Essai en Guerre: an FFO-inspired TL

Part 14.6
  • Extract from A Pilgrim to Mount Lebanon, by Marc Malik

    …The higher-ups seemed to remember our existence finally. A fresh regiment from Syria took our place with the Mountain Goats for the big push, while we left the hills - so familiar to us now, and curiously dear after so many months - and marched back down to Piraeus. The men talked eagerly of the prospect of home leave.

    That was not to be. The view taken by the generals was that since the metropolitan troops could not get home leave, neither should we. There were no mutinies or other disorders in the Regiment du Liban, unlike in some units, but there was plenty of grumbling. Certainly we had much sympathy with the way the wishes of the troops combined with the demands of politicians, in Algeria and elsewhere, created a truly serious moment for the Algiers Government at the very end of ‘43. The upshot was that M. Mandel became Prime Minister at last, but curiously he seemed to have less power than before. M. de Gaulle was clearly the coming man, despite - or perhaps because - the opposition of the Americans.

    We celebrated Christmas on a troopship, one of the fine American ones given under Lend-Lease, anchored off Crete. We heard Mass, ate well (for most of the men it was the first time they had ever eaten ice-cream) and passed the bottle round. The next day, we got under way while it was still dark. I saw the sun rising behind the stern of the ship, and knew that our road home would be longer than we wished.


    Extract from War in the Middle Sea, ch.21

    …as 1943 progressed the KKE had begun to take a larger role in Greek politics. On the insistence of Mr. Cripps, the MEA finally accepted their participation, but neither Royalists nor Venizelists showed much enthusiasm for the prospect. ‘The fact is we have brought these people in ultimately because London wants to keep Moscow happy,’ complained Mr. Koryzis in private. Mr. Cripps took a different view in his messages to the Council, emphasising the effect KKE participation might have in resolving long-running labour disputes in Piraeus. Mr. Churchill showed no enthusiasm either, but accepted the result tentatively. ‘In the end, we believed that the experiment was worth a try,’ he wrote later…

    The fall of Rome freed up resources for the Greek front, but only enough for a single limited thrust. ‘Clearly we cannot look to gain any distant objective in winter weather,’ commented De Gaulle. General Magrin-Vernerey, who had recently taken command in the theatre, had to choose between two plausible alternatives: an attack in the west, with the objective of taking Vlore, or in the east, with the goal of liberating Salonika. Magrin-Vernerey, backed by Algiers and London, realised that whichever option he chose would have political implications, and he insisted on the whole-hearted support of the Greek government. A sharp disagreement followed within the MEA government in Athens, which in part reflected the ongoing tensions between Royalists and Venizelists, but also reflected the increased influence of the Communists.

    The Salonika option prevailed. ‘The Government,’ wrote Mr. Koryzis, ‘could in the end hardly pursue the Albanian campaign while our second city suffered under the heavy hand of the Axis.’ The British corps in the eastern sector, in the General’s opinion, lacked the strength to perform the operation itself, so he transferred Greek II Corps, freshly equipped with American armour and artillery, into the Olympus sector. The RAF received reinforcements from Italy for the operation, and the RHAF employed its latest American P-38 and B-26 aircraft.

    The Germans for their part had anticipated the offensive. All their available mobile forces had gone to feed the colossal autumn battles in the Ukraine; they could therefore only adopt a static defence, albeit one much aided by the terrain. ‘The politicians look at the map and ask why we make such heavy weather of forty or fifty miles,’ complained General O’Connor. ‘They ought to appreciate that a lot of that is vertical, and the flat land is mostly marsh.’ General von Arnim, defending this terrain, employed minefields on a vast scale.

    The defence had two Achilles heels, however. Von Arnim, having fewer divisions than he wanted, had deployed two Bulgarian corps, mainly in the highland sector of the line. ‘These troops were dogged in defence and no pushovers,’ wrote O’Connor, ‘but they lacked modern equipment for the most part. The Germans had given them much captured French equipment, which had been adequate in 1940, but which we now outclassed. Also the Luftwaffe dedicated its efforts to protecting itself, the German ground forces, and the Bulgarians - in that order. The Greeks therefore enjoyed air superiority in that sector.’ The Bulgarian government, moreover, did rather little in the way of logistical support for the front. ‘While the attack impended, I spent half my time in fruitless meetings in Sofia asking for more supplies,’ wrote von Arnim later. This buck-passing ensured that both von Arnim and Sofia had a scapegoat to point at, but did little for the Bulgarian forces at the front, many of whom now faced a winter battle short of food and clothing.

    The other weakness was the need to guard the long and complex coastline of the Chalkidike. The embarrassing fall of Samothrace, along with the evident Allied skill in amphibious operations, rendered the Germans nervous for this area, an anxiety which British deception operations sought to accentuate, successfully. ‘We estimate that the Germans have kept no fewer than four divisions in the region,’ wrote O’Connor to Magrin-Vernerey. ‘Without this factor, we could hardly expect success.’

    …even with all these advantages, the Allies initially struggled. The offensive was postponed repeatedly due to poor weather, and two days after it began, a sudden storm turned the rivers to torrents and halted all flying. General O’Connor, dismayed by heavy casualties, suggested cancelling the operation altogether. Magrin-Vernerey, however, was less daunted by the poor weather. ‘We had it worse in Narvik,’ he said, and insisted on pressing on. His determination was rewarded on December 15th. Clear weather returned, and with heavy air support the Greek II Corps broke through the Bulgarian line in the north-west, causing the Germans to pull back their right. The Hoplites followed this with a heavy blow in the centre, which threatened the German supply line to the north. For von Arnim, this was enough, and just before Christmas he skilfully pulled his forces back north and east to avoid encirclement. Renewed snow prevented the Allies from cutting off this retreat, but did not stop their steady advance. ‘Much has been written,’ commented Magrin-Vernerey after the war, ‘about my supposed failure to annihilate German 16th Army. I only invite such commentators to consider the map, the weather, and the ability of the Germans in conducting fighting retreats.’

    General O’Connor did briefly consider halting the Hoplites, in order to allow Greek II Corps to reach Salonika first, but decided not to: ‘many of these men have fought and suffered on this front for two and a half years,’ he wrote to Magrin-Vernerey, ‘and many of their friends will never leave this country. I have held Salonika before their eyes for too long to deny it to them.’ Both Magrin-Vernerey and Mr. Koryzis expressed their complete approval. Thus 2nd Armoured Division completed its Greek odyssey; not long after, the men of the formation returned to Britain, handing over its much-scarred but beloved Churchill tanks to the Greek army.

    The liberation of Salonika, despite the cost, came as further welcome news to the Allies, coming as it did soon after the recapture of Kiev and the fall of Rome. It also had repercussions closer by. Tsar Boris of Bulgaria had died a few months earlier, and the country was now in the hands of a regency council. ‘After Salonika, we thought only of how to extract ourselves from the Axis,’ wrote Prince Kiril. ‘The only question was how.’
    Part 15.1
  • Part 15. Vol de nuit

    Extract from ch.9, A Life for the Sky, by Werner Molders

    As 1943 drew to a close the news from the great world outside was mostly bad for Germany. Of course most of what we heard was from the French guards and newspapers which always accentuated the positive for them. But even so things were clearly bad. Occasionally fresh prisoners came in who could give us details. In ‘43 a lot of them were U-boat crews who all said the same thing: the Allies seemed to find them whatever they tried, presumably because all the Allied ships and planes had radar, better radar than ours. Once we even heard explosions out at sea, and the U-boat crew survivors arrived in the camp the same day, telling how they had been hunted by planes for days on end and then forced to surface and surrender by a French destroyer. Other prisoners came in from the Italian front, again with tales of woe about Allied air power. In December I had a conversation with Hans, an officer recently captured in Italy, which stuck in my memory. ‘The latest rumour is that Bulgaria seeks to change sides. Consider the sheer diplomatic skill of our Government,’ he said. ‘Soon we shall have Greeks and Bulgarians, Poles and Russians, not to mention English and French, all forgetting old grudges, united in despising us. Is this not the quintessence of policy?’ ’

    Some of us had dared to hope that Japan could keep the Allies busy for years, but by late ‘43 it was clear the Allies were powerful enough to fight two wars at once, invading Borneo and New Guinea even while they pushed forward in Italy and took Rome. In the East the Red Army had retaken Kiev, a clear sign of impending defeat there. The guards had become triumphant and sarcastic towards us.

    What made us truly go cold though were the stories about the British bombing of Germany. All of us were scared for our families, and I very much wanted to get home and defend my country, even if, as we all believed, we could not win. Like Hans, we had long doubted the wisdom of our national policy. For that matter many of us now doubted the justice of our cause - the stories about the persecution of the Church, about the treatment of the Italians, and about cruel things in the East, all troubled us - but still, it was our families in danger...

    Our plans had progressed somewhat. Karl had got permission to run a small library, and we managed to get access to some books that had maps and diagrams. That meant we could work on the navigational problem. We had also put much effort into learning English, including a lot of technical English. Reinhard, a suave and handsome devil, did his best to charm the locals, and set up some petty trades that brought us some valuable supplies and - more valuable - information.

