Essai en Guerre: an FFO-inspired TL

Part 5.3
  • Extract from ch.6 of To the stars the hard way: a history of 50 Wing RAF by Bertram Owen

    The Wing now comprised three squadrons, now all back up to strength, operating from Crete. During CONCAVE they frequently operated alongside SAAF Blenheims. They spent late August engaged on strikes against the Italians in the Aegean with the goal of isolating Scarpanto and Rhodes. The Italians had just introduced a new fighter, the Macchi C202, and this proved a most unpleasant opponent, though fortunately rare. The strikes by Blenheims produced disappointing results for the level of effort and casualties - five planes lost in ten days, with only a handful of hits scored on Italian vessels. One Navy memo expressed concern thus: ‘bombing at mast-top height speaks volumes for the courage of the crews, but exposes these large, slow aircraft to even small arms fire. We have noted better results at less cost from mining operations.’
    Worse was to come. Squadron Leader Fife commented: “We had a proper foul-up on the big day. We took off at first light and plastered our target, a coastal battery, alongside the Springboks. Then we headed out over the sea and saw the invasion convoy. We gave the recognition signal, and it all seemed fine, then some trigger-happy idiot fired and we had the whole convoy blasting away at us. Good thing they were terrible shots, we got off lightly. But when we landed a few of the SAAF came with us, they’d been shot up pretty badly. If we were angry, it was nothing to how the Springboks felt, and their language was pretty blue. Four of their crates were u/s and one had gone down - no survivors.”
    After this Fife received a posting back to Britain to train new crews. His parting comment in the war diary, which he passed to his successor, summarised much of the British bomber effort in the first two years of the war: ‘The Blenheim is out of date at least in Europe. Immense courage and skill by my boys - but many painful losses and a nagging feeling that we haven’t accomplished all that much in the way of hurting the enemy.’ This view had become widespread in the RAF, and contributed to the decision in the final quarter of 1941 to withdraw the Blenheim squadrons from first-line duty. ‘We’ll send them from the Med to the Far East, where things are quiet,’ commented one Air Marshal.
    Part 5.4
  • Extract from War in the Middle Sea, ch.10

    A description of the vicissitudes of operation CONCAVE can hardly do better than the report written soon afterwards by General O’Connor.
    “...CONCAVE has demonstrated beyond doubt the challenges faced by amphibious operations under modern conditions. Modern warfare is above all a matter of heavy and complex machinery, and the defenders always have the advantage that their machines are already in place on land and ready for use. The attacker by contrast must disembark a mass of delicate machines, readily corroded by salt water, harassed by fire, often in darkness both literal and metaphorical.
    3. Signals equipment was lacking, and too many radio sets broke down or performed poorly. Commanders repeatedly were in the dark about the position and status of units. For instance, of sixteen new type radio sets issued to the New Zealand battalions, fourteen were discovered to have faulty batteries. This was not discovered until the troops were already ashore owing to the extreme haste of the planning and preparation.
    4. Even where signals equipment functioned, confusion too often reigned. For instance, on 26th, 11 Commando transmitted repeated requests to HMS Fiji for gunfire support, using the agreed codes. However, only one officer aboard the cruiser had been trained in these codes, and he had suffered accidental injury, so it took several hours for the request to be understood, by which time the Commandos had taken the objective. Several casualties then resulted to our troops when the Fiji bombarded the target. This all occurred even though the cruiser was the allocated gunfire support vessel for the Commando battalion. A training exercise had been planned which should have ironed out these problems, but it was cancelled due to lack of time.
    5. Tribute should, however, be paid to the Navy’s gunfire support in general, which proved essential. For the most part the troops’ only complaint was that the bombardments could have been heavier. Against a weakly held objective such as Scarpanto, cruiser gunfire sufficed, but stronger defences will need heavier guns.
    6. Communication with the RAF will also need attention. The Army recognises the enormous effort made by the RAF and the heavy losses they suffered. The enemy’s air was no more than a nuisance factor. This is the most important single factor accounting for our success. However there were several troubling incidents. The sinking of three of our patrol boats by our own planes hurt morale considerably; they were mistaken for enemy torpedo boats. The RAF crews stated that no recognition signals were seen, apparently because of unfavourable lighting conditions. Similarly the destroyer Defender suffered a heavy bombing attack by our own aircraft, fortunately without damage. Clear recognition signals must be mutually agreed. Considering that the Defender was alone and attacked by no less than fifteen of our bombers over the course of two hours, we might also suggest that the RAF review their methods for attacking ships.
    7. Conversely, the Navy fired upon our aircraft on several occasions, destroying one Blenheim and damaging several others. Navy gunners should receive additional assistance in aircraft recognition. We understand efforts are underway to produce electronic means for friendly ships and aircraft to recognise each other; these should be a priority before any larger-scale amphibious operations.
    8. The bombardment of the French battalion at Arcesine by our Blenheims not only caused casualties, but also an unpleasant argument which culminated in the French Colonel challenging the SAAF squadron leader to a duel. We can ill afford such incidents.
    9. On that occasion only the light bomb-load of the Blenheims prevented heavier casualties. It is not the Army’s place to teach the Air its business, but common sense must question the continued employment of the Blenheim. We understand that the French have started to use their American Curtiss fighters to carry bombs, and that two such fighters can carry the same bomb-load as one Blenheim, with equal accuracy, much greater speed and self-defence ability. We understand our own Hurricanes can perform this role when given suitable modification.
    10. The processes and routines for loading and unloading the troops require review. Two of the LCAs aboard Glengyle were lost, with many men drowned, because of elementary errors in launching procedures. More time to rehearse might have prevented this minor tragedy. The LCMs carrying the Hussar light tanks to Diakoftis beach arrived over two hours late chiefly owing to unforeseen difficulties securing the vehicles in the landing craft. Fortunately this did not greatly impede operations, but we note that in any littoral with a greater tidal range, a delay of a few hours may badly affect the prospects for successful unloading of heavy machinery. Again time to prepare could have prevented this.
    11. The congestion on Diakoftis beach prevented the anticipated capture of Karpathos town on the first day. If the enemy had been able to employ artillery against the beach, they would have inflicted heavy casualties. Apparently only one harassed officer (whose radio had also broken down) was available to organise landings and movements on this particular beach, and none of the assault troops knew who he was. The day of the landings is not the time to make such introductions…
    28. To summarise, very many improvements, and thorough rehearsals, are required before larger amphibious operations. Only the extreme weakness of the defence, and our local air and naval superiority, permitted the capture of the island.
    Part 5.5
  • Extract from Marianne and John, ch.10

    ...the day after the capture of Scarpanto, the Council met again to settle the question of the next steps. With all eyes on the vast campaign going on in Russia, the question was how to provide effective aid. Limited attacks in Greece had achieved nothing, the mountains proved as easy to defend by the Axis as by the Allies. ‘We have just a bigger version of the Salonika side-show of the last war,’ wrote M. Mandel, ‘although we have gained a defensive victory, the Balkan terrain inhibits offensive action.’ During the autumn the Greek front entered a long lull.
    Elsewhere, British and Soviet forces had entered Iran a few weeks earlier and rapidly secured the country; but its use as a supply route would be limited until its roads and railways were improved. ‘Rhodes, if possible the whole Dodecanese, must fall this year,’ said Mr. Churchill, ‘presenting the prospect of a decisive shift in the attitude of Turkey.’ If the sea-route via Istanbul became available, supplying Russia would be much easier. ‘The Turks must see that if Russia falls they will be next,’ he went on.
    The French members of the Council showed a little less enthusiasm. The alliance with the USSR had caused them political difficulties in Algeria. More directly, Rhodes seemed a much harder target than Scarpanto or tiny Kasos. ‘There is a full division there, with artillery,’ noted de Gaulle, ‘and we lack the landing craft to lift more than a few battalions at once.’ The British suspected another motive. ‘The French have played the smaller part in the eastern Med,’ noted General Wavell. ‘The fought magnificently in Greece. At the moment, though, they have no units free for Rhodes. They want an operation where they have the leading role, one cannot blame them. We must give priority to ROBERT.’ Wavell was in a particularly philosophical mood; after a month’s home leave, he was about to depart for the Far East, to take command of the much-strengthened British forces there. General Alexander now replaced him as C-in-C Middle East. General O’Connor was also about to leave the scene. In Whitehall a view had formed that he needed rest. He returned to Britain in September for a spell of leave and then to take command of an armoured corps.
    ...the French carried the day. ‘I can deny nothing to Mandel,’ said Churchill on 8th September, ‘he has the soul and glory of France. ROBERT is well worth it.’ The specialised ships and landing craft were transferred to Gabes and Sfax. Tragedy struck, however, during the transfer operations, when the Barham, acting as distant cover for the convoy, was torpedoed and sunk. ‘A painful loss,’ noted Admiral Godfroy, ‘especially when we must send capital ships east. Still we retain a margin of advantage, with the Nelson joining us soon.’
    Part 5.6
  • Extract from ch.1, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green

