We ran down the middle of the bridge, shouting as we went. I didn’t stop because I knew that if I kept moving they couldn’t hit me. My men were in squad column and not one of them was hit. We took cover in some bomb craters. Then we just sat and waited for others to come. That’s the way it was.
Having broken through the Siegfried line the Allies were now making unexpectedly swift advances into Germany as the defences crumbled. They knew however that a major barrier awaited them. The Rhine river is the natural defensive feature on Germany’s borders. It was here that Hitler was planning to make his last stand – every bridge was to be blown up and the eastern bank defended in depth. And it was to cross the Rhine that the Allies were preparing an amphibious and airborne assault second only to the Normandy invasion.
On the 7th March 1945 a small US Army reconnaissance unit came within sight of the Rhine at Remagen, surprised to find the railway bridge across still intact. An assault was swiftly organised. Everett Holles, an NBC Radio war correspondent spoke to those who made the attack:
On beyond the four towers of the Apollinariskirche that glistened in a light drizzle of rain they saw Remagen’s 400-yard-long, three-span bridge across the Rhine. The bridge ran to the village of Erpel on the east bank and across it lay two railroad tracks. Other American forces had come up against the same sort of thing before, but always, as they came to the Rhine crossings, the bridges went up in great explosions before their eyes, set off by German demolition engineers.
Traffic was still moving across the Ludendorf Bridge. On the other side locomotives puffed, awaiting orders to pull out. Lt. Col. Leonard Engemann of Minneapolis, in command of a reconnaissance party, was determined to save this bridge if it was at all possible. So, at 3:50 o’clock, a platoon led by Lieut. Emmett Burrows of New York City, sped down the slope to the bridge entrance.
There was a flurry of shooting as the Germans, taken completely by surprise, scurried about trying to organize a defense. A German gun was knocked out, some German soldiers killed. Then the Yanks, crouching low against machine gun fire coming from the bridge towers, ran out onto the bridge. Just as they stepped on the span, an explosion occurred three-quarters of the way down the bridge. The Germans were setting off demolition charges, and the men thought surely their chance was gone. But no, only slight damage was done. They raced on.
Sgt. Alexander A. Drabik, a tall, lanky former butcher from Holland, Ohio, was the first American across the Rhine, the first invader to reach its east bank since the time of Napoleon. But he wanted all the honors passed on to a young lieutenant of the engineers, John W. Mitchell of Pittsburgh.
‘While we were running across the bridge – and, man, it may have been only 250 yards but it seemed like 250 miles to us – I spotted this lieutenant, standing out there completely exposed to the machine gun fire that was pretty heavy by this time.’
‘He was cutting wires and kicking the German demolition charges off the bridge with his feet! Boy that took plenty of guts. He’s the one who saved the bridge and made the whole thing possible – the kinda guy I’d like to know.’
Soon the bridge was swarming with Americans, while Mitchell, joined now by other engineers, cut and jerked out wires leading to dynamite charges. Gingerly they detached detonators and lifted boxes of explosives from the piers.
Later, from prisoners, the Americans learned that the Germans planned to blow up the span at precisely four o’clock. But the German officer assigned the demolition job was drunk when the American tanks reached Remagen. This officer, a lieutenant, had gone into the town of Eprel as the Yanks approached and spread the word boastfully that ‘the bridge goes up at four o’clock this afternoon’.
German soldiers and civilians, gathering from miles around, were sitting in ‘grandstand’ seats at every vantage point on the east bank, waiting for the spectacular event to come off, when Burrows’ patrol ran onto the bridge – ten minutes before the hour fixed for its destruction. The German lieutenant signaled the plunger down. Two small explosions occurred, but the bridge only shuddered and remained standing. Several of the fuses had been faulty.
1st Army commander Omar Bradley was soon informed, he responded:
Hot dog . . .this will bust ’em wide open. Shove everything you can across!
Soon the bridge was soon the subject of sustained German attempts to blow it up, with Hitler ordering V2 rockets to be fired at as well as bombing and heavy artillery. The US Army brought up the largest single concentration of Anti-Aircraft batteries to successfully defend the bridge over the next 10 days, before it finally collapsed. By this time five divisions had got across the bridge and the bridgehead they established disrupted the German plans for the whole defence of the Rhine.
The US 82nd Airborne Division were still in Holland, holding on to the salient that Market Garden had opened up. They were now in defensive positions close to the German border.
