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.
21 - 26 April 1941
21 April 1941. 03:00hrs. Hämelhausen. Germany.

The anti-tank gun position was well concealed. Experience was teaching the surviving Heer troops well, such was the Darwinian process they were going through. Part of the next line of defence in the area, a couple of machine gun positions and coverage with mortars were all ready to deal with the British when they came up the road from Eystrup. Most of the men were asleep in the deep bunkers back in the forest. The sentries were all alert, very aware of the artillery barrage that was falling on some hapless unit about a mile away.

For all their alertness, the artillery distracted the sentries enough that when their throats were cut, they knew little about it until the cold steel of the kukri blade touched their necks and their mouths were covered with the hand or arm of the Gurkha who took their lives. The not-so-secret weapon of First Army, the Gurkha Division, had become the first choice for night raids and patrols. There were various names given to them among the German soldiers, but “Die Schreckgespenster” was the one that seemed to stick most.

The sentries dealt with, the rest of the Gurkha patrol moved into dismantle the German position. When the entrances to the bunkers were discovered, and the sentries neutralised, demolition charges were fixed and the timers set. The radio operator sent the coordinates back so that an artillery barrage would complete the destruction after the demolitions had done their job. Since they were still undiscovered, the Jemadar commanding the patrol led his men towards the next objective on their patrol.

21 April 1941. 06:00hrs. River Weser.

The Royal Engineers were well used to building bridges. Since the Meuse they must have built nearly 300 over various waterways. Some were huge undertakings like those over the Meuse and Rhine, others simple spans over smaller waterways. Since the assault crossings were accomplished the day before they now had eight ferries in full operation and four pontoon bridges were complete. However, the ferries and bridges were only part of the equation.

Each crossing had to have a full Royal Artillery Light Anti-Aircraft regiment in place to defend it. The Bofors guns needed gun pits, as did the mobile radar site. Ammunition storage had to be protected and slit trenches for men to take cover should the Luftwaffe be daft enough to show face, or the German artillery decided to be brave.

Then there were the road access problems, making sure that the tanks and other vehicles wouldn’t tear up the roads to the point where everything slowed down. Vehicle parks, properly camouflaged, had to be provided so that any traffic jams could be properly managed. The old flimsies that used to be the army’s means to carrying fuel had almost disappeared, replaced with the much better Jerry Cans. This made the refuelling stations a bit easier to manage, and certainly there was far less fuel loss. But these stations had to be properly organised and defended.

The Royal Military Police, the redcaps, had responsibility for traffic management on the ground, but there were staff officers responsible for the logistical need to have the right thing in the right place at the right time. The amphibious trucks were a godsend for some elements of this process, some essentials, especially ammunition could be moved directly across the river without the need of the bridge or ferry. However, they needed the bank of the river to be properly graded so they could enter and leave the river with a minimum of fuss.

The Aid Stations of the Royal Army Medical Corps weren’t far from the crossings. As casualties were evacuated back across the river, they were triaged under a well-established tried and tested system. Not far from these stations were the POW cages. The often demoralised and frightened German conscripts were processed and searched. A certain degree of interrogation was undertaken by the Intelligence Corps to glean whatever might be useful. The prisoners also had to be fed, one of the things that was really obvious was the German supply system was a mess, and many of the German troops hadn’t had much food for days, even weeks in some cases.

21 April 1941. 07:00hrs. Mombasa. Kenya.

The three Battalions of the Gold Coast Regiment that made up 4th (Gold Coast) Infantry Brigade had embarked the previous evening onto RMS Queen Elizabeth. As she slipped out of the harbour on the morning tide the men, as so many soldiers from the Empire had done, leaned over railings and watched their continent disappear from view. The Brigade’s Commander, Brigadier Collen Richards, with his senior staff, watched from the old First Class deck. The Cunard liner had been converted to carry up to 5600 troops. Embarked along with 4th (GC) Brigade were the 2nd (African) Infantry Division’s artillery, engineer, medical, signals and supply units. The Divisional Commander, General Godwin-Austen and his staff were already in Rangoon preparing for the arrival of the troops.

Although the Division had been formed since the previous year, there were still deficiencies in its equipment, not least in motor transport and artillery. In place of some motor transport the Division had an auxiliary group. This Group was in excess of 2,000 strong, more than three-quarters of whom were ‘Carriers’. Carrying extraordinary loads on their heads in West African fashion (as much as 85lb) in addition to personal kit. These were not civilian porters; these were trained soldiers (albeit in the most part armed with nothing more than a machete and a grenade or two). Mule companies were also planned to be part of this organisation. An Auxiliary Company would support an Infantry Battalion. These companies could then be subdivided into four platoons, with each Auxiliary Platoon supporting an Infantry Company.

