Book Review: War Beneath the Sea by Peter Padfield

Since the publication of War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict During World War II in 1996 it has become the standard text on submarine warfare in World War Two and a must have in any World War Two historian or general naval historian. The position this book has seized has more to say about a dearth of books that deal in depth and scope with that aspect of warfare then the excellence of this book. Which is not to say that War Beneath the Sea in not a good book; it is, but it does have some flaws.

In scope and depth this book is impressive. It covers in great detail the submarine operation of Germany, Britain, Japan and America. Padfield give rather short shrift to the Italian Submarine forces operations. Padfield draws on his vast knowledge of the German Kriegsmarine and how Grand Admiral Donitz absolutely dominated U-boat operations.

Padfield deals with how morale was maintained under the horrible conditions of the submarines of the time, not to mention in the face of rising causalities. The writing is clear and concise and the narration is nicely organized both chronologically and by operational area. He also delivers detailed stories of convoy battles and submarines individual actions as well. It is here that the book becomes almost more than the reader can bear. While the stories are well drawn and interesting, Padfield is unrelenting in his retelling of the death of submariners. The brave men on both sides die by drowning, by fire, by suffocation, by the crushing depths of the sea.

Padfield can be credited with taking no sides in this book, he is critical in his analyses and evaluations of all the major combatants submarine operations. His descriptions of the features and shortcomings of the major weapon systems are uncompromising.

It is fair to say that the book is not perfect. Although mind boggling complete in its depth. It is more of a synthesis of already existing ideas and information and doesn’t even try to break new ground in either description or evaluation of the submarine and its role in World War Two naval warfare, both tactically and strategically.

The book has a comprehensive chronology in the back. Also extensive notes and references are included.

Hunted Cow’s Russian Front Game Review

Hunted Cow’s Russian Front is an engaging and involving operational-level wargame set in World War Two in the East. It joins the recent spate of wargames by other companies set in the same theater, such as Battle Academy Two and Lock N’ Load’s: Heroes of Stalingrad, as well as Hunted Cow’s own series of Eastern Front tactical games. Russian Front is one of those games that will have the player wanting just … one … more … turn.

http://www.armchairgeneral.com/russian-front-pc-game-review.htm

Victory Disease

In 1942 both Germany and Japan were suffering from serious cases of “victory disease.” Victory disease: “threatens any nation with a history of military prowess and manifests itself in three basic symptoms: arrogance, a sense of complacency and a habit of using established patterns to fight. . .”[1] In Japan Victory disease manifested itself by the thought that the Empire could strike anywhere and do anything and also by the thought that Japan’s victories were the result of Nipponese inherent superiority over the decadent Europeans and Americans.[2]

Germany also caught the victory disease which was reinforced by the nasty racial ideology of the Nazis, led them to invade the Soviet Union while Britain still resisted in the West and in Africa.[3] However by 1942 German, unlike Japan, had two reasons to not be so arrogant: In 1940 they had been turned back by the British Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and had barely won a Pyrrhic victory in Crete in May 1941.

While the Battles of Midway and Stalingrad were indeed turning points in the war. There were two others worthy of note and also caused by “Victory Disease”. In the Pacific the Battle of Guadalcanal, stopped the Japanese in the South Pacific and secured the long and vulnerable from America to Australia. [4]    The other was the Allied victory in North Africa; called “Tunisgrad”, a play on words referencing Stalingrad. Loses in the final surrender to the Western allies in North Africa were devastating.   Over two hundred thousand Axis soldiers went into prison camps; including 3 elite Panzer divisions (10th, 15th and 21st) and the Herman Goering Panzer Division as well. [5]

It doesn’t require much imagination to think of what those 200,000 Germans, many of them fine soldiers would have meant to the defense of Sicily or Italy or France; or had they been deployed to the Eastern Front.

1] Timothy Karcher, Understanding the “Victory Disease,” From the Little Bighorn to Mogadishu and Beyond (Leavenworth, KS; CSI Press, 2003), 1.

[2] Gerhard Weinburg, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005), 323.