Anticipating a German counter-attack in strength the Division was anxious for intelligence. Lieutenant James ‘Maggie’ Magellas was personally selected to lead a patrol on the night of 30th September/1st October to seize some prisoners. He later wrote a graphic account of the events that followed:
I led the patrol on a course parallel to Wyler Meer for some distance before checking the depth and the bottom to determine if it was fordable. After checking several times, I decided that the best avenue of approach to the German MLR would be to cross Wyler Meer at the footbridge. I realized that the Germans would also know this avenue of approach and might be prepared to deny its use as a crossing. We moved cautiously, expecting an outburst of enemy fire as we neared the bridge.
When we were about forty to fifty yards from it, we halted and hit the ground. I approached the bridge alone, and when I was within fifteen feet I hit the dirt and started crawling on my stomach. Using the index and second finger of my right hand in a scissorlike action, I probed for trip wires that might lead to mines. I was surprised to find that the bridge approach was not mined. The Germans had strung barbed accordion wire across the bridge.
I decided to cross over and reconnoiter the other side, but I became tangled in the wire and ripped my trousers. I was so disgusted that I used profane language, causing a couple of Germans to pop their heads out of their foxhole, making it evident that the enemy was entrenched on the other side of the bridge. I freed myself quickly and hit the ground.
I was alone confronting a German outpost line guarding the footbridge. It was dark and I was separated from my platoon by fifty yards. I crawled to the foxhole where I saw the first German helmet pop up and in my broken German called for the German to come out: “Kommen sie hier mit der hands hoch. ”
When I didn’t get a response, I pulled the pin on a hand grenade and tossed it into the foxhole. The sound created by the concussion caused two more Germans to rise up from their hole to see what was going on. They were manning a light machine gun.
I crawled next to their hole and repeated my previous command in German. When they didn’t come out, I rolled another grenade in on them and their machine gun. I spotted another head popping out of a hole a short distance away. I crawled to that hole and repeated my German command. This man also chose to remain in his hole, so I raised up on one knee and fired a quick burst from my gun into the hole.
To this day I do not know why the Germans did not fire on me when I was hung up on the barbed wire, or why they remained in their fox- holes while I was rolling grenades in on them. Apparently they were waiting to be relieved by another squad and I caught them by surprise. It was one of those incidents that happen in combat where you can never rationalize the behavior of the enemy. This was also true sometimes of our own forces.
On my solitary quest I killed four Germans and knocked out a machine gun, but I was still without a prisoner. The burst from my tommy gun must have gotten some attention, because it brought one German out of his foxhole with his hands held high.
All this while I had been on my stomach crawling from one hole to the next without exposing myself. But when the German came out, I jumped up behind him and put my left arm around his neck and my tommy gun in his back, using him as a shield. My adrenaline was flowing at a record pace in that hectic moment. I wasn’t certain that one of the Germans wouldn’t rise up and shoot us both.
Although the prisoner I now held was the fifth German I had accounted for, I had no way of knowing how many more there were in that outpost. So I tightened my hold around his neck, dug my tommy gun deeper into his back, and in my broken German asked: “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” (How many German soldiers here?) The response was, “Ich verstehe nicht. ” (I don’t understand.)
I didn’t think my German was that bad, so other more persuasive means had to be used to make him talk. This was not a time for German arrogance. In the heat of battle I was locked in mortal combat and in a struggle for my life. I would just as soon have slit his throat except for the fact that I needed information, and division wanted him for the same purpose. I knocked him to the ground and, lying next to him, began choking him. Then I repeated my question. I got the same response.
I’d about had it with him. If he wouldn’t cooperate, there was no way he’d make it back to a prison camp. I got so exasperated that I whacked him across the mouth with the butt of my tommy gun. I hit him so hard that I broke some teeth and probably his jaw. I then asked again, “Wieviel Deutsch soldat hier?” This time I get a positive response. Spitting out blood and teeth, he said in English, “There are ten German soldiers here.”
I stood him up and, with my tommy gun still dug in his back, said, “Call your comrades to come out and surrender.” With that he began calling his buddies by their first names. One more surrendered, raising the count to four dead and two prisoners.
At that point I called out for the platoon sergeant to bring up the patrol, which had been waiting for my order to move out. They covered the entire length of what appeared to be the outpost position. Four more Germans were accounted for, two prisoners and two KIA. The prisoner was correct; there were ten German soldiers in that outpost. Now all were accounted for. The score on our first encounter was “bad guys,” six dead, four prisoners; “good guys,” no casualties.