The three Light Artillery Batteries had Great War era Ordnance QF 3.7-inch mountain howitzer as their guns, and so a greater emphasis was put on the mortar troops, which would have to make up for the lack otherwise of artillery support.

There was a Divisional anti-tank company with some 2-pdrs, and one anti-aircraft battery with twin Lewis guns. This at least was due to be replaced by better weapons once they arrived in theatre. The engineers would have to make do with equipment that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1916, but they had been training well over the last year and the officers had confidence in their ability to make do. The level of equipment for the signals and medical units was at least improved. Now that the South African Division was fully equipped and at European levels of TOE, the African division had received their cast offs. A number of old South African artillery pieces were going to be shipped to give XV Corps in Burma some heavier guns, including 60-pdrs.

Once the current passengers were disembarked, RMS Queen Elizabeth was due to return and collect the other two infantry Brigades, made up of 6 battalions of the King’s Africa Rifles which made up the 2nd and 5th (East African) Infantry Brigades. The cargo ships carrying their heavy equipment were due to leave in a day or two, although there was no perceived threat in the Indian Ocean, an escort of Royal Navy ships was being organised to make sure they arrived safely nonetheless.

21 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Harwich. England.

The Royal Marine Division along with the French 1re DLI had been rebuilding after their efforts in the Netherlands. They had expected another couple of weeks before they would be needed, but with the capitulation of the German forces that time had evaporated. Rushed to various ports, the men and their equipment were being loaded aboard various ships to sail to Denmark to build up in preparation for firstly protecting Denmark from any German counterstroke, and then to attack into northern Germany.

There were some, not least Winston Churchill, who thought that an amphibious landing on the German Baltic coast, or even occupied Poland, would be worth contemplating. Admiral Grose among others had been horrified at the prospect without at least careful planning, not least for air cover for such an adventure. The very fact that Denmark was free was almost miraculous enough, without pushing their luck. The growing intelligence about the Nazi Redoubt was something that had to be considered carefully. The important thing in the short term was protecting Denmark.

The rest of the two Danish Divisions had priority for transport. The Norwegian and Belgian Divisions that were also slated for the Danish Campaign would likewise have to be transported. Getting seven divisions and all their support would take a few days, and so an all-out effort was being organised by the Royal Navy. In the short-term, squadrons of Norwegian fighters were being forward based on Danish airfields, where and when they could be made ready.

21 April 1941. 09:00hrs. OKH. Berlin.

The latest Fuhrer Order caused consternation when it arrived, though it was distributed as ordered.

“RE: Destruction Measures within Reich Territory

Our nation’s struggle for existence forces us to utilize all means, even within Reich territory, to weaken the fighting power of our enemy and to prevent further advances. Any opportunity to inflict lasting damage on the striking power of the enemy must be taken advantage of. It is a mistake to believe that undestroyed or only temporarily paralyzed traffic, communications, industrial, and supply installations will be useful to us again after the recapture of lost territories. During his retreat, the enemy will leave behind only scorched earth and will abandon all concern for the population.

I therefore command –

1. All military traffic, communications, industrial and supply installations as well as objects within Reich territory that might be used by the enemy in the continuation of his fight, either now or later, are to be destroyed.

2. It is the responsibility of the military command posts to execute this order to destroy all military objects, including traffic and communications installations.

The Gauleiters and Commissioners for Reich Defence are responsible for destroying the industrial and supply installations, as well as of other objects of valuable; the troops must give the Gauleiters and Commissioners for Reich Defence the assistance they need to carry out this task.

3. This command is to be transmitted to all troop commanders as promptly as possible; orders to the contrary are null and void.

Adolf Hitler

The message was communicated to all stations and for those who read it, the realisation of how just how out of touch the Fuhrer was with reality finally sunk in. The very notion that there was any way to recapture lost territories was risible. People started talking about Hitler as the new Nero, the emperor who oversaw the burning of Rome. For many Gauleiters, especially since the apparatus of the Gestapo had disappeared, the order was seen as good reason to offer the British and French to occupy their towns and villages without a fight. Any Wehrmacht units that looked like continuing the struggle were implored to leave the neighbourhood. If the Fuhrer wanted Germany to burn, his order had the opposite effect.

21 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Farge. Germany.

The ground was terrible for movement. The overnight rain hadn’t helped. The Belgians however weren’t dismayed. Crossing the Weser north of Bremen against light opposition was made with some difficulty. They had made some efforts at training for such a river crossing, and that had helped, but if it had been seriously opposed by the Germans, they would have been in world of hurt.

