Ship Shape and Bristol Fashion. Books 1, 2 and 3.

11 - 12 April 1941
11 April 1941. 06:00hrs. Groningen. Netherlands.

59e GRDI (the reconnaissance unit of 68e DI) had arrived on the outskirts of Groningen during the night, and had taken up defensive positions, not wishing to enter the town until there was enough light. Intelligence had suggested that as the HQ of the SD in occupied Holland, there might be some SS units that would put up a fight. As dawn was breaking, the French troops were mounting their vehicles and getting ready for the day’s events.

Two men, wearing orange armbands, the common sign of Dutch resistance, approached warily from the early morning gloom and rain. The Dutch liaison officer with the French unit ascertained from them that the SS had already pulled out of the town. They had done some damage to a number of bridges and locks around the town, but obviously didn’t have enough explosives for everything they wanted to destroy. The Dutch population, including many soldiers who had gone to ground when the Germans had conquered the country the year before, had secured as much of the infrastructure as they could.

The SS had stolen many vehicles and were using these to make their way back to Germany. Lieutenant Colonel Maillot, commanding the GRDI was keen to get to grips with the SS before they could join up with the rest of their kind and cause more trouble. Without aerial support, which would have probably made mincemeat of the German column, Maillot’s Deep Reconnaissance Squadrons Group would probably be the best unit to try to intercept them. With the information of when the Germans had left and which road they had taken, Maillot, with Major Garcin, commander of the cavalry squadron, worked out the best routes to take. It would take some luck to actually catch them, but if it meant that a strong unit got to the border with Germany at Nieuweschans that would be worthwhile in itself. The rest of the GRDI would go into Groningen, and then move north towards the coast at Delfzijl. The rest of the Infantry Division would arrive in its own good time.

Garcin gave a quick briefing to his officer group and then the Panhard armoured cars and motorcycles roared off into the gloom, trucks and cars following them carrying part of the heavy weapons squadron. The Dutch liaison officer had stayed with Maillot and the rest of the GRDI, but one of the resistance men, a reservist in the Dutch Army rode along with Garcin. Crossing the Winschoterdiep at Hoogezand, the French could begin to follow the trail of destruction left by the SS troops. There were vehicles that had been abandoned, set up as temporary roadblocks, occasionally there were Dutch civilians, sometimes with orange armbands, but more often without, lying dead on the road, some machine gunned, others strung up and hung.

The accelerator pedals of the French vehicles were pressed a little harder to try to make up the distance and catch these criminals.

At 08:00hrs the leading group of armoured cars began to approach Oostwald. There were fires burning in the town, so the commander of the leading platoon made a more careful approach, then reversed quickly as they were fired upon by MG34s and a 37mm antitank gun. One of the armoured cars was left burning. When Garcin got the message that he had caught up with the German unit, or at least part of it, he gave orders for his unit to approach the area from various compass points, the flat farmland that surrounded the town provided little cover, so speed and aggression would have to suffice.

Two mortars began to lay down a smoke screen, along with the smoke grenades carried by the armoured cars. Coupled with the smoke coming from the fires within the town itself, the French were able to approach and take the German positions under fire. The Entente Army were using the new Belgian made FAL (Fusil Automatique Légère) and the MAG (Mitrailleuse d'Appui Général). This gave the French troops overwhelming fire power, coupled with the various types of grenades used liberally soon had the French troops in amongst the Germans.

An SS Company sized force had stayed behind, partly because they didn’t have enough petrol for all the vehicles in the column, and partly because they wanted some kind of Valhalla death ride moment. The SS men had lost any discipline they ever might of had, a number of rapes had occurred, and plenty of looting. The fires burning included the local church, where the SS had rounded up some of the population and locked them inside. An SS man had been killed by a local (ex-army) who was trying to protect his family. This had been more than enough reason for the rest of the SS Company to begin to wipe out the town.

The arrival of the French forces came too late for all too many of the civilians. But the SS men got their Valhalla moment. There were no prisoners.

11 April 1941. 09:00hrs. Scapa Flow. Scotland.

Vice Admiral ATB Curteis, Second in Command of Home Fleet, paced the deck on HMS Rodney. In a few minutes a detachment of ships would leave the anchorage to begin the long journey to Singapore. Because of the special nature of some of the ships there would be only very brief stops at various ports. HMS Cardiff and Andromeda, with various bits and pieces of camouflage to make them look a bit more like 1941 ships, were being cheered by the units of Home Fleet as they took their leave. Most of their crews were men who had been trained over the last year on the futuristic equipment, though about 10% were the originals who had come along with them from that day in 1982.

Curteis was completely conscious of what these two ships had contributed over the last year, and joined in the cheering as heartily as any of the ratings along the side of the battleship. Both ships had had time in yards to make them as ready as possible for the long sea journey ahead of them. Because of the Type 42’s air defence capability, proven again and again, she carried all the remaining Sea Dart missiles. HMS Andromeda had her Sea Wolf missiles as well as her anti-submarine capability. The newest fleet aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious followed the smaller ships, her crew lining her deck. Technically she was still working up, and in some ways this cruise was part of that process. Once she was at sea the majority of her aircraft would fly on.

The cruisers HMS York and Bonaventure, the destroyers HMS Isis, Jaguar, Kelly, Kelvin, Laforay, Lively, Mashona and Matabele joined the departing squadron. Laforey and Lively were brand new ships, the other eight had spent the best part of the last six months in various dockyards receiving the very latest in radar and anti-aircraft guns (especially the two Tribal Class ships). The two K class destroyers had been fitted with the first Squid anti-submarine mortars in the fleet, this was still being tested. HMS Isis and Jaguar had the Hedgehog system already.

A few days earlier RFA Cedardale, a Dale-class fleet tanker of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary had sailed with two Black Swan sloops, HMS Black Swan and HMS Flamingo. There were four of these Dale-class oilers that were tasked with accompanying the fleet. Because of their slower speed they would generally be pre-positioned so that the fleet could rendezvous and Replenish At Sea (RAS), a skill that all the ships heading for the China Sea (and possibly the Pacific) had acquired. RFA Olna had been considered for this role, but she was still being examined by ship designers and builders to learn the secrets of making clones of her.

As the last of the ships sailed out of the harbour, RAF 240 Squadron’s twelve Sunderland flying boats flew past, waggling their wings. They too were bound for the Far East, though their passage would be quicker. Curteis knew that they should have been flying Seafords, but Shorts still hadn’t got them into production, so the Sunderlands would have to do. For the last two months the squadron had been based at Sullom Voe converting from the Supermarine Stranraers they had had, and learning to operate with elements of this new fleet they would be working with in the China Sea.

Curteis watched until all the ships and aircraft had disappeared from view. What would it be to command such a fleet as would be gathered in Singapore? Turning away from the side, he hurried into HMS Rodney’s superstructure, ready for some warming tea, and ready to fight the battle of the paper clips for another day.

11 April 1941. 10:00 hrs. HQ 5th Infantry Division. Papenburg. Germany.

General Myles Dempsey was trying not to wring the neck of the Commander of the Royal Army Service Corps for the Division. This morning 17th Brigade were meant to have moved forward towards Leer and the Lede River, with 15th Brigade in support. Brigadier Stopford had to report that a lack ammunition put his Brigade’s push in jeopardy. The resupply that should have happened during the night had failed to show. As the delay lengthened, the start time had to be postponed three times.

Dempsey had called in Lt Col Campbell to give an account of why the forward units of the Brigades didn’t have adequate supplies to fulfil their mission. The reasons that Campbell gave were making Dempsey more and more livid. Not because Campbell had been incompetent or derelict in his duty. The problems boiled down to too few roads being too congested, especially at bottlenecks like bridges, and there were plenty of them. The second thing was that the divisional transport was wearing out. The lorries and vans that the Division had arrived with in France in December 1939 had mostly been requisitioned from civilian firms at the time. While better vehicles, purpose built for the army, were replacing them, all too slowly, the older vehicles were harder to keep on the road. Too many of the traffic jams preventing supplies being brought forward were due to broken down vehicles that had just given up the ghost.

As Commander RASC for the Division, Campbell was willing to take the blame for the delay in the resupply of the forward units, but realistically it was beyond his control. Dempsey knew that General James Marshall-Cornwall, the Corps commander was aware of the problem, which wasn’t confined to 5th Division, and he suspected that Alan Brooke, Army Group Commander would know too. However, the damage had been done and what mattered was making sure that the delay didn’t give the Germans too much of a respite.

Getting a report from both Brigade commanders that they would be ready to move at noon, Dempsey informed Corps what was happening and why. When his message was confirmed, Dempsey called his driver to take him over to 13th Brigade’s HQ. This was his old Brigade and they had been leading the Divisional advance for the last couple of days. He wanted to meet with Douglas Whimberley, the Brigade Commander, who had taken over from Dempsey when he’d been promoted to Divisional Commander.

Dempsey had been warned that he was likely to become Corps Commander as Marshall-Cornwall was slated to go to Egypt when Wavell went to South East Asia Entente Command. In that case Dempsey believed that Whimberley was the best man to take over 5th Division, but he wanted to sound him out about the promotion. They had been students together at the Staff College in Camberley back in 1925 and had remained friends. 5th Division, one of the pre-war regular divisions would have a big role in II Corps, one that Dempsey would need someone who he could rely on.

Arriving at Whimberley’s HQ he found the place as well organised and upbeat as he’d hoped. The three Battalions, 2nd Cameronians, Wiltshires and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers hadn’t had too much bother since crossing the Rhine, and were in good heart. This had been helped enormously by the provision of hot baths and hot meals since they had set up camp. Dempsey wondered about poaching the Brigade RASC Commander since he had obviously been able to work miracles, unlike Lt Col Campbell, his Divisional superior. Looking around he could see that looking after the men was not at the expense of proper security, they were after all on enemy territory. The RA Light Anti-Aircraft unit had their Bofors guns well positioned and were on the ball, even though an attack was considered unlikely.

Whimberley himself wasn’t in the Brigade HQ when Dempsey appeared, and his Adjutant was quickly able to take Dempsey to him. In the little hamlet of Aschendorf they found him with a platoon of the Cameronians who had discovered a number of handicapped children in a house. The householder had brought them together as they might otherwise have been euthanised under the Nazi regime’s laws. The Scots had found them and were sharing their food with them and generally entertaining the children. When Whimberley had been informed, he had come over to see what was happening. It was here that Dempsey found him and together they listened to the story of Herr Walter Leitner.

His son had been born in 1934 with Cerebral Palsy, or spastic, as it was commonly known. The local Lutheran community were quite supportive, and a number of families in the area with handicapped children met together for support on a regular basis. In 1938 rumours started to circulate about children with handicaps being taken away, and never returning. It became more than a rumour after September 1939 and the families were less likely to go to the large hospitals. As the war had got closer, and the situation had got worse. Lietner, who had a large house, offered families sanctuary. If they felt their child was in danger, they could bring them to Aschendorf where he and his wife would take in the family, or just the child if that is what they wanted. Since the hamlet was in a very rural area, they didn’t believe the war would come too close to them.

Over the last few months they had lived in fear of a Nazi backlash and of being informed on by some of the locals. However, with the support of the local Lutheran Pastor, they had managed, just, to hold on. Providing food and getting coal had become more and more difficult. They had twelve children in their care, and now hoped that they since they had been “liberated” they would be able to reunite them with their parents. The British officers took note of the euthanasia programme, which would need to be put into the hands of those responsible for justice after the fighting was finished. The situation was under control as far as Whimberley and Dempsey could see, and they left the local platoon commander to get on with it, while they returned to Brigade HQ to discuss the original matter at hand.

11 April 1941. 11:00 hrs. War Office. London.

Official 1: I have a memo here asking that the 24th Infantry Brigade (Guards), which is 1st Battalions of the Scots and Irish Guards, with 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers be, and I quote, “used more usefully.”

Official 2: I would have thought that guarding His Majesty would be considered “useful” enough.

Official 3: Perhaps providing guard duty at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle is getting tedious for them!

Official 1: Well the memo is from Number 10 and marked, “action this day.”

Official 3: Someone has obviously had a word in the right ear.

Official 2: Do you think it might be the Palace?

Official 1: That is not beyond the realms of possibility. However, something must be done.

Official 3: What shape are the new Guards Battalions in?

Official 2: The expansion of the Guards means that both the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards have a 4th and 5th Battalion. The Scots have a 3rd Battalion. The Irish Guards also have a 3rd Battalion, which had been their training Battalion. The Welsh Guards have a holding Battalion, which could be the basis for a 3rd Battalion.

Official 1: Haven’t those just been training up replacements for battle casualties in the Regular Battalions?

Official 2: Yes and no. The Grenadiers and Coldstream 4th Battalions are complete in themselves, but their 5th Battalions have been doing that, so are under strength. The Scots have also kept their 3rd Battalion complete, as have the Irish Guards. Just the Welsh Guards have been sending replacements forward like that.

Official 3: So along with 1st Scots and Irish Guards, we could have 3rd Scots and Irish, and 4th Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. That is six battalions, at a push another two. Even without 5th Battalion from the Grenadiers or the Coldstream, we would have enough to have a three Guards Brigades, each with a Line Regiment Battalion, like the South Wales Borderers in 24th Brigade. That would give us a Guards Division.

Official 1: We are looking for another armoured division. What about a Guards Armoured Division?

Official 3: And get their hands dirty, tinkering with machinery? The Household Cavalry Regiments are complaining enough as it is. In fact, putting one of them into a Guards Division as the reconnaissance/cavalry force might calm them down a little.

Official 2: Possibly, and it would take quite a lot of time for the infantry battalions to be retrained and equipped. The memo does say “action this day.”

Official 3: It would also be a useful addition to make up a fourth Army in Germany.

Official 1: Or…when the third Canadian Division arrives, they’ll want a Canadian Corps, which will mean reorganising at least two Corps. A Guards Division will look pretty good for whoever gets them in place of one of the Canadian Divisions.

Official 2: Shall I get the paperwork going?

Official 3: Who should get command of the Guards Division?

Official 1: Well Oliver Leese is due a Division, and he has the right form.

Official 2: Good choice, shall I add that to the paperwork?

Official 3: I should think so, don’t you old boy?

Official 1: Surely. Now, I do believe there might be time for a pink gin before lunch.

Official 2 & 3: Good show!

11 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Aschaffenburg. Germany.

Colonel Frenot was dead, and so were too many of 26e Regiment d’Infantrie. The house to house fighting was taking such a toll on the men, that 170e RI were now replacing them. The town itself was being raised to the ground. Without char support, the remaining Renault DD chars were all destroyed, the infantry had brought over a number of 75mm artillery pieces and were using them to knock out German strongholds with direct fire. For the men firing the guns this was not a healthy pastime.

The engineers, 11/1e and 11/2e Cie de Sapeurs mineurs, had also taken heavy losses, but were essential for the progress that had been made so far. General Sivot, commanding the 4e Army, hoped that the very intensity of the fighting was drawing in German troops from the area, so that once the town was cleared his army would have an easier time in the breakout phase. What was clear, and a lesson that had been experienced time and again, was that fighting in built up areas was the worst, worse even than the trenches of the last lot.

As one of the divisions that were still waiting for the MAS 40 rifle, the firepower of the French troops wasn’t as heavy as it could be. The MAS 36 was certainly superior to the old Lebel, but the semi-automatic gun would have been better. Getting sufficient ammunition and other supplies over the river to keep the momentum going was difficult, and just as there had been a shortage of shells for the artillery, the numbers of grenades being used was far more than expected. The liberal use of grenades was completely understandable, better to clear a room after a grenade was thrown in, than without.

11e Division (CO General Arlabosse), had assaulted over the river Main, to the south of the town, where a railway bridge had been blown by the Germans. The first objectives were to take the high ground that dominated the crossing. The first Battalion had managed to seize the top of the first hill, but were then assailed by strong German mortar fire that prevented them from making further progress towards the second. Their position did give the engineers enough cover to get a raft ferry over the river. The second Battalion were ferried across and moved up the railway line towards the town itself. When they had made it into the built-up area around the railway station, the infantry were on their own, having to clear the area house to house and hand to hand.

First Battalion, with artillery support made another attempt to gain the second hill. One company managed to gain a foothold, but were counterattacked before they could establish themselves in position. Their problem was made worse because of a third summit of Erbrig hill, from which the French troops were under constant surveillance and mortar fire. A third attack to gain that summit, would have to go round the hill at the bottom, but this too was blocked and ran out of steam. By the end of the first day, progress had been made, but there was a long way to go.

During the night elements of the 3rd Battalion got across the river and were pushing up through the town. It was here that the Regiment’s commander, Col Frenot, was killed by mistake. He and his command group had been moving between the companies, an anxious sentry opened fire on the movement he saw before the password could be given. The Colonel died instantly, while two others in his party were wounded. It was a blow to the morale of the Regiment, Frenot had been well respected. His second in command took over and got them settled down again. Now, with 170e Regiment being committed to the fight, it was hoped that the weight of numbers would begin to tell on the defenders.

11 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Rotterdam. The Netherlands.

Work was continuing to restore the docks to full working order. The Germans had done some damage to the infrastructure, but the engineers were confident that the whole place would be back and fully operational within another few days.

The Royal Marine Division had been pulled out the line and were getting on board ships to return to the UK to be rested and reinforced. The Dutch Marines were going with them. The working relationship, which had been good beforehand, had now been forged in battle.

What was less well known was that two divisions from First Entente Army had already disappeared. As the liberation of the Netherlands progressed more and more members of the Dutch army had been re-enlisted and they were taking on more responsibility for restoring freedom to their country. This meant that the Danish and Norwegian divisions could be released for other duties. The liberation of Denmark was becoming more achievable, especially if the Entente forces could get past Bremen and head for Hamburg.

The Free Danish Division, along with the First Norwegian Division, had been part of First Entente Army. They had not seen action, but now were now very well trained and fully equipped. A second Danish division had been created in England from volunteers, including small numbers of volunteers from Iceland and the Faroe Islands. This Division was also ready to be deployed. The two Danish divisions, along with two Norwegian divisions (one currently in Norway as well as the one in England) would be part of the force to free Denmark. In addition, a Belgian (4th) division, would transfer from First Entente Army Group, as would the amphibious specialists the Royal Marine Division and the French 1re DLI (Light Infantry Division).

No date had yet been set for the invasion. It was still hoped by some that the Germans would come to their senses and simply give up, withdrawing from Denmark, and so the Entente forces would be able to free Denmark without firing a shot. However, no one was taking bets on this happening.

11 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Hagen. Germany.

Lieutenant-Colonel Gautier rolled up the message slip and threw it away in disgust. The General wanted him to get his chars to Unna, another 25km further on. The General obviously had no idea what he was talking about. 25km at this point could be the distance to Mars. Since yesterday his men had managed to retake Wuppertal and roll up to Hagen, which was about 25kms. By the time they had got here, they were exhausted. The surviving chars needed fuel, ammunition and maintenance. The surviving men needed sleep and hot food. In fact, they needed relieved and for someone else to move forward. The General wanted to close the Germans in a pocket by joining up with 1re Army who were also heading for Unna. Good for them. They were welcome to the glory.

Hagen, it turned out, was an important place for the German railway system. They were therefore defending it with great tenacity. Some Luftwaffe anti-aircraft guns were being used effectively against the chars, and even the B1 ters were coming off worse against them. The new German anti-tank gun, the 50mm long barrelled gun was also taking a heavy toll. It was still raining, and the AdA pilots were still on the wine back in Paris. The message from the General to get to Unna as quickly as possible was dissolving in the mud beside the road.

Gautier got onto the radio to speak to the General and tell him exactly what the situation was. As well as the exhaustion of his men, there was the small matter of attempting to cross the River Ruhr. Once more it looked as if all the bridges had been blown. All of his bridging equipment was behind him, having been used on the Wupper, Ennepe and Volme rivers. The fact that he had made 25kms yesterday was something of a miracle, the idea of making another 25kms was just laughable.

General Sciard, commanding 1re Corps took Gautier’s report, and heard the voice of a man who had shot his bolt. The 21e and 25e DIM (Motorised Infantry Division) were following up what the 3e DM (Division Mécanique) had managed to achieve over the last twenty-four hours. The two infantry divisions were a much better choice to work through the German defences. After that, General Martin would need to unleash 2e DM to continue the advance. They had some of the new Renault G1 chars, and it would be interesting to see how they did in comparison to the H39s and S40s.

General Martin, commander of 7e Army, read Sciard’s report and his plan of action. The fact that his army had only just made 50kms in 11 days gave him a feeling of shame. It was true that the other French armies hadn’t gone much further, and they hadn’t lost their bridge over the Rhine on the first day. General Martin believed that his army was the one with the most panache. The British armies had the better ground and so were making good distances, but the two French armies cutting the Ruhr valley off from the rest of Germany was going to win the war. It was just a pity that it had to be so slow and plodding.

11 April 1941. 15:00 hrs. Limburg. Germany. HQ 12th Army.

General Heitz received orders from Berlin to reassign his XXX Corps (50th and 164th Divisions) to Seventeenth Army and L Corps (46th and 60th Divisions) to Fourth Army. Other than the attempt by the French to cross the Rhine at Koblenz, his area of responsibility (south of Bonn to the River Main at Mainz) had been quiet. By removing his two reserve Corps, it just left him XVIII (Mountain) Corps, made up of three divisions to hold 140km of river. If the French made another attempt, and were successful, there would be nothing but the terrain to stop them.

There had always been the assumption that these two Corps might have to be loaned to his neighbouring armies, but to lose both at the same time was a bit of a blow. As far as the intelligence was able to piece together, the French 3e Army was still facing him. It would be crucial that the movement of these four divisions went undiscovered for as long as possible. Despatch riders were sent out with the orders, which emphasised using as much cover as possible and to leave behind some kind of deception plan that might fool the French. The bad weather, which continued to hamper aerial reconnaissance, would be a help, but there was no guarantee that this would last.

XXX Corps were headquartered at Altenkirchen. When the Corps Commander acknowledged receipt of the orders, he informed Heitz that it would take the best part of two days to gather his forces and get them to Paderborn. Heitz wondered if they would get there before the French at that rate. The problems on the rail network, which had been heavily attacked over the winter, were coming home to roost. It was particularly important to get the panzer regiment into the fight. The Corps had one spread out in various places prepared to counterattack a French attack across the Rhine. A shortage of fuel was of concern to be able to get them to the railway so that they could be moved to where they would be needed.

L Corps were based in Limburg, and the Corps Commander was able to update Heitz personally. These two Divisions were to move to Frankfurt, just 50km away. All things being equal, which so far hadn’t been the case in this war, they should get there the following day. The fighting in Aschaffenburg was tearing up the German army as much as it was the French. Two more divisions would give Fourth Army the kind of reinforcement it desperately needed.

Over a glass of schnapps the two Generals, whose friendship went back a long way reflected on the state of things. Neither of them were particularly political. During the ‘almost’ civil war, their command, which didn’t include any SS units, had mostly been untouched. There had been a steady stream of deserters, but generally most of the troops had stayed put. The fact that the war was lost was clear to them, there was little to be gained from carrying on the fight, and much to lose, but they were dedicated officers. If it took a bit longer to get the troops ready to move than Berlin would like, then so be it. There were very few professional soldiers left in the OKH, so a slower movement wouldn’t be too obvious, especially with all the other stuff that was happening. If it meant that some of the men would get home rather than die in an already lost war, then so be it.

11 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Belfast. Northern Ireland.

The heavy engineering works around Harland and Wolff was well used to war work. HMS Aster, a Flower Class corvette was being officially handed over to the Royal Navy, having been completed and fitted out. The previous day HMS Buttercup had been launched and earlier this day so had HMS Chrysanthemum, another two Flower Class corvettes which would join the fleet in a few months. Another ship was leaving the fitting out pier today as well, RFA Brown Ranger, a fleet support tanker, which would be heading for the Indian Ocean in due course. Originally the War Office had designated Belfast as the primary shipyard for repair work. Since very little of that kind of work had come their way, the main fabrication side was generally ahead of schedule.

Harland and Wolff had orders for 40 Flower Class Corvettes, HMS Aster brought the total delivered to 25. Ten had been cancelled just at the end of 1940, so there were only another five still being worked on. In place of the Flower Class ships, the first of a new class of minesweepers, HMS Algerine had been laid down in January and would be the first of ten on order, with another ten possibly to follow. It was expected that HMS Algerine would be launched in September, and join the fleet in early 1942.

HMS Black Prince, a Dido class cruiser, was coming along quickly, having been laid down in December 1939, it was expected that she would be launched in later in the summer and be ready to join the fleet in early 1942. Having previously built the cruisers HMS Penelope and HMS Belfast, the managers hoped that they might win an order for one of the follow-on class of cruisers, known unofficially as the Tiger Class.

The largest ship under construction was HMS Unicorn, an aircraft carrier, which was due to be launched in November, she was also ahead of schedule. She had been proceeded by HMS Formidable, the Illustrious class aircraft carrier. Once HMS Unicorn was launched, preparatory work would begin on HMS Gibraltar, the second of the proposed Malta Class aircraft carriers, which would dwarf Unicorn and Formidable when completed.

As well as these warships the yard was now busy constructing Landing Craft Tanks. Four were already finished and with the fleet, there were ten more of these at various stages of construction, with another ten to be laid down. Design changes to improve their handling and stability had been introduced, so the next one to be completed would be HMS LCT 100, or a Mark 3 as it was known.

The work was not all just in warships. Harland and Wolff specialised in refrigerated cargo ships and there were a few of these either building or fitting out. Oil tankers were also under construction. One of the things that the Ministry of Supply had been keen on the previous year was retraining some of the workforce on welding techniques. These were being used primarily on the LCTs, which were prefabricated sections welded together. The management and unions had been in negotiations to move more fully towards this method of construction.

The unions weren’t keen, but between incentives and threats they were coming around. The threats came from the Admiralty who were adamant that the ships they were ordering, especially the Malta Class carrier would be an all-welded construction. Losing such an order could be devastating to the company, and therefore the workforce. The incentives were coming from the Ministry of Supply, who were promising financial support for retraining and bonuses for productivity.

Away from the shipbuilding, the company had also been in the business of constructing tanks for the army, primarily the modified A9 Cruiser Close Support Tank. Work on these had ended in 1940. In its place they were now making castings for the Comet tank, as well as for artillery pieces, though the Ministry of Supply wanted the workforce to concentrate on the primary shipbuilding work.

11 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Someone’s home. Great Britain.

“This is the BBC Home Service. Friday 11th April 1941. Here is the 6 0’clock news read by Alvar Lidell.

His Majesty, King George VI, has sent his congratulations to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands as the whole of her country is now free from German occupation. Entente forces, led by the Dutch Army, now have control of all of aspects of the nation, including its borders. The final German forces which had not surrendered have either fled or were defeated in battle. The King has assured Queen Wilhelmina that Great Britain will continue to support the Netherlands in peace as in war.

A communique from First Entente Army Group was issued this afternoon. In it the people of the Netherlands were congratulated on their steadfastness and courage. Elements of the combined British, Dutch, Belgian, Polish and French army reached the border with Germany in the Groningen province and forces landed by sea and air on the West Frisian Islands.

The three British Armies fighting in Germany made significant progress today. The commander of the British Third Army, General Bernard Montgomery, spoke to reporters today from his Headquarters and told them that his army had made over twenty miles of progress in the last twenty-four hours. Casualties continued to be light, and German resistance was described as sporadic. He singled out the Royal Engineers for praise in his press conference. The withdrawing Germans have generally destroyed or mined many of the bridges and roads on their retreat. It is the work of the Royal Engineers in rebuilding destroyed bridges and clearing mine fields that has enable the army to make the progress that is has.

Reports of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been brought to light as British and French forces have advanced through Germany. The laws against the Jewish population have been well known, but evidence was presented today of a program of the killing of sick and disabled children and adults. In documentation presented to the Press today by the International Red Cross, under a program known as “T4” in Germany, handicapped people were systematically killed because they were described as a “burden on the State.” A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury described the evidence he had heard as “inhumane and callous.” It is believed that this will add to the pressure to initiate a “War Crimes Tribunal” after the war.

In the United States of America, former President Roosevelt, made a speech at Yale University warning of a growing threat in the Far East. Noting that changes to the Japanese Cabinet had brought in, what he described as “three more hawks”, the balance of the Japanese Government is now more inclined to war than peace. He warned that if the United States wanted to continue to be neutral then it must be better prepared for war. He cited the situation in the Philippines as an example. If the Japanese were to widen their war with China, then the American forces, especially the Asiatic Fleet was “woefully unprepared”. While it was clear, he continued, that the British, French and Dutch were taking the Japanese threat seriously, President Dewey was not.

In other news, the Ministry of Supply has announced that rationing of certain foods and other goods is likely to end later in 1941. The Minister, Sir Andrew Duncan, made the statement at Liverpool docks. In the statement the minister referred to the levels of international trade, which were now returning to pre-war levels. With the ending of most of the convoy system, individual ships were free to make their way around the world without threat or hampering. He particularly noted the work that had been done by the Royal Navy in keeping the sea lanes clear, and in his speech, praised the mine sweepers who kept the access to Britain’s harbours clear of German mines.

That is the news, the next bulletin will be at seven o’clock."

12 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Emmen. Holland.

Lieutenant Banks, commanding C Company, the 1st Battalion, The King's Own Scottish Borderers, of the 9th Brigade, of the Third Division, of II Corps of the First British Army didn’t think much of being an officer. However, such was life. After the morning “stand to”, the company, and in fact the whole Brigade, was able to rest. Banks was pleased they were in Holland, rather than occupied Germany, as it meant the locals were friendly. Having fought their way through the border lands of Holland and Germany from the Rhine, most of First Army was halted. Only I Corps were still moving towards Bremen, and as far as Banks could see, the reason for the rest of the Army halting was so that all the petrol and other supplies could be concentrated in one Corps.

The KOSB’s motor transport had brought them to Emmen and was now in various states of maintenance. The men had enjoyed a hot shower and fresh clothes when they had arrived the previous evening. The local community were showing their appreciation of the British soldiers with gifts of cheese and alcohol. Banks had the NCOs on alert for anybody getting too merry. Some of the ladies were a bit too friendly for Banks’ taste, there’d likely be trouble with a few of the Jocks before they left the area. The town was putting on some kind of concert/entertainment in the evening, and so most of the day was about mending equipment, catching up on some sleep and generally being busy about doing very little.

It was expected that replacements would arrive at some point to be integrated into the Company to make up for the losses they had taken over the last ten days. The company had been almost at full strength on 31st March with just over 100 men. As of roll call this morning, the Company strength stood at 62. The battalion as a whole had suffered 42 killed, 86 injured and four missing, presumed killed. One in five men killed or wounded. The worst of the losses had been in the first few days after crossing the Rhine. Banks didn’t want to think about how many they had lost since April 1940. The original regulars were few and far between, most of the survivors, like himself were now officers or NCOs. Some of them who had been wounded last year were now back, like Captain Woods, his original platoon commander, who was now on the Brigade Staff.

It was Woods himself who had broken the news that Banks had received a battlefield commission. After the last lot of fighting, when Banks had taken command of the Company, and had done a good job. His battlefield commission had been recommended, and Woods had asked permission to be the one to break the good news. Not that it felt much like good news to Banks. Now that the Company was settled, for what would probably be a few days, Banks would have the onerous job of writing letters to the families of those who’d been killed. His successor as Company Sergeant Major was Jim Michaels, who’d been a private last March. Michaels brought him a mess tin with some breakfast in it. At least he had confidence that his new CSM was up for the job. The fact that Michaels was then able to recite the Company’s current supply situation confirmed his confidence.

12 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Fliegerhorst Oldenburg. Germany

The Luftwaffe had abandoned the airfield some months ago. It had got a pasting from the RAF over the winter, and the surviving Ju 88s of KG30 were now somewhere in Silesia. A few flak guns and a couple of companies of troops were all that was available to oppose the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry and the 1st Battalion the London Rifle Brigade. The flak guns took out a few of the cruiser tanks and a couple of the Militant armoured lorries. Their resistance was quickly overcome and the whole area was cleared.

Looking at the map the commander of the battle group was dismayed at the amount of water courses between here and the Weser. Staying north of the river Hunte, there was only one decent road and the railway line to Rastede and then Brake. Another battlegroup, made up of 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and 1st Battalion Queen’s Westminster Rifles were heading for Varel and Wilhelmshaven. The last battlegroup of the Division, 1st Royal Gloucestershire Hussars in Valentines, with 1st Battalion London Scottish, were in reserve, and probably would have to support the attack on Wilhelmshaven. Intelligence seemed to suggest that the Kriegsmarine would likely be responsible for its defence. That would be interesting.

With this objective taken and secured, the next job would be to wait for the fuel bowsers and ammo trucks to catch up. Once they were fully resupplied, then they could move on towards the Weser. The reconnaissance troop was nosing around Oldenburg itself, and so far, they were reporting a lot of white flags flying. It was the job of Third Army, particularly VI Corps to move south of Oldenburg to close with the Weser. The briefing yesterday evening said that 56th (London) Division were at Wardenburg and moving eastwards towards the river Hunte then on past the south of Oldenburg.

VII Corps’ 3rd Armoured Division’s 21st Armoured Brigade, led by 42nd Royal Tank Regiments in their Comet tanks, supported by 1/4th Battalion South Lancashire Regiment were pressing in on Wildeshausen, attempting to cross the river Hunte there. The rest of VII Corps were pushing forward, with the 3rd Armoured Division providing the punch, while the 2nd Canadian and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions mopped up and supported the advance.

The ANZACs were approaching Sulingen and would then march to the Weser at Nienburg. This would give them the ability to threaten Hannover from a northerly approach. General Alan Brooke’s strategy was to give the Germans too many threats so that they if they were be able to concentrate on stopping one British approach, they would then be in danger of being flanked from any of the other thrusts.

To the south of Third Army, Jumbo Wilson’s Second Army, like First Army was having to concentrate its energies through just one Corps, in their case 1st Mechanised Corps. Having reached Bielefeld they were looking at moving towards Minden today. The 51st (Highland) Division and 1st Armoured Division were taking the lead, while the 50th Division were tying in with the French 1re Army to their south.

12 April 1941. 09:00 hrs. Scharnhorst. Germany.

General Barbe, originally commanded the 4e DLC (Light Cavalry Division) with distinction in the fighting in the Ardennes the previous year. Now he had this much more powerful 4e DM (Division Mécanique). His Division had a Brigade of Chars made up of both Somua S40s and R40s. There had been rumours that they’d be getting the new Renault G1R chars, but production had been lower than expected due to several teething troubles that could only be sorted at the factory lines.

The ground they had covered in the last few days had been hard going. It was all very well for superior officers to tell them to avoid fighting in built up areas, but if you wanted to go along a road, you tended to have to go through the towns and villages that the roads were built for. The fight for Waltrop, then Brambauer, then Brechten, then Derne and now Scharnhorst had been pretty vigorous. If the German army was collapsing as the Intelligence Officers kept saying, then Barbe’s men hadn’t seen too much evidence of it. The continuing rain wasn’t helping, it was funny how you missed air support when you were used to it. Artillery was fine, but the Germans really didn’t like napalm at all, but the French troops had grown to love smell of it, especially in the morning.

The problem for today was the airfield to the west of the town of Scharnhorst. It had also been a barracks for German transport units as well as the Luftwaffe. Between the railway and the airfield, there was lot of important ground to be defended and Barbe’s reconnaissance troops had come under heavy fire as they nosed around. Experience had taught the French that Luftwaffe bases often retained their anti-aircraft units as part of the ground defences, and if that was the case then the chars would have a difficult time of it.

One of his two infantry regiments, 31e Dragoons would take the lead today, as the other, 8e Dragoons, had suffered heavily the previous day. As well as Lorraine VBCP 38L armoured personnel carriers they had two companies in the newer 39L, which was an improvement over the earlier version as all the troops were carried in the one vehicle rather partly in a trailer. There was no overhead cover which made them vulnerable to airbursts, but the side armour would protect the men from small arms and splinters.