    The Allies made no secret of their reinforcement of the East. In 1941 the War Council devoted as much time to this subject as to any other. Once the Germans had failed at Olympus and invaded Russia, the pace quickened. The Japanese began to see their window of opportunity closing.
    In order to understand Japanese actions we must recall that a genuine peace policy had become impossible. Those politicians who preferred it lived in terror of their lives. Politics, in the true sense of the word, had in fact ceased in Japan some years earlier; what Japan now had instead was inter-service rivalry. Almost unconsciously, peace had vanished from the set of options before Japanese policy-makers, the question had become who to fight (and when), not whether to fight.
    The Army was undecided whether to fight Russia or the Western powers, while the Navy preferred the latter, as a war with Russia would give them little to do. The Japanese armed forces had obtained an excessive share of Japan’s GDP for many years, and now felt they had to justify this by results. Adding a further twist, even those senior officers who prudently feared war could not act on this belief. They too feared assassination...
    The Japanese had occupied the southernmost portion of China, Kwangsi province, adjacent to the Indochina border, in 1939. During 1940 and into 1941, Kwangsi became their main base for operations against Indochina. IJA incursions into French territory became frequent. In April 1941 the whole of Japanese 5th Division crossed the frontier in the region of Lang Son, looting and burning several villages in an apparent attempt at discrediting French authority. The French forces in the area were too weak to permit anything but diplomatic protests, which significantly were now joined by Washington. But the IJA hotheads ignored this portent, and further raids occurred during the summer.
    The pace of events towards war became irreversible after the Long Chau Incident. The Japanese had occupied this island, along with several others, in 1940 during their initial period of pressure following the fall of France. A French outpost on the island had temporarily been abandoned during July 1940, and the local Japanese forces seized the opportunity. They had withdrawn from the other islands during the winter, but despite promising to do so, never pulled out of Long Chau. During the spring of 1941 instead they reinforced the place with more troops and artillery. Japanese aircraft regularly patrolled over the island, and occasionally landed.
    The French authorities had by now grown weary of protests. In the late summer, the first reinforcements arrived, including thirty D.520 fighter aircraft, and these were based near Hanoi. French aircraft flew over Long Chau, and before long there were clashes. A French aircraft was shot down on July 21st. In retaliation French ships moved up from Cam Ranh and bombarded the island. The Japanese escalated by attacking and sinking a French transport, with over 500 people aboard, on the 28th, and two more French ships on the 30th. At the same time the IJA had moved troops towards the frontier between China and Indo-China, and border incursions followed. All these Japanese actions, it seems, were on the initiative of bellicose local commanders; Tokyo was unable or unwilling to order de-escalation.
    The French and British responded by ordering more reinforcements to the East, despite their commitments in Europe. Both sent a pair of capital ships to the region and began planning to send larger reinforcements. ‘We have a responsibility in the East, and we must also give encouragement to Chungking,’ wrote de Gaulle. ‘The best bet to restrain Tokyo is to build up China.’ The British, for their part, sought American assistance in upgrading the Burma Road. ‘We want to increase the capacity to a thousand tons a day, if possible,’ wrote General Wavell. ‘That should give Tokyo something to think about.’
    US opinion sided strongly with the French. ‘History tells us that the Chinese used to call the Japanese pirates, and what they are doing in the Gulf of Tonkin is nothing less than piracy,’ thundered one Los Angeles newspaper. ‘The Gulf of Tonkin incident makes it imperative that Washington takes a stand,’ wrote the Washington Post.
    The US government now acted, freezing Japanese assets in the USA. This act has received endless speculation as to how to interpret the President’s intentions. It appears to me that President Roosevelt wanted to force Japan to choose between either ending or expanding its war, knowing that either option would ultimately suit America, and the Tonkin incidents gave him the perfect opportunity. In fact the President misjudged Tokyo if he believed there was any chance they would choose to end their unjust war in China. But his misjudgement was as nothing to that of the decision-takers in Tokyo. The embargo, more than any other action, persuaded the Japanese Government to commit to the so-called Southern Operation. The Emperor gave his assent, with a show of reluctance…
    Part 6.1
  • Part 6. Dominion over sea and land

    Extract from War in the Middle Sea, ch.11

    Operation ROBERT got under way in poor weather on 25th September. Pantelleria had suffered weeks of bombardment. In the last fortnight three groups of DB-7 bombers had made sure no day went by without an air raid, supplementing this with occasional nuisance raids at night. A group of Vultee dive-bombers made precision attacks on Italian coastal batteries. The AAA now had three groups of Curtiss 81 fighters (the type known as P-40s in American service) operating from Tunisia, and these provided both escorts and supplementary low-level attacks. These raids therefore had a lower loss rate than had been feared and anticipated. Only Italian aircraft opposed them as almost all German aircraft had gone to Russia, with a handful to Greece. The French pilots found that although the new Macchi C.202 was a dangerous opponent as a dogfighter, its light armament was not really enough against their tough American planes, so far more of their machines were damaged than destroyed. The Italians also lacked effective early-warning and communications systems, so many raids went in without interception. ‘We can confidently say we have air superiority over the arena of action,’ noted General Olry. British fighters from Malta, and bombers from Tripoli, also helped to suppress the Regia Aeronautica with attacks on airfields in Sicily.
    The Italian navy made one sortie, but turned back on orders from Rome when British aircraft detected the ships. ‘We could not hope for success without adequate air cover,’ commented Admiral Iachino, ‘as it was we came under air attack while withdrawing.’ The Allied naval contribution consisted of regular night bombardments by French warships, cruisers and destroyers, refuelling during the day in Tunisian ports on the east coast. The RN also participated, sending the Valiant and three cruisers to assist. Despite the threat from submarines, on three occasions the French sent the Provence to join the bombardment, her new gunnery radar enabling some very accurate shooting. One Italian officer wrote, ‘we had no means of returning such heavy, accurate fire. It is futile to attempt resistance against such fire superiority.’ This ceased on 1st October, however, when she hit a mine on returning from one such mission, leaving her out of action for months...
    The bad weather slowed the landing operations, but also enabled a high degree of surprise, as the Italian garrison had been hoping for a respite from bombardment. Some were caught still asleep, though there was also stiff resistance elsewhere, notably in the hills to the south of the island. ‘Turning them out of their high ground was no easy task,’ commented General Bethouart, echoing comments made about the fighting in East Africa. ‘They turned Monte Grande into a little Keren.’
    The island’s surrender took two days longer than planned, largely because armour was not available. A company of American M3 tanks had been taken along, but in the poor weather it proved impossible to launch and bring in to shore the LCMs on which they were borne. An attempt to do so on the first day ended with the LCM swamped and lost along with its cargo. Not until the wind fell could the vehicles be landed…
    Despite all the difficulties, the French had won their first amphibious assault, learning many of the same lessons as the British at Scarpanto. The landing craft could return to the eastern Mediterranean. Here a vast mass of shipping had gathered, as the British had assembled forces for the next phase, for which they entertained high hopes...
    Part 6.2
  • Memorandum to the Supreme War Council

    Sirs, on the occasion of my taking up this Command you requested a full description of the land forces available for further operations in the Aegean, and which forces might transfer East without immediate prejudice to our position. Please find annexed my Order of Battle as of today, with my annotations, and commentary on the strategic choice we currently face.

    Order of Battle, Middle East Command

    (under overall command of General Bethouart)

    6th & 7th Australian Divs. (potential for transfer East once relieved)
    2nd New Zealand Div.
    Indian 4th Div. (intended for transfer East)
    7th Armoured Div. (mobile reserve)
    2nd Armoured Div. (in reserve, re-equipping)
    British 50th Div.
    NB French V Corps comprises 3 divs, 86eme Div. earmarked for op ARDENT

    N. Africa

    1st South African Div. (currently restricted to service within Africa)

    Crete & islands

    Australian 9th Div.
    Polish Carpathian Brigade (Crete), plus one French bn (22nd)
    11 Commando (battalion strength)
    1st Army Tank Bde. (less one regt on Scarpanto; potential for transfer east)
    British 6th Div. (less one bde on Cyprus; potential for transfer East)


    As noted above

    East Africa

    Elements of 5th Indian Div. (potential for transfer East)


    10th Indian Div.