    Back in January ‘43 the big boys had held their big conference on the island, and planes had flooded in. The build-up of French and American aircraft continued through the year, so that they had to extend the main airfield and build some satellite ones. In truth I don’t know why so many planes had to be in Martinique. One story I heard from the guards was that the General in command of the air forces there resisted any transfer elsewhere, because he had become infatuated with a woman of the town. I doubt this story: the French do love to seek explanations in terms of cherchez la femme. Whatever the facts of the case, there were many aeroplanes sitting about the island, some of them in rather makeshift satellite fields, and what with the improved war situation (for them), security had grown somewhat slack, both at our own camp and on the airfields…

    We put our plan into operation at Christmas, when the guards were mostly drunk or distracted. We pretended to hold a prisoners’ party, and amidst the commotion the three of us hid in the laundry truck. Our false papers and civilian clothes then got us onto a satellite airfield not long before dusk - later than we had hoped, because of various small difficulties. (I do not enumerate them, as even now they might get some people into trouble.) On the edge of the field a couple of Douglas bombers were being warmed up by a pair of bored ground crew. One of these we distracted, and the other we bluffed into being sent on an errand, so that all that remained to do was to remove the chocks, taxi to the runway and take off - despite the warning flares we received. A minute or two later, as I retracted the landing gear, I saw one reason for the warnings, as a plane came in to land on the same runway we had just used. Another minute and we could not have escaped.

    Of course, we did not altogether enjoy our position. We had taken flight, and felt great joy at doing so, after over three years earthbound; but our navigation could only be approximate, dark had fallen, there was no moon, and we soon realised that our fuel situation was perilous. Our course, roughly south-west, took us over the sea, we had small hope of survival if we did not reach land. We had no parachutes. One step we quickly took was to throw overboard the rear guns and ammunition. We then spent some anxious hours scanning the sky for signs of pursuit.

    Finally we made out lights, first a few, then many: the coastal settlements of Venezuela. Once we flew over them I began to descend, and looked for a decent landing place. I may say this frightened me more than anything else I ever did, worse than being shot down. On that occasion everything happened so quickly I had no time for thought. Now I had too much time to imagine what might happen.

    Once again my guardian angel helped. Ahead we saw a long straight stretch of road by the coast, where a broad stretch of beach was lit here and there by the lights of vehicles, and I decided to go for it. Down we went, I shouted to Reinhard to lower the wheels, and in no more time (as it seemed) than it takes to write, they touched, though we were still going terribly fast. If I had not had that experience before with that particular type of aircraft, we would certainly have crashed. As it was, I could not keep the plane straight, the landing gear collapsed and we skidded along out of control for an eternity. They build good planes, the Amis: though we were thrown about like so many rocks in a waterfall, the plane held together, and we all made our escape from the smoking wreck, with plenty of bruises as souvenirs, Reinhard with a bleeding scalp and me with cracked ribs. We had to drag Karl out, he kept saying, ‘just what I wanted for Christmas, a broken leg,’ though it turned out not to be broken.

    A few minutes later the plane caught fire, though we had all got some distance away, and I felt a pang that our good servant should end so. On the other hand, it might be counted as an aerial victory to deprive the enemy of it.

    Some burning debris from the plane had blocked the road which ran close by. Shortly after, a car heading to Caracas pulled up and the driver swore at us in Spanish for several minutes: we tried to calm him down, but he was the worse for drink, and very angry that he (and his attractive companion) would now miss his party. ‘Welcome to freedom, Werner,’ said Karl.
    Part 15.2
  • Extract from Marianne and John, by Charles Montague, ch.18

    News of the attempt on Hitler’s life in January took some time to filter out: the Nazis placed a clampdown on any reports. However, by the end of the month both London and Algiers had independently learned of the event. An anti-Nazi officer had apparently detonated an explosive device - accounts differed exactly what - while Hitler, Himmler and Goering were inspecting a new set of winter uniforms. A last-minute change to the programme meant that Hitler was already leaving the room when the device went off, killing the bomber instantly, while the blast struck Goering and killed him also; but Goering shielded the others. Himmler suffered serious injuries, but Hitler himself was merely knocked to the floor and left the building without needing medical assistance. ‘The luck of the devil,’ commented M. Mandel, ‘as usual. The bad fat man is dead. Our airmen worry this might make the Luftwaffe more effective.’ Hitler’s security precautions, already considerable, reached new levels of paranoia.

    The Nazi vengeance came swiftly, with thousands of arrests and hundreds of executions of anyone considered lacking in loyalty…

    February saw a portentous spat between London and Algiers over the Indochina question, the first of many. The British and Americans wished to send SOE and OSS agents into the country to encourage and support anti-Japanese resistance, which had already become widespread. Algiers rejected the idea. ‘Even if it means a weaker resistance to the Japanese, they do not want us there,’ wrote General Marshall.’ Many suspected that with victory now assured, Algiers did not want to create a bigger political problem in Indochina than would inevitably arise anyway. ‘The resistance there claims 250,000 men under arms,’ wrote General Olry. ‘Exaggerated of course, but I foresee much trouble in that quarter. We need to have more troops out there, ready for the day we return, but we cannot spare any from PRECIPICE.’

    As for the Japanese, Indochina had proved a headache out of proportion to its size. ‘A year ago we had six divisions there, and thought that excessive,’ wrote the Emperor the same month. ‘Now we have ten. The guerilla warfare there makes China look like a tame kitten next to a tiger. Very many unfortunate excesses have occurred.’ Despite this and many other demands on its manpower, Tokyo developed plans for offensives in both China and Borneo.
    Part 15.3
  • Extract from ch.12, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green February 1944 no-one could doubt that famine had Java in its grip. Refugees by first hundreds then thousands tried to escape to Sumatra in small boats, risking their lives to do so: the Japanese fired on these boats at every opportunity. ‘These Javanese deprive us of their labour and valuable small vessels,’ wrote one Kempeitai officer, ‘we are therefore entitled, in the interests of Asian Co-Prosperity, to take harsh measures, as against deserters.’

    The Allies fed the refugees, but did very little to assist in Java itself, as the place no longer had any military significance. ‘Japanese ships and aircraft based there largely immobilised by lack of fuel,’ noted General Montgomery, ‘all our efforts must focus on coming campaign in Borneo.’ Estimates of the fatalities in Java vary widely, but cannot have been less than a million: a terrible vindication, however little wanted, of the Dutch warnings of the previous year…

    The British high command had other priorities. General Montgomery spent the rainy season re-organizing his force - now designated 12th Army - and training it for further operations, though he recognised Borneo was currently low on the Allied priority list. ‘Little need for further advances in Borneo,’ wrote the General. ‘Japanese position there has much in common with Hejaz problem in last war. Turks could not abandon holy cities, but their long supply line made sustaining their position very costly. Similar considerations apply.’ Allied submarines wrought havoc on Japanese shipping trying to bring reinforcements: ‘we drown them in job lots,’ commented General Morshead. The Japanese found it increasingly difficult to extract oil from Borneo, as Allied aircraft sank the tankers, either by direct attacks or by mining the ports.

    March brought the end of the rainy season, and increasing indications of an impending Japanese offensive in Borneo. Although Japanese casualties at sea had been high, enough troops had reached Borneo to make the offensive possible: all or part of six divisions. Montgomery had six divisions awaiting them: three Indian, two Australian, one British, and he visited all of them ahead of the battle. His main advantage was in armour - though this found few opportunities for employment - and more importantly in the air. ‘The Jap,’ Montgomery explained to his men, ‘a wily and wiry little fellow, likes to infiltrate and encircle. He knows he cannot win with firepower, we outgun him. He relies on panic and despondency. There will therefore be no panic or despondency. If he gets in behind you, form a perimeter and call up the planes.’

    ...Antagonism between Monty and his corps and division commanders had grown to a dangerous level, and this could have had serious consequences, as orders were executed tardily and sluggishly. However, the campaign that followed took the form mostly of a “soldier’s battle”, where higher-level direction took second place to the actions of junior officers and even NCOs. Time and again Allied units, individual battalions or even companies, found themselves cut off, and most applied Monty’s advice successfully. ‘The Dakotas and Hurribombers did as much as the Brens and 25-pounders,’ he wrote later. ‘The airmen saved the Army from its mistakes.’

    Although the Japanese thrusts lost impetus by May, fighting dragged on throughout the summer, though the outside world lost interest as events elsewhere took centre stage. ‘We became a forgotten army,’ wrote one officer, ‘fighting a private war, as it seemed.’ Despite heavy casualties and difficult terrain, 12th Army made ready a counter-stroke in early June, using two fresh divisions - Indian 11th and British 2nd, formed together as VI Corps. The initial plan had been for an amphibious operation, but Wavell informed Montgomery in April ‘that I should expect no landing craft at all in 1944, all were needed on other fronts. Therefore men on foot, resupplied by air, must do all.’ The march that followed turned Japanese deep infiltration tactics against them. In early August VI Corps emerged on the north bank of the Rajang River, captured Sibu and cut the Japanese lines of communication. Japanese logistics, already badly strained, collapsed. ‘Although western Borneo still contained tens of thousands of the enemy, they had lost all cohesion,’ wrote Montgomery. ‘Mopping up took several months, and required large forces. We estimate that the enemy lost more to starvation and disease than in combat.’