As it was, the 7e Regiment of 4e Infantry Division was now fully across the river and pushing forward towards the Blumenthal and the northern outskirts of the city. The rest of the Division, and I Corps of the Belgian Army, were ready to follow on. Once again General Brooke was using the Belgian Army on his left flank. Once they were securely across the Weser, and providing the northern part of the encirclement of Bremen, their next objectives were to clear Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven. The British Armies would aim for Hamburg and the Elbe.

21 April 1941. 11:00hrs. RAF Kai Tak. Hong Kong.

Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt’s inspection tour had brought him to the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The Sunderland flying boat that had delivered him floated gently on Kowloon Bay while a Pan Am Sikorsky S42B Clipper wound up for take-off to begin its flight to Manila. The RAF Station Commander, knowing that the inspection was imminent had laid out the proverbial red carpet. The combined pipe band of the Royal Scots and Seaforth Highlanders provided a musical backdrop to the official welcome. The Honour Guard was provided by the East Surrey Regiment.

Once that was over, much to the relief of all, the music of the bagpipes wasn’t to everyone’s taste, the officers retired to the Mess for lunch. The RAF station was an odd mixture of both military and civilian. The Pan Am clipper was one of the companies that used the airfield as its base of operations. The China National Aviation Corporation flew Curtiss AT-32A Condor IIs, while Eurasia Aviation Corporation flew Junkers Ju-52s from the same airfield. In many ways the civilian use of the airfield dwarfed the RAF’s two Walrus Amphibians and three Vickers Vildebeests.

Sir Geoffry Northcote, the Governor of Hong Kong, was seated next to the Air Chief Marshall during lunch and was keen to inform Ludlow-Hewitt of the progress that had been made to make the Crown Colony ready to accept reinforcements. Two alternative fields had been worked on. The first, in the New Territories, RAF Sek Kong had been completed with the facilities, such as revetments and protected fuel and ammunition storage. The second, on Hong Kong Island, near Aberdeen was proving very difficult. There were few places on the island that were flat enough for a landing strip, even fewer without difficult approaches for aircraft to negotiate. The choice of Aberdeen had been taken because there were few alternatives. Work had been slow as the limited Royal Engineer resources had been completing Sek Kong and enhancing Kai Tak. Now that Sek Kong was complete a greater effort could be put into RAF Hong Kong.

Once lunch was finished and the conversation was in a more secure location, the question that was uppermost in Northcote’s mind was asked, having made the effort to provide the facilities, would the RAF provide the aircraft to give the Colony the protection it would need if it came to war with Japan? Ludlow-Hewitt’s response took him, and the RAF station commander a bit by surprise. The new airstrips would likely have to renamed, he said, in future they would be known as Royal Naval Air Station Kai Tak, Sek Kong and Hong Kong. The distance from Malaya, even stopping in French Indo-China, was thought to be too great a risk for fighter aircraft. A bit like Malta in the Mediterranean, Hong Kong’s aircraft would in the event of war have to be ferried in by aircraft carrier. The Fleet Air Arm was also keen to have a source of replacement aircraft for their carriers near at hand if war did come to the South China Sea. Therefore, over the summer RNAS Kai Tak and her satellite fields would be receiving a number of visits from HMS Illustrious’ air group. Once HMS Victorious and HMAS Melbourne arrived at Singapore to join HMS Illustrious, then Hong Kong would provide a valuable forward base of operations.

The current plan, if Ludlow-Hewitt thought the airfields were ready, would see 804 Naval Aviation Squadron, flying SeaFires, 824 NAS and 814 NAS flying Barracudas arriving by June at the latest, all being well. Each squadron was currently transitioning onto the new types. When enough of them were built, the crated aircraft would be transported with ground crew and pilots to their new base. A blueprint of what was being called a “hardened aircraft shelter” was among the material that one of the aides had brought to the meeting. They would take a lot of concrete and space, but bringing the aircraft all the way to Hong Kong, just to have them blown up on the ground wasn’t a very wise course. The increased numbers of Sunderlands based in Singapore would mean that Kai Tak should expect regular visits from these aircraft, it was expected that a couple of them would be on station regularly to keep an eye on the sea between Taiwan and Luzon. All of that explained the necessity for increased protected fuel and ammunition storage.

To some present, especially the Royal Navy commander this was very interesting. The numbers of Royal Navy vessels using the harbour had been increased when the China Station at Shanghai had been evacuated. The Great War era Insect Class river gunboats had arrived from the Yangtse; a few sloops from Wei Hai Wei Island and other ports of China, meant that there was a fair amount of firepower, though on elderly ships, to protect Hong Kong Island in the event that Kowloon had to be abandoned. Force projection was another matter. The quantity and quality of the submarines based out of Hong Kong had increased. The Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron, with its 8 British Power Boat vessels, along with the three elderly destroyers, and HMS Birmingham, the light cruiser which was the flagship of the little Hong Kong fleet, was by no means the most powerful part of the Royal Navy, but wasn’t toothless either. Two Barracuda squadrons would provide an extra level of sharpness. A single squadron of SeaFires would certainly provide some cover, especially if Radar was installed, though how long they would last was a pertinent question.

