghers, untrained and poorly led. Although Montrose was not aware of this and his decision to now engage superior enemy forces reflects his temperament and his need for a swift and conclusive victory to establish his own martial credentials and to both retain his army as a cohesive fighting force and to attract further recruits.

 

With the opposing forces now drawn up the action could commence. The Covenant leadership sent forward a detachment of horse in the traditional manner to draw their enemy’s fire and lure them into a premature and ill-co-ordinated forward thrust which could then be exploited by their massed infantry. This manoeuvre back-fired completely. Within moments, in response to this opening move, the entire Royalist centre under Alasdair’s personal command launched what was to become the trademark move of Royalist / Jacobite armies over the next century – the Highland Charge.

A not untypical study of the Royalist infantry

The ferocity of this so discombobulated the Covenant centre that they broke almost immediately. Their flank forces followed soon after and the engagement soon dissolved into full-scale, one-sided slaughter as the fleeing Covenanters were pursued back to Perth.

 

Numbers in Montrose’s battles are always contentious as for the most part the primary sources often contradict one another. However, a consensus of 1500 dead is evident. With corresponding Royalist losses so small as to merit a mention.

 

First blood then to Montrose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8th July 1758…..The Battle of Ticonderoga

Once more we step away from Scottish history and take a wider view of the world, with another British military disaster…

Ticonderoga was an engagement between the British and the French Armies in upstate New York in 1758 during the Seven Years War. Described in some quarters as “an unsuccessful British attack on a numerically disadvantaged French Garrison” it was in fact a crushing and humiliating defeat of a British force armed with all possible situational advantages. A bitter result made all the harsher by the nature of the shambolic and humiliating retreat they embarked upon as the battle came to its conclusion.

Once again a redcoat force, far far from their own shores, with superior numbers and all the tactical advantages they could wish for, were crushed by numerically inferior opposition due to the shortcomings of their leadership.

The French force celebrates their victory over Abercrombie’s British

Commanding the British was General James Abercrombie, a Scot born in Banffshire. He was a commander deemed to have considerable administrative abilities but with a reputation for indecision in combat and had acquired among his men the soubriquet of Mrs Nanny Cromby.

General James Abercrombie

The French were led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. A veteran of both Wars of the Polish and Austrian Succession with an outstanding service record as a battlefield commander, he was to die the following year at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, along with that other distinguished leader of men James Wolfe.

Loius-Joseph de Montcalm

Abercrombie has taken considerable criticism over his performance at Ticonderoga. The prominent American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, Lawrence H. Gipson,

commenting on Abercrombie’s Ticonderoga campaign said that “no military campaign was ever launched on American soil that involved a greater number of errors of judgment on the part of those in positions of responsibility”. James Holden noted that American and British writers, both contemporary and historical, used words like “imbecile”, “coward”, “unready”, and “old woman” to describe him.

 

Up till this point the war had gone badly for the British with a string of French victories including the Battle of Fort Bull, the Battle of Fort Oswego and the massacre at Fort William Henry (as depicted in that ace movie The Last of the Mohicans). Consequently, the British Prime Minister William Pitt had felt it necessary to take over direct control of the North American campaign. He devised a strategy of standing on the defensive in Europe where the French were strong and initiating offensive operations in North America where they were weak.

 

The French force which Montcalm assembled at Ticonderoga in June comprised some 5000 regular French troops, the same again in militia raised from the French settlers and some Indian allies. Abercrombie meantime set off by boat on July 5th from the ruins of Fort William Henry at the head of the largest military force that had ever been assembled on the continent; some 16,000 regular British troops, including the 42nd (Highland) Regiment (aka The Black Watch) plus militia.