[3] Williamson Murray, “Net Assessment in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s” in Calculations Calculations ed. by Allan R. Millett, Williamson Murray, (New York: The Free Press, 1992) 94-95.

[4] Joseph N. Mueller, Guadalcanal 1942: the marines strike back (Oxford: Osprey Press, 1992), viii.

[5] Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr., Blitzkrieg No Longer: The German Wehrmacht in Battle, 1943, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010), 85.

 

 

 

Brief Biography of General Kurt Student

In the movie Gettysburg General Robert E. Lee says to General James Longstreet: “General, soldiering has one great trap: to be a good solider you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love.”[1] General Kurt Student no doubt well understood those feelings as he arrived on Crete five days after the initial landings by his elite Fallschrimjager and looked out to see hundreds of his men dead; their corpses bloated and stinking in the hot Mediterranean sun. This horrible sight would stay with Student for the rest of his life.[2]

The future Luftwaffe Colonel-General Kurt Arthur Benno Student was born on 12 May 1890, the third of four sons.[3] His family was minor Prussian gentry or Junkers. The family was not well off financially and could not hope to launch four sons into their careers of choice. Kurt would have liked to been a doctor, but there was no money for that kind of education, so upon the death of his mother, he entered a military preparatory school for the free education.[4]

Student’s matriculation at the Royal Prussian Military Cadet School and later at the Lichterfelde Cadet School was considered at the time to be the standard education for a youth of his class.[5] He did well enough in school to earn a commission to a light infantry, or Jager, regiment close to home in 1911. Oddly, Student with little skill in math and a dislike of heights, volunteered for flight training in 1913.[6]

During World War I Student was assigned to the fledgling Imperial German Flying Corps. At the start, he had “good” war. Fighting on both fronts he downed six enemy planes to achieve “ace” status. He also test flew the deadly Fokker tri-wing. Toward the end of the war he commanded a squadron and achieving the rank of Captain. In 1917, he was shot down and severely wounded. Student had barely recovered and returned to active duty when the World War One ended.[7]

Student was lucky enough to be retained as one of only four thousand officers allowed to the one-hundred thousand man Weimar Republic’s Army, the Reichswehr, by the Treaty of Versailles. The same treaty also forbade Germany an air force. Student, with his flying experience, was assigned to the Central Flying Office of the War Ministry, with the brief to secretly develop aircraft technology and doctrine for the future Luftwaffe. However, mere technical development would not be enough, so the Reichswehr high command also encouraged gliding as a sport to build a pool of skilled pilots. Student funneled secret government funds to the gliding clubs and also took part in the gliding competitions. He was badly injured with a fractured skull when his glider crashed in 1923.[8]

In order to get promoted, Student transferred back to his old infantry regiment in 1928, but his sub-rosa work with the Central Flying Office did not come to an end.[9] As part of a secret treaty with the Soviet Union, Student was allowed to observe a demonstration of Russian paratroop deployment in 1931, at this demonstration Student met fellow World War One flying ace Hermann Goering. Both air aces were impressed by the Russian display, even if some of the Soviet’s methods were frightening; such as having the paratroops cling to the wing-struts of bi-planes and open their parachutes to be yanked off by the slipstream![10]

In 1933 Hitler seized power in Germany; in 1935 Der Fuehrer repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and started to rebuild the German war machine. Student was, under the patronage of Goering, the head of the new Luftwaffe, made chief of the paratroop training school and Inspector General of Airborne Troops, as well as commander of the Seventh Flieger Division. During this time, until the Seventh went into combat in the Low Countries in 1940, Student was the prime mover of German Airborne force development.[11]

Student took a hand in all parts of developing the training, equipment and operational doctrine for “his” Fallschrimjager. He had a unique background to aid him in this task; he was a well-known pilot of powered aircraft and gliders, as well as an experienced infantry and staff officer with technological and equipment development experience.[12] Student instituted a policy of only accepting volunteers and also set up a rigorous training program, which was called “unbelievably hard” by the troops. Lastly, although a Luftwaffe officer, Student advocated the concept of using large scale airborne and glider-landings as a part of the Blitzkrieg to seize key terrain in advance of the Panzer divisions’ armored spearheads. This was the doctrine favored by the Army. The Air Force would have preferred to use the airborne forces for small-scale commando raid and other small special operations.[13]