    In the meanwhile, Allied armour, for once able to use adequate roads, pushed northwards rapidly to take Miri before the rainy season, with the Grant tanks of Probyn’s Horse entering the town with fuel tanks almost dry, and holding the place for an entire day before the infantry caught up. The RAAF provided air cover, some crews flying six missions a day. ‘A strong enemy counter-attack must have overrun us,’ wrote one Indian officer, ‘but we held on by bluff and Beaufighters.’ The Japanese still held the Seria oilfield as the rainy season commenced, but it had become useless, as it was now within range of Allied fighters and even heavy artillery. ‘We strafe anything that moves by sea,’ noted an RNZAF Hurricane pilot in a letter home. ‘Dangerous work at low level, but worth it.’ The Japanese could no longer store or export the oil, though it was needed more than ever as the American war machine continued its advance through the Pacific. ‘The American assault on the Philippines coincided with the collapse in Borneo,’ wrote Admiral Yamamoto. ‘We needed the oil to mount a naval counterstroke, but we could not get it even from Sarawak to Luzon. The full, final collapse of the Japanese war effort had become a matter of time.’
    Part 15.4
  • Extract from ch.14, The Gray Waves: a history of the Battle of the Atlantic, Walter Schluter

    ...although none of these attacks succeeded fully. The Kriegsmarine surface fleet had effectively ceased its war by early 1944, lack of fuel by itself doing what direct Allied attacks had not: but the Allies could not know this. As far as Admiral Cunningham, the new First Sea Lord, was concerned, the Bismarck and Tirpitz posed a serious threat as a fleet in being, and tied down several major units urgently needed elsewhere, above all for OCEAN and PRECIPICE, and the ongoing campaign in Borneo.

    Thus the Fleet devised operation JADE. For this the RN provided the Ark Royal, the old carrier Furious and several escort carriers - all the most modern carriers had gone to the East. The Ark was overdue for modernisation, but the need to neutralise the ‘Ugly Sisters’ took priority. Two KGV-class battleships went along as escort. The French contributed the Richelieu, on her final mission with the Home Fleet before she too went East. Finally, the new aircraft carrier Jean Bart took part, somewhat controversially; her captain believed her air group was insufficiently trained, but the chance to hit the German fleet could not be missed, and Algiers directed her participation. ‘Two old grandmas and a slip of a girl,’ summarised the Admiral in command. In all some 200 aircraft would take part, the largest carrier-borne operation ever carried out in Atlantic waters. Bad weather forced repeated postponements, but a brief favourable window arose in April.

    ...the planes took off in the dark, and struck early in the morning of the 19th, hitting both battleships numerous times, though most of the bombs lacked the weight to cripple the ships. During the first wave damage was mostly confined to the superstructure. However, in the second, one Dauntless dive-bomber from the Jean Bart apparently suffered damage on its dive and crashed directly into the Bismarck, the blast penetrating the armour and starting a fire that left the battleship unable to move. The Bismarck in fact had suffered damage beyond local repair, and only moved again after the war, when she went to the breakers: a sad end for such a ship. The Germans took several months to repair the Tirpitz, which the Allies could therefore discount during the crucial period of the spring and summer. Total losses were six aircraft.

    ‘If the operation had gone ahead even a week later it could not have done so much damage,’ noted Admiral Ciliax. ‘We would have had better smoke-screens in action and additional guns.’ The Ark Royal suffered serious damage from an accidental fire on the return to Scapa, and now bowed out, as it proved for good, as she did not emerge from her rebuild until the end of the war. Admiral Godfroy considered it a good start for the Jean Bart. ‘Once you get to the East, we will look for more such actions,’ he signalled.
    Part 15.5
  • Extract from ch.13 of To the stars the hard way: a history of 50 Wing RAF by Bertram Owen

    ...the high command had noted the Wing’s performance in destroying precision targets during the drive on Rome. Wing Commander Braden travelled to Algiers on March 30th for a highly secret meeting. ‘On his return he seemed unwilling to talk much,’ noted Squadron Leader Hunter, ‘which we all finally understood on the 1st when he explained what we had to do. Some of us thought it an April Fool, but quickly realised it was much too sticky a business for fooling.’

    The operations that followed, collectively known as VISION, had their genesis two months earlier, when the Hungarian dictator Horthy began to explore the possibility of making a separate peace with the Allies. Berlin swiftly learned of this and acted to prevent it, sending German troops to occupy Hungary in March. For good measure they also acted against Bulgaria, where the Regents had also been putting out peace feelers. The consequent dissolution of the Bulgarian army created a temporary vacuum at the front. The Allies had not planned any offensive for the spring, and did not at this time wish to risk over-extension, but O’Connor took the opportunity to advance past Drama at little cost. Prince Kiril fled to the Allied lines, as did many civilians, especially Bulgarian Jews; but the Jews of Hungary had no such nearby refuge.

    The Supreme Council discussed the matter soon afterwards. ‘This has the makings of yet more tragedy,’ noted M. Mandel, ‘half a million Jews live in Budapest.’ Mr. Churchill agreed, and the Allied air forces were again directed to explore their options. ‘Hitherto we had no means to do anything directly against these ghastly Nazi persecutions,’ wrote Churchill later, ‘but now we had bomber bases near Pescara, which offered better prospects. The opposition of the airmen was beaten down.’ Not only the airmen opposed the idea. ‘A folly of Mandel’s, this scheme,’ wrote de Gaulle, ‘it is a distraction from our main effort, that offers little prospect of success.’

    The forces allocated to VISION comprised 50 Wing and the French 4th Groupe de Bombardement (GB4), recently re-equipped with the latest variant of B-24 bombers. This unit had trained for night operations as part of the cancelled operation INTENTION. Now they changed their focus. Their directive read, ‘You will undertake attacks on rail targets in the Krakow - Katowice - Ostrava triangle, in order to impede and disrupt German operations in that region.’ The crews, British and French, disliked the riskiness of the operation, which would strain the capabilities of their aircraft, but when informed as to the nature of the “German operations”, did not hesitate to carry out their mission.

    Four VISION missions took place in April. Each took roughly the same pattern, with the Mosquitoes of 50 Wing finding and marking the targets, before GB4 bombed them. ‘We knew our accuracy might not reach our usual standards,’ noted Squadron Leader Hunter, ‘particularly since we did not have OBOE.’ Some damage was done, with a rail bridge being brought down near Ostrava and several others damaged. However, the Germans re-routed most traffic without much difficulty, and repaired most of the damage in a few days (though one bridge over the Oder went unrepaired until the war ended). The deportations from Budapest to Auschwitz were largely unaffected...

    GB4 paid most of the price. The Mosquitoes of 50 Wing suffered only five losses, all to flak or accidents; their speed protected them from night-fighters. However these last brought down eighteen of the B-24s, ten of them on the final mission (VISION IV) on April 28th, as it seems the Germans had worked out what the Allies were doing, and concentrated their fighters to intercept. GB4 was shattered, and was pulled out of action to recover, only returning to combat in the last days of the war. 50 Wing returned to other missions in support of PRECIPICE. ‘Never did hairier ops than those, even in ‘41,’ wrote Wing Commander Braden.

    These events brought political repercussions. ‘Painful losses,’ noted Mandel, ‘but these were risks we had to run, to demonstrate that the values of the Republic truly have universal meaning.’ De Gaulle, who felt vindicated in his scepticism, expressed himself icily. ‘Meagre results at great cost,’ he said. ‘I hope certain gentlemen can reflect on this.’ Some writers have said this sad affair caused the definitive split between himself and Mandel, which dominated French political life for the remainder of the war and beyond. In fact it represented one factor amid many; evidently a collision between two such strong personalities must have happened eventually.

    Historians have continued the strife ever since. Were the VISION missions merely a costly failure? Or did they have some symbolic value that in part justified the cost? In the last analysis, we cannot definitively answer these questions. But the men of 50 Wing played their part as well as they could.
    Part 15.6
  • Extract from ch.3 of Herbert Molins, Du sel et sol: histoire militaire de la campagne en Europe

    The Algiers government naturally wished for substantial French participation in OCEAN, hence the movement of 2nd Division to England in the winter. General Eisenhower approved the alteration of the plans to allow 2nd Division to land on the first day - the beach being renamed accordingly from UTAH to UNION. In order to prepare, the division took part in various exercises of which the last and largest was code-named TIGER. Its commander, however, General de Hautecloque, decided on 26th April to cancel any further exercises. ‘We know enough about amphibious landings by this time,’ he said. ‘I’ve lost count how many we’ve done.’ The US Navy agreed. ‘OCEAN is too close now,’ noted Admiral Kirk, ‘we need to rest the crews and finish our preparations in port. I have no hesitation agreeing with General de Hautecloque.’ Kirk’s decision ruffled feathers. ‘Extremely concerned the French have not rehearsed adequately,’ wrote General Brooke. ‘COSSAC are up in arms. Still it is Kirk’s decision to make at this point. On their head be it!’
    Part 16.1
  • Part 16. I have seen the hungry ocean gain

    Extract from ch.4 of Herbert Molins, Du sel et sol: histoire militaire de la campagne en Europe

    Poor weather prevented the landings earlier in the week. ‘We were keyed and ready to go on Monday, but it seemed the weather would stop us until the favourable moon period was over,’ wrote General Eisenhower later. ‘Thursday was the last possible day, so on Wednesday evening the mood was sombre until Group Captain Stagg turned up with, at last, good news.’