The senior army officer present, Major General Maltby, and overall commander, was also somewhat at a loss. As he understood it the main function of the limited defences of Hong Kong was to deny the use of the harbour to the enemy, not to retain it for the use of our own fleet. His command at this point consisted of 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots, 1st Kumoan Rifles, 19th Hyderabad Regiment in one Brigade. The second Brigade was made up of the 1st Seaforth Highlanders, 2nd East Surrey, 5th Battalion of 2nd Punjab Regiment. He also had 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment as his machine gun battalion. While these provided the minimum of six battalions to hold the Gin Drinkers Line, the possibility of holding the Colony in the face of a concerted Japanese attack, was still going to be difficult. The logic of the line of defence in the New Territories was to delay the attacker for long enough to complete the demolition of fuel stores, power houses, docks, wharves, etc.; to clear stocks of food and other necessities to the island; to sink any shipping and clear the harbour of junks and sampans that could be used by the enemy to cross over to the island. If the objective was now to maintain the harbour and airfields for use against the enemy, that would need a complete reassessment of the plans. There was no doubt that things had improved greatly, but there still wasn’t much more that could be done save delay the Japanese. To hold out until reinforcements could be shipped in would be extremely difficult. He was assured that this was a problem that was being given serious consideration. In the short term, Ludlow-Hewitt had some good news to share.

A freighter was due to arrive carrying a dozen Matilda I infantry tanks. Now completely useless in Europe they still might have a role as mobile pillboxes. With their thick armour they could certainly be of some help. In addition to these a further dozen Vickers Mark VI light tanks were also on board. The four locally made armoured cars would now have some extra help in terms of a mobile reserve. Like the Matilda Is, the light tanks were only armed with machine guns, but the chances of facing Japanese tanks was remote. Each tank was accompanied by two or three men recovering from injuries sustained in action, and they would train up local troops in their maintenance and use. There were also some lorries and other motor transport that would help with the mobility of the defenders, with a detachment of RASC men, also recovering from wounds. Maltby had previously expressed a worry that impressed locals being used under enemy attack might not be the wisest course of action.

Amongst the other goodies arriving soon were a number of captured German anti-aircraft weapons, mostly 20mm canons, including a few quadruple mounts, and a few 37mm guns too. These were intended to increase the defensive power of the airfields. A squadron of the new RAF Regiment had been training on these guns and this would be the Regiment’s first posting outside of Europe. Six of the light tanks were designated for their use in defending the airfields. Radar equipment to provide early warning was also coming with people skilled in its use. It was also expected that a Royal Marine Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation, some 800 men, would be assigned to protect the harbour. Their arrival was also expected within a month or so, but some of their equipment including anti-aircraft guns and some artillery, was also aboard the freighter.

In addition, a consignment of HE ammunition for the Royal Artillery’s 8th Coast Regiment’s 9.2-inch and 6-inch guns would be delivered. For the Hong Kong Chinese Regiment, which the Middlesex regiment had been training as a second machine gun battalion, a full quota of reconditioned Great War Vickers HMGs was on its way. This would give each brigade a full complement of these useful weapons. As well as more ammunition for the defenders, a large number of mines had been included in the shipment which would give the Gin Drinkers Line an extra layer of protection. General Wavell, when he took up command, would probably want to make his own inspection, but these “gifts” were at the request of Air Chief Marshall Brooke-Popham, and were in a sense a farewell gesture on his behalf.

One of Ludlow-Hewitt’s aides had a very detailed briefing on the capabilities of the Japanese forces that might have to be faced if it came to war. Some of this had come from first hand observers of the war in China. The officers of the British and Indian regiments would be briefed not to underestimate the enemy, especially since they would be facing a battle-hardened foe. Increased training to deal with night fighting and small unit incursions was to be part of the garrison’s programme. If General Wavell, having seen the situation for himself, wanted to send another Brigade to create a Hong Kong Division that would be his decision, though Ludlow-Hewitt’s assessment of the ability of the officers in the current posts would be a very important contribution to that decision.