Colonel Rey commanded the regiment with distinction and was overdue a promotion. Once more he’d been given a tough nut to crack and he spent some time with his staff planning the best way to get the job done with as few loses as possible. The artillery had been hammering the area since first light, and it had been decided that the cavalry roots of the regiment were the best way to get the job done. With the artillery still falling, 2e battalion, with a squadron of R40 chars in support, approached the railway line from the north. 3e Battalion, with all the support weaponry gave covering fire, would approach and take the railway station through the town. 1re Battalion were in reserve.

Following the artillery barrage as closely as they dared, the French troops in their various armoured vehicles, hit the railway and found that the expected resistance was much lower than expected. A few chars were knocked out by German guns, but the cavalry charge succeeded in overwhelming what was already a demoralised defensive unit. The survivors were marched off to POW camps. Planning for the next objective, towards Unna, Colonel Rey and General Barbe could only hope that the next encounter with the Germans would be as straightforward.

12 April 1941. 10:00hrs. San Diego, California. USA.

General “Hap” Arnold, had come down to the Consolidated Aircraft plant to be part of the handover ceremony of the first of the 120 Consolidated LB-30A four engine bombers that the Armée De L’Air had ordered. The AdA had been furious to discover that an aircraft which had promised 311mph could only achieve 273mph. Wartime experience noted the need for self-sealing tanks and better defensive armament. To get the increase in speed required, Consolidated had the mechanically supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1830-33s replaced with the turbo-supercharged R-1830s. The tail span was widened by 2 ft (0.61 m) and the pitot-static probes were relocated from the wings to the fuselage. These changes allowed the aircraft to reach nearly 311mph, and so the French had agreed reluctantly to go ahead with the order.

For General Arnold the fact that the RAF had cancelled their original order of 160 aircraft meant that the USAAC would be getting their own order for 36 sooner than he had feared. Consolidated was actively petitioning Washington DC for the RAF order be transferred to the USAAC. France was not in a position to increase its order. Not only were they struggling to find the dollars to pay for them under the original cash and carry deal, but the reintroduction of the Neutrality Act meant that, as a combatant nation they would not be able to. If the Army Air Corps didn’t increase its orders, then Consolidated Aircraft would be in a difficult position. They had designed and built the LB-30A at the request of the Chief of the Air Corps. Their agreement with Ford to build a new plant at Willow Run, Ypsilanti, Michigan had already been shelved. If the 160 aircraft originally ordered by the RAF weren’t to be built it could possibly spell the end of the company.

President Roosevelt back in 1939 had ordered that the USAAC should be expanded and General Arnold was attempting to make it happen, while the appropriations were still available. The removal of most of the RAF’s early interest had resulted in a shortfall of capital investment in the main American aircraft companies. The British had concentrated that investment in their own industry. The French however were more desperate. Their purchase of 100 P36s from Curtiss-Wright in 1939 gave that company $1 million investment to buy machine tools for their Buffalo plant. Other purchases had likewise enabled the American companies like Douglas and Glenn Martin to expand.

This was a two-edged sword for the USAAC. On the one hand, without new production being exported, allowed the increase in their own air groups’ expansion. On the other hand, the aircraft were early marks, with much development still needed, as their war experience showed. Most of Curtiss’ P40s that the French had bought were already being consigned to training roles, they weren’t up to a straight fight with German Bf 109s. Curtiss were bringing on an improved version, learning from the French experience. The Americans were aware however that even this would still be lacking against most enemies. These were the same early P40s that were entering American service.

The reduction in French orders, partly for financial reasons and partly because of how long it would take American manufacturers to supply the aircraft, meant that the companies were reliant on investment from the American government. The Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration had been heavily involved in such investment. With the end of the New Deal under the Dewey administration, that source of investment was in danger of drying up. The cancellation of French interest in Bell’s P-39 and Lockheed’s P-38 allowed the USAAC to look forward to their delivery sooner than might have been otherwise, though both aircraft were struggling with defects and production hold-ups.

One of the worrying pieces of information that had been given to the US by the British and French was the ability of the new Japanese fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M. The pursuit squadrons in the Philippines were flying Seversky P-35s and Boeing P-26s. It sounded as if even the improved Curtiss aircraft would struggle to take on the Japanese plane.

There was one aircraft that the USAAC wanted to get its hands on and that was the Mustang that the RAF had had designed and built by North American. It seemed to be much better aircraft, especially with the Merlin engine. The Air Corps desperately wanted to buy these, but Washington wasn’t keen to paying Rolls Royce the kind of money they wanted for the engines, even with Packhard making them under license. It was interesting that the RAF was deploying a substantial number of these to Malaya to equip their squadrons there. It seemed that its range made it a better fit in that part of the world than the Spitfire.

The bomber situation was also problematical. The B17s that were being delivered by Boeing were good machines. The advice of the British against relying solely on defensive armament on the bombers to protect them from enemy fighters certainly seemed to be from their experience of daylight raids. Their Wellingtons and Halifaxes weren’t nearly as well protected as the Boeing machines. The resumption of daylight bombing in Europe did demand a large number of fighters to escort them. The P-38 should provide the bombers with a long-range escort, if it could be made safe to fly. These Consolidated bombers going off to France would be far better employed by the USAAC in Arnold’s mind, but hopefully, when they were eventually delivered to American squadrons, they would have any bugs ironed out and be better for it.

Under General Arnold’s command, the 15 regular air groups that existed before Roosevelt’s expansion plan was approaching the 24 combat ready groups planned for June 1941. Subsequent plans of the Roosevelt administration to increase it to 41 groups had been reduced under President Dewey down to thirty by the end of 1941. The doubling of the Army Air Corps was considered more than enough to protect the Western Hemisphere. What concerned Arnold more than anything now was the quality of the aircraft these groups would fly.

The bomber groups would almost exclusively be B17s, until Consolidated could start to supply these LB-30s, or B24s as they were becoming known in USAAC circles. The medium bomber groups would have the Douglas DB7 or A20, the Martin B26 and possibly the North American B25, though the prototype of this had crashed the previous day, the cause of which was under investigation. The results of the investigation could delay its entry into service. The pursuit groups would be a mix of P40s, P39s and P38s. The transport group would be made up of C47s and C46s. If that mix could come together sooner rather than later then “Hap” Arnold would be a happier man.

12 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Saint-Quentin. France.

Generals Bronisław Duch, Bronisław Prugar-Ketling, Rudolph Dreszer and Stanisław Maczek took the salute of the Free Polish Army. Standing alongside General Sikorsky, Prime Minister in exile, General André-Gaston Prételat, the Entente Supreme Commander and General Alan Brooke, commander of the First Entente Army Group. Representative units from each of the four divisions marched past with their standards.

Dreszer’s Third Polish Infantry Division had been part of the First Entente Army Group's liberation of the Netherlands. Duch’s First Grenadier Division and Prugar-Ketling’s Second Fusiliers Division had taken part in some the fighting the previous May to September in France and Belgium. Maczek’s First Mechanised Division had been undergoing formation and training in various parts of France, coming fully to its manning level with the arrival from Syria of the Carpathian Brigade, which supplied the Infantry and Artillery components to the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade (the Black Brigade). Coming together for the first time all four divisions were fully manned, equipped and trained. As well as Polish troops who had escaped from their homeland after the German invasion, there were volunteers from the Polish diaspora in France, UK, USA and Canada.

Since the Third Division had been fighting in Belgium and Holland it had been decided to equip the whole of the Polish contingent with the weapons used by that Army Group, a mixture of French, British and Belgian weapons. The Mechanised Division had been the most difficult to equip as they had to wait for enough Comet tanks to be made available from British factories, replacing the H35s provided by the French. The division was formed along the French model of one brigade of tanks (two battalions of 45 Comets), and one Infantry brigade, with divisional artillery and support units. Each soldier carried the FN’s 7.5mm FAL automatic rifle, and they also used the FN MAG (general purpose machine gun). The artillery was French, the anti-tank guns British, the armoured car reconnaissance regiment used French vehicles.

The plans for a fly-past by the Polish Squadrons of the RAF had had to be cancelled due to foul weather, but there were representatives of what would soon be renamed as the Polish Air Force and Navy in attendance. There were currently four full squadrons, two of fighters (Spitfires) and two of bombers (Beaufighters and Wellingtons). Plans for the expansion of these squadrons to four of each were well underway. The Polish navy, as well as their own destroyers and submarines that had fled to Britain in 1939, was also being expanded to include minesweepers and the possibility of a couple more destroyers if manning levels could be sorted.

After the parade, once they were in out of the rain, General Sikorski and the other generals celebrated the creation of the Army for a short while, as would the men for longer. The assault through Germany, towards the liberation of their homeland was uppermost in their minds. Sikorski had just arrived back from Washington DC. This had been the last in a series of visits around the capitals of the free world looking to make sure that any post war settlement re-established a free and independent Poland, with borders that would be defensible and universally recognised.

The western powers were all happy enough to recognise the pre-war boundaries, except the parts of Czechoslovakia that the Poles had taken after the fall of that country to the Nazis. The fly in the ointment was the Soviet Union. It was clear that there was no appetite in Paris or London to take on the Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, unless Stalin declared war on them. The chances of Stalin agreeing to reinstate the terms of the Treaty of Riga were slim to say the least. A post-war settlement was difficult to envisage, but these Polish Generals, and their men, were as keen as mustard to get on with creating a new and free Poland.

Prételat agreed to Sikorski’s request to allow the Polish Army to be under the overall command of Alan Brooke’s First Entente Army Group. This was agreed as the First Entente Army was soon to be broken up. It had recently lost the Corps made up of the Norwegian, Danish and Dutch Divisions, as well as the Royal Marines and French Light Infantry Division for possible action in Denmark. The Corps of three French Divisions (23e, 60e and 68e) had been reassigned and would soon be sailing for Saigon for service in French Indo-China, along with the 1re Foreign Legion Division.

19e Bataillon de Chars de Combat (19 BCC) which had been using Renault D2s since they had been assigned to the Norway campaign, were at last to trade in their surviving D2 chars for R40s. They had hoped to get the latest Renault G1Rs but these were not yet available in large enough numbers. A second BCC, the 39e, also equipped with R40s, a vast improvement over the FT-17s they had started the war with, would transfer from the SHQ reserves. These two BCCs would sail with the French Corps to Saigon.

1st Czechoslovakian Division had been created in France in 1940 and was now operational. Two regiments of the men in the Division were former soldiers who had escaped from Czechoslovakia after it had fallen to the Nazis. The other regiment was made up of 23e Regiment de Marche de Volontaires Étrangers (RMVE). This was made up largely of Spanish Volunteers and Jewish emigrées from central Europe. This division would join the British 49th (West Riding) Division to give the Polish Army two Corps.

For the future, there was some question about the make-up of First Entente Army Group. Currently General Brooke had three British Armies (27 Divisions), the First Belgian Army (9 Divisions), and the new Polish Army (6 Divisions) under his command. The situation regarding the Dutch Army was under review, but it was hoped that at least one Dutch Division would be available for the continuing fight, possibly rising to a Corps of three divisions. The forces for the proposed liberation of Denmark had been split off into a separate command, with General William Prior, the senior Danish general, in charge. Prételat wanted to split off the British Armies, especially when the fourth came into being, into a separate British Army Group, with its own commander, and have Entente Army Group made up of the Belgians, Poles, and Dutch. The politicians in Paris and London would have to agree to this, which Prételat was confident would happen.

12 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Karachi. India.

The men of the 20th Indian Brigade had been boarding the ships all morning. Two battalions of Gurkhas (2nd battalions of the 7th and 8th Gurkha Regiments) and 3rd battalion of the 11th Sikh Regiment were off to France. Here they would join with the 21st and 24th Brigades to be part of the 10th Indian Division. The War Office had only planned to have two Indian Divisions and one Gurkha division in Europe. However there had been an argument among the Indian Congress that a strong showing by Indian troops, especially as there was a great number of volunteers joining the Indian Army, would strengthen the case for Dominion status leading to independence. This argument had been strongly opposed by some within the movement, led by Ghandi. A majority, with especially strong support from the Muslims, had carried the day.

10th Indian Division would be joined by 7th and 9th Indian Divisions in France. The three Divisions would need to be fully equipped and trained before joining the fray. The Gurkha, 4th and 5th Indian Divisions were already fighting, and the three new Divisions would bringing the Indian contingent to a total of six, the equivalent of two Corps. There was an expectation that as many Indian Officers as possible would be trained to up to Divisional and Corps staffing levels to help the future of the Indian Army to be led by Indians. In Malaya, the Indian 6th, 8th and 11th Divisions were getting acclimatised and trained for warfare in the Far East.

The question had been asked whether it might be better for the 7th, 9th and 10th Indian Divisions to stay in the Middle East, particularly to be prepared to defend against a southern thrust into Persia or Turkey by the Soviet Union. The fighting in Germany took a higher priority and it would be easier to bring the men closer to the main source of advanced equipment than having to ship it Palestine or Egypt. The Middle East had the First Cavalry Division transitioning into an Armoured Division and the First South African and Second African Division cooling their heels there.

Progress was also being seen in the shipping of the Indian First Armoured Brigade to France. Since its formation the previous year, the level of competency and education had risen exponentially. Their training had primarily been on Indian Pattern armoured carriers. These had been created using Canadian Ford and GMC truck chassis which Tata Steel created armoured vehicles from. The three General Motors subsidiaries in Britain (Vauxhall), Australia (Holden) and GM South Africa, were cooperating to produce Comet tanks for the Dominions of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as for the Indian army. Progress was much slower than hoped, and there wouldn’t be enough of these Comets to fully equip the Brigade. A second Indian Armoured Brigade was still in formation and expected to be fully operational in Malaya by September.

The Indian Air Force was also expanding from the tiny beginnings in 1940. From 14 officers, it now had well over 200. Four full squadrons were operational. Two of Hurricane IIb fighters, one of Hurribombers and one of Blenheims. Another four squadrons were in training, two on Hurricanes and two on Blenheims. The Blenheims were all expected to be replaced by Beaufighters as these became available. Similarly, Hurricane fighters would give way to Spitfires when there were enough. All the old Audaxes and Wapitis were now only used for training in conjunction with the more common Wirraways.

There was another element however that showed the lack of progress of India was making in some respects. That was the presence of only one Indian Navy ship in the convoy escort. The convoy, composed of 8 transports, was escorted by two Hunt Class destroyers, HMS Cotswold and HMS Cattistock, part of East Indies Command based at Colombo on Ceylon. HMIS Hindustan was the only RNIS sloop available to be part of the covering force for the convoy.

The pre-war plan to increase and improve the RIN was made with the ability to defend India’s ports and sea communication in mind. It was reckoned that it would take 48 ships for local naval defence. Only 31 ships had been taken over for war work and it had become obvious that properly designed warships and trained crews would have to be found for the Royal Indian Navy if it was to fulfil the role expected if India was a Dominion. There were only five sloops to police the sea lanes, so it fell to the Royal Navy, represented here by the two Hunt class destroyers, to do most of that work.

There were problems with recruitment to the Royal Indian Navy as many of those who had earned their living on the sea before the war wanted to continue with the Merchant Marine as the pay had improved. It had taken some time for the Indian Government to come up with a “hostilities only” rate of pay. At one point, men in the navy recruited in Calcutta, were paid less than those recruited in Bombay. One of the traditional areas for sailors to come from was Daman, but these were Portuguese subjects and not able to join. A large percentage of those who did volunteer were unable to pass the physical exam to join the navy, up to 66%, even after the lowering of standards. The sudden increase in the numbers of men joining the navy also put enormous strain on the facilities, and for the first twelve months of the war, the men suffered from overcrowded accommodations and poor levels of training. The new kinds of guns that the ratings would have to be trained on were in too short supply for the numbers to be trained, and all too often when a draft were mustered aboard ship, the officers found them not trained or prepared for the work they would have to do.

By April 1941 some of the “growing pains” were being worked out, and with appropriate funding and leadership things were looking much better. The design for the Ton class minesweeper had been shared with Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Calcutta. This company was preparing to assemble the first two of these ships with some equipment shipped out from Britain. It was expected that at least another eight would be ordered of the type. There were some who could envisage a Royal Indian Navy that would take over most of the duties of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. An RIN with an aircraft carrier, a cruiser squadron, destroyers, frigates and submarines, as well as all of the other coastal vessels. For many it was a pipe dream, for others it was something to work towards.

12 April 1941. 14:00 hrs. Kota Bharu, Malaya.

Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt, Inspector General of the RAF, completed his tour of inspection of the facilities that had been created in the expanded air field in Northern Malaya. The creation of a proper network of bases, radar and maintenance facilities had been continuing in Malaya and Singapore over the last twelve months.

It was now at a reasonable level, as the pilots in Kota Bharu were finding and Ludlow-Hewitt was seeing. Those who had served in the air war in Europe, and were now leading the Far East’s squadrons, still found things fairly primitive. It was clearly a wartime setting and there were few signs of complacency. All the airfields had Operations Rooms, with redundancy, tied into a network with radar and anti-aircraft defences. There was an absence of quite as many anti-aircraft guns as you would expect in forward operating bases in Belgium. The facilities for them were provided and as soon as they arrived, they would be a welcome addition. There was a strong army presence in the local area to provide ground defences and part of the anti-aircraft contingent at the airfield were from the local Indian Brigade.

One consequence of the expansion of the Indian Air Force since 1939 was it had allowed the RAF to move some of its squadrons eastwards. No 5 Squadron were now learning to fly Mustangs, their Hurricanes had been transferred to the Indian Air Force. No 60 (flying Blenheims), No 20 and No 28 squadrons (early mark Hurribombers) were all now based in here at Kota Bharu. These reinforced Royal Air Force Far East Command who were responsible for the defence of British interests in the area.

Unfortunately the improvements in facilities on Singapore and in Malaya weren’t yet fully mirrored in the types of aircraft that the squadrons were flying. The two torpedo bomber squadrons Nos 36 and 100 Squadrons, were flying Vildebeest and Swordfish bi-planes. General Reconnaissance was provided by No 10 Squadron (RAAF), not long arrived with their Sunderlands to join No 230 Squadron in the same type, and No 205 Squadron who were flying Hudsons.

There were only four other fighter squadrons in the Command. Nos 243, 21 (RAAF) and recently arrived 453 (RAAF) and 488 (RNZAF) Squadrons. All four squadrons were transitioning onto Mustangs as these aircraft were delivered, otherwise they had Hurricanes. The bomber squadrons, Nos 11, 34, 60 and 62 Squadrons were all flying Blenheims. The night fighter squadron (No 27 Squadron) also flying Blenheims, and only one of these had AI radar, on which everyone was expected to train.

Things however were not going to stay that way for long. Just as the Hurricanes were being replaced by Mustangs, Beaufighters would replace the Blenheims, Vildebeests and Swordfish in the night fighter and torpedo roles as and when they became available. Likewise, Wellingtons or Halifaxes were expected to give the bomber Squadrons greater range and hitting power. Until things changed in Europe however these new aircraft weren’t yet available. Though a planning timetable was in place, which relied somewhat on Australia.

Production of Beaufighters in Australia was finally beginning, and these would be the source for the replacements of the Blenheims. The Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) had initially to resort to assembling parts shipped out from the UK as the network of subcontractors were struggling to produce home grown parts effectively, for example no one in Australia manufactured ball bearings. Assembling the aircraft had given the workforce important experience and a full squadron of planes were now with the RAAF being used to train pilots and navigators on the new type. As of January, the situation had improved, and with the exception of the engines which still needed to be imported, the first full Australian production model was due to roll out in a little earlier than expected in May, and hopefully run at about 25-30 per month.

The privately owned company, CAC, as well as building Wirraways for training schools, were doing the final assembly of Mustangs. North American were shipping them in crates from Inglewood, California over the Pacific. Handley Page’s attempt to set up a factory in Australia for Halifax bombers hadn’t got as far as they hoped. The DAP had struggled to get the Beaufighter production line into operation, and there just wasn’t a wide enough manufacturing base to permit an even more complex aircraft to be built. In another year or two as things progressed it might be possible, but for the moment the RAF and RAAF would have to rely on British factories, which were already extremely busy.

The reinforcement by the four squadrons from India to Kota Bharu was expected to be followed by another four squadrons from Middle East Command, now that Italy was clearly no longer a threat to British interests in the Mediterranean. Two fighter (Nos 30 and 33) and two bomber squadrons (Nos 45 and 55) were expected to arrive in June. The two fighter squadrons were going to be leaving their Hurricanes and Gladiators behind and would transition onto Mustangs. The two bomber squadrons were already transiting onto Wellingtons and would be the first of that type in the area. Another squadron of Sunderlands were already on their way from Coastal command. The RAAF and RNZAF had agreed to provide another five squadrons between them (one fighter and three ground attack from the Australians and one ground attack from New Zealand). At the moment the Indian Air Force would do little more than provide a reserve force.

The aim for RAF Far East Command was to have eight day fighter squadrons of Mustangs, one night fighter squadron of AI equipped Beaufighters, four general reconnaissance squadrons, mostly in Sunderlands. They really wanted a PR Spitfire or Mosquito squadron too, but that was unrealistic while the war in Europe continued. There were to be six ground attack squadrons, seven bomber squadrons and two torpedo bomber squadrons, altogether more than 400 modern aircraft.

Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt’s visit confirmed that the facilities were in place for these squadrons, however, he identified a number of deficiencies. Firstly, there was an expectation that the squadrons would be mobile, being able to move among the various airfields depending on the mission. While there had been some training for this, most squadrons weren’t as familiar with airfields other than their own base as they should be. There was also a question mark over whether the standard operating procedures for all RAF bases in the area was being followed exactly.

Secondly, there was a lack of transport aircraft to facilitate such mobility. If a torpedo bomber squadron had to move from its home base, how would it get replacement torpedoes quickly enough? Ludlow-Hewitt recommended that at least one squadron from Transport Command should transferred for this purpose, he specifically recommended transferring 216 Squadron from the Middle East with their Bristol Bombays.

Thirdly he suggested that the Malayan Volunteer Air Force should be given a proper role and the aircraft to carry it out. Recruited from members of four flying clubs, they were flying a variety of civilian aircraft. Squadron Leader Chattaway had been flying the Air Chief Marshall around the country in a Dragon Rapide. Their local knowledge could be invaluable, especially for a roll such as transporting artillery spotters or forward air controllers. The recommendation was a batch of surplus Lysanders might give this unit a useful purpose.

Fourthly the RAF was generally deficient in motor transport and while some civilian vehicles could be impressed into service, it would be better to have their own standardised equipment. Fifthly, responsibility for the defence of airfields lay in the hands of infantry units that may well neither have the training for such a defence nor be immune from being reassigned to other duties at the command of their senior officers. Work on the formation of the RAF Regiment was continuing and it was his opinion that some squadrons of the regiment should be considered for deployment to Malaya.

Lastly of all the areas he had been to inspect the worst prepared was British Borneo. There was only one aerodrome at Kuching and one landing field at Miri. Neither of these were developed nor suitable for larger aircraft. There were no anti-aircraft defences and only weak ground defences. Both of these fields needed to be extended and while he was happy to note that this was planned, he recommended that it had to be prioritised. There was no radar coverage and it was not part of a network of communications with Singapore and Malaya, or indeed with the Dutch East Indies. Greater cooperation with the Dutch was absolutely necessary in his opinion.

The Air Chief Marshall’s next port of call would be to French Indo-China to see the situation there for himself. It was entirely possible that the RAF would need to use forward bases there and there was some doubt that the facilities would support this. While the RAF knew that the Armée de L’Air was strengthening its position in Indo-China, the question was whether they were doing enough on the ground to allow the projection of air power. General Gabriel Cochet had recently been appointed as commander of the AdA in Indo-China and he at least had some notion of what the reality of the war was like.

One of the questions that Ludlow-Hewitt would want answered was the situation regarding radar. The French had been relying on the extension of the Chain Home British system that had been put into France in the early months of 1940. The French hadn’t made much progress in building their own, but two French companies were building British sets under license. It was expected that when these were available, they would be shipped to Indo-China. The sheer size of the colony, and the lack of experienced French radar operators gave the RAF something to worry about. Ludlow-Hewitt would have to make a recommendation once he had toured the French sites, and then go on to the Dutch East Indies. No one would be surprised if that recommendation meant the transfer of British equipment and operators to make up a shortfall.

12 April 1941. 15:00 hrs. 7° 50'N, 14° 00'W. 100 miles southwest of Freetown.

Percy Reavley, Master of the steam merchantman St Helena, finished sweeping the horizon with his binoculars. The ship was on its way to Hull, having set out from Montevideo by way of Rio Grande do Sul, Santos, Bahia and Freetown. The ship was carrying 7600 tons of grain and general cargo, including canned meat, cotton, rice and wet hides, a useful cargo. A briefing from the Royal Navy in Freetown had confirmed that there were no known threats on the way home, with a slim chance of mines off the east coast of England. It was great that they didn’t need to wait for a convoy, they could come and go freely bringing much needed goods to the people of Britain.

For the forty-one souls on board life went on as usual. The U-boats which had played havoc in the Great War were absent from the high seas thanks to the work of the Royal Navy. Any surviving U-boats were locked away in the Baltic Sea or already scrapped, their crews being used as infantry. The German surface fleet and Q ships likewise scoured clean. Ships like the St Helena could go about their business freely. Reavley left the bridge and went back to his cabin to do some paperwork. The First Mate took over the bridge watch, with only the prospect of seeing some whales surfacing to break the monotony.

12 April 1941. 16:00 hrs. Rastenburg. East Prussia.

The armoured train Atlas rolled into the station and two companies of SS troops immediately began their work of making sure all was secure. Another train was due to arrive the next day and it was imperative that a cordon was in place to ensure the safety of the Fuhrer.

SS-Standartenführer Hans Rattenhuber, head of the Reich Security Service, had been here for a month supervising the process of making the Wolfsschanze ready for use. The Todt organisation had built it in the Masurian Woods, 8 km from Rastenburg. Work had begun the previous autumn and was as complete as it was ever likely to be. Rattenhuber had confirmed that the whole area was “Judenfrei” and a large proportion of the slave workers involved in building the complex were now in a mass grave a few kilometres away.

The arrival of the Atlas was the last piece of the jigsaw, as it brought many of the communications staff and other specialists to make the place come fully to life. The extra SS troops would be added to the guard units, there was no place anywhere for any Wehrmacht units. The best part of a Regiment of SS men were needed to secure the three levels of security.

East Prussia was one of the most fortified districts of the Third Reich. There were many fortresses in this area (such as Lötzen, Thorn, Memel and Pillau) and there were also the so called 'fortified areas'. For a national redoubt it had a number of advantages, but it was also an important part of the fabric of the psychological make up of Germany.

12 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Forecasting Division. Meteorological Office. Dunstable. Bedfordshire. UK.

Charles Douglas finalised his report for the next 36 -48 hours and approved it for distribution. The serious of weather fronts that had socked in the air forces over the last week or so looked as if they were moderating. The information coming from the Atlantic seemed to suggest that there was going to be a break in the weather, possibly only for a few days, but at least it looked as if there might be some flying days.

As the weather report was being received in various headquarters and airfields, there was an outbreak of optimism. Planning staffs had a list of plans ready to go, needing only some up to date reconnaissance to finalise them. The maintenance crews had caught up with the backlog of work, giving squadrons some of the best numbers of available aircraft they had seen for long enough. The stocks of weapons had been refilled and tanks of fuel for the planes were topped up. Pilots were well rested, even those who had been getting to the end of their tether were much calmer after a few days’ rest. The newer pilots, replacements for the most part, were keen to prove themselves, though rightly nervous about what they were about to face.

12 April 1941. 21:00hrs. Bletchley Park. England.

Commander Alastair Denniston, operational head of GC&CS at Bletchley Park read the translation of a message picked up earlier in the evening. First of all, he noted just how quickly they had managed to intercept, decode and translate it. The team were quite extraordinary in their abilities, though he knew that they were looking out especially for this particular unit.

Denniston picked up the phone and relayed the contents of the information through the scrambler device. Soon a number of other phones were ringing and planning staffs were given a problem to solve. Movement orders were issued, it was going to be a tight timetable, but it was a high value target, and worth the effort.
13 - 14 April 1941
13 April 1941. 06.30 hrs. Over the North Sea.

Flight Lieutenant John Woodside was enjoying being in the air again, even though his navigator, Flight Sergeant Arthur Grant was in his usual grumpy mood. Their photoreconnaissance Mosquito had been grounded far too long, and once again man and machine were tied together in the aircraft’s element. Taking off from RAF Benson while it was still dark, he had been flying now for an hour and in another hour or so would start descending towards the airfield at Sola where his fuel tanks would be filled again and the mission begin in earnest.

Going by what was said in the briefing at 03:00hrs the rest of the squadron would be making fairly similar flights, though all taking different routes and timings. Flying this far into East Prussia was unusual. Most the work since the squadron became operational had been in support of the army’s advances; Berlin and Stettin were the furthest east he’d ever flown. Flying from Sola in Norway they would pass down the Kattegat, avoiding Swedish airspace, then eastwards over the Baltic, turning south past Konigsberg they would be photographing the area between Rastenburg and Lötzen. Part of Arthur Grant’s grumpiness was just how little in the way of charts of the area were available and how unknown the area was for anti-aircraft emplacements, though they were warned there was likely to be a warm reception for them.

Woodside had survived his time on Blenheims in 1940, more by good luck than good management, most of his pre-war squadron mates hadn’t. The “wooden wonder” he was now flying was indeed a wonder, it was well named. The PR version he was flying was stripped down to focus only on fuel to get them there and cameras to do the work. He had every confidence that his aircraft could get its mission done and return safely, even if Bf 109s were in the area. There was no doubt he could leave them in his slipstream, so fast was the Mosquito. Grant interrupted his musings with a course correction, and the aircraft responding like a thoroughbred to the controls. It felt good be doing what he was doing.

13 April 1941. 07.30 hrs. Linton-on-Ouse. Yorkshire.

The navigators had been getting their own briefing while the pilots had theirs. The news last night that there would be flying conditions today meant that no one was too surprised to be going through this process. The target however was a bit off the beaten track. Many of the crews were well used to targets that involved the rail network of the German Reich, but attacking so far to the east was new.

It was obviously going to be a long day. On previous operations they’d all flown to Norway to refuel before going on into the Reich. The plan today was to get to Norway, then wait for confirmation of the target, then take off, hit somewhere in East Prussia, then fly back to Norway again, and be ready to do it all over again the next day. The Mustang escort group would do the same, so there should be some support to protect them. There was a possibility that the primary target wasn’t going to happen, so this part of the briefing was looking at the alternative target.

The information was that the railways into East Prussia were busier than usual, and Deutsch Eylau was a major junction. If the primary target wasn’t on, then this untouched part of Germany would soon feel the full force of the Halifaxes of Bomber Command.

13 April 1941. 08:00 hrs. Leer, Germany.

The Belgian army had played a crucial role in the fighting that contributed to the liberation of Holland. General Alan Brooke had asked that the III Corps of the Belgian Army, consisting of 2nd Cavalry Division, 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions would support the left flank of British First Army’s push towards the Weser, which the Corps Commander, General Beernaert was happy to do. General August Colpin, commanding 2nd Division had overseen the crossing of the Emse, which thankfully was only lightly opposed, and had taken the town of Leer with very little fighting. During the night the Valentines and DAF M39 armoured trucks of the 2nd Cavalry Division had been rafted across the river.

General Albert Mersch, OC 2nd Cavalry Division had impressed as a Colonel defending against the German attack on Belgium in May 1940. Almost a year later his men were enjoying “repaying the compliment”. General Lozet and his men of 3rd Division were awaiting the chance to get across the river and take their place in the fight. The objective was the German coast, and the towns of Emden, Norden and Aurich. The British were making their way towards Wilhelmshaven, and the Belgians would mop up any resistance on their flank. Thankfully the weather had cleared, though the ground was sodden with all the rain, meaning that the Belgian tanks would have to stick to the roads. This particular part of Germany was marshy and full of drainage ditches, and the roads were limited.

The Belgian squadrons working in the RAF structure were providing support and a squadron of Hurribombers were on call for ground attack, as well as a couple of Lysanders which provided the artillery spotters with a platform to do their job from. Two flights of four Spitfires were providing top cover, though they were being told by ground control that they were alone in the sky. The other half of the squadron was on standby at their airfield and would replace the two flights as their fuel status made it necessary for them to return to base.

The German army units in the area were few and far between, very few put up any resistance at all, others just a token resistance before surrendering. The exception was in Emden, where the Nordseewerke Emden GmbH, which had been building submarines, was stoutly defended by a mixed unit of Kriegsmarine sailors and some Luftwaffe flak units. Why these chose to fight when so many of their compatriots didn’t was a mystery to the Belgian soldiers. Two Hurribombers were shot down by light flak, killing both pilots, but the combination of napalm from the aircraft and artillery from the army soon put an end to the fighting. There were a substantial number of civilians who were killed and injured in the cross-fire and inaccurate shelling. Belgian casualties were 34 dead and 86 wounded. Four Valentine tanks were destroyed beyond repair, as were a number of other vehicles. Very few of the defenders survived to be taken to POW camps, those that did had to spend some time recovering from their injuries first.

13 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Aschaffenburg, Germany.

The arrival of air support was a mixed blessing. A force of forty bombers had plastered the town with High Explosives, however one bomber missed and killed 24 French troops, injuring many more. The losses caused the French follow up attack to be delayed, allowing the German defenders to recover enough that when the attack did go ahead, it met a solid wall of resistance. The piles of rubble also gave the Germans plenty of material for making their strongpoints more secure, and hampered the French attackers, ruling out the use of chars to give close support to the infantry.

More useful, though less obvious to the troops fighting hand to hand in the town, was the work being done by a squadron of Bloch 174s, who were interdicting German supplies and reinforcements being moved up into Aschaffenburg. This would have consequences later in the day. The cost of three aircraft to ground fire was considered a price worth paying, especially in proportion to the numbers of infantry troops being killed and injured in the attacks. Most of the civilian population had been evacuated before the fighting began, making the whole area a free-fire zone.

The French engineers had managed to get a ferry system working so that supplies and reinforcements were able to get across the river quickly enough, the expenditure of ammunition, especially grenades, was astronomical. Superior numbers were beginning to tell, however a lot of fighting and dying was still to be done before the town and its hinterland were in French hands.

13 April 1941. 14:30hrs. Sola Airfield. Norway.

Flight Lieutenant John Woodside and his navigator, Flight Sergeant Arthur Grant, were enjoyed a hot cup of tea. The flight over East Prussia had been “hairy” in Grant’s words. The aircraft had brought them home despite some flak damage. The encounter with a brace of Bf 109s had been terrifying, but the “wooden wonder” had left them behind as it exited at top speed from the area. A team of photo analysists were locked away in a room pouring over the film they had brought back.

The airfield itself was crammed with planes, the Halifaxes had all been refuelled and the crews were waiting, none too patiently, for word to continue the mission or not. The Mustangs were at Oslo and the Norwegians had two squadrons of Spitfires in the air or at readiness to provide protection for the aircraft on the ground.

The sound of roaring Merlin engines made them look out of the dispersal hut to see another of their squadron’s Mosquitos coming in to land, it looked like it had some battle damage too. A car drew up beside it as it came to a standstill and soon the panels were being opened to access the film from the three cameras. The car roared off with the film to add it to that that Woodside had brought in.

Some minutes later Pilot Officer Kenny McGeachie and Flight Sergeant John Cairns joined them, hot tea being provided for them and the four men started sharing their stories of what had happened since flying off in the hour before dawn. Close shaves and admiration for their planes were shared. What they had taken photographs of didn’t give them too much clue to the big picture. As they waited another six of their squadron mates arrived in a twenty-minute period, undergoing the same ritual of having their photographic film rushed away for analysis, and the pilots heading for the dispersal hut for tea and sandwiches. A few of the aircraft didn’t have any signs of battle damage, but the majority had some. The navigator from one aircraft was taken off the base medical office with shrapnel wounds.