    ...the grand tableau unfolded at last on the morning of Thursday 11th May 1944, a day to be evermore remembered as Jour J or D Day, operation OCEAN. And as Algiers had insisted, Frenchmen were among the first to land. Each regiment of 2nd Division has at some time or other claimed to be first ashore, but such considerations are of merely antiquarian interest, and General de Hautecloque has always steadfastly refused to give his opinion. What is in no doubt is that by nightfall the Allies had a secure beach-head, and the men of 2nd Division had linked up with the American paratroopers on their flank. The division would fight under American command for the remainder of the Normandy campaign…

    General Kesselring, commanding the German forces in the theatre, commented later: ‘the same pattern we had previously seen repeated itself. We could not prevent the enemy from seizing a beach-head, as they had the initiative and could choose their time, concentrate their forces. We could not drive the enemy back into the sea with counter-attacks due to their naval gunfire support. We could not drive off the warships due to the enemy air superiority, which also slowed the assembly of counter-attacking forces.’

    The Luftwaffe had placed high hopes in its new guided bombs, the Fritz-X and Hs-293. These had seen small-scale use in the Aegean, but were still something of a mystery to the Allies. ‘We didn’t quite understand how they worked, and they worried us greatly,’ commented Admiral Kirk. ‘In the event our air cover prevented them from doing serious damage.’ Although these weapons sank or damaged numerous ships including HMS Manchester, the largest ship sunk in the landings, the Admiral correctly appreciated their limited strategic significance. Within a few weeks the Allies, including “the Bakers” - the experts of the EMME - had evolved electronic countermeasures.

    Kesselring proved a master of defensive tactics, and the fight in the bocage cost the Allies heavily. But the end result was rarely in doubt. General Alexander’s forces, Canadian 1st and British 2nd Army, fought repeated fierce tank battles in the east, not taking Caen until mid-June, but frustrating the German desire for a co-ordinated counterattack.

    Then in late June US forces broke out in the west in operation SERPENT, threatening to encircle the entire German 7th Army. No effective riposte was possible, as by this point the French and US armies had landed in the south - operation PRECIPICE - and achieved complete success. French 1st Army under Bethouart liberated Marseilles on July 4th, then pushed north at speed to take Lyons on the 14th. The same day British and Canadian spearheads reached the Seine. Kesselring ordered a general retreat, despite Hitler’s orders to the contrary, and oddly Hitler never punished him for this, but kept him in command...

    Naturally de Hautecloque and 2nd Division received the honour of liberating Paris, on 20th July. Most members of the Quisling regime had fled to Germany, but a few remained and were now imprisoned to await trial. Laval was among them, and on the 21st de Hautecloque arrested him in person. Laval asked, ‘Mon general, pourquoi est-ce que vous êtes devenu Dreyfusard? Vous etiez comme nous.’ The general replied, ‘Je n’ai jamais été comme vous,’ which gave Chevalier the title of his song celebrating the liberation.

    The Government had planned to move temporarily to Marseilles, but the liberation of Paris came so quickly after, that they had time to meet only once in Marseilles. At the end of July they finally returned to Paris, their policy at last vindicated. All were saddened to see so many fine buildings demolished - a final act of Nazi spite, though the greatest monuments mostly survived thanks to their sheer scale. They lacked enough explosives, and the Resistance did much to hinder their placement. De Gaulle, Mandel, Blum and Daladier walked together along the Champs d’Elysee. ‘We have made a trial of war, as we said,’ commented Daladier, ‘and now we see a favourable verdict.’ For a few blessed days, faction slept…

    July then saw the launching of operation CREDIT on the Italian front, ensuring no German reinforcements could come from that theatre. British 8th Army liberated Florence on July 26th, though further territorial gains were limited. In early August the forces from Normandy and the south linked up, and not long after French 1st Army reached the Vosges, where 2nd Division now came back under French command. US forces in 12th Army Group performed brilliantly during this period: they wiped out the Mons pocket, reached the ‘Westwall’ fortifications on the western fringes of Germany, and captured bridgeheads across the Meuse…

    Meanwhile 21st Army Group performed “the great swan” and reached Antwerp on August 8th, capturing the place largely intact, thanks to the heroism of the Belgian Resistance. ‘Another black day for the German army,’ wrote O’Connor, commander of British 2nd Army. They also overran many of the V-weapon launching sites, reducing the threat from this source. Even the most stubborn of Germans should have realised that their defeat was now certain. Quite apart from the superior strength the Allies had now brought to bear, the French Army now absorbed hundreds of thousands of new recruits, all longing to avenge four years of oppression.
    Last edited:
    Part 16.2
  • Extract from A Pilgrim to Mount Lebanon, by Marc Malik

    We did not land until early July - I have lost the diary in which I noted the day, but the regimental history says it was the 1st, and who am I to deny such evidence? I can only say I am surprised that I do not remember it as such, since that was my father’s birthday… On our first evening, we marched out to a camp outside the city - somewhat to our disappointment, since we had hoped to encounter some of the sights and pleasures of Marseilles. But those, I take it, would in any case have been few and far between, the city having suffered badly.

    Bachir and I, our duties done, sat on a log outside our tent, and talked a little of the curious paradox of the event; here we were, under the French colours, bearing a French commission, and coming to the fabled land for the first time.

    “A fine country it is,” he said, surveying the distant hills, ‘but not to be compared with home.” And he sighed. Perhaps he had been brooding on all we had seen and suffered. “We might leave our bones here, in this country. We serve it but do we truly belong?''

    “On the other hand, as the books say, the whole world is our country…”

    Buoyed up by these fine sentiments, and not a little by the wine that the people brought out for us, we set off on our campaign north, now riding in fine American vehicles. We all took more pleasure in this than anything else in the war. The Germans, it seemed, were retreating as fast as they could back to Germany, though they fought small delaying actions here and there.

    One such action came on 20th July, a hot day that the ferocity of man made hotter. A company or so of the enemy held a bridge across the Allier, and our regiment had the task of taking it. A hard fight followed, but our firepower prevailed, for we had the assistance of the Thunderbolts - a grand sight for us to see these powerful machines in our colours, dive-bombing the enemy and strafing their positions. Such must have been the sight, in reverse, so often in 1940! My heart went out to those poor French troops who had faced such odds. We now took ample revenge.

    We advanced across the bridge and found the detritus of the beaten enemy, the event calling to mind our exploits in Greece. I cautioned the men to beware of booby traps, but for once there were none. Bachir came to me, swearing hoarsely - he had lost several men and his canteen. ‘Give me a drink,’ he gasped, and I shared the last few drops of my water with him. We came to the road leading north, boarded our vehicles once again, and set off. Soon we came to a road sign: VICHY 2km.

    ‘Never heard of it. Anything interesting about this place?’ asked Bachir.

    ‘Famous for its waters,’ I said.

    ‘I could do with something stronger,’ he said grumpily, and fell asleep.


    Extract from letter from William Dempster Jr. to his father, July 27th 1944

    Well, Dad, they got me at last. I’m writing this with my left: looks like I’ll be a southpaw for a good while. The doctors say I’ll have to spend a few weeks at least in bed. That’s fine: after the last few weeks and months, I could sleep for a week, have breakfast then decide it’s time for a snooze. Until I got my little scrape, it felt like we’d not had three hours sleep at a stretch since Christmas. I expect you’ve got a card by now saying where I am: in DELETED BY CENSOR, not far from Marseilles. I came through here on the way north, after landing on the beaches in late DELETED BY CENSOR. It was a lot like that time we got that boat across the Bay and ran out of fuel near Bombay Hook, remember? Thus went your son’s glorious part in operation Precipice. I think I’m allowed to say I got my feet wet again. For the first few days, we all bowled along easy, and I saw the bridges of Avignon - all filled with people celebrating; they looked thin, but nothing would stop them celebrating - it was the 4th of July and I guess it meant more to me than ever before.

    …then when we got past Avignon we had to stop because the enemy got stubborn. Stubborn is stupid when you’re up against our 105s and 155s: we gave them a heck of a time. But that meant we ran out of shells, and of course the radio stopped working at just the wrong time, so I had to hop in my jeep and take a message in person. Just then the Krauts opened up on the road - they had some guns we’d missed in the hills across the valley - and I ended up in a ditch, and my poor jeep in the river. But I try to keep things in perspective. ‘Thank your lucky stars, Bill,’ John said as he tugged me out, and Salvo said, ‘That could have been a much worse day.’ They were both right, of course.

    The boys moved on. I hear they’re heading for the Rhine, and looking to get across it before the bad weather. Dad, I sure hope we can end this thing this year. The Riviera isn’t at all pretty after the Krauts have spent four years looting the place…

    Your loving son

    P.S. The Colonel dropped by yesterday and says they’ll probably ship me home. I hope I’ll be in time for the wedding…


    Lemoine, Memoires, ch. 15

    Marseilles had seen better days. That I could tell even from a mile offshore; my beloved hometown looked hazy and grey. The Mogador brought us in slowly, weaving a hesitant path amidst the wreckage of the harbour. A few of us gazed on the shore from near the bow, where a party of sailors kept an intent eye on the water ahead. ‘It takes an entire tide to bring in one or two ships,’ commented the petty officer in charge. ‘The Boches wrecked the place thoroughly.’ It was hard to imagine the place would ever be normal again, though here and there we saw men at work, ours and Americans, cutting gaps through the horrendous masses of twisted metal that lay everywhere. Occasionally an explosion would create a waterspout in the middle distance. ‘About a thousand mines in there,’ said the petty officer. Later I heard this had been an under-estimate…

    I should like to say that the moment I stepped ashore is burned into my memory, into my soul. But honesty compels me to say I cannot now recall it, this moment for which I had longed more than four years. It seems as though one minute we stood along the edge of the ship, and then we assembled on the dockside and looked around us in wonder. ‘Well, we have work to do,’ said someone, and we boarded an American lorry which took us to the hospital…

    I asked around for Armand. He had left the hospital, they said. I could probably find him at his sister’s place. But she was nowhere to be found either. It proved harder than I expected to find him - the city in some places seemed intact, though looking shopworn - but at other times I went wandering through streets blocked by rubble or suspected bombs.

