RAID ON ROMMEL’S HEADQUARTERS 2 READERS’ INVESTIGATION Wolfsschanze Revisited 21 IT HAPPENED HERE Pershing versus Tiger at Elsdorf 32 AUSTRALIA Australia’s Worst Air Disaster 44 PRESERVATION Waldhaus Häcklingen 54 Front Cover: Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrikakorps, visiting Generalmajor Johann von Ravenstein, commander of the 5. leichte Division, in Libya in late May 1941. Six months later, Rommel would be the target of a commando raid to kill him, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes. Back Cover: The grave of LieutenantColonel Geoffrey Keyes, VC, MC and Croix de Guerre, in the Benghazi War Cemetery, Plot 7, Row D, Grave 5. Acknowledgements: For their help with the Keyes Raid story the Editor would like to thank Stephen Hamilton of Western Desert Battlefield Tours, Vern Simpson, Alan Tomkins and Peter Schenk who very kindly loaned us Günther Halm's photo album. For assistance with the Elsorf story, he thanks Gerrie Franken, Gerard Thuring and Marcel Zwarts. Photo Credits: ECPAD — Médiathèque de la Défense, Fort d'Ivry; IWM — Imperial War Museum, London; USNA — US National Archives 2
On June 4, 1940 — one day after the close of the Dunkirk evacuation — British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a memorandum to General Hastings Ismay, his Chief Military Assistant and Staff Officer, in which he stressed the need to strike back at the enemy quickly: ‘It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries they have conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. ‘ Two days later he pressed his point: ‘I look to the joint Chiefs-of-Staff to propose me measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline.’ As a result of this, on June 14 the Chiefs-of-Staff appointed Lieutenant-General Alan Bourne to the post of ‘Commander of Raiding Operations on coasts in enemy occupation’. However, Churchill, who was not consulted about the appointment, considered that Bourne was too close to the Admiralty to resist undue influence from them and in mid-July Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes was appointed in his place, his position now re-named Director of Combined Operations. Here Churchill and Keyes observe the training of men of the 29th Infantry Brigade at Loch Fyne, Scotland, on June 27, 1941. After the Germans became heavily involved in Russia with the launch of Operation ‘Barbarossa’ in June 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs-of-Staff pressed the Middle East Command to resume offensive operations in the Western Desert at the earliest possible moment. Nevertheless, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (who replaced General Archibald Wavell in July) made it clear that he considered that they would not have sufficient trained forces to recapture Cyrenaica before the end of the year. Exchanges of telegrams failed to resolve the differences and Auchinleck was summoned to London to confer in early August.
The offensive in the Western Desert codenamed Operation ‘Crusader’ was finally planned to begin on November 18. The plan of operation was for the Eighth Army to engage Axis armour in a tank battle, destroy it, and then create a corridor through to the besieged Tobruk garrison. Two commando operations were conceived to be launched just before Operation ‘Crusader’. The first was an airborne assault on Axis airfields in the sector of Gazala and Tmimi. The second, Operation ‘Flipper’, was a seaborne mission carried out by 60 men who would land by submarine on a beach in Cyrenaica, play havoc with telephone lines and, if possible, take out Rommel.
Earlier that year it had been decided to seize the Greek island of Rhodes to prevent the Italians from using it as a base for striking at the main British naval base at Alexandria. To this end, Sir Roger Keyes, in his role of Director of Combined Operations, proposed to assemble a Special Service unit and send it to the Mediterranean to carry out the operation. The force comprised Nos. 7, 8 and 11 Commandos, with a troop from No. 3 Commando and the Folbot Troop (commandos operating kayak-type canoes) — a total of around 100 officers and 1,500 other ranks. They departed from Scotland on January 31, 1941 in two infantry landing ships, the Glengyle and Glenroy. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock was appointed acting commander of the Special Service Brigade, but to avoid the Axis command becoming aware that a large force of commandos had arrived in the theatre, the War Office ordered that the designation ‘Layforce’ was to be used and that no mention of commandos or Royal Navy involvement was allowed. Sailing via the Cape, they arrived at Suez on March 7. On its arrival in Egypt, the force was strengthened by the addition of No. 50 Commando from Crete and No. 52 Commando from Sudan. ‘Layforce’ then comprised four battalions: A Battalion - No. 7 Commando (Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Colvin) B Battalion - No. 8 Commando (Lieutenant-Colonel Dermot Daly) C Battalion - No. 11 Commando (Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Pedder) D Battalion - No. 50/52 Commando (Lieutenant-Colonel George Young) After the German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia in April, the Rhodes operation was called off and the role of Layforce was changed to planning and undertaking raids behind enemy lines along the North African coast. On April 15 Brigade Headquarters and A and C Battalions set off in the Glengyle and Glenroy to attack Bardia while four troops of B Battalion sailed for Bomba in a destroyer. However, the swell was so strong that re-embarkation of the commandos from the beaches would have been difficult if not impossible, and as a result the whole operation was called off.
On the night of November 14/15, 1941, a British raiding party of 30 commandos led by Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes landed on the shores of Libya, their mission being to attack a house in the town of Beda Littoria thought to be the headquarters of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, the famed commander of the German Afrikakorps, and kill or capture him. The attack failed and Keyes was fatally wounded in the action, being posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross.
RAID ON ROMMEL’S HEADQUARTERS New orders were quickly issued and A Battalion was selected for the raid on Bardia. Escorted by HMS Coventry, an anti-aircraft cruiser, and three Australian destroyers, HMAS Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen, the Glengyle landed troops on four beaches on the night of April 19/20. The objective was to disrupt enemy lines of communication and to inflict as much damage as possible to installations and equipment. Although the landings were unopposed, little was achieved and losses amounted to 67 men taken prisoner and one officer killed by friendly fire. At this stage of the war, there were few reserve forces in the Middle East so elements of Layforce were now deployed as normal infantry battalions, a role for which they were neither equipped nor trained. In June C Battalion intervened in Lebanon against French Vichy-held Syria in the battle of the Litani River loosing 130 men, almost of third of the 379 who had landed; and at the end of May, A and D Battalions were deployed on Crete to help contain the German assault. Fighting as the rearguard, they lost 600 men out of the 800 committed.
By Jean Paul Pallud
Keyes was the son of Admiral Keyes and the commander of C Battalion (No. 11 Commando) of Layforce. In May 1941, when the battalion was still under LieutenantColonel Richard Pedder, Keyes, then still a major, accompanied his CO in escorting Governor Sir William Battershill during a tour of Kantara Castle in Cyprus. Keyes took over C Battalion in June, following the death of Pedder during an operation to Lebanon. 3
Accompanying the party on the raid to Rommel’s headquarters was LieutenantColonel Robert Laycock, the commander of ‘Layforce’ (seen in this photograph early in June 1944 when he was Chief of Combined Operations and the British Army’s youngest major-general). Colonel Laycock had a strong personal motive for wanting to join Operation ‘Flipper’. In May 1941, during the battle for Crete, he had commanded A and D Battalions that were deployed to cover the hasty evacuation of ‘Creforce’, the combined British, Commonwealth and Greek force defeated by the German airborne and seaborne assault of the island. On May 30, Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg, the ‘Creforce’ commander, ordered Laycock to stay behind and to keep fending off the German assault until all the fighting units had safely boarded the naval transports provided for the evacuation. If absolutely necessary, he was to present the British surrender to the German commander. Late on the 31st, Laycock, judging that all Allied units were ready to depart, ordered his force to withdraw to the beach and embark. He dispatched the surrender document to Lieutenant-Colonel George Young, the commander of D Battalion, while he himself embarked at Sphakia. However, in actual fact, not all the units had left and many were still queuing up to board when the flotilla weighed anchor. Of the 800 commandos under Laycock’s command, some 600 were killed or captured on Crete. British historian Michael Asher, the author of the painstakingly researched book The British Plot to Kill Hitler’s Greatest General (first published in 2004) judged that Laycock’s conduct was ‘not out of cowardice but out of an inflated sense of their own preciousness’. Though he had clearly disobeyed orders, Laycock was not court-martialled but his reputation among his peers suffered badly. So his motive to go along on the Rommel raid was a strong personal one: to remove the stain from his reputation. Greatly reduced in strength by these operations, Layforce was disbanded in July. Many of the men were returned to their previous regiments while others were sent to the Far East or to join alternative special units like the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Boat Section (SBS). C Battalion in Cyprus managed to dodge the disbandment and, when the invasion threat to that island receded, it returned to Egypt in early August. During the operation in Lebanon, the commander of C Battalion, LieutenantColonel Pedder, had been killed, so when the unit returned Captain Geoffrey Keyes took over although he was dismayed to see his command broken up so soon after he had acquired it. Consequently, LieutenantColonel Laycock, armed with a letter from Geoffrey to his father, went to London to plead with Sir Roger for the reconstitution of a commando force in the Middle East. In September Captain Keyes heard that Rommel had been spotted by Arab agents at a headquarters in Beda Littoria in Cyrenaica. He probably learnt about this from an acquaintance, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Cator, the second-in-command of G(R), the code-name for the SOE’s directorate of Special Operations in Cairo. Beda Littoria lay some 250 miles behind the front line but only 18 miles from the coast so Keyes believed that this would make it possible for a commando unit to be put ashore and move inland to attack the headquarters and abduct or kill Rommel. He therefore decided to put his plan directly to Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, 4
the commander of the new Eighth Army just formed in September, at his headquarters at Maaten Baggush near Alexandria. Knowing that Keyes’ father was a personal friend of Churchill, Cunningham agreed to hear Captain Keyes out and although no transcription of the meeting exists, his response was favourable. Keyes’ adjutant, 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Macpherson, later said how Keyes returned to camp at Amiriyya joyfully exclaiming: ‘If we get this job, Tommy, it’s one people will remember us by’. HASELDEN’S RECONNAISSANCE On October 10, one week after Keyes had met Cunningham, the submarine HMS Torbay approached the beach at Khashm al Kalb near Ras Aamer, a cape due north of Beda L’Horia. On board were Captain John Haselden, an agent of G(R), and an Arab NCO from the Libyan Arab Force (a Britishofficered unit made up of Arab exiles from Libya). Born and raised in Egypt of a British father and an Egyptian mother, Haselden spoke fluent Italian and French as well as several Arabic dialects. Torbay also carried a detachment from the Special Boat Section — two crews each comprising an officer and NCO. The usual drill when landing personnel was for the SBS team to go in first to secure the beach but on this occasion Haselden decided to swim in first. As the submarine lay 300 yards off the beach in darkness, Haselden, stark naked, swam to the shore from where he flashed the OK signal. Minutes later a folbot, loaded with stores sealed in four-gallon petrol tins,
arrived with Haselden’s Arab clothes before returning to the submarine. The whole operation had taken just 34 minutes. Haselden and his companion moved west along the coast, bypassing El Hania where there was an Italian garrison, before moving inland up the escarpment that ran along the shore. At Slonta, about a day’s march west of Beda Littoria, they met a local contact, Hussain Taher. He confirmed the previous intelligence reports that Rommel had been seen using a building in Beda Littoria and that he slept in a villa not half a mile away. Meanwhile, a patrol of the Long Range Desert Group under Captain Jake Easonsmith was sent to pick up Haselden. They waited for two days at the rendezvous at Garet Tecasis but when Haselden failed to show up, on October 19 Easonsmith dispatched two Arab scouts on foot to Marsua, west of Slonta, to look for him there. While two vehicles remained at Garet Tecasis, he went with his other three Chevrolet trucks to the fallback rendezvous 25 miles away. They came across an Italian convoy and shot at it before withdrawing to Siwa oasis (see After the Battle No. 98) with one prisoner. Having missed his rendezvous, Haselden finally met the two Arab scouts despatched to find him and was back at Siwa on October 24. Three days later he reached Amiriyya, reporting that he was convinced that Rommel was still at Beda Littoria. He also pointed out three additional targets that the commandos might want to tackle: the Italian headquarters at Cyrene, the Italian Intelligence centre at Apollonia, and a telephone junction point at Cyrene crossroads.
ECPAD DAK 09/L6
By November 1941, Rommel’s fame as a commander was fast becoming that of a legend. Having landed his Afrikakorps in Libya in February-March 1941, his first offensive in April-May had ended in the recapture of all of Cyrenaica. Here he is seen inspecting the town of Bardia in eastern Libya on April 19 which had been retaken by his troops just a week before.
Talisman was nowhere to be seen. They returned the following night but still the submarine failed to appear. (Due to recurring navigation errors, Talisman was waiting in the wrong bay.) There was now no other choice for them but to try to reach Tobruk on foot. They started out in an easterly direction but the going was slow and exhausting over the rough terrain. As Macpherson crawled to a spring to fill up with water, a hound from an Italian patrol ran to him so he was forced to kill it with his knife. As they left, they heard ‘a considerable inquest’ going on around the dead dog. They pressed on eastwards but by November 1 hunger had become an acute problem. That night they came across the camp of a German transport unit and Macpherson decided to go with Evans to try to steal something to eat. Although he found some
bread rolls and cheese in one tent, he made some noise leaving and suddenly there were shouts and gunshots. The two men got away but when they reached the spot where they had left Ratcliffe and Ravenscroft, they found them no longer there. On hearing the firing and assuming the other two had been killed or captured, the two SBS officers had retired deeper into the desert. On the night of November 3/4, as they approached Derna along an apparently deserted road, Macpherson and Evans were suddenly surrounded by Italians and captured. Ravenscroft and Ratcliffe were brought in two days later whereupon all four were taken to Benghazi. When the Italians later found the folbots, they realised that the patrol had come in by sea. On November 15, Ultra intercepted an Italian report that they had ‘learned from various reliable sources that the British were planning a landing near Apollonia’.
MACPHERSON’S RECONNAISSANCE On October 19, Lieutenant Macpherson, Keyes’ adjutant, went to double-check the beach where the commandos planned to land, and on the night of October 24/25 the submarine HMS Talisman surfaced about three miles off Ras Hilal. In company with Captain James Ratcliffe, Lieutenant Trevor Ravenscroft, and Corporal Andrew Evans of the Special Boat Section, Macpherson pushed off in two folbots. It was arranged that the Talisman would return to the rendezvous on the next three nights. A quick survey of the shingle beach assured Macpherson that it would be entirely suitable for the landing. They then climbed up the escarpment to check where the commandos would be met by Arab agents. This done, they returned to the beach and paddled off. However when they reached the rendezvous point three miles offshore,
(As it happened, Layforce’s A Battalion launched a seaborne raid on the same town the very night after Rommel’s visit.) Rommel’s successes led to a quick rise in rank and importance: in July he was promoted to General der Panzertruppen and in mid-August his command was raised to the status of Panzergruppe Afrika.
Left: As it turned out, Rommel was not even in Africa when the British raid to eliminate him occurred. He was actually enjoying a two-week leave in Rome, staying at the Hotel Eden on Via
Ludovisi with his wife Lucie. Right: This is his entry in the visitor’s book, written on November 16, 1941: ‘E. Rommel, General der Panzertruppen, Befehlshaber der Panzertruppen Afrika.’ 5
RAS AAMER RAS HILAL
EL HANIA CYRENE
Detachment 2 comprising 11 commandos under Lieutenant Harold Chevalier would sabotage the wireless station and Italian intelligence centre at Apollonia. Detachment 3 of 12 Commandos led by Lieutenant David Sutherland would attack the Italian headquarters at Cyrene, and destroy the main communications at the Cyrene crossroads. Detachment 4 comprised Haselden with three other G(R) agents and the two Senussi guides. Having travelled overland with the
Long Range Desert Group, they would secure the landing beach and vector in the submarines on a pre-arranged signal. This done, they would then attack the headquarters of the Italian Divisione Trieste, blow up motor transport, and cut the telephone line near Slonta. A supply dump would be set up at the beach-head on the night of the landing. The submarines would be available from the nights of the 4th to the 6th, with Torbay lying off Bay 1 and Talisman off Bay 6 about three
FINAL PREPARATIONS On November 3 the commandos were moved to Alexandria harbour to practice the use of two-man inflatable dinghies. They also had a familiarisation tour of the Torbay and Talisman and rehearsed inflating and launching the dinghies from the forward casing in the dark. Sent by Haselden, two Senussi guides from the Libyan Arab Force who knew the way to Rommel’s headquarters arrived at Amiriyya on November 7. They showed the commandos how to correctly wear a jurd, the thick woollen robe used by Arabs as both a cloak and a blanket, although this caused some consternation as it would be a breach of the Geneva Convention to be captured in disguise. Haselden also sent along a corporal from the Middle East Commando, a Palestinian Jew named Avishalom Drori, who spoke both Arabic and Italian. When Talisman returned to Alexandria without Macpherson and the SBS team, they were officially posted as missing. Consequently, with the Ras Hilal landing site probably compromised, Keyes decided to switch to the beach at Khashm al Kalb previously used to land Haselden. Meanwhile, Keyes had collected the operational order for ‘Flipper’ from the Senior Naval Officer attached to Cunningham’s headquarters at Maaten Baggush. Dated November 9 and signed by Laycock, this stated that the aim of the raid was ‘to inflict maximum damage on enemy headquarters, communications and installations’ but it did not specifically mention the assassination or kidnapping of Rommel. The operation was split into four parts with three detachments to be put ashore from the submarines and the fourth coming in over land. The landing would be at Khashm al Kalb, designated ‘Bay 1’, five other bays being specified as back-ups in case the first one was compromised. Detachment 1 under Keyes and consisting of two officers and 22 commandos would attack both the headquarters building at Beda Littoria and the villa where Rommel was known to sleep.
The commando force was transported to Libya aboard two T-class submarines, one of them being HMS Torbay (N79). Launched at Chatham Dockyard in April 1940, she served mainly in the Mediterranean (where this picture of her leaving Alexandria was taken in May 1942) though she also served in the Pacific from May 1945. Unfortunately, her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Miers, was involved in two incidents alleged to be war crimes when in July 1941, on two occasions after sinking Axis ships, he had ordered his crew to open fire on survivors in rafts. He duly reported his actions in the ship’s log yet only received a strong reprimand from the Royal Navy. In March 1942, Miers led Torbay into Corfu harbour, scoring hits on two supply ships, an action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Altogether Torbay sank five warships, 17 merchantmen and 24 sailing vessels during the war.
The other submarine used in Operation ‘Flipper’ was HMS Talisman (N78). Launched in January 1940 at Cammell Laird & Co Shipyard at Birkenhead, she spent most of her relatively short career in the Mediterranean, being lost with all her crew in September 1942. This picture was taken in February of that year in Holy Loch, Scotland, after returning from a patrol. ried out. He was warned that if the landing was postponed because of inclement weather, no landing must be attempted later than the night of November 21/22. Though the operation did not require an officer of his rank, Lieutenant-Colonel Laycock decided to participate personally. It is believed that he needed to remove the stain on his record gained on Crete six months earlier when, contrary to orders, he escaped from the beach before all troops were evacuated. Lieutenant Macpherson later commented that ‘with a close and exclusive interest in his own career’ the raid was a ‘no-lose’ enterprise for Laycock. ‘If it was successful then by going along he would get the credit, and if it wasn’t then, by staying on the beach, he would almost certainly be in a position to get out.’
miles to the west. If re-embarkation was impossible, the instructions read: ‘Detachments will restock from reserve dump at rendezvous and will take to the hills and lie up and subsist as best they can on local resources until such time as they can join our own forces.’ An SBS detachment of two officers and two men with two folbots, one two-man team landing from each submarine, would secure the route in and would remove footprints and traces of the landing. The orders specified that the landing would be carried out ‘on the first night considered suitable by the Royal Navy’. Keyes was told that the Navy planned to have the submarines off the beach before last light on November 14 so that a daylight reconnaissance of the area by periscope could be car-
Lieutenant-Commander Michael Willmott, captain of the Talisman, pictured in March 1942. On September 10 Talisman departed from Gibraltar carrying supplies to Malta. She was due to reach there no later than the 18th but never arrived and is presumed either to have hit an Italian mine off Sicily or to have been destroyed by Italian surface forces on the 17th.