In an office provided for the analysists the newly printed photographs were pored over with great intensity, each new set adding to the jigsaw they were trying to complete. Naval Intelligence had given them some general direction of where specifically to look, though why the navy would know anything was a bit of a mystery. There was obviously a lot of camouflage happening, and a forest is a good place to hide things, but with an idea of what they were looking for, and the presence of enough flak to give the Mosquitos a bit of a fright, helped to pinpoint the main target.

Once the analysists had done their job, the planners went over the information and performed their own dark arts of matching fuel loads, bomb loads, meteorological information, flak displacements, timings and all the other things that go into getting bombers over a target with a reasonable chance of destroying it and getting them home again. The planners put their work before the decision makers. These senior RAF commanders looked at the information with a serious of questions: Was the target valuable enough? Was there a good enough chance of the mission succeeding? Would the benefits outweigh the potential losses? The answers were in the affirmative, and so the navigators had a briefing, the pilots had a briefing, the bomb aimers had a briefing.

Out on the airfield the armourers loaded up the odd mix of bombs that the Halifaxes would be carrying. Some cookies, some general purpose, some incendiaries, even some cluster bombs. The Norwegian airfields were used regularly for missions such as these and so they tended to have a range of bombs in their armouries. Mechanics checked over the aircraft once again. Refuelling trucks made sure they were all carrying the correct amount of fuel that would be necessary. The Messes made sure there was enough hot food to feed the aircrew.

A bombing mission was a complex affair, with each of its constituent parts having to work in harmony. Eighteen months into the war, Bomber Command was getting good at this. In this particular case all six operational squadrons of Halifax bombers, some 70 aircraft, escorted by six squadrons of Mustang fighters, timed to meet the bombers at various stages, began to lift off heading towards East Prussia.

13 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Unna. Germany.

The two French Lieutenants shook hands, the first officers from two armies to meet one another. The GRDI regiments of 2 DM of Seventh Army and 4 DM of First Army had finally made it into Unna, signalling the final encirclement of the Ruhr. It wasn’t clear just how many German divisions were trapped, how many had escaped, and how many had simply vanished into the civilian population. It did however complete one of the Entente’s main war aims, to cut the Reich off from its war-making heart.

Over the winter the Germans had tried to shift as much of their manufacturing capability away from the front line on the Rhine. In this they had been partly successful, however the loss of the coal from the Ruhr alone was enough to put a dagger through the heart of the Reich’s economy. The First and Seventh Armies would start to look at their next objectives. It would the job of Ninth Army, made up primarily of infantry divisions, to actually reduce the pocket.

13 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Over Copenhagen. Occupied Denmark.

Wing Leader Ragnar Dogger, with his wingman Lief Lundsten protecting his tail, had just shot down a Bf 109. He wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination, but it felt like the Luftwaffe pilot wasn’t much of an opponent. Intelligence had predicted that a lack of fuel would be hampering training for the German pilots, so maybe the remains burning in pyre on the ground that had once been a pilot and plane, hadn’t had much of a chance. For Dogger, it didn’t matter, better the German than himself, he’d lost enough comrades in the past.

His squadron had been the first to take delivery of the Spitfire II, with the four canon and improved performance, this had been his first victory in the new type. The difference between the eight machine guns and the four canons was clear, it only took about a second’s worth of hits to blow the Bf 109 out of the sky. Sometimes with the machine guns you had to pour in a lot of lead to make any kind of fatal damage.

The Danish and Norwegian fighter squadrons based in southern Norway were covering the Hurribombers who were hitting the German airfields again, and Dogger’s victim had obviously been trying to protect his base. There was a big RAF raid heading south over the area and these attacks were part of the job of clearing a path for the bombers as far south as possible. The use of drop tanks at the beginning of the mission had given them range to come this far, but it was time to head home, and let the Mustangs take over the job of protecting the bombers.

13 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Luftgau I HQ. Konigsberg. Germany.

Generalleutnant Richard Putzier was really starting to hate SS-Standartenführer Hans Rattenhuber with a passion. He had never been particularly keen on the SS as a whole, and for most of his career, he had had very few dealings with them. Since the abortive coup, and the death of Göring, Rattenhuber had seemed to believe that the Luftwaffe forces in Luftgau I were his own personal air force. Putzier even had an order signed by the Fuhrer to that effect. What made the whole thing worse, was that what had been a real backwater for the Luftwaffe the previous year, had actually become really busy. As the RAF and AdA had ravished the Luftwaffe’s airfields in the west, more and more aircraft had been repositioned in the east of the country and East Prussia had got more than its fair share.

One Kampfgeschwader of Ju88s and one of He 111s, two Jagdgeschwader of Bf 109s, one Zerstörergeschwader of Bf 110 and even the last Sturzkampfgeschwader of Ju 87s had recently arrived at the various airfields under his command. These additions to what was already the equivalent of ten Gruppe under his command meant that most of the remaining Luftwaffe were concentrating here. Putzier had begun to wonder why more and more aircraft were being reassigned to Luftgau I, until Rattenhuber had let slip the notion of a National Redoubt, which it suddenly made sense of.

The appearance today of twin engine, extremely fast bombers that no one had ever seen before, which from all accounts seemed to be on a photoreconnaissance mission, had brought Rattenhuber to Putzier’s Headquarters. East Prussia was one of the few places in the Reich with a working radar system, which seemed to have suddenly been taken over by the SS. Reports were coming in from Denmark that there was a large raid passing over them and an alert had been put out. Rattenhuber was adamant that the entirety of the Jagdgeschwader should be put up to defend the area around Rastenburg. When he shared the reason with Putzier, it became clear that his life was literally on the line. If the RAF managed to achieve their presumed objective, then the failure of the Luftwaffe would not be forgiven, heads would roll, starting with his own. Picking up the phone he began to issue orders.

The various airfields got the message and the aircraft at readiness were scrambled to protect their home bases. Meanwhile the rest of the staffels began to get ready. Unlike the British radar system which was at the heart of an integrated network, guiding defending fighters onto incoming bombing raids at optimum heights, the Germans relied much more on standing patrols over specific areas. Some information relayed from the radar units was eventually passed on to the men in the air, but it was literally hit or miss. While available fuel for the aircraft was a bit more plentiful in this part of the Reich than in others, the Gruppe Commanders weren’t keen on wasting too much of it for no good reason. It was only as the incoming raid was tracked by Luftwaffe pilots that ground staff were able to work out where and when to send their fighters to try to intercept it.

The result of the German system was that the British aircraft were harried by relatively small numbers of aircraft once they crossed over the Baltic heading for Rastenburg. The Mustang fighter pilots, took it in turns to drop down onto incoming German fighters to impede their attacks and in many cases to knock them out of the sky. They did their job of protecting the bombers, often beyond visual sight of the bomber crews. These bombers had a minimum of defensive armament, it had been decided that their best defence was in increased height and speed, keeping the crew to a minimum. They would have to rely on the Mustangs for protection. Their own tail gunners and a forward firing flexible mount in the bomb aimer’s position was a last ditch defence. The tally of German losses were mounting, but so were the British, both fighters, and increasingly bombers.

Light was fading quickly as the bombers finally reached their target. Flak was as heavy as they had encountered anywhere, but the proximity of a number of lakes gave the bomb aimers good aiming points. The bombing was on the whole accurate. The rail line into Rastenburg was obliterated, though the main target, Adolf Hitler’s train, Amerika, was safely hidden some distance away, as was the Fuhrer himself. The SS troops suffered heavy casualties from the bombing.

As the British bombers and fighters turned back for Norway, there were increasing attacks on them by German fighters. It was only the cover of night that eventually protected them from the worst of the Luftwaffe’s efforts. The Mustangs found it more and more difficult to defend the bombers as their fuel and ammunition were being depleted all too quickly. A total of thirteen British aircraft made emergency landings in Sweden, all damaged to some degree and often with wounded aircrew. The fact that the Swedes lit their runways so that the damaged aircraft could land safely was considered provocation by the Germans. The Swedish authorities impounded the RAF planes and informed the British Ambassador of their anger at the blatant abuse of their neutrality. The aircrew were treated well by the Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) personnel, and a couple of weeks later were delivered quietly across the border into Norway.

The losses for the RAF was nearly 20% of bombers and fighters. The extreme range and presence of large numbers of enemy aircraft were judged to have been the fundamental problem. In future it was clear that the numbers of fighter escorts would have to be increased so that a consistent level of support would be available all the way to the target and all the way back. A single Wing of fighters had proven to be insufficient in this case.

For the SS the fact that the RAF turned up at a time and place where they Fuhrer was almost certain to be convinced them that the treason which had dogged the Germans since the abortive Norwegian campaign was not resolved. Coupled with Jodl’s coup attempt, it was clear that the treason ran deep and wide. A new purge began, starting within the Deutsche Reichsbahn with the deaths of Julius Dorpmueller, the transport minister and his deputy Wilhelm Kleinmann. There were further purges in the OKW. All command positions within East Prussia were taken over by SS officers, many of whom were entirely unsuitable for their roles. Generalleutnant Richard Putzier’s body was dumped in a mass grave along with some of his senior officers. As more Wehrmacht officers were taken, never to be seen again, by SS troops, morale, already at rock bottom was hit hard.

13 April 1941. 19:00hrs. River Weser. Germany.

At three separate places units of British Third Army arrived at the river Weser. All day they had encountered little or no opposition, and with the support of the RAF, anywhere that did attempt to impede the progress of the British troops were quickly dealt with. It became clear from units that were captured, or the interrogation of civilian authorities that the order for all German army troops to withdraw behind the river had been given at some point in the last 24 or 48 hours.

The first to reach the river were the Australians at Nienburg. The road from Sulingen was undefended, though a few mines and other booby traps had been left by the retreating Germans. The towns and villages, now that the aircraft of the RAF were back in evidence were generally flying clear signals of surrender, to avoid being bombed or rocketed. 2nd/23rd Battalion’s Comets were pushing their way forward, supported by the infantry of 2nd/15th Battalion of 20th Brigade some riding on the tanks, others in lorries and other soft skinned vehicles. The engineers were always near the front ready to deal with any obstacles to the tanks’ progress. Behind them came the rest of 7th Australian Division and the rest of the Australian New Zealand Army Corps.

The second unit to reach the Weser were the men of the 56th (London) Division. The light opposition across the river Hunte had been the only opposition they had encountered that day. Other than being careful about mines, and having to deal with destroyed infrastructure, their progress was as quick as any they had made since they crossed the Rhine. The rest of VI Corps followed up, and widened the progress, finding, as others already had that all German resistance west of the Weser had ceased. There weren’t any great numbers of prisoners captured in large groups, but there were small groups captured and lots of military age men found among the civilian population, who were thought to be deserters. 53rd (Welsh) Division and 4th (Indian) Division, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade supporting them, found themselves spreading out, taking over control of the German countryside.

The third unit to reach the Weser was the 40th (Kings) RTR accompanied by fellow Liverpudlians, 9th Battalion, King's Regiment. As the spear point of 3rd Armoured Division pushing forward from Wildeshausen, they had the furthest distance to travel, through Syke and Blender towards the Weser at Verden. The fact that no bridges were found intact meant that there was no chance to force a way across the river quickly. It was clear from reconnaissance that there was a German effort to prepare defences on the east bank of the Weser. General Brooke had already informed the Entente Supreme Commander that the British forces would pause on the western bank of the Weser. There was a great deal of work that had to be done to be able to bring forward enough supplies along the fought over countryside to resupply the troops as well as the equipment necessary to force the next river.

The railway system west of the Rhine had been repaired enough to bring forward supplies from the main bases in France. While there were a number of bridges and ferries over the Rhine and supplies were crossing freely, the road and rail system east of the Rhine were having to be rebuilt. There was beginning to be a shortage of bridging equipment because so much had to be used already. The more permanent replacement of bridges over rivers like the Meuse was proceeding so that the temporary bridges could be moved eastwards.

With larger areas of Germany falling into Entente hands there was the need to police and occupy these areas. The Rhineland was quite well pacified and the Belgians were able to move a couple of their divisions across the Rhine. 9th (Highland), 15th (Scottish) and 47th (London) Divisions, used as line of communication troops were also being given the task of policing the occupied areas. In the British sector there weren’t very many very large cities that had to be occupied. There were plenty of towns and villages that needed to have a presence that kept the peace; made sure that civic structure didn’t break down; and begin the process of denazification that would be necessary.

14 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Spitfire B for Bertie over Bielefeld. Germany.

Squadron Leader Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle had begun the war flying Gloster Gladiators in Egypt with 80 Squadron. In late May 1940, he along with six of the experienced pilots from that squadron had been shipped to France to replace losses in 85 Squadron. The transition from the biplane Gladiator to the Spitfire had been a shock to the system, but Pattle had taken to it like a duck to water. The South African was a born leader and since he’d taken command of 258 Squadron when it was reformed in November 1940. He had moulded it into a first class unit. His personal tally of kills stood at thirty, most of these had occurred from May to September last year, and he had spent the winter back in Britain bringing the new squadron to readiness.

He had instilled in each of the pilots under his command his own philosophy of defeating the enemy. Every pilot had been drilled in deflection shooting. The pilots had spent a memorable week on the moors of Scotland shooting grouse and pheasant to help learn how to shoot a moving target. The following month, Pattle had led his new squadron on a “Red Flag” exercise. At RAF Valley in Wales, 1426 Squadron, the Rafwaffe, flew captured German aircraft, using German tactics. Each RAF and AdA squadron took turns to fly against the “aggressor” squadron to hone their dogfighting skills. Pattle’s squadron had had the best results of any new squadron, only veteran squadrons had ever achieved better results.

The squadron had also imbibed Pattle’s insistence on discipline and fitness. The pilots would regularly join their Squadron Leader for his daily exercises to sharpen his reflexes and overall fitness. They were a smart outfit, with excellent flying discipline. They would taxi in formation, take off in formation and land in formation.

In the air they were trained to be aggressive but not foolhardy. Any pilot who didn’t match up to Pattle’s high standards was given one chance to improve their game. Many pilots found themselves in a one-on-one engagement with their Squadron Leader to be shown their shortcomings. If they applied themselves to improving their skills they could stay, if not, they would be encouraged to transfer to another squadron.

258 Squadron had been declared operational on 6 January and assigned to 14 Group, being based at Mill in the Netherlands. The airfield was built by the Royal Engineers. Measuring the airfield in preparation for construction began on 10 December 1940, about 1 kilometre east of the village of Langenboom. Pressure from commanders was intense, so a start was made with the bulldozers of two Field Companies on 19 December. On 1 January 1941 it was announced that the airfield would have to be completed by early February, instead of early March. Additionally, because the airfield was to be built in a sparsely populated area, a barracks camp would have to be constructed.

The work was to be completed according to a new design, which proved to be simple and well-liked by the RAF commanders. The design was based around a large central runway, with an air wing on each side. Parallel to the runway were two taxi-tracks, with perpendicular to them the aircraft parking areas (two per squadron). At the end of these well protected dispersal sites, and parallel to the runway and taxi tracks, were the support roads, connecting to the local roads on each end. This allowed the service vehicles to reach all areas without interference with the aircraft. Two feet of topside peat was dug up and placed between the aircraft dispersals for protection.

The estimated completion date of 7 February became the fixed date for military planners. A Road Construction Company and a Pioneer Corps Company tried their utmost to complete the base in time. From mid-January they were augmented by another Road Construction Company. The weather remained bad however and it soon became clear that the improved Sommerfeld Matting would have to be laid on snow and frozen sand. On 30 January it stopped freezing and by the evening of 7 February the airfield was complete enough to support a single fighter wing. Further improvements had been made since its opening and it was now home to a wing of RAF Spitfires and a Belgian Hurribomber wing.

At a distance of 120 miles from the frontline, B89 as the RAF had romantically dubbed the Advanced Landing Ground, would soon be left behind as frantic work was being done in Holland and occupied Germany to get ALGs created closer to the front lines. The distance of 120 miles was also the reason that Pattle had one eye on his fuel gauge. The fuel in the drop tanks had been used up first, but he, and his flight of eight Spitfires, now had a limited loiter time above British Second Army. Yesterday had been their first combat patrols, and not a single Luftwaffe aircraft had showed itself. Pattle was getting concerned that the war would be over before any of his squadron managed to get any kills. One of his greatest assets as a pilot was exceptional vision, and movement drew his eyes to his prey. It seemed that the Luftwaffe was putting in an appearance today after all.

Some four thousand feet below him was a German formation of about fifty bombers and a similar number of fighters stacked above them. The raid had already been picked up by radar and Pattle’s ground controller ordered him to engage while other flights were directed onto the Luftwaffe raid. Calling “Tally Ho!” the Squadron Leader led his men into battle. The diving attack meant that his two flights of four hit the Ju88s with little warning. Closing to almost point-blank range, his first burst of fire from the four 20mm canons shattered the cockpit and forward fuselage of one of the Ju88s. This began to spiral towards the ground in a death ride.

Pulling up from the dive and making a hard turn to starboard his sights settled on a second bomber. Some part of his brain noticed tracer fire from the machine guns of the bomber coming in his direction, but he was completely focused on getting his own aim just right. The bomber in his sights attempted to evade, but the smoothness of his coordination simply brought the gun sight back onto the inner wing and port engine of his target. Another short blast from the canons tore through the wing and engine, causing the aircraft to roll onto its side, looking for all the world that it would be unable to continue to fly.

Assured by his wingman that his tail was clear, he saw that a brace of Bf 109s had closed with Yellow Section, one of the Spitfires had taken damage and trailing smoke. Calling for his wingman to follow him, Pattle pulled his aircraft once more into a high g turn and put himself on the tail of the second Bf 109. His burst of fire only knocked a few holes in the enemy’s tail, a last-minute manoeuvre spoiling Pattle’s aim.

Kicking the rudder, Pattle swerved the Spitfire into a shooting position and this time there was no mistake, the Bf 109 was obviously hit in a fuel tank and exploded spectacularly. Pattle’s wingman, PO Nicholas “Tubby” Harris, warned of another pair of enemy fighters on their tail. Calling on Harris to follow him, Pattle dived away from the Bf 109s, then performed a split S manoeuvre that brought him onto the tail of the enemy fighter. For the next few minutes, it became clear that his opponent was well versed in dogfighting. The two aces performed a ballet in the sky each attempting to get into a killing position. Harris took care of the enemy’s wingman and soon the German pilot knew that if he hung around, he would follow his comrade to a fiery end.

Diving out of the fight the German pilot raced for the deck, Pattle pulling up as he became aware once again of his fuel gauge. It was time to return to base. Of the eight Spitfires from the squadron which had started the fight two had been shot down, one parachute had been seen emerging. Two others had some damage, one of those meant it had to pancake down as its undercarriage had been damaged. In reply four Ju88s and four Bf109s were confirmed kills, and there were claims of another six enemy aircraft damaged.

As Pattle’s Spitfires headed home other squadrons tore into the German formation, which generally dropped their bombs anywhere and made a run for home. The Germans had aimed to support a counterattack against the southern flank of the British advance. The German infantry never saw the aerial battle, but were convinced once again that the Luftwaffe was no use to them at all.

14 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Sennelager. Germany.

Generalmajor Ernst Groschupf, Commander of Truppenübungsplatz Sennelager, one of the Wehrmacht’s training areas, had put together quite a force. Elements of XXX Corps (50th and 164th Divisions) had been arriving at Paderborn over the last couple of days. The general order to withdraw behind the Weser seemed nonsense of Groschupf. He had been able to see that there was a gap growing between the British Second Army and the French First Army. While the French had been intent on cutting off the Ruhr, the British were going all out for the Weser and Hannover. It was clear that a counterpunch in the correct place could do a lot of harm to the Entente’s plans.

The main part of the force was 126th Infantry Division which had been under formation in the training area since October. Groschupf was able to dip into the reserves of ammunition and fuel that he had successfully managed to hide from the SS. Most of the three infantry regiments (422, 424, and 426) were at an advanced level of training, and were fully equipped. The arrival of elements of 50th and 164th Divisions added another four infantry regiments to his force. Panzer Regiment 203 had been formed in January around a core of survivors of various units that had fought in the previous year, with new additions. It was equipped with a mixture of Panzer IIIs and Jagdpanzers. The surviving artillery regiments from XXX Corps had also arrived, further strengthening the power of the scratch force. The force took the name of Combat Group Sennelager. Groschupf had contacts in the Luftwaffe and had got agreement that there would be an effort to hit the British at Gütersloh, timed to coincide with the ground attack. Everyone told him that the chances of the Luftwaffe actually managing to show up and do anything was ridiculous and not to rely on it.

The German start line was Stuckenbrock. Two regiments from 50th Division would cut the roads to Bielefeld and act as the flank protection. The two regiments from 164th Division would force their way into Gütersloh and then protect that flank. With the Panzer Regiment as the main punch, 126th Division would curve around through Warendorf towards Münster. If Groschupf’s intelligence was correct, that would put his force between the British Second Army and French First Army, splitting the Entente forces. The opposition, according to his intelligence were elements of the British 1st Mechanised Corps, particularly 50th Division, which seemed to be the flank guard. The bad weather unfortunately had cleared, that left the German forces at the mercy of the RAF. Combat Group Sennelager had a fair amount of anti-aircraft weapons and the Luftwaffe had promised a strong fighter presence to protect the counterattack.

As planned, the attacks on Bielefeld and Gütersloh had gone well in the first hours. At Bielefled the German soldiers had been confronted by two companies of 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, and had pushed them back quickly. They had also surprised a number of rear echelon troops many of whom were captured. At Gütersloh, a similar situation had arisen with elements of 8th Battalion of the DLI. The panzers burst through the light cordon that was provided by the motorcycle troops of the 4th Battalion the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, making good progress towards Harsewinkel. There were plenty of small fights along the way, but most of the roads were filled with British vehicles carrying supplies forward to support the First Armoured Division and 51st Division’s push towards Minden and the Weser.

General William Ramsden’s HQ started getting panic laden calls for help just after dawn. A picture of a German counterattack began to clarify itself on the map boards. The Division’s RAF liaison was already hard at work putting together a response. Ramsden tried to get some kind of order into the chaos that had overtaken his division. Most of his three Brigades were stretched out over a fairly large area, and while they were very mobile, being able to concentrate them against the Germans at a particular spot, was going to be problematic. He contacted Q Martel the Corps Commander and Jumbo Wilson the Army Commander to inform them of what was happening. Percy Hobart’s Armoured Division, supported by the 51st Division, were attempting to take Minden. Looking for any crossings they could find over the canal and river there. Martel realised that it would take too long for them to turn around to hit the Germans from the East. The fact that they cut off from their supplies, put them in danger of being stuck in place.

Wilson spoke to Harold Alexander, who’s V Corps were to the west of Münster. Wilson asked him to push as much as he could into the town, while keeping a solid link with the French to his south. Alexander had Roderic Petre’s 12th Division respond as quickly as he could to Wilson’s orders. The other army asset at Wilson’s disposal was 3rd Armoured Brigade. Like much of the army the three Royal Tank Regiments were spread out and doing maintenance on their Matilda II tanks. Once the order was received, 2nd and 3rd RTR began making best speed towards Münster, where they would join 12th Division. In the meantime, Ramsden did his best to muster the rest of his division ,ordering units in the path of the Germans to hold as best they could while other units would try to probe the German flanks.

14 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Graz. Austria.

General Hubert Schaller-Kalide, commander of Wehrkries (Defence District) XVIII had had to move his headquarters to Graz. Klagenfurt was in Italian hands now, as was Villach and Lienz. Further west, Innsbruck was still in German hands, demolition work in the Brenner Pass had slowed the Italians down considerably. His only plan, and it was working to some degree, was to trade land for time. A German unit would make a stand until it looked like the Italians were fully deployed and ready to make an assault, then they would pull back. The next German unit would do the same, leapfrogging across one another. This way, a large part of his force was still intact and, he hoped, frustrating the Italians. Frustrating them was the best he could hope for. Stopping them with the resources at his disposal was impossible.

Every time he contacted Berlin he seemed to speak to a different General, it wasn’t clear just who exactly was in charge. The indifference he got from them was unbelievable. “Don’t you know the Ruhr is cut off?” “Don’t you know the British are at Bremen?” The fact that the Italians were taking bits of Austria was neither here nor there to Berlin. The Anschluss didn’t seem to matter anymore. In his heart of hearts he really just wanted to surrender to the Italians and get the whole thing over and done with. It was obvious that the war was lost, and he was just throwing away the lives of his men. On the other hand, the Italians were meant to be allies. The Pact of Steel obviously meant nothing and Mussolini was just like a vulture picking at the carcass of Germany, taking advantage of the situation. He would probably have waited until the Germans were at the gates of Paris before joining the war against the French last May. Now he had turned his coat and had invaded the Reich. For that Schaller-Kalide couldn’t forgive him, and so wouldn’t just roll over and eat pasta.

14 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Harsewinkel. Germany.

Captain Tom Davies, Royal Army Service Corps, wasn’t really prepared for this, neither emotionally or professionally. His was a fairly ordered life, making sure the lorries delivered the right stuff to the right place at the right time. He had his Sterling submachine gun in his hands, and forty-six “odds and sods” trying to defend this road junction from the approaching German army. An army which by all accounts was meant to be defeated and on the run. Well, the men he could see were running right enough, but in his direction following a Panzer IV. A Platoon of Durham Light Infantry were somewhere off to his left in another part of the town. At least they seemed to know what to do. Davies was the senior British officer in place and the young DLI Second Lieutenant had deferred command of Harsewinkel to him. The men had thought the name of the town was a joke, with all sorts of ribald comments, but it certainly wasn’t funny anymore.

The team with the Boys Anti-tank rifle were in a pit that would hopefully give them a half decent chance at a shot at the tank’s side. The DLI had a Carl Gustav, but they were protecting one of the other roads into the town. The problem with using drivers and cooks and other non-infantry types was that they just weren’t trained well enough for this kind of thing. Glancing around at the faces of his small HQ team Davies could see that they were just as nervous as he was.

The Boys rifle spoke and everyone could hear the round bounce off the tank. So much for that. The sergeant commanding that “platoon” had the only Bren gun, as well as the Boys, and it opened up almost simultaneously, which was the signal for everyone to pour as much fire as possible into the approaching Germans, even from the Sterlings which were probably out of range.

Davies could see the grey-clad infantry going to ground. Maybe some were hit, maybe they were just taking cover. The turret of the panzer was swivelling when the second shot from the Boys hit it. Once again it just bounced off. The co-axial machine gun opened up, as did the one in the front of the hull. Fire from the Bren gun ceased suddenly. Davies hoped it was a stoppage, but it was probably much worse than that. Fire from the sergeant’s position, like that of the Bren died away.

The other main position kept up the level of rifle fire, but a second Panzer IV had appeared, an explosion marked its short 75mm gun’s arrival into the fight. Davies could see a few of the men break cover and run. They seemed to have left their rifles behind, so they probably weren’t trying to move to a secondary position. Captain Davies could feel the same urge in himself, to run and keep running.

There wasn’t much more the survivors could do. They had no response to the German tanks and they had done what they could. Behind him in the town the lorries were burning, as were most of the stores, especially the petrol. That was the one piece of advice the DLI platoon sergeant had insisted on, not to let it fall into enemy hands. Davies had balked at that, it was his responsibility, but he had to agree.

The Germans would take back this arse winkle, but he hoped it wasn’t worth it for them. He threw down the Sterling and ordered the men within earshot to do the same. Standing up with both hands in the air, hoping not to be shot, he surrendered his motley force to the Germans. The sound of gunfire continued from the other side of the town which suggested the DLI were still putting up a fight. But as his twenty-four surviving men were rounded up and marched off, those sounds died away too.

14 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Warendorf. Germany.

The Beaufighters arrived first. They were generally carrying cluster bombs and were looking for the main anti-aircraft sites. The Germans relied heavily on towed 20mm AAA and these were the subject of much of the Beaufighter’s work. Cluster munitions are indiscriminate and other elements of the German forward units were hit. By the time the twenty surviving Beaufighters left the area, leaving four of their comrades as funeral pyres, there was very little anti-aircraft fire left other than rifle calibre machineguns.

That was when the Hurribombers arrived. There were forty-eight of these, and the vast majority carried napalm. The majority of the German divisions which relied heavily of horses, when caught in the open, napalm caused horrific devastation. Infantry Regiment 424 of Combat Group Sennelager was mostly motorised, but nonetheless the napalm eviscerated the units that had the misfortune of being attacked by it. The Hurribombers then each used their four 20mm canons add to the destruction before returning to base to refuel and rearm.

The arrival of an army cooperation Lysander was hardly noticed by the Germans trying to sort themselves out after the two raids. On board the aircraft, the Royal Artillery observer was in contact with two field regiments of Royal Artillery equipped with 25-pdr guns. Concentrating on German units untouched by the RAF attack, further devastation was wrought on the German soldiers by the artillery.

As a fighting unit, Infantry Regiment 424 was no longer capable of fulfilling its role. The survivors were either too shocked by the devastation or too busy trying to help their wounded comrades. The commanding officer and his staff had been in some half-tracks which had disappeared in a napalm fireball. The commander of the battalion that had been least affected, now found himself as the senior surviving officer but found it very difficult to gain control of the units now technically under his command.

14 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Chungking, China.

Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Martha Gellhorn, had shared a lunch meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalists. Hemingway and Martha were covering the Sino-Japanese War for the New York based PM newspaper, just as they had covered the Spanish Civil War. As he was writing down his notes in preparation for writing an account of the lunch, what struck him most forcibly was the upbeat mood of the Chinese leader. The war had never been going well for the Chinese, the Japanese army always seemed to have the upper hand. The Chinese Communists were sometimes a help, but more often than not a hindrance to stopping the invader.

Martha had asked the question if he believed that the Japanese could be defeated and China be once again united. His unequivocal yes in response was more than a politician putting a positive face on for the press. The obvious follow up question was why he was so positive. His answer was something that Hemingway was using to hang the article around.

The first part of Kai-shek’s optimism seemed to be an attempt to butter up his American visitors. There was a large and wealthy China lobby in the United States. President Dewey’s isolationist stance was generally applauded among large sections of the American population. There were also a significant number of people who saw the Japanese invasion of China and events such as the rape of Nanking as being a matter of the greatest concern. As the defeat of Nazism in Europe looked more and more likely, Japanese aggression and International Communism were the two great causes that gripped the American consciousness. FDR had got around the neutrality acts because the war in China had never officially been declared, that had allowed Kai-shek to be the recipient of American aid. While President Dewey made a great deal of noise about enforcing the law, he hadn’t stopped the aid which had been budgeted for during his predecessor’s tenure.

The China Lobby were hard at work trying to keep American dollars rolling in, both public and private money. Hemingway learned that Madame Chiang Kai-shek was planning an “awareness raising” tour of the USA later in the year. What Hemingway was able to read between the lines was that the money coming from America was being spent on increased and better military equipment. Certainly, from his last few visits to Chinese units he was seeing more and more ex-German rifles, machine guns, mortars, artillery and even tanks in evidence. Between the Burma Road and the railway from French Indo-China, large quantities of arms and ammunition were arriving for the Chinese Army.

The second part of Kai-shek’s positivity seemed to be coming from support from the French and British. Surplus aircraft, not fit for the war in Europe, but perfectly acceptable for a Chinese air force, were also arriving. The training of pilots was still an issue, though the American Colonel Chennault was working very hard to train up the Chinese pilots as well as he could. 40 SPAD 510 bi-planes and 90 Bloch 151s coming in very useful for this task, which was just as well because getting P40s from Curtiss Wright was no longer going to happen.

Kai-shek had managed to get an agreement with the British and French banks to support Bank of China loans that would allow the Chinese to buy French and British aircraft. Morane-Saulnier and Hawker had both been approached to provide aircraft for the Chinese Air Force. Most of Hawker’s factories were already tooling up to building the Typhoon that was due to replace the Hurricane and Hurribomber. Gloster’s factory was the only one continuing to build Hurricanes and Hurribombers and was due to continue doing so until 1942. These were now aimed at the foreign market and China’s order was likely to be a big one. Likewise, Morane-Saulnier had lost out to Dewoitine and Bloch for the main French AdA types. They had been given permission by the French government to produce their improved MS 540 for foreign sales. The Swiss and the Chinese were both interested in this aircraft for their air forces.

The third part of Kai-shek’s positive outlook seemed to come from the problems that the Chinese Communists seemed to be having. Japan and the Soviet Union seemed to attempting some kind of rapprochement, and one element of that was shown in a weakening of Soviet support for Mao’s forces. While Kai-shek’s foreign support was increasing his strength, the Communists were struggling. Once again reading between the lines, Hemingway guessed that there was some kind of purge going on within the Communist Party. This smelled a lot like someone was running a covert operation to weaken the Party. Who was responsible, and how it was financed, would probably never be known, but there had been some unexplained deaths and assassinations that various factions were blaming on one another.

As Hemingway put a sheet of paper into his typewriter and poured himself another drink, Martha sat down and went over with him her own impressions. Martha was keen to visit Chennault’s training camp, as it would make a good story for the paper. They already knew that Chennault’s request for American Air Corps pilots to be allowed to volunteer had been turned down in Washington. It was clear however that Chennault had some kind of cadre of pilots who were training the Chinese. Where this cadre came from and how they got here was going to be a very interesting, Hemingway also wondered how they were being paid. Turning back to the typewriter Hemingway started to type, trying to imagine how someone in New York would read it over their breakfast in a few days’ time.

14 April 1941. 16:00hrs. HMS Illustrious. South China Sea.

The crew of the “Lusty” were a strange mixture of seasoned Royal Navy men and trainees from the Royal Australian Navy. The Australians were being trained in all aspects of the running of an aircraft carrier, in preparation for the delivery of HMAS Melbourne. The first draft of trainees that had passed through HMS Illustrious were now in Barrow-in-Furness, working with the ship builders to prepare for the commissioning of the ship. This second draft were mostly concerned with flight operations, the first had been concentrated in the engineering department.

The threefold exercise that was currently going on was to get a strike package of the carrier’s aircraft into the air. For the aircraft to have a live ammunition practice. Then to recover them and do it all over again. To the commander of the air wing. it was like an intricate dance. First to be spotted on deck was a Sussex helicopter, with the role of attempting to rescue any downed aircrew. The CAP of four Sea-Hurricanes were already in the air as normal, these would need to be replaced last. A radar equipped Swordfish was on anti-submarine patrol, it too would be replaced in due course. The strike package consisted of twelve torpedo armed Swordfish; twelve Skuas outfitted for dive-bombing; and twelve Sea-Hurricanes as escort. To round out the strike package were two ASV equipped Fulmars, these were acting as command aircraft.

Because this was a live fire exercise, the ammunition handlers had been through a great many dry runs. The Petty Officers watched like hawks every move by the artificers to make sure that all possible safety precautions were followed to the letter. The same happened with the men responsible for the fuelling of the aircraft. The movement of the aircraft from the hanger to the deck, in fact every element of the process, was checked and double checked. All of this meant that the timing was much slower than desired, and the timetable began to drift. Eventually, with the pilots of the CAP beginning to fear for their fuel state, 38 aircraft were launched, one Skua ditching on take-off, the unlucky crew were picked out of the water by the Sussex helicopter.

Three old merchant ships had been stripped out, their hulks would be the targets for the live fire exercise. The sinking of all three proved most satisfactory, though it had taken all the torpedoes and 500lb bombs of the air group. Proving that hitting sitting targets wasn’t quite as straightforward for all the pilots. The Squadron Leaders took note of which of their pilots would have extra drills to improve their aim. The Sea-Hurricanes were put through their paces with the arrival of two flights of land-based Mustangs from 243 Squadron. The fact that the RAF had actually found them was something of a surprise to the Fleet Air Arm pilots. The RAF did have help from a Sunderland which guided them to the target area. The skills of the seasoned FAA pilots were generally of a higher standard than the RAF pilots, though the Mustang easily outperformed the Sea-Hurricanes. The Sea-Hurricanes managed to prevent most of the Mustangs breaking through onto the torpedo and dive bombers. Theoretically the FAA had won the exercise, though it would have been a pyrrhic victory if it had been done for real.