Maltby again wondered whether all this was worth the effort, despite all the extras, the place was crawling with spies, the Japanese would know what was being unloaded at the docks as quickly as anyone else. Ludlow-Hewitt was delighted to hear this. The same was true in Malaya and French Indo-China he said. There were a lot of “holiday makers” who had taken to cycling round the place, taking photographs and writing notes. Every time a unit went out on a training exercise, they were dogged by oriental men watching with great interest. There were some who thought this kind of thing should be curtailed. But High Command were very clear that they wanted the Japanese to know that the British and French Colonies were being reinforced, even with a terrible war going on in Europe. Every extra man, tank, ship and aircraft that appeared was one more thing that the Japanese had to take into account if they were serious about trying to create an empire, or “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. London called it “deterrence”, hopefully it would all be a short-term waste of money and effort that would prevent a terrible loss of blood and possibly an Empire.

21 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Over Germany.

Flight Sergeant James Allport was not a happy man. Flying missions over Germany in a Wellington bomber was never something that made him happy, but at least dropping bombs on the Hun was useful. Here he was today, flying a mission over Germany and all he was dropping was bundles of leaflets, destined, if he wasn’t mistaken, to become toilet paper for the Germans, if they used toilet paper that was, dirty beggars the lot of them no doubt. Why exactly the Lords and Commanders of the RAF thought that James Allport’s life should be put in danger to drop toilet paper for the German population had not been explained to him. But then his eighteen months in the RAF had had very little in the way of explanation given to him. Just “do this”, “don’t do that” had been much of what his officers had said. No reason, no rhyme, just get on with it.

Allport was browned off, and if his crew mates were to be believed, bloody minded. There were some who would describe most of the British armed forces as basically browned off and bloody minded. Allport would admit, after a pint or two that the chances of returning alive and in one piece from an outing in a Wellington bomber had increased. True, even if that was now much more often in daylight than at night. He might even give some credit for that fact to the Brylcreemed pilots of the fighters that usually accompanied the bombers on these excursions. But he’d probably need three or four pints to actually say that out loud. Thankfully Allport usually fell asleep after four pints. There would be no telling what rubbish would come out of his mouth at that point.

Anyway, here he was, flying over deepest darkest Germany dropping toilet paper on the enemy. He wasn’t even allowed to drop a whole stack of the things in bundles that might hit someone on the head and put some sense into their brains. No, he had to cut the strings on all the bundles so that when the Lord High Commander of the Bomber opened the bomb bay doors, lots and lots of toilet paper would float down gently on the Huns below. Risking his life for toilet paper. That would be some letter his mother would get. “Dear Mrs Allport, I am sorry to inform you that your son gave his life for King and Country with great bravery showering the civilians of our enemy with something to wipe their arses with.” Oh yes, that would be a comfort to his dear mother.

No doubt some very clever person had designed this particular piece of arse wipe, and no doubt the friends of the clever person believed that it would shorten the war. The reason, of course, that they were very clever persons was because they weren’t in a Wellington bomber over enemy territory dropping their very latest wheeze on an unsuspecting population. Allport didn’t understand German, so reading the toilet paper, sorry leaflet, was pointless. If the Huns below had any sense, they too would simply ignore the writing, but notice the softness of the paper and think to themselves, “these Tommies, they are daft. They send bombers into the teeth of our anti-aircraft defences and our Luftwaffe aces and deliver us the very thing we have been lacking, something to wipe our bums with. The stupid Tommies.”

The call came from the cockpit that the bombing run was about to begin. “Bombing run”, don’t make me laugh, Allport thought. He cut through some more string and then made his way back to his position, telling the Lord High Commander of the Bomber that the leaflets were unbundled and ready for distribution. There was a bit of flak as they approached the target, nothing too much to disturb the bomb aimer, but enough to make Allport’s nether regions try to climb up into his stomach. Sure enough, the bomb bay doors opened and the stupid bugger in the rear turret described how pretty all the leaflets looked as they floated away behind them. Honest to God, how much longer would this bloody war last for?

21 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Rotenburg, Germany.

Once the all-clear sirens had sounded, Irma Hegel emerged blinking into the sunlight from the cellar where the family had taken cover. There hadn’t been the sound of bombs exploding or the terrible vibration in your body as the shockwaves travelled through the ground. Rotenburg had important rail and road junctions nearby and so the sound and feel of bombs wasn’t unknown to the population.

Irma thought for a moment that it had snowed while they were in the cellar, but realised quickly that the street was covered with paper, with leaflets. People were gathering up handfuls, very useful thing paper, and hard to get the last couple of months. In the past Irma wouldn’t have dared read one of the leaflets in public. You never knew who was watching and what they hoped to gain by denouncing you. There didn’t seem to be anyone to denounce to anymore. The old policemen weren’t interested in that kind of thing and you didn’t see anyone wearing a swastika much anymore.