DETACHMENT 4 On November 7, the Long Range Desert Group patrol left Siwa to drop Detachment 4 near Slonta. Commanded by Captain Tony Hunter, the patrol comprised five Chevrolets and 18 men and was carrying enough food for 21 days. They were to deliver Haselden by November 10, after which they would lay up and observe the Mechili-Benghazi road till November 29 when they would move to recover Haselden’s party near Slonta. If they were not there by 6 a.m. on December 1, the patrol was to return without them. The patrol reached the Wadi Heleighma, about 25 miles west of Mechili, and hid the vehicles in a patch of acacias a mile from the main track. Haselden and Mohammad Khaufer, one of the Senussi agents, set off towards Slonta after dark. Khaufer returned three days later with the information that the Divisione Trieste, the unit Easonsmith had seen moving into place three weeks earlier, had now left Slonta, and had been seen heading east. This suggested a move against Tobruk and, though he had been instructed to maintain radio silence until the 17th, Hunter decided that it was important enough to send the message in cipher to Cairo. At midnight on November 13, the day before the commandos were due to land at Khashm al Kalb, Haselden knocked on the door of Hussain Taher at Slonta. He said he needed two men and a horse but Hussain could only find one man, a venerable old Senussi tribesman called Mikhael Hamed. He agreed to loan his own horse provided Haselden returned it within three days. At first light on November 14, Haselden and his companion set off for the beach. THE LANDING On the afternoon of November 10 the commandos boarded the two submarines in Alexandria harbour. On Torbay were Keyes, two officers and 22 men, and on Talisman Laycock, two officers and 24 men. The vessels cast off at 4.22 p.m. and cruised eastwards for two days. While at sea Keyes revealed that their mission was to capture or kill Rommel and, in the stunned silence that followed his announcement, he added, ‘If he comes quietly, we’ll bring him along. If he doesn’t, we’ll knock him off.’ On the evening of November 13, Torbay surfaced off Ras Aamer, a headland about five miles east of the beach, and waited while Talisman completed a periscope reconnaissance of the beach. Seeing that the weather was ideal for a landing, Lieutenant-Commander Anthony Miers, the captain of Torbay, suggested that they should go for the beach that night. However Keyes pointed out that they could not land until Haselden’s shore party had cleared the beach and he would not be in position to do that before the following night. Seeing an Arab with three horses and a flock of sheep, Talisman retired to the north-east. An hour later Torbay began its own periscope scan finding the beach quiet with no movement at all. The following afternoon the commandos carried out last-minute checks of their weapons and equipment and at 6 p.m., having synchronised watches, they lined up ready to go on deck. The Torbay surfaced three miles off the beach. The swell was quite strong, too heavy to unroll a line to tow the dinghies back to the submarine once the commandos had landed, so Keyes agreed to deflate them and hide them at the dump they were to set up. Just before 7 p.m. the men on Torbay began to inflate the dinghies while the SBS team, Lieutenant Bob Ingles and Corporal Clive Severn, prepared their recce folbot. As they did so, from the beach, Haselden started to flash the pre-arranged signal, a set of four dashes given three times, and repeated. Ingles and Severn, paddling off hastily into the swell, departed for the beach 7
Although vestiges of several vanished constructions remain on top of the promontory, it is difficult to identify with any certainty the precise ruins of the old fort in which the commandos lit their fire.
STEVE HAMILTON/WESTERN DESERT BATTLEFIELD TOURS
On the beach the soaked and exhausted men gathered around a fire lit by Haselden in the ruin of an old fort. Bombardier George Dunn who had injured his feet badly was the only casualty. In the meantime, Lieutenant-Commander Michael Willmott, the captain of the Talisman, had got worried over not having received a report from the Torbay so at 9 p.m. he had sent the SBS team aboard his vessel, Lieutenant John Pryor and Bombardier John Brittlebank, to see what the delay was about. Their folbot turned turtle four times, but they finally got away. Because of the swell they had to return to Talisman but not before they had come across Gunner Gornall who told them that Torbay had launched her 13 dinghies and that they were the last. On Talisman, Willmott and Laycock had already decided to postpone the landing till the following night when they received the SBS report, confirmed after midnight by the signal from the Torbay. Though he was left with a little over three hours to launch his commandos, Willmott now decided to go ahead as planned. Meanwhile, Pryor and Brittlebank had been sent to the beach to flash a light to guide in the dinghies. They finally struggled ashore after abandoning their folbot in the heavy sea and signalled to Talisman. It was now 1.45 a.m. and the eight boats were ready on the casing with the troops standing by. Willmott decided to stabilise the submarine by putting her bows on the seabed but during the manoeuvre the stern rose and a strong wave swept away seven of the eight dinghies and 11 men. Those commandos not swept overboard held on to the jackstay but it suddenly came loose sending all of them into the sea. ‘This sudden transformation of an orderly scene on the casing to one of confusion’, wrote Willmott in his log, ‘was most demoralising’. In the water, the commandos were struggling to survive, some trying to return to the Talisman, others swimming for the dinghies. The folbot sent to assist them was wrecked during launching and became another writeoff. Time was now becoming very critical as Talisman had to retire in time to recharge her batteries before daylight. Willmott therefore ordered the rest of the boats to be cast into the sea and for the commandos to follow and board them but all but one of the dinghies capsized. This meant that the men had first to struggle to right them and then climb on board. In the end only four dinghies were recovered and eight commandos, Laycock included, managed to paddle ashore. Lance-Corporal Peter Barrand drowned, his body being washed ashore a few days later.
shirt) and shivering from cold as he flashed signals to the Talisman in the early hours of November 15. Right: The full length of the beach, seen from the promontory. The escarpment that the commandos had to climb rises in the background.
Left: The landing beach, looking westwards with the Khashm al Kalb headland in the background. One can almost imagine Lieutenant Pryor standing half-naked on the beach (soaked to the skin he decided it was better to take off his sopping wet
Keyes’ men used a cave on the beach to hide their deflated dinghies and Mae Wests and they used the same cave as an assembly point after the raid. Steve Hamilton of Western Desert Battlefield Tours, who took this photo, thinks this is the correct one: ‘It is the only cave where you can see up the wadi and back down onto the beach. It was also hidden from the view from the regular Italian patrol route down to the watch post above the beach.’ 9
This map is from the biography Geoffrey Keyes of the Rommel Raid written by his sister Elizabeth Keyes, published in 1956. NOVEMBER 15 By sunrise the raiding party was hidden in a wadi where they dried their uniforms and equipment in the sun and cooked a meal. Meanwhile Keyes and Laycock checked the situation. They were now only 30 commandos strong — about half the force planned — and the two Senussi guides were among those who had failed to get ashore. They considered waiting another night to see if any more men from the Talisman arrived but dropped the idea when the wind became stronger and the sea rougher. As most of Detachment 1 tasked to attack Rommel’s headquarters was present it was decided to go on with this part of the operation. Detachments 2 and 3 were simply not 10
However, the recce by the party led by Lieutenant Thomas Macpherson should be more to the east, closer to Ras Hilal.
there and Detachment 4 was still out in the desert. To make up for the absence of the two Senussi guides, Haselden arranged for a local shepherd to guide them up the escarpment before leaving as planned for Slonta. The reserve ammunition, food and water were hidden. Colonel Laycock was to stay behind with Private Edward Atkins, the medic, and three men: Sergeant John Nicholl, Bombardier George Dunn and Lance-Corporal Larry Codd. The two stranded SBS men, Pryor and Brittlebank, were to remain with them. Keyes then briefed everyone on the new plan, and ammunition and explosives were distributed. It began to rain heavily and the atmosphere soon turned cold and miserable.
Just after sunset, the 25 commandos with blackened faces moved out from the wadi up the first terrace along an old sheep track. Keyes was in the lead behind the Bedouin guide provided by Haselden, with his interpreter, Corporal Drori, following. Heavily laden, they moved slowly in single file and it took over an hour to reach the top of the escarpment. At half-past midnight Keyes halted the group and the Bedouin guide then said that he was not prepared to go any further. They continued the march without him until about 2 a.m. when Keyes called a halt on a scrub-covered hillside. He detailed sentries, two men awake for each man asleep, and those who were not on duty lay down in their blankets for a welcome rest.
ELIZABETH KEYES ATB
On the second night ashore (November 16/17) the commandos hid in a cave in the Ain Zeidan gully. When Elizabeth Keyes visited Beda Littoria and its neighbourhood in 1945, she took this shot of a cavern near Ain Zeidan although it is not clear whether this was the actual one used in 1941. Visiting the area in 2010, Jean Paul planned to search the gully and the nearby juniper orchard for the cave. However, he was banned from even making an attempt because the area was the homestead of Safia, the second wife of the Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and mother of six of his children. As a result security forces were everywhere.
Jean Paul persuaded his reluctant Libyan driver to stop briefly at the side of the road by the bottom of the gully to take at least one quick picture. However, they had not been there for more than a minute when a police car driving came down the road and skidded to halt. As the officers on board vigorously waved and shouted them away, Jean Paul swiftly whisked his camera out of sight and made a swift departure. NOVEMBER 16 At first light on November 16 the sentries reported Bedouins observing them so Keyes sent Drori to meet them. The three Bedouins, Awad Mohammad, his father, and a cousin, were friendly and Drori handed them an open letter from Sayid Idriss asSenussi, the hereditary leader of the Senussi then in exile in Egypt. The trio then followed Drori back to where Keyes was waiting. Through Drori, Keyes asked if they could guide them to the prefettura in Beda Littoria. Awad answered that he was willing to help for a thousand lira and said he could also show them a cave where they could rest. For another thousand lira he would even bring them meat and cigarettes. Keyes agreed and the Bedouin returned about noon with a young boy, Idriss Musa, bringing cooked goats’ meat, soup and cigarettes.
The rain that had been falling all morning got even worse in the afternoon and the party were relieved to finally get going at last light. After several hours march, they reached the cave which was hidden in a wood of juniper and lentisk on the lower slope of a gully called Ain Zeidan (the location was also known as Karm al Hassan after the juniper vineyard). It was roomy and dry inside and, apart from the awful goat smell, was comfortable enough. Beda Littoria was now just six miles away. Mohammad and the boy now departed saying they would be back at first light. NOVEMBER 17 At daybreak Keyes moved the troop to the shelter of the nearby woods and directed Captain Robin Campbell to take charge of the men while he went on a reconnaissance.
Taking Lieutenant Roy Cooke and Sergeant Jack Terry, and guided by the two Bedouins, they went as far as the top of the second escarpment, about a mile short of Beda Littoria, but when Keyes proposed to walk into the town the Bedouins refused. It was still raining and by the time they returned to the cave, they were soaked to the skin. In spite of the risk of being compromised by shepherds who might want to use the cave as shelter, Keyes directed the men back inside as he needed to try to keep them as dry as possible for the night’s operation. He was not satisfied with his fruitless reconnaissance so he decided to send the Bedouin youth into the town. With Drori translating, he gave Idriss careful and detailed instructions to report on the layout of the buildings and the number and dispositions of troops, promising him a big bonus if he got it right. 11
GÜNTHER HALM ATB
Günther Halm, a German soldier who fought in North Africa with a Flak unit, compiled a photo album to remember the places where he had served during the war. However, he failed to note down where he took this particular snapshot but Jean Paul immediately recognised it as showing the main square in Beda Littoria with the town hall in the background. The troops marching past are Italian.
Visiting Beda Littoria in 2010, Jean Paul found the former Italian Municipio still standing but now occupied by a police headquarters. Knowing it was asking for trouble to try to take a quick shot and scurry away, he went in to ask for permission. Being taken ever higher up the chain of command, he finished up in front of the colonel in charge of the town’s police force. The latter very kindly agreed, provided that there were no policemen in the photo. As a result, on his order over of dozen of his officers quickly hid themselves away to the right of the building! Campbell: ‘During the Arab boy’s absence the thunderstorm continued. Every now and then the clouds seemed to open and a deluge of rain fell. The country we had to march over turned to mud before our eyes. Little torrents of muddy water sprang up all over the countryside we could see from the mouth of the cave, and a rivulet ran into the cave, which sloped down from the opening. The roof began to drip. Spirits were sinking — at least I know mine were — at the prospect of a long, cold, wet and muddy march before we even arrived at the starting point of this hazardous operation.’ While waiting for Idriss to return, Keyes called Lieutenant Cooke and detailed the six men who were to go with him to demolish 12
the cable mast at the Cyrene crossroads. The youth was gone for hours and they were beginning to worry about him when he returned with much useful information. This helped Keyes produce a sketch plan of the location of the target buildings. He now assembled his men for a final briefing. They were now only 24 strong as Private Robert Fowler had stepped on a rusty nail on landing and his leg was by now badly infected. He was detailed to remain at the cave and guard their rations, water-bottles and blankets. The party was divided into five sections: an assault party of six, a close covering party of four, an external covering party of four, and a party of three who would cut the telephone
wires. The seven remaining (Cooke and his six men) were to go and blow the telephone mast at the Cyrene crossroads. The cave would be the rallying point after the attack. As the party prepared to set off, Awad, their guide, suddenly refused to take them to Beda Littoria. According to Gornall, Keyes said, ‘Tell him, if he makes a move, I’ll shoot him! He was a great one for shooting people was Keyes. Anyway, the bloke finished up leading us on the next step.’ At 6 p.m. on November 17 the 24 men marched off into the pouring rain. In complete darkness, they moved in single file, each holding onto the bayonet scabbard of the man in front to keep in contact. LanceBombardier Terence O’Hagen lost a shoe, sucked off by the mud, and he was unable to retrieve it in the dark so he had to carry on barefoot. After four and a half hours they finally reached the bottom of the last escarpment where they stopped for a brief rest. Then they resumed their exhausting climb and finally reached the top from where a track led directly to Rommel’s headquarters. It was 11.20 p.m. The original plan had been for Cooke and his six men to split from the main party at this point but Keyes decided to keep them with him a little longer to see if he needed them. Awad and Idriss insisted that that they were not needed any longer as the track ahead led directly to the target so Keyes reluctantly told them to wait for their return under a pine tree some 500 yards away. The commandos now moved off and soon were among Arab shacks about 100 yards from the headquarters building. A car started up in the compound and drove away towards Cyrene. Just after Keyes and Sergeant Terry had left to carry out a preliminary reconnaissance, Gornall stumbled clumsily over a pile of tins, arousing some Arabs in huts nearby. They started talking until Drori shouted in Arabic: ‘Shut up! We are a German patrol and we’re doing a night exercise!’ According to Campbell, two Libyan Carabinieri arrived a moment later to find out what the commotion was all about so Campbell explained in German — with Drori repeating in Arabic — that they were a German patrol and asked them to tell the man in the hut to be quiet. The Libyans then disappeared into the night wishing them ‘Gute Nacht’. Moments later, Keyes and Terry returned, reporting that they had spotted no sentries at the back of the house so this would be their best approach. Keyes then directed Lieutenant Cooke and his party — Sergeant Frederick Birch, Corporal John Kerr, Lance-Bombardier Terence O’Hagen, Gunner James Gornall, Gunner P. Macrae, and Private Charles Paxton — to leave to knock out the telephone mast at the crossroads. Adjusting his plans, Keyes detailed three men — Lance-Corporal William Pryde, Corporal A. E. Radcliffe, and Private John Phiminster — to watch the front of the house for any sentries who might emerge while the assault party entered from the rear. Keyes then went for another look at the building with these three men. They cut their way through the fence at the back to check the back door but when they found it locked, Keyes did a rapid walk around the house to check the windows but they were all high up and shuttered. He therefore decided that there was no other choice but to enter via the front door. He then gave his final orders. He, with Captain Campbell, Sergeant Terry and Lance-Corporal Coulthread, were to enter the building through the front door with Corporal Drori and Lance-Bombardier Brodie backing them up. Lance-Corporal Frank Varney, Lance-Corporal Malcolm Hughes, Corporal Stephen Heavysides and Bombardier Joseph Kearney would join the three
GÜNTHER HALM ELIZABETH KEYES
Another snapshot of Beda Littoria from Günther Halm’s album, this time of the church that stood directly across the town square from the Town Hall.
The city of Beda Littoria, which was the name given to it during the pre-war occupation of Libya by the Italians, has today been renamed Al Bayda and is the third largest city in the country. It has a history reaching back to Ancient Greece when it was known as Balagrae. It later changed its name to Sidi Rafaa in honour of a companion of the prophet Muhammed, Ruwaifi bin Thabit alAnsari, whose tomb lay in the city. In the 19th century, when the Senussi movement built a white-painted religious building on top of a hill, the place became known as al-Zawiya al-Bayda — the white monastery. As time went on the city became known simply as Al Bayda — the white. The old zawiya can still be seen near the university at the western entrance to the city, albeit in a rather neglected state. The large modern city was built up in the 1950s when Al Bayda was the seat of government of the Kingdom of Libya. The Gaddafi revolution in 1969 put an end to plans to make it the new national capital and the city is now simply the administrative seat for the Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) district. Its climate is considered by many Libyans to be the most pleasant in the entire country.
already detailed in watching the house, spaced at intervals around its perimeter with orders to shoot anyone emerging through the windows. They would finally set explosive charges on the house and power plant. Sergeant Charles Bruce, Corporal Charles Lock, Private James Bogle and Private Robert Murray were to position themselves as a covering party in the car park on the southern side of the house. They would watch the assault from outside the grounds, hold off any enemy relief force, and warn the main party of its approach. Meanwhile, they would set demolition charges on any vehicles they found in the park. When pulling out, all would regroup among the huts and a single whistle-blast would then be the signal to make for the cave. Keyes reminded the men of the password, the challenge being ‘Island’ and the answer ‘Arran’ (a tribute to the place where they had trained). Waiting until a light in an upstairs room was extinguished, the nine men then followed Keyes through the gap which had been cut in the fence. Varney, Hughes, Kearney and Heavysides peeled off to join the covering party while the rest of the group approached the front of the house. Keyes stationed Brodie and Drori with rifles out-
‘Flipper’. However, the information proved to be totally wrong. Indeed, before the commandos had embarked in the submarines on November 2, British Intelligence knew that Rommel was not even in North Africa as an Ultra decrypt had disclosed that he had left for Rome the previous day. By November 14, the day when the commandos had their final contact with General Headquarters, no word had filtered through about him having returned.
Elizabeth Keyes took these two pictures from the top of the grain tower, the highest building in Beda Littoria, which stood about 350 metres north-east of the town square. Left: Looking south-westwards down the main road, with the church tower in background. Right: Looking due west towards the former residence of the Italian Prefect (left). It was this building that British intelligence thought was the residence of Rommel in November 1941 and hence became the target of Operation
The myth that this building had been Rommel’s headquarters was still alive when N. Gidel, a Press photographer of the American Sunday newspaper magazine Parade, took this photo of it in 1943, a few months after the final capture of Beda Littoria by British Eighth Army in November 1942. The Town Hall is some 200 metres off to the left behind trees. 13
The gate of the Prefettura building compound. The Germans had placed a guard tent here but the sentries were asleep inside when Keyes’ raiding party approached the building during the night of November 17/18.
side, and then he and Campbell ran up the steps, followed by Terry and Coulthread, armed with Thompsons. (It seems most likely that Keyes was armed with a .45 Colt automatic and Campbell a standard .38 Webley revolver although Campbell’s earliest account states that Keyes had a Tommy gun.) From this point on, the sequence of events becomes confused for the main witnesses (Robin Campbell, Jack Terry and Avishalom Drori) were often self-contradictory if not deliberately misleading in their later reports. Terry — the only man present who was not killed or captured — wrote his account three months after the events but Campbell wrote his in 1943 having in the meantime been in a German hospital and prison camp for two years. By then Keyes had been awarded the Victoria Cross and become a posthumous hero so Campbell’s account backed up the official history. Laycock’s official report and his citation for Keyes’ VC are, as one historian has described, ‘almost entirely specious from beginning to end’. Another interesting document is the German report on the operation written in May 1942, six months after the action. Surprisingly, this report is not mentioned at all by Geoffrey Keyes’ sister Elizabeth who wrote his post-war biography.
THE ATTACK British intelligence was sadly adrift as by November 1941 the prefettura building at Beda Littoria was no longer Rommel’s headquarters. His command post had been located in the town some months earlier but he moved eastwards around the end of August to be closer to the front at Ain Gazala. And by October he had gone even further away to Gambut, some distance east of Tobruk. Though it has been claimed that Rommel had never ever used the building, Oberstleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, by then Rommel’s Chief-of-Staff, later declared that Rommel had certainly had his headquarters there. He had occupied the first floor while his ADCs had the ground floor. This, it seems, was in June and July 1941. Also Rommel was not even in Africa on November 17 as he had just spent two weeks in Rome, staying with his wife Lucie at the Hotel Eden (November 15 was his 50th birthday). When flying back to Africa on November 16, engine trouble with his aircraft forced him to make an overnight stop in Athens. So when the British commandos were mounting the attack on his supposed headquarters, Rommel was safely tucked up in bed in Athens! 14
Corporal Avishalom Drori squatting by the entrance. Right and below: Visiting Libya in 2006, New Zealand researcher Vern Simpson found the building occupied by some military agency but managed to gain access to the compound. However, despite his best efforts of persuasion, he was not permitted to take photos inside.