    Finally I found him staying at his cousin’s place, a pale and thin version of the man I knew. He greeted me listlessly, and must have seen the disappointment I felt. Wrongly: for I should have realised that his ordeal, like the ordeal of our entire country, could not be so easily put behind us. ‘Guy, my friend, I am sorry to give you no better welcome,’ he said, ‘but you see what a trial we have been through.’ Four years of ever-shorter rations, four years of ever-lengthening lists of executions posted outside the Mairie, accursed pedantic lists in German above French…

    Monsieur Carona, our favourite patient in the old days, was dead. ‘He resisted,’ said Armand. ‘He hid some of our airmen, I think, or it may have been Jews. Anyway, the Boches shot him, the swine - goodness, that seems a long while ago - early ‘41.’ Some of our old colleagues had gone the same way.

    ‘What of your sister?’ I asked.

    He mumbled something. I asked him to repeat himself, and he burst out loudly: ‘collaboratrice!’ He had not seen her in over a year. Quickly I changed the subject, and showed him a picture of Emilie, which had found its way from Geneva to Rome by a route too circuitous to describe. ‘Quite the young lady now,’ he said, and I felt a surge of pride for her.

    ‘She has been well out of it,’ I said. ‘Some good folk took care of her.’

    We spoke of the war. ‘Did we do the right thing in 1940?’ I asked, then cursed myself for blurting it out. It was too soon to make such judgements, but my tongue had gotten the better of me. ‘Maybe we could have made peace…’

    He pondered this. ‘‘I’ve seen the Boche close up,’ he said. ‘They seemed to me always to act as though, if they did not take everything, they were doing us a favour. I don’t know, Guy, but I think their price for peace would have been heavier than we could imagine.’ Armand had not been in the Resistance, he admitted. ‘The risks seemed just too great for any good I might have done,’ he said, and I did not hesitate to agree, which seemed to comfort him somewhat.

    ‘You set me free,’ I said, ‘I could not have gone without your encouragement. We all did what we could.’ I took from my pocket his Christopher, and handed it back to him. Only then did I feel that I had come home.
    Part 16.3
  • A Song at the Sacrifice, ch.20, by Theo Barker

    For his heroics at Kuching, Arthur got promotion and a Staff appointment with Monty. I was laid up for months with some nasty bug, lying in a bed in the base hospital in Singapore. So the spring and summer passed tediously, and I don’t care to say much about it. By August, though, I felt much better and paid a trip to see Arthur. The word was that the Staff felt I should go back to the Med, they felt I had done my bit, and events were kicking off in Greece that meant I would be more useful there. I had been trying to tell them that for over a year. But other events got in the way.

    Arthur asked me to meet in a hotel, and I found him there with a padre and another fellow, some Intelligence type.

    ‘Now the Rev here knows I’m no praying man,’ Arthur began. ‘I always say a good padre is good for morale, though. So when the Rev came to me I listened.’

    ‘Some rum do,’ said the padre crisply. He had the half-moon glasses and bookish air you would expect.

    Arthur went on, ‘Now the Rev said it was a delicate matter. At first I thought he meant he’d taken a dose of the clap, but then he told me what he’d heard about your pal Wingate. I thought I’d better take steps.’

    The Rev explained that he’d been talking to various chaps at HQ and elsewhere and become professionally concerned, as you might say. The story was that with their usual lack of gratitude, HQ had punished Wingate by sending him up-country. Of course after Wavell handed over to Monty, he lost his chief sponsor. Naturally he was under a cloud after his little incident with Macarthur, but I think they over-reacted by stripping all his forces from him. He deserved better. Still, he himself did not seem to see it as a punishment. He took to his new role with enthusiasm.

    Japanese stragglers and even some formed units were still everywhere, some of them turned up as far south as Kuching, apparently after marching through the jungles for weeks, subsisting on half a cup of rice a day, and then mounting frontal charges on our positions, their whole goal being to die in battle. ‘They really are extraordinary fellows,’ Arthur put in. Against the admiration one might feel for that, one always had to remember some of the bad sights one saw; our men, or local civilians, tied to trees and bayoneted; and worse things which I will not set down.

    The padre went on. Wingate’s job was well to the north, where he took a handful of men, translators and signallers, to organise some of the Dayaks. Other chaps like Harrisson were doing the same with other tribes. Initially this was to raid Japanese communications, and later to hunt stragglers, since we could not spare the men to go hunting Japs all over Borneo. He went off in May, reported that he had made contact, then went quiet. During the summer HQ started getting nervous, word reached the good Rev, and he had Monty’s ear. ‘So now we come to you,’ said Arthur. ‘He trusts you. You must go and find him, and get him out of there by any means you see fit.’

    ‘Any means?’ I asked, somewhat perturbed.

    ‘Any means consistent with good discipline,’ put in the Intelligence chap. ‘We’re not asking you to shoot the daft blighter.’

    The upshot was that a couple of days later I was aboard H.M. Motor Launch No.173 heading upriver…

    As I say, there were Japs scattered all over western Borneo in those months. As we went upriver they took the odd potshot at us, but we drove them off with the Vickers and it was really quite a pleasant trip. The crew of the launch were all splendid chaps who liked to hear me recite Homer in the original.

    ...we found Wingate’s party on the fifth day in a Dayak village. One of his signallers greeted us as we landed. We asked him, the chap’s name was Dennis I believe, why they hadn’t been in touch. ‘Radios all gone to blazes,’ he replied. ‘Got any tea?’

    Happily, we still had some left, so we had a quick brew up. Dennis wanted to chat - he’d seen the same old faces for weeks - but I’m afraid I was a touch short with him. I asked where I could find Wingate.

    ‘You’ll find him up there.’ He gestured towards a huddle of huts, hardly enough to be called a village.

    Naturally, when I found Wingate he was completely naked, though in this case this was partly to fit in with the locals. Several of them were attending on him, offering him Japanese heads, evidently not attached to the bodies.

    ‘Good to see you, old chap,’ I said to him. ‘We’ve been getting worried not hearing from you.’

    He gave me a long stare. ‘I never minded, we’ve taken some little hunting parties in the jungle.’ He thanked the tribesmen, who then left us alone. He stared at me again a while, and toyed with a long knife. ‘Have you ever thought about any real freedoms?’ he said eventually. ‘Freedom from the opinions of others… even from the opinions of yourself?’

    I thought this a little odd even for Wingate. ‘Time to end the show, though,’ I said. ‘No doubt it’s all good work, but HQ think it’s not quite cricket.’

    He was quiet for a while, as the insects buzzed about us. ‘Have you made a friend of horror? Horror and moral terror are your friends.’

    This was really too much. ‘I say, old chap, this really is a rum do. Remember you are a Christian Englishman.’

    Of course this brought him to his senses. He pondered a minute. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘time to leave. Anyway, I’ve run out of onions. Just let me get my luggage together.’

    His luggage included a dozen particularly valuable heads that the Dayaks insisted on him taking, as a mark of their appreciation. The M.L. crew did raise their eyebrows at this, but made no comment. We were fairly crowded, what with Wingate’s party aboard, but we all rubbed along well enough, we formed a whist club and sang old boating songs. Once we got back to the estuary, I threw the heads overboard, which old Wingate was a bit miffed about, and he wouldn’t talk to me for days.
    Part 16.4
  • Extract from ch.6 of Herbert Molins, Du sel et sol: histoire militaire de la campagne en Europe

    The top Allied generals on the Western Front - Eisenhower, Bethouart, Alexander, O’Connor - have come under frequent criticism for their decisions in August 1944. However, given the constraints they faced, it is hard to see what they could have done differently. The so-called ‘Arnhem variant’ has been war-gamed repeatedly since the war, and the consensus of informed opinion is that its chances of success were about even. Before his fatal flight on August 17th, General Patton reversed himself on the issue, but it seems that Eisenhower would in any case have supported Alexander’s decision to employ his forces in the Scheldt area. ‘The Arnhem variant,’ wrote Eisenhower at the time, ‘cannot be carried out with the airborne forces available. This renders all other considerations moot.’

    The new First Sea Lord, Admiral Cunningham, wrote: ‘It appears that Alexander, who has more experience than anyone of expeditionary warfare, has a soft spot for the advice of admirals.’ His colleague Admiral Ramsay agreed, and noted, ‘Alex is the only general with the root of the matter in him. He gives no impression of great brains, but he understands essentials better than anyone.’ 21st Army Group therefore spent late August and early September in fierce but successful fighting to clear the Scheldt approaches, bringing Antwerp into full use by the end of the month.