    Expected divisions currently earmarked as reinforcement over during winter: 1st Armoured, 5th, 18th, 44th, 51st

    Strategic appreciation
    The Council has discussed the question of mounting an operation against either Rhodes or Lemnos and requested my professional opinion. Rhodes could safely be left, bypassed, as its offensive power has swiftly declined. Lemnos offers bases within easy reach of the Straits and therefore the prospect, if taken, of a decisive change in Ankara’s attitude. This makes it a highly attractive target.
    Against this, we believe that Lemnos is also much the harder target. Its garrison is entirely German, and intelligence reports indicate heavy fortifications, with all possible landing points heavily mined and wired, and covered by artillery. The German airbase there is amply protected by AA and the island is of course well within range of enemy Air operating from Salonika. The Council should note that our amphibious successes so far have been against Italian opposition only. The risk of a reverse, as it were under the very eyes of the Turks, must be taken seriously. In the case of Rhodes, we may, by contrast, regard air superiority as assured. The fall of Rhodes would bring with it the entire Dodecanese, probably with little if any further fighting. This by itself might suffice to bring the political and diplomatic results sought…
    Part 6.3
  • Extract from Girolamo Leoni, La Follia, ch.8 we could see what would come next with the inevitability of an avalanche. While it took our utmost efforts simply to sustain our sea and air power in the Aegean at the level of the summer, the enemy’s strength seemed to increase continually. One can trace the causes for the loss of the battle for Rhodes, in fact, in the paperwork of the summer and autumn: endless requests, endless excuses for inaction, protests, smooth explanations for failure, innumerable insinuations of incompetence or cowardice… I saw them all. The favourite excuse given was an attempt at buck-passing: many of our officers believed, or professed to believe, that the Allied preparations were directed against Lemnos, which was held by the Germans and therefore not their concern.
    By late October my health was giving way, and the doctors sent me back to Rome. So the rest I can relate only from the information publicly available together with the recollections of those comrades who returned from the struggle about to commence.
    Some of us believed in a major offensive on the mainland. Others, as I have said, said that the enemy’s first move would be against one of the other islands, probably Lemnos, but I did not believe it, though the English, as was their usual practice, made many deceptions in that direction. I knew our weakness and I had to believe the Allies did too. We discovered that the enemy had based no less than one hundred bombers on Cyprus, which to me screamed their intentions. We knew the French 86th Division had spent weeks training for amphibious landings in locations that closely resembled Rhodes, it seemed obvious that they had removed this formation from the mainland for just this purpose. Allied submarines also came and went constantly, laying minefields and putting agents ashore, with much more activity around Rhodes than anywhere else. Besides I did not think that they would try to take Lemnos without first having the whole Dodecanese.
    The final piece of the puzzle came when, on my return to Rome, I learned that we had acquired a very good source of intelligence about enemy plans. ‘A smart piece of work by our boys,’ Mario said to me, ‘I heard it from Roatta himself.’ This source confirmed that Rhodes was the next British target, and gave us the code-name ARDENT. Even with this foreknowledge, however, we found ourselves paralysed. The Navy claimed that shortages of fuel kept them in port - perhaps it was that; perhaps they did not want to fight against heavy odds. This in turn meant reinforcement of Rhodes had become impossible. Our airmen struggled bravely against the odds, but during the autumn we lost two hundred planes in that theatre, many of them in increasingly desperate attempts merely to reach Rhodes, let alone operate from there. For every machine lost outright, we lost at least one more to damage that proved impossible to repair. The Germans offered no meaningful help. Therefore, when the Allies struck, on 7th November, they had air supremacy not only over the island itself, but over the entire Dodecanese.
    Part 6.4
  • Extract from ch.9, Mit Rommel bis zum Ende, by Hans von Luck

    ...even though the oil had frozen. I wished him good luck, and moved on. A few hundred metres further down the road I saw the General.
    ‘It is too bad,’ he was saying. Half a dozen snowmen listened to him; when they moved they revealed themselves as human. ‘See if you can work your way down to the railway station, find out what Ivan has got there.’
    We greeted each other. ‘Any joy with the 14th?’ I asked. He shook his head.
    ‘Their vehicles are even worse than ours,’ he said. ‘Still. How many can you scrape up?’
    ‘Fifteen all told,’ I said. ‘All my half-tracks have gone kaput. Weber tells me he can get another armoured car working.’
    ‘So sixteen?’
    ‘Fifteen includes Weber’s baby.’ I sighed. ‘Normandy was a long time ago.’
    Then he smiled, an incongruous thing to see in those circumstances. There we stood, not much more than twenty kilometres from the Kremlin, our beloved 7th Division many kilometres ahead of our flank support, with God knew how many Russians lurking around, and he smiled. When I think back on our years together, all our triumphs and heartbreaks, and how many times he could make things seem better just by his presence, small wonder it is that so many of us loved him.
    ‘We’ll just have to give it a try,’ he said. I had never doubted that he would make that decision. He always gave his utmost, and I was content to follow…
    We ran into trouble before we reached the railway station. The enemy had two anti-tank guns backed by mortars and machine guns, well dug in and concealed, and we lost three vehicles straight away. The infantry could not get round to them because of ditches and mines - we had no means of clearing these under fire. Our assault pioneers had been shot up badly in the fight at Klin and we had received no replacements.
    We skirmished fiercely for about an hour, taking and giving ground, when a runner came in from the flanking company on the east.
    ‘Sir, there’s hundreds of enemy advancing in our sector,’ he said, ‘they have armour. We counted three heavies and six light tanks.’ I swore. No matter how many Red units we smashed, they always had more to throw at us. And now our position was desperate. More reports of attacks came in over the radio, the enemy were making a substantial effort, and it was clearly directed against us. After all Ivan knew we were closer to Red Square than anyone else, they presumably wanted to make an example of us. I realised the entire division would probably have to retreat, and it might fall to my battalion to cover the retreat, with all that implied.
    Rommel himself had come right forward to give as much impetus to the attack as he could, and now as we disengaged from the enemy at the railway station, we met his half-track. The sky had cleared briefly and we hoped for air cover, but instead we suffered a strafing attack by a pair of fighters - Sergeant Beck identified them as Hurricanes, though I saw nothing but a sudden shadow overhead and a hail of machine gun bullets. ‘Blasted Tommies follow us everywhere, sir,’ he said.
    No-one was hurt in this attack, but it damaged one of the trucks which unfortunately now blocked the way. We lost a quarter of an hour dealing with the snarl-up, and when we got moving again, we found we had lost our race against time. Two shots hit our leading armoured car and wrecked it. Another struck the General’s own vehicle, just in front of my own, and it halted. Then with heavy heart we saw, approaching along a lane from our right, five enemy tanks followed by a horde of riflemen. We fired into them and a few fell, but the tanks came on and blocked the crossroads.
    The General came back from his own vehicle and climbed onto mine. ‘It’s no good, Hans,’ he said. ‘We’ve got nothing here that can stop those things.’ He gestured at the tanks: as they came closer I could see they were English Matildas. In my despair I could think only one coherent thought, how Beck had identified such an essential feature of this war: that London had this uncanny ability to make its hostility to us effective even when no Tommies stood within thousands of kilometres…
    A Russian Colonel, very tall and fair-haired, undoubtedly the descendant of one of those Germans who moved to Russia in the time of the Tsars, appeared before us and saluted. ‘A good fight, general,’ he said in good German. ‘My congratulations on your skill, you had reached our very last defences before the city. I regret this unfortunate necessity.’
    The General saluted back. ‘Exemplary tactics on your part,’ he said. He offered his side-arm, which the colonel rejected. ‘So, colonel, what now?’
    They marched us a couple of kilometres back to the railway station where by some miracle there was a train waiting. We boarded and it took us into the city, then we marched again, and after a short while a suspicion grew which turned into certainty. Our march took us through Red Square…
    ‘Well, Hans, I told you we’d get here,’ said the General. Despite the grimness of the day, the situation was so absurd that I had to laugh.
    Part 6.5
  • Extract from A Song at the Sacrifice, ch.11, by Theo Barker