The message on the leaflet was pretty much the same message that had come over the BBC German service last night. The Fuhrer, far away in East Prussia is hiding behind the skirts of the women of Germany. He is trying to gain a few more days of power, while the soldiers and civilians of Germany are sacrificed for no good reason. The British and French want to save the German people from the madness of Hitler’s failure. Hitler, with his dreams of conquest had brought destruction to the people of Germany. The soldiers of England and France want to rid Germany of the madman, they have no quarrel with the ordinary man and woman of Germany, just the Nazi Regime. The time after the Great War had been a terrible time. It doesn’t have to be this time. This is what to do when the Entente Forces approach your town or home. This is how you can avoid destruction, either at the hands of a madman, or because of a futile resistance to the inevitable victory over Fascism.

Irma went back into her house, her pockets full of good soft paper, but the first thing she did was look out a couple of old white sheets. Those would do the job just fine. They should be visible when the aircraft came. She’d need to get an idea of what her neighbours were going to do though. She didn’t want to be the only one in the street to hang out white sheets from her windows.

21 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Hellwege, Germany.

1st Royal Gloucestershire Hussars in their Valentines, with 1st Battalion London Scottish in a variety of vehicles had crossed the Weser during the night. They were responsible for pushing out from the bridgehead that had been achieved the day before. 2nd Division was swinging around Bremen cutting it off from supplies and, hopefully besieging it. 2nd Armoured Division’s three battlegroups would push eastwards towards the Elbe following the path of the autobahn, with 1st Division following up. Auchinleck was keeping II Corps in reserve, while III Corps and 11th Armoured Brigade provided I Corps with protection to its southern flank.

There had been few initial contacts with the enemy, who seemed to have lost heart. It had been argued by the Intelligence Officers that the German units defending the Weser were acting as a roadblock, allowing the primary defensive live at the Elbe time to ready themselves. But as prisoners were interrogated it was becoming clearer that the collapse of the Wehrmacht was happening at last. Most the men who were captured complained that they had been abandoned and left to fend for themselves. There was very little ammunition with which to defend themselves and they saw themselves as sacrificial lambs.

For the Hussars and London Scottish troops the advance was going quite smoothly, much to their surprise. They were keeping up a steady pace, leapfrogging forward, constantly waiting for the enemy to open fire on them. Any German troops or civilians they found were waiting for them, flying white flags and generally being as meek as lambs. As the morning had progressed, and this had been the consistent experience, the Colonel in charge of the battlegroup ordered his reconnaissance force to press forward more rapidly. If, as he suspected, they were going to find the same behaviour, then he could put his forces into flying columns and progress much faster. Well, as fast as Valentine tanks could go.

At Hellwege, a German Colonel had surrendered to Captain Crisp, commander of D Squadron. Nominally in charge of the regiment whose job it was to hold this piece of Germany, the vast majority of his men had deserted. They made their way home as best they could, leaving their uniforms and equipment, as so much dross behind them. The units that had stayed, generally had taken the British leaflets with instructions of how to surrender seriously. A few officers had found themselves being persuaded, sometimes at gunpoint, by their men to offer no resistance. Crisp and his men had had some experience in liberating Holland, particularly at Arnhem. There, some German troops had used the white flags as a ruse. The British soldiers were naturally cautious when approaching a marked German position.

When General Tilly, GOC 2nd Armoured Division, was informed of the paucity of resistance, he ordered his men to form flying columns and make for the Elbe at the best possible speed. A distance of some 50 miles, it was entirely possible to reach it by nightfall, if they pressed hard. As the day progressed, all the other British units that had crossed the Weser were experiencing the same thing. The race to the Elbe was on.

21 April 1941. 15:00hrs. Fort Devens. Massachusetts. USA.

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr., newly appointed commander of 26th Infantry Regiment, part of 1st Division, met with the senior officers of his new command. There was a lot to be done before the next set of manoeuvres, and Roosevelt was keen to get on with it. During a break from planning, over a cup of coffee, thoughts turned to the war going on in Europe, and what seemed to be the assured victory of the British and French forces.

With that in mind the question was asked about the role that the Regiment, and perhaps the American army would play over the next year or so. There was little in the way of a consensus among the officers. Some had heard that reinforcements were to be sent to the Philippines. Others that a war between the Entente and the Soviet Union was inevitable, and that America would be sucked into it. Someone even suggested that America would throw itself into the war to rid the Japanese from China.

Roosevelt had some links, as a Republican, to the Dewey administration. He knew that the President was entirely serious about maintaining the country’s strict neutrality policy. The chances were that the 1st Division would be involved in exercises, hopefully learning some of the lessons of this European war. He doubted they’d be sent overseas. However, his job was to get the Regiment to tip top fighting trim. Rather than day dreaming, Roosevelt got the meeting back on track. They started once again to look at how to make the most of their time before the next exercise.