On the 24th August Hitler had finally bowed to the inevitable and ordered that further work begin on the Siegfried Line, the main static defence line on the German border with France. 20,000 slave labourers were drafted in to add to the defences which had been sitting dormant since 1940. Yet as the Allies swept through France and Belgium, the retreating Germans were not yet organised enough to man the defences in many places.
In the late afternoon of the 11th September the 85th Recon Squadron of the 5th Armored Division despatched six GIs and a Free French interpreter, Lieutenant DeLille, to investigate the French-German border.
Should probing indicate great weakness in some portion of the frontier line, penetration may become possible.
The patrol was led by Staff Sergeant Warner W. Holzinger:
When we started out on our mission, we took my radio peep [the term used by the US Armored forces at the time] with us to keep in touch with the 2d Platoon and with headquarters. We worked our way down to Stolzembourg [a village on the Luxembourg side of the Our River]. From the citizens we learned there were no enemy soldiers in the vicinity. I have been thankful many times I could speak German.
The enemy had blown to some degree the small bridge that spanned the Our River. Even at that, we were able to cross on it. We could have waded the river too.
On the German side of the river there was a pillbox camouflaged as a barn. It’s a good thing it wasn’t manned.
Lieutenant DeLille and I talked with a German farmer.
He told us that the last time he had seen any German troops was the day before. He also told us that if we followed the road up the small mountain behind his farm, we would be able to see the first line of pillboxes.
So, Lieutenant DeLille, Pfc [William] McColligan, the German farmer, and I went into Germany about one and a half miles, where we could get a good view. We studied the pillbox area with our field glasses. None of them seemed manned. We returned to Stolzembourg, where we reported the information [by radio] to Lt. Loren L. Vipond [his platoon commander]
Even though it was now apparent that they could walk into at least the first few miles of Germany unopposed, the US High Command faced a difficulty. They were rapidly outrunning their own supplies, still travelling by road from Normandy.
Captain Armand R. Levasseur, the plans and operations officer of the 1st Division’s 26th Regiment was later to write:
The men generally realized that the picnic, wine, and flowers campaign of France and Belgium was at an end. Now at least, the German was fighting on native soil, so resistance was expected to stiffen…[nevertheless] the end now seemed within our grasp.
Optimism was high, in fact too high in view of the tough battles that lay ahead.
Sound tactical doctrine dictated thai the enemy’s defenses, reached at the close of a pursuit, which had turned into a rout, be penetrated as rapidly as possible.
The enemy was to be given no breather to recover from the staggering blows struck in France and Belgium. For this reason no time was available for specialized training so valuable to the success of an attack on permanent type defenses. Also, at battalion level little was known as to the nature of construction, strength, or depth of the fortifications.
Meanwhile German resistance in France was not quite over. On the west coast of the “fortress” port Brest continued to hold out until the 19th September. Among the US troops besieging the town was Victor J. Miller who had landed at D-Day with the 5th Ranger Battalion. They had fought their way off Omaha beach and had remained in action for much of the time since:
Brest turned into almost a guerrilla war at times. One day we had experiences which were unbelievable; but I will tell them anyway since I have Sgt. Floyd to vouch for the truth of the matter. We were moving up the peninsula somewhere, and we in special weapons were at the rear of the Company. As we moved up following, Sgt. Floyd suddenly froze, then pointed silently to our left front. There was a hedgerow running along our left, and above it, coming toward us, were the tops of a long row of German helmets! He and I ran across to our left and entered the lane between hedgerows along which the Germans were coming. We aimed our rifles ahead, and waited. As the German soldiers in their fully armed condition came around a bend in the lane, they were greeted by our rifles aiming straight at them! They were caught dead to rights with nothing they could do! German after German came around the bend and they just kept coming! We finally had approximately 36 soldiers which we stripped of their weapons and turned over to some soldiers who were behind us. We went on to catch up with our Company.
We soon caught up with the slowly advancing rifle platoons and watched as they went through several trenches, emplacements, and then finally they settled down up there in a relaxed manner. After a bit, I radioed to our Lieutenant and asked what we should be doing. He said the Germans had been cooking their dinner and had run away as they approached. Our men were going to finish cooking it and eat, so we had just as well come up. We moved up there and laid down our weapons and sat down. Just then, it sounded like WWII starting all over again. Bullets seemed to be flying everywhere! I dove down about 8 feet into a concrete passage, and everyone else found cover some way. Finally, one of our men managed to crawl out and get his machine gun. He fired a few bursts and a white flag appeared. Here came a group of soldiers! Apparently they had been upset at our preparing to eat their dinner!