 

Montcalm assessed his position and his numerical inferiority and decided not to simply hold the fort and await besiegement. He opted instead to defend the likely approaches. Monsieur Le Montcalm set about improving his defensive position. Over the course of the two days before the battle his men dug out trenches on the rising ground about a mile north west of the fort and strengthened these with felled trees sharpened to a point: obstacles which would hinder infantry but could provide no obstacle to cannon fire. He also dispatched a portion of his force to monitor the approach of the British fleet but when this hove into site and its size became apparent this force was rapidly withdrawn

 

On the morning of July 6th, two days before the battle, the British force landed unopposed at the north end of Lake George and headed towards the fort. On arriving at the French defences north west of the Fort, Abercrombie ordered his engineer, Lieutenant Matthew Clerk to climb the adjacent Rattlesnake Hill and assess the French position. Young Clerk duly reported to his General that the French defences appeared incomplete and could easily be forced. Apparently Montcalm had managed to disguise the strength and completeness of his defence works by the simple stratagem of covering them with shrubbery.

The British landing point and advance route

Heartened by his engineer’s thoroughly professional assessment, Abercrombie met with his senior officers that evening to discuss his attack plans. Debating simply whether they should go forward in ranks of three or four they settled on three.

 

Battle commenced just after noon with Abercrombie sending forward Rogers Rangers (sans Spencer Tracy) and some light infantry to force the outlying French defenders back. These were followed by three columns of his regular troops. Montcalm had set out his defensive force with seven battalions forward, each covering approximately 100 metres of front. He had entrenched cannon on each flank and the low ground between his left wing and the river was manned by militia.

 

The French were able to pour withering fire into the redcoat formations as they tried to work their way through the defensive obstacles the French had deployed and by 2 pm it was clear that the initial attack had failed. Montcalm, dressed as an ordinary soldier, moved among his men encouraging their efforts and ensuring that all needs were met. Abercrombie meanwhile remained somewhat to the rear, positioned to receive progress reports.

 

On being informed of the failure of his initial attack, Abercrombie then ordered his reserve forward, provincial troops from Connecticut and New Jersey. And within half an hour it became clear that their attack had met with the same results as that of their more experienced comrades. At this point it seems that Abercrombie ordered a withdrawal along the entire frontage but apparently two regiments on the left wing, the 42nd and the 46th persisted with their efforts and as late as 5pm the 42nd were still thrashing away, indeed they almost made it to the point where they were able to physically engage with the enemy.

 

It was only as night fell that the last of the British troops withdrew and Abercrombie was able to commence the march back to his ships. This retreat in the dark and through the woods became disorganised and, as rumours spread of French pursuit, panic-stricken. The humiliating nature of the whole episode being fully apparent to its participants with one of Abercrombie’s own Lieutenant-Colonel’s describing it subsequently as “shameful”.

 

British losses were of the order of 1000 dead and 1500 wounded with the Black Watch incurring particularly heavy proportional losses of 300 men and 8 officers. French casualties were reported in the order of 550, dead and wounded.

 

The criticisms of Abercrombie’s handling of the battle are primarily: the French garrison was poorly provisioned and would have been unable to resist a siege for ling. Information which Abercrombie could easily have acquired from the various prisoners and deserters that passed through his hands; deploying artillery on the undefended Rattlesnake Hill would have led to the rapid destruction of the French defensive position. A consideration which apparently no one on the British side thought of; on realising that his initial attacking plan had failed Abercrombie could have taken time to consider a fresh alternative; similarly the option of outflanking the French right wing never occurred to Abercrombie or his men and would appear to have been well worthy of consideration. And carrying out the full retreat in the dark and through the woods to his initial landing position was wholly unnecessary.

 

Abercrombie never commanded another military campaign but in the proud and noble tradition of the British military he continued to be promoted until his eventual retirement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Mercury

By way of a change………a WW2 battle.

1st June 1941….Operation Mercury, the German airborne assault on Crete, is brought to a successful conclusion.

 

This defeat was the latest in a serious of military humblings endured by the British Army at the hands of the Wehrmacht, in the opening two years of WW2.

In that time British soldiers had stood toe-to-toe with the Germans in Norway and France in 1940 and in Greece in the summer of 1941. On each occasion, they had been swept aside and forced to flee to the nearest coastline and await collection by the ships of the Royal Navy.