Left: The entrance porch, pictured by N. Gidel in 1943. It was here that Keyes and Captain Robin Campbell gained entrance to the building, followed by Sergeant Jack Terry and LanceCorporal Denis Coulthread. Woken up by the shots and explosion inside the house, Schütze Matthe Boxhammer came running up the drive from the guard tent, only to be shot dead by
STEVE HAMILTON/WESTERN DESERT BATTLEFIELD TOURS IWM E30464
Left: The entrance hall, pictured in January 1945 by AFPU Sergeant A. Drennan. The door through which the four commandos entered is on the left. The man facing the door is Captain Graham Skelton-Smith, at that time serving as District Commander of the Cyrenaica Defence Force who was using the house as his HQ. (The CDF force of Senussi soldiers was set up under British command after the final capture of Cyrenaica in late 1942.) Right: In 2006, Stephen Hamilton was lucky enough to persuade a Libyan officer to let him take this perfect comparison. Either Campbell simply opened the door or he knocked and demanded entry in German whereupon the door was opened from inside. (Campbell gave two versions of what happened though Drori and Terry told the latter version.) In any case, a private, Schütze Jammatter, was inside as they entered. Probably hoping to overpower him silently, Keyes hesitated in shooting him long enough for Jammatter to grab Keyes’ Colt. Campbell later said that Keyes wanted to stab the German but was unable to get his knife out, and that he and Terry were unable to get round Keyes to stab him either. Campbell then fired several shots at Jammatter who fell to the floor. Keyes told Campbell and Terry to use both grenades and gun, and then he muttered that his arm had gone numb. British historian and desert explorer Michael Asher in his well-researched account The British Plot to Kill Hitler’s Greatest General (published in 2004) for the first time expounded, and convincingly argued, the theory that Keyes was not shot by any of the Germans but — accidentally — by Campbell. He pays particular attention to the German official report: ‘Let us suggest that Campbell, while attempting to shoot the big German, also shoots Keyes, who for a moment or two feels only a numb sensation. At that moment,
Terry sees the door of Room WuG open and a torch-beam shine out of it, and realises that they are in trouble. He springs towards the door and is seen by Kurt Lentzen, who has got up thinking that what he has heard is an accidental discharge by a sentry, and whose pistol is consequently not cocked. Lentzen dives for cover too late as Terry’s first shots hit him in the leg. Terry springs into the room, by which time Leutnant Kaufholz, whose P38 is cocked, has stepped up. Kaufholz gets off a single wild shot before Terry fires a burst that mortally wounds him. Campbell, having recovered from the shock of what he has done to Keyes, now enters the room behind Terry and rolls a grenade. At this moment, while Terry and Campbell are momentarily inside the room, Leutnant Ampt shines his torch downstairs and sees Keyes’ body, unattended in the hall, and hears shooting still going on in the room. He retreats, and a split second later Terry and Campbell withdraw from the room, hear the grenade explode, then drag Keyes’ body out of the house.’ Terry recalls that at this point they heard Keyes groaning and Campbell went to examine his body. ‘He came back’, Terry later stated, ‘saying to me: “It’s no use worrying about him now, we can’t do anything. He’s dead”.’
By November the building at Beda Littoria was actually the office of Major i.G. Heinz Schleusener, the Chief Quartermaster of Panzergruppe Afrika, who was billeted there with a couple of dozen officers, orderlies, drivers — the usual personnel to be found on the staff of a quartermaster. Schleusener himself was not there at the time of the raid as he was recuperating from dysentery in a hospital in Derna. The German report of the raid indicates that a meeting was in progress on one of the upper floors between Major Friedrich Barthel, Chief Engineer of Panzergruppe Afrika, Hauptmann i.G. Rüdiger Weiz, assistant Quartermaster of Panzergruppe Afrika, and two of the latter’s staff, Leutnant Schulz and Leutnant Ampt. The report also names five men who were sleeping in the left-hand room on the ground floor, designated Room WuG (an acronym for ‘Waffen und Gerät’ — Weapons and Equipment). They were Oberleutnant Otto Jaeger, Leutnant Heinz Kaufholz, Feuerwerker Kurt Lentzen, Schirrmeister Otto Bartl and Oberschütze Kurt Kovacic. It was 11.30 p.m. when Keyes and Campbell ran up the steps to the front door and the story of Keyes knifing (or shooting) a sentry standing outside clearly appears to be a figment of post-war imagination.
Left: The back of the building, pictured by N. Gidel in 1943. It was here that the commandos rammed charges down the generator exhaust pipe, successfully disabling the power plant. The wartime caption states that the British soldier is pointing towards ‘the Roman ruins above the cave where Rommel slept when he was there, and Mussolini too’ — clearly a totally
muddled caption written by some completely uninformed person. Right: Although he was not permitted to take photos inside the building, Vern Simpson was allowed to wander around the compound and take photos there as he pleased. The old Italian Prefettura remains virtually unchanged after nearly seven decades. 15
The German report of May 1942 makes it clear that ‘it is fairly certain that both (British) officers were shot by their own men’. Brodie later claimed to have been in the hall but no one else mentions his presence and Terry clearly said that only four men entered the house. Outside, the sentry, Schütze Matthe Boxhammer, who was asleep in the guard tent, was awakened by the shots and explosion and he ran to the house in his pyjamas with a torch to investigate. Seeing the light coming down the drive, Drori promptly shot him. In Room WuG, the explosion of the grenade mortally wounded Oberschütze Kovacic and knocked out everyone in the room. Oberleutnant Jaeger chose to jump out of the window but Lance-Corporal Hughes was ready and killed him with three shots in the stomach. (It should be noted however that it seems just as likely that Jaeger was hit as he tried to get out of the window by the burst fired from inside the room by Terry. Apparently, Hughes never claimed to have shot the German.) Round at the front, Campbell heard the shooting. Leaving Terry and Coulthread on guard, he rushed round to the side of the house where the firing had come from and Hughes, who was by then expecting more Germans to rush out, shot him in the right leg. Before swallowing his morphia tablets, Terry says, Campbell gave the order to finish off the charges and blow up the power plant. Failing to open the steel door to the generator room in the back of the house, Terry, Brodie and Coulthread rammed three gelignite charges down the exhaust pipe emerging from the concrete wall. Knowing that the match-head igniters were ruined by the rain and would not work, they then dropped a grenade into the pipe. Only one of the charges exploded but this was enough to wreck the generator at which point all the remaining lights went out. Meanwhile, Kearney and Hughes hurled gelignite charges and an incendiary bomb (supposedly in working order) through the window where Jaeger had just emerged. They hoped the latter would burn and set off the gelignite but nothing happened. Terry wanted to take Captain Campbell back to the beach but the wounded man refused, knowing that it would be simply impossible for them to carry him at night over rough terrain and in pouring rain. Leaving Campbell behind, they ran back to the rendezvous among the huts outside the grounds. Terry blew his whistle and Hughes, Coulthread, Brodie, Kearney, Varney, Drori, Heavysides, Pryde, Phiminster and Radcliffe soon appeared. Bruce, Lock, Bogle and Murray, who were placing gelignite charges on the vehicles in the park on the other side of the building, did not hear the whistle. The German report mentions no damage to vehicles (once again ruined igniters?) but at least one grenade thrown through the Town Hall window by Bruce exploded. Terry blew the whistle again but when there was no sign of Bruce and his party so he ordered the rest to make for the cave. The night was pitch black and it was raining hard and Terry, at the head of the column, suddenly fell over the edge of a cliff. He managed to catch hold of a bush and the others hauled him up but it was a warning of the danger of carrying on in the conditions so he decided they should stay where they were till daylight. The 11 men sat down huddled together, soaked to the skin and exhausted. According to the German report, the officers meeting upstairs were preparing to fight back and, as things had quietened down, Leutnant Ampt and Hauptmann Weiz ventured carefully downstairs. The body Ampt had seen in the hall outside Room WuG was
While Keyes and his party attacked the house, Lieutenant Roy Cooke and his group of six were to proceed to a crossroads south of Cyrene, 15 kilometres east of Beda Littoria, and blow up the mast that carried the Axis telephone and telegraph wires for the whole region. Marching towards the objective, Lieutenant Cooke decided to hijack the first vehicle they came across. It was about here, with some eight kilometres to go, that the party saw headlights coming towards them. Cooke said ‘We’re having this!’ and ordered Gunner James Gornall to stand by the road and wave a torch. As Gornall recalled: ‘The vehicle was approaching and I saw it slowing down and I was waving the torch. I heard a shout and the revving of the engine, and it came straight towards me. I just flung myself to the side and as I did the lads opened up. It got maybe ten yards and shot over to the right-hand side of the road. The lights went up in the air, it got maybe 30 yards off the road, then stopped. The lights were still on but the engine died. ‘ Rushing to the vehicle, the commandos found no trace of the two passengers who had obviously run off unscathed. Failing to start the engine, they smashed the headlights and resumed their march towards their objective. no longer there and, from a blood trail leading to the main door, it was clear that it had been dragged outside. Room WuG was flooded as the explosion had damaged the central heating system. Leutnant Kaufholz lay on the floor dying from gunshot wounds and Oberschütze Kovacic was lying on his bunk with his abdomen split open. Within minutes of the commandos leaving, German details arrived to find Oberleutnant Jaeger lying by the south-west corner of the building. Keyes lay near the front entrance and Campbell was propped up against a tree. He was taken inside for medical treatment. Jaeger, Kaufholz and Kovacic all died during the night. Boxhammer’s body was not found until it was daylight. During the afternoon of November 19, Geoffrey Keyes and the four German dead were buried with full military honours in the local Catholic Church. Campbell was taken to a hospital in Derna where Dr Werner Junge told him that the shots from the Tommy gun had completely smashed his shinbone and that he was to be evacuated by air to an Italian hospital. There his leg was amputated and he spent two years recovering in a military hospital and camp in Germany before being repatriated in 1943. CYRENE CROSSROADS The junction where Lieutenant Cooke was to blow up the telephone mast was ten miles from Beda Littoria. Knowing his men would then have to walk almost 30 miles to reach the beach, he decided to capture the first vehicle they came across. The rain continued ‘so heavy you could have cut it with a knife’, Gornall later recalled. Having lost his shoe, Lance-Bombardier O’Hagen quickly fell behind and Cooke ordered him to return, detailing Kerr to go with him. Cooke and the four men remaining — Birch, Gornall, Macrae and Paxton — then pressed on eastwards along the road. When headlights appeared coming towards them from the direction of Cyrene,
Cooke told Gornall to signal the car to stop with the torch while the rest of them hid along the edge of the road. As the car slowed down, the commandos jumped out of the ditch and fired at it as it passed by. It ran off the road some distance further on but by the time they reached it there was no one in it, the two passengers having escaped into the night. They tried unsuccessfully to recover the vehicle from the ditch so ended up smashing the headlights before resuming their march. It was 3.30 a.m. by the time they reached the crossroads. The mast was a substantial structure of four wooden poles with crossmembers and a lot of wiring and lines going off in four directions. Cooke and Birch laid charges on each pole, set the fuses, and Birch struck the igniter. The two then ran back to watch but the charge failed to explode, the fuses soaked either from the sea while they came ashore or by hours of rain. Cooke and Birch returned to the mast to put a grenade under one of the charges but even that did not go off. They returned again and laid another grenade. This time it exploded but did not set off the gelignite. Cooke and Birch returned once again to the poles and tried this time with an incendiary. This went off and successfully triggered the fuse and the gelignite charge exploded a minute later. When the smoke cleared the pylon was still standing though badly listing. (The German report described that the cable mast had lifted off the ground but that it had settled down in the same place. Communications had been interrupted but not been put out of action permanently.) Frustrated, Cooke and his men had no more ideas so started out westwards for Bay 1. By now it was almost light and, as it was again raining heavily, they decided to shelter for the day in an old tomb in an Arab cemetery. It was large enough for all of them so there they ate from their rations, cleaned their weapons and dozed all day, huddling together for warmth.
This section of the old road south of Cyrene (today named Shahat) is today bypassed for some 15 kilometres by a new road. The old crossroads, seen here, lies some 700 metres south of the new one. but then led him straight to the Italians and he was bagged on the 18th. Terry’s party set out at first light and climbed down the escarpment but they failed to find the cave so instead made directly for Bay 1. Midway, they ran into a patrol of Libyan Carabinieri and Drori explained in Arabic that they were Germans. The Libyans let them pass although Terry was worried that they might be discreetly following them out of sight. However they reached the rendezvous in the wadi near Bay 1 at 5 p.m. Meeting up with Colonel Laycock, they reported the bad news about Keyes and Campbell. Exhausted, they devoured a meal of bully beef and hard-tack biscuits but 12 men were still missing: Cooke’s group of seven, Bruce’s party of four, and Fowler.
STEVE HAMILTON/WESTERN DESERT BATTLEFIELD TOURS
ESCAPE On the morning of November 18, Axis forces put together the incidents at Beda Littoria, the damaged cable-mast near Cyrene, and the shot-up car on the road in between both points, and realised that the enemy sabotage team was responsible and might still be in the area. All available troops were immediately deployed to mount a search and check every cave, and Kerr and O’Hagen, who had retraced their tracks to Beda Littoria during the night, were quickly picked up there during the day. In the meantime, Fowler (the man left behind with the badly infected leg) had left the cave at Ain Zeidan in the morning. He reached the coast safely but was then spotted by a Bedouin who pretended to befriend him
The spot where the cable mast stood in 1941, in the north-west corner of the junction, photographed by Steve Hamilton in 2008. The mast was a large contraption supported on four wooden poles with many terminals and wires going off in four different directions.
They hoped they might be able to reembark that night so Laycock went down to the beach with Private Atkins to reconnoitre the conditions. There Lieutenant Pryor told them that the rubber dinghies and the Mae Wests could not be found. Friendly Bedouins had moved them to a safer place but they had then gone off without showing where that was! Laycock remained reasonably confident that they would still get away as the swell was light, if Torbay could send a folbot with a line, towing the men out to the submarine even without dinghies as long as they could be supplied with Mae Wests. A runner then arrived from Terry to say that a Bedouin had spotted the party before running away. Laycock sent Atkins with instructions that the party should move at once down to the cave on the beach, the one where Pryor had originally concealed the dinghies. By the time Atkins reached the wadi, Bruce had arrived with Lock, Bogle and Murray. They all then fell back to the cave leaving three men in the wadi to move the stores and keep a look-out in case Lieutenant Cooke’s party came back. Meanwhile, Cooke and the four men with him waited till last light before starting down the escarpment. They made good progress and by the morning of the 19th were within five miles of Bay 1 although there was no particular urgency as they still had another 24 hours to make the final rendezvous. The rain had stopped. They then met a family of Bedouins herding their goats. They were friendly, saying ‘Inglesi buono, Italiani non buono’, and explained in pidgin Italian that Italian troops had been searching the area the previous day. They offered food and invited them to sleep till noon when they would then guide them to the beach. However, no sooner had they laid down than a shout came from outside the cave. Birch rushed outside and saw two Italian soldiers advancing down the slope about 600 yards away. One young Bedouin ran out with his old rifle to try to draw them off but he received a volley of return fire and it failed to divert the Italians from advancing on the cave. Cooke and Birch crept outside and saw that in fact they were surrounded. They crawled back inside, hoping they had not been spotted, but a few seconds later two Italian soldiers appeared at the entrance. Cooke fired at them and hit one but the other ran off screaming. The Italians responded with grenades and, with the situation hopeless, Cooke emerged with his hands up followed by the others. The five men were marched to Cyrene where they spent the night in a guardroom before being transported to Apollonia and on to Benghazi where they joined Kerr and O’Hagen. At last light on November 18, Laycock went to the beach and saw through his binoculars Torbay surfaced a quarter of a mile off Bay 1. He flashed the recognition signal — four dashes repeated three times — but there was no response. Leaving a man to watch on the shore, Laycock returned to the cave. Pryor then came in to say that the Bedouins who had moved the dinghies and Mae Wests had come back and they had now been found. About 11.30 p.m., the look-out returned from the beach to say that Torbay was signalling with her Aldis lamp so Laycock hurried back to the beach. He exchanged a series of confused messages with Torbay but proved unable to make the signaller on the submarine understand. Michael Asher comments: ‘Clearly, the Royal Navy signaller on Torbay must have known his job: the fact is that Laycock was unable to read Torbay’s signals correctly because his knowledge of the Morse code was imperfect. As for his own signals, they could not be properly read by Torbay for the same reason.’ The confused exchange ended with Miers signalling: ‘As you will be in danger by day, 17
H. KAPE H. KAPE
Two days after the raid, in the afternoon of November 19, Keyes and the four Germans killed during the attack were buried with full military honours.
Above: The religious service was held in Beda Littoria’s Catholic church. Below: Although it has ceased to be a church for many years, the building still stands on the main street. Today it houses Rima’s hairdresser’s shop for women.
am prepared to close the spit west of the bay at dawn so that you can swim. Otherwise try again tomorrow night.’ Having missed the ‘at dawn’, Laycock understood that Miers was suggesting they swim out now but he knew this was impossible for the men were too exhausted. Captain Miers’ log notes that the ‘answer came prompt: “Try tomorrow night”.’ The submarine had already launched an unmanned dinghy with a supply of life-jackets, food and water, so perfectly judging the drift that the boat came ashore just 20 yards from where Laycock was standing. He ordered the stores brought up to the cave. Next morning, about one hour before daylight, Laycock posted three sentries and sent detachments out as flank pickets to the west and east. All was quiet until about noon when a rifle shot echoed from the western pickets, quickly followed by a salvo of return fire. A troop of Italian soldiers was making for the beach but now that they were under fire, they were advancing slowly and cautiously. Laycock sent men to outflank the Italians to the west across the escarpment and assess their strength. On the beach, Lieutenant Pryor and, most probably, Lance-Corporal Codd, ran west with a Tommy gun, working their way to within 200 yards of the Italians, but the gun jammed and Pryor was shot through the thigh while withdrawing. Laycock then gave the order to fall back and go into escape and evasion: it was every man for himself. Pryor was bleeding profusely and Laycock instructed Atkins to attend to the bleeding and told them to surrender to the Italians. As Laycock ‘dashed off into the surrounding scrub’, Atkins waved a makeshift white flag. Having withdrawn to the position of the eastern picket, Terry waited there for Laycock who soon came hobbling up, having injured his knee. They set out east, soon outstripping the Italians, and decided to go for the Bay 6 where a submarine was due on the nights of the 20th and 21st. Meanwhile, the men at the cave were not aware of what was going on until Laycock’s order to run came through. Having clambered up the escarpment the group, which comprised Hughes, Dunn, Murray, Kearney, Coulthread, Bogle, Heavysides and Brodie, decided to head south towards Mechili where they thought they would be picked up by British troops. Varney passed the order to Pryde, Radcliffe, Phiminster and Lock who were taking cover in another cave. Under Italian fire, they managed to escape, Radcliffe being slightly wounded. Though they found their rations amounted to only one tin of bully beef, they decided to try to meet the Long Range Desert Group patrol at Slonta. Separated from the group because of their outflanking movements, Sergeants Bruce and Nicholl decided to walk east towards Tobruk. Brittlebank, the lone SBS man now that his partner Pryor was prisoner, headed for the hills on his own. Torbay surfaced off Bay 1 at sunset on November 19 but saw no signal from the beach. However a light was spotted in the old fort so Miers decided to send in his last serviceable folbot to investigate. Lieutenant Tommy Langton and Corporal Cyril Feeberry were instructed to approach with great caution and pull out at once if they spotted anything suspicious. If they found the commandos, the folbot was to return to the submarine and take a line back to the shore to tow the men out. If this was not possible, they were to tell the commandos to swim for it at first light on the 20th. Although the sea was heavy, Langton and Feeberry managed to reach the shore. Cautiously inspecting the beach 200 yards in both directions, Langton heard low voices and spotted the glow of cigarettes. It seemed to
him that the voices were speaking Italian and he reasoned that no commando would be smoking so openly at night on an enemy beach prior to re-embarkation. Rejoining Feeberry, they paddled slowly along the beach in the hope of spotting the commandos but to no avail. The submarine surfaced again at last light on the 20th but spotted no signals. The next day, November 21, the watch spotted an aircraft landing near Khashm al Kalb. The sub surfaced and opened up with her 4-inch gun for some 20 minutes, finally scoring a lucky hit on the aircraft which exploded. Torbay then set sail for Alexandria where she arrived on November 24. Trying to make for the rendezvous with the Long Range Desert Group at Slonta, on November 21 Varney, Pryde, Radcliffe, and Phiminster befriended with some Bedouins who let them rest in a cave but it was soon surrounded by Italians. The four were shipped to Benghazi where they joined Atkins and Fowler. After walking by night on the 20th and 21st, Lock met with some Arabs on the 22nd and was shown a cave to shelter. Moments later, however, grenades were lobbed inside and he was wounded in the leg. The Italians
Above: The trailer bearing the five coffins halted some distance from the cemetery whereupon the German bearer parties carried the coffins to their graves where they were buried side by side. This photo, and others of the funeral, were taken by a German soldier, H. Kape, who sent them to Elizabeth Keyes in the early 1950s. There was once a rumour that Rommel himself had attended the funeral, but this was certainly not the case as on that particular day the German commander was completely occupied with countering the Eighth Army’s big ‘Crusader’ offensive. According to another story, this one backed by some evidence, on hearing about the commando raid on his supposed headquarters at Beda Littoria, Rommel was very indignant that the British should even contemplate that his operational HQ lay some 400 kilometres behind the lines. Left: When Press photographer Gidel visited Beda Littoria cemetery in 1943, the five graves were still there. The Germans who made the crosses did not know that Keyes was an acting Lieutenant-Colonel when he died and gave him his substantive rank of Major.