    We learned we were off to Rhodes only once we were on the way, those most of us had guessed that operation ARDENT could have no other objective. Things had improved since the Scarpanto show. Everything had become a bit slicker. This time, we had actually practised, and even if the rehearsals showed up problems, we got them ironed out. It was tremendously heartening to hear our planes going overhead, not just three or six at a time but whole squadrons, and now we could actually talk to them - we had an RAF officer and signallers attached to us at HQ. Our ship passed close by a battleship, I think the Warspite, at one point, as she bombarded the shore; the noise was terrific.
    ‘Four of those,’ George shouted to me, my ears still ringing.
    ‘What?’ I said.
    ‘Four battlewagons hitting the signori,’ he said. Then he leaned over the rail and shouted in the Navy's direction, ‘Leave some for us!’
    We didn’t have it all our own way, of course. On the way in we saw an LCM foundering, it had taken a hit or maybe a near miss from coastal guns. But we couldn’t stop to help - we had strict instructions on that point. Still I heard later it was the only LCM we lost that day.
    We came ashore on a pebble beach, and I can still hear the sound of twenty pairs of boots crunching on the shingle almost as one. On Scarpanto we had taken quite a few casualties to mines; this time we were taking that threat a bit more seriously, and the Sappers were everywhere. We still hadn’t fixed all the problems - I saw half a dozen tanks stuck on the beach, all of them surrounded by swearing crews and REME types. Luckily the Italians didn’t mount any armoured counter-attacks - I heard later they had tried but been badly shot up by our ships…
    The locals were pretty happy to see us. Many of them wanted to talk, and most of these came my way. One fine old chap I recall, with a daughter a bit like Eleni, brought us roses and said, ‘thank you. They tried to make us forget we were Greeks.’ I told him they never had much chance of that.
    We had gone into reserve after the landings were successful, but bad weather meant that our reserve brigade was delayed getting ashore, so while the French pushed north towards the city, we got the job of mopping up on Mount Attavyros. One thing the Italians had shown repeatedly was they knew how to defend mountains - it comes of having the Alps and Apennines - so we didn’t like the sound of it. ‘Take it easy,’ George kept telling the troop leaders. ‘Let the guns do the hard work.’ But that could only take us so far, and our fire support was cut in half when the Fiji hit a mine.
    So it was slow work, and we lost some good chaps. We were still there when the Italians threw in the towel. We headed into the city, where the French had snaffled all the best billets, so for a while we were camping. Every so often there would be a minor air raid, but these did little harm, so it wasn’t a bad life.
    We were still on Rhodes in early December. On 4th we heard that the Italians on Tilos had surrendered to the Greeks, so it looked like we’d soon mop up the whole Dodecanese. A couple of nights later, during another half-hearted air raid, there were half a dozen of us chatting and laying bets on our next target - Kos or Leros were favourites - when there was a commotion in George’s tent (I say a tent, he’d just got a few scraps of tarp together stretched over a few sticks, just enough room for a palliasse and a hurricane lamp), and he came out.
    ‘What’s the flap, sir?’ said someone. ‘Has another island surrendered?’
    ‘Not yet,’ he said, and paused. Flares were bursting in the distance and the moon was still nearly full, I recall. So the scene already had an element of the fantastic. Then he told us the tremendous news.
    Part 6.6
  • Extract from The Footsteps of History: the war diary of Eustace Marcel

    Sunday, 7th December 1941 we waited, M. Lyttelton and I walked along the Avenue des Francais. We spoke of the beauty of the Corniche, the recent difficulties with the Maronites, and the exploits of the Storks, all of which was a way to avoid the subject on both our minds, then were silent for a while. Then: ‘What do you think of the deal, M. Marcel, really?’ he asked. Of course my new English friend is a man of affairs, a capitalist to his fingertips, he thinks of “the bottom line” (Ed.: English in original) always. A brilliant man nonetheless, and well connected, married to a Duke’s daughter.
    ‘I must speak freely, monsieur,’ I said. ‘If I were in President Inonu’s shoes, I would hesitate long before accepting.’
    He nodded, and wiped his high forehead with a handkerchief, apparently the warmth of Beirut even in December had its effect on him. ‘However, M. Marcel, if we do not at least seek to convince ourselves of the benefits, we shall never convince others.’
    This had the force of truth. ‘Well, then,’ I said, ‘let us enumerate. Istanbul receives the protection of two hundred modern aircraft, four regiments of anti-aircraft artillery, and radar equipment. All in Egypt and ready to move, as soon as President Inonu gives the word. They to retain all this equipment upon our eventual departure.’ I lit a cigarette, one of the last of my good ones, and offered one to him, which he rejected politely.
    He took up the theme. ‘All they must do is hold a line in Thrace. Besides the material, they receive the lasting gratitude of the Allies, and even Moscow, and their good offices in settling any little questions that might arise, for instance with the Greeks.’
    ‘I do not put much faith in the good offices of Moscow,’ I said. I recalled my time in Russia during the intervention, not favourably, and shuddered. ‘The less we say of that the better. We shall only weaken our case.’ He agreed, and we returned to our respective lodgings, awaiting the call that would send us on our way.

    My writing of the above has been interrupted. M. Lyttelton and his colleagues joined Garville, myself and Prospere for dinner, and we had the best turbot I have had in a long while. We engaged in much chat about how soon the rest of the Dodecanese would fall. I myself put ten sous on it happening before midnight - which of course would have meant a night flight for us. ‘Strike while the iron’s hot,’ one of the Englishmen said. Prospere did not think we should go before we took Lemnos - ‘the needful thing,’ he keeps calling it. ‘So much the better if you have to wait,’ he said, smiling. ‘I hear we will be getting some new American planes soon. You could fly to Ankara in style, sitting on best leather, a bottle in the ice-bucket, maybe chatting with a pretty stewardess from New York to brighten the trip.’
    Such pleasant reflections! We were saying our au revoirs when the phone rang, a message from Cairo for M. Lyttelton, and he took the receiver. Of course we all assumed it was news from the Aegean, and we all stopped putting on our jackets in order to listen.
    ‘Archy, slow up, I can’t make you out, terrible line… what’s the flap?’ He listened for a minute, his face showing a change, becoming thoughtful. ‘How many? Oh.’ Another pause, he made a gesture to us, and we all looked at one another; Garville silently picked up the other receiver to listen. As he did so he blanched. M. Lyttelton’s words kept coming. ‘Is there no doubt?’ he said, almost pleading. ‘And Washington? Any word?’ Then another long spell of listening, he sat, and one of the Englishmen, moved by some presentiment, poured him a brandy.
    At length he put the phone down, and said an English exclamation I did not recognise, then turned to me. ‘The balloon’s gone up in the East,’ he said. ‘Japanese planes attacked the Americans in Hawaii and the Philippines.’
    Garville broke in. ‘And troops crossing the Indochina frontier in force. Air raid on Hanoi. And…’ he choked, a sort of sob.
    ‘What is it?’ I asked, dreading what he might be about to say.
    ‘I’m sorry, Eustace,’ said Oliver, ‘it’s bad news about your cruisers.’
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    Part 7.1
  • Part 7. On fait la guerre comme il faut...

    Prime Minister to General Wavell at Singapore

    2. The Council met again last night. We decided to cease our Aegean offensive forthwith. Warspite has been released early and is on its way with Illustrious and Formidable, Cunningham commanding. The Home Fleet and the French are also sending reinforcements, the Admiralty will provide details later today. We expect to send Victorious as Indomitable has now returned from America.
    3. The Air Staff believe the air forces you have already received or will shortly receive should provide for the safety of Malaya. However it now appears likely that we must send assistance to Indochina. Accordingly we are stripping the forces we had built up for offensive operations in Med theatre. Four more Hurricane squadrons will arrive this month, and four more next month.
    4. A Beaufort squadron and one Beaufighter squadron also being sent. Four more Blenheim squadrons available if needed. Pray also let us have your opinion whether we should send the Wellington squadrons from Africa.
    5. The Australians are on their way, two British divisions are relieving them in Greece. Pray inform me regarding your intentions for 4th and 5th British-Indian Divisions. These fine formations must not be left passive. British 6th Division and tank brigade coming from Aegean. Another tank brigade is available, but we will only send this if you can find active employment for it.
    6. We should employ the Australian 8th Division as a single formation. Its current dispersal is unsatisfactory. Pray let me know your plans.
    7. Indications from Stalin are that German thrust on Moscow now defeated. He intends offensive operations on a large scale. Decisive results may follow in that theatre. At all events German attention will focus on Eastern front for many months. We therefore expect we can send further reinforcements.
    8. Very distressing news of French cruisers. Reports say assailed by aircraft. How serious is the damage? How was this possible? Are our ships able to resist such attacks?
    9. French bearing up manfully. Mandel doubts if Indochina can be held but determined to try. Politically impossible to allow it to fall without utmost effort on our part. We must do more than send air units.
    10. What arrangements do we have for Borneo? Japanese will want the oil wells there as next target. What Air do we have there?