British troops being evacuated ……from Dunkirk

……Norway

…and Greece

It appeared that the quality of British Generalship, the entire command and control system and even the performance of their front line troops was being completely outclassed by the those of the Germans.

 

Performance

When you look in detail at the Battle for Crete the question which arises is…. was the British performance really that poor or was that of the Germans so outstanding. One view is that the Germans simply went about the business of warfare in their normal fashion and when circumstances dictated that they needed to find another gear, said gear was found and immediately engaged. And in exactly the same manner, the British and their Commonwealth allies, went about the business in THEIR own fashion and, as had become the case with them, were completely defeated and in fairly short order.

There is very little in the way of positives to be taken by the British from the entire episode. Outnumbering the invading force by a factor of 4 to 1 and lavishly supplied from the outset with invaluable intelligence in the form of Ultra intercepts, the General commanding, Bernard Freyberg, took one of the most advantageous defensive positions in the history of warfare and handed victory to his enemy in just a few short days.

Seventy six years later those aspects of the battle given prominence in the historical record remain pretty well unchanged. Firstly that Hitler was so dismayed by the extent of the casualties suffered by the Fallschirmjager that he expressly forbade any subsequent similar efforts for the remainder of the war. Secondly that the British Balkan adventure, first into Greece followed by Crete, dislodged the German timetable for Barbarossa to the extent that the Germans failed to take Moscow before their invading thrust was eventually parried, thus paving the way for ultimate allied victory.

 

It’s rare to come across any subsequent account of these events which seeks to analyse the principal reasons for the British defeat in the face of what are generally deemed to be highly favourable circumstances…….as is so often the case with British involvement in either World War.

In this case those reasons aren’t hard to find and even a cursory examination of events allows the reader to form their own conclusions.

The German airborne landings were made at four points along the northern coast of the island. And while all met with similar initial lack of success it is at the western most of these, Maleme airfield, where the entire outcome of the Battle of Crete was decided.

 

The Key Commanders

There were a small number of key commanders on each side whose performance over the next 48 hours would largely determine the final outcome of the Battle.

For the Allies these were:  Major General Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealand veteran of the Great War who had participated in the Gallipoli landings and had become the youngest General in the British Army. He had led the 2nd New Zealand Division during the Battle for Greece and been given command of all Allied forces on the island prior to the German attack.

General Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Crete garrison

Acting Major General / Brigadier Edward Puttick who had taken over command of the 2nd New Zealand Division. Brigadier James Hargest, commanding the 5th New Zealand Brigade.

Brigadier Hargest, commanding 2nd New Zealand Division

And finally Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Andrew, another WW1 veteran who commanded the 22nd New Zealand Battalion and had the principal responsibility for the defense of the crucial airfield at Maleme

For the Germans the key men were General Kurt Student who led all German airborne forces. Brigadier Eugen Meindl who commanded the Storm Regiment which landed in the Maleme Sector at the outset of the battle and General Julius Ringel , commander of the 5th Mountain Division which landed at Maleme on the second day.

 

The Attack Begins

It was at Maleme, at 7.30 on the morning of 20 May, that the Luftwaffe’s Storm Regiment, under the command of Brigadier Eugen Meindl dropped by parachute and glider.  Some forty gliders landed to the west of the airfield on the dried up bed of the River Tavronitis which they intended to then use as the start line for their subsequent attack.  The paratroopers were dropped a little to the east of the airfield where they landed right on top of the New Zealand 5th Infantry Brigade.

German fallschirmjaeger landing on the 1st morning

There ARE criticisms which can be levied at the Germans in this battle, despite their swift and conclusive victory. The failures of intelligence and photo reconnaissance regarding the true extent and dispositions of the Allied forces are the greatest. Prior to the British evacuation of Greece the garrison strength in Crete was around 10, 000 men. German intelligence believed that all the evacuated troops had been taken to Alexandria in Egypt. They had, however, been conveyed, to a man, to Crete. So the Allied strength on the morning of the attack was in the order of 42, 000 men, some four times greater than the attackers had expected to encounter. And they were attacking with a force of less than 10,000.