21 April 16:00hrs. Mers El Kébir. Algeria.

MN Jean Bart sailed into the harbour having completed her work up cruise. While she would be home based in Toulon, she had been working with the French Mediterranean Fleet. The other ships that had taken part in the exercises, including the battleship Provence, sailed with her into harbour. The three Bretagne class ships, Provence, Bretagne and Lorraine, all built before the Great War were of limited use, with a speed of about 20 knots on a good day. Like the R Class British ships, there was a debate going on in Paris about what to do with them. The decision to retire Paris and Coubert from their training duties had been made and Bretagne and Lorraine replaced them, working out of Toulon. Provence would remain on active duty for the moment.

Jean Bart’s sister ship, Richelieu was finishing a minor refit and provisioning before sailing to join Strasbourg in Indo-China. She would be accompanied there by Strasbourg’s sister-ship Dunkerque with two heavy cruisers, Colbert and Duquense. The light cruisers, Jean De Vienne and Marseillaise, with the destroyers Guepard, Valmy, Verdun, Frondeur, Fougueux, and L’Adroit, would also be sailing with Richelieu. Each of these ships had been cycling through refits since returning from their round the world trip the year before. During these refits they had received whatever types of radar could be fitted without entailing entire rebuilds. The British designed radars had been built in Canada and would provide the French fleet with both air and surface capability. Richelieu and Jean Bart had both received the same sets that were being fitted to the British KGV class ships. Dunkerque and the heavy cruisers with the same as the British Dido Class cruisers were using. The light cruisers and destroyers had the same types being fitted to British destroyers. The operators had been on intensive courses run by the Royal Navy, indeed there were some Royal Naval personnel on board Jean Bart currently. In addition, there had been a serious look at the French anti-aircraft capabilities on board all the ships sailing for the South China Sea. As far as possible they had taken on board as many extra guns to supplement what they had. Work had also been done to make life for the crews in the heat of the South China Sea as comfortable as they could.

The Béarn, France’s aircraft carrier, would accompany the French fleet to the Far East, but only as an aircraft ferry. This was the main role it had played since the beginning of the war. Once she had unloaded her cargo, she would return to France. That cargo would consist of forty each of Dewoitine 520 and Bloch 155s fighters. These, along with their pilots, would provide the French colony with a much-strengthened air force.

A force of five LeO 451 bomber squadrons would also be making their way to the area, however these would be flying themselves there. Although it was a journey of over 10000kms, there would be plenty of stops, with the assistance of the RAF. Part of the thinking behind this, was to free up space in the cargo ships that would be needed to transfer the spare parts, armament and bombs that would be needed. A squadron’s worth of Bloch MB 161s, four engine transports, would be accompanying the bombers with ground crew and spares to enable them to make the journey.

The final part of the French fleet sailing for Indo-China would be a number of troopships, including SS Normandie, carrying the Corps units (including 19e and 39e BCC) and three divisions of troops (23e, 60e and 68e DI), with a large number of cargo vessels carrying their heavy equipment. Their arrival in May would give them a few months to acclimatise and be trained for fighting in the local terrain. As with the British reinforcement of Malaya, the threat of a Japanese attack was seen to be most likely at the end of 1941. Arriving in theatre, and having about 6 months to train, was seen as being the minimum time needed.

The time was right for the main force could start the long voyage. Jean Bart was fully operational, and Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was being reinforced. It was judged, with the Italian fleet remaining in port, that the Entente had sufficient strength in the Mediterranean. The third Richelieu class battleship, Clemenceau, was being built at the Salou #4 Graving Dock at Brest Navy Yard. The battleship wasn’t expected to enter service until 1944 at least. The fourth battleship in the class, Gascogne, had been laid down in the Caquot Dock in Saint-Nazaire. This was expected at 1945 at the earliest, though 1946 was probably more realistic. The aircraft carrier Joffre was still on course to join the Far East Fleet in early 1942; the Painlevé wasn’t expected to join the fleet until at least 1944.

21 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Vienna, Austria.

General Adrian Carton De Wiart, British liaison officer to Yugoslavia, was enjoying a pastry in a café, along with Major General Dušan Trifunović, commander of the Yugoslavian forces. His time as a liaison had been most exciting, seeing the realisation of the plans to attack the Reich from the south coming to fruition. The Yugoslav army had been getting itself sorted after the short sharp attack that had brought them to the Danube.