The logical conclusion of the vertical envelopment operational concept advocated by Student was Operation Mercury: the invasion of Crete; where the airborne would not just support regular ground forces, but rather would conduct an independent operation, with the Fallschrimjager being supported by regular naval and air forces. Without a doubt, the airborne invasion of Crete, in fact, Crete as a strategic target at all, was the brainchild of Kurt Student. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, (OKW), the German Military High Command, thought Malta was the better target for an airborne assault. The island fortress’ capture would secure the sea lanes to Africa. Student fearing an attack on so well defended an objective offered Crete as an alternate. Crete was the ideal for his paratroopers, thought to be lightly defended, in range of the Luftwaffe and having only one main road. Also Crete offered two strategic advantages; occupying it would secure the recently conquered Balkans and Greece, thus the southern flank of Operation Barbarossa and the island could also be used as a springboard to take Malta, Cyprus and maybe even Egypt. Through Goering, Student overcame Hitler initial reservations and on 25 April 1941 Student received Fuehrer Directive Number 28 authorizing the operation.[14]

From start to finish Operation Mercury was Student’s operation, although the overall command of the operation was given to General Alexander Loehr of the Fourth Air Fleet. Loehr’s primary job was to direct the combined arms elements of the operation; including his own Luftwaffe units and what naval forces could be brought to bear. Student’s command was technically just the ground forces, transport aircraft and gliders, but the overall concept and plan was his alone.[15]

Student’s first idea was to land his paratroopers and glider forces at the three main airfields and the administrative capitol simultaneously in a “single paralyzing blow”. As soon as one of the airfields were secured the Fifth Mountain (Gebirgs) Division would be flown in; this plan was the classic “oil spot tactics” of airborne attacks. [16] Loehr and the air support commander, Richthofen, objected to this plan, thinking that it could lead to defeat in detail of the scattered paratroopers, also Richthofen did not think his attack planes and bombers could provide effective fire support to four widely separated drop-zones. Instead Loehr and Richthofen favored a classic schwerpunkt, or a single focused attack, on Maleme, the airfield closest to German airbases in Greece. Student rejected this thinking as old-fashioned and limited. Plus he felt that a single assault would allow the Allies to turn the battle into a standard infantry fight, thereby losing the operational and tactical shock effect of parachute and glider landings. However, Student soon learned that even his 500 Junkers-52 (JU-52) transport planes and nearly 100 gliders would not be enough to carry all the paratroopers at once, so they would have to go in two waves. Still this did not change his thinking on attacking in four places, even though the second wave would not have of the advantage of surprise.[17]

Now Hitler intervened and demanded a seaborne landing as well. The mountain troops, already discontented about being crammed aboard airplanes were even more discontented about now being crammed on to boats. Student was also unhappy about this order, as he thought that the British Navy would be able to intercept the troop convoys and that Luftwaffe was overestimating its ability to protect the convoys.[18] In any case, poor command and staff work had the convoys sailing at night when the Luftwaffe could not intervene. The ramshackle troop convoys turned out to be easy meat for a British Navy well versed in night surface actions.[19]

The poor scheduling of the sea convoys was only one part of a generally rushed and haphazard operational planning. The fabled Grundlichkeit or “thoroughness” of German military preparation failed miserably during the run up to Operation Mercury.[20] By focusing on the innovative nature of the tactics to be used, Student and his staff virtually ignored other areas; such as sustainment, logistics, intelligence, counter-intelligence and deception. [21]

One of the biggest fault of the German planning was in the area of Command and Control. Not only would the four landings be separated by some distance and out of mutual supporting and communication range, but Student stayed in Athens, hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.[22] Adding to this was the fact that the several of the senior officers that were to command the ground fight were quickly killed or wounded once the invasion started.[23] Many radios were damaged on landing, so what reports Student received were spotty at best and seemed to confirm Loehr’s worst fears. The scattered landings were achieving very little and the Fallschrimjager had suffered heavy casualties.[24]