On returning to the carrier, a Sea-Hurricane made a mess of its landing and the aircraft and pilot were both lost over-board. The dance began again, to land the aircraft, and then move them around as if to prepare them for a second strike. As darkness was approaching, the decision had been made not to go ahead with that part of the exercise. The earlier delays would mean the aircraft would be returning to land in darkness after the second strike. There were already enough lessons to be learned. Each of the teams would be going over and over what would need to be improved to make getting a strike package into the air, landed and turned around for a second strike quicker. Overall, the senior officers were pleased enough with the progress that the newer men had made since they had arrived on board. They had little doubt that another month or two of intensive training would have them ready to ship over to HMAS Melbourne when she was ready to sail.

14 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Minden. Germany.

General Percy Hobart was in two minds. 51st Division’s 153rd Brigade, supported by tanks of The Queen’s Bays, had successfully completed their objectives. They not only had control of most of Minden, but also an intact crossing of the Mittellandkanal. This allowed a reconnaissance force to move north and make a link up with Montgomery’s 3rd Army. A likely looking spot where a crossing of the Weser could be done had also been found. On the other hand, the Germans had cut his supply routes and General Q Martel, his Corps commander, wanted his tanks to go back towards Munster and reopen those supply lines.

10th Royal Hussars in their cruiser A13mkIVs, and 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, had been 1st Armoured Division’s reserve for the attack on Minden. When news of the German counterattack to the Division’s rear had arrived, they were put on alert to go back down the road they had travelled, to sort out the German attack. Likewise, 154th Brigade (1st Battalion Black Watch, 7th, 8th Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) of 51st Highland Division, also in reserve, got a similar order. They were well equipped for the mobile battle, and together with the Hussars, it was a powerful battlegroup.

Hobart argued that the chance to jump the Weser was too important to be relegated to “policing supply lines”. He noted that the Corps had enough petrol and ammunition to make the attack, and press on into the heart of Germany. General Brooke’s order was to halt on the Weser. This would let the three British Armies sort themselves out, before a general assault across the river. Martel was insistent with Hobart to get the Hussars and Rifle Brigade on the road to support 154th Brigade. With 12th Division concentrating in Münster, there was a real chance to encircle a large German force. Hobart made his feelings known but acquiesced to the order.

By the time the officers got the order and sorted out the line of march and timetable it became clear that the main attack would only really be able to be done at dawn the next day. 154th Brigade concentrated in Herford and would push on towards Bielefeld. Hobart’s men would circle further south to Bad Salzuflen, then Detmold. Cutting across the German training area, they would cut the counterattack off at its base of operations. A second battlegroup of 9th Queen's Royal Lancers with 2nd Battalion Royal Rifle Corps would continue southwards from Detmold and continue on to Paderborn. This should have been a French objective, but the 1re and 7e French armies were still dealing with closing the Ruhr pocket.

14 April 1941. 19:00hrs. Telgte. Germany.

The scout platoon of Panzer Regiment 203 had been probing along the various routes, looking for the path of least resistance, to bring the panzers and infantry as far as possible into the British lines of communications. As a rule, they tended to avoid getting into fights themselves, though shooting up enemy trucks and stragglers was normal practise. They had lost a Sd. Kfz. 232 armoured car in an ambush. The four man crewed were killed as they fled the burning vehicle. That British unit had paid the ultimate price for that piece of work. One of the Panzer IIs had to be abandoned after it developed mechanical problems. The river Emse had generally covered their right flank, but here at Telgte there was a bridge that the British had constructed, replacing that which had been blown up during the retreat.

The Captain in charge of the scout platoon watched through his binoculars as British troops were obviously preparing to defend the town and its bridge. As far as he could judge there was at least two companies of infantry, but there was also at least a battery of anti-aircraft guns, Bofors 40mm guns, which looked as if they were preparing for a dual role of defending the town from aerial or ground attack. As he watched he noticed something well camouflaged, it took him a few minutes to work out what it was. On further examination, now he had a notion of what to look for, he saw another five or six. The British had tanks here. At a guess they were probably Matilda IIs. He crawled back down the hill and got onto the radio to report what he had seen. It looked as if the British had got their act together.

The Commander of the Panzer Regiment took the report and consulted the map. There was an alternative southern route that would take them from Everswinkle towards Wolbeck. But if British panzers were appearing at Telgte, then it could be that they would be appearing elsewhere. Whatever road he took there would be a fight. Moving westwards towards Münster there was always going to be the problem of crossing the Dortmund-Ems Kanal. If he could get across the Emse here and head north, that would continue to impact the British supply lines. Consulting with General Groschupf, they agreed that during the night they would prepare to attack Telgte and get across the river Emse, then continue northwards.

It would take the rest of the evening and night to get the infantry up in large enough numbers to support the panzer attack at dawn. The scout platoon commander was ordered to get as much information as possible about the British dispositions to assist in planning the attack.

14 April 1941. 20:00hrs. Münster. Germany.

General Petre arrived at British HQ in Münster. He was proud of 12th Division’s staff. They had managed to get two of the three Brigades, which had been on occupation duties and resting. They were now fully equipped in their new positions along the Dortmund-Ems Canal. 35th and 36th Brigades had moved north and south of Münster respectively. In Münster itself 25th Brigade of 50th Division had been concentrating, ready to work with the arriving 3rd RTR, to push back against the German attack. General Jumbo Wilson, commander of British 2nd Army was confident that the plan to bag the German troops was coming together.

General Prételat had been informed of the German attack, and had given warning to the French armies to be prepared to support the British if necessary. It was becoming clear that the German attack was limited in scope, more of a nuisance that a major threat. The opportunity to take another three German divisions off their order of battle was welcome. Looking over the maps at the Entente’s progress for the last twenty-four hours was encouraging.

Other than this counter attack, most German resistance up to the Weser was limited. The fighting around the river Main was continuing, That was a grinding effort, but General Sivot was convinced that his men would prevail shortly, opening up a drive southwards into Bavaria. Negotiations with the German commander of the Ruhr pocket were looking like they would produce a surrender, which would make a huge difference to the French First Army Group.

German radio had made no reference to the British attempt to kill Hitler in East Prussia, but German radio wasn’t what it used to be. The best intelligence estimates were that the Nazi apparatus were withdrawing to the East and letting the rest of the Germans to get on with it. This of course was being relayed continually by British and French radio in their German programs. Hoping that the “abandonment” of the German people by their so-called leadership would cause an even quicker collapse. It seemed that the commander in the Ruhr looked as if he was being persuaded of this.

The situation from the point of view of supplies was also looking quite satisfactory. There had been a briefing which had noted while expenditure of stocks of ammunition continued to be high, the factories in Britain and France, and increasingly in Belgium, were keeping pace. Petrol, oil and lubricants were also available in good quantities. As General Brooke had noted, the problem of supply was getting enough forward to the front line over ground that had been fought over. Bridging equipment was one of the crucial factors, especially in the Netherlands. The repair of the railroads and their bridges was amongst the highest of priorities. Civilian rail companies from Britain and France had been asked to provide their expertise and spare stock to put the European rail network back together.

Since May last year the numbers of Entente casualties was running at nearly 400000, about one third of that number dead and the rest wounded or missing. The infantry soldiers as usual took the highest losses, the pilots and aircrew of the air forces likewise had suffered heavily. Estimated German casualties were somewhere nearer three times that number, with a larger proportion of these as captured. The number of German civilian deaths wasn’t entirely clear, but certainly higher than French and British equivalents. The Dutch and Belgian civilian losses were worse as they had been fought over twice. It wasn’t the Great War in terms of losses, but it was bad enough. There was still a good bit of fighting to be done, though why the Germans didn’t just give up when they were so obviously defeated already was a mystery.
15 - 16 April 1941
15 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Knook Camp, Warminster. England.

Today was his birthday, not that much would be made of that fact, for Private Alex Brown and his mates, this was their last morning at this training establishment. After he turned 19 the previous April, he’d received his call up papers, reporting on 17 June at Fort George near Inverness to start his basic training. After he had completed that he’d continued on to do the infantry training and battle school. Then he had been selected to be trained on the 6-pdr anti-tank gun and had spent the winter here on Salisbury Plain becoming proficient in all aspects of the gun and the Loyd carrier that would tow it. Time off had been spent in Bath and Salisbury, and there was a nice girl in Bath he'd met at a dance that he hoped to keep writing to after he joined his battalion.

Brown proudly wore the badge of the Seaforth Highlanders on his Tam 'O Shanter. Today would be the start the journey to Germany to join the Support Company of 6th Battalion, part of 5th Division. There were another 120 men who would be making the journey to join various battalions. All the chat was whether or not the fighting would be over before they got to their units. The newsreels they had seen in the camp cinema would give them the impression that it was just about all over bar the shouting. Though most of the men knew that the newsreels deliberately painted a rosier picture than reality.

He had lost touch with a lot of the men he’d started basic training with. Some had been chosen for other training courses, one of his pals he had made was still learning to be a radio operator. Most of them would have gone over to Germany already as infantrymen. A few had been noted for special qualities, these were either training to be officers or other more specialised jobs. Some poor blokes had had to learn to type and were off to be clerks. Brown and the others went through the usual motions, beloved by the army before anything could happen. “Hurry up and wait” seemed to be the army motto. But on time, which was a surprise in itself, the group of men were formed up and marched off to the railway station to begin their journey. Hefting their kitbags and rifles, they were glad it was only five miles, though their fitness levels were well able to do more.

15 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Over Northern Germany.

Oberstleutnant Adolf Galland, German’s top ace with 57 kills, had lost so many comrades over the last twelve months that he had become almost blasé about his possible fate. He had another seven pilots with him on this patrol, none of them had much more than a few hours on the Bf109Es that they were flying. French attacks on the Messerschmitt factory had delayed the introduction of the F model, and against the Spitfires the Emil was really struggling.

Galland had hoped to bounce some Hurribombers that were the scourge of the Wehrmacht. At least the Bf109 had a good chance of outperforming them. His flight had been intercepted by Spitfires and he was currently in the fight of his life. The British always seemed to know just exactly where to be. How they did so, remained something of a mystery. The theory that they had an integrated radar system seemed to be the best explanation. As Galland made another tight turn, he could see one of the Bf109s going down in flames. He didn’t have time to see if the pilot bailed out. His manoeuver brought him a deflection shot that took a chunk out of a Spitfire’s tail, and that aircraft dived away from the fight. The odds still weren’t good, and bugging out had worked in the past, so he made another high-G turn and dove towards the ground.

Flight Lieutenant “Paddy” Finucane saw one of the Bf109s diving away from the fight and reckoned he had a good chance of cutting off his escape route, calling on the R/T for his wingman to follow him. The 65 Squadron pilot already had four kills to his name, but it was getting more and more difficult to find a Luftwaffe plane to shoot down. As he suspected, he was able to bring his Spitfire into a shooting position, firing off a burst from his four canons. The German pilot swerved at the last second, meaning most of the shells flew past the airframe, expect one that hit the rear tail plane. Finucane lined up for a second shot and once more the target evaded him.

This was obviously no novice pilot. They were almost a tree top level now and the RAF pilot pulled up slightly to get a better angle on the German. In the few seconds that he lost sight of the Bf109, the German dropped his undercarriage, slowing the aircraft dramatically, so that he was now on Finucane’s tail. Galland poured a burst of fire that brought down the Spitfire, Finucane had no chance. Sergeant Harry Orchard, Finucane’s wingman, was in a position to immediately avenge his friend’s death. He had good angle for a deflection shot. Like all the RAF pilots since February 1940, deflection shooting was one of skills that had to be mastered for continued front-line service. Orchard managed to get off a one second burst from the four cannons. He watched as the Bf109 and its pilot disintegrated and smashed into the ground.

As Orchard climbed to re-join the rest of the Squadron, this fight had seen three Spitfires and their pilots traded for eight Bf109s. Another two Spitfires had sustained damage that would keep them out of the fight for a few days.

15 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Alexandria, Egypt.

Admiral Andrew Cunningham had had a fairly boring war so far, but then so had the majority of Royal Navy admirals outside of Home Fleet. As Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean fleet he’d spent his time mostly exercising with the Marine National and generally keeping an eye on the Italians. With them now fighting Germany in Austria, it was clear that they were not going to be a danger. They certainly weren’t friends either. Cunningham greeted Admiral James Sommerville, who would be replacing him as C-in-C Mediterranean. Cunningham would sail for Singapore to take up command of the much-reinforced Eastern Fleet. Since Cunningham had developed a good working relationship with General Wavell, who was becoming supreme commander of South East Asia Entente Command, it was felt in London that this was a good match.

Going over the situation of the Mediterranean fleet with Sommerville, the imminent arrival of HMS KGV and Repulse to join HMS Warspite would give his successor a stronger and faster Battle Squadron. The Battlecruiser Repulse had had a serious of refits to her anti-aircraft outfit, sporting more Bofors 40mm guns, with radar control, that would make her quite formidable, especially as an escort for HMS Ark Royal. HMS Revenge and Ramillies would return to home waters and retirement, this was a mixed blessing. They were too slow, and Revenge particularly was in a poor state mechanically. Their 15-inch guns were still useful and Sommerville had hoped there might be some job for them before they went for scrap.

The job of shore bombardment had been proven to be effective, and the old ships’ speed was much less of a factor in that role. In some ways Ramillies would be more useful than the monitor Erebus under his command, it was certainly more flexible. Cunningham had suggested to London that Ramillies might be based at Gibraltar as part of North Atlantic Command, however the Admiralty wanted the crews for the new KGV class battleships HMS Anson and Howe. The R-Class battleships would sail home before the end of the month as planned. Revenge would certainly go into inactive reserve immediately, but there was talk that Ramillies might be retained for longer.

Coming under Sommerville’s command, in addition to the First Battle Squadron and HMS Ark Royal, were the Third and Seventh Cruiser Squadrons (HMS Arethusa, Penelope and Coventry; Liverpool, Glouchester and Kent) and five destroyer flotillas. There was also the submarine, minesweeper and MTB flotillas, with numerous other vessels making Mediterranean Command a good-sized fleet. Sommerville would have his flag on HMS KGV when she arrived.

15 April 1941. 11:00hrs. Da Nang. French Indo-China.

Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt, Inspector General of the RAF, stepping down from the Dragon Rapide, saluted the French officers who were welcoming him. On behalf of General Wavell, new Supreme Entente Commander South East Asia, this visit was part of his continuing inspection tour of the air facilities of the Entente. These facilities would play a role in either deterring a Japanese attack, or of actively defending against such a move. The previous day he had had a very positive meeting with French Governor General of Indochina, Georges Catroux. He had flown to the main French AdA airfield and was to be given a tour by the station commander. As a recipient of the Legion d’Honour from the Great War, and speaking good French, Ludlow-Hewitt was well received and realised he was getting an honest assessment of the situation, which hadn’t always been the case in Malaya.

This airfield was the AdA’s main fighter base. Two squadrons each of Potez 63s, MB 152s and MS 406s were on a war footing. As with the British, the French had transferred to the Far East some of their pilots who needed a rest from the air war over Europe. These combat veterans had been instilling something of their experience into the pilots who had served for a long time in the colony. The station commander himself, Colonel Bernard, had been wounded when his Bréguet 691 had been hit by flak attacking the German advance through the Ardennes. Losing an arm meant that he was no longer fit to fly, but his promotion to this post, allowed him feel that he was continuing to make a contribution.

One of Bernard’s greatest concerns was the proximity of the airfield to the coast, making it vulnerable to an amphibious assault. He had managed to persuade the local army commander to position a battalion of 16th Mixed Colonial Infantry Regiment to defend the airfield. It was clear to Ludlow-Hewitt that this was not entirely to the satisfaction of the station commander. On meeting the commander of this infantry unit, it became clear that neither he nor his unit were anything like combat ready.

The ground defence of airfields had been a recurring theme in his tour of the Far East, here was no different. One of the things the RAF had done in 1940 to the airfields in southern England, was to prepare them for demolition in case they might fall into enemy hands. The Air Chief Marshall’s staff had plans that were being shared with station commanders. He had also persuaded Governor Catroux to begin a serious of exercises that would emulate the kind of threat posed by a Japanese attack. Just as the war games in the period between February and April 1940 between British and French forces on the Western Front had been a wake-up call to the French army and AdA, so it was hoped that the colonial forces here, would have a similar learning experience.

After lunch the Air Chief Marshall and his crew climbed aboard their Dragon Rapide to fly north to Dong Hoï where bombers and seaplanes were based. This part of the visit did not go as well as it had in Da Nang. The commander of the airfield had been in place since 1937, if he was in Europe, he would have been fired from his post for dereliction of duty. Commandant Mayaud made it quite clear that he resented this inspection, even although Colonel Tavera, commander of the AdA in Indochina, his superior was present.

The arrival of a squadron of Aéronavale Vought V-156-F (the only survivors from the campaign in France and Belgium), as well as 6 Breguet 521 Bizerte seaplanes seemed to complicated his life too much. Previously, he had only had to deal with about 7 Potez 25 bi-planes. All the extra mouths to feed (and this was his main complaint) had created so much extra work for him. Tavera began to dress him down in rapid fire French. A very casual inspection of the station records showed that Mayaud was up to his eyes in criminal activity. This explained the low serviceability of the aircraft on the station and unhappiness of the pilots. Colonel Tavera immediately had the man arrested and he would be court martialled. The decorated squadron leader of the Aéronavale escadrille AB 3 was given temporary command of the station with orders to get it ready for combat operations, while a suitable replacement as station commander could be found.

As the staff flew on to their next port of call the conversation about how the weaknesses of a colonial outpost, initially stripped of its best resources for the fight for survival in France, could be remedied. Tavera expressed his regret that his British visitors had to see such a humiliation. However, any senior officers in any forces since the war had started were well used to way in which men promoted above their ability or with too deep a peacetime mind set, had had to be removed from their posts, mostly in a most unceremonious manner. It was better for useless officers to be replaced in this way, than to have their command pay a blood price for their incompetence in the face of the enemy. It was a hard truth, but no less true for its hardness.

15 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Dumbarton, Scotland.

The Blackburn Aircraft factory at Dumbarton had started making Botha reconnaissance and torpedo bombers in 1939. These aircraft had been cancelled in January 1940 as unsuitable for operations, along with another Blackburn aircraft, the Roc. Rather than having the Dumbarton factory sitting idle, the jigs had been redesigned to build the Short Sunderland until such time as the improved Sunderland, the Seaford would be ready for production. Delays, caused by the complexity of the new aircraft meant that the Dumbarton workforce had been making Sunderlands at the rate of about five per month for a year. The last Sunderland had been completed at the end of March, and today work was beginning on the first Seaford.

Dumbarton, along with Short’s factories in Rochester and Belfast, since the cancelation of the Stirling bomber, had been able to provide the RAF and RAAF with just under 300 Sunderlands. Work on this type had now ceased in all three locations, while work on putting the Seaford into production was underway, so that it was expected that the first production models would join Coastal Command in May, becoming operational in autumn. In addition to RAF Coastal Command’s orders for 250 of the aircraft, there were orders from France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Netherlands, Portugal and Norway for another 250. Because the Seaford was designed from the outset to have enough range to be deployed in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it was an attractive proposition to a number of nations.

Representatives from Short Brothers were hoping there was a market for surplus Sunderlands. These were capable aircraft in themselves, either in their wartime role, or as passenger/mail carriers. The company were marketing them as Sandringhams, with various designs with greater or lesser luxury and equipment. In the South American market, some interest had been shown already from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina in both the military and civilian types. Once the war was over the company might also make a civilian version of the Seaford, the proposed name of which was the Solent. An eye to future sales was important to some of the smaller aviation firms.

Blackburn Aircraft’s only in house product that was still operational was the Skua. As well as its main Brough factory and the one at Dumbarton, Blackburn had a third at Sherburn-in-Elmet, which continued building the Fairey Swordfish under license. Blackburn had arranged with the Ministry of Supply that it would begin on the Barracuda, the replacement for the Swordfish, as soon as possible. With the money provided to continue development of the new transport aircraft, the Beverly, in association with General Aircraft Ltd, it was hoped that getting a prototype in the air sooner rather than later was the company’s hope for the future. The Beverley’s ability to handle rough landing strips was going to be its biggest asset, and Blackburn were trying to do a deal with Bristol for the Centaurus engines, which would give it the power it really needed.

A committee in the Ministry of Supply was already looking at ways in which the smaller aircraft companies could collaborate more. General Aircraft for example were involved in repairing Spitfires and Beaufighters at its sites in Hanworth and Fairoaks. They were also doing some subcontracting work on SeaHurricanes. Realistically they weren’t capable of very much more than this. Since helicopters rather than gliders had been chosen for airborne forces, companies like General Aircraft and Slingsby Sailplanes would lose out. Slingsby continued to make Primary gliders, many air cadets had their earliest experiences of flight in such types. They also subcontracted some work for De Havilland, making wooden parts for the Mosquito. Generally, smaller companies like Folland in Southampton, making rear portions of Spitfires were acting as sub-contractors for larger firms. Some, like Phillips & Powis Aircraft, Airspeed, and Percival were involved in producing trainers like the Master, Magister, Oxford and Proctor. Diversification was going to mark which companies had a future and which didn’t once war work started to be scaled down before it came to an end.

15 April 1941. 13:00hrs. HMS Furious. Irish Sea.

The last of the SeaHurricanes flew off HMS Furious as she was heading to Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard for a minor refit. Some of the aircraft she had been carrying would fly on to RAF Aldergrove and work with Coastal Command for the time Furious would be alongside. The crew of the aircraft carrier were looking forward to some leave, they had been working hard with Home Fleet and the chance to get home to see family or simply to forget about the cares of war for a short time were very welcome.

Decisions about the future of the ship were still being considered. Part of this visit to Belfast was so that an inspection team could look for her over and make recommendations. A larger refit might include lengthening her flight deck and increasing her radar and anti-aircraft fit. However, the time and cost involved had to be weighed against her future usefulness. Before the war in 1939 she had been used as a training carrier, and it was entirely possible that was the role that she would return to, especially if HMS Argus was destined to go into reserve.

Home Fleet had HMS Formidable as the main fleet carrier, with HMS Glorious and Furious supporting, with HMS Eagle as a helicopter carrier. As things stood, putting Furious in for a six month refit was feasible. Glorious had already had a serious of improvements to her radar. Not replacing HMS Ark Royal in the Mediterranean was partly to allow the flexibility to have Furious be able to be refitted. Choosing Harland and Woolf for the job, was to bridge the gap created when HMS Unicorn was launched later in the year, and the Malta Class carrier would be laid down. The final design for the Malta Class was still being worked on. The yard would therefore be in a position to do the work on Furious between the other carriers.

Keeping Furious and Glorious on the active list at least until HMS Implacable and Indefatigable were available in 1943 was considered sensible in the Admiralty. They would at least be available to fleets, either to allow Fleet Carriers to be sent for refits or even act as replacements in the event of loss to enemy action. The fact that they carried a smaller air group than the fleet carriers meant they weren’t as suitable for front line work. HMS Formidable and Glorious were preparing to be part of the covering force that would support the attempt to free Denmark. HMS Furious would be out of Belfast before that happened, just in case.

15 April 1941. 14:00hrs. South China Sea.

Capitaine de frégate Martin, commander of the underwater heavy cruiser Le Surcouf, contemplated his options. Along with Le Tonnant, L'Agosta, Bévéziers, L'Ouessant, Le Sidi-Ferruch and Le Sfax, six submarines of the 1500 tonnes class, he had left Brest some weeks earlier, to make the long journey to Indochina. Two each of the submarines were to be based in Cam Ranh, Tourane (Da Nang) and Haiphong. Le Surcouf was destined for Saigon. L’Espoir, the only submarine in the FNEO (Les Forces Navales en Extrême-Orient) was due to return to Brest. As part of the preparations for this reinforcement, L’Espoir had been sailing back and forth between the three bases, giving the impression that it used all three bases occasionally as its main port.

The Marine National had invested a lot of money in these seven submarines making them fit for purpose for serving in the Far East. As the newest boats in the 1500 tonne class, they had received air conditioning and other tweaks to make life for the crew more liveable. With the help of the British, they had been fitted with an improved ASDIC and a radar. Improvements to the batteries and the motor, increased soundproofing; and strengthening the hull were all part of the rebuild. The French officers had taken part in the British “Perisher” course for submarine commanders. This had been something of a revelation to both the French and British officers, though with Poles, Norwegians and Dutch officers also undergoing the training it did strengthen the Entente bond. Le Surcouf had likewise spent the previous six months in dock getting as much done as possible to improve its performance.

The arrival of the six 1500 tonne boats was meant to be done stealthily. Martin’s orders were to make sure that Le Surcouf’s presence in the area was noted by the Japanese. Having sailed from Singapore, with full tanks and fully stocked, he was cruising the waters between Formosa and Hainan. There was a Japanese merchant vessel, obviously heading towards Hainan, in the sights of his periscope. Martin was trying to decide just how close he should surface to it and bring his guns to bear on the vessel. He had to make sure that the Imperial Japanese Navy would be in no doubt that there was another threat they had to take account of. His preference would have been to wait for a Japanese warship. But the sight of a huge submarine, with two 203mm guns pointed at them, would certainly give the crew of the merchant ship a story to tell.

Ordering the periscope down, he called the crew to action stations, and ordered the bridge crew to bring the submarine to the surface. Setting his stop watch he began to time just how long the process would take. On the regular exercises they had carried out on the long trip, the time taken had improved. Here in foreign waters, he wondered if they would be even sharper as they started doing this kind of thing for real.

On board the Mizuki Maru the lookouts were bored and not really doing their job. It was one of the cooks having a cigarette after serving lunch for the crew, that saw something moving in the deep. Thinking it might be a whale, and then considering the best recipe for whale meat, the size and shape of the disturbance soon clarified itself into something man-made. His shouts alerted the lookouts, who swung their binoculars towards the rising submarine. The captain himself came out to watch, while the first officer ran to get his camera from his berth. As the conning tower cleared the water, with the huge gun casement at its front, the Japanese sailors could see men running along the decks and soon a large Tricolour was flying, identifying the vessel as French. Keeping pace with the Mizuki Maru, the smaller guns on the conning tower and the large turret began to swing around in the direction of the Japanese vessel.

At four minutes exactly, the gunnery officer reported that both guns were ready to open fire. Martin ordered the officer of the watch to keep a parallel path to the Japanese vessel for ten minutes. The radio operator was able to note the Japanese radio transmission, which was in the clear. Just to help the Japanese identification process completely, the order was given for the floatplane to be launched and for the pilot to make a circuit of the area for 30 minutes. Once the aircraft was recovered and secured, Martin ordered Le Surcouf to dive, giving the Japanese First Officer plenty of time to use up three of his films which would soon find their way into the hands of the Japanese Navy.

15 April 1941. 16:00hrs. RAF Ringway. Cheshire. England.

“Bill” Thorn, test pilot for Avro brought the first production Lancaster in to land. With the Manchester medium bomber for all intents and purposes stillborn in February 1940, Avro’s team, led by Roy Chadwick, had been working on the four engine aircraft that would replace it. The first prototype had flown in November 1940 and the second in January 1941. Various pieces of redesign had been done to make the aircraft as capable as possible. Avro’s factory at Woodford was already geared up for the Manchester, and the changes to the Lancaster were such that very little had to be done to the assembly line to make it ready for the heavy bomber.

As this was the first Lancaster off the production line, Thorn had put it through its paces and was happy to report that it was entirely satisfactory. On landing the company formerly handed it over to the RAF, No 115 Squadron. This was to be the first squadron to be equipped with this bomber, the rest of 3 Group, Bomber Command following. The change from the Wellington medium bomber to the Lancaster heavy bomber would mean that the squadron would be out of front-line service for a couple of months until they were fully operational on the new type.

It was planned that 15, 75 and 90 Squadrons would be the next to receive the Lancaster. Then 149, 199, 214 and 218 squadrons, making 3 Group entirely a Lancaster force, just as 5 Group were all flying Halifaxes. The Wellingtons of 4 Group would continue in the meantime, though would eventually become a Mosquito equipped group. Bomber Command’s 1 and 2 Groups had already become Tactical Command and were mostly equipped with Beaufighters and Hurribombers.

For the aircrew there was much about the new bomber that would take some getting used to. The air-gunners would be going through a transition on to the new Boulton Paul turret with twin Vickers .50 machine guns. An attempt to create a twin 20mm cannon version had been found to be too heavy. It was being used successfully on armoured vehicles, but not on the Lancaster. All remaining Defiant fighters had been retrofitted with the new turrets and were being used to train air-gunners for Bomber Command. Collaborating with Nash & Thomson and Rose Brothers, the rear mounted turret on the Lancaster were hydraulically powered and designed to take a radar, known as Village Inn. This would assist the gunners in night interception. There had been a school of thought that would delete these turrets altogether, making the aircraft more streamlined, and with saving the weight of the turrets, ammunition and three crewmen, would give the bomber an increased speed and height advantage.

One of the Lancaster prototypes had a redesigned nose without the forward gun turret. This was being evaluated to see what difference it made and whether or not it was a real improvement. Because RAF bomber squadrons were being used more frequently in day-light operations, the recent losses among the Halifax squadrons on a mission with limited fighter escort, had reignited the debate about having suitable defensive armament. There were some who argued that a ball turret, such as was used on the American B17 bombers, would be useful for covering the belly of the aircraft against attacks from that quarter. Boulton Paul’s type K, and Nash & Thomson’s FN 17 and FN 25 turrets, were available for Wellingtons and Halifaxes, but were rarely fitted. The same argument was made for the Lancaster. The “flying fortress” mentality of the USAAC was thought to be a mistake by the RAF, whose information put the availability of long-range escort fighters as the most important defensive attribute for the bombers.

With the completion of design work for the Lancaster, Roy Chadwick’s Avro design team were now looking at two new developments. The first was a maritime patrol aircraft to supplement Coastal Command’s flying boats based on the Lancaster. The second was a jet bomber with the internal company designation of Avro 698, which was quickly gaining the nickname “Vulcan”. Because of the proposed revolutionary wing design a great deal of work would have to be put into it. RAF St Athan. This was where the jet age was dawning, it was also the site of an advanced wind tunnel to support aircraft designers as they pushed the boundaries of flight.

15 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Aschaffenburg. Germany.

For the German troops it was the last straw. They had held out and caused the French terrible trouble. However, they had been beaten back to just a few strongpoints and were starved of ammunition and supplies. The French had thrown almost everything at them, but the arrival of the Senegalese troops if 82e DIA in front of them was almost unbearable. To lose their town and country to the French was bad enough, but there was a racial horror in the German troops towards the black faces of the African troops.

No mercy was given or received. The French artillery men manhandled their 75mm guns through the ruined town to give direct fire support to the infantry, blasting down the last of the German strongholds. The role of snipers in the ruins was a large part of the story of the battle of Aschaffenburg. Both German and French casualties from this method of warfare were high, and often the process of gaining a piece of ground was held up while a sniper was present.

Part of the French success eventually was moving through the buildings rather than the streets. They blew holes in the walls between rooms and cleared a building from the inside rather than the outside. The French troops talked about being mice and using mouse holes to move around. Each building had to be cleared from cellar to attic and the coordination of platoons and squads was critical. The German habit of booby-trapping everything was an added danger. The medical services of 4e Army were stretched almost to breaking point, with many men enduring very similar treatment to what their fathers and uncles had endured in the Great War.

When the final collapse of German resistance happened it was almost an anti-climax. The silence was the startling thing when the troops began to realise it. General Armengeat (CO 62e DIA), when it became clear that the town was in French hands immediately contacted General Sivot to inform him. The army’s engineers were going to have to spend the night clearing paths through the rubble to allow the breakout force to exploit the situation. The army’s 51e DI and surviving armoured elements from 4e DCr and 9e DM would try and exploit towards Fulda. Four Divisions from 3e Army had been transferred to 4e Army command. These would invest Frankfurt and roll northwards up the east bank of the Rhine. While 5e Army, which had some time to recover from their earlier exertions, would begin to move south with Munich as their goal. They would be reinforced by elements of the 8e Army and the Army of the Alps as they progressed.

15 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Telgte. Germany.

It clear by now that Telgte was a trap. What the German scout platoon had estimated was a couple of British companies and some tanks was in fact a far stronger force. On the north side of the river the British had managed to conceal most of 2 Royal Tank Regiment and 37th Brigade of 12th Division. In addition, Royal Artillery support from 2nd Army’s resources included two heavy regiments and four medium regiments, as well as eight field regiments. The RAF had also put up a strong showing, and despite another attempt by the Luftwaffe to support the German troops, the British had control of the skies above the battlefield. The RAF squadrons had made liberal use of cluster bombs and napalm. The German panzers had discovered that a full regiment of 6-pdr anti-tank guns, with plenty of Carl Gustav recoilless rifles, was too strong a foe to go up against, and the casualties among the panzer troops were catastrophic.

The German attack had been stopped in its tracks, it had been a brave attack, but ultimately futile. The Matilda II tanks of 2RTR and the men of East Surrey and Royal Sussex Regiments crossed over the river Emse, and started chasing the Germans back down the road they had come. As had happened elsewhere, German troops tended to throw down their weapons and surrender as it became clear that they were outgunned and in a somewhat hopeless position. The scale of the artillery bombardment and the pounding from the RAF had demoralised the German troops, for most of whom this was their first combat experience.

The 3 Royal Tank Regiment and 25th Brigade crossed over the Dortmund-Ems canal during the night. They were advancing eastwards through Wolbeck, threatening the flank of the German attack. General Groschupf began to get reports from his forces in Bielefeld that they too were under heavy attack. There were even reports of British tanks heading for Paderborn. He knew then that his attempt to derail the British thrust into Germany was a miscalculation on his part. If he had command of two or three armies, perhaps he could have done better. A Corps sized attack was bound to fail. He walked off into the woods near his headquarters and shot himself. His disappearance caused further confusion among the leadership of the German attacking force. It took a couple of hours for his deputy to be in full command of the situation. He too quickly saw the reality of defeat looming. He asked a radio operator to make contact with the British to offer the surrender the remaining forces, it was clear that their deaths would add nothing more to the defence of the Reich.

15 April 1941. 19:00hrs. Belgrade. Yugoslavia.

No one called it a summit. It was just a dinner among some friends, people whose privacy and anonymity were to be protected. Some darkened limousines had brought the dinner party guests to the palace directly from the airport. Returning them to their aircraft after the meal. Some subterfuge had been involved. Aircraft had been chartered, so no spy would note official aircraft from foreign governments arriving at the airport. A few film and radio stars had been seen out and about so that the speculation about who the dinner might be for were given a false trail to follow.

Prince Paul as host welcomed the guests, in his role as regent. Prince Peter at 17 would soon reach his majority and become king, and he was also present. The offer had been made from London for him to attend university in England, a place at Cambridge University had been offered. The result of the discussions at the meal would influence which direction the young man would take.

King George II of Greece was the guest of honour. While a state visit would have been preferable, the nature of the discussions militated against such a formal occasion. King George was accompanied by the new Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis. Koryzis had replaced Metaxas who had died in January of natural causes. King Carol II of Romania, accompanied by Gheorghe Tătărescu his Prime Minister, was a another honoured guest as the Heads of State gathered for a most important decision.