    General Wavell to Prime Minister

    ...4. You asked about Force X. We believe you ask a good question which deserves a full answer. Governor had insisted on their presence at Cam Ranh for political and diplomatic reasons, to reassure Indochina population and deter Japanese. He then forbade them to sortie as desired by Admiral, fearing this would be provocative. Discussion was ongoing when Japanese struck, apparently by land-based torpedo aircraft from Hainan. This had been considered beyond effective range. Signals and navigation problems prevented effective intervention by French aircraft.
    5. Salvage should be possible, but shortages of equipment and personnel prevent speedy results. Naval reinforcement very welcome. Until they arrive we cannot undertake any naval counter-offensive or even defend effectively. Now our Navy insists on keeping Fleet units within range of land-based air cover. Also more naval fighters needed. Japanese fighters very active and capable.
    6. American fleet losses mean that enemy’s main fleet likely to be available for offensive in my theatre. We are currently weaker so must concentrate on preserving fleet in being. Can harass with submarines, our T-class boats are at sea, the Admiral wants at least 5 more.
    7. All the air units you mention should be sent. General Georges informs me that of his 300 aircraft only half now operational. Many wrecked on ground by heavy air attacks. Urgent need to send Hurricanes and Blenheims to Saigon. French making arrangements for their ground protection.
    8. Borneo air very weak, one fighter and one flying-boat squadron. RAF view facilities as too poor for large Air force. Risk is any aircraft we send will suffer same fate as French, wrecked on the ground, owing to lack of early warning and AA defences. Propose using 6th Division there if Thais remain neutral, on understanding that enemy sea and air power means they have initiative and we cannot prevent their landing.
    9. Overall picture is that we can perform only local counter-attacks until initial Japanese impetus is spent. We must concentrate on delaying actions until all reinforcements arrive. We must accept some forfeits of territory in order to preserve fighting strength.
    10. However we recognise political necessity to aid Indochina. Propose sending Indian 4th to Saigon as strategic reserve force. Georges proposes delaying actions around Hanoi and withdraw best units south; I concur. Essential to keep enemy air bases out of range of Saigon. In practice this means holding enemy north of Hue - Da Nang area. Proximity of Hainan gives Japanese air superiority over Gulf of Tonkin.
    11. I intend to keep Indian 9th & 11th Divisions, now up to strength, as Malaya garrison. Indian 5th Division arriving in Burma in readiness for MATADOR or SUPER-MATADOR depending on Thai attitude. 4th will supplement, may be available for other duties. Would aid if 10th also available. No indications yet of change in Thai deployments. Evidently power struggle ongoing between Prime Minister and Regent. This uncertainty greatly complicates our military dispositions, our plans change daily.
    12. Americans reporting heavy fighting on Luzon and other islands. Their air force like the French has taken heavy losses and must assume the enemy will soon have air superiority. Am meeting Admiral Hart tomorrow…
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    Part 7.2
  • Extract from Marianne and John by Charles Montague, ch.12

    Few disputes during the war consumed more of the Council’s time than the question of how and how much to assist Indochina. Very early on all parties agreed that Hanoi could not be held in the face of Japanese numerical and air superiority. ‘We can hold it until Christmas, perhaps the New Year,’ commented de Gaulle. ‘But we must try as far as possible to preserve fighting strength for the fight further south.’ The French pinned their hopes on holding a line midway down the coast, roughly as far south as Hue or Da Nang. However this would require heavy reinforcements which at this point could only come from British imperial resources. ‘Wavell faces several simultaneous demands, and while his resources are considerable and growing, he cannot fulfil all of them,’ noted General Brooke in London. ‘As long as the enemy retain the initiative, the risk is that we dissipate fighting strength in futile defensive efforts, which risk a complete collapse of our position in the theatre. We can fight only delaying actions in Indochina. But political complications severe.’

    During December the Council worked out a compromise. General Georges wanted at least two divisions, preferably three, and hundreds of aircraft. ‘Without these Indochina cannot be held,’ he said. M. Mandel, though privately suspecting that Indochina could not be held in any case, put forward this view. Wavell had already agreed to send Indian 4th Division, and the first elements began arriving in Saigon by Christmas. His other experienced Indian division, 5th, he insisted on retaining to intimidate Thailand. ‘If Phibun throws in his lot with Japanese, entire position becomes untenable,’ he wrote in late December. ‘We believe British 6th Division also needed for MATADOR, if needed. Two of its brigades arrived and training for it, now massed in the Kra isthmus in readiness.’ British 18th Division had been intended for Greece, but was also now heading for the East. This division Wavell wanted in North Borneo, evidently the next target.

    That left the Australians. They had four divisions available; 6th and 7th had seen much hard fighting in Greece, while 9th had been preparing for operations in that theatre. All these had now been sent east, though they would take time to arrive. At least two divisions were needed to guard Australia itself and its northern approaches. Australian 9th Division was at that time preparing to go to Makassar, though Wavell privately believed the Japanese were likely to get there first. ‘We are too weak to hold Celebes, Dutch garrison is weak and too distant from our main bases,’ he wrote. ‘Essential not to fritter away 9th Australian on lost cause.’ From a naval point of view Cunningham agreed. ‘We cannot operate Eastern Fleet so far from Singapore - Japanese advance in DEI resembles a trident - we may blunt the western prong, but central and eastern prongs too distant, risk excessive.’ Wavell therefore preferred to keep Australian 9th on Java, anticipating a Japanese thrust in that direction once Makassar and Balikpapan fell.

    Wavell therefore proposed to send the two available brigades of Australian 8th Division to Indochina. However, the Australian government disliked sending forces to Indochina, believing the risk too great. ‘Public opinion here favours fighting in the islands,’ argued Mr. Curtin, ‘we believe this offers much better prospects.’ The British therefore felt compelled to send the 18th Division to Indochina instead, even though some of its advance elements had already gone to North Borneo. ‘Question is how long until Japanese move against Borneo,’ noted Mr. Churchill. ‘We cannot defend it with present forces there, and too great a prize to yield without a fight.’ After heated debate, the Australians agreed to send most of 8th Division there, though Mr. Curtin did so under protest. ‘We note this deployment is essential to security of Singapore and therefore to Australia, but is only necessary because of British commitment to French. Australian government is not a formal party to the Union and does not accept that Union considerations should dictate Australian policy.’ In saying this, Mr. Curtin spoke from his great anxiety for New Guinea, anxiety which the sequel proved justified. Several RAAF and RAF squadrons, Hurricanes, Hudsons and Catalinas, were also sent to Borneo, despite the airmen’s concerns about the quality of bases there. ‘We can only operate from Borneo bases for brief period,’ noted Air Marshal Longmore. ‘A brief period may be all that is required,’ countered Churchill.
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    Part 7.3
  • Extract from ch.3, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green

    As far as the Japanese high command were concerned, the opening phase of the war had gone satisfactorily. Victory in the Philippines was clearly only a matter of time, and Hong Kong fell in late December. Shortly after Hanoi also fell, amid scenes of horror. The French air force in Indochina effectively no longer existed, reduced to less than one hundred planes, many of them unserviceable. The French naval forces had also suffered heavy attrition, and could do no more than mount submarine attacks to hinder Japanese amphibious operations down the coast. Overall, their most effective contribution was in mine-laying, which sank or damaged several transports and destroyers. The submarine Pallas achieved the most spectacular exploit of this period, torpedoing and sinking the large transport Africa Maru.
    The French ground forces in the north, much bloodied around Hanoi, had become too weak to hold as Japanese reserves entered the fray. Many of the Indochinese troops dispersed, and the only force the French now had larger than a battalion was the 7th Infantry Regiment of the Foreign Legion, already blooded in Greece. ‘It does feel as though we do all the fighting for Indochina,’ noted its commander. ‘That’s fine, we are Legionnaires, but more air cover would help.’ In the New Year Japanese naval infantry landed south of Vinh… A fighting retreat down the coast was all that was now possible, and by January it became apparent that the Japanese would soon have air bases within easy reach of Cam Ranh Bay. ‘At that point what is left of our fleet must leave for Singapore,’ noted Admiral Esteva. During January, the Japanese also crossed the mountains into Laos, and French units there again could do no more than fight delaying actions as they retreated southwards.
    The Japanese had hoped to mount the invasion of North Borneo before the end of December, but the stubborn French defence, and attrition to transports and landing craft, meant that no operation could be mounted before January. News of the Australian build-up in North Borneo had reached the IJN high command, and they felt that at least two regiments would be needed, with substantial air support. The IJN also wished to make this operation coincide with the invasion of Dutch Borneo. These factors caused further delay, until a second regiment could be released from the Indochina fighting, and naval reinforcements arrived. These took the form of 2nd Carrier Division, Soryu and Hiryu, following their action at Wake Island. The covering force also included two battleships, and two small carriers accompanied the invasion convoy. Reconnaissance assets should have included flying boats operating from bases in the Philippines, but these were in the event not available, their operations stymied by the sinking of their tender by the USS Sealion. ‘Only time our fish worked the whole patrol,’ commented her skipper later. One Mavis flying boat did operate briefly from Mindanao in the second week of January, but on 10th strayed too close to Borneo and suffered damage from Dutch fighters, putting it out of action. The IJN chose to proceed, believing they had enough search planes with the fleet.
    On January 16th all was ready, and the invasion convoy set out, covered at a distance by the heavy forces. The plan was to use the IJN strike planes to eliminate British and Australian aircraft in the north, particularly around Miri, and then land the two infantry regiments. Once a suitable air base was gained, the heavy forces would withdraw. ‘A risk must be taken,’ noted Admiral Yamamoto, ‘in this mission. The British Eastern Fleet might intervene. But so far they have not ventured far from their base.’ The Japanese commanders with the fleet itself were more bullish. ‘Their naval air power does not worry us, with their two-seater fighters and their biplane bombers,’ commented one air group commander. ‘We expect no more than a demonstration from them. They must remember what happened to the French - one touch of an armoured sleeve.’
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    Part 7.4
  • Report by Admiral Cunningham on operations in the South China Sea, January 14th - 24th 1942 (Excerpt)