    The success of the Canadian and British operations in the far north of the front was mirrored by French and American successes at the southern extremity. On August 25th French 1st Army seized Belfort, and the road to Mulhouse was open. Only by throwing all available troops into the Gap did the Germans stabilise the line a few kilometres short of Mulhouse. The Rhine was now in sight at both source and mouth…

    Berlin’s chief concern in October was the danger of the Allies seizing bridgeheads over the Rhine before the winter set in. ‘Three hungry mouths,’ commented General Kesselring, ‘all need feeding. The English only need a good shove to cross the Rhine in the north. The Amis are bleeding us dry in the centre. The French have a clear run, they could take Colmar whenever they choose. Three mouths, and we have only enough soup for one.’ His appreciation was perhaps too pessimistic - all three Allied army groups needed rest. Patton's replacement in command of 3rd Army, General Collins, noted: 'a majority of the infantry divisions have suffered 100% casualties since this Army came into existence.'

    However, it is true that the October - November fighting has received less attention than it perhaps deserves. These months proved as costly for all three Allied Army Groups as the Normandy campaign, and even more costly for the Germans; action never died down entirely, and frantic efforts at keeping the Allies away from the Rhine, especially with Allied air power still waxing, consumed piecemeal the forces that OKW had hoped to assemble for a major counter-offensive during the winter. As it was, French 1st Army’s final efforts in early November received their due reward, the capture of Mulhouse and a position on the banks of the Rhine itself. After the first snow arrived, the front settled into a pause, with both sides exhausted. ‘The barometer dropped to the peg, and then it kept on getting colder,’ wrote General O’Connor. The final offensive would have to await better weather.
    Part 16.5
  • Extract from Marianne and John, by Charles Montague, ch.19

    After the euphoria generated by the liberation of France, the decision-makers of the Union had to grapple with the challenges of victory and the demands of peace. ‘As our military fortunes waxed, our political problems worsened,’ noted Attlee. ‘The PM and I had our differences, but we agreed on deploring how difficult it became dealing with the French in those last few months of 1944. Mandel remained the dominant personality in French affairs, but his attention was consumed by his power struggle with de Gaulle. Their previous amicable cooperation had become only a memory. De Gaulle for his part sought to inflame every issue, as it seemed, with the goal of improving his own position.’

    The issues that began to divide London and Paris from July onwards mostly related to colonial questions. London had queried the French policy of reducing the North African element in its forces, arguing that this weakened the French army at a time when every man was needed. Paris reacted very coldly to this questioning, complaining that London showed no inclination to take French advice about the Indian Army. No meeting of minds took place.

    The autumn saw the American landings in the Philippines that heralded the liberation of that country. Strategically this was no longer needed to prevent the importation of raw materials to Japan from the Indies, which had already virtually ceased; but the US, driven by General Macarthur, insisted on taking on the challenge. The IJN proved unable to intervene for lack of fuel, and though the IJA fought hard, the American forces had complete dominance.

    The British believed their next step for 1945, once the rains ceased, should be to complete the reconquest of Borneo, and provide naval forces to assist the American drive towards the Japanese home islands. However, once again political considerations supervened, and did so in a way that left the Union facing prolonged and profound problems.

    The Mandel faction’s dominance of the Government had been fading for some time, as he was seen as too close to the “Anglo-Saxons”. ‘They have sacrificed too much for the sake of the so-called Union,’ said de Gaulle in October. With hindsight it appears likely that de Gaulle had decided, even before the liberation of metropolitan France, that he could use the question of the future relationship between France and her allies as the tool to take power himself.

    London saw this perhaps more clearly than Washington. In an effort to bolster Mandel’s faction, the British now committed themselves to launching a full-scale invasion of Indo-China in the spring of 1945. Mr. Bevin commented, ‘Winston realises he indulged in one of his rhetorical flights when he promised to redeem Indochina, but Paris takes it as a contractual promise. Japan will fall soon in any case, and we will get Indochina back then; but instead we have to fight for it.’ In subsequent months this line of thinking, along with differences about European questions, led to Mr. Bevin privately becoming highly sceptical of any plans to expand or even continue the Union post-war…

    Evidently, decision-takers in London did not altogether like the Indochina option, seeing it as a heavy commitment; they would have preferred to advance into North Borneo and retake Celebes, thus restoring full sea links to Australia and the US positions in the Pacific. The Navy wished to participate in the final operations against the Japanese home islands. Elsewhere, conditions in Java had now become so bad that some Allied decision-makers felt retaking the place might become desirable even on purely humane grounds. However, the die was cast. Montgomery as Supreme Commander would have six British and Indian divisions for the operation initially, with more to follow. The Australians refused to participate, preferring to use their divisions further east, in Borneo and subsidiary operations in the Sunda Islands. The French would contribute a corps as soon as possible, and all their modern warships, of which Richelieu and Jean Bart were chief. Admiral Godefroy would command the naval forces - it was politically essential to have a senior French commander in the theatre, although most of the naval forces employed would be British. As 1944 drew to a close, the elimination of the German naval threat meant the RN sent the remainder of its heavy units to Singapore.
    Part 17.1
  • Part 17. Ou sont les neiges d’antan?

    A Song at the Sacrifice, ch.21, by Theo Barker

    ...The Huns, of course, were long gone by this point. We now know that Berlin had thrown in the towel about the Balkans as soon as the Red Army took Ploesti, in fact they’d made the decision pretty much as soon as the Russians crossed the Dniester; it seems the oil was always their main interest in the entire region. When one reflects on it, it is remarkable the extent to which their lack of oil drove German strategy in the entire war - remarkable too that they went to war in the first place without a really reliable source.

    Our lads pushed north in September, the Greeks occupied the rest of Albania and French V Corps pushed into the Vardar, some of our spearheads had pushed into Bulgaria, with an armoured column headed for Sofia while the New Zealanders took the high ground in the Rhodope mountains. So orders now came to me to leave Alex once again, as our troops needed people like me on the scene. Going back to Athens was a very different experience to my leaving it. Instead of a hair-raising trip by ship, at risk of being bombed, I went in great comfort aboard a French transport plane via Crete, where I stopped off for a couple of days. The population looked fairly fit: food had been less short on Crete than one might expect. Maleme had undergone a great transformation, the Americans had turned it into a massive logistical base for their air striking force in Attica. But it never really did much, since by the time it was ready, the Germans were already leaving Greece, and Piraeus handled their needs quite satisfactorily. But such things always happen in war. In the event it came in very useful later, during the Balkan relief efforts. But I get ahead of myself.

    My feet barely had time to touch the ground in Athens before I was whisked off into days of almost continuous meetings in Salonika. The Government had no clear idea about policy towards its northern neighbours, the MEA had become shaky due to ongoing problems between the liberals and royalists. We did not want to dictate, and the various parties and groups were at loggerheads. In particular the Communists wanted a bigger role in government. They had real grievances of course, and they had put up with a lot, but we couldn’t let them take more power than they deserved. The Royalists wanted to kick them out entirely, and the Venizelists had no warm feelings.

    Then - in Salonika especially - we had the problem of what to do about the collaborators. Feelings ran pretty high on this subject as you would expect. On the one hand the Communists - and others - felt the Government was letting them off lightly. It did sicken us to see known collaborators walking about quite freely - quite a number of them were shot in what one might call unofficial justice. On the other hand, northern Greece was still in a mess, and the last thing it needed was a purge, the country might have fallen into chaos. Perhaps that’s what the Communists wanted. We took the lead from London that we had no strong position on how to handle them, but we did want all the parties to agree on what should be done. A fool’s hope. The matter became a political football.

    The Communists didn’t want to give up their weapons, not without making sure of rock-solid political gains. I left Athens in the New Year of ‘45, feeling that civil war had now become a real risk if the Venizelists split, and I had seen enough of war to want out. I expected that the Government would win - they had all the advantages - but I did not want to see the Greeks fighting each other. Once back in Alex, I told Eleni our return to Athens might be somewhat delayed. Although I was wrong about civil war breaking out - the Communists could see the odds against them as well as I could - I was right that our return would be delayed. In the end we didn’t get back for over a year, not until the elections, and you know what happened then. So while one chapter ended, another began. But that is another story.
    Part 17.2
  • Extract from ch.8 of Herbert Molins, Du sel et sol: histoire militaire de la campagne en Europe

    Snow fell heavily that winter. In December and January the Germans undertook local counter-offensives at various points on the front, in order to exploit the bad weather, which kept Allied aircraft mostly grounded. These gained ground in a few places, but hardly repaid the cost. Typical was the experience of the Vosges offensive in mid-January, launched to deny French 1st Army control of high ground west of Colmar. General Bethouart handled the defence deftly, giving ground in places in order to economise on forces, and waiting for a spell of clear weather before launching a successful counter-attack. By the end of the month the Germans had returned to their start lines, having inflicted some 10,000 casualties but suffered just as heavily.

    At about the same time, two further blows fell on the Germans. General O’Connor’s 2nd Army and General Bradley’s Army Group closed up to the Rhine in several places. During February the Allies laid their plans for the final offensives. But the strain of the long defensive battle, and the crushing weight of the Allied air offensive, had taken such a toll on the Germans that the line began to crack even before the planned assaults across the Rhine could take place. ‘There are long sectors of the river that have no meaningful defence,’ noted Kesselring on February 22nd. ‘It is only a matter of time.’