The paratroopers leapt from the Junkers carrier craft at a height of only around 300 feet. The casualties inflicted on them and the aircraft by the dense crowds of allied riflemen were devastating.

 

The German landing areas (photo credit WalkingTheBattlefields)

 

Over 1800 Germans were fed into the Maleme sector on this first morning with almost half of them being killed or wounded. The attacks which were happening simultaneously at the other three landing sites: Heraklion, Rethymno and the Ayia Valley met with similar results.

 

Brigadier Meindl who had dropped by parachute rather than glider moved at speed and sent his I Battalion under Major Koch directly against the western flank of the airfield defences while Major Stenzler’s II Battalion was sent on a flanking movement in an attempt to take the key Allied strongpoint, Hill 107, from the rear. Within an hour, however, Meindl had been wounded twice and would play no further part in the action.

Hill 107, Maleme airfield. The schwerpunkt of the Battle for Crete

The diligent Fallschirmjaeger officers continued to press home their attacks. Colonel Andrew’s area of responsibility – the airfield and Hill 107 – comprised some five square kilometres of very uneven and heavily overgrown terrain. He had two companies deployed. C Company on the airfield and D Company defending the eastern side of the Tavronitis river bed due west of Hill 107. Neither was equipped with radio. Andrew had two Matilda tanks ready for action but hesitated to play his trump card too early.

 

Just before 11 am he contacted his commander, Brigadier Hargest, situated some 4 miles east along the coast to say he had lost contact with both his forward companies. He received no response. Within an hour the Germans brought their mortars and a light field gun into action against Andrew’s hard-pressed troops. He continued to press Hargest for aid in the form of reinforcements but was told all those available were engaged with the enemy.

At 5pm the Colonel decided to utilise his two tanks with a small number of supporting infantry. This was a short-lived episode best not dwelt on, whereby one tank crew discovered very quickly that not only were they carrying the wrong ammunition for their gun but that their turret could not traverse properly. The second vehicle, left to go forward alone, found its belly stuck on a boulder on the river bed and was abandoned by its crew.

 

At this point Colonel Andrew informed Hargest of the failure of his armoured counter-attack and his continuing inability to establish any contact with his forward companies.  Furthermore he stated his intention, if not immediately reinforced, of withdrawing from his position on Hill 107. Hargest reply “If you must, you must”  encapsulates in one short sentence the collective shortcomings of the allied commanders in this, as in so many other WW2 battles: confusion, uncertainty, a complete absence of initiative: utterly lacking in the basic qualities of military leadership which were being demonstrated so ably by the enemy they were facing.

 

Sat in his command post on the lee side of Hill 107 it seems Andrew was either afraid to go and look through his binoculars in an attempt to ascertain what was happening with is two forward companies, or the thought did not occur to him. Hargest, similarly, sat shackled to his command post buffeted by developing events and apparently powerless to interfere in them.  At this point both Andrew’s companies, whilst considerably reduced by casualties in the fierce fighting, were still resisting strongly: C on the airfield and D on the edge of the Tavronitis river bed.

 

End of the First Day

And so night fell. Overall the German attack had failed to capture every single one of their objectives across the four landing sites. They had taken terrible casualties and in each location fully expected an Allied counter attack which would bring the battle to a swift and conclusive end.

 

At Maleme they had only 57 unwounded troops capable of fighting. The loss of battalion, platoon and company commanders had been particularly heavy.

General Freyberg’s failure to launch a counter attack at this point is, from the allied perspective, probably the most troubling aspect of the battle. It’s possible that with Brigadier Hargest having his overwhelming leadership failure in the Maleme sector, Freiberg had simply been misled over developments there. But it would seem that he showed little interest in the Maleme sector as he continued to obsess over the possibility of an impending German seaborne attack at several miles further east at Cannea.

Apologists for Freyberg maintain that in order to preserve the critical secrecy of Ultra, Freyberg simply erred on the side of caution and did not confide in his fellow officers lest the source of his intelligence were revealed. As he seemed to completely ignore the intelligence he was fed immediately prior to and during the early stages of the battle. This is an interpretation of the facts which is barely believable.