    ...Victorious arrived at Singapore on 14th and had just time to refuel and replenish before we set out… the forces therefore available to me on the 16th comprised aircraft carriers Illustrious, Formidable, Victorious, capital ships Prince of Wales, Repulse, Warspite, 5 cruisers, 10 destroyers. We departed Singapore 2230 hours.
    5. French submarine Aurore sighting report gave sufficient indication of likely enemy intentions. On morning of 17th, report of US flying boat gave confirmation. Crew deserve special commendation for their sacrifice performing their task despite risk. I ordered Dutch and RN submarines to intercept invasion force near likely landing sites, and requested RAAF Hudsons to prepare for shipping strike.
    6. Main target for my forces was enemy covering force, which we knew now to include two aircraft carriers. Given known sensitivities regarding Thai attitude and Australian position, Gen. Wavell & believed a calculated risk essential...
    7. I manoeuvred my forces to reduce our risks to a minimum while still offering possibility of effective offensive. By nightfall on the 19th I considered circumstances favourable. Enemy had not to our knowledge sighted us. Therefore we made high speed run due north based on latest sighting report from US & Dutch submarines.
    8. Strike force comprised two waves Albacores, total 34 aircraft, guided by ASV Swordfish which dropped flares for illumination. Several aircraft did not however find target, annexed are recommendations for improvement of crew training in night navigation. Two separate coordinated attacks made on enemy heavy units with 25 torpedoes dropped.
    9. Crews claimed five hits on enemy carriers, though this seems doubtful. So many hits would surely have produced at least one sinking. At least two hits however seem certain. Morning reconnaissance showed enemy covering force withdrawing northward at best speed, some 15 knots. The cost we consider acceptable, four Albacores lost, with one crew safe.
    Part 7.5
  • Extract from ch.4, The Fall of the Rising Sun, Brendan Green

    The Battle of North Borneo, as this action became known, had wide strategic effects. Admiral Yamaguchi rather cold-bloodedly allowed Admiral Shima’s invasion convoy to proceed for several hours after the covering force began its withdrawal - presumably as a distraction, both for the withdrawal of the covering force, and for the other invasion force (under Admiral Ozawa), at that time heading for Tarakan. The order to cancel the assault only went out at dawn, when the invasion convoy had already come within range of land-based air from North Borneo.
    The immediate sequel of this was tragic for both sides. The RAAF Hudson squadron operating from near Miri could just reach the convoy, and launched an attack that morning, just as the convoy reversed course. However, they went unescorted, as the Hurricanes lacked the range. The Claude fighters of the Japanese light carriers intercepted them, and shot down three bombers. Three more, damaged, had to ditch on the return journey, with few survivors. Only two hits were scored, causing little damage, though three Claudes fell to the Hudson gunners, confirming Admiral Shima in his belief that his residual air assets were quite inadequate. The consequence was also that the Hudsons were unavailable to attack Ozawa’s eastern force, which therefore landed its troops at Tarakan unmolested by them. The Dutch fought stubbornly but lacked the strength to prevent the landing.
    However, later on the 20th two submarines - HNLMS O-20 and the USS Sealion - made an interception of Shima’s retreating convoy. One transport was sunk, and only dud torpedoes saved another. The invasion force then withdrew out of range.
    At the time and since Cunningham faced criticism for not pursuing the invasion force with his main fleet and sinking it. The potential prize was considerable - much of the Japanese sea-lift and amphibious assets in the region, and thousands of elite enemy troops. However, he felt he had pressed his luck far enough, having risked his carriers far from land-based cover. To the strike commander Eugene Esmonde, just returned to Victorious, he commented: ‘Good show. Now let’s get out of here before any more carriers show up.’ In his memoirs, Esmonde’s own comment was: ‘Cunningham wanted his own carriers well out of range of any counter-stroke as quickly as possible. We all knew that our success had relied on the superb intelligence provided by American, Dutch and French searchers. We also knew that there was such a thing as pushing one’s luck.’ There had also been reports of Japanese submarines operating too close for comfort.
    In fact the Admiral had no need to fear a counter-strike on the 20th. Both Hiryu and Soryu had been hit by torpedoes, damaging them enough to make air operations impossible. Yamaguchi’s immediate sole concern on learning that his striking power was gone was bringing his priceless assets out of danger. Both carriers reached safety, but would need substantial repairs.
    Further afield the news caused grave disquiet in Tokyo. ‘This kind of night torpedo attack appears a speciality of theirs,’ commented Yamamoto, ‘we should have been better prepared for it. Our doctrine does not contemplate it - our commanders must learn to think like the enemy.’ Orders went out to the other fleet carriers, 1st and 5th Divisions, to assemble for a renewed offensive. One carrier division had been refitting and the other operating in the Pacific during the North Borneo invasion attempt. ‘Borneo, with its oil wells, must be taken quickly, or the war cannot continue,’ commented Admiral Nagumo. ‘Happily we have made a successful landing in eastern Borneo. We should have land-based air support available for the next effort.’
    Part 7.6
  • Rank Organisation
    Verbatim transcript of meeting between Mr. Davis & Mr. Ambler
    1st April 1948
    File ref. PM/001/F/48

    Mr. Davis: So you have a war movie for me?

    Mr. Ambler: Yes sir, I do. It’s titled Victorious Voyage.

    D: Amazing. Go on.

    A: It’s set at the beginning of the war with Japan, when HMS Victorious sailed from Britain to Singapore and arrived just in time.

    D: I think I heard about that.

    A: It was a famous affair. Well, the movie starts on December 8th 1941 with the ship’s captain getting orders to cancel all leave and put to sea at once. We see the officers, we thought John Mills and Donald Sinden, coming back to the ship complaining about missing Christmas.

    D: I like where this is going. I hate Christmas too.

    A: Er… anyway then we have an action sequence with the planes landing on the ship as it sets out. We meet the aircrew whose story we’re going to follow. There’s the pilot, who also commands the bomber squadron, he’s upper-class English, plus his observer and gunner, who are both chirpy Cockney types.

    D: Wasn’t that squadron commander actually Irish?

    A: Yes, but the focus group liked David Niven in the role, and I don’t think he’s got a convincing Irish accent.

    D: I do like David Niven. He means box office.

    A: I thought you would, sir. So anyway they set off across the ocean, and we’ve got agreement to use HMS Victorious herself for the sea shots. We see a German U-boat attack, but all the torpedoes miss.

    D: That was lucky. If I remember rightly, the escorts actually sank that U-boat before it could attack.

    A: Yes, sir, but we need an early action sequence.

    D: Ah, fictitious submarine attacks are tight.

    A: What does that mean?

    D: I’m not sure why I said that.

    A: Then the carrier gets to Gibraltar and John Mills meets his wife who is a Wren serving there. She works out they’re going to the Far East and she begs him to be careful.

    D: Who’s playing her?

    A: I thought Vivien Leigh.

    D: No, Larry’s keeping her busy. Maybe Jill Balcon.

    A: Then they pass through the Mediterranean and get attacked off Tunisia by over fifty Italian bombers.

    D: It’s going to be difficult to survive that.

    A: Actually it’ll be super easy, barely an inconvenience. You see they get air cover from the Lafayette Escadrille and we see William Holden playing an American pilot shoot down three bombers in his P-40.

    D: I thought the Lafayette Escadrille only started operating from Tunisia in 1942. Wasn’t it a French fighter group, the Storks, that drove off that attack?

    A: American market, sir.