The three countries had been quietly working together, keen to keep the peace in the area. The main threats to peace were Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Germany had enough troubles of her own, and while furious with Romania over oil, were in no position to do anything about it. Italy had been weaned away from the Pact of Steel with promises of British coal and oil, Canadian wheat and French investment. Now that Mussolini had invaded Austria, much to the relief of Greece, their threat had also diminished. Hungary could see the writing on the wall. There were noises coming out of Budapest that were more and more sympathetic towards the Entente. Budapest had made it clear that they wanted relations with Romania to remain peaceful. The Bulgarians were always a wild card. They had been told through backchannels that picking on any of their neighbours would be dangerous. Sofia would find itself facing the combined forces of Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia. As if that wasn’t enough, Turkey, Britain and France would all take a very dim view of Bulgarian aggression. All of this meant that Tsar Boris III reaffirmed his country’s desire to be neutral. A decision that was welcomed by all.

The dinner in Belgrade was an opportunity for a final agreement on whether or not to officially declare war on Germany. This was something that Prime Minister Churchill was very keen on them doing. The British had made it quite clear that while they had no expectation that any of three would actually have do any fighting, the very act of a declaration of war, especially if in concert with Turkey, would give Hitler and Stalin something else to worry about. There were promises of increased military aid, and a seat at the victors’ table if their neutrality was swapped for being part of the Entente.

Each of the three capitals had received a visit from the Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of King George VI. The Duke had had a most exciting war, and even with his fondness for a glass of whiskey, had grown into a very able envoy. With his own military background, he was able to give a very accurate assessment of the fighting in Germany, and the estimated date of the cessation of hostilities. It was important to the British that if the Balkan nations were to join the Entente they were do so at a critical moment, and not leave it too late.

The dinner was sumptuous and the discussion wide ranging. The risks versus the rewards were examined in great detail. The concern for Romania above all was the presence of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the situation. By throwing in with the Entente they could easily find themselves drawn into an even greater war. Yugoslavia had internal worries between Croats and Serbians. If Austria came under Rome’s sphere of influence, then there would be increased pressure on Belgrade. Greece had an eye on Albania and the continued Italian presence there. The question boiled down in each case to what was in the national interest. Young Prince Peter had listened intently to the whole discussion. He had had to bite his tongue a few times to prevent him from interjecting when he thought what was being said was stupid. Finally, as dessert had been served and the servants had once more retired from the room, he began to speak.

“When the Duke of Gloucester gave us his assessment of fighting in Germany, one of things that struck me, was the way in which this war was going to finish very differently from the last. The British and French are advancing to the very heart of Germany. Bismark’s project of the unification of the German states is going to be rolled back. Our very existence as nation states, and our borders, have been the plaything of European powers much greater than we, well back into history. None of us are going to become “great powers”, even if we cooperated even more closely together. But we have a real chance here to do something great for our people. If we join the Entente, and see the demise of Germany, then the British and French are going to be grateful. As far as I can tell, very grateful. They have shown themselves to be a most powerful combination.”

“Now that Italy has thrown its hat into the ring, if we do not join the Entente, then Italian influence over the Balkans as a whole will grow, not recede. If for no other reason, that is why we should declare war on Germany. Not only that, but also send forces into Austria from the Yugoslav border, aiming for Vienna. We Yugoslavs have an army ready to do just that. I understand the fear of the Soviet Union. But Stalin will be far less likely to take on a member of the Entente than just a small nation on its border. The Duke of Gloucester spoke of a European economic free trade area, and some kind of military cooperation. Being part of such a network can only be good for our people and our economies, to say nothing of our national security. Anyway, I have decided to take up the British offer of a place at Cambridge. When eventually I become King, I intend to dedicate myself to improving the lives of all of my peoples. I firmly believe that with British help that may well be the best road forward.”

The speech of the young prince echoed in the hearts of his older listeners. There was danger any way they chose to go. The probable benefits of being part of the Entente certainly outweighed possible problems. Over a glass of Cognac, it was agreed, that the next day at noon, all three countries would declare war on Germany. The orders to Major General Dušan Trifunović’s Seventh Army to advance towards Graz were issued, to coincide with the declaration of war.

16 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Cowes, Isle of Wight. England.

Captain Hon. Edward Pleydell-Bouverie finished the brief note to his wife, Alice. He handed it to his steward to be dispatched ashore. His ship, HMS Abdiel, was due to sail imminently with the tide. It would be last time for a few weeks that he’d be able to get another letter away to her, although he would write a letter every day. The mine-layer, first of its class, having completed her acceptance trials, and having had a few defects corrected, had been officially commissioned the day before. HMS Latona, the second in the class, had also been commissioned ahead of schedule. The two ships would begin the passage to Singapore shortly after their work up cruises and exercises with Home Fleet.

There had been a lot less mine-laying in this war than the previous Great War. Once the Kriegsmarine had been bottled up in the Baltic there was no great reason for laying large minefields. The fact that the two ships were destined for the China Station was a sign, at least to Pleydell-Bouverie, that the Imperial Japanese Navy was now seen as the major potential foe.

The other thing which had changed over the last year was the type of mine that would be laid. When the ship had been designed the most common British mines were moored contact types. They were sailing first to Milford Haven to take on a load of pressure, magnetic and acoustic mines. There had been a lot of training for the crew on the handling and use of these new types. A draft of seamen had completed their training under the careful eye of a senior Petty Officer at Loch Alsh, where First Minelaying Squadron were based. They had joined the ship’s company three days previously, and were settling in well. Generally, it was a happy crew, at least to Pleydell-Bouverie’s mind. A few last-minute changes, like air conditioning, had been made to crew accommodations since they had been nominated for service in the tropics.

One of the other things that had improved over the build and fitting out, was the increase in electric power, with the addition some extra diesel generators. This matched uprated radar sets, both surface and air search. Likewise, much greater care was taken over the anti-aircraft armament. The 4-inch guns were now housed in twin HA/LA Mark XIX mounts. Four twin Mark IV "Hazemeyer" mountings for Bofors guns were sited amidships. These mounts carried their own radar for target ranging. Some changes to the layout of the upper works had to be done to achieve this. In addition, there were another eight mountings for Oerlikon 20mm cannons in various places.

The amazing thing about the ship, and Pleydell-Bouverie’s letter to his wife had been full of it, was the speed. During her trials she had exceeded 41 knots at standard loading. It was true that other things had been sacrificed to achieve it. She wasn’t as well armoured as a standard cruiser, and she lacked the punch of big guns. Even the number of mines she could carry wasn’t as great as might have been. But Pleydell-Bouverie had never experienced anything like the thrill of pushing through the light chop of the Irish Sea at over 41 knots. For the job of laying an offensive minefield in front of an enemy force, she and her sisters were well suited. The other two ships in the class, HMS Manxman and Welshman would be joining the first two later in the year.

It was believed that Japan’s mine warfare capability was considered crude, clumsy, inefficient and slow. Therefore, the pressure, magnetic and acoustic mines were likely to cause them serious trouble. The RAF’s gardening missions using air-dropped mines had proven extremely effective in the Baltic. The distances in the Pacific and South China Sea would make air-dropped mine laying very difficult, even for the new Seaford flying boat. Four dedicated fast minelayers, and an undisclosed number of submarines however, would give the Entente Far East Command the ability to interdict Japanese sea lanes with some chance of success.

Pleydell-Bouverie made his way to the Bridge to supervise the process of getting underway. There was a lot to be done and the future was going to be exceedingly busy, but as Captain of one of the fastest ships afloat, he couldn’t wait.

16 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Cammell Laird & Co., Birkenhead. England.

HMS Thorn’s launch had been delayed because of the changes in her design. Laid down in January 1940 she was the first of the T class submarines to fully reflect the changes to submarine design brought about by the arrival of HMS Onyx. A new class of submarines, the A Class, were starting to be laid down. These were even more like the futuristic Oberon class. In fact, they were as much of a copy as anything else, including the improved steel to be used in their construction. For HMS Thorn and the other T Class boats with the design changes: HMS Tempest, Traveller, Trusty and Turbulent; there were three main differences to their original specifications. In a sense were test-beds for the new A Class boats.

Firstly they were all welded ships. Cammell Laird (Birkenhead), Scotts (Greenock) and Vickers Armstrong (Barrow) had been among the companies whose workforce had been trained in the new techniques of welding. Because of the nature of the boats and their ability to stand the stresses of under-water pressure, it was crucial that the quality of the welding was of the highest order.

Secondly their design had taken into account the need to be as quiet as possible. The external torpedo tubes were deleted, as was the deck gun. The conning tower was smoothed off and all antennae (including radar) and periscopes would be recessed while submerged. A great deal of work was done in making sure the machinery was all fitted in such a way to make silent running more effective. Batteries were improved to enable them to increase their underwater speed and stay submerged longer. A snorkel system would enable the batteries to be recharged without the need to surface. A new design of propeller, copied from HMS Onyx, also helped with quietness.

Thirdly, they were designed with work in the tropics in mind. They had increased their range with larger fuel tanks. They also had better crew conditions, especially in air recycling. The diesel engines were improved Admiralty types that were proving more effective and efficient than their predecessors, giving 1650hp. Likewise the electric motors were much more capable, increasing the underwater speed by a few knots.

It was the internal equipment that would make the new submarines most effective. The torpedoes were improved versions of the Mark VIII**. There was a new “fruit machine,” a mechanical calculator that helped compute the firing angles and gyro settings. Losing the external torpedo tubes meant that the hit rate with the six internal tubes had to be improved. It was in the ASDIC and hydrophone equipment that the real improvements lay.

An S Class submarine, HMS Spearfish, damaged when taking part in the Baltic raid, had been used as a test bed for the new equipment. It was clearly a vast improvement over what had gone before. With a well-trained crew, the Admiralty expected that the new submarines would have the ability to track and attack enemy ships with minimum use of the periscope. All of this would have to be tested out of course, and it would be another six months before HMS Thorn and her sisters would be commissioned.

The submarines based in Hong Kong and Singapore at the start of the war was 4th Submarine Flotilla made up of HMS Rorqual and Grampus [Porpoise class mine layers], HMS Orpheus, Odin, Olympus, Otus, Phoenix, Perseus, Pandora, Parthian, Proteus, Regent, Rover, Regulus and Rainbow. 4th Submarine Flotilla was being reinforced, mostly with T Class submarines. When the reinforcements arrived, each of the O, P and R classes would be refitted. These refits involved sailing all the way back to Britain and out again. While the boats were being refitted, the officers took part in the Perishers Course and the crew had trained on the new equipment being fitted to their submarines. The O Class ships wouldn't return to the Far East and so the changes made to them were minimal. The P and R Classes had their pressure hull riveted fuel tanks replaced with welded ones to stop the leaks. They were fitted out to be able to carry mines as well as torpedoes. Snorkels were fitted and the usual refinements to quieten the boats were implemented. Their ASDIC sets were upgraded and radar was installed.

Five S Class submarines had been ordered in the War Emergency Programme in 1939 and laid down in 1940. These had more limited changes to their design: The addition of a snorkel, and making them quieter and more efficient underwater. Three of these were expected the join the fleet on completion, to replaces war losses and two had been promised to the Royal Norwegian Navy.

The U Class submarines, much smaller and designed with work in the North Sea and Mediterranean in mind, had very few changes made to them. The first twelve ordered in 1939 were all now commissioned and concentrated mostly in the Mediterranean. Another group of twelve were being completed and most of these were destined for the Polish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Greek navies. The 1940 program called for twenty-four new A Class submarines which in due course would replace the O, P and R Classes. The total strength of the Royal Navy Submarine fleet in 1939 had been 60 with nine building. The expectation for 1942 was that number to remain at around 70, with older boats being retired or sold off as the newer and more capable submarines became available.

16 April 1941. 09:00hrs. Arras, France.

General Wilfred Lindsell, as the BEF’s Quarter-Master-General, arrived with General Alan Brooke to inspect the new Base Marshalling Yard. When the BEF had originally arrived in France in the winter of 1939/40 Rennes had been chosen as the site of the Base Marshalling Yard. Ships had been using St Nazaire, Brest, St Malo, Cherburg, Caen, Le Harve, Fecamp and Dieppe as well as Calais and Boulonge to carry the many tons of material needed for the army and RAF. Rennes was a good choice for the Marshalling Yard at that point, especially as it was far enough away to protect it from German air attack. It was now some 250 miles too far away from the front to meet the needs of the British forces in Germany. Less was being shipped to the Atlantic and Normandy ports, more was coming through Antwerp, and once Rotterdam was completely fixed up, it too would be a major port for the British to use.

This base in Arras had been the HQ for the rail heads. It had been transformed over the last few months into the much larger Marshalling yard, while the railhead HQ was now at Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Lindsell probably was more responsible for the successes of the British army than any other single man. Everyone understood that logistics was the key to everything. Lindsell excelled in his field, and had created an excellent team around him. As the BEF had grown from three Corps to three Armies, his ability to deal with larger and larger demands was exceptional. What was outstanding was his ability to be flexible. He had written the book on Military Organisation and Administration. As the army grew and advanced, so did all the other parts of the logistical chain. They had managed to integrate new equipment, while still making sure the troops at the front had all that they needed.

The arrival of so many wheeled vehicles from Canada made the greatest difference. The RASC had arrived in France in 1939 with many civilian vehicles that had been “conscripted”. The importance of the French railways had been essential before the fighting erupted. With the advance over the battlefields of Belgium, and the need to rebuild bridges over the Meuse, the importance of motor transport had increased. One of Canada’s most important contributions to the war so far was sheer numbers of Canadian Military Pattern trucks they had supplied. General Motors and Ford plants were jointly producing some 4000 trucks per month.

Some of the innovations, especially from the experience of the senior crew of RFA Olna, had helped. For example, there was a greater use of forklift trucks and pallets. For the most part, the work continued to be done as it had been for many years. One of the conversations that Brooke and Lindsell had been having on the journey was a proposal to integrate the various aspects of the logistical chain.

The Royal Army Service Corps was responsible for supply and transport of all material except ordinance. This was the responsibility of the Royal Army Ordinance Corps. The Royal Engineers were responsible for railway transport, inland water transport, port operations, and movements. One of the bottlenecks that had bothered Lindsell particularly was the maintenance of all the vehicles, especially the civilian lorries that had been conscripted. Each of the three organisations had their own maintenance structure, and each could be somewhat territorial when it came to “their” vehicles. Furthermore, the RAOC were responsible for the maintenance and repair of all armoured vehicles, except those of some individual regiments who had their own structure. It was all getting very unwieldy as the army grew and become more mechanised.

Brooke was keen to hear Lindsell’s suggestion. He had, he admitted, considered bringing everything together into one single organisation, perhaps called the Logistics Corps. But he feared that it too would become too large and inflexible. He was keener on keeping the idea of three Corps, but each one would have sole responsibility for one aspect.

The first would be transport. All aspects of transport, including procurement and movement, would be their responsibility. The second would be supply. This would be responsible for putting into the hands of the soldier everything that he needed to fight the battle. Third would be the maintenance of all equipment, including transport and weapons.

The last one would probably be best served by making the Royal Engineers responsible, transferring to them all maintenance structures that already existed.

He therefore proposed amalgamating the transport of the RASC and RAOC, along with the Royal Engineer’s rail, water and port operations, into one Corps. All the supply experience of both the RASC and RAOC would go into another. Lindsell believed that this would make the whole process of supplying the army much simplified. Putting all the mechanics together under one cap badge would certainly give them a real sense of the importance they had in the modern mechanised army.

Brooke asked Lindsell to get his staff to flesh out the details in a paper and he would personally back it to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and the War Office. Their tour of the depot was very interesting, and there was much to be praised. However, Brooke couldn’t help think of the six Corps in Germany and Holland, who were having to stand still while they were fully resupplied ready for an attack over the River Weser.

16 April 1941. 10:00hrs. North Sea.

The flight deck of HMS Eagle, the converted helicopter carrier, was busy. The men of 19 air assault Battalion of the Royal Marines, with many replacements to bring them back up to strength after the attacks on Holland, were climbing aboard their Sussex helicopters. The Wildcat gunships and troop carriers would follow once the Sussexes had flown off. They were only fifteen miles from the target, so the larger helicopters would fly around until the rest of the formation were ready.

HMS Formidable’s air group, along with RAF bombers, were standing by to plaster the area before the Marines landed. Beyond the view of the Helicopter carrier was a large flotilla of minesweepers. This area of the North Sea had been particularly heavily mined by both the British and the Germans. Covering the work of the minesweepers were the destroyers and cruisers, and behind them were the battleships, ready to add their own brand of destruction if needed.

A radio broadcast to the German defenders of Heligoland asking for their surrender had been made and accepted. With Wilhelmshaven having fallen the previous evening, it seemed that the Kriegsmarine had some very little fight in them, even in the defence of their bases. The way they had been handled by the Royal Navy, reducing them to little more than a coastal force, and worse by Hitler who had denounced them as “worse than useless”, there was no great desire to hold out to the last man and last bullet.

The Royal Marines would go onto the island prepared for the worse. A Swordfish from HMS Formidable was currently overflying the area looking for signs of a trap. If the helicopters were fired upon, then the whole place would be carpet bombed. This threat was reiterated to the German commander. Once the Marines were on the ground and confirmed the German surrender, the Kriegsmarine were ordered to hand over a map of all German minefields. The British had attempted to cut the island off from the mainland and prevent its use by U boats. British mines, especially those dropped by the RAF (which are according to the Navy could be anywhere, even the Scilly Isles), were the bigger problem in approaching the area. Knowing where the German minefields would certainly help.

The observer in the Swordfish, flying low and slow, gave a running commentary over the radio, noting that all visible anti-aircraft guns had their barrels lowered. Their crews were in full view, waving white flags. The same was visible at the coastal artillery battery. Knowing full well the size of the underground shelters and bunkers, the fact that an ambush was still possible was on the minds of the Royal Marines as they flew low over the sea.

Commodore Richard Edkins, had been nominated to become commander of the occupation forces on Heligoland, he would take the actual surrender. He was flying in a Wildcat, waiting for the Royal Marine Major in command of the landing force to confirm that the commander of the German garrison was ready to make the surrender. Edkins had made a particular study of Heligoland and had been an advocate to returning the islands to British control. The Admiralty was less convinced, but part of Edkins job would be to survey the work that had been done under the Nazi regime. Whether or not there would be a firm enough basis to make it a viable British possession would have to be examined.

Since he was dressed in his best uniform, Edkins’ waited for the rotor blades to come to a complete halt. It had been decided that having the German commander wait, rather than the possibility of the British officer losing his hat to the downdraft, was preferable. When everything was ready, he stepped down from the helicopter, and marched towards the group of German officers. A cordon of Royal Marines was nearby, their arms ready to be brought to bear at a moment’s notice.

Returning the salute of Captain Alfred Roegglen, the senior German officer, Edkin then received the man’s pistol as a sign of the surrender. A photographer had arrived with Edkin’s team and the moment was captured for posterity. One of the islanders, Erich Friedrichs, on behalf of the civilian population, also affirmed the islanders’ acceptance of the Island’s new overlords, many in fact welcomed it. It became clear that a number of Gestapo and SS personnel had met with unfortunate ends, so that the surrender of the German forces, for the most part Kriegsmarine units, went unhindered.

Friedrich made an urgent appeal on behalf of the civilian population for food. The British mining strategy had been particularly effective, the regular supply vessels bringing food and oil to the islands had been severely hampered. They often relied solely on what was able to be brought in by aircraft, which were themselves incredibly vulnerable. Since the military forces had first call on what managed to arrive, the ration for civilians was below sustenance level. Edkin knew that having the gratitude of the civilian population was something to be desired and he immediately sent one of his aides to request such a supply. The plan was that when the harbour was open, that all German military personnel would be removed from the island and taken to POW camps. It was clear that doing so should be a priority, making sure that there were less mouths to feed would ease the supply situation.

With the German minefields clearly marked on a chart, a local pilot, who had managed to bring in the last of the supply vessels, volunteered to lead one of the British minesweepers into the harbour. Later in the day HMS Jason, a Halcyon class minesweeper, entered the harbour, reinforcing the Royal Marine presence. The three U boats that had been marooned on the island were now all under British control. The Type VII boat was of particular interest to the Admiralty. It took a great deal of effort, and three ships were damaged, eventually safe passages in and out of the harbour at Heligoland were cleared. A coaster despatched from Rotterdam had been provisioned with the needs of the civilian population in mind, and it arrived on 19 April. Over the next few days, the German military personnel were transported off the island and the original flag of Heligoland had been raised.

16 April 1941. 11:00hrs. Herne, Ruhr Valley. Germany.

General Eugen Von Schobert, commander of German forces in the Ruhr pocket had been in negotiations with General Henri Giraud, the French First Army Group commander. When the encirclement of the Ruhr had been completed by the French, the remnants of Von Schobert’s 11th Army had been instructed by Berlin to fight to the last. It was clear that if they wanted to, they could cause the French enormous problems fighting in a built-up area. The civilian population would have suffered every bit as much. Von Schobert had been urged by the Nazi Party officials to fight, but every other part of civil society, especially the church leaders, had implored him to spare the people from the horrors that would await them. Everyone, other than the Nazis, could see the writing on the wall. The people giving the orders in Berlin were out of touch with the reality on the ground.

Four French armies were poised to devastate the towns and cities, factories and mines of the Ruhr valley, the heartland of the German economy. Giraud had personally conducted the negotiations, making it clear that the French would not waste a single soldier’s life in capturing the area. The destruction would be wrought by raining down fire and steel on it all. Because the rail and waterways to the rest of Germany had been cut by the French, the Ruhr was already lost to Germany.

Not only the people within the Ruhr would be affected by this. The coal mines provided most of the German people with the means to heat their homes, and to create the electricity they used. The potential utter destruction of the infrastructure, would take years to rebuild. The casualties among the civilian population would be terrible, so Von Schobert was prepared to enter surrender negotiations. It was also becoming clear that the Nazi Party were pulling back to East Prussia, expecting the rest of the German nation to be destroyed while they looked after themselves.

Among those who had moved east were Alfried Krupp, along with his elderly father and mother, Gustav and Bertha. When the Entente forces had reached the Rhine the previous September, the Todt organisation had attempt to move as much of the heavy industry to the east of the country as they could. The huge Krupp works at Essen had been one of the main beneficiaries of this work. Many of the company’s workers and their families had gone with them to Silesia, where production was being relocated.

It was pointed out to Von Schobert that other industrialists had also made themselves scarce. No doubt when the war was over, they would reappear and set themselves up again in the manner to which they were accustomed. The ordinary soldier didn’t have that luxury. The British were on the Weser. The attempt to counterattack, that might have opened up a path for the German forces to break the French grip was wholly unsuccessful. As far as Von Schobert’s staff were concerned, they were in an impossible position, and the negotiations with Giraud seemed to offer the best solution.

The formal surrender ceremony took place in a tent beside the Rhine-Herne Canal. It was filmed by a French Army crew and the photographs and film were circulated around the world quickly. It was a huge surrender of German troops, the best part of an army and as word spread through the rest of the German population of the capitulation anti-war sentiment grew. In East Prussia it was said that Hitler’s ravings could be heard through the thick armoured door of his bunker.

16 April 1941. 12:00hrs. RAF Heston, Middlesex, England.

53 Operational Training Unit was the final stage for some fighter pilots before going on operations. Pilots from all over the Empire, whose basic training had taken place from Canada to Australia, were shipped to the UK and put through their paces on the fighters they would be assigned to. The arrival of the latest group had caused a particular flurry of interest, as it included the first African pilots to graduate from basic training. James Kanagi and Frederick Apudo from Kenya had excelled, they needed to, to be able to get through the training programme. The others from their class who had started had all been washed out, most to ground support school, though one had died in a training accident. Their story had been featured in a number of magazines and they had even been on a Pathé newsreel.

To their credit, the two men were quiet and unassuming, and had developed good friendships among their majority white classmates. They had also been on the receiving end of some pretty horrific racism, but they had maintained their composure, and sense of humour. They had won a great deal of respect not only from their classmates, but also their instructors. Their arrival at Heston for their introduction to the Spitfire had been low-key, which was how they preferred it.

Squadron Leader Brian Lane was responsible for turning the new pilots into warriors. Their weapon he explained, was to be the Spitfire Mk II. There were no dual control Spitfires so it was important that each new pilot got an extensive introduction to the aircraft before they flew it for the first time.

Lane walked the class around the aircraft, talking through each and every aspect of handling, stall speeds and all of the other aspects of flying this particular type of machine. Later, there would be time to talk through the skills necessary to use the weapon successfully and return home safely for another mission. But first they had to know their weapon intimately. Part of Lane’s program was for the new pilots to get their hands dirty with the ground crew. Having a sense of how everything fitted together and to literally know their aircraft, or kite, as he preferred, inside out. Each of the new class got to sit in the “office”, the cockpit, and Lane talked each one through all of the switches, controls and paraphernalia that made the kite work. They were all familiar from school with how a kite flies, but Lane talked them through it all anyway.

For two hours the twelve new pilots listened intently to Lane as he explained every aspect of the Spitfire to them. Much of it they already knew, but Lane was a good teacher and each of the men had a sense of confidence imparted upon them. The OTU had three Spitfires and over the course of the afternoon each of the new pilots would take up one of the kites for their solo, making three circuits of the airfield, or “drome” as Lane called it. Before they broke for lunch, Lane picked Fredrick, or “Freddie” to make the first flight.

Once more, with Freddie strapped in, Lane took him through the controls and the process, to the point where Freddie could repeat it line for line. Still standing on the wing, Lane talked him through the start-up procedure. When the Merlin was warmed up, Lane gave the young Kenyan the thumbs up and jumped down off the kite. Freddie motioned for the chocks to be removed and lined up for take-off. As the Merlin raced through the revs, Freddie let off the brakes and the kite surged forward.

Once airborne, he retracted the “undercart”, shut the “lid” and put the prop into coarse pitch. The three circuits seemed to take no time at all. But for Freddie his heart was in his mouth the whole time. This was everything he had worked so hard for, to fly one of the finest machines ever invented by man. After the third and final circuit he carefully lined up for his approach. The stall speed of a Spitfire with flaps up is 69mph, with flaps down it is 63mph. Six miles an hour is no great difference, and for a while it looked as if Freddie had forgotten it, but despite a somewhat bouncy landing, he rolled the Spitfire back into its place and climbed out.

Lane, being a naturally good teacher talked Freddie, and the rest of the class, through each aspect of the take-off, circuits and landing, looking to see that he understood what he had done well, and what he needed to be more careful with. Having done so, they all trooped off for lunch. Freddie had soloed in the Spitfire first, and to his mind this made up for James being the first to solo in the Tiger Moth all those months ago.

16 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Maribor. Yugoslavia.

Major General Dušan Trifunović’s Seventh Army were on the move. The Yugoslavs had begun quietly selectively mobilising some of its reserves, watching as the Italians had increased their forces in the area over the winter. It was not a general mobilisation bringing the whole armed forces to full strength of nearly a million and a half men.

Seventh Army was the focus of this partial mobilisation, bringing most of the best forces of the army under Trifunović’s command. The First and Second Tank Battalions, all equipped with French provided Renault R35s provided the armoured punch. Training levels were still quite low, so each tank battalion was assigned to one of the Infantry Divisions, supporting the infantry was about the best that could be hoped for. The Cavalry Division would also be part of the attack.

Two Infantry Divisions were the core of the army, they had received the best equipment available from the rest of the Royal Yugoslav Army. This meant that the artillery was all motorised, the draft animals being moved to other units. Likewise, the regiments all had the full quota of heavy and light machine guns, adequate numbers of mortars and transport. If the Italians had invaded Yugoslavia instead of Austria, Seventh Army had the job of holding them while the rest of the nation’s mobilisation could take place. In addition to the two infantry and one Cavalry Divisions, Seventh Army also had two Mountain Brigades.

The Royal Yugoslav Air Force had received a number of Hawker Hurricanes before the war, and had been building more under license. With support from Hawker employees, the Rogožarski plant in Belgrade and the Zmaj factory in nearby Zemun, had been worked on to make sure that the planned production of 12 aircraft per month could be achieved. It meant that the air force was able to field four squadrons of these fighters in support of the attack on Austria. Their bomber force was made up of two squadrons of Blenheims and two squadrons of Italian built SM-79s. The Dornier 17 and Hawker Hind bomber squadrons were kept in reserve. The domestically designed IK-3 fighter was only just in production, the first six were being used to familiarise pilots on the new type. The Royal Yugoslav Air Force (VVKJ) had also bought 5o Messerschmitt Bf 109s in 1939. The order for the second 50 had not been fulfilled as the Luftwaffe struggled to replace its losses. Those serviceable Bf 109s were kept back around Belgrade to prevent any problems with friendly fire. A few had been used over the last couple of months, in Luftwaffe colours for reconnaissance purposes.

In addition to these VVKJ squadrons, Greece and Romania had each provided two squadrons as part of their commitment to the war. The Greeks had provided their two Blenheim squadrons as that would make supply easier. The Romanians provided a squadron of Hurricanes and SM-79s for the same reason. Both countries also were providing artillery regiments. These had been dispatched “on exercises” the previous week, and gave Seventh Army a much stronger punch than the Yugoslav army was used to.

The River Mur along part of the border, meant that the Yugoslav advance was two pronged, on either side of the river, supporting one another. There was limited German resistance, just the initial border forces. There were few regular troops in the area, and most of the best equipped units had already been sucked into holding back the Italian onslaught. With a plastering of the German positions by artillery, the two forward regiments, with their tank support made good progress, investing Leibnitz by the early evening. The bombers targeted probable areas of resistance, though their accuracy left something to be desired. The fighters saw no German aircraft and had been warned to avoid any entanglement with the Italian air force.

The Yugoslav attack happened almost simultaneously with the declaration of war being delivered to the German ambassadors in Belgrade, Athens and Bucharest. Even if the Germans had some forewarning, there was almost nothing they could do about it. If their intelligence organisations hadn’t been caught up in purging people within the regime, they should have some inkling of what was to happen. As it was, the Yugoslav attack took Berlin totally by surprise.

16 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Spitfire II C for Charlie. Over Paderborn.

121 Squadron was one of the Eagle Squadrons formed from American Volunteers who had joined the RAF since the beginning of the war. Sergeant Pilot Reade Tilly, at 6 foot 5 inches always felt that he was a little crouched over in his Spitfire. The Hurricane’s cockpit was roomier for his large frame, but the Spitfire II just out-flew its stablemate, and so feeling a little crouched was worth it. Having joined the Royal Canadian Air Force the previous June, he’d arrived in England in February, having sailed over the Atlantic in seas that he’d hoped he’d never see again. After receiving his final combat training with the Operational Training Unit he’d been invited to join the Eagle Squadron, and he was very glad he had. The Canadians were fine fellows, and the British had impressed him a lot, but flying with his fellow countrymen, mostly Southerners including some fellow Floridians, made him feel at home.

The squadron had moved to Belgium three weeks ago and today they were flying top cover for a force of Wellington bombers. A German counterattack had been stopped, and the Wellingtons were hitting the area around which they come from. For the four squadrons of bombers there were six squadrons of fighters in attendance. A lot of the pilots were calling these “milk runs”, as all too often there was no opposition except for some flak. Today however, it seemed that the Luftwaffe were awake. The Ground Controller had given an interception bearing and height adjustment to counter the German fighters, far enough away from the Wellingtons.

Sun light glinting off a canopy brought the eight Bf109s into focus and the Squadron commander Robin Powell DFC called out “Tally Ho”, which usually got a giggle from some of the Americans. Tilly, following the flight leader as his wingman, banked his aircraft into a dive and followed Pilot Officer Wallace down onto the German fighters.

In the melee that followed four of the German aircraft were shot down, Wallace and Tilly sharing a kill. Tilly’s Spitfire took some rounds from German cannon fire, realising that he wouldn’t be able to nurse her home, Tilly decided to bail out. Getting the canopy open took a supreme effort from the big American, and just as his engine faltered and died, he managed to get out and thankfully found that his parachute deployed as advertised.

The area to which he was descending was nowhere near where the bombers had been active. As he attempted to remember the process for landing by parachute, he scanned around the farm land hoping for a soft spot. As he hit the ground, he knew immediately that he’d broken his leg. The searing pain and shock meant that he lay where he was for a few minutes, his parachute blowing in the wind. As he began to get his breath back, he struggled to get out of the harness. Once he finally achieved this, he saw that two of his squadron mates were flying around, obviously having watched his descent.

Hunting around in his emergency pack he found the pack of pain killers that were standard issue and dry swallowed two. He knew that there was little of chance of getting himself up and moving, but he was able to crawl a little way to a wall, where he was able to make himself slightly more comfortable. His parachute didn’t seem to have attracted much attention, though the two Spitfires flying lazy figures of eight probably would.

About an hour after his descent, the two Spitfires had longed returned to base, but their place had been taken by a Lysander. Tilly hoped that it might use its ability to land in short spaces to come down and pick him up, but that never happened. He began to hear a loud clattering noise. The existence of helicopters hadn’t yet been given any great publicity, but the American pilots were aware of their existence. One of the smaller ones appeared and having flown a circuit, dropped down to land just over the wall from where Tilly was propped up. A few seconds later two men in flight suits approached, somewhat cautiously, each carrying a Sterling SMG. Seeing that he was alone, and able to communicate, one of them checked him over, confirming the broken leg, while the other returned a few moments later with a stretcher.

The roar of the helicopter’s engine was deafening. Once securely tied onto the stretcher, Tilly was picked up and carried over to the “helo” as one of the men called it. Within minutes they were airborne and heading west. Arriving at a field hospital the stretcher was unloaded and Tilly was taken to the doctors to see about getting his broken leg fixed. While in a bit of a daze because of the pain, Tilly wasn’t quite able to figure out who it was who had rescued him. As he was recovering, he wanted to make sure that those responsible would have a suitable crate of beer delivered in gratitude.

The rescue of pilots had been recognised as being an essential work. The Marine Craft Section of the RAF had been the group responsible for pilots who ditched in the Channel. As the fighting on the land continued, the RAF recognised the need to provide some kind of unit that would attempt to rescue pilots if they fell behind enemy lines. The arrival of the Sussex and Wildcat helicopters gave them the equipment to do so. The newly formed RAF Regiment trained men in securing a landing site and picking up downed pilots. Still officially under Coastal Command, Tilly discovered that 22 Squadron RAF had given up its Wildebeests and replaced them with a mixture of seaplanes and helicopters for search and rescue. They had become operational and were now forward based in Belgium where they worked to rescue pilots like Tilly. It had proven to be dangerous work, with a number of the squadron being lost to enemy action, and still more, to mechanical failures.

16 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Haifa. Palestine.

Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Heyworth, commander of First Household Cavalry Regiment (1st HCR), watched his regiment ride past for the last time with some sense of mixed emotions. Created from the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards at the beginning of the war, part of First Cavalry Division, they had been assigned to Palestine. The decision to mechanise them had caused some angst among many of the Regiment’s older men. For those who had served in the regiments previously, they were particularly scornful. The King, no less, had made it clear, that while a ceremonial role continued in London and Windsor, the rest of the Regiment should lead the way. All cavalry regiments were leaving behind their horses and moving onto the tank as the new form of warfare demanded. Heyworth would be sorry to see the horses go, but the Comet tanks that his men would be receiving in due course, would no doubt give the Regiment new battle honours.

The Seventh Armoured Division in Egypt had, as they had previously for the Australians, been showing the cavalry men of First Cavalry Division how to look after their new steel steeds. It was expected that the whole division would shortly become the basis for the Fourth Armoured Division.

Fourth Cavalry Brigade, of which 1st HCR was part (along with Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry and North Somerset Yeomanry) would become 9th Armoured Brigade. Fifth Cavalry Brigade (Yorkshire Dragoons, Yorkshire Hussars and Nottinghamshire Yeomanry) would become 10th Armoured Brigade. Sixth Cavalry Brigade (Cheshire Yeomanry, Staffordshire Yeomanry and Warwickshire Yeomanry) would be designated 8th Armoured Brigade. The latter would be heading for Malaya when their transition to tanks was complete. Unlike the other regiments, 8th Armoured Brigade would be wholly equipped with Valentines, which were thought adequate against a potential Japanese foe. The other six cavalry regiments would receive fifty-two Comets each.