 

Hill 107 Is Given Up

And now occurred the key developments which would see the British yield their position on Hill 107 thus their hold on Maleme airfield and with it their hold on the entire island of Crete.

 

Sometime before midnight Colonel Andrew in his command bunker near the top of Hill 107, a position which commanded the Tavronitis river bed and the critical airfield, finally succumbed. Dismayed, no doubt, by the non-appearance of the requested reinforcements, perturbed by Brigadier Hargest’s unhelpfulness, still out of contact with C and D companies, although his lack of initiative in overcoming this last problem, remains a puzzle to this day, and feeling the pressure from Stentzler’s flanking attack to the rear of the hill, he decided to withdraw from his position.

 

He NOW sent runners to both forward companies, but only to advise them of his imminent withdrawal rather than simply to secure a sit rep, and radioed his intention to Hargest. His commander, once again, felt that this information merited no reaction on his part other than to advise Freyberg in turn that the situation at Maleme airfield was “quite satisfactory”. It’s almost unbelievable.

 

The runners failed to get through to either company. Both of whom, while battered, were still stoutly resisting the efforts of Meindl’s men to force their line. Captain Campbell of D company and his sergeant-major took it upon themselves to carry out a reverse recce on their own battalion headquarters, finding it abandoned and them with it. Somewhat shaken at this he then felt that HE had no choice but to withdraw his men in turn.

 

Captain Johnson of C Company only discovered that his battalion commander had bugged out in the early hours of the morning. Doubting that a counter attack would be mounted in daylight and believing that his men would not be able to hold their position for another 24 hours he led them silently back to New Zealand lines.

Dawn found the Falschirmjaeger in full possession of Hill 107 and no New Zealand troops within the airfield perimeter

 

Student Acts

But General Kurt Student, sitting in his command post in the ballroom of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens knew nothing of this. He knew only that none of the mission objectives had been met by nightfall on day one and that casualties were in the order of 40 percent. He knew also that his immediate superiors General Lohr of IV Air Fleet and Field Marshall von List of XII Army were aware of the situation.

Not all was lost, however. With Hill 107 in German hands he had his toe-hold. He needed to know if the Tavronitis end of the Maleme runway was accessible for troop-carrying Junkers. With exactly that element of resourcefulness wich was absent on the Allied side, he despatched a Captain Kleye from his staff in the early hours of that 2nd morning. Kleye carried out the test landing successfully. Student immediately ordered General Ringel to prepare to fly in with his 5th Mountain Division.

 

General Julius Ringel, commander of 5th Mountain Division

 

After preliminary bombing runs during the morning and early afternoon of the 2nd day Ringel’s Division began landing at Maleme. Each aircraft pausing briefly to disgorge its occupants before immediately taking off again. And they continued to maintain this at a rate of twenty planes per hour. Observing this from his Command Post several miles away at Cannea, Freyberg concluded that the Germans had decided to evacuate the surviving attackers. His self-delusion was complete.

 

With substantial numbers of German troops now assembling in the Maleme sector there could now only be one outcome to the Battle. And despite managing to finally put together a counter attacking effort the garrison was doomed.

 

Evacuation….Again

There then followed yet another chaotic forced march to the beaches. This was now the established trademark of the British Army when fighting Germans on foreign shores. The last Royal Navy ship departed from the southern shore on 1st June, having rescued all but 5000 of the survivors of the garrison. For the most part the evacuation process had been carried out in a disciplined manner. Although it was noted by some New Zealand troops as they climbed aboard their rescue ship, that some of the British Commandos who had landed later on the island to facilitate the evacuation, had managed to get themselves aboard before them.

 

In short, Freyberg’s entire defensive operation had been a disasterous failure. Outnumbering the german attack force by a factor of four to one, with regular ULTRA feeds as to German intentions and with, for the most part, experienced and gutsy troops at his disposal, the island had been lost in some ten days.