    D: Well OK then.

    A: They get to Suez and there’s a poignant scene of them celebrating Christmas and thinking of home as they pass through the Canal. Then a montage of them crossing the Indian Ocean and arriving at Singapore on 14th January. We see Admiral Cunningham saying, “now we’re in business,” and a staff officer says “the Japs won’t expect us to have three carriers”.

    D: Surely the Italians must have told the Japanese it was heading east? How do the Japanese not know there’s a third carrier?

    A: Unclear.

    D: Okay.

    A: So then we get a big scene where the fleet puts to sea.

    D: Stock footage? Think of the budget.

    A: That’s right sir. Then we finally get the big scene where David Niven takes off and torpedoes the Japanese carrier, and it starts listing and retreats.

    D: Wouldn’t it be better to show it sinking?

    A: But they didn’t sink it, sir. Our Navy never sank any Japanese carriers.

    D: But the audience would like it.

    A: All the Japanese carriers sunk in the war were sunk by the Americans. It would never do to pretend otherwise.

    D: But the audience would like it.

    A: Sir, I’m going to need you to get all the way off my back on this one.

    D: Well let me get off of that thing.

    A: So at the end we see the fleet steaming back to Singapore and everyone shakes hands and says “jolly good show”. The end.

    D: I like it. I’m very glad we can get Victorious herself for the filming.

    A: Yes, it’s splendid sir. It was such a great victory, I’m sure they’ll make her a museum ship one day.

    (Note. On the next page in the file, someone has added a newspaper clipping with the headline: ‘HMS Victorious sold for scrapping’.)

    (OOC: apologies to Mr. Ryan George for this one. I’ll delete this if I have to.)
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    Part 8.1
  • Part 8. ...pas comme on voudrait

    Extract from ch.8 of To the stars the hard way: a history of 50 Wing RAF by Bertram Owen

    The news that the Wing was to go to Indochina did not go down very well. ‘We had just gotten comfortable at Singapore,’ complained one pilot. The squadrons flew out on successive days in mid-January. Ground crews had gone on ahead to ensure that there were stocks of fuel and ordnance in place, and that the runways were satisfactory. The reports back were just encouraging enough for the deployment to go ahead, after some prodding from HQ. Each squadron had its own smallish airstrip in the area west of Saigon.
    Squadron Leader Maxwell described his experience in a letter: ‘we all managed to make it in without damage. Our erks had a few tents, but accommodations scanty, some of us used makeshift shelters under the trees. A few others got billets in a village nearby, but our M.O. didn’t like the look of it and said he expected we couldn't stay for long. Fuel stocks were adequate for now - but doubtful if they can replenish quickly in combat conditions. Ordnance limited, we'd flown in some of our own from Singapore, but the armourer found a lot of the bombs were in poor condition and he said he’d take no responsibility for them. So that was a quarter of our bombs u/s just like that.’
    He went on: ‘Early warning is non-existent it seems. Depends on someone - not clear who - telephoning the French Commandant’s office and then someone else raising a flag. No air-raid shelters or slit-trenches - the erks already started digging their own. We asked for some locals to help dig - apparently not possible. But the worst thing is ack-ack. We’d been told the French had that in hand. But Dickie went to inspect and all he found was a handful of machine-guns on AA mounts - some u/s and not much ammo. I went ready for a ding-dong with the Commandant. Poor man practically blubbed. He’d had to call in every favour owed to him to even get that much, he said. He agreed it was totally inadequate, but very few AA guns available anywhere, and the Army had snaffled most - lots more over at Cam Ranh Bay. ‘Maybe your fighters can protect us,’ he said. I said I’d believe it when I saw it. If they only get warning by someone waving flags at them, they’ll have a hell of a time. So will we.’
    Part 8.2
  • 8.2
    Extract from War in the Middle Sea, ch.12

    The Allies had long-cherished ideas for a heavy blow against Ploesti. The French had noted the failure of British efforts, but believed they now had the means for a meaningful strike. They now had two groups of B-24 bombers operating in the central Mediterranean, and these were now transferred eastwards… On January 8th the B-24s flew into Crete in the evening. The next day they mounted operation PAUL, having received a favourable weather report. It was hoped that only Italian and perhaps Bulgarian aircraft would be encountered, a hope that proved delusory… All the bombers had been told they could make only one bomb run - they would have no time to waste over the target.
    Beginning over Bulgaria, the formation came under fighter attack. Heavy flak disrupted the formation and caused many casualties. Low clouds blew in during the approach and obscured the target to most of the bombers, so that most of the bombs fell wide, many of them hitting the city instead of the oil targets.
    On the return flight, several aircraft had to ditch, including the raid commander himself, who ditched ten miles north of Crete and was pulled out of the Aegean by HMS Imperial. German fighters harassed the bombers over the sea as far as Limnos until fresh fighters, RAF Spitfires and Beaufighters, arrived to provide relief. In total, then, the French lost thirty aircraft out of 80 used, a heavy loss for the poor results gained. ‘Lessons to be learned about carrying out operations at the edge of capability,’ noted General Olry, and the French aircraft returned to Tunisia. But the raid had re-awakened German anxieties about their oil supply…

    The demands of the new war in the East impacted the Mediterranean immediately. The Council recognised that it would make most sense to reinforce the East mostly by sending British assets, as these in general were already stationed further east. Initially it was hoped that this would not impede the build-up for further offensive action in early 1942. ‘As 1941 ended, we still hoped to make further forward movements in the Aegean and central Mediterranean in the first half of 1942,’ commented Mandel. ‘But the unexpected deadliness of the Japanese attacks meant we soon abandoned this notion.’
    The appetite for Aegean operations had also faded, in part because the Ploesti raid had shown that attacking German oil supplies would be more difficult than expected. Furthermore the perceived need for the Black Sea route to Russia had reduced thanks to the Soviet victory before Moscow. The Council, Mr. Churchill especially, felt disappointed that the fall of Rhodes had produced no change in Ankara’s attitude. ‘Not a whit altered,’ he wrote, ‘despite their hints. They seem determined to stay aloof. But now we have supply lines to the Bear running through Persia and the Arctic, we can make do without Turkey.’ The French agreed. ‘If Hitler falls upon the Turks this year, no doubt they will beg us for aid,’ wrote de Gaulle. ‘Perhaps it would be no bad thing. The Germans will get stuck in the mountains with a supply line a thousand kilometres long and a metre wide.’
    The French had further reasons to draw satisfaction from the cooling of London’s Aegean ambitions. It meant air and amphibious assets could concentrate in the central Mediterranean, where their own preferences lay for 1942. ‘Whatever else happens, we must carry out CHARLEMAGNE, and its associated operations, this year,’ noted Mandel. ‘This is a political necessity, especially because of the Americans.’ The demands on British assets for the East meant that for some months the French had to carry the main burden of the air and sea war in the central Mediterranean themselves. It was during this period that French fighter groups provided the mainstay of Malta’s air defence, and the P-40s of GC12 gained a legendary reputation, making a hundred claims for less than twenty losses. This was all the more necessary. During the winter weather, the Germans could use fewer aircraft on the Eastern front, and transferred large numbers to Sicily and Greece. Malta and Athens therefore suffered their heaviest air attacks of the war, and the Axis regained air superiority in the Greek theatre. It was not long before the question arose of how best to exploit this new situation…
    Part 8.3
  • Leoni, La Follia, ch. 9