Keyes’ grave, moved to the newly established war cemetery at Benghazi, was photographed by Sergeant Drennan in January 1945. The cross now shows his correct rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and also the awards of the Victoria Cross and Military Cross.
Sergeant Drennan also went to Beda Littoria to picture the German graves. The remains of Schütze Matthe Boxhammer, Oberleutnant Otto Jaeger, Leutnant Heinz Kaufholz and Oberschütze Kurt Kovacic were later transferred to the German War Cemetery built at Tobruk in 1955. 19
Shaped like an old fort, the Tobruk Soldatenfriedhof commemorates 6,026 soldiers killed in Africa whose names are inscribed on mosaic slabs lining the inside walls. British forces had picked up Brittlebank who had remarkably succeeded to survive alone in the desert for 40 days. They were the only three returnees from the abortive Rommel raid. Early in January 1942, Laycock completed his report on the operation which we now
know is rather suspect from beginning to end. Seeing opportunity for a propaganda coup, the Middle East Command asked him to submit names for awards. Laycock recommended both Keyes and Terry for the Victoria Cross. While Keyes got his VC, Terry was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
took him to Apollonia where his wounds were treated. Drori was also betrayed by a Bedouin and taken prisoner. Bruce and Nicholl walked along the coast and had almost reached the Tobruk perimeter when they were captured by an Italian patrol. Walking by day and resting by night, Dunn, Murray, Kearney, Brodie, Hughes, Bogle, Heavysides and Coulthread headed south towards Mechili. By November 26, as they approached the town, they had walked 80 miles and had not eaten for three days. Thinking Mechili was only lightly held by a handful of Italians, they decided to raid the village to take what food they could and make off. They took cover some distance from the village to wait for last light but they had been spotted and three light tanks and a lorry with a platoon of infantry soon appeared. Knowing they had no chance they surrendered. Laycock and Terry were near Bay 5 on the nights of November 20/21 and 21/22 but Italians were patrolling the beach so they decided to continue eastwards, hide in the scrub, and wait for the Eighth Army to arrive. Water was not a problem but they had nothing to eat and lived on berries and mushrooms for several days. They were never betrayed by the Bedouins who occasionally gave them bread and even a goat. At night they lit a fire in a sheltered cave and shared their only blanket. The weeks passed and on Christmas Eve they saw in the distance what they believed were British troops. They waited for daylight and then crawled closer to see that they were dressed in British battledress. Laycock and Terry had survived 41 days behind enemy lines. The day before,
Geoffrey Keyes now lies in the Benghazi War Cemetery (Plot 7, Row D, Grave 5), just to the left of the Cross of Sacrifice (see back cover). There are 1,214 Commonwealth servicemen from 20
the Second World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery which is located in the Fuihat area of Benghazi, about five kilometres south-east of the town.
WOLFSSCHANZE REVISITED Führerhauptquartier Wolfsschanze was by far the largest and most important of a group of military command centres to be constructed in the forests of East Prussia. Its creation, and that of the others, came about as the result of Adolf Hitler’s long-held conviction that his expanded Reich would require a great deal of additional land (‘Lebensraum’) for the empire he intended to forge. He knew that the only place to acquire this land was to the East, and fully realised that the only way he could achieve his objective would be to make war upon those countries that would most certainly oppose his expansionist visions. In order to successfully conduct the upcoming campaign against the Soviet Union, Hitler and his generals would require a large and fully equipped command centre close to what would soon become known as the Eastern Front. Thus, the necessity for FHQu Wolfsschanze was born. It would have to be well served by road, rail and air links as well as providing security and protection from land and air attack. The Germans chose well. In the Görlitz Forest, some eight kilometres east of the little town of Rastenburg in East Prussia (now Ketrzyn and a part of Poland), a site was chosen that seemed to meet all the basic requirements. The forest offered cover from discovery and attack from the air while the lakes and marshes that surrounded the proposed headquarters on three sides gave additional protection from airborne or land-based attack. Lastly, Rastenburg was served by a modern rail network. Hitler had found his ideal location. Construction began in the summer of 1940 and carried on almost uninterrupted into the late autumn of 1944, well after the need to abandon the facility had been recognised and plans developed for its impending destruction.
The construction of the major facilities was entrusted to the Organization Todt, the Reich’s central building agency, which utilised a small army of skilled German workers numbering several thousand people. In addition, forced labourers from the conquered nations in Europe were employed in their hundreds, their use however limited almost exclusively to building the infrastructure necessary to serve the expanding command centre — the approach and access roads and the additional railway lines. They also built many of the exterior defensive fortifications. The Görlitz Forest covers an area of approximately eight square kilometres. The construction of the headquarters facility eventually expanded to include no fewer than 100 structures of varying sizes, purposes and functions, spread out over an area of approximately 2.5 square kilometres.
By Allan H. Adams There were seven ‘heavy’ bunkers constructed, including those built for and occupied exclusively by Hitler, Nazi Party secretary Martin Bormann and chief of the Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Each or these enormous buildings had walls measuring up to nine metres in thickness and roofs that were up to ten metres thick. There were many more medium-sized bunkers, living quarters for lesser military personnel as well as those which served as security barracks, offices, hotels and liaison offices for the various service headquarters — Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, Army High Command), Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL, Air Forces High Command) and Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM, Navy High
In Issue 19, published over 30 years ago in 1977, we featured our ‘Guide to Hitler’s Headquarters’, which included a main section on FHQu Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s headquarters in the Görlitz Forest near Rastenburg in former East Prussia (today the Gierloz Forest near Ketrzyn in Poland). The text and all the comparison photographs for that section were provided by Dr Richard Raiber, a writer and historian from Hockessin, Delaware, in the US, who had worked on the subject together with Professor Peter Hoffmann of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, for many years. His visits to the site in those longago days, when the Cold War was still on and Poland was still part of the Soviet block, were not only an adventure under challenging conditions, but also fraught with some personal risk, both Raiber and Hoffmann at one time being arrested while measuring and mapping the ruined site. The pictures that Dr Raiber had taken, during his visits in June 1966, August 1969, October-November 1972 and November 1974 (the latter together with Professor Hoffmann), were not of the best quality but, under the circumstances of those days, the best that could be obtained. Today, with Poland a free democracy and completely open to visitors from the West, the Wolfsschanze has become a popular tourist venue, attracting not only Second World War buffs but many thousands of visitors from the general public each year. One of our long-time readers, Allan Adams (above) from Ottawa, Canada, has recently made two visits to the former Führerhauptquartier and produced a good photographic record of its present condition. We present Allan’s story as a follow-up to the story in issue 19 and also as a tribute to the groundbreaking research done by the late Dr Raiber (who died in March 2002). 21
Command) — and the Foreign Ministry. These facilities had two- to three-metre-thick roofs and walls some three metres thick. Less impressive perhaps than the ‘heavy bunkers’ but substantial nonetheless. The construction of the Wolfsschanze complex proceeded in three distinct phases. The first ran from early summer 1940 to June 1941. Most of the buildings erected during this period were either wooden service barracks or the medium-sized reinforced-concrete bunkers which were utilised mainly as operations control centres, offices, living quarters or bomb-proof storage or personnel facilities. The second phase began in early 1942 and lasted through 1943. During this period, to counter the risk of enemy air attack, the wooden barracks were encased in 50cm-thick walls and 35cm-thick reinforced-concrete roofs. The third phase lasted from early February to October 1944. This most-intense period of building work saw the complex undergo significant upgrading of defensive 22
Sperrkreis I — the inner security perimeter of the Wolfsschanze complex as seen from the south. (Interestingly, our artist impression, drawn by the late George Campbell in consultation with Dr Barber especially for the feature in issue 19 in 1977, forms the basis of the sketch plan contained in the information leaflet sold to tourists at the Wolfsschanze site today.) works and infrastructure. It was during this period that both the Führerbunker (Hitler’s personal bunker) and the Gästebunker (Guests’ Bunker) — situated near the Lagebaracke (Situation Conference Barrack) in which the assassination attempt on Hitler’s life of July 20, 1944 took place — were strengthened substantially and that Göring’s Bunker and the three so-called Allgemeine Bunker (General Purpose Bunkers), one located next to Bormann’s Bunker and two more located on the south side of the main road that divides the complex in half, were constructed from scratch. The massive concrete structures occupied by Hitler, Göring, Bormann as well as the Guests’ and the General Purpose Bunkers were known as ‘double bunkers’ — essentially a structure within a structure. There
was a space of some 50cm between the reinforced-concrete walls and the roof panels filled with crushed gravel intended to absorb the effects of aerial bombing. In the event, although the Allies — Russians, British and Americans — knew full well where the Wolfsschanze was located and fully understood the importance of the complex, it was never the object of a major air raid by any of the Allied air forces throughout the war. With the extensive renovations being undertaken in Hitler’s bunker as part of phase 3, the Führer left for the Obersalzberg on February 23, 1944. He did not return to the Wolfsschanze until the middle of July but because the scheduled renovations had not yet been completed, either to the exterior or to the luxurious interior (all walls in the living areas were clad with wood, floors were
carpeted and heavy furniture installed throughout the bunker), he was required to move into the equally large and almost as luxurious Guests’ Bunker. Here he remained until October 1, 1944. As part of the third phase of construction, vehicle roads were widened and tarred; concrete slabs were poured on some sections of roadway, others were covered with cobblestones. Pedestrian pathways were upgraded and all paths and roads were covered in camouflage netting suspended from poles or trees. This netting was replaced as the seasons changed in order to better blend in with the surroundings.
Right: This is Tor I — the former main entrance into Sperrkreis I — which has now been closed and replaced by a gate and ticket office some 300 metres further to the west. Note the old railway line running left to right behind the lowered barrier. Compare this with the photograph that Dr Raiber took in 1969, reproduced on page 37 of issue 19. 23
Right: The building of the SS-Begleitkommando and Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) at the western end of Sperrkreis I, closest to the present-day car park and new entrance to the site. Unfortunately, the present-day numbers stencilled on the various ruins differ from the ones originally assigned to the buildings during the war and used in Dr Raiber’s account in issue 19. For ease of reference we will repeat those wartime numbers with each building. The Begleitkommando/RSD building was officially No. 21, but is today labelled No. 2.
In its time, the Wolfsschanze was one of the most heavily fortified and defended places on earth. The whole complex was surrounded by a series of heavy double-apron wire fences running some ten kilometres in length and circling the entire headquarters. In between these walls of wire was a strip of between 50 and 150 metres in depth liberally sewn with thousands of mines — anti-tank mines, ‘S’ mines, Teller mines, glass mines and many others. In addition there were sentries and guard dogs patrolling the fences day
the briefcase beneath the conference table on July 20, 1944. Although it went off as planned, the explosion did not kill Hitler. Compare this photo with page 35 of issue 19.
Hitler showing Mussolini, who happened to arrive at the Wolfsschanze that very day, the destruction in the bomb-ravaged room.
The plaque honouring Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters, unveiled on July 20, 1992 — the 48th anniversary of the attempt.
The remains of the Lagebaracke — the Situation Conference Bunker (No. 20 during the war, today numbered 3) — where Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg placed the bomb in
and night. Interspersed along the perimeter wire were observation towers, numerous machine-gun posts in concrete embrasures and flak towers. Entrance to the Wolfsschanze was gained through one or more of six heavily guarded checkpoints, three on the outer perimeter (Sperrkreis II), two on the inner perimeter (Sperrkreis I), and one at an intermediate position. Arriving along the main road from Rastenburg, Wache West (Western Guard Post) allowed access at the western end of Sperrkreis II. On the east side, in the direction of Angerburg (today Wegorzewo), was Wache Ost (Eastern Guard Post). At the southern end of Sperrkreis II was Wache Süd (Southern Guard Post) through which ran the cobble-stoned road to and from the grass airfield which was home to the Führer’s fleet of personal Junkers transport planes, located some six kilometres to the south-west. It was at this gate that Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was briefly detained as he fled towards the airport on the afternoon of July 20, 1944, after placing the bomb in the Situation Conference Barrack. Between Wache West and Wache Ost on the main Rastenburg/Angerburg road, not far from the main entrance to Sperrkreis I, was the Offizierswache (Officers Guard post), a traffic control post with a wooden pole barrier. It was at this gate that Stauffenberg was simply waved through on his way out after placing the bomb. Sperrkreis I, the centrum of the Führerhauptquartier, which lay on the northern side of the main road, had two gates, a western one (Tor I) located just off the main road near the garages and an eastern one
The remains of the Gästebunker — the enormous Guests’ Bunker located just opposite the conference bunker (No. 25, today labelled No. 6). Hitler lived here from July 15 to October 1, 1944, while his own personal bunker was under renovation. Compare with the photograph on page 37 of issue 19.
The pathway from the Lagebaracke past the Gästebunker to the gate of the Führersperrkreis compound. It was along this path that the famous picture of Stauffenberg with Hitler was taken on July 15 — five days before the bomb attempt.
Right: The L-shaped building that housed the government and service liaison officers assigned to the Wolfsschanze plus the facility’s medical staff and barber shop (No. 36, today labelled No. 9). 25
Right: One of the three underground provision stores that survive virtually undamaged at the Wolfsschanze. This particular one is near the Bormann Bunker. The other two are beside the Führerbunker and at the rear of the General Purpose Bunker. The structure seen in the background is the former secretarial and typists’ building (No. 25, today labelled No. 7).
(Tor II) a few hundred metres further on near Göring’s bunker. Tor I was the main entrance. Inside Sperrkreis I was yet a further, innermost security zone, the Führersperrkreis, which included the Lagebaracke and Gästebunker and was entered through a gate located just opposite the Nachrichtenbunker. Entry into the Wolfsschanze was gained only upon the presentation of a special pass.
way in its north-west corner. It is possible to walk the full length of the bunker along the single, long passageway. However, be sure to bring a torch!
The air raid bunker’s east side showing the collapsed and tilted outside walls where they came to rest after the enormous demolitions carried out before the complex was abandoned.
The remains of the flak bunker that stood immediately north of the Führerbunker (No. 28, today labelled No. 12). It, too, was toppled in 1945.
The air raid bunker next to the bunker of Nazi Party secretary Martin Bormann (No. 27, today labelled No. 11), one of the seven ‘heavy bunkers’ at the Wolfsschanze. This is the door-
The Führerbunker — Hitler’s personal bunker in the north-east corner of Sperrkreis I (No. 11, today labelled No. 13). The largest bunker at the Wolfsschanze, measuring 37 metres
across, over 13 metres high and with a roof 8.5 metres thick, the German sappers placed a full eight tons of explosive to try to bring it down. Compare with page 45 of issue 19.
Following the failed assassination attempt of July 20, all weapons had to be deposited at the guardhouse before visitors were granted permission to enter. The labourers engaged upon construction projects in and around the headquarters complex were housed in Rastenburg and transported to the site each day in special
buses or by train. The large, primarily female German support staff — secretaries, stenographers and typists — as well as the male and female cooks, cleaners and maintenance staff were also billeted in Rastenburg and brought to work by bus. The Wolfsschanze was self-sufficient in terms of electricity, power being provided by
electric lines from the local grid, with diesel generators installed to provide back-up power. There was a central heating plant and the HQ had its own water supply. Hitler’s need for a vegetarian diet necessitated the construction of a large underground fresh food storage chamber, built close to his personal bunker.
Hitler presenting the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross to fighter aces (L-R) Hauptmann Hans Hahn of III./JG2, Oberleutnant Hans Philipp of 4./JG54 and Oberleutnant Heinz Bär of 2./JG51 outside the Führerbunker on September 7, 1941.
Hitler and Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini’s son-inlaw, leaving the Führerbunker on October 27, 1941. The screened-in entrance to the building seen here was on its south face. Later during the war, with the massive reconstruction of the bunker in 1943 and 1944, the façade was extended further south. Also, all the bunker’s windows were covered over completely when the 1944 outer shell of concrete was poured over, leaving only two doorway apertures. 27
The ruins of Hermann Göring’s house (No. 32, today labelled No. 15), located in the south-eastern corner of Sperrkreis I, next to that perimeter’s eastern entrance. Compare with page 47 of issue 19. DEMOLITION OF THE WOLFSSCHANZE In the autumn of 1944, as the military situation on the Eastern Front continued to deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that the complex would have to be abandoned. Plans were therefore put into effect that would see the Wolfsschanze stripped of all vital equipment and stores and then destroyed, denying to the Russians anything more than a symbolic victory. On November 20, 1944, Hitler left his beloved Wolfsschanze for the last time, boarding his armoured train at the nearby Görlitz railway station that had greeted so many important personages over the years and departing for Germany, never to return to Rastenburg again. Over the course of the preceding four years, he had spent over 900 days there. He left reluctantly, having always felt safe there and loath to admit that it was no longer realistic to hope it could be held against the might of the advancing Red Army. Following the Führer’s departure, the headquarters was prepared for demolition.
The interior is surprisingly well preserved, all the rooms in the basement surviving intact. However, because of the high levels of accumulated water and sludge, one can only view them through the open doorways.
All papers, documents and files were either packed in preparation for removal or destroyed. All the communications equipment and other useful machinery was crated for return to Germany. Over the following weeks, the OKW was relocated to new quarters in central Germany. On December 4th, with Hitler’s approval, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the OKW, issued the coded order ‘Inselsprung’ (Island Hop). Teams of German sappers and demolition experts moved in and began to place their explosives, eight to ten tons of trotyl for each of the heavy bunkers. However, the staff of General der Infanterie Friedrich Hossbach’s 4. Armee had established itself into the abandoned bunkers, having been forced to withdraw from the region of the Narew and Biebrza rivers under threat of Russian encirclement. In January 1945, the Russian winter offensive drove Hossbach and his army staff further west, out of East Prussia. The Wolfsschanze was now all but deserted, as the Russians drew closer and closer. On January
24, a series of earth-shattering explosions rocked the countryside around Rastenburg. The German sappers had begun the demolition of the Wolfsschanze. Hour after hour, the detonations continued; thunderous, earth-shaking eruptions that rattled the ground for many kilometres around the HQ as most of the buildings were reduced to a state of utter ruination, rendering the site useless to an occupying army. After the war, the complex was largely ‘off limits’ because of the danger of active mines and unexploded ordnance. It was not until the early 1950s that serious efforts were undertaken to begin clearing and securing the area. Between 1952 and 1955, Polish mine-detection experts undertook the slow, laborious and often dangerous task of finding and removing the large number and variety of mines that still littered the strip between the old wire fences. It is reported that more than 54,000 mines were de-activated and removed during the three years it took to render the site safe for visitors. The site was opened to the public in 1959.
Left: Immediately adjacent to Göring’s house, on lower ground to the east, is his personal bunker (No. 31, today labelled No. 16). This is its north east-corner showing the undamaged passageway that runs right across the back wall. There is a third entrance halfway along the corridor. From the passage an entrance leads into the bunker’s completely ruined interior. Compare with page 46 of issue 19.