General Wavell had predicted the Cavalry Division’s appointment to the Middle East would be at best temporary. But at least when he left for Singapore his successor would still have them as the basis of his force. 7th Armoured Division had received orders to move to France as part of the new Fourth Army that was being formed.

8th and 11th Hussars along with the Royal Scots Greys (forming 7th Armoured Brigade) would receive Valentines, this would be the Army’s tank brigade. 4th Armoured Brigade (1 and 6 Bn RTR and 7th Hussars) would be equipped with Comets. They would be teamed with 165th and 166th Motorised Infantry Brigades as 7th Armoured Division. 7th Armoured Division would be joined by 61st and 66th Divisions to create an II Mechanised Corps. The two second line Territorial divisions had been slated to be the first completely equipped with armoured personnel carriers.

General Harold Alexander was being talked about as Fourth Army Commander, though it was speculated that he might replace Jumbo Wilson as Second Army CO. The arrival of a third Canadian Division meant that the desire to have a Canadian Corps could be realised, with Andrew McNaughton as commander. One of the two Scottish territorial Divisions (9th and 15th) and the new Guards Division would likely replace the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions in IV and VII Corps respectively. The expected arrival of three Indian Divisions (7th, 9th and 10th) would likewise result in an Indian Corps, probably with 4th Indian Division swapping out of VI Corps, to bring their combat experience to that formation.

16 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Hamm. Germany.

General Gransard’s 2e Army were finally getting their chance to chase the Germans. 1re and 7e Army had fought the battles that surrounded the Ruhr and now were being rested and absorbing replacements. With the German surrender of the Ruhr pocket, 2e and 9e Armies, which had been assigned to reduce the German defenders, were now available to move forward. 2e Army was a veteran formation, its previous commander General Huntziger, had led them while they held the German thrust through the Ardennes in May 1940. Then had pushed them back to Rhine. Gransard had been X Corps Commander at that point. Now that he was Army Commander, he looked at emulating his predecessor’s achievements. 9e Army was busy occupying the Ruhr and disarming the German troops there.

Despite the failure of the German counterattack, British Second Army were still attempting to get themselves sorted out, which meant that Gransard was in the best position to push onwards towards Paderborn and beyond. His main weapon for the attack was 7e Division Mécanique. The Char Battalions had replaced their FCM 36s for the new Renault G1s. These were still plagued with mechanical problems. Currently there were seventy of the chars serviceable, Lt Col Fleury, the commander of the chars was pleased to report. Unlike the British, who had increased the numbers of tank transporters to make moving their armoured vehicles less stressful on the tracks, the French were still mostly moving their chars under their own steam.

Accompanying the 7e DM was the motorised 3e DINA (Division D’Infanterie Nord Africaine) which made up X Corps. Starting out from Hamm in three columns, expecting limited opposition, they kept to the south of the River Lippe. The northernmost column had Lippstadt via Lippetal in its sights. The central group aimed at Soest; while the southern group were directed at Ense via Werl. Having been on the move since early morning, each column had indeed reached their initial objectives. Each town and hamlet the passed through were festooned in white flags.

The AdA had provided the support of two squadrons of reconnaissance/ground attack aircraft, Amiot 356s, with their Rolls Royce Merlins built in Ford’s plant in Poissy. These, along with the GRCA (Army Corps Reconnaissance Group) units, were ahead of the three columns and were discovering that, as suspected, there were few German units offering resistance. Some German units that were looking to surrender, were left for the main force following.

One of the things that General Berniquet, (CO 7e DM) noted, was that his reconnaissance groups were finding bridges intact. Normal practice for a retreating army would be to blow bridges and mine the main routes to slow down attackers. It seemed that either this particular part of Germany hadn’t been strongly defended or that the German forces had decided not to follow normal practice. Whichever reason it was, Berniquet was glad, as bridging equipment was in short supply.

Because of the swift movement, and the assurance from the reconnaissance pilots flying ahead, Berniquet pushed his forces on, not waiting for flanks to be protected or any of the other aspects of advancing that would slow their progress. If he was caught out, there would be a terrible price to pay, but, if as he suspected, all German forces were now behind the Weser, the next 75km or so, would be fairly easy going.

Gransard’s other Corps, XVIII, with three infantry divisions, were less completely motorised than X Corps. From his point of view, these divisions were following on as quickly as possible, occupying and pacifying the civilian population, allowing the faster units to race ahead. If his army could push onto the Weser from Hoxter in the north to Kassel in the south, it would provide 1re and 7e armies with suitable launch points for the next phase of the attack that would take them to the Elbe.
16 - 18 April 1941
16 April 1941. 15:00hrs. Ministry of Labour. London. England.

William Barcley, writer for the Daily Express, had been granted an exclusive interview with the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin. The two men sat in the Minister’s office as the interview was conducted, Barcley taking notes as he went along.

William Barcley: Thank you for the opportunity for this interview, Mr Bevin. May I begin with the announcement you have made today regarding the National Registration of Women for War Work? With it appearing that the demise of the German foe is drawing close, why is it felt necessary for this registration to take place?

Ernest Bevin: Well, as you know, our whole country has been mobilised since 1939 when war was declared. Just as in the Great War the role of women, not only in the home, but on the factory floor and in many industries, has been essential to the victories that our armed services have won. The size of the effort of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force has been prodigious, and continues to grow. The final victory is still to be achieved however, and the world remains a very dangerous place. This Registration for women aged 20 and 21, will give our industrial planners the ability to organise the continued expansion of certain key industries where the role of women workers is highly appreciated.

WB: One of the companies that has expressed a particularly positive view on this Registration is Pye Ltd. The expansion of the electronics industry seems to one of the main targets for increasing the numbers of women workers. Would that be a fair assessment?

EB: The great heavy industries, such as coal and steel and shipbuilding, have put into the hands of our fighting men the tools needed to win the war. As the war has progressed, so has the sophistication of the means of communication and control needed by the armed services. Companies such as Pye have been at the forefront of providing those means. Giving our soldiers, sailors and airmen every possible edge in equipment, means that newer industries, such as electronics, have been every bit as important as the heavy industries in helping us towards the victories that have been achieved.

WB: The question remains, Minister, as the conclusion of the war seems closer, why the “conscription” of women into war work?

EB: There is a difference between “conscription” and “registration”, as you well know. The whole country is at war, each and every citizen has their part to play in our victory. Many women have already volunteered to become part of the services, freeing up men to join the fighting. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, The Auxiliary Territorial Service, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Transport Service, the Women’s Timber Service and so on, have been increasing their numbers. Many women of the age of registration have already chosen to join the workforce of the country of their own volition. What our industrial planners need to know now, is the pool of potential workers to both expand industries and also allow more men to be freed up for the armed services.

WB: With all due respect Minister, you still haven’t answered the question. Why now, when victory is already in sight?

EB: Is victory already in sight? The Germans continue to resist, you have reported the counter-attack on Second Army? The truth of the matter is we do not know when final victory will be achieved. We do not know, for example, what we will find as we continue to advance into the heart of Germany. You can imagine that if any enemy was marching into the heartland of Great Britain, would we not resist with all our might? We in the government have to continue to plan for a war that will continue, relentlessly until that victory is achieved. There can be no slackening of our efforts until peace is finally achieved.

WB: In that peace, Minister, how will the Ministry of Labour transition towards a peacetime economy without the dislocation of some many workers, men and women?

EB: As well as the specific military equipment that is being manufactured, many of the pre-war industries continue, as they did, to provide consumer goods and services both here at home and in foreign markets. We are a trading nation and exports are essential to our national well-being. Despite the exponential expansion of industry to equip our forces, we are still able to produce some of the world’s most sought after goods. The Ministry has endeavoured to maintain those industries, while allowing the expansion of the others. As and when peace comes, many of the firms now engaged in war work will return to their peacetime endeavours. Hopefully, with the investments that have been made in productivity, and items such as machine tools, they will be in an even more competitive state than they were before the war.

WB: Some of our readers will be aware that the “productivity” achievements have been hard won in the face of resistance from the Trades Unions. As a lifelong supporter of the Trades Unions what do you make of that?

EB: You are correct that I have been and continue to be a supporter of the rights of workers. Where you see resistance, I see the proper concern and care for the working man and woman that the Unions exist to promote. In the vast majority of cases the Unions have been most helpful in increasing productivity and challenging those companies who seek to make excessive profits for their shareholders at the expense of the employees. There have been some well publicised exceptions, where rather militant pro-communist Union officials have been arrested for interfering with war work. As Stalin is still allied with Hitler, we have been very successful in thwarting this kind of activity. Just because they are well publicised, does not mean that they are as common as some people would want to make out.

WB: I take it from that answer, Minister, that you see continued government support for Trades Unions in a peace-time Britain?

EB: At the end of the war an election will have to be called to move us back to the normal practise of party politics. The current National Unity Government will be succeeded by a government chosen through the normal parliamentary procedures. As a Labour politician I will of course argue strongly in favour of the rights of workers to be part of Trades Unions and for those Unions to do the job that the workers expect them to do.

WB: Only a slightly different note, Minister. A number of articles have appeared in various papers and journals calling for a post-war Britain with various social constructs. The one which exercises our readership particularly is the so-called “Welfare State”. Would you care to comment?

EB: A committee under the chairmanship of William Beveridge has been formed to look at various issues to do with Social Insurance, as well as improving the education and health of the British people. I look forward to reading that report when it is published. In the meantime, I would hope that when victory is finally achieved and peace comes, that we will, this time, create a society fit for heroes. As to the opinions of those who have written articles about what that society might look like, and how it would be costed, they are interesting and it is a worthwhile debate in my opinion.

WB: You mention costing, Minister. At the end of the Great War the national treasury was sorely depleted and the national debt was a terrible burden. If victory is achieved as quickly as we all hope, what do you foresee as being the state of the nation’s finances?

EB: That is really a question for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Minister of Labour, I really cannot comment.

WB: I did not expect you to comment as Minister, Mr Bevin. My question pertains to the kinds of things that as a Labour politician you would hope to create in peace-time Britain. Will we be in a position to afford the kind of nanny state that a socialist government would impose?

EB: I believe that such a question is outside the scope of the purpose of this interview. When victory is achieved over our enemies, and I am once again on the hustings wearing my Labour rosette, I will be more than happy to attempt to answer that question. But, until that happy day arrives, I believe that I must return to the work to which I have been given to do. Good day, Mr Barcley.

WB: Good day to you too Minister, and I look forward to asking the question again, as you say at the appropriate moment. Thank you Minister.

16 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Niger River Delta. Nigeria.

Shell D'arcy Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria had been granted their license to explore for oil in 1937, but had been fairly unsuccessful up until now. The firm was a combination the Shell and Anglo-Iranian Oil companies. An academic report from the Geography Department of the University of Aberdeen had postulated that the Niger River Delta would have the properties associated with oil fields. This report had been provided to the development company though the British Governor of Nigeria Sir Bernard Bourdillon. Bourdillon was a firm believer in the development of colonies, and when made aware by the Colonial Office that this theory had been postulated, he immediately passed on the paper to the director of the development company. That was last summer and since then a number of test sites had been explored and evaluated.

The report of the find on Bonny Island described the oil found there as light and sweet. It also seemed to suggest that there were sizable deposits, as postulated by the geographers of Aberdeen. It was clear that there was an investment opportunity here, and both Shell and Anglo-Iranian were keen of making the investment of opening up a commercially viable oil field, with the necessary infrastructure. Bourdillon was delighted when informed, as it would provide an excellent income stream for the colony, helping with the investment in education and infrastructure that was sorely needed.

Further exploration was preceding, and Shell D'arcy were confident that the sites to the west of Owerri in which they had dug wells, were also commercially viable, with production likely to begin as early as 1942. If, as some believed, Nigeria had the size of oil reserves that it was believed they did, then the whole colony would be transformed. For the Colonial Office, it was becoming clear that the decision to unite the Southern and Northern Nigerian Protectorates into the single colony of Nigeria might be problematic. The two areas were very different and if the south turned out to be oil rich, then the relationship with the north might become even more problematical. Bourdillon was asked to look again at the way in which the colony might be best run. Specifically, to make a recommendation about the viability of splitting it once more into two distinct administrations.

The geography department of the University of Aberdeen had been making a number of papers available which were of interest not only to the British Colonial Office but also to the Dominion Office. Egypt, Burma, Punjab, East Bengal were all the subject of serious oil and natural gas exploration. Canadian oil production in Alberta was already established, but Aberdeen University had surmised that there was a great deal more oil in the area than had previously been suspected. Anglo-Iranian had struck oil in the Drayton Valley near the Pembina River. Imperial Oil had found, with help, a large deposit near Leduc and were in the process of bringing that into production.

Two friendly powers had also been made privy to the information provided by the university. Portugal had been informed of potential in Angola, the Companhia de Pesquisias Mineras de Angola had been directed to look in the region south of Luanda. The French government had received notice that exploration in French Equatorial Africa, Syria and Algeria was worthwhile, and through the Compagnie française des pétroles (CFP) that was happening. Algeria had been prioritised and production was expected within a year or two. At this point the information about oil reserves in Libya had not been made available to Italy, who although were co-belligerents, were not yet "friendly powers".

The fact that the Geography Department of the University of Aberdeen had been focussing on oil production was no coincidence. The British Government had given the University a large grant to study the future of oil exploration and development. The University had received a visiting professor, a serving Royal Navy officer, who had given a series of lectures on where oil might be produced in the future and what some of the issues of finding it may be. The grant allowed various departments to enable post-graduate students to research the information given by the visiting professor. The papers finding their way to Colonial and Dominion offices were the fruits of that labour. In addition to the geography department’s work on where oil deposits might be found and exploited, the engineering department, in association with Anglo-Iranian and Shell had been studying improvements in drilling equipment. There was a particular focus on drilling platforms for off-shore oil exploration. The North Sea had been identified as being a likely source of oil, but getting at it with the current technology would be problematical.

16 April 1941. 17:00hrs. The White House. Washington DC. USA.

Tea had been provided, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada and President Dewey of the United States were left alone to have their discussion. The plans discussed the previous year at Ogdensburg about growing cooperation between Canada and the United States with President Roosevelt had been honoured by Dewey’s administration. Despite that, there were still unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

The “Permanent Joint Board on Defence” had made seven recommendations the previous August. The first called for a full and complete exchange of information. This had largely been done on the part of the Americans, though there was some dubiety about whether the Canadians had been quite as forthcoming. Other recommendations provided for certain troop deployments and defensive installations needed to insure adequate defence of Newfoundland and the Maritime Provinces. Regarding this the Newfoundland Militia had been renamed the Newfoundland Regiment and had taken responsibility for the defence of the Dominion, with some support from the Canadian forces. No American forces would be deployed on Canadian soil, though American officers did make a number of visits to see the lay of the land in the unlikely event of an invasion.

As slightly longer-range measures, the Board recommended steps to assure adequate allocations of matériel, to improve transportation and communication facilities in the more threatened areas, and to stimulate materiel production. On the whole, where cooperation had been possible, and the Neutrality Act had made some of that difficult, the improvements had been made. The old question about building a highway through Canada to Alaska had been looked at again. Mackenzie King was happy with the idea, while President Dewey was concerned about the cost. The United States Army however were pressing for it, and the Corps of Engineers were willing to be the main contractors.

The local governments of Yukon and British Columbia wanted a road that would be of benefit to their growth, specifically that it would be an all-weather road. There was a divergence of opinion about the best route to take and how to deal with permafrost. The two national leaders were finally able to agree to finance a proper survey to be taken and once that was completed, the final decision on its go-ahead would be possible.

The last recommendation of the seven provided that the "Service Members of the Board should proceed at once with the preparation of a detailed plan for the joint defence of Canada and the United States and keep the Board informed of the progress of the work." This was the area that King and Dewey were looking at.

The reality of the war situation was such that any direct threat to the Americas was now risible. The plans that had been sketched out were best described as vague, with no particular notion of whose forces would do what or who would be in command. The plan for the west coast was obviously very different from the plan for the east coast. In the absence of a threat from U-boats, the sea lanes were considered safe with the Royal Canadian Navy aiding the Royal Navy in this regard. Some cooperation with the USN had continued, though Admiral King wasn’t terribly keen on this.

The Canadian economy was booming as it had geared up to fight the war, with large American companies such as Ford and General Motors’ factories in Canada expanding to meet the needs not only of Canada, but increasingly the Entente forces. In addition to those companies already in place before the outbreak of war, a few more had set up factories on the Canadian side of the border, as a way around the Neutrality Act. One of these was Packard, who had a license to build the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine for North American’s Mustang fighter. As these engines were also desired by De Havilland Canada for the Mosquito production that it was starting, it fell foul American law. Canada was also still building Hurribombers for which the Packard built Merlins were also in demand. By opening a new factory under a subsidiary “Packard Canada” in Windsor, Ontario, literally just across the border on the other side of the Detroit River, many American workers were commuting to a foreign country to work.

On the American side, while there was increased spending on the Navy, and to a lesser extent on the Army and its air corps. Generally, the American economy was stagnating. Dewey had ended parts of the New Deal arrangements, as he’d promised in his election campaign. There were still large numbers of workers without jobs, and the blooming Canadian plants were drawing many of these men north. Dewey was upset that Canadian “interventionism” was making Canada an attractive place for American firms to set up, with low taxation and large grants to set up factories. It was clear that there was very little he could do about it. The law was clear that war materials could not be sold to belligerent powers, and FDR’s “cash and carry” policy had been ended. It was true that Packard were still producing cars for the domestic market, but the men working in the lucrative aircraft engine arm were now being paid in Canadian dollars.

The meeting was expected to last about an hour between the two men privately and then they would be joined by some of their aides and experts. By the time these others were invited in it was clear that angry words had been exchanged between the two leaders. The rest of the meeting was shorter than planned. It was described in the press subsequently as a “full and frank” exchange of views, and it would sometime before the two men would meet again, and never in private.

16 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Steinheim. Germany.

Major Charles Hope, the Earl of Hopetoun, commanded C Squadron of 1st Lothian and Border Horse ever since the death of his predecessor, Major Usher, the previous year. The regiment was equipped with Vickers light tanks and universal carriers, one of the last units still using the Mk VI on active duty. For the reconnaissance role they were tasked with, the light tanks were adequate. Most of the other reconnaissance regiments were now using armoured cars, which were fine, at least to Hope’s mind. Though there were a couple of times he could think of when the tracks on his tank were preferable to wheels of an armoured car. Having two machine guns limited the tank to soft targets, but his role wasn’t to mix it up with German panzers. Unfortunately, his predecessor had done exactly that and had paid the price. But then things had been pretty desperate last May and June.

Acting as the eyes of I Mechanised Corps, 1st Lothian and Border Horse’s squadrons were pushing south in advance of the forces sent to encircle the German counterattack. Since those Germans had surrendered, Hope’s task had been to keep going, to get a fix of where the German line was. Looking through his binoculars Hope could see nothing in or around the town that would suggest any German military units. White sheets were hanging from many windows, as suggested by the BBC’s German program if they wanted to avoid being bombed. Sergeant Rees commanded one of the scout troops of three carriers, and at Hope’s command they raced up the road into the town, without encountering any resistance. The three tracked vehicles stopped in the centre of the town in the circular Market Platz. Rees radioed that all seemed quiet and clear. With that the rest of the Squadron raced in and around the town, making sure that the couple of bridges over the small River Emmer were secure.

When Hope himself arrived he was greeted by the town’s new mayor, the senior police officer and the Catholic priest, who spoke some English. The previous Nazi official had disappeared a few weeks ago and was succeeded by a former incumbent brought out of retirement. It was clear that there was no military presence in the town and from what Hope could glean any troops that had been around had either gone west to join the counterattack, or had pulled back eastwards towards Hoxter and the other side of the Weser. Taking his time to get his notes in order, Hope radioed his report back to the regimental HQ. As expected, the CO wanted him to keep moving towards the Weser, another 15 miles away. It would be dark before long, and Hope decided to rest his men, requesting a resupply from the Squadron’s Admin troop. There was a brief officers’ call working out the dispositions for security and planning the next day’s movement. Hope’s batman had some hot tea and a plate of food ready for him when the meeting broke up.

As he was eating, the priest brought along a youth whose English was better than his. The information he had was that there was a group of deserters from the German army that were hiding out in the hills around the village of Rolfzen, about 4km away. The reason for bringing this to his attention was that they were armed and acting as bandits, robbing the locals of food and valuables. They were too well armed for the small police contingent to deal with, and the priest hoped that the British army might be in a position to do something about them. It was practically dark now and it was clear that there was nothing that could be done that night.

The Squadron Sergeant Major, Sandy Peacock, was called over to hear the report. Like Hope, the idea of doing anything at night was dismissed. In fact, Peacock felt that they should just pass the intelligence back up to the Regiment HQ and let the follow-on troops deal with it. Their own mission of getting to the Weser and finding where the main German line of resistance was took precedence. Hope had to agree with the assessment. It was likely that such bands of deserters were all over Germany, and they would have to be dealt with. But his was a cavalry unit that had a particular mission. Certainly, a warning to all his men that there were armed Germans in the area would be useful in protecting themselves. In the unlikely event that the troop moving through Rolfzen were to encounter the bandits, then by all means they should disarm them one way or another. The priest went off disappointed while Hope and Peacock shared a shot of whiskey that Hope had squirreled away in his tank. The squadron would be on the road again at 07:00hrs, but at least tonight most of them could sleep comfortably.

17 April 1941. 06:00hrs. Base aérienne 128 Metz-Frescaty. France.

Groupement de Bombardement 6 were still flying the LeO 451s they had been since the beginning of 1940. Not that there were many of the original pilots or aircrew. The AdA had implemented a similar system used in the RAF from September 1940 onwards. Once a crew had flown forty combat missions they would be rested, going on to a training establishment to help produce their replacements. After six months, or possibly a year, for those who proved good teachers, they would be eligible to go back onto front line service for another 40 missions. As the number of aircrew expanded, it was hoped the number of missions would reduce towards the British level of thirty. Losses were reducing as the Luftwaffe were less effective, however ground fire and accidents still accounted for all too many dead pilots and crew.

Today’s mission, a raid on Wehrmacht targets around Schweinfurt, would have the whole 3e Division Aérienne: GB 6 along with GB 15, GB 10 and GB 7 putting 200 bombers over the targets. They would be escorted to the target by the Dewoitines of Groupement de Chasse 21 and on the way home by the MB157s of GC 23. It was just over 300kms to the target. A lot of the route would be over the French army and it wasn’t expected that there would be too much interference by the Luftwaffe. Raids were taking place simultaneously by 2e Division Aérienne on known Luftwaffe bases between Stuttgart and Munich. 2e Division were flying the American made Douglas and Glenn-Martin bombers. Further north 1re Division were mostly flying Amiot 354s. Their targets were east of the river Weser, again targeting known Wehrmacht concentrations. The Intelligence Officer at the briefing noted that the RAF were also putting two Groups of Wellingtons in the air to hit targets around Soltau. The entente bomber force in action this morning was estimated at just over a thousand bombers, with a similar number of fighters flying escort missions. Some of the pilots wondered what would be the effect of such an air armada if they were all aiming for the same target.

At airfields all over France, Belgium and England, bomber crews went through their pre-flight checks and rituals. The ground crew had been working through the night getting the aircraft fuelled, armed and ready. The planners had done their best with the reconnaissance and other intelligence to put as many bombers over as rich a target environment that they could. The roar of aero-engines reverberated around the airfields as the heavily laden bombers lifted off. For some crews this would be their baptism of fire, for a few others it was their last mission before standing down from flight operations. For the majority of crews, it was one more notch towards being rested.

17 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Muar. Malaya.

8th Australian Division had concentrated in Malaya and were becoming acclimatised. Frank Berryman had been brought back from the 6th Division Staff and promoted to Major General to take command of the new Division. He had shown great ability in that division’s formation and had been identified as an up and coming man. General Gordon Bennett, who had been trying to secure the job himself, had been passed over “in favour someone with more experience”. Berryman was keen of getting the whole division worked up and had devised a number of exercises, the first of which was about to begin.

Berryman was an artillery man at heart and one of the things that he wanted above all was that the lessons he had seen in Europe would be applied here, primarily the use of combined arms. His three Royal Australian Artillery Field Regiments (2/10, 2/14 and 2/15) were all equipped with 18/25-pdr Mk1, a converted 18-pdr, with the barrel bored out to accept the 25-pdr shell. The expectation was that as soon as 25-pdrs were available his division would get them.

The Divisional Cavalry Regiment had a mixture of armoured cars (some based on the Indian Pattern Trucks) and universal carriers, and its main role would be reconnaissance. Berryman was keen on getting his hands on some tanks. The First Australian Armoured Division was still in its infancy, though one regiment, 1st Light Horse (Machine Gun) Regiment was further advanced and were beginning to get some Valentine tanks. They were due to be renamed 1st Tank Battalion, and Berryman had got Sturdee’s agreement that they would be assigned to his division, at least until the Armoured Division was operational.

The three Infantry Brigades (22nd, 23rd and 27th) were still pretty raw, but Berryman had every confidence in the men, that they would rise to the challenges before them. No doubt there would be a fair amount of indiscipline when they were off duty, and a great deal of moaning when they were on duty, but as fighting men, he wouldn’t swap them for anyone else.

The exercises they were about to embark upon would test their mettle in various ways. There were various types of terrain for them to get used to in Malaya. 6th Indian Division would provide the opposing force. The river at Muar provided the chance for both defending and attacking a water obstacle. The engineers especially would have their work cut out, with their limited equipment. The signallers also had a steep learning curve. There weren’t enough radios for all the units, and so they were still reliant on laying ground lines. There were few tanks in the area but those that were available would be making an appearance to deal with training in collaboration and defence against them.

The RAF and RAAF would also be taking part in the exercises as the Forward Air Controllers learned their trade. If one thing was sure, it was that the Division, like all those on Singapore or in Malaya, would be training extensively and exhaustively.

There were some weaknesses for the Australian division in armoured vehicles, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. These shortfalls were beginning to be made up. Some equipment was coming from Europe, largely material that was becoming obsolete in that war zone. The 2-pdr anti-tank guns that were being replaced with 6-pdrs in Germany were expected to be fine against Japanese tanks. The problem was that the expansion of the British army was happening at the same time as the Commonwealth divisions.

The investment in the Indian Ordinance Factories in early 1940 was paying dividends in the equipping of the expanding Indian army and helping the Commonwealth forces. For example, the Owen submachine gun was now in production in the John Lysaght factories in Port Kembla and Newcastle and these were also being bought by the Indian Army as well as the Australian. Along with Australian, South African and New Zealand factories, the Indian factories were supplying increasing numbers of weapons and ammunition to the troops. Canada was the major supplier of many of the necessary vehicles.

The orders from Britain in early 1940 were for the Canadians to provide the equipment for 10 divisions. Contacts had been given for 300 tanks, 1000 universal carriers, 72434 vehicles, 3450 artillery pieces, 100000 rifles, 42600 Bren guns. All of this was in addition to the orders to supply Canada’s own expanding army. Aircraft production was also increasing, as the Canadian Government prioritised the Air Training Plan. While shipbuilding was increasing, the RCN wasn’t expanding quite as quickly as it was thought it would. Steel was needed for tanks and guns and, with the sea lanes were secure, building escort vessels was less of a priority. For the fiscal year ending on 31 March 1941, the total Canadian Defence Department appropriations were $681,438,416, and the total Defence Department war expenditures $647,676,557, or somewhat more than five times those for 1939-40.

Production continued ramping up in the British economy too. In the first quarter of 1941 Britain had produced 916 tanks or armoured vehicles; 1005 25-pdrs; 349 3.7-inch AA guns; 2078 other guns including Bofors (616) and 6-pdr (517); 26317 SMLE rifles, 1969 Bren LMGs, 771 Vickers HMG, 1334 mortars, 15084 Sterling smgs, 1025 Carl Gustavs; and 23852 wheeled vehicles. This was in addition to 4865 aircraft in the same period (115 Halifax bombers, 700 medium bombers, 365 light bombers, 1708 fighters, 52 transport aircraft, 333 naval aircraft and 1688 trainers). Other equipment such as radios, Bailley bridges, uniforms and steel helmets all were pouring out of factories in increasing quantities, or often in better qualities too. The absence of air raids on Britain meant that there wasn’t the dislocation that the German workers were having to toil under.

The numbers in the army were still increasing but it was clear that the absence of the Luftwaffe meant that the numbers of anti-aircraft batteries didn’t have to be expanded as much as had been feared. Likewise, the anti-tank capability provided by the 6-pdr, the Carl Gustav and the bazooka were greater than the numbers of panzers being encountered on the battlefield. The other, perhaps less easily identifiable, process that was happening was the increasing professionalism of the armed forces.

The officers who had commanded the army during peacetime had either been moved or had learned very hard lessons. Many of the lessons learned in the 100 days of 1918, and seemingly forgotten subsequently, were once again being rediscovered. For units like 8th Australian Division, the process of moving from being a bunch of civilians to a well-trained and well-equipped battle-ready unit was a hard road. And while the exercises they were about to embark upon would make them sweat and swear, the brutal reality of war would make them glad of the exercises they had done to prepare them as best they could for the duty that would fall on them.

17 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Soltau. Germany.

Feldwebel Horst Block had been trying to get his new Halb-Zug (half platoon) trained, but it hadn’t been going well. Already the battalion had suffered a lot of desertions, including two men from one of his sections who’d disappeared a few days ago. Another had given himself a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Block had been in the trenches in 1917 and on the march in 1918, first towards the allies, then being pushed back by them. Called once again to the colours he had been trying to share something of his experience with the young lads, but there was no fire in their belly, no sense of pride in their uniform. They’d had their basic training, and here they were supposed to be made into proper soldiers, and just not cooperating at all.

The air-raid siren was a familiar sound to them all and as it started to wail, Block saw a turn of speed from the men he never saw on the obstacle course. They literally raced each other to the slit trenches to take cover. Block was a bit slower, his knees weren’t as good as they used to be, and generally air raid sirens noted bombs falling on other folk. Today, it seemed the RAF was determined to kill Horst personally. Lying at the bottom of the trench the horrors of the British bombs seemed worse than the artillery bombardments he remembered from the last war. The ground heaved and shook all round him, it felt as if all the air at the bottom of the trench just seemed to be sucked away leaving him gasping.

Above the ear-splitting noise of the detonations, the scream of one of the young lads in the trench, as the terror ripped into his soul, was horrific. When the bombers seemed to pass into the distance, he pushed himself up to survey the damage above the lip of the trench. The whole area had been cratered like the moon. He got himself and the others out of the trench and started trying to get his men together. One trench had taken a direct hit, another had collapsed. Those who still had their wits about them tried to dig down and pull up the survivors.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes that they’d been occupied by that when the shout went up that the RAF jabos were coming. Four of the hated Hurribombers passed over, dropping their accursed fire bombs and the other cluster type. The passed over again, shooting off their cannons that simply minced men into meat, then flew off. Block picked himself up again, and found himself unharmed, at least physically. He had blood and gore on his uniform from one of the boys who’d disintegrated when hit by a 20mm shell. Infantry Regiment 235 of 102nd Division, instead of being ready to join the line and defend the Weser Line, was now a shattered wreck.

General Adolph Strauß, commander of Ninth Army, for the second time in a month, barely survived an air raid on his headquarters. The last one had killed his chief of staff, a dear friend, and this one had wiped out much of his planning staff. As reports came in from around the army’s units, it seemed that the RAF had inflicted a great many casualties on his forces. Two of his ammunition depots, and worse, two of his fuel depots had been obliterated. It seemed that General Weich’s Second Army had suffered less, but still it had had it bad enough. The troops nearer the Weser hadn’t been too badly hit, but that didn’t matter as they were under direct artillery attack for the most part. The RAF seemed to have an uncanny ability to hit the strategic reserve and especially the newer units that were being brought up to fighting standard.

He had four of the 12th Wave divisions in his command, formed from men called up in November and December 1940. One of them, 102nd Division had been very badly hurt, the others less so. What worried Strauß more than anything, was the effect on the morale of these units. Like the rest of the army it was already low. If they couldn’t even complete their training without having bombs rained down on them, they would end up no use to anyone.

To make matters worse it was now becoming clear that the Nazi Party and their SS guards were all heading east, leaving the Wehrmacht to hold a line at the Weser, then another at the Elbe, while they ensconced themselves far enough away to form a “national redoubt”. Strauß had never been much of a Nazi by inclination, but had escaped the purges following the attempted coup led by Jodl and Hess. Now he was beginning to wonder if perhaps he should have been more active in helping the military take control of the country, before it was overrun by the British and French.

The question was, did he want his men to bleed to save a country that the leadership was abandoning? On the other hand, the thought of having the British and French, and their colonial troops, occupying the Fatherland was too much to bear. The task might be hopeless, but the Poles had fought on against terrible odds. Would the German Volk ever forgive the Heer for doing worse than the Poles? The British must be resisted, that had to be the only answer he could give to the question on his mind. At least that question was answered to some degree. The pertinent question that followed, was how to resist? Better troops than the ones he had, had failed. Now with almost no air support, few panzers, and shortages of almost everything, how could he put up a resistance that would actually be effective?

17 April 1941. 09:00hrs. Yokosuka. Japan.

Captain Masafumi Arima took up his post as deputy commanding officer of Yokosuka Naval Air Corps and the chief training officer of the same unit. As one of the finest units of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Naval Air Arm, it was a great honour to be responsible for honing their skills to the sharpness of a katana blade. The fact that they had already transitioned onto the new Mitsubishi A6M Rei-sen was testimony to their importance.

The new aircraft was being produced at the rate of just under 30 per month, every day one was being rolled out of the production facility. Arima’s pilots were the crème de la crème of Naval Aviation. Thankfully, some pilots with combat experience over China were part of the unit. Up against the Soviet made aircraft, the A6M was outstanding. How it would be against the French and British aircraft was more difficult to guess.

It was very difficult to get accurate information about the air war over Europe. What was clear was that the British and French fighters had mostly cleared the Luftwaffe from the skies, and therefore had to be taken seriously. It looked as if some of the less successful aircraft from that theatre had been transferred to Indo-China and Malaya. Arima and his pilots were confident that Hurricanes, Moranes and Blochs wouldn’t be any greater a threat than the Polikarpov I-15 and I-16s. There was also the feeling that the pilots in the South China Sea were likely to be second rate, as obviously the best pilots would be where the action was.

As training officer, it would be his duty to make sure that his pilots could do what the RAF and AdA had done, to clear any potential enemy from the sky. A large part of the training program would be to practice dogfighting and all the other skills they would need. The fly in his ointment however was the curtailed amount of aviation fuel that would limit the time available for training. The navy were stockpiling reserves of all fuel types in case of war, and the cost of buying oil was becoming an issue for the economy. While there was no official ban of the sale of oil to Japan, the condemnation of the on-going war in China by the national governments of most of the world, especially the USA, meant that commercial firms were either reluctant to enter into deals or pressured by their governments not to.

As with the unilateral abrogation of the commercial treaty between Japan and the USA in January 1940, the former President had called for a “moral embargo.” In 1938 this had been aircraft and parts for them, in 1940 that had been extended to aviation fuel and lubricants, as well as high grade melting scrap iron. President Dewey so far had maintained these embargos. Congress, with the China lobby growing more strident, were talking about a complete oil embargo.

Covetous eyes were looking south at the riches of the European colonies, and while they were all up to their neck in a war with Germany, there was a window of opportunity to do something about it. That window was closing fast as it seemed that some reinforcements were making their way to the area of the South China Sea. Just that morning Japanese newspapers had printed photographs of a huge French submarine that had molested and threatened a cargo vessel for no reason.

The diplomatic service were pushing the possibility of entering some kind of peace treaty in China, which would allow for the possibility of better commercial links with the Entente and their colonies. The army were strongly resisting this idea, and the navy were still examining the plans that would be necessary to be able to wrest control of Indo-China from the French, which would give them a base of operations to expand down through Thailand to Malaya and Singapore. Once that was secure then the Dutch East Indies, the real prize, could be seized. What the Americans would do was the great unknown.