    By January my health had recovered enough that I could resume my duties. Fate now took me to the Comando Supremo. I found a remarkably buoyant attitude there: the war in Asia now kept the enemy busy. Also large numbers of German aircraft had redeployed to our front - evidently the winter weather in Russia did not favour flying! The enemy had thus lost air superiority, and we could think of offensive plans again, for the first time in many months.
    Even I fell in a little with this mood. We developed schemes for an offensive on the Greek mainland, or for the recapture of Rhodes, and an assault on Malta. On January 12th I went with the General and several staff officers to meet the Germans at Villa Volkonsky. The General commented, ‘now our dear partners have taken a beating at Moscow, they will suddenly want to gain a victory in the Mediterranean theatre, for propaganda reasons.’ The General had read the situation well…
    As far as I am concerned, I rarely experienced a more unpleasant meeting. The Germans tried to show a facade of politeness, but I felt an undercurrent of contempt. Here we are, they seemed to say, carrying the weight of the war against Bolshevism, defending in the West from the Anglo-Saxons, and fighting by air and sea here; and what have you done but beg for help? They took little account of the sacrifices of our men in the Atlantic and in Russia for the sake of Axis solidarity. They listened to our proposals for Malta, but their heads shook. ‘Malta leads nowhere, it has no value but to stroke their vanity,’ said one of them to another in German - thinking perhaps that I could not understand. Or perhaps, again, they did not care if we knew what they thought of us. In any case they claimed they could not provide the air support needed.
    This rebuff came not altogether unwelcome to the General. Privately, I knew he disliked the Malta option, though the Duce had insisted on our presenting it. ‘The enemy have too many men and guns there,’ the General had said to me, ‘and these new French fighters are very troublesome. The enemy have fortified all the decent landing-places.’ We turned therefore to the Aegean.
    Here they were a little more receptive, as we could point to the need to keep Turkey in a friendly or at least neutral attitude. ‘Turkey will not join us now that America is in,’ said the General to them. ‘But we can keep them where we want them.’ The Duce had shown himself keen to redeem the loss of our territory. However, when we looked at the necessities for amphibious operations, we all understood that we could not retake the Dodecanese, even with the enemy’s sea power reduced. We therefore had to look at the mainland.
    I suspect the operation was attractive to the Germans since they were still concerned for the Romanian oilfields. General Mackensen summed up their thinking. The recent French air raid had concerned Berlin greatly. The enemy had put much work into improving the airfields in Greece, Crete and were starting to do so in Rhodes, he said. These were disturbing signs that the English were thinking of bringing their big new bombers to the theatre, which could only mean renewed attacks on Ploesti. And we should think of what the Americans might try, they too had four-engined bombers.
    However when we came to details the meeting turned unpleasant again. They did not propose to commit more than six divisions of ground troops to the assault. ‘The Fuhrer will not hear of any more air assaults after last year,’ added the Ambassador. ‘We are providing 300 aircraft. That ought to suffice.’
    Much wrangling followed before we came to a reasonably firm proposal. We decided we must offer our sole airborne regiment as an earnest of our determination. Two of our best-equipped mobile divisions would strike the Greeks on the Epirus front. The General grumbled in the car back to HQ, but in truth we had got as much as we could hope for. Later the same day, I was walking through the Piazza di Spagna, and I passed a group of youths. Despite the war, there still seemed to be plenty of youths with nothing better to do than lurk on street corners, chatting and gambling and occasionally harassing passers-by. One of them saw my uniform. ‘Eh, eh, ritorneremo, eh?’ he said, and laughed. I paused briefly. ‘Maybe sooner than you think,’ I said, and went on.
    Part 8.4
  • Extract from A Song at the Sacrifice, ch.12, by Theo Barker

    The war in the Far East halted our plans for Lemnos, but George had been plotting schemes for raids on the enemy coast between Olympus and Salonika, so 11 Commando moved to the mainland in the New Year. I returned to Athens for the first time in nine months. Though everyone still seemed determined to keep up the fight, the war had really taken the shine off the place; all the men were in uniform, many of them visibly mutilated, all the women seemed to be working in munitions. Most people’s faces showed signs of short commons. Rations, I had heard, had become better in the autumn, when the big American shipments had come in, but had just been cut again, as shipping had been diverted to the Far East. ‘But it’s nothing,’ people said, ‘compared to how things are in Salonika. Sometimes people escape, and they tell us all about it.’

    The German air raids got steadily heavier in late January. By February we started to become really concerned. There seemed little we could do to keep them off, as so many of our planes had gone East. One day George and I were talking and he filled me in on the gen.
    ‘The Poles are going back to Rhodes. Higher-ups think the Boche might want a crack at it,’ he said. ‘To be honest, they seem a bit baffled.’ Of course we now know why the fog of war descended so heavily at this time: ULTRA had stopped delivering the goods for the time being.
    ‘Leaves us a bit out on a limb,’ I said. ‘The Aussies and Indians are gone, the best of the French troops too, and the new lads haven’t settled in.’
    He sighed, the first time I had ever seen him do so. His spirits were low. ‘The higher-ups have forgotten about us,’ he said. ‘The front here hasn’t moved in months, and everyone knows we won’t march on Berlin from Olympus. They’ve got plans for everywhere but here. Things are headed for a smash-up.’

    We were hoping for more ack-ack at least, but nothing came. I chatted to one RA type in the city one day. ‘All going East,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. You know, the heavy batteries are rationed to ten shells per day.’ That’s as far as the conversation went, because at that point there was another air raid…
    But in all these wider schemes we had to try to carry on with our own business, so we began to rehearse. I remember that on the 25th I had gone along with a company along the coast, just behind the front line. We saw yet another air raid coming in. None of our planes about of course. But then things started to happen differently. Some of our chaps came running up to say that they’d been strafed - there hadn’t been many low-level attacks up to that point. Then we got a signal to get back to HQ immediately…

    George seemed oddly cheerful. ‘Well, they’re here now, so at last we can have a pop at the blighters,’ he said. Italian troops had landed by air behind our lines in several places. There was a report of parachutists a mile or so north, and also a report of troops landing by caique on a beach nearby, so he was taking two companies to counter-attack the latter while he sent me with a scratch force of rear-echelon types for the beach.
    There was no-one there, of course, but while we were turning round a couple of Army trucks pulled up. ‘Save yourselves,’ they shouted, ‘the Panzers have broken through.’ They drove off in a great hurry, evidently having remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere. The noise of planes going overhead was constant…
    I saw George again as we pulled back. He’d taken a head wound and he was bandaged up. ‘We gave them a bloody nose at least,’ he said. ‘Not many of their parachutists got away. But Theo, I don’t think we’re doing very well elsewhere. Get back to HQ and see the General.’ He gave me a message and told me to take a couple of men with me - we couldn’t assume the roads were safe…

    It was just our bad luck what happened next. I took my little party back to battalion HQ and we picked up a vehicle, but on the way back to the city we were shot up by enemy planes. None of us were hurt, but our truck was burning, and before we could get very far on foot we bumped into a squad of Italian paratroopers. They seemed as confused as we were, and for a minute we weren’t sure who had captured who, but then an officer turned up with more men and we had to surrender. ‘We saw the truck burning, and thought you must be somewhere near,’ he said in perfect English… I hadn’t believed the story about Panzers, it seemed typical panic. But an hour or two later we saw tanks and half-trucks with black crosses, so it turned out true.

    So that was that for the time being. They took us to a village where most of their paratroopers had assembled. They looked pretty smashed up - lots of wounded men kept coming in, they had a sort of field hospital set up next to the POW pen. But lots of our chaps kept coming in as well. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could - not a lot in the way of food or shelter, but the locals fed us a bit, kind souls - and spent our first night in captivity. The worst part was waking up in the morning and remembering what had happened…

    A couple of days later they moved us to a bigger pen, and there we found George and the rest. ‘No use,’ he said, ‘nothing we could do. Any time we moved we got bombed and strafed.’ He looked round to check no Italians were listening. ‘We could have beaten these so-and-sos,’ he said, ‘we must have knocked out most of their paratroopers, but the bombers hit us just when we formed up.’ Not long after he fainted - I don’t think he had had any water all day.
    On the whole, the Italians treated us about as well as they treated their own men - not brilliant, but from all accounts, better than most other Axis. Considering how badly we’d knocked them about, it was as good as we could expect…

    You probably know the story that explains the fiasco. The Auk was a good general, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t bang heads together when needed. Some of our troops had gone into the line, relieving the Australians. Unforgivably, the staff hadn’t done their job - the comms with the New Zealanders barely existed, and at least one general had some kind of prejudice against the French, so they weren't talking to them either. Anyway, after doing pretty well against the initial German attack, this military genius ordered a withdrawal, despite Auchinleck’s orders, apparently believing that the Kiwis had retreated, which of course they hadn’t. You don’t offer German Panzers an opportunity like that without trouble following, and so it had.

    The entire army had to fall back to Thermopylae, and the Hoplites had to fight a delaying action in the Vale of Tempe, losing almost all their tanks in the process. The Germans pursued with their customary ruthlessness, but ran up against the reserves holding prepared defences at Thermopylae - the Auk got that right - and it turned out Panzers can’t get along goat-paths… Likewise the Greeks had to fall back. I remember hearing that their 1st Division, covering the retreat, sacrificed themselves at the bridge of Arta, and thinking that the old song had turned into a prophecy…

    In the years since I have had plenty of time to reflect on these events. I have read all the books of course, and fellows arguing this way and that, and I have come to the firm conclusion that Thessaly was more or less deliberately sacrificed. With both our land and air power reduced so badly, the risk of an Axis counter-stroke was evidently very great. We did not have enough for safety in both Greece and the Far East. Anyway, they should have seen it coming, and not left such a vital sector to inexperienced formations under untried commanders. When I say “they” I mean not only the Auk, or HQ in Athens, but the Supreme War Council itself.
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