Rungs in the wall inside the corridor lead up to the former anti-aircraft platform on the bunker roof. Although many visitors climb this ladder, it is not an advisable thing to do as the descent can be very tricky indeed. 28
VISITING THE WOLFSSCHANZE TODAY Today, the former Wolfsschanze remains in much the same state as it was after it had been wrecked in 1945. A first-time visitor cannot help but be left almost speechless at the sight of so much damage to such imposing and seemingly indestructible buildings. Visitors who make the long journey to present-day Ketrzyn in eastern Poland either by road, rail or air will be rewarded with a truly unique Second World War experience. Should they decide to drive one will find that the roads and road signs are today surprisingly good. There are posted directions in every village and at each crossroads making navigation a virtually painless procedure. If my experience is any guide, traffic is not at all heavy on Polish roads, certainly compared to the congestion that one encounters in Western Europe. Ketrzyn is very much different from the sleepy little town described by Dr Raiber in his article back in the mid-1970s. It has both expanded and modernised significantly and one will find accommodation and restaurants to fit any budget. I stayed at the Hotel Koch which is quite close to the road leading to the Gierloz Forest. This is a delightful three-star hotel with clean, comfortable rooms and a cheerful, helpful staff. The Wolfsschanze site is easily accessed by a good tarmac road from Ketrzyn. If the visitor looks carefully, he will find evidence of Wache West, the guard post on the main road at the western end of Sperrkreis II, just after a small rise as one approaches from Ketrzyn. I could find no evidence of Wache Ost, the eastern gate of Sperrkreis II, other than a very small hut at the side of the road beyond the OKL and the OKM office buildings. Of Wache Süd (Southern Guard Post) on the cobbled road to the airport only a few fragments of brick remain in the underbrush on either side of the road. The remains of many of the observation towers, machinegun posts and flak towers that ringed Sperrkreis II can still be seen, although all are heavily damaged. As to Sperrkreis I itself, there is today no sign whatsoever of Tor I, the western entrance near the garages, other than a locked steel barrier. This entry point has long since been sealed and visitors now gain access to the site through a new entrance on the west side near the former barracks of the SS-Begleitkommando (SS Escort Detachment). There is an entrance and parking fee payable in Polish Zlotys or Euros (20 Euros in October 2010). One can hire a guide from the group of men and women hanging around the car park just inside the gate. They also sell a worthwhile map of the site for around 5 Euros. Alternatively one can buy a self-guided tour information pamphlet in English, French or German in town or at any hotel.
Right: The Nachrichtenbunker — the communications bunker, also sometimes named the teleprinter exchange (No. 16, today labelled No. 21). This is one of the bunkers turned into a heavy bunker in 1944. It is possible to enter this structure and, once inside and equipped with a torch, one will be amazed at just how large the interior really is. (There was another, less-heavy Nachrichtenbunker in the OKW compound in Sperrkreis II.)
The building that housed the offices of the liaison officers of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), the Air Forces High Command (No. 50, today labelled No. 24). It stood on the south side of the main east-west road, outside Sperrkreis I but close to its eastern entrance (Tor II). It was therefore conveniently close to the living quarters of the Luftwaffe’s commander-in-chief, Göring. This is the building’s north side.
Right: Nearby were the two blocks accommodating the bureaux of the liaison officers of the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM), the Navy High Command. The two buildings suffered immense damage and are today largely overgrown with brush and small trees. This is the easternmost one (Nos. 52, today labelled No. 25). Allan had to clear away an enormous amount of undergrowth to take this photo. 29
Further along the path are the massive blocks of the two adjoining Allgemeine Luftschutz-Bunker (generally named General Purpose Bunkers but more accurately translated as General Air Raid Shelter Bunkers), built in 1944 to provide the
The path down which Stauffenberg escaped (and where the famous picture of him and Hitler was taken five days before the attempt) leads past the nearby and heavily damaged Guests’ Bunker (No. 6) where Hitler was quartered while renovations to his personal bunker were being completed. The pathway and the small bridge across a stream remain exactly as they were on that fateful day in July 1944. The Nachrichtenbunker (Communications Bunker, No. 21) is one that is particularly worth entering, at least for a short distance, as it has not completely collapsed. It is surprisingly large inside and one can easily imagine rows and rows of Enigma cipher machines and other equipment at one time humming busily day and night. Elsewhere in the Sperrkreis I area, one can enter the long interior corridor of the Bormann Bunker (No. 11) but there is no access to any other part of this completely destroyed structure. Similarly, one can enter Hitler’s Bunker (No. 13) through a small doorway at ground level or one can climb the stairs to the small veranda overlooking the approach to the bunker. Again, there is not a great deal to see beyond a few feet in the damaged corridor as everything inside has tumbled in upon itself. To gain a true perspective on the extent of the colossal damage wrought by the demolitions, one must walk around to the rear where the entire building has been blown out. The underground fresh food storage chamber, built close to the Führerbunker still exists, virtually undamaged.
If the visitor continues along the path that leads to the eastern end of Sperrkreis I, he will pass the ruins of Keitel’s Bunker (No. 19) before coming upon Göring’s enormous ‘double bunker’ (No. 16). Actually, Göring had two living quarters on the site. Just a few meters up the rise from his personal bunker he built a luxurious house (No. 15). The interior of Göring’s bunker is accessible along a remarkably undamaged corridor. It first leads past a doorway giving access to the steel rung ladder to the roof and the former anti-aircraft position. However, once up, there is nothing worth seeing and footing on the descent can be quite dangerous. Further along the corridor, another doorway leads into the collapsed living area. Here, huge sections of the ceiling as well as exterior walls have fallen helter-skelter into the cavity where once the living room was located. A number of buildings were not destroyed in January 1945 and remain today as they were left in 1945 — albeit mere empty shells. The garages (No. 22) near the western gate to Sperrkreis I still stand, as do the nearby Kasino II (Officers Mess, No. 18) and, more significantly, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl’s office block (No. 17). After the war, Jodl’s offices were used as a furniture warehouse while the Kasino was a fertiliser storage shed. It still carries a strong odour of fertiliser. The Typists’ and Stenographers’ Bunker (No. 7) north of the Guests’ Bunker is also just a large empty building.
Each building today has a big stencilled number on the exterior wall and this can be matched to the brief description in the guide of who lived there or what its purpose was. One is not supposed to enter the ruins but no one takes any notice of that prohibition, least of all the guides or the Polish visitors who seem to treat the site as their own version of Disneyland East. Do take a powerful torch to provide light inside doorways and corridors. Approaching along the pathway from the new entrance and car park at the western end of the complex, one will first come across a commemorative boulder set atop a platform in a small clearing alongside the path. The inscription reads: ‘To commemorate the resistance movement against national socialism. Gierloz. 20.07.2004.’ A little further on, the visitor will find what is left of the Lagebaracke (No. 3), where Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt took place. The building is a total ruin. In front of what would have been its entrance there is a bronze plaque with an inscription in Polish and German: ‘Here was the barrack where on July 20, 1944, Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg made an assassination attempt at Adolf Hitler. He as well as many others who resisted Hitler’s dictatorship paid for it with their lives.’ The plaque was unveiled on July 20, 1992 — the 48th anniversary of the assassination attempt — in a ceremony attended by numerous Polish dignitaries, the German Ambassador and von Stauffenberg’s three sons.
ordinary Wolfsschanze personnel with adequate protection against air attacks (No. 54, today labelled No. 26). The double set of rungs in the front wall of the right-hand bunker lead to the Flak platform on the roof, visible on the far right.
Left: The ruins of the barracks of the Führer-Begleit-Bataillon, Hitler’s personal escort battalion (No. 57, today labelled No. 27). A large two-storey building, it suffered enormous damage to the upper floor, most of the corridor on that level having completely collapsed into the eastern basement area. However, the rooms on the basement’s 30
western side are wholly undamaged and are occasionally used today to teach students the art of ‘hostage release’ from confined quarters! Right: Looking north inside the building. The explosive charges blew whole pieces of the reinforced-concrete wall out and they now lie scattered outside on the surrounding ground.
The foot of the ‘T’ contained a guests’ quarters located above a large multi-door garage. This is the west end of the building, the staircase leading up into the hotel section. Right: The immense damage inflicted upon the offices part of the building.
The office bunker housing the liaison staff of the Foreign Ministry (No. 55, today numbered 29), located just to the north of the Armaments and Munitions Ministry Bunker. It too was completely ruined by the demolitions, this being the north side of the building.
A trio of office bunkers in the extreme south-western corner of Sperrkreis II, along the road from the former Bahnhof Görlitz to the airfield, used by the Wehrmachtführungsstab (Wehrmacht Operational Staff). All of them survive in various states of ruination. The WFSt also had offices in Jodl’s bunker in Sperrkreis I.
Left: The large T-shaped bunker housing the offices of liaison personnel of the Armaments and Munitions Ministry, first under Dr Fritz Todt and, after his death in February 1942, under his successor, Albert Speer (No. 56, today labelled No. 28).
On the south side of the main road, there are some other buildings well worth visiting. There is no requirement to pay to access this area, so one can roam around freely. The ruins of the OKL Bunker (No. 24) and OKM Bunker (No. 25) as well as the Foreign Ministry Bunker (No. 29) are notable only for the astounding damage caused by the explosives. In each of these fairly small buildings, the walls have been blown outwards by the demolitions. Today, they have the appearance of pieces of scrap plywood sheeting.
Elsewhere, the former offices used first by Dr Fritz Todt and subsequently by Albert Speer (No. 28) and especially the guest quarters attached to the rear of the building are a most remarkable sight. The explosions that completely blew out the walls and shifted the thick, concrete floor panels into weird angles simply must be seen to be appreciated. Below the guest quarters was a garage. The collapsed, twisted, heaved ceilings were a part of the flooring above and were extensively shattered by the ferocious explosions.
Many of the wires that were used to lash the camouflage netting above the pathways can still be found wound around the trunks of large trees throughout the complex. The Wolfsschanze remains an eerie and haunting site. As one wanders the now deserted and quiet paths that bisect and connect its ruined structures, the ghosts of history beckon perhaps more strongly than from any other former World War II location that I have had the opportunity to visit over many years.
Right: This is the position of Wache Süd, the southernmost guard post on the command centre’s outer perimeter (Sperrkreis II). It was here that Oberst von Stauffenberg was detained by the guards who had orders not to allow anyone to pass after the bomb went off on July 20, 1944. His automobile would have arrived from the right at the junction seen in the background and driven down the old cobbled road towards this guard post. The remains of the foundations of the former guardhouse are in the undergrowth to the right. The stairs are still in excellent condition under their cover of dirt and leaves but the interior is just a debris-filled hole. On the left one can see another small brick structure. This might have served as a guard post or perhaps it was the position for the soldier charged with raising and lowering the barrier. Nothing at all remains of the steel barrier supports on either side of the road. Compare with the photograph on page 38 of issue 19. 31
On the evening of February 26, 1945, at the small German town of Elsdorf, west of Cologne, a German Tiger tank (below) knocked out an American T26E3 Pershing tank. A newly developed type of heavy tank armed with a powerful 90mm gun — one of a first batch of 20 that was hurriedly rushed to the European Theater of Operations and committed on the front of the US First Army to see action before the end of the war —
it was the very first Pershing knocked out on the Western Front, and this on its very first day of combat. The unfortunate victim was Pershing No. 38, assigned to Company F of the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Armored Regiment of the 3rd Armored Division, and nicknamed Fireball (above). Two of the crew were killed inside the tank. Here ordnance personnel inspect the disabled vehicle.
PERSHING VERSUS TIGER AT ELSDORF
Major General Gladeon M. Barnes, head of the US Army’s Ordnance Department Research and Development Service — produced a new heavy tank for the European theatre of war, the T26E3 Pershing. The Pershing — part of the new T20 series of tanks characterised by more armour protection, lower silhouette and more speed
By Willi Weiss than the Sherman M4 series — had been on the drawing boards since 1942 but the urgent need for a better tank speeded up its development and taking into production. Weighing 92,000lb, mounting an M3 90mm gun
Shortly after the D-Day landings in Normandy, the Allies were again faced with the unpleasant and undeniable truth that their tanks were no match for the modern German Panthers and Tigers in fire-power and performance. This was dramatically brought home on June 12 at Villers-Bocage, when a single Tiger I commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 101 knocked out 25 armoured vehicles of the British 7th Armoured Division in a few minutes (see Villers-Bocage Through the Lens). The standard M4 Sherman tank, which equipped the bulk of both American and British armoured units, was in comparison to the Panther and Tiger obsolescent, with little more going for it than speed and infrequency of major overhauls. The high-velocity 75mm gun on the Panther and the 88mm on the Tiger clearly outgunned the Sherman’s short-nosed medium-velocity 75mm gun, and the 88mm was even superior to the 76mm high-velocity piece that by the start of 1945 was appearing on some modified Shermans. (The only Allied tank gun more powerful than the 88mm was the British quick-firing 17-pounder (76.2mm) that the British and Canadians were from early 1944 installing in their Sherman Fireflies.) Based on the findings of the tank battles in Normandy, and with the alarming and unexpectedly large numbers of Panthers encountered there, the Fisher Tank Arsenal (a part of General Motors) in Aberdeen, Maryland, in the US — supervised and urged on by
Left: Shipped to Europe in January under a special ‘Mission Zebra’, the consignment of 20 Pershings arrived at the port of Antwerp on February 11. Here one of them is being unloaded from the cargo ship. Right: It was only after their arrival in Antwerp that it was discovered that the M15 trailer of the standard M25 heavy tank transporter was ill-suited to carrying the
While General Barnes embarked on a series of visits to army group, army, corps, and division commanders, the other members of the Zebra Mission organised the rapid deployment of the tanks. Captain Griffin was responsible for their overseas shipment and Captain Gray for their unloading in Antwerp. When Gray and his team arrived at the port on February 11, their worst fears materialised. The M25 tank transporters sent up to fetch the tanks were not suited to transporting a 46-ton Pershing plus equipment. Their eight-wheel M15 semi-trailers had to be reinforced and a special access ramp installed. In two weeks time, working under constant attack from German V1 flying bombs, the engineers adapted all the lowloaders. At a conference with Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, the First Army commander, in Spa, Captain Gray was instructed to transport the tanks immediately to the German city of Aachen, where the 559th Heavy Maintenance Company (Tank) was charged with preparing them for front-line use. Back in Antwerp, Gray ordered the engine mufflers of the tank transporters to
be removed so as to get the utmost performance from the heavy trucks on their journey to Aachen. On the morning of February 17 the convoy started out for Germany. Part of the route passed through the rear-area zone of the British 21st Army Group and the passage of the heavy motorcade caused great excitement among the British provosts directing traffic along the route. Without incident, at 1700 hours the convoy reached its destination near Stolberg, south-east of Aachen. Despite bad weather, constant rain and cold, the 559th Heavy Maintenance Company immediately began preparing the tanks for use. Meanwhile the 20 tank crews selected by the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions for the new type of armour had reported in and their instruction and training was begun immediately. A Pershing required a crew of five: commander, gunner, loader, driver and co-driver. Captain Griffin briefed the crews about the vehicle’s basic mechanical components and was responsible for the training of the drivers. Slim Price instructed the gunners and loaders in the practical handling of the 90mm gun.
with a gun-shield 100mm thick, and equipped with a new type of gyro-stabiliser, it was undoubtedly the most powerful and best allround fighting tank produced by the United States during the war. Its main drawback was that its eight-cylinder 500-bhp Ford GAF engine was not powerful enough for a tank of this weight. (The engine was basically similar to the one in the M4A3 Sherman even though the Pershing was 26,000lb heavier.) Acutely aware that the new tank was eagerly awaited in Europe, General Barnes insisted that, of the first 40 off the production line, 20 be immediately shipped overseas simultaneously with the delivery of the other half to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to undergo extensive testing by the Armored Board. Army Ground Forces objected, urging that the tests be made before the tanks were sent overseas; but Barnes (threatening to go to Army Chief-of-Staff General George C. Marshall if necessary) appealed to Major General Russell L. Maxwell, Assistant Chiefof-Staff for Supplies, and won his point, and the first 20 Pershings were shipped to Antwerp in January 1945. For the next three months, these 20 would be the only Pershings deployed on the western front, the next shipments not being expected until April. To facilitate the introduction of the new tank and observe its performance in combat, a specialist team, known as the Zebra Technical Mission, was formed. Headed by General Barnes, it comprised Colonel Joseph M. Colby, chief of the Development and Engineering Department of the Detroit Ordnance District; Colonel George Dean of the Armored Branch of the Army Ground Forces New Developments Division; Captains Elmer Gray and Gifford Griffin of the Ordnance Department; Bill Shaw, a civilian engineer representing General Motors; and L. R. (‘Slim’) Price, the Aberdeen Proving Grounds expert on the 90mm gun. The mission arrived in Paris on February 9. At meetings with the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and other officers at SHAEF and Communications Zone (COMZ) headquarters, including Major General Henry B. Sayler, Chief Ordnance Officer, European Theatre, and Brigadier General Joseph A. Holly, head of the ETOUSA Armored Fighting Vehicles and Weapons Section, it was decided to get the 20 Pershings into action as quickly as possible. Eisenhower assigned them to Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group and Bradley sent them all to the US First Army, dividing them equally between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions.
new 46-ton tank, and 20 of them had to be hurriedly adapted and reinforced and fitted with special access ramps. This modified trailer later became standardised as the M15A1. Here one of the Pershings is being loaded onto an adapted M15 at Antwerp docks. The towing vehicle is the standard M26 heavy armoured tractor.
On February 17, the 20 tanks arrived at the base station of the 559th Heavy Maintenance Company, where they were to be made ready for combat. The 559th was a VII Corps unit but the exact location of its facilities in February 1945 is uncertain. The next four days were spent training the 20 selected crews in the use of the new tank and the handling of its gun. The Signal Corps caption does not identify the location where this instruction took place but the hilly countryside suggests it was somewhere in the area around the town of Stolberg, south-east of Aachen, where the 3rd Armored Division had seen bitter fighting the previous autumn and where it was again concentrated in February. 33
This was followed on February 20 by a firing practice, a suitable range being found in nearby fields. Each crew fired 28 test shots to familiarise themselves with the new gun, with Slim Price repeatedly pointing out the correct way of handling it. Reviewing the results, Price determined that, out of the 20 crews, only one was able to use the weapon in the correct way to achieve a high accuracy. Not surprisingly, he found that veteran loaders and gunners acted with much more routine and showed a markedly higher hit percentage than less-experienced crews. He continued to train the crews until they were able to hit a German steel helmet from over 600 meters. Price also tested different muzzle brakes on the Pershing gun, trying to find the optimum ratio between reduction of recoil and visual freedom for the gunner. One problem with the gun still existed as before. Opening and closure of the breech, and the release of the firing pin, were carried out electrically. This was to protect the safety of the crew in case a round got stuck in the barrel. Should this happen, the breech, for safety reasons, could not be opened but this sometimes caused a delay, which in a combat emergency could decide between life and death. It was found that loading and firing by mechanical means was much more reliable and also that the time interval with this method was quite sufficient to adequately defend oneself or attack an enemy tank. Training and instruction were completed on February 23. All tanks were now ready for combat. Ten of them went to the 3rd Armored Division, which allocated five to the 32nd Armored Regiment (which distributed one each to Companies D, E, G, H and I) and five to the 33rd Armored Regiment (which gave them to Companies D, E, F, H and I). Those that went to the 9th Armored were equally divided between the 14th Tank Battalion (which assigned all its five Pershings to Company A) and the 19th Tank Battalion (which gave one to Company A and two each to Companies B and C).
Right: The Zebra Mission included two civilians, Bill Shaw from the Fisher Tank Arsenal and ‘Slim’ Price from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Shaw was on hand to advise the trainee crews on any technical aspect of the new tank. Here he poses in front of one of the Pershings in the muddy and cold training area.
The same tank with turret reversed and 90mm gun secured in its travel lock, ploughing its way through soft ground during the drivers’ instruction phase. This is one of the five tanks later assigned to the 14th Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Division.
DISTRIBUTION OF THE FIRST 20 PERSHING TANKS 3rd ARMORED DIVISION 32nd Armored Regiment 33rd Armored Regiment No.
Serial No. Company
26 31 33 34 36
30119836 30119841 30119843 30119844 30119846
E H G I D
24 25 37 38 40
30119834 30119835 30119847 30119848 30119850
D H I F E
9th ARMORED DIVISION 14th Tank Battalion 19th Tank Battalion 30119832 30119837 30119838 30119845 30119849
A A A A A
23 29 30 32 41
30119833 30119839 30119840 30119842 30119851
C B A B C
Left: The 20 Pershings (serial numbers 30119832 to 30119851) were equally divided between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions. Right: This is 30119836, Pershing No. 26, later assigned to Company E of the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division. It was this tank that, in a famous action on March 6, would knock 34
22 27 28 35 39
out a Panther in front of Cologne cathedral with three well-aimed rounds (see After the Battle No. 104). Its crew was Staff Sergeant Robert Early (commander), Corporal Clarence Smoyer (gunner), Private John Deriggi (assistant gunner), Tech/5 William McVey (driver) and Private Homer Davis (co-driver).