The Japanese newspapers had reported on the assessment of the New York chapter of the America First Committee. “The battle in Asia is Britain’s battle – and a battle not for democracy, but to continue her hold on 300,000,000 million people in India, millions more in Malaya and other territories in Asia, to say nothing of a hundred million in Africa. She is parked there for the gold, the oil, the rubber, the silver, the diamonds, the rich supplies which her capitalists own there – which belong to the peoples of those countries, but which Britain has stolen.” This echoed closely the Japanese view that the European colonies presence in the East should have their white masters kicked out and a pan-Asian co-prosperity scheme to replace it.

Among the intelligence that Arima would be sharing with his pilots was the report of a Japanese officer, who aboard a fishing vessel, had managed to watch a recent exercise by the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. It hadn’t been an easy job, a British destroyer had kept trying to push the fishing boat away from the area. The report contained some useful information. The three main types of carrier-based aircraft were Hurricane fighters, Skua dive-bombers and Swordfish bi-plane torpedo bombers. Each of these three types were well known, though the fact that the Hurricane had been fitted for carrier operations was new. Two other aircraft had appeared and were of particular interest. One was an extremely large fighter, believed to be called a Fulmar. The capabilities of this were largely unknown, but there appeared to be just two of them. The other aircraft was also an oddity, some kind of large autogyro the purpose of which was unclear, however the observer seemed to suggest it was acting as a guard in case any aircraft went into the sea to rescue the pilot.

Significantly the observer had noted that time it took to launch and recover the aircraft was not up to the standards of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The British carrier struggled to get its air group into air in a timely manner. This fact suggested that the usefulness of the British carrier was limited. This confirmed what had been observed previously with HMS Eagle. A British carrier air group was weak and not up to the high standards expected from the Imperial Naval Air Service. To Arima’s mind, the A6M fighter, the Aichi D3A1 dive bomber and Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber meant that they were a much more potent force. Since his pilots had had excellent training, along with their Bushido spirit, any British and French vessels would be easy meat, especially if as planned the First Air Fleet came together in one mighty fist.

17 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Poland.

SS-Untersturmfuehrer Maximilian Grabner hated some parts of his job. Today for example, there were six new communications on his desk that he had to deal with. Six. All the time spent at his desk was wasted from what he enjoyed doing, the best part of his job, which was teaching the pathetic scum in the camp what fear really was. The first communication was a request for more labourers to be shipped to East Prussia. That was easy. There were a lot of Poles who needed to be taken down a few more pegs and digging trenches and tank traps was just the job for them. He’d need to organise a train for them, it would better still just to force march them the 500kms, but the order was more urgent than that. Still, it gave him the chance to reduce the population by at least 500.

The second was to send some of his men to the same place. Certainly, the train would need to be guarded, but he didn’t have a large garrison, and they were looking for at least a company of troops. That would put an extra strain on his force, but if the population continued to fall, then it might be possible. There were already some prisoners who earned a little extra bread by doing simple jobs so that his men didn’t have to do everything. He could probably increase that a bit, which would take some of the pressure off. He already started picking out some of the least useful troops in his command that he would be well shot of.

The third was odd. There was a complaint from the governor in Warsaw about the practise of sending the ashes of dead Polish political prisoners back to their families. It was causing the governor grief as people used the internment of these urns as a means of protest against the German occupiers. That was ridiculous. And easily solved. He made a note for his deputy to cease sending the urns to the families. It would also save some money which wasn’t a bad thing.

Fourth, at least he was getting through this quickly enough, was a request for the statistics of the cause of deaths of his prisoners. It seemed someone wanted to know what the most efficient way of killing unwanted prisoners was. That would take hours. Obviously shooting them was the most efficient way, but the cost of the bullets would have to be taken into consideration. Working them hard while cutting their rations was taking longer, but did make for a larger number of deaths. The camp doctor would have to be consulted. The punishment cells also were a contributor to the overall numbers, but it was pretty slow, starving people to death wasn’t a quick way to die, but at least it was pretty cheap. He’d have to come back to this, more time at his desk!

The fifth was a request for more statistics, this time total numbers of prisoners and what their background was. They seemed particularly interested in number of Polish army officers for some reason. Well, when the train left for East Prussia there’d be a lot less then. All the information was in their files. He’d need to get a couple of orderlies to go through that paperwork and get it sent off. Grabner understood the need for proper information and paperwork, but he didn’t have to like it.

The sixth was a bit of a shock. It came from Kurt Daluege himself, the man who’d taken over from Himmler. In the event of the collapse of the Wehrmacht and the possibility that Entente forces were to reach Auschwitz, Grabner had to make sure that nothing was left for them to find. No records, no survivors. Planning should be put in place now to make that happen. The shock was that the very possibility of the Entente getting all the way here was bad enough. But how on earth, especially if he lost a company of his men, was he ever going to be able to destroy everything? This was going to take a bit of thought. In fact, the only thing that might clear his head enough to figure out what to do would be to go and see if there were a few people who needed a good beating. Or better still, an escape attempt that would let him shoot off a few rounds. That always cleared his mind. Yes, that’s exactly what he’d do.

17 April 1941. 11:00hrs. Hartberg. Austria.

General Hubert Schaller-Kalide, commander of Wehrkries (Defence District) XVIII, didn’t like his new headquarters at all. However, there was little he could do. The Yugoslavs had taken him by surprise and Graz was likely to fall before the day was finished. Unlike the Italians who were much more limited by the terrain, the Yugoslavs, once they had Graz, would find the going towards Vienna fairly straightforward. He had almost nothing to stop them with. What limited forces he had were all opposing the Italians at Wolfsberg Carthinia. With the Yugoslavs heading for Graz, he would need to pull them out now, otherwise they would be cut off.

There wasn’t much laughter in Berlin anymore, even the snorting had stopped. “Just do your best” wasn’t exactly what a commander needed to hear from his superior officers. The BBC had announced that the troops in the Ruhr had surrendered to the French. That made it clear that the end of the Reich was just a matter of time. The Italians he could almost cope with, at least he had given them a bloody nose. But the Italians and the Yugoslavs were just too much. He called for his radio operator. Giving him orders to attempt to reach the commander at Wolfsberg, telling him to try and pull as many of his troops back as he could. Once that was done, he ordered the operator to try to make contact with the Yugoslav army commander. If surrender was good enough for the commander of the Ruhr Valley, it was good enough for his men too. The Austrians would have to sort out themselves, but Wehrkries XVIII was finished.

17 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Base aérienne 128 Metz-Frescaty. France.

Two aircraft had failed to return. One had been hit by ground fire, the other probably had some kind of mechanical failure. A few more had various holes and a couple of lightly wounded crew, but all in all it had been a good raid. Photoreconnaissance aircraft were getting the evidence of how successful the raid had been, and whatever that was, the majority of the aircraft would make another sortie in a few hours. They would either go back to the same target or one of the alternatives. Two sorties a day for the bombers were becoming more common, especially as the raids weren’t too far into enemy held territory.

By all accounts the fighter screen had done its job well, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of Luftwaffe resistance. 2e Division Aérienne seemed to have done a good job, though it was becoming clearer that the bulk of the remaining Luftwaffe had been pulled back further east. There was a growing disaffection among the crews, and generally in the armed forces. When would the Germans just give up? They must know that they have lost the war. The continued resistance was hard to understand.

Surely if France had suffered so much as German had suffered, the government would have sued for peace by now. The resistance to the Boche in the Great War had been one thing, but already French and British troops were heading into the very heart of their country. There were obviously some troops and places where there was little or no fight in the enemy, but the losses at Aschaffenburg were testimony that the some in the Wehrmacht were still making things as difficult as possible. However now that that crust has been broken the French army was making swifter progress.

17 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Innsbruck. Austria

The Italian Ariete Armoured Division had been cooling their heels for days waiting for the road through the Brenner Pass to be reopened. Once the mountain troops had winkled out the German and Austrian stay behinds, the engineers had been able to get on with clearing a path so that the Ariete could move their Carro down the 30km to Innsbruck. That had finally happened, and despite a number of ambushes and roadblocks, the first M11/39s and M11/40s had rolled into the town centre and towards the river Inn. The Germans had once again blown all the bridges. It would take some time for the engineers to bring enough equipment forward to make a crossing. The river was running fast and deep, and getting across it in any force would be difficult.

The commander of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment, Colonel de Gherardin pushed out his 5th Battalion eastwards, with his motorcycle troops spreading out to get a picture of the German positions. The 12th Battalion were tasked with securing the town. The 3rd Battalion was to follow the river westwards to look for a crossing or any more German forces. The mayor of Innsbruck had been rounded up and was being given a very clear picture of how things were going to be. The Ariete Divisional Commander, General Ettore Baldassarre, had come forward and was enjoying the success of his men. Whatever German armed forces had been around seemed to have disappeared. Baldassarre guessed they had probably crossed over the river, but it seemed that there was no armed resistance around.

The air force was also in evidence adding to the eyes of the division. The plan now for the Italian thrust was to move down the river valley in the direction of Jenbach. From there they would carry on towards the German border at Kiefersfelden. The central thrust, led by 131st Armoured Division Centauro was currently working its way past Spittal An Der Drau with the objective of Salzburg. The main attack towards Graz and Vienna had been the most obstinately resisted and was well behind schedule. The arrival of Yugoslav forces had confused the picture immensely. However, for Baldassarre, his first main objective had been achieved, at a moderate cost. It was well worth enjoying his first lunch in the liberated town.

17 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Hengelo. The Netherlands.

Now that the whole of the country had been liberated, the remobilisation of the Dutch army had been progressing. Large numbers of the men would be needed in reconstruction but General Nicholaas Carstens, the commander of the First Dutch Corps, took the salute alongside General Sikorski and General Alan Brooke, as it became officially part of the Polish Army in the First Entente Army Group. For all intents and purposes, they were best described as light divisions, but they were fully motorised and had the best of the Dutch forces’ equipment. The Dutch had lost all their tanks, except of the Marines’ DD Valentines. These were preparing for the liberation of Denmark. Talks between the Dutch and British governments was on-going to buy division’s worth of Comet tanks. In the meantime, these three Dutch divisions would give Brooke’s Army Group some flexibility.

Many of the troops in the three Dutch divisions were combat veterans and they had scores to settle. By adding them to the Polish Army, rounding it out to nine divisions, Brooke now had five armies, each of three Corps of three divisions. Three British Armies, the Polish Army and the Belgian Army. The objective of the First Entente Army group after crossing the Weser would be the Elbe, then the Baltic coast, and eventually Poland. It was entirely possible that very hard fighting would be ahead. He knew he could count on the Poles to fight with all their might to get to, and liberate their homeland. He knew that he would have to rely heavily on his British armies as they had the greatest number of tanks. The Belgians had proven themselves effective but limited. If, as he suspected, speed would be of the essence, especially if the Wehrmacht collapsed, then there was no doubt that he had the tools to accomplish the mission given to him.

17 April 1941. 15:00hrs. Marktheidenfeld. Germany.

44e Division’s reconnaissance group had reached the river Main at Marktheidenfeld, about 40kms from Aschaffenburg. As expected, and confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, the bridges were all down. As far as could be seen however the river looked unguarded. Any survivors from the fighting back at Aschaffenburg seemed to have withdrawn in the direction of Fulda. Intelligence wondered if Von Speck’s First Army would swing around to protect their northern flank now that Witzleben’s Seventh Army had been pushed back.

The Intelligence officers were particularly keen on finding two Divisions (Das Reich and Großdeutschland). These were part of Von Speck’s order of battle but they hadn’t been seen for some time. Further south again, was Schmidt’s Fifteenth Army. Aerial reconnaissance found that this army wasn’t all in the same place as previously. They may have pulled back towards the border with Austria in view of the Italian invasion. What worried Prételat was that the Germans could have put together a fairly potent force to either counterattack or at least make further advances more difficult.

The German army had got pretty good at camouflaging its positions, not having command of the air had taught them that important lesson. The work that had been done in signal intelligence had come a long way, but the British seemed to be better at it than the French. Having lost sight of upwards of three Corps was worrying. 8e Army south at Colmar had been threatening a crossing of the Rhine toward Freiburg. This was hopefully tying down much of Fifteenth army, but it wasn’t entirely clear if that was working.

Some optimists in Entente High Command thought that perhaps much of the German army was deserting, but everyone else were much more concerned. The British were pretty sure that the two missing Divisions had been withdrawn towards East Prussia, which would be consistent with what was happening generally. They also presumed that at least two Corps had been pulled back towards the Elbe. However, that would mean that Bavaria was being abandoned, which seemed unlikely. Protecting Munich from the south was a far more likely, but until the French could tie them down, there was always the fear of a significant counterattack.

In the meantime 44e Division followed its GRDI towards Marktheidenfeld and prepared to make the crossing that would open up the road to Würzburg. At Wertheim am Main, 62e DI would do the same, allowing the rest of 5e Army to move towards Nuremberg. Without interference from German forces, except the destruction of bridges and other acts meant to slow their progress, the two French thrusts, 5e Army’s southward towards Munich and 4e Army’s northeast through Fulda to the Elbe were making relatively good progress.

17 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Amalienborg, Copenhagen. Denmark.

King Christian X received the German delegation in a more informal setting than normal. He had an inkling of what might be on the mind of the German plenipotentiary, Cecil von Renthe-Fink and was happy for once to receive him over a cup of coffee. Word of the surrender of Heligoland had reached Denmark shortly after it had happened thanks to the BBC World Service. Although a member of the Nazi Party, von Renthe-Fink was not one of those dyed in the wool fanatics, he had joined the Party to further his career.

The increasing aerial activity over Denmark and the casualties from the shore bombardment at the end of March had brought an initial increase in the numbers of units based in the occupied country. Many of these had now been withdrawn and were on the banks of the Weser awaiting the next British attack. Those German forces left behind were on high alert for a possible invasion. Danish underground intelligence reported that morale was poor and nobody was keen on fighting to the death. Von Renthe-Fink was not accompanied by General Gallenkamp, commander of the German forces, which was a slight surprise to the King. Instead it was General Wittke, whose division had taken the worst of the British naval gunfire attack. Both Germans were obviously nervous and hesitant, unlike the usual swagger and confidence that the King was used to by now.

Von Renthe-Fink got to the point as quickly as he could. In light of the capture of Heligoland; the surrender of the German forces in the Ruhr; and if rumour was correct, in Austria too; would it be possible for the King of Denmark to put out feelers to the Entente forces for a peaceful return of Danish sovereignty? If this was deemed feasible, then the German Commander could guarantee that all German forces would surrender themselves to Danish forces. The King was slightly taken aback by the offer. He wouldn’t have been so surprised if the majority of the rest of the German troops withdrew back into Germany, but that they wanted to stay in Denmark and surrender was where the surprise lay. Thankfully he had his coffee cup in hand and taking a sip give him time to mask his surprise and form an answer.

The simple question was why they wouldn’t just surrender immediately and let the Danish police confine them to barracks until Danish forces could arrive and move the work of disarming them forward? There was an uncomfortable shuffling in chairs by the German officers. The orders they had from Berlin were to fight to the last man and last bullet. General Gallenkamp had passed this message onto all his officers, but was now under house guard. General Wittke had taken temporary command of the German forces. The fear was that there might be repercussions if the army surrendered en masse when not immediately threatened. German troops at the Weser for example might be sent into Denmark to “restore order”. Such a move would complicate matters as well as potentially causing harm to the civilian population.

It occurred to the King that if Gallenkamp had ordered his forces to fight to the last, he had to ask, what guarantee could Wittke and Von Renthe-Fink give that all the German forces would indeed surrender? Wittke assured him that plans were in place to make sure that any officer who considered firing on Danish or Entente forces after such a surrender would be dealt with before he could do so. The King was tempted to press on this further as it seemed somewhat vague. It was an offer that at least bore thinking about. The King asked for twenty-four hours to consult with his political advisors, and if necessary, make contact with the Free Danish forces in Norway and England. The two German generals agreed to return the next day and took their leave.

17 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Oslo. Norway.

The message from King Christian of Denmark took General William Prior by as much surprise as the King had been. The invasion of Denmark had been timed to coincide with the arrival of the First Entente Army at the Elbe. This had been estimated to be around the 24th of April. The amphibious units, the Royal Marine Division and the French 1re DLI were still integrating replacements after their efforts in Holland. Two Danish divisions, along with two Norwegian divisions (one currently in Norway as well as the one in England) were preparing for the attack, and could be brought to readiness sooner. The issue would be whether or not the ships to transport them, and the naval vessels to escort them would be ready. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay was responsible for the naval efforts and Prior sent off a message to Dover to see what might be possible and how quickly something could be organised.

The problem with an invasion of Denmark for the planners was capturing a port that the main force would be able to be supplied from. The initial plan was to secure Hirtshals and Skagen in the north of the country. The problem after that would be crossing over the Limfjord onto Jutland at Aalborg. Even if they were able to seize a port like Grenaa on the east coast or Esbjerg on the west coast of Jutland, there would still be the problem of Sjælland, getting to Copenhagen, while preserving Swedish neutrality.

The whole area had been heavily mined by both sides, so clearing those would certainly cause problems. If the invasion was to be unopposed, that would put a very different spin on it. HMS Eagle’s helicopters were undergoing maintenance after the capture of Heligoland. The Sussex helicopters range was about 200 miles, the Wildcats a bit less. Between those on HMS Eagle, and the survivors of the RAF’s 30 Group, which had carried the British First Air Assault Brigade, there would be enough to lift a large enough unit to at least secure somewhere like Esbjerg. The rest of the Danish Divisions would have to follow by sea.

The helicopters flying from northern Holland would probably need to land in Heligoland to refuel on both legs, which presupposed the fuel being shipped there. Even then it would be a close-run thing for the range of the helicopters. The Danes would also need to get to the north of Holland and have some training on helicopters. All of it was possible, but it would take at least a few days to get everything together. Orders were sent out to the various units involved to give them warning of the moves that would be confirmed in the morning. The question was political as well as military, and Winston Churchill had a secure phone conversation with the Paul Reynaud to discuss the implications.

17 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Florence. Italy.

Ante Pavelić had been becoming more and more frustrated with his Italian captors. Since the beginning of the fighting the previous May, Mussolini had become very quiet. It almost seemed to Pavelić that he had become a changed man. The official Italian press were openly talking about the genius who had prevented the country from being drawn into a disastrous war. The fact that the Pact of Steel had presumed no war until 1942 could have meant that the destruction being wrought in Germany might well have happened to Italy too.

Pavelić however saw it a cowardice. Just as they had in Spain, it was the sworn duty of all right thinking men to oppose the existential threat of Bolshevism. The fact that Britain and France had resisted the German attack, as had Norway before them, was a lost opportunity for a Western alliance to smash Stalin and all his evils from the world. It now looked like an emasculated Germany would never be in a position to lead the charge to destroy Communism once and for all.

Just this afternoon he had had a visit from a junior official in the Justice Ministry to tell him that the conditions of his house arrest were being increased. With both the Italians and Yugoslavs fighting in Austria the very fact of Pavelić’s existence was an embarrassment to Rome. That was the word he actually used, “embarrassment”! Instead of an alliance between the free state of Croatia and Italy dominating the Balkans, the cowardly Italians were kowtowing to the British and French and all this over coal and oil of all things. It wasn’t clear just how much cooperation was going on between Mussolini on the one hand and the unholy alliance of Yugoslavia, Greece and Romania on the other. But the increased conditions on his house arrest would suggest that there was something going on.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, or Greater Serbia as Pavelić preferred to think of it, was actively subduing his people and the Slovenes. As fellow Catholics, a united Croatia and Slovenia would be a great power, if only they could throw off the shackles of Serbian domination, and in the case of Slovenia, Italianisation. However, there was almost nothing he could do. His organisation, Ustaša – Hrvatski revolucionarni pokret (Ustaša – Croatian revolutionary movement) was cut off from him by the Italian authorities, and they too were being confined to their camps. They should have been back in Croatia preparing the way for the overthrow of the Yugoslav regime, and instead were twiddling their thumbs under Italian supervision.

18 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Atlantic Ocean. Near Cape Verde Islands.

For all the efforts at learning the skills of Replenishment At Sea it wasn’t always plain sailing. HMS Kelvin and Laforey were on either side of RFA Broomdale, out of Sierra Leone, to take on oil. In the case of the two destroyers, they had come up on either side of the tanker, slowing to ten knots and taking their position alongside. Because of the intricacies of the manoeuvres needed, both destroyers had their First Officer as the Officer of the Watch, while the Coxswains had the wheel in the wheelhouses. The Coxswains were straining to match every move, compensating for the suction, the thumping waves, conflicting wakes and erratic pitching of the ships. On deck the process of taking the oil line from the tanker to the destroyers was being carefully supervised by the chief buffers (Chief Bo’sun’s Mate) which much shouting and other “encouragement”.

The wind was picking up and the strain of keeping station was getting more difficult in the wheelhouse of HMS Kelvin which was being pushed towards the tanker by the wind and waves. Every time the Jimmy called down the voice pipe to “hold her steady” the coxswain repeated it, however he was struggling more and more. The efforts of moving the wheel that controlled the steering engine was becoming more and more extreme, until inevitably an overcorrection caused the two ships to collide. This collision forced the tanker to in turn bash into HMS Laforey. With collision alarms blaring the attempts to refuel were abandoned.

The damage to HMS Kelvin was greatest, and two hands were lost overboard. There were a number of leaks, which were quickly controlled, but it became clear from the damage reports that the destroyer would need dock time to make it good. HMS Laforey was more lightly damaged. Even so, the buckled plates along her side would need attention. RFA Broomdale had damage to both sides and there some leakage from her tanks. It was decided that all three ships should put into Sierra Leone as quickly as possible, where some remedial work could be done to rectify they damage, and assess whether or more work would be needed at a better equipped port.

18 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Wildeshausen. Germany.

Sergeant Billy Todd, 2nd Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, watched carefully as one of his Vickers HMG teams went through their stoppage procedure. The Battalion had been part of II Corps since the “phoney war.” They had seen a fair amount of action, with the attendant casualties. This particular team had a corporal in charge that Todd didn’t rate very highly, and the rest of the men were all replacements. As he suspected, the corporal seemed to be more conscious of his sergeant watching him than getting the gun cleared. His ham-fisted attempts were accompanied by a foul tirade at the replacements who were to his mind, all obviously worse than useless. By the time the gun was back in action Todd had come to the conclusion that if this had been done in the face of the enemy a whole lot of people would be dead who needn’t be.

Moving away, he found the Platoon Commander, a young Second Lieutenant not long arrived in the Battalion. Saluting, he made his report and recommended that the corporal in question, having been promoted above his ability, might be reassigned somewhere more in keeping with his abilities. Digging latrines was probably the limit of the man’s usefulness. As a pre-war regular he’d taken over dead men’s shoes, and Todd wasn’t going to say that to the man who didn’t look like he could even shave yet. 2nd Lt Nigel Winterbottom listened to his senior sergeant and knew from all the advice he’d been given that following his advice was the best thing he could do. He agreed that it would have to be done, and perhaps the Sergeant could handle it and recommend a suitable replacement to be in charge of the gun. Todd nodded and already had a lance corporal in mind who’d do a better job.

Winterbottom was glad the Sergeant had found him, as he was about to send for him anyway. He’d just come back from an Officer Call and had two pieces of information. The first was that the platoon had been given a role in supporting the crossing of the Weser, the second was the timetable for getting to their assigned position. He wanted to get the fire plan he was working out on the map checked by someone who’d done this before. He also wanted to make sure the travel arrangements were all understood. Todd went through it and was able to suggest a couple of slight improvements to the plan, but was actually impressed with the basics. At least this officer didn’t have to be told which way was up on the map! As to the motor transport that would take a conversation with his oppo in the MT platoon, which wouldn’t be a problem.

Todd saw that the company would continue working with 10th Brigade, which was who they had been assigned to for most of the war. This made things a lot easier, since they were all familiar with one another. It did suggest that the Brigade would be involved in the early stages of the assault over the river. Todd knew that he’d need to get the officer to do some proper reconnaissance once they arrived at their forward positions. They had to make sure there wasn’t anything that wasn’t on the map. There was often a place where the Germans could make life difficult for the infantry, if they relied only on maps.

Winterbottom was going on about the RAF clearing out the far side of the river, making it sound as if the crossing was going to be cakewalk. Todd had seen enough river crossings to know that the officer was talking rubbish, and he had no doubt that the reality was be a horrible dose of reality. However, the young man looked like he’d turn out to be a useful type, so he didn’t want to burst his balloon too smartly.

Once they had gone through all the elements, Todd went off to put everything in place. One of the problems he’d need to sort out before they moved off was a bit of fraternising that’d been going on between some of the lads and a couple of the ladies of the town. It was amazing what a couple of packs of cigarettes and some rations could get here. A few of the boys had taken full advantage, and one daft lad seemed to have got himself a bit over involved with a local girl. There’d no doubt be a bit of a kerfuffle before the day was over. The joys of being a sergeant. Different from the days in France before it all kicked off when he’d just been a private, when he had nothing to worry about. He remembered his sergeant from then, an old soak who’d had spent a long time in India. Poor bloke had lost his legs to a mortar bomb in the first big battle back at the Scheldt. His replacement had been a corporal in the regulars, and he’d bought his at the Rhine. Now it was his river. He could only hope this time it would be different.

18 April 1941. 11:00hrs. Over Ottersberg, east of Bremen.

Flying Officer Charles McClure flew his Beaufighter low, looking for targets of opportunity. The change from the Bristol Blenheims that 272 Squadron had been flying when he’d been posted to it the previous September was extraordinary. The squadron had been using the Blenheims as long-range fighters, a role for which they were at best marginal. The Beaufighter however had power that pilots struggled to get used to, but once mastered they were highly effective in the role as intruders. Though there had been as more losses to accidents than there had been to enemy action in the time before they converted to the new aircraft.

It had been a fruitless mission so far, there hadn’t been any targets of opportunity worth expending ammo on. This was becoming a more common experience for the pilots, both because the Germans were getting better at camouflage and partly that there had been so many attacks on roads, rail and canal traffic that very little moved at all, and if it did, it tended to move at night. There was a suspected German concentration near Ottersberg but there was nothing to be seen. The Squadron leader was about to call return to base, when McClure’s navigator spotted something glinting near a stand of trees. Calling out the sighting, the rest of the flight they swung around for a second look.

The squadron leader fired off four of his rockets but before they could impact the treeline erupted with AAA fire, the Germans had laid a flak trap and the detonations of the rockets did little to diminish the quantity of the fire coming from the ground. The first pair of Beaufighters exploded almost immediately, the next two, despite taking evasive action were brought down in flames. The following flight of four aircraft managed to get away, though two suffered damaged. The Germans began to dismantle the trap right away, knowing that there would be swift retribution.

18 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Navy General Board. Washington DC. USA.

The discussion about the expansion of Marine Corps had been going around the table for the best part of an hour. Major General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the Marines, was asked about the possibility of racially integrating the Marines. His response was clear. “If it was a case of having a Marine Corps of 5000 whites or 250000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.”

18 April 1941. 13:00hrs. USN Pacific Fleet Command. Pearl Harbour. USA.

US Navy Admiral Husband Kimmel sat at his desk and wrote a letter to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark. A review of operations in the Pacific had led to an awareness that there were limitations in their preparations. Kimmel was therefore requesting additional resources for base construction at Wake Island and for a US Marine Corps defence battalion to be stationed there.

18 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Chunking. China.

Waves of G3Ms, Ki-21s, and Ki-48 medium bombers flew over the city to deliver their payloads of death. The fighters, Ki-27s, escorting them kept an overview over the bombers. In the past the Chinese air force, flying Soviet made aircraft, had proven to be fairly easy meat. There had been less seen of the Chinese fighters and today was no exception. The Japanese weren’t clear on why, the fact that the A6M2s had done so well, made them wonder if the Chinese had given up attempting to intercept. What they didn’t know was that most of the Chinese Air Force had been withdrawn towards Burma and were undergoing intensive training under the guidance of Colonel Chennault. The Bloch fighters took some getting used to as the French cockpit layout differed from the Soviet planes they were used to. Chennault estimated it would take a few months before his pilots were ready to confront the Japanese bombers, but when they did, he expected them to give the Japanese a run for their money.

18 April 1941. 15:00hrs. OKH. Berlin

The wall map that plotted the destruction of Reich had another couple of towns marked with French flags as the breakout from Aschaffenburg continued. The whole of the south of Germany was threatened with the French sweeping down towards Munich coupled with the Italians and Yugoslavs moving north through Austria. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before the destruction of the Reich was completed. With some of the best units being assigned to East Prussia, the units that were left to hold the line looked more and more threadbare.

The British seemed to be gathering their strength for the attack across the Weser, and the best guess was that would happen either tomorrow or the next day. With the way in which the British advanced, the troops holding the area between the Weser and the Elbe should probably keep them occupied for a week or so. The commander of the best equipped British army, Montgomery, seemed to be a fairly careful man, and so the German High Command had no great fear that their plan to hold the Elbe line would be in any great danger.

The purges had taken a lot of the best and most professional Generals and staff officers, leaving a much more ideologically sound set of leaders. The importance of providing enough time for the National Redoubt to be created in East Prussia meant that many of the men under their command would have to be sacrificed to win that time. The fact was that the men of the German army were prone to surrendering in the most traitorous of fashions. This undermined the hope for bleeding the Entente armies white. This would be needed, along with enough time to make the stand in East Prussia as victorious as they wished. Having the Entente at the end of a tenuous supply line would give the SS and dedicated Nazi soldiers an overwhelming advantage.

18 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Dover. England.

It always looked like a terrible mess. Trains pulled into the station and hundreds of men in uniforms descended onto the platform in a mass. The WVS ladies had their tea and sandwiches ready for the troops, and they were busy trying to make sure the men going off to war had something to keep them going for a while. The men seemed in a good mood and morale seemed high. Before long, whistles were blown, orders were shouted and soon the mass of men resolved themselves into platoons, companies and battalions, marching out of the station and onto the ferries that would carry them across the channel. Today’s orders were shouted in a foreign language, few of the volunteer workers around could identify it. The helmets and uniform coats were obviously not British. The flash on the shoulders of the uniforms stated that these were Danes. Their morale was high because they were going home.

18 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Paderborn. Germany.

The commander of 7e DM, General Berniquet received the reports from his three columns. The Division had pushed through 65km in 36 hours. The reconnaissance groups had made the journey much faster, but the G1 chars and the infantry in their various modes of transport had the slower task, sorting out prisoners and watching out for ambushes or mine fields that might have been left. In fact, they hadn’t encountered very much at all, it seemed that this particular part of the Germany hadn’t been very well defended.

That had changed as they approached Paderborn itself. The counterattack against the British had been staged from north of the town, and so there had been numbers of German troops that had been transferring through the town. There was very little fight in them, and what little fight had gone out of them when the AdA had appeared and dropped some napalm. Much of the last few hours had been spent sorting out what to do with them.

The Divisional Intelligence Officer reported that preliminary interrogations of prisoners, which matched the written intelligence they had captured, confirmed that most German forces in the area had been ordered to withdraw behind the River Weser. The German retreat had more of a feeling of a rout than a withdrawal about it. Berniquet called in his commanders and gave them orders to push on through the night. It was nearly another 50kms to Höxter, the General deciding that it was worth the possibility of the odd ambush to try to keep up with the retreating Germans. The GRCA was tasked with attempting to seize any bridge they could try to get over the Weser in the area around Höxter.

18 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Teutoburger Wald. Germany.

The Battlegroup of 9th Queen's Royal Lancers and 2nd Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, which had been pushing southwards towards Paderborn, had been halted by stiff resistance on the Teutoburger ridge. A group of 88mm anti-aircraft guns, as well as a few Panzer III and IVs, had commanding positions that took a heavy toll on the British A13mkIV tanks. The infantry of the Royal Rifle Corps had a difficult task to attempt to winkle them out. Once more the lesson of combined arms was put into practice. The RAF provided two squadrons of Hurribombers, followed up by the Royal Artillery providing cover for the foot soldiers to close up and, destroy each German strong point. Despite the best efforts of the bombs and shells, the Germans still proved difficult to shift. A number of snipers particularly took a heavy toll on the officers and sergeants. As evening drew on the level of the fighting intensified. This led to a platoon of 2KRRC being immolated by napalm dropped from a Hurribomber which hadn’t been updated on the movement of the British troops. After that, the Major in charge, called a halt to the assault until some order could be restored to his companies and for reinforcements to be brought up to support the attack.
19 - 20 April 1941
19 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Near Sulingen. Germany.

Troops from the 2/4th and 2/8th Infantry Battalions and the 2/3rd Field Regiment, under newly promoted Brigadier George Vasey's 19th Brigade prepared to go through the exercise once more. 6th Australian Division would assault the River Weser and open the path towards Hannover. Vasey hadn’t been happy with the way things had gone the previous day. 2/11th Battalion were playing the enemy force and had played merry hell with the other two Battalions, causing their failure to achieve their objectives. If there was one thing that General Montgomery, commander of Third Army had insisted on was training and more training. The ANZACs didn’t particularly enjoy it, but if it meant more of them got home alive, then it was worth the effort. Today was meant to be a rest day before the assault actually began, but Vasey had insisted doing the exercise again.

Vasey had a blunt way of speaking and his words to one of the units yesterday that had gone the rounds of the troops was being widely imitated: "Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay. And if any bloody German gets between your post and the next, turn your bloody Bren around and shoot him up the arse." General Iven Mackay had arrived to watch this re-run. The two men observed the exercise which went much more smoothly for the attacking units this time. By noon the objectives were completed and the afternoon was spent running through the lessons learned with the officers and senior NCOs. The 2/2nd Field Ambulance unit had a number of minor injuries to take care of, nothing much worse than after a drunken punch up when the pubs closed, but enough to keep them busy. Most of the victims were men of the 2/11th who got a bit of payback for their efforts the day before.

19 April 1941. 09:00hrs. London. England.

The man on the Clapham omnibus read his Times as he did every day. The news from the front made up much of the news, sometimes he felt his old wound from the Western Front twinge as read the reports. He’d been in the Royal Hampshire Regiment, and the First Battalion seemed to be having a quiet war in Malta. The Second Battalion was with the Guards Brigade in First Division and had a much harder war. A small story on page four about the expulsion of an aide to the Apostolate Delegate to Great Britain was read but meant little to the man who saw his stop approaching. He neatly folded the paper ready to do the crossword during his lunch hour.

19 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Supermarine Factory. Woolston. England.

The second prototype Griffon powered Mark III Spitfire finally rolled out. Getting to this point had been a test of endurance and ingenuity. Rolls Royce’s design team had been juggling three projects. Improving the Merlin for the current Spitfires and Hurricanes, working on jets and getting the Griffon to work for the Barracuda and Spitfire. The cancellation of all work on the Vulture engine in early 1940 had freed up some design work, but the Griffon had been something of a Cinderella project for the men of Derby. A particular problem was getting the two-stage supercharging right.

The type of Griffon used in the Barracuda, as originally requested by the Fleet Air Arm, gave its best performance at lower levels. The RAF didn’t want to lose the Merlin Spitfire’s height performance, in favour of a more powerful engine at lower levels, hence the need for the improved supercharging. The Fleet Air Arm were hoping that the SeaFires might adopt the more powerful engine, without the need for the supercharging. This would make it easier for them if both Barracudas and SeaFires shared the same engine. Though, if the trial of the Hawker Typhoon navalised version was successful, that might replace SeaFires entirely. While the Typhoon was designed to replace the Hurricanes and Hurribombers, it was proving a good fighter in its own way. The follow-on jet, the Hunter, was also in the early stages of testing. A third mark of Spitfire had had to fight its corner to see the light of day.