Another comic end to what might have been a bitter battle occurred when we went to take the city of Le Conquet, the last inhabited place toward the tip of the peninsula. We didn’t know what to expect as we made our way to the town. Once in, it was dash from building to building, expecting any minute to fired upon. At last, we had completed our task of securing it. At that moment there was a great rumpus and we cowered into entryways and other such spots hoping to be safe and be ready to repulse whatever was coming. Lo and behold, here came the Free French marching in with banners, and the populace now came out and cheered them!
That reminded me of a time some two months before when we had been holding a section of the front lines. A contingent of Free French came to take their part. They came out from town in a bus at 8:00am, had hot chow brought out by the bus at noon, and then rode back to town for the night at 5:00pm! We Americans have a lot to learn about fighting a war!
Much of the rest there around Brest was not comedy. Several forts ringed the city. We took one as the air force finished bombing it. There were quite a few dead. We were rather low on mortar shells, and encountered a German mortar. This was their small one, 50mm, and was made to be assembled and carried baseplate, bipod and tube as one unit. Huff suggested we take it along, so we did, plus shells. We were told to dig in for the night about then and did. We did feel we should try out the mortar, though, to have an idea of its range. With ours, we knew at what angle to set the tube and how many increments to leave on a shell to go a certain distance. Knowing nothing of this with the German one, we sat it up and dropped in a shell. It went just about as far forward as the area where our line platoons were digging in! Too bad! Before long one of the fellows was back complaining bitterly: “We haven’t been here 30 minutes and already the Germans are shelling us with their mortars!”. We sympathized with him, but sure didn’t tell him we had the mortar!
That was a bad night for me. I had dug a good hole, much more than a slit trench. We were on the forward slope of a hill, which is not a good place to be. I was in my hole in the late evening when a German 20mm gun opened up on our area firing exploding shells. They began to hit all around my hole. It seemed only a matter of time before one would hit the slightly higher back of my hole. I tried to be scientific about this. If I crouched against the front wall of my hole and the shell hit the back, would I get less shrapnel than if I crouched against the back below where the explosion would be? I puzzled over this until the firing stopped and I realized that I would continue living another day, which I hadn’t expected to do during the bombardment.
The next day I was wandering around the fort and its ditches when I came to a German soldier with the top of his head blown off. He was lying on his pack. I needed some clean socks, which they often had, so I was lifting him up to get to his pack. Just then Floyd came around the trench at the far end and just saw a headless soldier raising up! He froze until he realized that I was there! This may sound gruesome to those who do not know that war is a bunch of people trying to kill each other in any way possible and trained to enjoy each enemy death! That was what our Countrymen had sent us to do.
Later I was more of an observer as we were attacking the fortified positions around one of the forts. My section was camping in the bottom floor or basement of a 3-story house. It was rather quiet where we were. One day one of the fellows, it might have been Huebner, started to hunt one of the chickens running around outside. He armed himself with a flare rifle we had picked up from the Germans and was going to shoot one with that. As he tiptoed around the house, Lt. Col Richard Sullivan, our C.O. now and quite tall and thin, saw him and began tiptoeing after him in a similar deep crouch, assuming he had spotted some enemy. Finally he tapped him on the shoulder and asked for what he was looking. Huebner froze at sight of our C.O., then blurted out: “Chickens, Sir!”. The Col. just laughed and climbed up to our top floor to observe the situation.
Pillboxes had been built so impregnable that penetrating and eliminating them was tremendously difficult. The one right in front of us was the first target. Lt. Aust went out with a patrol under covering fire and placed a 40lb. charge of C-2 against an embrasure and it later went off with no apparent damage. A mortar barrage before they left it killed two Rangers. That night Lt. Greene went out with 11 men and two 40lb charges and a beehive type 50lb. one, plus 20 gallons of gasoline and oil. When these all went off, it was tremendous; but the next morning no visible damage had been done. That day they surrendered Brest, though, and it was found that the charges had been effective, and bodies of 17 German soldiers were found inside.
The U.S. Army went from 189,839 men and women in 1939 to 3,075,608 in 1942 and up to 8,267,958 in 1945. [Figures courtesy National WWII Museum.] Everyone was on a huge learning curve throughout every level of the organisation.