After the apparent failure for the paratroopers to accomplish much on the first day, Student cast the die.[25] He had a battalion of the remaining mountain troops loaded into the available JU-52’s and force landed them at Maleme, the one area where the Germans had at least partial control of an airfield. This gamble paid off; by the evening of 21 May a battalion of the Gebirgsjager had been landed and full control of the airfield established.[26] With sufficient ground troops now on the island and complete control of the air, the issue was no longer in doubt, although there was still hard fighting ahead and the island would not be declared secured for several more days.[27] The Battle for Crete was a German victory, but a pyrrhic one. The Germans suffered nearly 7,000 dead and wounded out of a force 22,000. Never again would the Germans launch a large scale airborne assault.[28]

An evaluation of Student’s part in Operation Mercury is not clear and easy. Once the situation on the ground was made apparent to him, Student kept his head and came up with a daring and ultimately successful plan to force-land the mountain troops. In this he displayed: “all the qualities of a great airborne commander.”[29] Further, Student can hardly be blamed for the fact that Ultra had broken the German codes and surprise was lost.[30] However, he can take the blame for the original concept of the plan which should have been changed when he realized he could not land all his forces in one wave. Also, he should be faulted for the poor command and control arrangements required by his decision to stay in Athens rather than land with his troops.[31] Without a doubt all the acclaim as well as the entire fault for the outcomes of the operation can be laid at Student’s feet. The plan and most of the decision-making was his from start to finish.

Student’s career did not suffer as the result of Crete. He continued to command troops throughout the rest of the war, most famously at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden, where perhaps ironically he and his German First Airborne Army were the defenders against the attacking Allied paratroopers.[32] Captured after the war and put on trial for ordering reprisals against Cretan civilians, Student was sentenced to five years in prison but due to ill-health he was released after two years. He died in 1978. [33]

Annotated Bibliography

Ailsby, Christopher. Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000.

Christopher Ailsby is an expert on the military of the Third Reich and had previously authored works on the Waffen-SS and the Kriegsmarine. In this work, Ailsby draws on his extensive private archive of photos to create an interesting visual and textual history of the German Fallschrimjager. This work is one of the most technical available; detailing equipment, organization and the developmental history of the German Airborne forces from 1938 to the end of the war. The author also goes into great detail and analysis of Kurt Student’s part in the development of the training, equipment, doctrine and organization of the elite German paratrooper units.

Citino, Robert M. “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 14-27.

Robert M. Citino is the Professor of European History at the University of North Texas and has written several works on the German Army in World War II.   This article is a pure analysis piece of the German side of Operation Mercury and he is highly critical of General Student and his staff. Citino also does macro-historical evaluation of the affects of Operation Mercury on both the Germans and the Allies. Both sides learned very different lessons from the battle, for the Germans it was the end of large paratroop operations, for the allies it was a starting point.

Gettysburg. DVD. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. New York: New Line Cinema, 2004.

Based on the book The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; parts of this movie are required viewing from some courses at US Army Command and General Staff College. The book is part of the required reading list for Professional Military Development in the US Military. The book and movie both have more to say about military leadership and war than many non-fiction works. For this paper the quote is used to demonstrate the feelings Student must have had as a professional military officer at seeing his dead comrades.

Hackett, Sir John. “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals. Edited by Correlli Barnett. 463-480. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Sir John Hackett was a highly decorated soldier that served with the British First Airbourne Division at Arnhem and after his retirement he pursued an academic, literary and historical writing career. In his article on Student in the collected work: Hitler’s Generals, Hackett calls Student the father of all airborne forces and one of only two truly innovative German officers of World War Two (the other being Heinz Guderian, the father of Blitzkrieg). The background information on Student is in-depth and detailed without being pedantic. If the article has a flaw is it soft pedals Student’s part in alleged war-crimes on Crete during the occupation.