On the third day of training, the crews began firing exercises, which included bore-sighting the 90mm guns and test-firing them. The powerful T7 gun produced far greater blast and The 3rd Armored Division, commanded by Major General Maurice Rose, was at that time operating as part of the US VII Corps of Lieutenant General J. Lawton Collins, which was itself part of the First Army. The American armies were then about to launch their long-awaited and meticulously-prepared set-piece assault across the Roer river between Jülich and Düren, an operation which it was hoped would lead to clearing all territory west of the Rhine river. The main effort was to be made by Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s Ninth Army in the north, but Collins’ VII Corps of First Army had been assigned to task of protecting the Ninth’s right flank as far as the Rhine. Once this job was completed, the corps was to take Cologne, then head south along the Rhine in order to converge with other First Army contingents pushing south-east to the Ahr river (see After the Battle No. 104). Between the Roer and the Rhine — a distance of 40 kilometres — lay the Cologne plain, generally flat and pastoral open coun-
smoke than the 75mm and 76mm guns of the Sherman that the crews were used to. This also produced problems in aiming after the first round had been fired.
try dotted with villages and small towns and traversed by an extensive road network. This terrain was particularly suitable for armoured units, especially north-east of Düren although the vast Hambach Forest that stretched between Düren and Elsdorf would complicate their deployment. The VII Corps plan was for the 104th and 8th Infantry Divisions to first establish a firm bridgehead across the Roer at Düren. Once this had been achieved, the 3rd Armored Division would pass through and start out for the first intermediate objective, the Erft canal (actually a river and two parallel canals) which cuts diagonally across the Cologne plain. The 104th and 8th would follow behind and the 4th Cavalry Group would screen the armour’s left flank. The 99th Division would be in reserve. In its drive to the Rhine and into Cologne, VII Corps would in turn meet elements from three different corps of General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen’s 15. Armee. Opposing its Roer assault would be the
LVIII. Panzerkorps of General der Panzertruppen Walter Krüger, comprising no armour but only the 353. Infanterie-Division and 12. Volksgrenadier-Division. Then, as VII Corps wheeled north-east towards the Hambach Forest and Elsdorf, it would meet the LXXXI. Armeekorps of General der Infanterie Friedrich Köchling, consisting of the remnants of the 59. Infanterie-Division and 363. Volksgrenadier-Division. Finally, backing up Köchling’s corps, was Panzerkorps Bayerlein, an ad hoc formation led by Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, which by then consisted of what was left of the 9. and 11. Panzer-Divisions and elements of the 3. Panzergrenadier-Division. On February 23 — the day the Pershing crews completed their training — VII Corps launched its assault across the Roer at Düren. By February 25, the infantry had secured a bridgehead about eight kilometres deep. Now, the corps was to debouch its armour, the intention being to send it northeastward to seize crossings of the Erft river.
On February 26, the 3rd Armored Division jumped off from the bridgehead established across the Roer between Jülich and
Düren, leading the VII Corps of the First Army in the drive towards Cologne. 35
PERSHING No. 38 KNOCKED OUT HERE
Centre and right: Fireball being inspected by men of the divisional 3rd Armored Maintenance Battalion after its disablement. The two belly escape hatches, used by the driver and co-driver to get out of the vehicle after it was hit, are lying on the glacis. Note the unit identification stencilled on the lower glacis (‘F25’ on the right and ‘3▲ 33▲ ’ on the left), identifying the vehicle as the 25th vehicle of Company F of the 33rd Armored Regiment of the 3rd Armored Division. 36
Early on February 26th, the 3rd Armored Division — with the 13th Infantry Regiment of the 8th Division attached — launched five mobile task forces through the infantry lines. Four of these were each made up of one tank battalion and one armoured infantry (or infantry) battalion plus a platoon of tank destroyers and engineers. On the left, Combat Command B, led by Brigadier General Truman E. Boudinot, with two such task forces, pushed towards the road centre of Elsdorf, while on the right Combat Command A, under Brigadier General Doyle O. Hickey, also with two task forces, attacked astride the Düren–Cologne highway. The fifth task force, built around the light tanks and armoured cars of the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, acted as a bridge between the two combat commands. Protecting the division’s left flank, on the boundary with the Ninth Army, were the scout cars and light tanks of the 4th Cavalry Group, their mission being to clear the northern reaches of the Hambach Forest which stretched between Jülich and Elsdorf. In striking north-eastwards, the 3rd Armored was turning away from Krüger’s LVIII. Panzerkorps into the sector of Köchling’s LXXXI. Armeekorps, with its two weak infantry divisions, the 59. InfanterieDivision and 363. Volksgrenadier-Division. However, elements of the 9. Panzer-Division had just arrived to assume a defensive role in support of these divisions. It was a cold day with a drizzle of rain. The secondary roads which the 3rd Armored had to use were muddy from the winter thaw and rain, yet all five columns made good advances all day. Boudinot’s Combat Command B advanced with Task Force Welborn on the left aiming for Elsdorf and Task Force
Left: That afternoon Combat Command B of the division was moving north-east from Morschenich and through the Hambach Forest, Task Force Wellborn on the left aiming for Elsdorf and Task Force Lovelady for nearby Giesendorf and Berrendorf. The latter force had three Pershing tanks in the van. Above: It was here, where the Düren to Düsseldorf railway line crossed the Elsdorf’s main street at the western entrance to the town, that the leading American tank, Pershing No. 38 Fireball, was knocked out by fire from a Tiger tank as it tried to overcome a log barricade blocking access to the town. The railway line has been lifted since the war and this is the view today, looking across the former level crossing and into Köln-Aachener Strasse. Fireball would approximately have been between the first houses when it was knocked out.
The second shot destroyed the muzzle brake on the barrel. It also caused the propellant charge of a 90mm round in the breech to detonate. The projectile exited the muzzle but the explosion caused the gun barrel to swell at mid-length.
The third hit struck a glancing blow to the upper side of the turret and tore off the open cupola hatch, leaving only its frame.
The blown-off hatch, with its periscope holder on the inside badly smashed, ended up lying on the engine deck behind the turret.
The Tiger’s first round penetrated the co-axial machine gun port next to the gun barrel. It ripped around the inside of the turret, killing the gunner and loader, Corporal John E. McGraw and Pfc Francis W. Rigdon.
Lovelady on the right striking out for Berrendorf. The former, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John C. Welborn, comprised the 33rd Armored Regiment (minus its 2nd and 3rd Battalions); the 2nd Battalion of the 36th Armored Infantry; 3rd Platoon of Company B of the 23rd Armoured Engineer Battalion; 2nd Platoon of Company B of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion; and 3rd Platoon of the Reconnaissance Company of the 33rd Armored Regiment.
Late in the afternoon, Welborn’s force was moving north-eastwards from Etzweiler to Elsdorf. A traffic hub lying astride Reichsstrasse 55 (the Jülich to Cologne main road), Elsdorf at this time was an empty village, the entire civilian population having been evacuated by the Nazi authorities. Like most villages in the area it had been prepared for defence. All access roads into the town from the west had been heavily fortified with log road-blocks by Wehrmacht and local Volkssturm troops.
A few anti-tank guns had been dug in on the edge of the village. Holding the line were troops of Grenadier-Regiment 959 of the 363. Volksgrenadier-Division. They were in fact the last screen protecting their divisional artillery, whose howitzers were in position behind the village. A small force of local Volkssturm was deployed in the village. Leading Task Force Welborn’s drive on Elsdorf was one of 33rd Armored Regiment’s five Pershings, No. 38, christened Fireball by the crew. (Allocated to Company F of the 2nd Battalion, one of the components of neighbouring Task Force Lovelady, it somehow ended up spearheading Welborn’s force.) Reaching the edge of Elsdorf and circling around to the left, the Pershing halted in front of a log barricade on the Steinstrass road near the level railway crossing. Dusk had just arrived. Left: Although the official Signal Corps captions seem to imply that the wartime pictures were taken at Elsdorf, none of the buildings seen in their background can be found around the former level crossing, or anywhere else in present-day Elsdorf for that matter. Certainly, the present-day view from the spot where Fireball was disabled, looking back west across the former level crossing, looks completely different from that seen in the wartime pictures. This is no wonder as in actual fact the pictures were taken at Düren, 15 kilometres to the south-west, where the 3rd Armored Maintenance Battalion had set up its workshops and to where the damaged tank was removed after the initial inspection. 37
The ruined house at No. 74 Köln-Aachener Strasse has been rebuilt but the other buildings further down the street remain completely unchanged.
The inexperienced Volkssturm soldiers manning the road-block were no match for the American attackers and quickly disposed of. A radio operator from Artillerie-Regiment 363 recalled: ‘The American artillery barrage continued into the night. A few mortar batteries returned the fire. Meanwhile, the Americans had occupied the terrain up to the level crossing. The sounds of American tank engines could now clearly be heard. The Volkssturm, which had been partly used to man the roadblock, proved not up to their task. These untrained men, when deployed by themselves, were unable to offer any real resistance.’ Having driven off the Volkssturm troops, the crew of Fireball now tried to remove the log barricade by barging through it with full engine power. However, unknown to the Americans, an armoured force of three Tiger I tanks from schwere Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 — an independent Tiger unit attached to the 9. Panzer-Division — had just entered Elsdorf from the east. Rumbling past the artillery positions of Artillerie-Regiment 363 in the darkness, they proceeded through the village towards the western exit. Halfway through the village, two of the tanks halted; the third one, No. 201, went forward to reconnoitre. The crew could hear the sound of heavy engines somewhere in front of them but they could not discern anything in the darkness. Meanwhile Fireball was still busy demolishing the road-block. As it was doing so, another American tank, behind it, was hit, presumably by a Panzerfaust or by the German artillery, and set ablaze. Because of the flames, the crew of Tiger 201 suddenly saw the Pershing clearly silhouetted in the darkness, less than 100 metres away. Reacting quickly, they fired off three rounds. The first one penetrated the Pershing’s co-axial machine-gun port in the mantlet, killing the gunner and loader, Corporal John E. McGraw and Pfc Francis W. Rigdon. The second shell struck the muzzle brake and set off a round already chambered which caused the barrel to swell as it fired, and the third bounced off the upper right-hand side of the turret and tore off the open commander’s hatch cover. Tiger 201 had just knocked out the first Pershing on the Western Front.
Right: The Tiger that knocked out Fireball immobilised itself a few moments after the encounter, getting itself hung up on the debris of a wrecked house as it tried to reverse back up the narrow village street in the dark. The crew abandoned the tank, leaving it to be captured by the Americans the next day.
Left: Looking from Tiger 201 up the main street towards the western end of the village. The level crossing where Fireball was knocked out is some 300 metres distant, barely visible in this photo, proving that the panzer had already reversed a good 38
200 metres by the time it got stuck. Right: Again, except for No. 74, all the houses on this side of the street remain as they were in 1945. The fifth house down (with the angled roof and the brown roof tiles) stands at the junction with Mittelstrasse.
Abandoned at a spot where it did not obstruct traffic through the town, Tiger 201 was left in place, becoming a popular photo opportunity for many an American soldier passing through the town. In due course it became covered in signal and telephone wires erected by Signal Corps personnel.
Reversing to change position, the Tiger pulled back in a rather wild and uncontrolled manner and got itself hung up on a pile of rubble, its front still facing the road-block. Despite several attempts the driver failed to free the vehicle whereupon the crew abandoned it and sought cover in the ruins of a nearby house. (The Tiger’s loader was later captured by the Americans and, questioned by the POW interrogation team, confirmed that his crew was responsible for knocking out the Pershing.) Shortly after, the destruction of a previously unknown type of American tank was reported to Oberstleutnant Johann Brucker, the commander of Grenadier-Regiment 959, whose command post was back at Heppendorf but who was then at the divisional command post on Reichsstrasse 55. The set-back at the road-block halted the American advance. They responded with a heavy artillery barrage by the self-propelled 105mm guns of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion which destroyed most of the village. The German howitzer positions were not hit. As night fell, Task Force Welborn drew up before Elsdorf, ready to hit the town in force next morning. Meanwhile, two kilometres to the south-east, neighbouring Task Force Lovelady had reached the twin villages of Giesendorf and Berrendorf. At daybreak on February 27, Task Force Welborn resumed the attack on Elsdorf. Fighter-bombers supporting the assault struck at the anti-tank guns dug in on the edge of the village, hitting one and forcing the crews to take cover in farm buildings. The Germans offered fierce resistance but were forced to give up their positions on the edge of the village. With fire support from a company of tanks, the American infantry (the 2nd Battalion of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment) broke into the town before noon and began a systematic mop-up. The Germans did not give up easily; every log barricade was stubbornly defended and every house was bitterly fought for.
Tiger 201 belonged to schwere PanzerAbteilung (Fkl) 301, a unit with a somewhat unusual history. The ‘Fkl’ in its name stands for Funkleit or Funkfernlenk (radio remote-control), indicating that it was a unit operating remotely-steered explosive devices. Originally formed in southern Russia in September 1942, it had fought in various sectors on the Eastern Front. Recalled to Germany in 1943 and re-equipped with StuG III assault guns, it had then been deployed in the west and, from February 1944, at Anzio on the Italian front. After a new stint on the Eastern Front from June to August 1944, it was recalled to Germany to be reformed at the Grafenwöhr training grounds into a battalion operating SdKfz 301 Borgward B IV explosive-filled and remote-controlled armoured vehicles. A heavier version of the Goliath, designed to demolish buildings, barricades and other obstacles, these vehicles were steered and directed from Tiger tanks, each of the latter controlling four B IVs. Comprising three companies, and including command and reserve vehicles, the battalion had a nominal strength of 37 Tigers and 162 B IVs. Committed on the Western Front in late October under Hauptmann Krämer, the battalion fought several fierce actions on the Rur front and in the Ardennes, supporting various divisions and being mostly deployed as a normal heavy panzer unit, until mid-December. Returned to Grafenwöhr it was brought back to strength (27 Tigers and 52 B IVs) and recommitted with Heeresgruppe B in January. By February 1, it had only five Tigers left. On February 23 it was subordinated to the LXXXI. Armeekorps defending the Elsdorf sector.
The houses across the street from the Tiger also remain unchanged by the passage of time. We are looking east to the junction with Jackerather Strasse. 39
The Tiger was knocked out with four rounds just as it came out from hiding beside a house on Jackerather Strasse.
During the afternoon, the Germans launched a counter-attack supported by four Tigers of schwere Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 and two PzKpfw IVs of Panzer-Regiment 33. Task Force Lovelady, in excellent position at Giesendorf to the south-east, moved one of its Pershings into position to counter the threat. This was Pershing No. 40 of Company E of the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Armored Regiment, commanded by Sergeant Nick Mashlonik. He recalled: ‘Our casualties kept mounting, and the CO of our company asked me if I could knock out the Tiger that was almost destroying us . . .’ From a distance of about 1,000 metres, Mashlonik spotted a Tiger hiding beside a house along Jackerather Strasse, the road leading into the village from the south-east. ‘The Tiger was slightly dug in, and this meant it would be more difficult to destroy . . . Just as we started our tank and had moved very slowly forward (creeping), I noticed that the Tiger was moving out of position and exposing his belly to us.’ Using the Pershing’s gyro-stabilisation ability to aim at the target while moving, Mashlonik’s crew fired off four rapid shots, launching one T30E16 high-velocity armourpiercing (HVAP) round, one T33 armourpiercing round and two high-explosive rounds. ‘I immediately put a shot in its belly and knocked it off. The second shot was fired at its track and knocked the right-hand track off. The third shot was fired at the turret, and the HE point-detonating destroyed the escaping crew.’ Mashlonik: ‘At that time, three other German armoured vehicles were leaving Elsdorf and were on the road to my right flank. I waited until all of them were on the road with their rear ends exposed and then I picked off each one with one shell each, getting the last one first, then the second one,
Right: The following day, February 27, as the battle for Elsdorf continued, Pershing No. 40 of Company E of the 2nd Battalion, 33rd Armored Regiment — part of Task Force Lovelady — destroyed another Tiger and two PzKpfw IVs in a single short action. It was a fitting retribution for the loss of Fireball and a strong affirmation of the Pershing’s destructive power. The crew of Pershing No. 40 posed with their tank after the action. Their commander, Sergeant Nick Mashlonik, stands second from left.
Left: Slim Price (left) and Sergeant Mashlonik (right) proudly pose at the slain beast. Although some sources attribute the Tigers encountered at Elsdorf to other Tiger units — both schwere Panzer-Kompanie Hummel and schwere PanzerAbteilung 503 being named as possible candidates — there is no doubt that they in fact belonged to schwere PanzerAbteilung (Fkl) 301. Those claiming Panzer-Kompanie Hummel (formerly the 4. Kompanie of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 506) assert that some of its Tigers survived the Battle of the Bulge and served with the 9. Panzer-Division in February 1945. Those advocating Panzer-Abteilung 503 base themselves on the 40
similarity in style of turret numbers seen in that unit in Normandy, hypothesising that its surviving tanks, after the retreat from France and a stint in the repair workshops, were returned to the front in February. However, the issue is decided by surviving German army group, corps and battalion reports, which prove that Panzer-Abteilung (Fkl) 301 was committed at Elsdorf during this period. Right: There is only one small patch of houses along the one-kilometre stretch of Jackerather Strasse connecting Giesendorf and Elsdorf. The lone house beside which the Tiger was disabled stood on its eastern side but has since been pulled down.
Right: One of the two Mark IV panzers destroyed by Sergeant Mashlonik and his crew. This one was stopped in a beet field immediately east of Jackerather Strasse. The tall chimney visible in the far distance is that of Elsdorf’s big sugar factory which stands in the south-western corner of the village, beside the Düren to Düsseldorf railway line.
and then the first one — just like shooting ducks. Then I came back to each vehicle with HE point-detonating and destroyed the crews as they were dismounting from the burning vehicles.’ Mashlonik’s account seems to imply that he knocked out all four panzers near Elsdorf but this was only true for three of them — the fourth was destroyed a little later, on the road to Bergheim. Also, he had not disposed of all four crews, at least one of the Panzer IV crews managing to get out and save themselves. However, Mashlonik’s achievement was a clear confirmation of the Pershing’s firepower. With their counter-attack broken up, the enemy tanks withdrew to the north and east. Fighting in and around Elsdorf continued well into the afternoon but by the end of the day the village was in American hands. By 1900, Task Force Hogan of Combat Command R was moving through the eastern portion of the village in an attack on Esch. Meanwhile, mechanics of the 3rd Armored Maintenance Battalion had arrived to take care of disabled Fireball. Although they were unfamiliar with the new type of tank, after careful inspection of the damage, a decision was taken to repair it at their workshops back in Düren and the necessary spare parts were ordered from the 310th Maintenance Battalion at the VII
WILLI WEISS ARCHIV
Right: Looking north-west from the same field today. The line of trees running from left to right mark Jackerather Strasse. The chimney of the sugar factory was only pulled down in 2010.
Above left: The second Mark IV disabled by Mashlonik was hit and stopped along the single-track railway that branched off eastwards from the main railway line just south of Elsdorf, passing below the sugar factory and crossing Jackerather Strasse to continue eastward alongside Reichsstrasse 55 (see the map on page 36). Above right: A GI posing in front of the same panzer. Later Mashlonik destroyed yet a third Mark IV — all three of them belonging to Panzer-Regiment 33 of the 9. Panzer-Division. Right: The branch line too was lifted after the war, its course now carrying Eifelstrasse, which serves as a ring-road carrying the L275 past the town. Our comparison was taken at the crossroads of Eifelstrasse and Jackerather Strasse, looking southeast across the fields beyond. 41
Before the end of the war in Europe, several others of the 20 Pershings committed under the Zebra Mission would come to grief. On March 1, three days after the Elsdorf encounter, another Pershing of the 3rd Armored Division — No. 33 from Company G of the 32nd Armored Regiment — broke down on a Corps Motor Pool in the same town. However, when a truck arrived with the parts it was found that those for the 90mm gun did not fit. Slim Price, who by then had been notified of Fireball’s loss and had arrived in Düren to oversee its repair, telephoned the Zebra Mission in Paris to explain what was needed and, as a result of his call, a 90mm gun scrounged from an M36 tank destroyer was sent to Düren. In a few days, all of Fireball’s damage was repaired. The gun barrel and machine gun were replaced and the hole in the mantlet welded up. Only the fire damage to the interior entailed considerably more work than anticipated and led to delays in completion, because the tools required for this job were not immediately available. With two new crew members, replacing those that had been killed on the 26th, Fireball went back into action on March 7.