Part of this proces was the interviewing of a wide range of personnel in the field. The views of all ranks of men who had been involved in front line fighting were actively sought out. They were presented, largely unedited, in booklet form for the benefit of men in training:
LIEUTENANT COLONEL RINGSOK, 6th Armored Infantry, and members of his Battalion, 14 April 1943….
The Germans will infiltrate into our line and stay there all day, firing the machine-pistol indiscriminately. He may not have a target but he does it for the nervous effect it produces on us. Our defense for that is to have each platoon do a mopping up job until it contacts the adjacent units and the area is cleared of such people. We use the self-propelled 37-mm gun on the carrier to do this and take in prisoners. We back it up and fire canister into the holes when we find the Germans.
The Germans will become discouraged by continuous firing of weapons. It is terribly annoying to them. So now, throughout the night, we have members of the squads take turns at firing the machine guns. It also helps keep the men awake and on the jobs. At no set time, but off and on and many times during the night, the guns are fired.
Something else to consider is the ease with which you can use indirect firing with the machine gun. Indirect firing can be most advantageously used and it does not need to be made complicated. We simply go out where we can see, and fire, and make records of it on stakes, and at night when we wish to fire a certain distance, we just elevate to the desired height as shown on the stake. We were using indirect firing one night to good advantage when we were firing on a road. Evidence was seen the next morning when we saw a truck burning on the road. The firing cut a supply road three miles away.
The German flares and night signals gave my battalion a lot of trouble at first. The Germans fire flares continuously all night long, mostly to annoy and disturb troops. My troops, at first, would cease firing and attempt to guess what the enemy meant. But really, in most instances, it didn’t mean anything but was meant to distract the troops. And it will distract them unless you teach them to pay no attention to it, but to continue the battle and fire flares in return. After all, you can’t do anything after the flare is fired.
We fire lots of flares in the battalion now, and when Jerry fires at us, we fire in return.
I got my men used to the German flares by getting all I could, including those I could borrow from the British, and we fired them all night at Jerry. Now we take flares with us and fire them at Jerry at night. We do this on all the nights that we don’t use them for signals, then we use them only for signals. But my men now pay no attention to the enemy flares.
We were taught to fire the ground signal projector and white illuminating flares to mark front lines, but they will light up our area 200 yards square and will show the enemy our position rather than show us his. They should be shot out in advance of our positions and fired so that we are in the dark and the enemy is illuminated.
SERGEANT GEORGE CLELAND, Company “D”, 6th Armored Infantry, near Sidi bou Zid, 14 April 1943.
When you push the enemy back the ground between your position and the enemy’s position should be checked for snipers. I think patrols should be equipped with additional fire power.
The hardest thing for my squad to do is stay together.
Men in the States should be trained to dig foxholes. It will save lives. Foxholes are better than slit trenches because they protect a man more and you can fire out of a foxhole and you can’t very well out of a slit trench.
If I went to the States to train men, the first thing I would stress to a new man is leadership. I would make the man have confidence in his leader, and train him in every weapon, camouflage, and to dig foxholes; also to cover up tin cans. (Tin cans reflect light and give away positions.)
If you are going to harden a soldier up, keep him hardened up and don’t let him get soft. Start hard training and keep it up. Men should be hardened before they go into combat. Physical training on a boat is fine, but weapon training is wasted.
Flares should be used at night to confuse the enemy. They are very effective. You should also fire machine guns at night even if you don’t see the enemy. It has a very effective demoralizing effect on the enemy.
In the States we didn’t have enough night training. Men should be trained in the use of stars for navigation. All men should be trained to know organization in the States. The half-tracks carry enough ammunition. Jeeps should have trailers to carry ammunition from half-tracks to the guns.
‘Tankers in Tunisia’ was a manual prepared for men training at the Armored Replacement Training Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The manual consisted of interviews with officers and enlisted men in Tunisia during April 1943. The interviews were compiled by Brig. Gen. T. J. Camp in North Africa. The whole booklet can be found at Lone Sentry.
Contemporary U.S. Army Signal Corps colour film, including footage of low level Luftwaffe raids on U.S positions – and a frontline battle when U.S. troops and British artillery take on a Panzer attack:
The British Long Range Desert Group – LRDG – had been set up as an independent reconnaissance group that travelled way out into the desert and behind German lines. Initially they had been covertly monitoring enemy traffic on the coastal road that was the the main supply route to the front.
As time went on they were involved in more and more audacious attacks on the enemy behind the lines. They worked alongside the Commandos and the newly formed ‘Special Air Service’ in conducting such operations – at this time it was the Commander LRDG who had overarching authority over behind the lines activities in the desert.