Hickey, Michael. Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.

Michael Hickey is an award-winning military literature author and retired British military officer. His book Out of the Sky is a survey history of airborne operation from World War Two until the late 1970’s. He calls The Battle of Crete the “high tide” of German paratrooper operations. Hickey’s writing is clean and clear. He does little analysis but does contextualize Student’s role in the history and development of paratroops and other air-landing troops. He also contextualizes Student’s role in the battle and subsequent use of German paratroops as elite ground infantry.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

John Keegan is the premier military historian of our time; his works like The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command are groundbreaking works of military history. In his book The Second World War, Keegan approached the war thematically rather than chronologically. For the purpose of this paper one of the “battle pieces” selected to illustrate the nature airborne warfare was the Battle of Crete. Keegan places the battle in context of the innovative nature of warfare during World War Two and Student’s part in this innovation. Keegan does some sharp analysis on the role of Allied code-breaking on the outcome of the battle.

Kiriakopoulos, G. C. Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Professor Kiriakopoulos’ book investigates the often overlooked civilian resistance to the initial German invasion of Crete as well as the subsequent efforts by the occupiers to suppress this resistance. This book is often cited by later academic, military and popular works on the subject of Crete during World War Two. Kiriakopoulos claims that before this work the Battle of Crete was overlooked in America. Further the book is generously footnoted and includes much original information from interviews Kiriakopoulos conducting while researching the battle.

Quarrie, Bruce. Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91. Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991.

The late Bruce Quarrie had a well deserved reputation for painstaking research and meticulous detail in his writing. His work Airborne Assault is a perfect example of this kind of writing. Nearly flawless in it description and details, this work is often cited in military academic papers on the subject of airborne operations in general and Operation Mercury in particular. The first chapter of this work focuses on Operation Mercury, while the second offers valuable in-formation regarding the development of the German paratroopers. While Quarrie doesn’t give much, if any analysis, the narrative is invaluable.

Reinhardt, Hellmuth. Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th Edition. Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008.

This work was originally written for and published by Historical Division, EUCOM, by a committee of former German officers under the publication number CMH Pub 104-13 in 1953. The primary author was Generalmajor (Brigadier General) Hellmuth Reinhardt, Deputy Chief, General Army Office, 1941-43, and later Chief of Staff, Eighth Army, on the southern front in the Ukraine and Romania. This work is now commercially available as cited. Other contributors included Kurt Student, Albert Kesselring and August von der Heydte. This work is a thorough analysis of German airborne and the German reaction to Allied air-landing operations as well, during the War. The work is utterly invaluable to anyone studying the subject of German paratroop operations in World War Two and is often cited by military and academic writers on this subject.

Williamson, Gordon. German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2. Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Gordon Williamson is a British Army veteran and the author of a number of titles for Osprey Publishers. This two volume set is lavishly illustrated, as are all Osprey publications, and features brief yet detailed biographies of German leaders in the Waffen-SS, Luffwaffe and Kriegsmarine. These commanders are generally less well known than then their German Army counterparts. The biography of Kurt Student is full of interesting details of his life and military career; it is certainly as good and is at least as valuable as the similar biography in Hitler’s Generals.

[1] Gettysburg, DVD, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell (New York: New Line Cinema, 2004).

[2] G. C. Kiriakopoulos, Ten Days to Destiny: The Battle for Crete, 1941 (New York: Franklin Watts, 1985), 318.

[3] Gordon Williamson, German Commanders of World War II: Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe & Navy, Volume 2 (Oxford UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006), 51.

[4] Sir John Hackett, “Student: Colonel-General Kurt Student” in Hitler’s Generals, ed. Correlli Barnett, (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 464.

[5] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 17.

[6] Hackett, “Student”, 464.

[7] Callum McDonald, The Lost Battle: Crete 1941 (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 7.

[8] Ibid., 8 -9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce Quarrie, Airborne Assault: Parachute Forces in Action, 1940-91 (Sparkford, UK: Patrick Stephens, ltd, 1991), 29.