    The Americans were first across. Troops of the US 7th Army took a fortuitous opportunity on the last day of the month, seizing a bridgehead in chaotic circumstances, while 3rd Army followed suit soon after. British and Canadian troops soon followed. On March 1st - St David’s Day - 53rd (Welsh) Division exploited a gap torn open by 11th Armoured Division, and seized the partially demolished remnants of the Rhine bridge at Arnhem. Within three days 2nd Army had two corps across. Finally, on March 3rd the French 1st Army launched its final offensive, operation MURIEL. ‘Finally we could prove the truth of Napoleon’s saying, that it is with the artillery that one makes war,’ said General Olry, who came to the front to witness the culmination of France’s long trial. ‘The bombardments at Verdun seem small next to this.’ French armour surged forward on a ten-mile front and seized two crossings. ‘Berlin by Easter,’ became the cry; though in fact French 1st Army directed their victorious arms towards Munich…

    March became the month when the Allied armies reaped their rewards. In the north, General Alexander’s 21st Army Group liberated eastern Holland and drove across the north German plain, with 2nd Army taking Bremen on the 27th and Hamburg on the 2nd April. ‘Resistance had become patchy,’ noted General O’Connor, ‘enemy co-ordination had broken down, the Germans had nothing left in the tank.’ US 12th Army Group did even better, taking Nuremberg and reaching the Elbe in early April, where they halted. ‘Stand firm and wait for the Red Army,’ ran the order. Meanwhile, French 1st Army entered Czechoslovakia on 20th April. The same day - Hitler’s birthday - he and several other leading Nazis committed suicide as the Red Army, having stormed into Berlin, came within just a few hundred yards of his bunker.

    The successor regime, known as the ‘Himmler Government’ (although Himmler himself never actually attended any of its meetings) assembled briefly in Prague, the last capital in German hands, before French troops arrived…
    Part 17.3
  • Extract from The Footsteps of History: the war diary of Eustace Marcel

    April 6th 1945

    My plane arrived in the dim morning, amidst a light fog - once upon a time such weather would have prevented us flying at all, but the airmen nowadays show much more confidence thanks to their new gadgets. Perhaps too much confidence; we have all heard the tragicomic circumstances around the death of General Patton, and he is not the only one. Our plane did shake alarmingly as we approached Orly. It would doubtless have given some satisfaction to my enemies, who have kept me in Algiers through a dismal winter, if I had perished.

    No matter. All’s well that ends well, and finally before 10 a.m. I reached the boss’ office. I had heard he looked older, but he shows the wear of five years of heavy responsibilities. Still he played his part, and asked me much about how things go in Algiers these days. Not as well as we would hope, I told him, but could certainly be worse. He hopes the recent demonstrations merely reflect the easing of pressure, rather than the start of serious developments; I wish I could share the hope.

    But our main talk discussed the central European question. With our army at last marching across Bavaria (and how blithely we talked of such ideas, five years ago!) we encounter sudden diplomatic complications. The matter of Germany we settled between ourselves, and with the Soviets - if not amicably - at least clearly. But now a glance at a map shows a new wrinkle. Bethouart will, at his present rate of advance, reach Prague some days ahead of the Red Army, and Moscow has made its displeasure clear, even at the risk of upsetting Roosevelt, who in general seeks always to accommodate them.

    M. Mandel is of one mind with De Gaulle on this particular question, though as he says himself, “it would not matter if I did differ - at this point I have become De Gaulle’s messenger-boy merely”, with some bitterness. The honour of the fatherland, the prestige of our country, our place in the world of the future - all these come together on this question. Paris is afire with the demand: ‘Prague for our arms’. Any public man who opposed the demand would go in peril of his place.

    But Washington ponders giving Prague to the Red Army, Mandel says, for the sake of concord. A laughable idea, in my opinion. London backs us, and who knows - perhaps this is all that stops the Americans from cutting off the fuel that keeps Bethouart advancing. Would Washington ever go so far? I hope not. Counsels seem divided there, so the fuel flows, for now. But this makes the case so strongly that we must have our own source of oil if we wish to enjoy diplomatic freedom of action - and so our conversation led us back to Algiers, and Tripoli. The prospects of trouble there - with the natives, and with the Anglo-Saxons - seem considerable…

    Sadly, it seems my first springtime in Paris in five years has started poorly, so far as the prospects go. I must collect myself. Here I am in Paris once more, and victory is at hand.


    Extract from A Pilgrim to Mount Lebanon, by Marc Malik

    Fortune smiled on us on the 21st April. The other regiments of the division faced delays from demolished bridges and traffic jams caused by broken-down vehicles, so the Regiment du Liban had the honour of liberating Prague. We found the city the scene of fierce fighting between Czech patriots and the Germans, a curious scene where in one street the people greeted us with joy and song, whereas in the next street we would find fighting still going on. Our armoured cars and half-tracks, with their ferocious quadruple machine guns, repeatedly settled these fights to the detriment of the Germans… The Colonel assigned my company the task of seizing the Gestapo headquarters. They had set up in the Emmaus Monastery, a fine old Baroque building. I dreaded to think what had become of the monks.

    Concerning what followed, I can only give my own eyewitness account, amplified by the accounts I heard from others shortly after. Bachir had taken his men to pursue some of the enemy who they saw fleeing towards the river. I saw two cars emerge from a side street, which then halted and reversed when they saw us approach. The lead vehicle collided with the second, and two of the enemy emerged, firing in our direction, happily missing. We took cover and returned fire - a one-sided battle to be sure; our half track caught up with us at that moment and laid down heavy fire which rapidly reduced the two vehicles to wrecks. Bachir and his men joined us, and we cautiously moved forward and examined the bodies.

    ‘Happy to shoot up some Gestapo swine,’ commented Bachir, after I explained what had happened. However I sensed immediately that these might be something else. So it proved. As it turned out, many of the top Nazis had briefly set up shop there, thinking that nowhere else but Gestapo headquarters could be safe for them. A false hope indeed! So there, among their bodyguards, we found the remains of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, von Ribbentrop and Albert Speer. In one sense I regret that they never faced justice for their innumerable crimes, but I assure myself that they undoubtedly went before a more terrible and just court than any that men could set up…

    On 27th April Germany’s surrender became official, and the Allies could grapple with the enormous problems of peace, and the ominous portents of cold war. As for us, we looked forward to home, and prayed that the evils foreseen by poor Charles would not befall.
    Part 17.4
  • Extract from La Follia by Girolamo Leoni, ch. 18

    We had spent most of the winter in Florence, helping to rebuild. Occasionally we visited the front, which in places was right on the river Po, where we could look over to the unredeemed shore opposite... It was a curious polyglot Army that mounted the final offensive. Most of the Americans and all the French land forces had gone to join operation PRECIPICE, though there were still many of their aircraft above; the famous Storks stayed in Italy to the end. In their place had come a Brazilian division, many Poles, and many fresh Americans. British 8th Army, of course, had men from across their Empire and beyond, including three of our Combat Groups.

    I had the honour of accompanying the Bologna Combat Group at the crossing of the Po near Ferrara, on April 10th. I took command of a machine-gun company upon the wounding of its commander, and saw several small engagements: the Germans resisted patchily by this point, in places they surrendered easily while elsewhere knots of resistance inflicted painful casualties. My dear friend Pietro perished in one such small fire-fight, not far from Padua where he had been born. With such cruelties war abounds. We reached Padua on the 15th, to find that the local Partisans had secured the place, taking the German garrison prisoner. There had also been some settling of accounts - it was still going on in fact, we heard occasional gunshots. On the one hand, we had to maintain order, but on the other, we had little sympathy with the collaborators. We were glad to leave such problems behind us and continue the advance…

    My war came to a close in Venice, where my battalion paraded through St Mark’s Square on the same day we heard the news of Mussolini’s death in a French air strike: a final ‘kill’ for the Storks. Better all round for him to go that way than in some tiresome show-trial. That evening, a party of us went out to the Lido, and swam in the free waters, glad that the madness was finally over.
    Part 17.5
  • Extract from ch.12, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green

    Operation MENAGERIE commenced on April 1st, some would say appropriately so. Many Allied decision-makers considered it a distraction. Nonetheless the sheer complexity and scale over-awed even the doubters for a time: it was the largest Franco-British amphibious operation of the war, in terms of men, ships and aircraft involved. Two large invasion convoys sailed, from Singapore and Kuching, carrying six divisions. The land-based air umbrella involved a thousand aircraft, mostly mounted from Malaya, while six aircraft carriers added over two hundred more. Japanese air power, by this point, no longer existed. ‘They did not even have enough fuel to fly kamikaze missions,’ noted Admiral Esteva.

    In the short term the results exceeded expectations. The Allied fleet included six modern capital ships; as it became apparent that no naval threat existed, these added their firepower to that of the four older battleships supporting the landings. ‘It seemed as much a mystical celebration, a sublime enactment of the power of the Allies, as a military operation,’ wrote Admiral Godefroy. ‘The Japanese could only retreat or perish.’

    ...the Allies completed their encirclement of Saigon by the third week of April, but the city did not fall immediately. ‘The war in Europe had ended, but the Japs took no notice,’ wrote Montgomery. ‘The IJA had over 50,000 men holding the place, very short of everything including food, but had orders to fight to the last man, orders they obeyed literally.’