Bailey bridge which had just been completed over the Erft canal between Zieverich and Bergheim. The broken-down Pershing was dragged off the bridge and back to a field on the west bank where it was subsequently repaired by mechanics of the 3rd Armored Maintenance Battalion.
With one Pershing already lost at Elsdorf, another one dropped out with mechanical failure on the way to Bergheim, the village on the far side of the Erft, just four kilometres further east. On March 1, during Combat Command B’s attack on the village, the vehicle broke down on the Bailey bridge over the Erft in Bergheim-Zieverich, thus blocking the only available passage over the water obstacle. In view of the emergency situation, it was immediately, and without regard for possible damage, removed from
the bridge, being dragged back to the Zieverich side for repair. Two more of the 20 early-release Pershings would be knocked out before the end of the war in Europe. On March 1, Pershing No. 22, fighting with Company A of the 14th Tank Battalion of the 9th Armored Division, was knocked out by 15cm artillery between Disternich and Derkum, south-east of Düren. A first shot set the engine on fire and a second shell hit the turret, killing the tank commander, Sergeant Chester Key.
Right: That same day, 25 kilometres to the south and in the sector of the neighbouring US III Corps, the 9th Armored Division lost the first of its consignment of ten Pershings when No. 22 from Company H of the 14th Tank Battalion was severely damaged by two high-explosive projectiles in a field between Disternich and Derkum, east of Vettweiss. After the first round hit the right rear sprocket, igniting a fire in the engine compartment, the crew dismounted. A second round then hit the turret behind the commander’s cupola, tearing off the whole vision ring and killing Sergeant Chester Key. Here an ordnance team inspects the damaged tank.
The projectile that hit the rear sprocket tore away the mudguard and storage box on that side. 42
The damage caused to the turret. Within several weeks of its disabling, this Pershing was repaired and returned to combat.
The same tank was later photographed at another location, which has identical long buildings in the background as were seen in the pictures of disabled Fireball (see pages 32 and 36). Apparently both Pershings were brought back to the same location for repair, most likely the workshops of the 3rd Armored Maintenance Battalion at Düren, which confirms our assumption that the pictures of Fireball were taken there and not at Elsdorf. No. 25 was repairable, but it would have taken several months so it was written off for cannibalising. It was the only one of the 20 ‘Zebra Mission’ Pershings committed not to see out the war still in service. only Pershings that got into effective action were the 20 experimental models that First Army had received in February. In the final
analysis, the Pershing had arrived too late, and in too small numbers, to have an effect on the outcome of the fighting in Europe.
WILLI WEISS ARCHIV
WILLI WEISS ARCHIV
Then on March 6, during the battle for Cologne, Pershing No. 25 of Company H of the 33rd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, was hit by a Nashorn tank destroyer from a range of 300 metres in the northern town district of Niehl, close to the banks of the Rhine river. The 88mm projectile penetrated the hull front, passing between the driver’s legs and setting the turret on fire, but the crew escaped before the ammunition exploded. The tank was rated as repairable, but due to the estimated time of repair and shortage of Pershing spare parts, it was decided to send the vehicle to the rear for cannibalisation. The platoon of Pershings in Company A of the 14th Tank Battalion, 9th Armored Division, was instrumental in helping the infantry and engineers of Task Force Engeman to capture the Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagen on March 7, thus achieving the historical first Allied crossing of the Rhine (see After the Battle No. 16). With regular deliveries of Pershings expected to start in April, General Eisenhower specified in mid-March that all those arriving in April should be assigned to the 12th Army Group and that a portion of the May receipts should go to the 6th Army Group. General Bradley, the 12th Army Group commander, allocated the expected 126 tanks in approximately equal numbers to his three armies. By mid-April, 185 of the new tanks had arrived of which 110 were then serving with armoured divisions. For example, Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army received 90 in April, 40 of which were given to the 11th Armored Division, the remainder being held in the main army combat vehicle pool. The other divisions receiving Pershings from this batch were the 2nd Armored of Ninth Army and the 5th Armored of First Army. On VE-Day (May 8) there were 310 Pershings in the theatre, of which about 200 had been issued to troops but, because of the difficulty of transporting them, and the time required to train crews, it is safe to say that the
Right: On March 6, the 3rd Armored Division lost yet another of its Pershings when No. 25 from Company H of the 33d Armored Regiment was knocked out in a field just outside Niehl, a northern suburb of Cologne, during the fight to enter that city. An 88mm armour-piercing round fired by a Nashorn tank destroyer from schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 93 penetrated the lower hull, passing between the driver’s legs and setting the turret on fire. The crew bailed out safely but the fire set off stored ammo, which then burned out the turret.
As a fitting end to the story of the first Pershing knocked on the Western front, our author Willi Weiss found a Pershing wreck in a scrapyard not for from Remagen — not one of the 20 of the Zebra Mission, but a remarkable relic nonetheless. The scrapyard owner prefers that we do not disclose its whereabouts. 43
On June 14, 1943, a Boeing B-17C, converted to a transport role and serving with the 46th Squadron of the US 317th Troop Carrier Group, crashed at Bakers Creek near the coastal town of Mackay in eastern Queensland, Australia, shortly after takeoff from Mackay airfield. The entire crew of six and all but one
of the 35 passengers — all US servicemen returning to Port Moresby in New Guinea after furlough — perished in the crash. The cause of the calamity has never been established with certainty and to this day it remains Australia’s worst ever air disaster.
AUSTRALIA’S WORST AIR DISASTER When America entered the war on December 7, 1941, the US Army had 913 aircraft, including 61 heavy bombers, scattered across a number of overseas bases. One of these aircraft was Flying Fortress B-17C 40-2072 of the 30th Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, based in the Philippines. After a short but eventful operational career of just six weeks, the heavy bomber was retired from combat duty, converted to transport duties and assigned to the newly created Directorate of Air Transport. Sixteen months later, in June 1943, it would crash shortly after take-off in what was the worst air crash of the war in the south-west Pacific area. DEFENDING THE PHILIPPINES Based at Clark Field on Luzon in the Philippines, 40-2072 was one of a handful of B-17s to survive the Japanese surprise aerial attack on the airfield on December 8, 1941. The 19th Bombardment Group at that time had a strength of 35 B-17s, 19 of them stationed at Clark and 16 at Del Monte on the eastern Philippines island of Mindanao. Of the 19 at Clark, 12 were destroyed, five damaged and just two left unharmed. 40-2072, being parked on the edge of the field, came away with only moderate damage. Repaired back to flying condition, the bomber was transferred by its regular pilot, 1st Lieutenant Alvin J. Mueller Jr., on December 9 to Del Monte, where it joined up with the other survivors of the attack and the rest of the 19th Bombardment Group. Nine days later, on December 18, 40-2072 together with three other B-17s transferred 44
to Australia and a new base at the primitive RAAF airfield at Batchelor, south of Darwin. By December 20, all 14 surviving B-17s of the 19th Group and 143 men had relocated to Australia. This token force — soon to form the nucleus of the US Fifth Air Force — now represented the Allies’ only effective striking power in the south-west Pacific On December 24, 40-2072 and two other B-17s were ordered back to Del Monte, which was still in American hands, with orders to refuel and then attack the Japanese. The following day they survived a harrowing bombing mission against the enemyheld airfield at Davao on Luzon. The two lead bombers — Mueller’s 40-2072 and 403062 piloted by 1st Lieutenant George E. Schaetzel — met strong anti-aircraft fire and, after dropping their bombs, were jumped by Japanese Zero fighters. Schaetzel’s aircraft had one engine shot out and his ‘bathtub’ gunner, Staff Sergeant James Cannon, was so badly wounded that he died shortly after from loss of blood. Mueller’s aircraft was riddled with canon and bullet holes, plus two anti-aircraft shell hits in the wing. Two superchargers and the oxygen system were shot out with two of the crew, Corporal Frank Harvey and Pfc Ed Olsen, wounded. Nevertheless, the two bombers managed to limp back to Batchelor. The third, Lieutenant Weldon H. Smith’s 40-3097, its departure delayed by a blown tyre, bombed Davao six hours after the other two, then also made it back to Australia after an uneventful flight. It was a depressing end to Christmas. Sergeant Cannon was buried beside the field while the wounded were transferred to Dar-
By David Mitchelhill-Green win hospital. Major Birrell Walsh, the 19th Bombardment Group Operations Officer, however, had cause to laud Mueller and Schaetzel’s performance: ‘These two officers, against extreme odds, successfully completed their mission and brought their airplanes back across 1,100 miles of open water, after a battle in which both airplanes had suffered damage, and with casualties in the crew. Their bravery under fire, and skill in handling their aircraft saved their crews and airplanes in the face of great odds.’ Mueller was awarded the Silver Star and his four gunners were cited for bravery. On December 30 and 31, ten of the remaining 14 Fortresses relocated to a new base on Java in the Dutch East Indies, leaving just four B-17s in Australia. Three of these — including 40-2072 — required depot overhaul at Laverton while the fourth was temporarily grounded due to engine trouble. It was the end of 40-2072’s career as a heavy bomber. Riddled with some 1,400 bullet holes, the battered aircraft was retired from combat duty. On February 2, 1942, an order from the Air Operations Office of Headquarters US Army Forces in Australia assigned the aircraft to service in the newly formed Directorate of Air Transport (known briefly as Air Transport Command), set up on January 28, 1942, to overcome the ‘immediate airlift shortage’ of supplies to the embattled Allied forces in the Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines and New Guinea.
R. S. CUTLER
The aircraft in question had undergone a short but intense combat career. As heavy USAAF bomber 40-2072 of the 30th Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, it was one of only seven B-17s to narrowly survive the crippling Japanese surprise raid on Clark Airfield on Luzon Island in the Philippines on December 8, 1941. Transferred to Del Monte airfield where it participated in attacks on Japanese landing parties in the Philippines, on December 18 the aircraft evacuated 28 pilots to Australia. Then, during a bombing mission to Davao airfield on Luzon on AIR TRANSPORT DUTIES Now under the Directorate of Air Transport, 40-2072 transferred to that command’s base at Archerfield, near Brisbane. The aircraft required a new wing (almost certainly to replace the one damaged during the Christmas Day mission) and a set of brackets were specially fitted to the belly of a Douglas C-39, which Captain Harold G. Slingsby flew to Batchelor. A suitable wing was then retrieved from a wreck and carried back to Archerfield, a risky accomplishment that earned Slingsby the Distinguished Flying Cross. In April 1942, Newsweek paid a somewhat disingenuous tribute to the now war-weary
December 25, it was shot up by Japanese anti-aircraft guns and jumped by Japanese fighters, which left the aircraft riddled with some 1,400 shell and bullet holes. Considered unfit for combat, it was transferred to the Directorate of Air Transport. This picture was taken on August 21, 1942, at Batchelor Field, near Darwin, Australia, when the heavily mauled aircraft was still awaiting repairs to the combat damage suffered in the Christmas Day mission. Note that it is still carrying its USAAF registration number.
bomber. Bearing an ‘uncountable number of scars and bullet holes . . . today she sits neatly patched and ready to carry her armful of death to the Japanese at a moment’s notice. The boys call her “Old Unsinkable”…’. However, 40-2072 was no longer able to discharge an ‘armful of death’. Given its availability, size and long range, the aircraft was allocated an Australian civilian registration, VH-CBA, and on April 17 assigned to the Directorate of Air Transport’s recently activated 22nd Transport Squadron, based at Essendon airfield in Melbourne. The aircraft nearly found a new role two months later, in June 1942, when Lieutenant General George H. Brett, the Commander
of Allied Air Forces in Australia, received a request from Colonel Burdette M. Fitch, Adjutant General at General Douglas C. MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area HQ, to ‘provide an airplane for use by this headquarters . . . without delay’. Brett’s new Chief-of-Staff, Australian Air Vice-Marshal William Bostock, offered two aircraft: the recently re-engined B-17 and a re-engined civilian DC-3. Lieutenant Henry Godman, responsible for inspecting the two candidates, rejected the bomber — the last operational B-17C in the South West Pacific Area — outright. Counting ‘over 400 holes’, his report concluded: ‘The ship is considered a “lemon” by all pilots’.
Right: Decommissioned in the early 1990s, the expanse of former RAAF Laverton is rapidly being swallowed up by residential housing of the new suburb of Williams Landing. 46
VH-CBA loading passengers at RAAF Laverton outside Melbourne in late 1942. In February 1943, the aircraft was taken over by the 46th Troop Carrier Squadron and began flying cargo and passenger missions between northern Australia and Port Moresby in New Guinea.
As part of the 22nd Transport Squadron (re-designated the 22nd Troop Carrier Squadron on July 26), in October 1942 VHCBA was transferred from Essendon airfield to Garbutt Field at Townsville in northern Queensland to support the Allied offensive in New Guinea. A fortnight later, on November 12, the squadron was incorporated into the US 374th Troop Carrier Group. In January 1943 a second troop carrier group, the 317th, arrived in the south-west Pacific. Its four squadrons — the 39th, 40th, 41st and 46th — each operated 13 new twinengined C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft. Flying in co-operation with the 374th Group in January and February 1943 during the fighting for the Wau airstrip, the newer outfit returned to Australia in February, exchanging its C-47s for the mixed assortment of aircraft formerly operated by the 374th: old DC-3 converted airliners, ex-Dutch Lockheed Lodestars, LB-30s and a few converted B-17s. In early February 1943, Captain Slingsby and co-pilot Lieutenant Vern Gidcumb ferried VH-CBA from Port Moresby to Townsville where it was attached to the newly-deployed 46th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 317th Troop Carrier Group. Under new ownership, VH-CBA flew its first mission on February 5, 1943 — a round trip to Port Moresby with a flying time of seven hours and 35 minutes. From the middle of February until the middle of March, the B-17 flew daily round trips from Townsville to Port Moresby. Beginning March 12, the aircraft was employed as a troop carrier to bring GIs from New Guinea to the Queensland coastal town of Mackay for a ten-day furlough as part of the American Red Cross rest and recreation programme. This was a busy period for the aging aircraft. During the first two weeks of May 1943 alone, it flew some 9,744 miles carrying 348 passengers. On May 12, VH-CBA was taken out of service for repairs, which included the replacement of the fuel tanks and two inboard engines. During the first two testflights, problems were encountered with the
1942, serving with the 22nd Troop Carrier Squadron, then based at Garbutt Field at Townsville in northern Queensland.
GORDON BIRKET COLLECTION
After repairs, the aircraft was assigned the Australian civilian registration VH-CBA and began its new duties as transport aircraft in October
JOYCE A. GRAHAM
Left: From March 1943, VH-CBA began flying regular ferry missions for US service personnel to and from the city of Mackay, a popular leave centre for servicemen on the eastern coast of Queensland. By this time, the threat of invasion had long since rebuilt engines overheating and losing oil pressure. Not until a day after the final work was completed, June 13, was the aircraft successfully test-flown for two and a half hours. On the ground, the executive officer of the
passed and Mackay’s small population of 12,000 embraced the thousands of Americans who passed through. These GIs were pictured outside St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in central Mackay. Right: The same church still stands on Macalister Street.
US Army’s rest area at Mackay, Captain Samuel Cutler, was watching the test-flight. As he later recorded in his diary: ‘saw [VH] CBA Flying Fortress test-hopping over us. Our Major Diller was aboard with Lieu-
tenant Gidcumb as pilot.’ Tellingly, Cutler also noted in his journal how the aircraft was dubbed Miss EMF, short for ‘every morning fix-it’, because of the effort required to keep it airworthy.
CRASH SITE BAKERS CREEK
Mackay Airport lay immediately south of the city. Established in 1931, it had grass landing strips until 1940 when the government extended its boundaries and improved the runways for use as a
military base, in which capacity it served throughout the war. In 1948, the main runway was extended and in 1958 it was further upgraded, sealed and strengthened. 47
Disaster struck on the morning of June 14, 1943, when VH-CBA crashed a few minutes after take-off from Mackay at Bakers
E. Whelchel. Originally scheduled to leave Mackay at 5.30 a.m., the presence of fog up to a ceiling of 250 feet convinced Lieutenant Eugene Neighbours, the US airport engineering officer, to delay VH-CBA’s departure until dawn. Despite a weather report at 5.58 a.m. showing no improvement in atmospheric conditions, Neighbours judged the conditions as suitable for flying. Minutes later the B-17 was climbing into the air from Runway 23 on a south-westerly heading.
Lieutenant Neighbours watched as the aircraft’s lights climbed above the adjoining fields but something was wrong. Instead of banking right and heading north, Gidcumb flew approximately four miles west at an estimated height of 200-250 feet before banking 90 degrees to left on a southerly heading. He then banked 90 degrees to the left again. The low-flying aircraft was now some five miles south of the airfield on an easterly heading. Several witnesses on the ground familiar
THE CRASH As Officer-of-the-Day, Captain Cutler was up at 4 a.m. on the morning of June 14 to oversee and sign off the 33 enlisted men and two officers scheduled to be carried as passengers on VH-CBA to Port Moresby. Joining the pilot, 1st Lieutenant Gidcumb, was Flight Officer William Erb as co-pilot; a navigator, 2nd Lieutenant Jack A. Ogren; a radio operator, Sergeant David E. Tileston; and two engineers, Staff Sergeants Dale Curtis and Frank
Creek, some five miles south of the airfield, killing all but one of the 41 people on board.
The pilot of the aircraft, 1st Lieutenant Vern J. (‘Jimmy’) Gidcumb, was born in Eldorado, Illinois, on May 30, 1921. A student in medicine at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in early 1941, receiving his 48
pilot wings in January 1942. After assignments to Louisville, Kentucky, and Fort Benning, Georgia, (where he married his high school sweetheart, Barbara Ann Wettaw, in July 1942) he left for Australia in early 1943 with the 46th Troop Carrier Squadron.
LAWRENCE KEATING COLLECTION
GI’s inspecting the wreckage of the aircraft.
with the growl of the B-17’s four Wright Cyclone engines later claimed to have heard loud ‘popping’ sounds and the unusual noise made by a propeller running in full low-pitch. A long flame was also observed trailing from one of the engines. Landing lights pierced the fog as Gidcumb skimmed just above the tree line at Bakers Creek possibly trying to nurse his injured craft back to the airport. Dangerously low, one of the wings struck a tree branch, which sent the aircraft careering earthward. Arnold Radcliffe Bragg, a local farm labourer, had watched as the aircraft disappeared below the tree line and burst into flames. According to a Mackay police report, he immediately ran over and ‘searched amongst the patches of blazing debris for possible survivors; the bodies on the western side of the depression were obviously past aid, but, on crossing the muddy depression through the crushed mangroves to where the tail portion was lying, he found two men still living, one with an evidently badly fractured skull and the other showing no indication of injury beyond a slight trickle of blood from the mouth. Bragg placed the former, who was breathing stertorously and with difficulty and remained unconscious, in a comfortable position; he then turned the other man, who was lying on his stomach, on to his back. As he did so, the latter opened his eyes. Bragg told him to lie still, and went to again assist the more seriously injured man. As he was doing so, he glanced up and saw that the other had risen to his feet and was staggering about, groaning . . . Major Seigel [a doctor attached to the Red Cross] attended to both of the injured men before they were removed, and they were conveyed without delay to the Mackay District Hospital. However, the more seriously injured man, Corporal Marlin D. Metzger of the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron, died en route, his injuries being of such a nature that Major Seigel, before he ordered his removal, did not consider that he had any chance of survival’. Remarkably, the sole survivor of the crash, 22-year-old Sergeant Foye K. Roberts, was ‘cushioned by the bodies of the other men in the rear portion of the aircraft, all of whom were killed, and he was the only man left alive of the 41 members of the crew and Army personnel’. Suffering seemingly only minor cuts, burns and abrasions, many years afterwards it was discovered that Roberts had in fact suffered two broken ribs in the crash. Arriving at the scene of the accident, Captain Cutler was confronted by the horror of ‘mangled bodies, killed while flying at 200 miles per hour. Terrible’. The Mackay police report described the scene in detail: ‘ten bodies were found scattered on the western side of the depression; five more, charred and blackened, were taken from the fore-portion wreckage; the remaining 26, which included the two men still living at the arrival of the police, were located amongst the crushed mangroves in the depression, on the small clear stretch of ground east of the depression, and amongst the trees where the forest commenced on that side. Those dead were, generally speaking, mutilated and in many cases shattered and dismembered, limbs entrails, bones and strips of flesh being strewn over the area affected. A number had been hurled through the air as the tail portion broke free.’ As Cutler confided in his diary: ‘What a day and a TRAGIC one’. Under the supervision of police and US authorities, local volunteers located and removed the remains of the dead to waiting US Army ambulances for transfer to the Mackay District Hospital mortuary. Once identification was made against an official list of personnel, the bodies were flown to Townsville on June 15 where they were buried in the American military cemetery at Belgian Gardens on June 19.