On the night of the 14th/15th May they ran an experimental operation to attack vehicles moving along the coastal road. They travelled out from their base at the Siwa Oasis – itself a remote desert location – on the 8th May, taking nearly a week to arrive at their chosen attack point:
…. in order to place bombs in moving vehicles it was necessary to force them to slow down, and thus give the attacker time to jump out from a covered position at the side of the road, and run up to the rear of the lorry in order to “lob” the bomb in. It had been found at practice that to throw a bomb from some distance at a fast moving vehicle was not only inaccurate, but liable to arouse men in the rear of the vehicle.
The patrol carried 45 gallon drums for blocking the road; and in the hope of creating the impression of a stretch of road under repair two long poles were to be put across the drums, and two red lamps were hung on them with the notice “Achtung! Strassenbau”.
The truck was left 150 yards from the road with the driver and two machine-gunners. Two other ranks armed with a Tommy gun, a rifle and some hand grenades were in position 50 yards from the road. These two parties were to give covering fire. Five drums were placed round the heap of road metal which was shovelled further into the road. The first trucks to pass however did not slow up, and the barrels and stones had to be put further and further into the road; but no one succeeded in getting a bomb into a truck.
Attempts were made by a man squatting behind a barrel, but when two or more vehicles passed together he was liable to be shown up by the lights of the second vehicle, and the idea was abandoned. The only alternative position was behind a bank on the side of the road; but in this case the bomb thrower had to go over the bank, jump the ditch and then catch the vehicle up. A third difficulty was the height of the trucks. This entailed throwing the bomb, a rather clumsy missile, whereas it had been intended to drop it.
As no success was achieved by OZOO hrs on the 15th Capt. Timpson decided to try chasing a vehicle in his truck without lights; and Sergeant Fraser sat on the bonnet with a bomb, in readiness to throw it. The first vehicle they followed was found halted in front of the road block, and it was explained by two gesticulating Italians that it had been in tow and that the tow rope had broken. The lights of an approaching vehicle however appeared in the distance so the party was forced to go on to the west ….
As they sought to extricate themselves from the area the next day the seven man patrol was confronted by a force of twenty four Italian troops that had apparently been sent out in trucks to hunt them down. The patrol had considerable fire-power – ‘two Vickers .303 and three Vickers “K” machine guns, one Browning and one Lewis gun’ – and were able to fight them off, although Guardsman Matthews was killed.
In eastern Poland the build up of the largest invasion force ever assembled was proceeding apace. Although Stalin was to receive a series of intelligence reports throughout June warning of imminent invasion, he chose to disregard them. Soviet military groups were not allowed to prepare positions that might be regarded as ‘provocative’. For anyone on the ground in the area, the troop build could have only one purpose – a purpose that was readily evident to even a civilian doctor:
Because of unusually heavy military traffic, all civilian movement was halted for several hours. You can see many different types of troops. They seem to be traveling in the direction of Zamosc. Only empty vehicles travel in the direction of Zwierzyniec; occasionally a motorcycle or passenger car does also. The situation is the same as during a war when large fighting units begin to move.
We received news from people arrested a week ago that an epidemic of spotted typhus is growing in Zamosc prison. I have lost any hope that Dr. Likowski and my medic will be released.
The British government had been reluctant to launch general “area bombing” of industrial targets in Germany. The accelerating pace of the Luftwaffe raids on Britain, “the Blitz”, had now hardened attitudes. After the devastating raids on Coventry and Southampton in particular, the decision was made to widen the range of acceptable targets. Operation Abigail Rachel, the bombing of Mannheim, was the first of these.
The Air Situation report for the week reported:
The outstanding event of the week was the heavy and successful attack on Mannheim on the night of the 16th-l7th December…
the sole objective was the industrial centre of Mannheim on which 108 tons of high explosive and over 13,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. Countless fires were started and aircraft which arrived late in the night reported that many blocks in the Western and South-Eastern areas were ablaze. Aircraft visited the town on the two following nights and reported many fires still burning after the previous attacks, and smoke hanging over the town.
See TNA CAB/66/14/17
In fact the bombing was widely dispersed and only 34 people were killed. There was no comparison with the large scale raids by the Luftwaffe – which were now killing hundreds each time they attacked the industrial cities of the Midlands and northern England.