 

His reward for this dreadful performance was further command positions! It was Freyberg in charge at Monte Cassino in 1944 who, having repeatedly failed to dislodge German troops (including some of the very same fallschirmjaeger who had fought at Crete) decided that bombing the 800 year old abbey to matchwood was the thing to do. The fact that the Germans were not in the abbey prior to its destruction but then flooded into the wreckage where they continued to hold the British at bay, comes as no surprise.

23rd December 1688……..James II Ships Out to France.

And so the last monarch of the House of Stuart slipped away, without ceremony, on a ship to France and exile. There were few to witness his supine departure and Bonnie Dundee was not among them. The newly ennobled Viscount had taken his final leave of the King some days previously prior to James embarking on the barge at Whitehall that would transfer him to his final departure point.

James slips away from London on 18th December, heading for the coast.

James slips away from London on 18th December, heading for the coast.

During this exchange Dundee had brought to bear his not inconsiderable powers of persuasion in an effort to persuade James to remain and lead the fight to overturn his unlawful usurpation from the throne by William of Orange. However, this king had never been a man to bend his shoulder to the wheel of personal effort. And faced with a choice between maintaining, after a fashion, his regal court in exile, or the uncertainty and rough life of a counter-usurper he jumped on his boat and fled.

James heads into exile.

James heads for France and exile.

The only historical mark surviving from his precipitate flight is a blue plaque on the wall of the house where he spent his last night in his kingdom and a personal note he left outlining his grievances at the way matters had developed: a prolonged whinge about what was said and done by those who had schemed to bring about his replacement which does nothing to enhance history’s view of his shortcomings as a man and a monarch.

Plaque at the house in Rochester where James spent the night before sailing for France

Plaque at the house in Rochester where James spent the night before sailing for France

From the moment William had stepped ashore at Torbay in November with 21,000 troops behind him, support for James had gradually ebbed away. By the time that the single military action of the campaign was fought at Reading on 9th December , all was done and dusted. A combination of naked self-interest on the part of English and Scottish nobility and lack-lustre leadership from James had served the crown to William and his soon-to-be co-Ruler Anne, on the proverbial silver platter.

James' letter, intended for public consumption, comprising his list of whinges

James’ letter, intended for public consumption, comprising his list of whinges

A week before James’ final departure he had made an initial effort to flee to France. As in most of his kingly endeavours during his reign, he made a hash of it and had been compelled to return to London somewhat shamefacedly. It was at this point, 17th December, the day before he jumped onto his barge to head to Dover that he had a final conference with the last remaining men of substance that he had around him.

Engaged in a conference in Whitehall with various motley individuals who sought to give him false assurances, he withdrew out to the Mall, summoning with him, Viscount Dundee and Colin Lindsay, 3rd Earl of Balcarres.  The three men walked awhile and discussed the stark reality of the position.

We have no firm record of this conversation. James, it appears, was determined to flee, fearing that his life was in danger. Both Dundee and Balcarres would have sought to persuade him that if he was going to depart his capital that he should head north to Scotland where firm cause could be made. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Promising to send from France royal commissions for both men to drive his affairs civil and military, he then took his final leave of them.

At this very moment William was arriving in west London at the home of the Countess of Northumberland. The following day with James now gone, he took up quarters in St James’Palace.  On its military side, the Revolution was now accomplished.

 

 

 

 

 

9th December 1688 The Battle of Reading

This was the main military event of William of Orange’s Dutch invasion.

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Britain, we are often told, has never been successfully invaded in a thousand years. Napoleon and Hitler both gave it serious thought but apparently realised the futility of the idea. And since William’s Norman knights destroyed the Shield Wall of Harold’s Saxons at Hastings in 1066, it has never been successfully attempted.

This, like so many other notions handed down to schoolchildren over the years, is in fact false.

In the dying months of 1688, as James II, the last incumbent of the House of Stuart struggled to hold on to the legacy which had been faithfully handed down continuously over three centuries, a hostile Armada sailed from Holland, intent on removing said monarch from his throne and seizing the kingdom by naked force of arms.