The site of the crash is still an undeveloped wasteland area. It lies just north of the Bakers Creek watercourse on land owned by the town’s large meat-processing plant of Thomas Borthwick & Sons Ltd (see the aerial on page 47). 49
Right: The remains of the 40 victims were flown to Townsville where on June 19, five days after the crash, they were buried in the US military cemetery at Belgian Gardens. PILOT ERROR OR MECHANICAL FAILURE? The crash weighed heavily on Cutler’s conscience: ‘I put the men on the ship and so had a direct part in sealing their fate’. Visiting the crash site on June 16 — scene of ‘the greatest single disaster in airplanes in the history of aviation’ — with two fellow officers, he attributed the crash to poor visibility and an ‘error in pilot’s judgement of altitude, while banking’. Neighbours ruled out mechanical failure and similarly apportioned blame on the pilot, apparently unable to judge the altitude because of the difficulty in observing the ground through fog. He informed the local police that the ‘personnel on the plane at the time of its departure were quite sober; the pilot had flown the same trip, in the same and other machines, on many occasions during the past three months, and in his opinion was a most competent pilot’. US Army investigators examining the crash site could find no suspicion or evidence of sabotage and deemed the tragedy accidental while an official Fifth Air Force report concluded:
Right: During the war approximately 390 US servicemen were buried in the Townsville US Cemetery, almost all of them personnel killed in aircraft crashes. The American cemetery plot, which was located in sections 2E, 2G and 4G of the Belgian Gardens municipal cemetery on Evans Street, was closed in 1946. That same year, all remains were exhumed and shipped to Hawaii for reburial in the Punchbowl US Military Cemetery, from where many were later returned to the US mainland for burial in hometown cemeteries. Today, of the 40 Bakers Creek victims, 13 still rest in the Punchbowl, the remainder having been returned to their home states. The former American plot at Belgian Gardens is now occupied by civilian graves but Castle Hill in the background serves as a common point of reference.
FATAL CASUALTIES OF THE BAKERS CREEK CRASH (JUNE 14, 1943) CREW 1/Lt Vern J. Gidcumb (pilot) F/O William C. Erb (co-pilot) 2/Lt Jack A. Ogren (navigator) Sgt David E. Tileston (radio operator) S/Sgt Lovell Dale Curtis (crew chief) S/Sgt Frank E. Whelchel (crew chief) PASSENGERS 35th Fighter Group S/Sgt Roy A. Hatlen S/Sgt John W. Hilsheimer Sgt Dean H. Busse Cpl Raymond H. Smith 49th Fighter Group Maj George N. Powell Pfc Jerome Abraham Pvt Charles D. Montgomery Capt John O. Berthold Sgt Carl A. Cunningham Sgt Charlie O. LaRue
38th Bombardment Group Sgt Leo E. Fletcher 405th Bombardment Squadron Sgt Donald B. Kyper 405th Bombardment Squadron Cpl Franklin F. Smith 405th Bombardment Squadron 374th Troop Carrier Group Cpl Marlin D. Metzger Pfc Frank S. Penska
46th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group 46th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group 46th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group 46th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group 46th Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group 22nd Troop Carrier Squadron, 374th Troop Carrier Group
8th Service Group T/Sgt James A. Copeland Cpl Charles W. Sampson Pfc Dale Van Fosson
HQ Squadron 11th Service Squadron 1160th Quartermaster Company
Pfc Arnold Seidel Fifth Air Force, 415th Signal Company Pvt Ruben L. Vaughn 5th Fighter Command, HQ Squadron T/5 George A. Ehrman 5th Fighter Command, Signal HQ Company Pfc Kenneth W. Mann 374th Service Squadron, 36th Service Group Pfc Charles M. Williams 455th Service Squadron T/5 William A. Briggs 1037th Signal Company, 478th Service Squadron Cpl Edward Tenney 479th Service Squadron Pfc Norman J. Goetz 480th Service Squadron Pfc Frederick C. Sweet 46th Ordnance Company, 481st Service Squadron T/Sgt Alfred H. Frezza 27th Depot Repair Squadron Cpl Jacob O. Skaggs, Jr. 27th Depot Repair Squadron Pvt James E. Finney 27th Depot Repair Squadron Pvt Raymond D. Longabaugh 842nd Aviation Engineer Battalion Pfc Vernon Johnson Company A, 440th Signal Battalion Sgt Anthony Rudnick Company A, 565th Signal Battalion Pfc John W. Parker 809th Chemical Company
‘EVERYTHING HUSH-HUSH’ Captain Cutler noted in his diary how the incident was ‘hush-hush’. Due to wartime censorship, radio and newspapers were prevented from reporting the crash. An editorial in the local newspaper hinted at the loss but could only acknowledge the injuries sustained by the survivor, Foyle Roberts. Relatives of the deceased received a telegram
‘the ship was performing in a satisfactory manner when, for some reason, it dove into the ground and exploded’. While a number of theories have been proposed, the exact cause of the crash remains unknown. It would appear from eyewitness reports that the aircraft suffered an engine failure shortly after take-off. The distinctive sound made by a propeller at full low-pitch would have resulted from either a loss of engine power, a loss of oil pressure or both. In an apparent attempt to return to the airfield, valuable height would have been lost as the relatively inexperienced pair of pilots, likely having only limited knowledge of instrument flying in darkness, manoeuvred the heavily-laden B-17 toward the airfield. Cutler had calculated the take-off weight of the transport to be 46,810 pounds: 7,200 pounds of fuel, 1,005 pounds of oil, 41 men at 200 pounds each and one five-pound mail bag. There were, however, several cases of bully beef found at the crash site and it would appear that the servicemen returning to New Guinea were carrying items unavailable in the front lines; extra freight in a heavily laden aircraft already close to its maximum take-off weight of 47,500 pounds. It can be surmised that the disaster stemmed from a combination of mechanical and human factors. Once power was lost from an engine shortly after take-off, the two young pilots courageously attempted to steer their crippled aircraft back to the airfield. In doing so, the heavy, war-weary B-17 lost height in a series of turns before ploughing into the ground and exploding.
Local historian Colin Benson — one of the prime actors in fostering the memory of the tragedy — with a corroded piece of aluminium found at the crash site in September 2009. from the US War Department that stated little more than that the men had been killed somewhere in the South West Pacific. In early 1946, the bodies of the servicemen killed in the crash were disinterred and shipped to Hawaii, where 13 were reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and the remainder sent to the United States mainland for reburial.
Several relics from the wreckage of VH-CBA made their way into local hands in the Mackay region. This is the navigator’s chair and the bullet-holed toilet bucket.
Left and above: Colin holds the aircraft’s navigation clock, still in working order. 51
Hall along Bruce Highway, approximately one mile south of the crash site on the other side of the river. The two plaques describe the crash and list the men known to have perished as well as naming the sole survivor. The propeller mounted between the two brick columns comes from a C-47 Dakota.
Above: Mounted above the propeller is a scale model of a B-17 representing VH-CBA. It was designed and built by former 46th Troop Carrier Squadron flight mechanic Delmer L. Sparrowe from Sonoma in California and cast by Mike Johnson, grandnephew of Pfc Charles M. Williams, one of the victims of the crash. It was unveiled on June 15, 2003, the 60th anniversary of the incident, together with the two memorial plaques (right). 52
Late in 1991, with the 50th anniversary of the crash approaching, a committee was formed in Mackay to build a memorial to commemorate its victims. Designed and built with the help of several voluntary contributions, it was dedicated on May 11, 1992. It stands in the grounds of the Bakers Creek Community
On June 11, 2009 — the 66th anniversary of the crash — a memorial to the Bakers Creek crash was dedicated in the United States. After lengthy negotiations, a site was agreed on at the Selfridge Gate to Arlington National Cemetery at Fort Myer, Virginia. (Selfridge Gate is named for Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, who died from injuries he received when the plane piloted by Orville Wright crashed at Fort Myer on September 18, 1908. He is regarded as the first fatality of powered aviation.) Posing at the memorial after the dedication are (L-R) Lieutenant
future burials. The Army also suggested the Air Force take responsibility and erect the memorial at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio — an idea rejected outright by the Association in the belief that VH-CBA was an Army aircraft carrying Army soldiers. In the interim period, the stone marker was given haven on foreign soil at the Aus-
News of the tragedy was suppressed and the accident remained practically unknown outside of Mackay. An official secret for 15 years after the war, it is only since the 1990s that a small band of dedicated individuals has brought the accident to prominence and sought due recognition of those killed. On May 11, 1992, a committee from Mackay unveiled a permanent memorial to the crash at Bakers Creek during the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Three years earlier, in the United States, Professor Robert S. Cutler of Washington, DC, had discovered a reference to the crash in his father’s wartime diary. Intrigued by the entry, Cutler began researching the incident, a quest that brought him to Mackay and in contact with local historian Colin Benson. At the same time, retired USAF Chief Master Sergeant Teddy W. Hanks of Wichita Falls, Texas, who had lost four of his friends in the crash, was diligently compiling a list of the casualties from archives and searching for families of the deceased. By February 24, 2005, the commander of the US Fifth Air Force had officially notified relatives of 36 of the 40 victims. Meanwhile, Bob Cutler had helped form the Bakers Creek Memorial Association in 2000 to dedicate a similar memorial in the United States. After sufficient funds were raised by relatives of the victims and other interested parties, a memorial stone intended for Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC, was completed in 2006. The US Army, however, initially declined the Association’s offer, citing the need for congressional authorisation before a commemorative monument could be placed in Arlington due to the space requirements of
General Bruce A. Wright, former commander of the US Fifth Air Force; Air Vice-Marshal Kym Osley, Head of the Australian Defence Staff in the US; US Secretary of the Army Pete Geren; Harry McAlpine, president of the Washington, DC, sub-branch of the Returned and Services League; Colonel Laura J. Richardson, garrison commander of the Fort Myer Military Community; Robert S. Cutler, executive director of the Bakers Creek Memorial Association, and David Stuart, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Washington.
Michael J. Baier, the former military attaché at the US Embassy in Canberra, Australia, delivering his speech.
tralian Embassy in north-west Washington. Meanwhile, momentum gathered for the marker to be placed near Arlington. US Secretary of the Army Pete Geren received correspondence from several members of Congress asking that he consider Fort Myer, Virginia, which adjoins Arlington and where Orville Wright had demonstrated his aircraft to the Army back in 1908 — the site now considered the birthplace of US military aviation — as a suitable location. At the same time an amendment before the US Senate to honour the Bakers Creek victims at Arlington agreed that the time was right ‘to mark their sacrifices with the proper level of respect and reverence . . . For too long, the truth on how these young men died in the service of their Nation has been hidden away — albeit for understandable reasons.’ Red tape, however, continued to dog the project. Army lawyers intervened over a case before the US Supreme Court to determine whether a municipality would have to accept further donated memorials. Once the court unanimously ruled that municipalities would not have to accept other donated monuments, Geren notified the Association in May 2009 of the decision to formally accept the modest memorial. On June 11, 2009, after nearly a decade of perseverance by the Association and years of official secrecy and bureaucracy, the memorial to the Bakers Creek crash was unveiled at Fort Myer near the Selfridge Gate entrance to Arlington Cemetery. Geren called the ceremony marking the crash nearly 66 years earlier, the ‘closing of one of the Second World War’s final open chapters’. To this day the crash of B-17 40-2072/VH-CBA remains Australia’s worst air disaster. 53
On May 3, 1945, a small estate just outside the village of Häcklingen near Lüneburg in northern Germany was the venue of talks between Lieutenant-General Miles C. Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army, and a delegation of German officers who had come to negotiate on the one hand the surrender of the city of Hamburg and on the other the general capitulation of all German forces in northern Germany. Above: The arrival of the seven German parliamentaries at 10.30 a.m.: (L-R) Major Peter Andrae, Generalmajor Alwin Wolz, Major Hans Jochen Friedel, Konteradmiral Gerhard Wagner, Generaladmiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, Hauptmann Gerhard Link (in front of Friedeburg) and General der Infanterie Eberhard Kinzel.
WALDHAUS HÄCKLINGEN In 1906 a new school complex was built on a plot of land outside the small village of Häcklingen, two kilometres south of the town of Lüneburg in north-western Germany. Designed by the prominent Berlin state architects Konrad Reimer und Friedrich Koerte, the facility was planned to become a model institute for the Reifensteiner Verband von wirtschaftlichen Frauenschulen (Reifenstein Association of Domestic Science Schools for Women). The new school had been commissioned by three women: Margarete Endeman, founder-director of the original school of housecraft in Reifenstein, and Auguste and Elisabeth Buchner, sister-in-law and niece, respectively, of Professor Dr. Eduard Buchner, winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Financed with funds from Buchner’s award, the new complex — which became known as the Waldhaus Häcklingen — comprised three buildings: a large villa serving as the main schoolhouse, an outhouse and a stables. Officially opened in 1910, the school functioned for 13 years, having to close down in 1923 due to the rampant inflation in the Weimar Republic, after which it was used as a holiday guesthouse. In 1934 the complex was purchased by Dr Alexander Möllering, owner of the Kronen Brewery in Lüneburg, who made it into a private residence. Eleven years later, in May 1945, in the closing stages of the Second World War, Lieutenant-General Miles C. Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army, set up his Tactical Headquarters in the requisitioned villa, moving in about the last week of April. On the morning of May 3, a trio of staff cars carrying white flags approached the forward lines of the British 7th Armoured Division at Fleestedt near Lüneburg. They 54
brought in what in effect were two different delegations with two different missions. The first party consisted of three men — Generalmajor Alwin Wolz, Kampfkommandant (Combat Commander) of Hamburg; his Adjutant, Major Peter Andrae; and an interpreter, Hauptmann Dr. Gerhard Link — and had come to negotiate the surrender of the city of Hamburg. The previous evening (May 2) they had already entered the British lines and held preliminary talks with Major-General Lewis Lyne of the 7th Armoured Division. Earlier that same day, Grossadmiral
By Karel Margry
Karl Dönitz — who on April 30 had succeeded Adolf Hitler as head of state and government of the German Reich — telephoning from his headquarters in Plön, had approved that the Hamburg authorities surrender the port city. The second delegation had been sent by Dönitz and comprised four men: Generaladmiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, commander-in-chief of the Kriegsmarine; General der Infanterie Eberhard Kinzel, chief-of-staff of the OKW-Führungsstab Nord; Konteradmiral Gerhard Wagner, military representative on Dönitz’s staff; and an OKW staff officer, Major Hans Jochen Friedel. The previous evening, on his way to his new headquarters at Flensburg (see After the Battle No. 128), Dönitz had met Friedeburg and instructed him to join the party from Hamburg, his mission being to contact Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group, and offer him the surrender of all German forces in northern Germany. At the same time, he was also to try and negotiate that the remains of Heeresgruppe Weichsel, which was still opposing the Russians in north-east Germany, be allowed to retreat to the west and surrender to the British. Reaching the British lines at 9 a.m. on the 3rd, the joint delegation was escorted ever higher up — from battalion to brigade to division to corps — until they finally reached Dempsey’s Tactical Headquarters at Häcklingen, where they arrived at 10.30 a.m. Led into an ante-room, they were first served tea and cakes. Then Friedeburg was shown into the villa’s large hall, the Rittersaal, to talk to Dempsey. Previous contacts with the Germans had led Dempsey to believe that the German delegation would be led by General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, commander of Armee Blumentritt, and equal in rank to Dempsey. It was only shortly before the Germans arrived, that Dempsey had received news through British XII Corps HQ that Blumentritt had been replaced by Friedeburg, who was superior to him in rank. Therefore, after listening to what Friedeburg had to say about a possible general capitulation, he told him he would have to take this up with Field-Marshal Montgomery. Thus, just 30 minutes after they had arrived, Friedeburg and his party — General Kinzel, Konteradmiral Wagner and Major Friedel — departed again, going on to Montgomery’s
The Wirtschaftsgebäude (outhouse) of the Waldhaus Häcklingen estate still stood when we last visited Häcklingen in September 2004 during the preparation of The Third Reich Then and Now. It was pulled down in the summer of 2009.
IWM BU 5161
Left: Thirty minutes later and four of the seven Germans — (L-R) Friedeburg, Wagner, Friedel and Kinzel — depart, sent on to Field-Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group headquarters
of the complex and to mobilise sponsors for its restoration and preservation. Sabelleck’s ideal is not just to rescue the historical buildings but also to make them into a documentation centre of the Nazi era and wartime events in the wider Lüneburg area. Since then, Sabelleck has campaigned untiringly, rallying local and regional media, compiling a citizen’s petition, and seeking support in Germany and abroad. A tour group of the British Legion who visited Häcklingen in May 2010 was unpleasantly surprised and indignant about the derelict state of the villa and wholeheartedly offered their support of his initiative. However, by then it was too late for the outbuilding and stables. During the summer of 2009 they were pulled down overnight. In May 2011, the property owners showed a first sign of what may be construed as a
change of heart when, through their lawyer, they offered the villa for sale to Sabelleck’s foundation. The latter now seeks to inspect the premises, write a business plan and find sponsors to finance the purchase and the realisation of the documentation centre. However, the immediate threat has still not receded because the applications for rescinding the villa’s protected status and permission to demolish it have not been revoked and are still under consideration by the authorities. Any readers who would like to support the preservation of Waldhaus Häcklingen can contact the following address: Lüneburg Capitulation May 4th 1945 Dokumentationszentrum Waldhaus Häcklingen e.v., Erlengrund 1, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany. Phone: +49(0)4131-404314. Mobile: +49-(0)15142328818 E-mail: [email protected]
tactical headquarters on the Timeloberg hill near Wendisch Erven on Lüneburg Heath, some five kilometres to the east, where they arrived at 11.30 a.m. and where next day at 6.30 p.m. they would sign the unconditional surrender of all German forces in north-western Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands (see After the Battle No. 48). Generalmajor Wolz and Major Andrae remained behind at Dempsey’s headquarters where, after a short and somewhat prickly discussion, Wolz signed the document surrendering the city of Hamburg. Thus Waldhaus Häcklingen gained a place in history as one of the venues in the sequence of events that would lead up to the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. After the war the property was sold and in 1966 became a psychiatric clinic, run by a organisation known as Die Brücke, and it served in that capacity for over four decades. In 2007 the clinic moved to new premises in Uelzen, leaving the old buildings empty and unoccupied. As time went on, they became an attractive target of vandals, who broke roof and window panes, knocked holes in the walls, and smashed up the interior. Although the police regularly patrolled the site hoping to catch the ruffians, the premises soon acquired a derelict state. Actually, the Lüneburg authorities were themselves partly responsible for some of the damage: for a time the municipal fire department and emergency services used the outbuildings for training exercises, which led to damage from fire and holes in the roofs. The clinic authorities, who still own the property, would like to see all the buildings pulled down and the terrain sold to developers. The main villa however, being a prime example of Kaiserzeit architecture, is a protected historical building and cannot be simply knocked down. In September 2010, they applied with the Lüneburg municipal authorities for a revocation of the villa’s protected status and a permit to demolish it. However, by then a campaign to preserve the Waldhaus complex had sprung up. Prime mover behind it is Dr Rainer Sabelleck, a teacher of history and German at the Gymnasium Oedeme in Lüneburg, who has studied the wartime history of the Waldhaus for years. In September 2009 he set up a foundation — the Stiftung Lüneburg Capitulation May 4th 1945 Dokumentationszentrum Waldhaus Häcklingen — with the aim of fostering awareness of the historical importance
on the Timeloberg hill. Right: Vacated by the psychiatric clinic that used it until 2007, the villa that was Dempsey’s Tactical Headquarters now stands derelict and boarded up.
The rear of the villa, pictured in April 2011. A local foundation now hopes to achieve the preservation of the historic building and turn it into a documentation centre of the Second World War in the Lüneburg region. 55