Rolls Royce engine increased the power available in the Griffon while keeping the engine only slightly larger than the Merlin. For Supermarine this meant not only having to change the front end of the aircraft to fit the engine, but also to strengthen the aircraft generally. A stronger main longeron had to be created out of steel. Jack Davis described the problems involved. “A dural longeron could not be made strong enough within the space allowed, so we had to make one out of steel. And what a game that was! To make the first we had to use about fifty small vices bolted along a bench one beside the next, to hold the steel while it was hammered from a channel section to a top-hat section in the complex double curvature required to conform with the shape of the fuselage.” A hydraulic press to form the steel longerons was being developed, but building this prototype had been difficult.

The decision to build the new aircraft from scratch rather than adapting a Mark II Spitfire, as the first prototype had done, had also delayed progress. The chance to strengthen and improve the Spitfire Mark III was seen as important, especially as it incorporated much of the learning from the first prototype. It was expected, if all went well, to act as a pre-production model as well as a prototype. Jeffrey Quill walked around the aircraft in preparation for taking it up for its first flight. He’d flown the first prototype, and was interested to note the changes that he’d recommended had been taken on board. As usual when there was going to be a first flight there was always a good few extra people hanging around to watch. This included some high-profile RAF types, no doubt hoping that the efforts to get this aircraft into the hands of their pilots would take a step forward today.

19 April 1941. 11:00hrs. RAF Weelde. Belgium.

41 Squadron considered themselves hotshots. Their tally of enemy aircraft was among the highest in 14 Group, though the cost had been pretty high. One flight was in the air on a mission, one was at immediate readiness, while the others were at one hour readiness. It was a fairly bright and warm day and so most of the pilots were sitting around the dispersal hut reading or sleeping. The sound of Merlin engines approaching had a few eyes looking to see who was coming in to land.

The first Spitfire was obviously factory new and so the interest of some of the pilots climbed as it made a perfect landing and was guided to one of the revetments. Four of the pilots had appeared to check out the pilot. Sure enough, it was the pretty, pink cheeked young thing in her Air Trasport Auxiliary uniform, who stepped out of the cockpit, as if she had been flying nothing more interesting than a Tiger Moth. This particular ATA pilot was always a popular arrival at the base. Within a few minutes another three new Spitfires had been delivered and the four ATA pilots were honoured guests at the Officer’s Mess for lunch. Two hours later they flew off in the Dragon Rapide that followed the Spitfires to take them back to Birmingham to ferry more aircraft to the front-line squadrons. The pilots in 41 Squadron however had something else to talk about for the day, especially to their colleagues who had missed the chance for some very pleasant female company.

19 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Rangoon. Burma

Sir Archibald Cochrane, Governor of Burma, sipped his tea as he listened to Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham. This would be their last meeting as the Air Marshall was about to be replaced by General Archibald Wavell as the commander of the new South East Asia Entente Command. Brooke-Popham was giving the Governor a briefing on the current and planned units that would responsible for the defence of Burma against any incursion, most likely from the Japanese.

Major General DK McLeod, GOC of the Burma Army, gave his report first of all about the Burma Division. Brigadier James Scott’s 1st Burma Brigade consisted of 2nd Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with the 1st and 5th Burma Rifles Battalions. Scott’s Brigade was based in Mandalay and was at a reasonable level of training and equipment. Brigadier Arthur Bourke’s 2nd Burma Brigade consisted of four Battalions of the Burma Rifles (2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th). They were based on the Kra Isthmus and were under equipped, though training hard.

The 13th Indian Infantry Brigade, commander by Brigadier Cyril Curtis had arrived a year previously and had been undergoing jungle training. They had been working specifically with the Burma Frontier Force Battalions. These paramilitary units weren’t expected to fight as regular infantry, but they played an important role in both internal security and having a watchful presence in the border regions. McLeod also had another Brigade based around Rangoon with 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, 3rd and 12th Burma Rifles. The Burma Division had very little experience of working at anything more than Battalion level. As his reserve force, McLeod didn’t expect them to do much more than that, though a serious of Brigade level exercises were planned before the onset of the Monsoon season.

The main force that was going to defend Burma was now formerly established as XV Corps and would consist of the British 59th Division, 6th Indian and 2nd African Divisions. So far only 2nd African had arrived and were currently undergoing Jungle training. General Thomas Hutton would command the Corps. The 6th Indian were over the border in Malaya currently working with the 8th Australian Division, but would be returning when 59th Division arrived from Britain to allow the three Divisions to work together as a Corps. There were obvious deficiencies in equipment, especially lacking a Tank Brigade, but it was expected that by October 1941 it should be fully prepared for any eventuality.

As an Air Marshall, Brooke-Popham was particularly interested in the RAF’s commitment to Burma, providing air cover for the ground forces and civilian population. It was estimated that a force of roughly 250 aircraft would be needed to defend Burma. He noted that the forward defence of Burma was in Malaya. If the British held there, then an invasion of Burma was unlikely. The Indian Air Force would be responsible for Burma as well as India in the short term, while the RAF built up its strength in Malaya. As RAF strength arrived in theatre from the Middle East it was expected that some of it would be held in Burma. To the north at the China end of the Burma Road, the Chinese Air Force was being strengthened and these squadrons, which were being helped by RAF personnel seconded from India, would the first line of defence for Burma from the north.

It had been decided that a dedicated organisation for the air force in Burma would be created. This was going to be known as 221 Group. General Wavell had agreed to this in principle and would be confirming it when he took up his position. Group Captain Edye Manning had been appointed to take command and was in transit. A ship load of crated Hurricanes and spares were being transported from the UK along with a number of pilots. The first part of this Group would be the formation of 67 Squadron which was basically an offshoot of 80 Squadron whose commander and some pilots would be arriving from Egypt as the cadre for the new squadron.

As for the rest of 221 Group, a squadron of Wellingtons was being prised from Bomber Command and it was expected to be joined by a transport squadron from the UK. An Army Cooperation Squadron in Lysanders and Austers was also earmarked. The main part of the force would be supplied by the Indian Air Force as and when required. The Burmese Volunteer Air Force currently had 9 pilots doing advanced training in Ambala in India and another 12 doing basic training out of Mingaladon Aerodrome near Rangoon. Some Tiger Moths and other old aircraft were being used for training. It was expected that the BVAF would eventually take up the roles of communications and mail flights allowing the more experienced pilots to have the more martial responsibility.

The one thing that had impressed Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt, whose inspection of the country’s air defences had found it generally wanting, was that the seven planned airfields were all well on their way to completion. It had been his recommendation that 221 Group should be established and equipped. The only other part of his plan that needed to be implemented was the expansion of the integrated air defence network of radar and ground control stations, controlling the fighters and anti-aircraft batteries. As well as the Hurricanes that were expected to arrive, so were some mobile radar units and both light and heavy Anti-Aircraft batteries. While Malaya would get the lion’s share of these reinforcements, there would be enough to give the main RAF bases in Burma some degree of warning and protection. The fact that the Luftwaffe were not the organisation they had been allowed some of this to be achieved.

19 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Beirut. Lebanon.

Jean Chiappe, High Commissioner of the Levant, once more had a request to send more of his forces from the Army of the Levant to Metropolitan France. Last year he had seen his 192e DI sail away along with 63e BCC, half his force of chars. He still had 86e DIA and 191e DI and High Command were looking for another couple of Regiments. There were no real threats to the French position in the Levant, and most of the troops were being used for little more than internal security. General Massiet, commander of the Groupement des Forces Mobiles du Levant (GFML), was against sending any more. The fact that they had no choice was pointed out by General Weygand, Commander in Chief Orient Theatre of Operations. The 17e RTS (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais), part of 191e DI and 29e RTA (Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens) of 86e DIA were the regiments that would be missed least. The Foreign Legion troops were the most effective in the area and Weygand and Massiet were keen to keep them.

19 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Teutoburger Wald. Germany.

Resistance continued from a few German strongpoints, though the British had managed to separate them out a little, they weren’t quite as interlocking as they had been before. The number of casualties had continued to climb among the KRRC battalion, and they had been reinforced during the night with a Battalion of Green Howards. These had taken up the fight and were in the process of mopping up the remaining Germans.

The only thing that had made life slightly easier for the British was that the Germans had designed their positions to face an assault from the west, the direction of Paderborn, rather than from the east, which was their rear. It was a matter of time, as the German troops were obviously running out of ammunition, particularly for their machine guns. On the other hand, the Green Howards had brought a number of extra Carl Gustavs and bazookas, and a Royal Engineer unit had some flame throwers. They were intent on using large quantities of ordinance to suppress the positions.

19 April 1941. 15:00hrs. Vliegbasis Woensdrecht. Holland.

The Danish troops were getting their first lessons on how to board helicopters safely. A team of NCOs from 2nd Battalion Ox and Bucks were acting as instructors. They were well used to using the helicopters and knew the dangers. The Danes were getting the briefest of instructions. Hopefully they would only need to ride the helos once, so boarding safely and deploying from them were all they really needed to know. As always, the presumption was that they would landing in a hot landing zone. Getting out of the helo quickly and forming a defensive circle was the main task. Thankfully the Danes had provided English speaking soldiers to translate the instructors, and since they knew their lives depended on it, the soldiers paid close attention to the information.

19 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Wiener Neustadt. Austria.

Dragoslav Stefanović, GOC First Calvary Division, drove into the town in his “borrowed” German Staff Car. The division was still mostly on horseback and they were following 6th Cavalry Regiment taking control of the towns and villages. 6th Cavalry Regiment had managed to acquire enough motor transport, with a dozen R35 tanks in the vanguard, to advance towards Vienna, at the stately progress of about 15km per hour. Wiener Neustadt, 120kms from Graz, where the German commander had signed the surrender document, was the first big town they had reached. The fear that some German troops might not surrender, or might blow bridges or create roadblocks, hadn’t been realised. Stafanović had brought a couple of senior German officers along just in case.

It was another 50km to Vienna, and Stefanović was keen to get there, but was worried about arriving after dark. He reasoned that it would be much more effective for his division to ride in to the city in force. He planned to send an advance party on to make sure the bridges over the Danube were secure, and then the troops would be able to march or ride into the city in triumph. The fact that the air force were flying low and slow in front of the advance, and with radio stations relaying the order for civilians to stay in their houses, the roads were quiet. German troops, mostly supply troops, were ordered to return to their bases and disarm themselves as instructed. How many of them would be there when the Yugoslav troops arrived was questionable, many of them were abandoning their uniforms and making their own way home, especially the Austrians in Wehrmacht service.

19 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Orléans –Bricy. France.

Center d'Essais du Materiel Aerien (CEMA) was the AdA’s equivalent to the RAF’s RAE at Farnborough. The new pre-production Arsenal VG-40, with the Merlin 45 engine, was being put through its paces by Guy Bouttier, a test pilot. Bouttier had six kills which he had managed during the fighting the previous May. He’d been shot down and it had taken some months for his wounds to heal. The mental scars were harder to heal and so he had been removed from the active list and assigned to CEMA, where his experience of what would be needed in fighter aircraft would be invaluable.

As with most test pilots he kept up a running commentary over the R/T and he was becoming less and less impressed with the plane he was flying. With full military load it was a good bit slower than the prototype. Visibility was very limited, there were far too many blind spots. It was not a very stable aircraft, and the centre of gravity wasn’t quite right. The manufacturer’s own recommendations on the limitations of the flight envelop, particularly in a dive, had struck Bouttier as very restrictive, but as he pushed that envelop, he could begin to see why they had done so. A couple of times his normally laconic comments over the R/T had become almost panic stricken as he fought to regain control of an aircraft that he was beginning to feel as if it were trying to kill him, unless he was extremely careful.

Bringing the aircraft down on the landing field, he was already composing the report in his mind. The aircraft had a very powerful engine, but it didn’t have the structural stability to make the most of it. It could, if unchanged, be very dangerous for any but the most experienced pilots, a real widow-maker to his mind. Tomorrow he would take up its competitor, the Bloch MB157. He could only hope for the sake of his fellow fighter pilots that this would be an improvement.

19 April 18:00hrs. Clydebank. Scotland.

HMS Duke of York‘s messes were thrumming with life. Most of her crew had previously served on Royal Sovereign and getting used to the new ship was an education. The civilian workers from the John Brown Shipyard were heading home at the end of their shift, leaving the naval crew on their new home. There were things they liked about their new ship, but, as with all sailors, there were plenty of things that they thought were better on the old ship. The catering arrangements were of particular interest at this point.

Keeping most of the crew together from the Tiddley Quid was a bit of an experiment. It had been reasoned that if teams of men were familiar with working with one another, then learning to use new equipment they would have one less thing to worry about. The task however was enormous. The engineering plant produced 110000 shaft horsepower compared to the 40000shp they were used to. Instead of 18 oil-fired Babcock & Wilcox boilers, the engineers were coming to terms with eight Admiralty 3-drum water-tube boilers.

The gun crews would have to learn how to operate the 14-inch guns, and to absorb more men as they had ten of these instead of the eight 15-inch guns they were used to. Similarly, the secondary armament was 5.25-inch rather than the old 6-inch guns. These crews were also having to deal with the fact that one of the primary roles for these guns were for the anti-aircraft role. The importance of defence from aerial attack meant that the Duke of York had another 48 40mm anti-aircraft guns, a mixture of the multi-barrelled QF 2-pdr Mark VIII and Mark IV "Hazemeyer" Bofors guns, all with radar direction. Various 20mm guns were expected to be fitted later. A whole new group of sailors would join the crew, trained on using the various radar outfits that HMS Royal Sovereign completely lacked. There were extra diesel engines to provide extra electrical power for all this extra equipment.

Much of the work was ahead of schedule and the shipyard management expected to hand over the ship to navy soon. She would sail to Rosyth to embark her admiralty stores and receive the rest of her complement. Then she could begin sea trials before being commissioned sometime in the late summer. Further up the Clyde at Fairfields in Govan, HMS Howe, Duke of York’s sister ship, was about four months behind her.

20 April 1941. 04:00hrs. RAF Swinderby. Lincolnshire. England.

The armourers, if they had a minute of two of hanging around, had got into the habit of chalking rude comments on the bombs that they were taking out to the Halifax bombers. Today’s most popular comment was wishing Adolf Hitler a happy birthday in various ways. This was the first operation for 5 Group since they had suffered heavy losses over East Prussia. Today’s mission was just south of Hamburg where a German army command centre was thought to be located. Once more they would be escorted by Mustangs, but they expected that today’s mission would be a milk run compared with the last. For a lot of replacement crews this was going to be their first combat operation, they hoped it wouldn’t be their last.

20 April 1941. 05:00hrs. Syke. Germany.

The RASC Company had all its ducks in a row, but well camouflaged. The Bedford amphibious lorry had almost inevitably got the duck nickname. The factory had replaced all the lorries lost crossing the Rhine, and more, so that for this attack, much the third wave of troops would be carried across, and then the lorries would revert to their normal role of carrying back the wounded and taking ammunition and other supplies forward.

The Weser wasn’t quite as impressive an obstacle as the Rhine had been, but it was still between three and four hundred feet across at the various points where the assault was due to happen. Assault boats had been moved up during the night and made ready. The RASC and Royal Engineers Bridging Companies were concentrating, ready to swing into action once the far bank was secured. The Royal Artillery had been busy with intermittent bombardments of presumed or known enemy positions. The smoke screen had been in place for some days.

For the men who had assaulted the Rhine it all felt very familiar. For them and the replacements who hadn’t done this before, the countdown to H Hour was nerve wracking.

20 April 1941. 06:00hrs. River Weser. Germany.

The noise was incredible. People talked about hearing the guns on the Somme in London in 1916. The troops waiting for the assault expected the guns could be heard in Berlin. The combined artillery of the Belgian, First and Third British Armies: field, horse, medium, heavy and super-heavy regiments; more than 2000 guns of various calibres, put down a barrage lasting thirty minutes. At the end of that continuous bombardment, they began shifting to more specific time on target tasks. At 06:00hrs the mortars and heavy machine guns added their shorter-range covering fire as the assault troops pushed out onto the water and started either rowing or aiming their weapons at the far bank, as many of the boats had outboard motors to push them across the river as quickly as possible. The progress was aided not only by the smoke screen but also by the early morning mist.

With Achim as the primary objective, 2nd Division of I Corps, First Army crossed the river at various points from Thedinghausen. 5th Brigade provided the two assault battalions, 2nd Dorsetshire Regiment and 7th Worcestershire Regiment. Valentine DD tanks once again provided close support for the infantry. General Auchinleck’s First Army had a second crossing attempt at Hoya, where 2nd and 5th Royal Sussex Regiment attacked with the objective of Eystrup.

To their south General Montgomery’s Third Army also made assaults across the river Weser. In his case the used VI Corps for the northerly attack. 4th Indian Division’s 7th Indian Brigade attacked at Stolzenau. 53rd (Welsh) Division’s 158th Brigade attacked five miles further south, with the 4th and 7th Royal Welch Fusiliers as the assault battalions. Between Peterhagen and Minden 43rd (Wessex) Division had two Wiltshire Battalions from 129th Brigade as assault troops. While south of Minden and the Mittellandkanal the 2nd Canadian Division’s 4th Brigade attacked, Essex Scottish Regiment and Royal Regiment of Canada being the assault battalions.

20 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Above the River Weser.

An all-out effort by Tactical Air Command saw hundreds of Hurribombers and Beaufighters flying low over the river and blasting any possible hiding place for the German defenders. Behind the river eight squadrons formed a taxi rank waiting to be called by Forward Air Controllers to attack any obstacle to the infantry push. Above the battlefield fighter squadrons were prepared to fall on any Luftwaffe pilot that dared to show himself.

In addition, most of 3 and 4 Groups’ Wellingtons had the enemy’s lines of communication as their targets. The road and rail network were already hard hit, and the Wellingtons were often attempting to hit already destroyed crossroads and junctions. Some of the smaller targets would have to be left to the fighter-bombers as the Medium Bombers struggled for accuracy. The Halifaxes of 5 Group dropped their birthday greetings marked bombs on the target south of Hamburg, though the results of the attack wouldn’t be known until much later.

It was clear as the day progressed that the RAF now had complete command of the air. The few sorties by the Luftwaffe were brushed aside and did almost no damage.

20 April 1941. 08:00hrs. River Weser.

The assault battalions were moving quickly towards their objectives, and even before they were out of sight, the Royal Engineers swung into action. The mexefloats were put onto the water and were soon pushing over tanks and other vehicles to continue to support the infantry. As they returned, bringing back on them, the injured to be evacuated to the field hospitals that had been prepared for them. As they had at the Rhine, 32 Group of the Royal Air Force Balloon Command, used their winches and cables to set up ferry crossings over the river. Some casualties among the Engineers were sustained, some by German mortars or artillery that hadn’t been suppressed, though a few also were the victims of “friendly fire” mistakes.

The Bridging Companies began their work stringing pontoons across the river before a roadway could be laid over them. A few of the places where the assaults had been planned had the remains of bridges and some of the Bridging Companies were assessing these as the basis for putting up more complex bridges. A race was on among the Royal Engineers to be the first Company to open a bridge across the river Weser, the bragging rights being the only prize. The friendly rivalry was part and parcel of the army’s morale and motivation technique.

20 April 1941. 09:00hrs. Achim. Germany.

Colonel Stephenson, commander of 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, looked around at his exhausted men digging in, with a great sense of pride. Few had had any sleep the night before as they made their way as silently as possible to their embarkation points. A and B Company in the first wave had managed to get across the river almost unscathed. There had been some flooding on the other side of the river and a minefield had caused the first casualties among A Company. The assault boats had returned to collect HQ Company, strengthened with the men of the carrier platoon, and C Company. Support Company’s mortars and Vickers providing cover for the rest of the Battalion, while D Company were in reserve.

7 Platoon of B Company had become stuck in the minefield and 6 Platoon had been pinned down by a machine gun nest. There were five dead and thirteen wounded from 7 Platoon; 6 Platoon had lost two dead and six wounded, at least one of whom wasn’t expected to make it. A Company had come to the rescue of B Company, with only six wounded for their troubles. Stephenson had brought up the rest of his men and they had gone house to house clearing out the final defenders. As far as he could see, there wasn’t much more than a Company’s worth of them. At the railway line, where D and C Company were digging in and sighting their Bren guns and the anti-tank weapons, Stephenson was expecting a counterattack and was setting out his companies with that in mind.

About fifteen minutes previously a patrol he’d sent out had made contact with 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment. It seemed that they’d had a real fight on their hands, not so much in the villages of Üsen and Baden, but on the hill that overlooked the area. Despite artillery and mortar fire, a German strong point had held them up, until the presence of a couple of Valentine tanks had tipped the balance in their favour. Like the Dorsets, the 7th Worcs were digging in along the railway at Baden, with one company on the hill that had cost so much to take. 1st Battalion Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, the other Battalion in 5th Brigade, was currently crossing the river and Stephenson expected that they would push forward towards the Autobahn at Bassen, which was the next objective.

Just as Lt. Col Stephenson was talking to the Captain of D Company his radio operator handed him the handset. Brigadier Gerald Gartland wanted him to push forward, not to wait for the Camerons. Stephenson discovered that 7th Worcs had been given the same order. Asking about the possibility of a German counterattack, Gartland was dismissive, it was far more important to push on as quickly as possible. Stephenson knew it was pointless to argue that his men were tired, so he signed off the radio and called his officers together to work out the next move. Tying in with 7th Worcs and the few tanks that were around was important and so it was nearly 11:00hrs before the two battalions started the advance towards the Autobahn, some four miles distant.

20 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Eystrup. Germany.

Just as the question had been raised at the Rhine, when a number of battalions from the Glasgow area had led the assault, so here, three Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were in the first wave across the Weser. Two from the Sussex Brigade, and one with 4th Indian Division. While the casualties were nothing like the Pals Battalions on the first day of the Somme in 1916, there would be disproportionately far too many telegrams being delivered along the south coast of England.

The problems for 5th Battalion began even before they set off. As the two assault companies were gathering at the boats, a German field battery unmasked itself and dropped a short barrage on what was obviously a predetermined point. It was suicidal for the German artillery men, but it caused a substantial number of casualties in B Company and delayed their departure. This meant that A Company went across unsupported on their flank. The British artillery had attempted to clear the far bank of mines, but the Germans had placed underwater mines on stakes which took a toll of the assault craft. The mines going off alerted the machine gunners. They had endured a terrible time in their deep bunkers, but now used their MG34s, again to predetermined arcs of fire, to cause further misery to the Sussex men.

The Forward Air Commander on the west bank of the river called in one of the Taxi Rank flights of Hurribombers to support the faltering advance. The Divisional artillery then picked up their attempt to create a creeping barrage. C Company came across the river to push forward. They found themselves facing the combined threat of both snipers and booby traps. The Royal Engineers, and the Sussex’ own Pioneer Platoons, were trying to make the area safe, allowing the infantry to take the town of Hassel. Brigadier Edmund Beard ordered 4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment forward to continue to push forward towards the railway. The rest of 5th Battalion consolidated their positions. Once the initial crust of the German defence had been broken, in no small measure thanks to the intervention of the RAF and Royal Artillery, the pace of the advance picked up.

2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment had a much less difficult morning. The assault companies also found the underwater mines and lost a few boats to these. As seemed to be the case generally, the Germans seemed to be relying heavily on using mines and predictive fire to defend the river line. The British constantly expected a counterattack, but none were forthcoming, except at the most local level. The ability for the Germans to use a mobile defence had been curtailed by the lack of air cover, and increasingly a lack of motor transport. The presence of the Valentine DD tanks also helped the British assault. One innovation that helped with these, was the replacement of the 2-pdr gun with a 96 mm (3.78 in) mortar for a better HE capability. The guns had been taken off old Cruiser A9s and A13s in the Royal Tank Regiment workshops and shoehorned into the Valentine’s turret. It was by no means a perfect fit, but for supporting the infantry it was better suited.

Much of Eystrup was in ruins, which helped the defenders more than the attackers. Snipers once more held up the British advance in places until armoured vehicles could support the infantry as they advanced. It took until 12:00hrs for a link to be made between the 2nd and 4th Battalions at the railway, and for them to be able to advance beyond it.

20 April 1941. 11:00hrs. Stolzenau. Germany.

General Montgomery’s plan to get his Third Army towards the Elbe was to use VI Corps to guard his left flank and meet up with First Army around Celle. VII Corps, with the 3rd Armoured Division as the main punch, would push past Hannover towards Wolfsburg. The ANZACs would guard the right flank, cooperating with Second Army. They would also have responsibility for reducing Hannover if necessary.

The first phase, with 7th Indian Brigade attacking from Stolzenau, like the attacks in First Army, were successful though at a cost. The 11th Sikhs and 1st Royal Sussex had advanced about three miles. 45th (Leeds Rifles) Royal Tank Regiment were now being rafted across the river to support their advance, with 5th Indian Brigade pushing out of the bridgehead.

The 53rd (Welsh) Division’s two battalion assault, 4th and 7th Royal Welch Fusiliers, went ahead with minimum casualties in the crossing. The 7th Battalion quickly took Döhren, the main problem being mines and traps that the Engineers had to deal with. As the Fusiliers moved forward, they found themselves coming under increasing fire from German strongpoints. As normal, they tended to wait for artillery and air support to suppress them before mopping up. As the day progressed this tended to make the timetable slip.

The 4th Battalion faced similar difficulties, and got so far behind schedule that Brigadier Glegg removed Lt Col Price as Battalion commander and replaced him with his second in command, Major Cyril Coleman. Coleman was under no illusions about what was expected of him, and after a quick visit to each of the Company HQs, neither was the Battalion. Much of the holdup was due to a German position which so far had proved immune to artillery fire. D Company, supported by two Valentines and the Carrier Platoon managed to close with it and silenced it with grenades and bayonets.

VII Corps’ 2nd Canadian Division, south of the Mittellandkanal had generally found it easy going and were approaching Bückeburg. 43rd (Wessex) Division had a much harder time, 4th and 5th Battalions of the Wiltshire Regiment suffered very badly capturing Frille and Päpinghausen. They did achieve their objectives, and 128th Brigade’s three Hampshire Battalions pushed through to expand the bridgehead.

6th Australian Division had the easiest time of all the assault crossings. Attacking south of the River Werre from Bad Oeynhausen they were the only unit to find that the Germans in their sector surrendered en masse rather than fight. Investigations as to why this particular German battle group had given up, discovered that most of the men, and the Colonel in charge, were from Aachen. Among the propaganda radio broadcasts that had been played over the last few days was an appeal from some of the wives of serving soldiers living in occupied areas to say that they were being well treated and wanted their men to come home. The Colonel’s wife was one of the women who made the appeal, and it worked, in this case.

20 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Esbjerg. Denmark.

The forty Sussex helicopters, with Danish markings painted over the RAF roundels, clattered down and disgorged their men. Four hadn’t made it. Two had mechanical failures between Holland and Heligoland, the other two between there and the Danish coast. Some Sunderland flying boats and MGBs of the Royal Navy were making their way to the crash sites to see if there were any survivors.

As arranged, the German forces in and around the port formally surrendered to the senior Danish officer who had arrived in one of the helicopters. When the signal was sent out, three British Destroyers, and a variety of transports, including two LSTs, preceded by minesweepers, made their way into the port and starting unloading the rest of the Danish forces that would spread out and liberate their nation. The LSTs carried motor transport including armoured cars and universal carriers. A couple of tankers with fuel were among the first vehicles off the ships to refuel the helicopters.

20 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Hamelin. Germany.

Jumbo Wilson’s Second Army was still mopping up the remains of the German attack from a few days ago. The fighting around the Teutoburger Wald had delayed them further. That didn’t stop Q Martel’s Mechanised Corps from sending out patrols to probe the German positions to see where there were weaknesses. It was clear from the reports of the Divisional Cavalry regiments, especially the 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, and confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, that most of the Germans had all moved eastwards.

The Yeomanry regiments were now equipped with a variety of vehicles, mostly better than the Vickers Mk VIs they started with. Some of these were still in service. Some squadrons drove A13 Cruiser MkIVs, the 2-pdr had a better punch than the machine guns of the Vickers. It was a mixture of Humber and Daimler Armoured Cars, Dingos, universal carriers, which made up the majority of their vehicles. C Squadron of 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry were the first to reach the Weser at Hamelin. All the bridges were blown so there was no immediate prospect of making any more progress. General Martel ordered the rest of his Corps to close to the river, while the reconnaissance continued to search for the best place to cross. If the attacks by First and Third Armies were successful, perhaps the crossing would be unopposed.

20 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Höxter. Germany.

The GRCA (Army Corps Reconnaissance Group of X Corps) had completed the 50km journey to Höxter, delayed by various demolitions and one fierce fight following an ambush. As with the British at Hamelin, the French troops found the bridges blown, and all meaningful resistance west of the river Weser ended. 7e DM were following on as quickly as possible, along with 3e DINA following along the three lines of advance. Along with this northerly route, the second column had proceeded through Soest and had reached Warburg. The third column had passed through Warstein, Brilon and had reached Korbach.

The 1re and 7e Armies were still resting and rebuilding, but would in a few days begin to move eastwards. If Prételat’s guess was correct, the British thrust in the north would force the Germans back behind the Elbe, letting the two French armies arrive at Magdeburg in good order, from there, Berlin would follow.

20 April 1941. 15:00hrs. Vienna. Austria.

Dragoslav Stefanović welcomed Major General Dušan Trifunović, commander of the Yugoslav forces into the occupied city. A Company of men of each regiment in the army marched down the main streets of the city to Stephansplatz, where the Generals took the salute. The main figures, political and religious, of the city were made to watch the parade. The idea that the Serbs should be parading through their city was a hard thing to bear for the Austrians to watch, confirming the opinion of those who had opposed the Anschluss. The Nazi Party officials had all disappeared so they weren’t around to see what their Fuhrer had accomplished.

20 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Munich. Germany.

General Rudolph Schmidt’s Fifteenth army wasn’t quite worthy of the name ‘army’. Over the winter it had consisted of three Corps. LX Corps (94th, 98th and 5th Light Divisions), XXXII (295th and 227th Divisions) and XXXVII Corps (208th and 71st Divisions). As the fighting around the Main had continued more and more of the best units had been removed, to shore up the forces involved in the fighting. The levels of desertion meant that when called to reinforce Wehrkreis VII in Austria, Schmidt could only spare the 5th Light Division with a regiment of Panzers. He had to keep three divisions at the Rhine between the Swiss border and Baden-Baden, with another in reserve. General Edmund Wachenfeld, Commander of, was unimpressed by the reinforcements that had been sent to him.

The two Italian thrusts were making leisurely progress from Innsbruck towards Kiefersfelden and Salzburg. What little German resistance they were experiencing was primarily due to the terrain, coupled with some units that continued to fight and block the roads. The peace made with the Yugoslavs had not been extended to the Italian forces. Wachenfeld took the Fuhrer’s order to keep fighting seriously, at this point the invaders hadn’t yet reached his defensive area. He ordered the forces that he had, to defend the passes through which the Italians had to advance before they could reach the open ground of southern Bavaria. The regiment of Panzers he received from Fifteenth Army would be kept as a mobile reserve. They would be used as a fire brigade, going to where the Italians looked like they might break through.

20 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Copenhagen. Denmark.

The Sussex helicopters had carried two companies of Danish troops to Kastrup Airfield, a few miles outside the city. Leaving one Platoon to guard the helicopters and their crews, the rest double timed the five miles to Amalienborg. At times they found it hard going as crowds came out to meet them, despite the radio ordering all civilians to stay at home. When the Danish troops arrived at the King’s residence they drew up in order, opposite the Wehrmacht guards, and presented arms to their king.

Von Renthe-Fink and General Wittke made their formal surrender to the senior Danish officer, a Colonel Hanson. The German garrison were confined to barracks, the Danish police guarding the entrances. The formalities over, a radio message requesting the support of Entente forces was made in the name of King Christian. As soon as it was received, the ships carrying a Norwegian Division, sailed from their positions just outside Danish waters. At Hirtshals, a harbour pilot guided the ships in around the minefield. By nightfall the Norwegian troops were unloading and moving quickly towards their objectives.

20 April 1941. 18:00hrs. North Sea.

HMCS Trillium, commanded by Lt Cdr. Ronald Harris RCNR, a Flower Class Corvette, hadn’t long finished working up out of Tobermory. At short notice, Harris had received word to make best speed to Rosyth. HMCS Trillium was built in Montreal for the Royal Navy, she had been transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy after being fitted out in Greenock.

Designed primarily for anti-submarine work, the crew were fulfilling her secondary role. The threat of mines was thought more serious than any possible submarine attack. Fitted with minesweeping gear the crew were involved in sweeping for mines outside the known minefields, while dedicated minesweepers attempted to deal with the main fields.

The main force that had been allocated to the invasion of Denmark was being readied to sail, earlier than expected. What was necessary now was to get the sea lanes around Denmark cleared sufficiently to allow the troop ships to move without hindrance. Along with HMCS Trillium were HMCS Spikenard and Mayflower, all of them working together. HMS Selkirk, an old Hunt Class minesweeper, commanded by Lt Cdr. Auberon Duckworth, acted as Flotilla Leader. This particular part of the North Sea hadn’t been targeted for mine laying operations, but there was a feeling that the RAF’s efforts at “gardening” might mean that anywhere could possibly be dangerous. It also wasn’t clear just what exactly the Germans had done early in the war.

Some of the experienced officers and crew from HMS Selkirk were aboard the three Canadian Corvettes treating this as part of their training. They were running an G formation Oropesa sweep, and HMCS Spikenard had deployed a Type ‘A’ Mark IV Towed Box, which was designed to explode acoustic mines. The box was equipped with a spring hammer which worked electrically creating a similar noise to that which a mine was attuned to. The fact that a large explosion rocked her was a sign that there were indeed acoustic mines in the area. A second, and then a third mine exploded. The fourth explosion lifted the whole the aft end of the ship completely out the water and broke her back, she quickly sank beneath the waves.

HMCS Trillium was the closest to her and responded quickly. With a green crew it took longer than they would have wanted to cut the sweeping gear, get her boats over the side and rig nets bring on board survivors. Of the complement of 88 on board HMCS Spikenard, only 24 were plucked from the sea. It was unknown what kind of mine had exploded. Possibly, it was one of the magnetic or pressure mines that the RAF sometimes dropped. None of the ships had the means to deal with these types, so they had to mark the position on the charts and wait for the dedicated minesweepers to deal with the area.

20 April 1941. 19:00hrs. Wolfsschanze. East Prussia.

The Fuhrer’s birthday dinner was a subdued affair. The news of the British crossing of the Weser, had been followed in the map room. The fall of Vienna, the continued advances of the Italians and French had made the day extremely gloomy. Every piece of news had been bad. Having ordered the best German units away from the front to the national redoubt in East Prussia the fact that the Wehrmacht were struggling everywhere else was no great surprise but difficult to watch nonetheless.

It had become clear that there were many Nazi officials who had decided that travel to Sweden and Bulgaria were preferable to the National Redoubt. These were roundly condemned by those who stayed, though there was a bit of envy in the condemnation. The question about the notion of a redoubt had been argued at length, there were many who had doubted the wisdom of it entirely. Most of the doubters were absent, they had been among the first who made the journey away from the Reich. Those who remained in East Prussia did their best to prepare. There was no end of problems, not least with the railway network which was descending into chaos.

Mealtimes were never terribly exciting when the Fuhrer was eating, his personal habits didn’t lend themselves to feasting. When a messenger came in with news that the German forces in Denmark had capitulated, things took a very dark turn. Hitler’s closest advisors knew what his rage could look like. This evening’s response was unlike anything they had seen before. It was as if a melancholy descended like a black cloud on him. There was no anger, just a sense of utter defeat. His closest collaborators had all been killed in the putsch, his best efforts to lead the Reich to its proper place in history were obviously doomed. It all tasted like ashes in his mouth. He didn’t even have the energy to even rise from the table. He just told everyone to leave him alone. He sat watching the candles on the table burn down and saw there the future.