[11] Hackett, “Student”, 466-467.

[12] Christopher Ailsby, Hitler’s Sky Warriors: German Paratroopers in Action, 1939-1945 (Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, Ltd., 2000), 29.

[13] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 30.

[14] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 161.

[15] Ibid., 161-162.

[16] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70 and Hellmuth Reinhardt, Airborne Operations: A German Appraisal, 4th ed. (Bennington, VT: Merriam Press, 2008), 18

[17] McDonald, The Lost Battle, 70-71.

[18] Ibid., 72-73

[19] Ibid., 238-239

[20] Robert M. Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter 2010), 14.

[21] Ibid., 17.

[22] Michael Hickey, Out of the Sky: A History of Airborne Warfare (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979), 61.

[23] Ibid., 65

[24] Ibid., 67.

[25] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 21.

[26] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 68.

[27] Quarrie, Airborne Assault, 24-25.

[28] Citino, “Dead On Arrivals?” 25.

[29] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[30] Keegan, The Second World War, 163.

[31] Reinhardt, Airborne Operations, 19-20.

[32] Hickey, Out of the Sky, 73.

[33] Williamson, German Commanders of World War II, 54.

Overlooked Aspects of the Battle of the Atlantic

An often overlooked aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic is the use of convoys not just as a defensive formation but as offensive formations as well. Not just shields to protect the merchant vessels but as swords to kill the U-Boats. However, in either role the convoy system only worked well when the conditions had been set for it to operate effectively and it was actually used. For example at the start of America’s entry into the war, simple blackout procedures were not followed on the East Coast and the convoy system was not instituted resulting in the German U-boats having a “Happy Time” off the American coast sinking ships at will. Sometimes not even bothering with a torpedo, but surfacing and shooting up the hapless merchant vessel with their desk guns. [1]

As Churchill himself said, the Battle of the Atlantic was a war of pure attrition. There would be no “flaring battles and glittering achievements” only “statistics, diagrams and curves.” [2]   To prosecute this battle the Allied pick Admiral Sir Max Horton, a British submariner, as Command and Chief the Western Approaches. As a submariner he could and did get inside German Admiral Doentiz’s decision loop and understand what options Doentitz had while directing the German side of the battle. Horton created and enforced a new training policy forcing escort groups to think and act as a team. He also created hunter-killer groups of ships that would be strategically place to cover many convoys and come to their aid when attack. Lastly, rather than avoid known wolf pack positions he directed his convoys into their teeth, to lure the Germans into attacking, and then use his new weapons to kill the Germans. [3]

The Allies technological advantage in new weapons and new intelligence gathering was what made Horton’s aggressive policy possible. HUFF/DUFF radio detection gear placed on ships and longer range aircraft to cover more and more of the ocean and find and kill the u-boats. As well as operational improvements such as a controlling “Tracking Room” in Canada aided in the defeat of the U-boats. [4]

[1] Dan Van der Vat, The Atlantic Campaign: World War II’s Great Struggle at Sea (New York: Harper and Row, Inc. 1988) 266-267.

[2] Winston Churchill, Memoirs of the Second World War: an abridgement of the six volumes of the Second World War (New York Houghton Mifflin, Inc, 1959) 410.

[3] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1996) 54-56.

[4] Gerhard Weinburg, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005), 381.

The Forgotten Cavalry Charge of the Royal Savoia

The very idea of the cavalry charge died in front the trenches and machine guns of World War I. The development of the machine gun and the invention of the armored tank destroyed the thousands year old tradition of noble men on noble steeds dashing forward to meet the enemy head-on.

The first years of World War Two found the Polish Army, British troops in India and the Americans in the Philippines still using the cavalry to fight the Axis. By 1942, very few military leaders would have thought that the cavalry was still an effective combat arm.

Colonnello Alessandro Bettoni-Cazzago, commander of the Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalleggeri was one of those that could still see a role for horsemen in 20th century warfare. Dispatched by Mussolini to the Eastern Front as part of his alliance with Hitler, the Savoia was a look backward at the golden age of mounted combat.