    Montgomery would have preferred to mask the place and push north, but the French felt both a political and humane imperative to take the place quickly. ‘We feared that the entire civil population must perish in a prolonged siege,’ commented Admiral Esteva. The result was a month-long urban fight with extensive use of artillery. ‘Hard to see how waiting could have been any worse for the locals,’ said Mr. Bevin later, ‘a hellish business.’ Officially, Saigon fell on May 16th, but mopping up lasted for weeks. Out of the Japanese garrison, less than a thousand survived; the Allied troops, mostly British and Indian, suffered nearly ten thousand dead; no-one ever made an official count of civilian casualties.

    By this time the Allies had already begun to exploit northwards, aided by subsidiary landings on the coast, one of which took Cam Ranh on May 8th. As they pressed on, Japanese resistance began to ebb, and for the first time in the war significant numbers of prisoners were being taken, initially mostly Koreans, but soon Japanese troops also. ‘We knew they were cracking up once that happened,’ commented General Montgomery…

    The absence of IJN units from the South China Sea, and the fall of Okinawa, gave the admirals the opportunity they had been seeking. Both Paris and London wanted to strike directly at the Japanese home islands while they could, and in late May Godefroy took Force A north, refuelling at Manila on the way. Force A comprised Richelieu (flagship), Prince of Wales, Hood, Jean Bart, Indefatigable and Implacable. This was a small force by the standards of the mighty US Pacific Fleet, but big enough to make the desired statement. In late June this force raided targets in Kyushu, including the naval base at Kure, which USN aircraft had previously visited. Among other ships, the giant battleship Yamato lay there, immobile for lack of fuel, already badly hurt by USN bombs and torpedoes. ‘It was little more than target practice,’ wrote Sous-Lieutenant Passy, a French Navy veteran pilot, ‘we hit her six or seven times. One of our bombs appears to have started a fire which reached Yamato’s magazines.’ These, according to Admiral Yamamoto's subsequent investigation, had not been flooded due to previous damage to her pumps. ‘It set off the biggest explosion I have ever seen,’ Passy concluded. ‘So the Marine only sank one Japanese capital ship, but it was their biggest. We had obtained satisfaction for the many blows Japan had rained upon us.’

    ...As the summer progressed 12th Army made steady progress through Indochina, liberating Cambodia during June. At this point the political logjam in Thailand moved. Phibun bowed to the inevitable, and permitted the Regent to declare that Thailand had entered a state of ‘semi-neutral non-belligerent hostility’ to Japan. This concept was not something ever found in international law, but Bangkok took it to mean that they could release the men of Indian 4th and British 18th Divisions from internment. Japanese forces in Indochina no longer had the means to retaliate. Some of the men, despite their long internment, volunteered to join the closing battles.

    A less favourable development emerged during the same period. British forces generally tried to cooperate with the Viet Minh in fighting the Japanese, but found as the liberated area grew, the Viet Minh began to show reluctance to hand over facilities to the returning French authorities. Sporadic fighting broke out, which increased and became of increasing concern to London, especially after the election of the Attlee Government. Mr. Bevin, the new Foreign Secretary, had serious doubts. ‘Here we are, fighting the Japs and then having to fight the people we’ve liberated from them, all for the sake of the French. Is this what the Union means?’ Parliament and the Press paid little attention to this initially, until the assassination of General Montgomery by the Viet Minh on July 18th, which unleashed a storm of disapproval of the Government’s Indochina policy. As a result, Bevin’s distrust of maintaining the Union into peacetime now solidified into opposition.

    In parallel, de Gaulle also found the situation unsatisfactory. ‘Victory in Europe is gained - no further need for this unnatural state of affairs,’ he wrote. In July, following several weeks of parliamentary manoeuvres, M. Mandel resigned as Prime Minister, and de Gaulle replaced him. The stage was set for the Tuileries Declaration.

    The final blows of the Pacific War came further north. After liberating southern Indochina, 12th Army paused. General Slim, now emerged from internment, took command, and renewed the offensive in late July, but had still not reached Hanoi when the atomic bombs shocked the Japanese Government into surrender... The situation was one of complete chaos on the political front. There were the Japanese to deal with, some of whom refused to surrender, the KMT Chinese took a keen interest in developments, and two distinct factions - the Viet Minh and the Viet Quoc - jostled for power. Looking back on events later, Mandel noted, ‘Arguably a window of opportunity existed for a stable political settlement, perhaps by co-opting the Viet Quoc, but de Gaulle had control of events by this point, and he showed a certain lack of imagination, and on this question allowed men with out-of-date ideas to guide him.’ The stage was therefore set also for the tragic conflict of 1946-55.
    Part 17.6
  • Extract from Marianne and John, by Charles Montague, ch.20

    During the war all sides had accepted the need to ‘put Libya on ice’, in Churchill’s words. Now the issue could no longer be delayed. Although there had been no decisive actions, debate about the future of Libya had gone on continually since 1941.

    London had hedged its bets, but came to favour a complicated arrangement whereby Libya would remain formally united while having two major regional governments that would determine most matters. Cyrenaica would have a government in Benghazi which would be “informally” under the tutelage of an Anglo-Egyptian co-dominium, on the Sudan model. This proposal evidenced London’s desire to preserve favourable relations with Cairo. The proposal accepted that Paris would exercise informal French control over Tripolitania. London further proposed a figurehead monarchy in the shape of King Idries of the Senussi, an old ally.

    Algiers - and later Paris - never accepted this idea. They favoured a formal Anglo-French power-sharing arrangement, under a Mandate patterned on the old League of Nations mandates (as in Palestine), with exclusive economic rights for Paris and London in the two halves. Preserving the unity of the country meant little, and the ultimate goal, barely concealed, was for the eventual separation of Libya into its two halves, with Tripoli being at least semi-dependent on Paris.

    Negotiations had revolved endlessly around these points throughout 1941. From 1942, Washington began to take an interest, seeing the treatment of Libya as a test case for its vision of the post-war order, as well as realising the country’s economic and strategic potential. Washington did not come down firmly on either side, but in 1943 began to push for its own idea, which tried to take elements from both British and French positions while adding some elements of its own. The State Department liked the notion of preserving Libya’s formal unity, but took exception to creating a Senussi monarchy, partly out of republican antipathy to monarchs, and partly because Idries might not be acceptable to the people in Tripoli. The US suspected the motives of both powers, believing that they ultimately intended to take outright control of their respective halves, and so proposed a tripartite trusteeship with the goal of eventual independence.

    London and Paris both objected to this view, pointing out that since they had done the actual fighting, they should have the main say. The conversations rarely developed well from this point. Washington in turn remarked that the French could hardly have taken Tripoli without American aid. Paris replied to this that France had paid in gold for those trucks…

    So the interventions of the State Department had not advanced the conversation in practice while the war lasted. The end of the war changed the situation; the cessation of Lend-Lease meant that the ongoing transatlantic economic relationship had to be renegotiated on more commercial, peacetime terms. London and Paris both reassessed their priorities, and concluded that the future of Libya was an area where concession might make a useful bargaining chip, to get more favourable loan conditions. Finally, then, at the end of 1945, a UN tripartite trusteeship came into being, with the goal of establishing an independent, united Libya within ten years. All in all, the experience had not been a pleasant one for anyone concerned, breeding a good deal of frustration and resentment, which played its part in determining the wider course of relations between the various parties…
    Part 17.7
  • Ibid, ch.21

    …With the war over, de Gaulle and Bevin had become the driving personalities in Anglo-French relations; a circumstance that in itself portended ill for the Union. Although their personal relationship was not good, nonetheless they combined politically, as they had a common interest which made them co-dependent… The last-minute political manoeuvres in Paris and London to prevent the Tuileries declaration were futile. The matter had already been settled during the autumn conversations in the Quai d’Orsay and Whitehall. The Declaration merely formalised the matter - ‘just an opportunity to take photographs,’ de Gaulle said.

    The Tuileries Declaration left the Union in existence formally, but evacuated it of much of its content. Britain and France would remain close allies, and would seek to align their diplomatic posture. Citizens of the two countries retained mutual preferential rights to trade and travel; but the Declaration recognised that exceptions could be made, and over time the exceptions became increasingly the rule. Many politicians on both sides of the Channel deplored this, but the fact was that public opinion in both countries considered the work of the Union to have ended. ‘It was a slow divorce, perhaps inevitable, largely unnoticed by the wider public,’ wrote Mr Attlee, ‘except at particular moments such as the Coal Crisis.’ By the end of the decade politicians rarely referenced the Union, though it was not formally ended until the Treaty of Caen in 1956. By this time French politicians looked more to a closer relationship with Germany, while the British regarded the transatlantic relationship as more vital. A few cooperative projects persisted, such as the Jaguar ballistic missile that served as the mainstay of British and French strategic rocket forces in the late 1950s; but even on this the two countries eventually took separate paths…

    What, then, was the true value of the Union? Clearly a historic perspective must focus on its political role in helping to give the French Government the impetus to fight on in 1940. A French capitulation at one point looked all too likely. In all probability such a capitulation would not have affected the outcome of the war as a whole: the forces eventually arrayed against the Axis were simply too great even without France. Still, one can say for certain that many minor tragedies, and perhaps some major ones, were averted by the French decision to make a true trial of war. The last word should go to M. Mandel. ‘We had lost a battle in 1940, but not the war, and so long as we had meaningful assets, we knew we should go on. We paid a high price for honour, but in the end, think what a story we made.’