King James II

King James II

Ever since James had ascended the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685, his calamitous and cack-handed rule had emphasised the divisions within his three kingdoms and given strength to the various bodies of self-interest who were opposed to his Catholicism on the grounds of their own narrow religious inclinations.

On 10th June 1688 James’ wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a male heir and the concerns of many of these bodies now crystallised and plotting for a military overthrow of the British Kingdom which had been on-going since April now burgeoned into action.

James' wife, Mary of Modena

James’ wife, Mary of Modena

 

Chief amongst these holders of vested interest was the Dutch Parliament, the States-General. The smouldering embers of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78 now re-ignited as this august body, envisaging a formal Catholic Alliance between the British and French thrones with the consequent damage to Dutch interests, moved to direct military intervention.

The Dutch States General in 1688. The principal instigators of the successful invasion of the United Kingdom.

The Dutch States General in 1688. The principal instigators of the successful invasion of the United Kingdom.

William’s fleet of some 500 ships, probably four times greater than the legendary Spanish Armada of 1588, set sail after on 1st November and made landfall at Torbay in Devon 4 days later. 21, 000 hostile and, mostly foreign troops stepped ashore with the Dutch Parliament’s front man, prepared to conquer the kingdom by force of arms.

William lands at Torbay

William lands at Torbay

Amongst their number walked that intrepid military opportunist Hugh MacKay. Under whose generalship  William’s now British Army would be destroyed at Killiecrankie the following summer.

Concern about the threat of a Dutch invasion had been clear for many months. In September King James had written to the Scots Privy Council with instructions that Scotland’s entire standing army, with the exception of the garrisons of Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton Castle should forthwith heads south, initially to Carlisle and thence to Chester.

 

It has been argued cogently that these forces could do nothing to stem the progress of William’s invasion force and that had they remained then Dundee would have had considerably greater resources to hand when the decisive Scottish encounter was fought at Killiecrankie ten months later. But this is to surrender to the vicissitudes of hindsight.

 

One week after William’s forces landed, James raised the faithful Claverhouse to the Scottish peerage, conferring upon him the title Viscount of Dundee.

 

Meantime William’s army sat inactive at Exeter. King James’ forces took up station at Salisbury to block the route to London. And on 17th November the King left the capitol to take up personal command of the army.

James’ timorous nature and clumsy handling of his regal responsibilities now began to bear fruit as many of his senior commanders, more mindful of their personal interests than of their proper, sworn loyalty to their rightful monarch, now began to melt away.

 

Given this encouragement, William began to advance from Exeter and as they reached Wincanton, the increasingly irresolute James withdrew the army to Reading.

 

The newly ennobled Bonnie Dundee had watched James’ futile efforts at warfare and the treachery which had done much to make it so, with increasing dismay. Maintaining the Scottish cavalry as a single coherent body he marched it to Reading.

At this point he then endeavoured to present to his monarch the three realistic options which he now believed to face him: to give battle to William, to meet with him personally and negotiate a position or to “make his way to Scotland, upon the coldness he observed in the English army and nation”.

Viscount Dundee

Viscount Dundee

 

The accounts of the battle itself are brief and depressingly similar with the suspicion of convenient re-interpretation inevitably hanging heavily in the air. A contingent of Dutch troops, some 250 in number, against the town. They engaged a portion of James’ army, mostly Irish, and within a short period of time had mastered them. Much is made of the apparent efforts of Reading citizens to our hostile fire from their windows into the ranks of the home army but it stretches credibility somewhat.

 

Nonetheless, the outcome is beyond dispute and any realistic military opposition in England to the hostile Dutch invasion had come to an end.

 

The dismal consequences of this require no repetition: William and his spouse were installed first as joint rulers of England then at a disastrous Convention in Edinburgh in March, the decision was taken to confer the Scottish Crown upon them. Dundee’s subsequent military campaign to restore King James to his throne effectively ended at the Battle if Killiecrankie where Dundee fell at the moment of victory.

 

The unhappy litany of disaster then continues with such notable events as the Massacre of Glencoe and the signing of the Act of Union in 1707.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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