RAF Bomber Command was on a steep learning curve. They, and later the USAAF, would be visiting Mannheim over 150 times during the course of the war. The 108 tons dropped on December 16th night were merely a hint of the 25,000 tons yet to be dropped on the city. By 1943 the RAF would be capable obliterating a large part of the city in just a couple of raids. The last major raid, in March 1945, would start a huge firestorm.
On the very same day the War Cabinet was considering a report on the effectiveness of British bombing in general. In response to the widespread devastation of British cities the press were raising the question as to whether the RAF was hitting back hard enough.
The report sought to paint a balanced picture based on different reports from air crew, reconnaissance and intelligence. However the ‘Adverse’ reports were mostly from the evidence of those who had observed the effects on the ground. The ‘Aerial Attache’ at different British Embassies in neutral countries were hard at work trying to discover what visitors to Germany had seen:
BERLIN Press Correspondents of American papers report that, up to the 16th October, the material damage caused by the R.A.F. in Berlin was negligible, but their nuisance value considerable. (A.A., Berne.)
An American journalist, who left Berlin about the 11th November, states that British bombs are still far too light and frequently do no damage when they fall on concrete roofs. (British Minister, Sofia.)
Mr. Warren, of the United States Department, who had been inspecting United States Missions in Europe, states that the damage is not so great as believed in England. He considers our aircraft too few and bombs too light. Moreover, though carefully aimed, the latter fall wide, probably owing to the height at which aircraft fly to avoid the barrage. (British Minister, Bulgaria.)
The Swedish Consul-General at Hamburg was recently taken round the docks for four hours and saw little damage. Impression in Stockholm is that material damage is not heavy. (A.A., Stockholm..)
An experienced German pilot in October states he had to spend continuous nights in the cellar of his house near the Tempelhof. He did not, however, regard the bombardment as effective in view of the small size and weight of the bombs dropped, but admitted that the parachute flares used were effective in lighting up a large area for a sufficiently long time to enable accurate bombing to take place. (Secret Service Source.)
The Air Ministry tried to put a positive gloss on this:
From a close examination of all the evidence available on the results of our raids over both Germany and Italy, the Air Staff conclude that, while exaggerated claims have been made in the Press, the effect of our bombs on Germany has been greater relatively to the size of the force at our disposal than the results of the German attacks on this country.
When the Italians had invaded Egypt in September they had moved forward some 60 miles and then established a series of armed camps in the desert. Covert British reconnaissance had established that there were wide gaps between the forts and they did not form a linked defensive line. Furthermore although parts of the encampments were heavily fortified, with large mine fields in front of them, there were many weak spots, as the Italians required their own access in order to resupply them. The Italians commanded forces of around 150,000 whereas the British had around 36,000 troops and had far fewer tanks and guns. Nevertheless it was felt that a surprise attack was possible.
On 9th December Operation Compass was launched with dawn attacks on the Nibeiwa camp with a heavy artillery barrage. Surprise was complete and there was widespread confusion amongst the Italians. Italian tanks in the camp areas were unable to mount a co-ordinated counter-attack. Then they discovered they had no weapons capable of dealing with the slow moving but heavily armoured British Matilda ‘infantry’ tank. There was no lack of bravery on the part of the Italians, many of whom died at their guns. However by 8.30am General Malletti was dead and 2,000 Italians were surrendering.
It was only later that General Wavell called in journalists to inform them of the attack:
We have attacked in the Western Desert. This is not an offensive and I do not think you ought to describe it as an offensive as yet. You might call it an important raid. The attack was made early this morning and I had word an hour ago that the first of the Italian camps has fallen. I cannot tell you at this moment how far we are going to go — it depends on what supplies and provisions we capture and what petrol we are able to find.
The race was now on to exploit this early success.
By 11 June 1940 Alastair Panton, an RAF Blenheim bomber pilot with 53 Squadron had already been shot down three times since the German invasion of France. The majority of the BEF had by now been evacuated after their encirclement at Dunkirk. However the 51st Highland Division was still fighting alongside the French and many British support troops remained in France – and a new Expeditionary force would soon be landed further west with a view to establishing a new line of resistance – possibly establishing a joint Anglo-French redoubt in Brittany.
The remaining RAF Blenheim crews, their ranks now much reduced by casualties, were still engaged in the vital business of reconnaissance. They were now mainly flying dangerous, extremely low level sorties, to establish a picture of the rapidly changing battlefield. Panton and his observer Chancery were now due to the meet British Army intelligence officer Major Jameson. In the increasingly confused situation, with many roads impassable with refugees, they had arranged to meet him outside Chartres cathedral sometime that evening, whenever Jameson could find a route through:
The streets were filthy and crowded with refugees; the water and electricity supplies only worked spasmodically; there were queues at all the food shops of customers hoping they would open in spite of the late hour; but the saddest feature was the overall air of resignation. More than ever was I struck by the contrast with the cheerful, purposeful atmosphere at our little encampment in its corner of the airfield.