The Savoia Regiment still carried cavalry sabers and captured Cossack swords. They were also armed with the model 1891 Carcano short carbine and captured Soviet PPSh41 submachine guns. They wore steel helmets embossed with a black cross commemorating the 1706 Battle of Madonna di Campana where the regiment captured a French battle flag. Each trooper also had a red necktie symbolizing when a member of the regiment delivered an important message.

In August 1942, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army managed to drive a wedge along the River Don in the Ukraine between the Italian Army and the German 6th Army. To restore the Axis position, the Savoia Regiment was sent to stop the advancing Russians.

On 24 August 1942, following a day of screening movements and minor skirmishing Colonel Bettoni decided that a charge could stop the Soviet advance. In the damp morning the three mounted squadrons of the regiment formed up. One squadron was dismounted due to lack of horses. With flags a flying, bugles blowing, sabers drawn and 600 throats crying “Savoia” and “Caricat” (Charge), the regiment advanced. Moving first at the trot, then as they drew closer to the enemy, moving into a canter and at last to a full gallop, the Italian horsemen crashed into the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.

Supported by the dismounted 4th squadron and the regiment’s machine gun unit, the Savoia decimated the Siberians. Out of 2000 men the Siberians lost 150 dead and over 900 captured for Italian loses of 40 dead and 79 wounded. The regiment won two gold medals and 54 silver medals for valor for one of the last cavalry charges of all time.

The regiment is still on the rolls of the Italian Army as the Reggimento Savoia Cavalleria. Now equipped with armored vehicles, the troopers still wear red ties and black crosses on their helmets. The Regimental Day is now August 24th, in memory of that last charge.

Sources

Andreanelli, Sergio. “The Last Cavalry Charge in WWII” in The Shotgun News, March 1990

Fowler, Jeffery T. Axis Cavalry in World War II

Dunnigan James F. Dirty Little Secrets of World War II

Royal Air Force’s strategy during the Battle of Britain

The Royal Air Force’s strategy during the Battle of Britain can be summarized in one word: Survive. Because as long as the RAF existed as an effective fighting force, the German’s could not achieve air superiority and launch their seaborne invasion of Britain.

The British used a complex system of command, control, communication and intelligence (C3I) during the battle. This was known as the Dowding System, called after its main developer, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle.

The Dowding System divided Britain into four Group Areas; 10 Group in Wales and the West, 11 Group covering the Southeast and around London, 12 Group defending the Midlands and East Anglia and 13 Group covering the North, including Scotland. Each Group was further subdivided into Sectors. Each Sector was assigned between 2 and 4 squadrons. The sectors had a main headquarters airfield and some satellite fields on which the aircraft would be based.

The system would work like this:

A Luftwaffe raid would be detected by either Radar or the Observer Corps. This information would be called by dedicate telephone lines into The Filter Room of Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory. The information would be quickly but thoroughly analyzed and evaluated. The numbers and types of planes in the raid, possible directions and targets would be determined.

The information was then passed to the main operations room to be recorded on the plotting tables. The information was also forwarded to the affected Group HQ where it was also recorded on their plotting tables and where RAF officers called Fighter Controller would order a response. Sector HQs would then scramble fighter squadrons into the air for the intercept. Once in the air, fighters would be directed, or vectored, by High Frequency (HF) radio at the oncoming German planes.

Despite some limitation, such as the short range of HF radio and the fact that the RAF tracking system for its fighters, called HF/DF or ” Huff-Duff”, was limited to no more than four fighters squadrons in a sector, the Dowding system was amazingly effective. The RAF achieved an 80% interception rate on German formations. This means eight out of ten time RAF fighters showed up in place and in time to engage enemy formations.

Not that the system was flawless. Cooperation between groups was often lacking or faulty. This was particularly true with 11 Group and 12 Group where the two group commanders were often at odds. However, this Air Combat Control system combined with advance technology such as Radar and “Huff/Duff” along with short comings in and some strategic errors by the Luftwaffe lead to the RAF decisively defeating the Luftwaffe in the Battle.