The pavements around the cathedral were crowded with refugees, as were the steps leadingup to the main entrance.The people, lying or sitting with their belongings, were eyeing us in our flying overalls and forage caps, if not in an openly hostile manner, certainly in a way which showed they were not prepared to help us.
It was only with difficulty that we found space on the steps to sit down and wait for Jameson. When an hour went by without him, we were both feeling ready for a drink. I had noticed a bistro opposite which, unusually, was open, but surprisingly did not seem to be busy.
We decided to investigate and immediately found out why it was not being patronised much. According to a notice pinned to the door, W. Grammond, the proprietor, was charging an entrance fee of 100 francs. We were not short of money as we had had little opportunity to spend any. Without hesitating, we opened the door, cash in hand, and went in to be met by a gigantic hairy man, whom we rightly presumed to be Monsieur Grammond, seated at a table.
We were very pleasantly surprised by our reception, because We had become used to being made to feel not wanted. He jumped to his feet waving aside our proffered francs, crying, ‘Vive l’Angleterre! Vive le Royale Air Force! Entrez! Entrez!’
The other customers smiled their welcome and moved to make seats empty for us. We were soon enjoying large strong cups of coffee and cognac, and delicious they Were. We sat very contentedly at our table from where We could watch the cathedral steps, sipping and listening to the conversation of Monsieur Grammond’s local, clearly tax-exempt, friends.
It was soon evident to us that, in the general opinion, it was only a matter of time before military resistance to the Germans ceased entirely in France,the possibility of holding out in a redoubt such as the Brittany peninsula being discounted.
The majority thought that their government would depart overseas as the Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians had done, and continue the fight from there. Some thought that ‘overseas’ would be in the considerable French colonies in North Africa; others opted for London.
There was a general bitterness about their politicians’ reliance on the Maginot Line, and about our military contribution being far too small.The latter, something which we had never considered, came as a shock to Chancery and me. I suppose we had been blinded by our own personal involvement, but we were made to realise how very few soldiers we had put into the field in comparison with them, the French.
We were nonplussed by being asked if we thought our government would seek peace terms from Hitler when we were on our own. Our obvious astonishment at such an idea caused general laughter, but, when we were asked penetrating questions about how we thought we would beat the Germans, even if we succeeded in preventing them from over-running us, we found ourselves giving vague, broad—brush answers. In truth, we had no idea.
One of our new friends obviously thought things were becoming far too serious, because he started playing “J’attendrai” softly on his mouth-organ. Very soon, Monsieur Grammond went over to him and whispered something in his ear. He broke off his very popular sentimental lament, and started playing the tune of ‘Colonel Bogey’to loud laughter and applause.
Then, with Monsieur Grammond conducting his customers, they started roaring out a song in English with heavily French—accented words. I was hearing it for the first time, and afterwards I often thought of it as an anthem of the French resistance movement.
’Itler ’as only got one ball.
Goering ’as two but very small.
’Immler is somewhat similaire.
But poor old Goebbels ’as no balls at all!
It was a brief respite from the trials of war for Panton, further tragedy would strike his Squadron when many of his ground crew were lost on the Lancastria. Panton would be shot down for a fourth time, surviving as a POW, one of only three officers from the original twenty-two to survive the war. His memoir, published for the first time, posthumously, in 2014, contains an extraordinary series of stories as well as being a tribute to the men who did not survive. See Alastair Panton: Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer: An RAF Officer’s Memoir of the Battle of France 1940.
The Fairey Battle was to prove to be extremely vulnerable to the much faster German fighters, particularly the Me 109. Fortunately the RAF were developing an entirely different strategy for photo reconnaissance. Spitfires were being developed for high level reconnaissance, the aircraft were unarmed, making them lighter and capable of achieving a greater height. Single aircraft flew all over Europe to take pictures, relying on their height and speed to evade enemy fighters. A technological revolution took place during the war as the RAF developed this specialist role with ever improved aircraft and much improved cameras, capable of taking high resolution images that revealed detail on the ground even from great heights.
British Movietone News from 8th March 1940 showing early Air Reconnaissance techniques using Fairy Battle aircraft escorted by Hurricanes.