There were three things that London wanted the Yugoslavs to do. The first was try to put some troops into Bratislava, partly to see what position the Slovaks would take. The second was to carry on over the Danube, after all the bridges at Vienna were intact, and to continue northwards towards Brno and eventually Prague. The third was to move along the banks of the Danube in the direction of Linz and Passau. Realistically Carton De Wiart was aware that they would only really be able to do at most two of these, probably only one well. The situation with the Italians was still fluid in terms of being co-belligerents, but not allies. Their progress was still slow and still being resisted, albeit a limited resistance by the Germans. Moving along towards Linz was Trifunović’ preference. Carton De Wiart was trying to persuade him to send his Cavalry Division the 50km to Bratislava.

Feelers from the Slovaks to London, would suggest that the Yugoslavs would be welcomed, rather than be seen as an enemy invasion. If that was the case then the sooner boots were on the ground, the better. Tiso, the President of the Slovak Republic, had obviously seen which way the wind was blowing. He was thinking about how to maintain the independence of his Republic. London and Paris’ immediate concern was dismantling the Reich. The peace conference and the question of borders after the war was over was something that would have to be dealt with, but having one less part of Europe supporting the Nazis was an important aim in the short term.

Trifunović’s problem was that the Cavalry Division were over the Danube and doing reconnaissance in depth. Getting them back would take time and be wasteful. He decided instead to send an infantry Regiment, one that had enough trucks to carry them, with a few armoured cars. In some ways, arriving in Bratislava in motor vehicles rather than on horses would look better. If there was trouble, an infantry regiment would be a better unit to deal with it. The Cavalry would continue their reconnaissance, but he would order them to focus on moving towards Brno. He would order one of his divisions, with two tank battalions would set out for Linz. The remaining Division in his force would continue to police Vienna, while reinforcements from Maribor were brought forward.

21 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Würzburg, Germany.

General Bourret, commander of the 5e Army, settled into his new HQ and took the reports of his subordinates. Over the last few days his divisions had been making excellent progress. 5e DIC (Colonial Infantry Division) and 70e Infantry Divisions were in the lead, with 13e GRCA were already near the outskirts of Nuremberg. General François, commander of 70e DI, thought that his men should be able to reach the city the following day, unless they encountered any realistic opposition.

Another Corps, consisting of 24e and 31e DI, were approaching Heilbronn on the way towards Stuttgart. They had been finding slightly more in the way of resistance. As far as the Intelligence officers could discern there was no particular reason why some German units were fighting and others surrendering. From prisoner interrogations it seemed to have more to do with officers than anything else. Some officers continued to offer resistance, less often because of ideology and more to do with defending their homeland. Other officers either had lost the discipline of their men, or had simply seen that defeat was staring them in the face and decided not to throw away their lives for no good reason.

Bourret also got word that 8e Army had crossed the Rhine opposite Karlsruhe. They were finding that there was still some fight from General Rudolph Schmidt’s Fifteenth army. However, from Bourret’s point of view, it meant that Schmidt’s forces were now tied in place. His other Corps was advancing between the two thrusts, trying to keep them tied together, at least to some extent. If the 8e Army were able to roll up the Rhine, both north and south, his own task would be so much easier. The race to Munich was between himself and the Italians.

In the meantime General Sivot’s 4e Army, like Bourret’s, had made good progress. Sivot was now in Fulda, while his divisions continued to press eastwards towards Erfurt. The terrain was slowing them, as was the reality of being less than completely motorised. He had sent a strong force northward towards Kassel. They were to make contact with 2e Army, which was expected to happen sometime the next day. Another motorised unit had gone south towards Schweinfurt to maintain a link with 5e Army. Bourret enjoyed looking at the map, sipping a cognac. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought the French army would be so far into Germany, giving them a taste of their own medicine.

22 April 1941. 05:00hrs. B89 Advanced Landing Ground. Holland.

The Hurribombers' Merlin engines were warming up, while the Pilots were being given their final briefing. The Meteorological report informed them that a cold front was moving in and so they could expect the weather to deteriorate as the day went on. For their first sortie of the day, they could expect broken cloud and increasing wind speed. The Belgian pilots went over their call signs and the map of the area north of Bremen where they would be supporting their countrymen. The Advance Landing Ground was now 160 miles away from the front line, so their loiter time was going to be limited. They knew that new airfields were being created nearer the front, but for the moment, they would have to spend too long getting to and returning from the mission. The squadron’s aircraft had a mix of rockets, napalm, cluster and dumb bombs. All of them had four 20mm canons. Reports from the day before seemed to suggest that they would be seeing more white flags and they were strictly to adhere to the rules of engagement. So far, there had been no confirmed reports of the Boche using white flags as a ruse de guerre. Therefore, the pilots, if they are receiving fire from the cover of white flags, had to be absolutely sure before firing back.

Of the twelve pilots taking off, only two were pre-war professionals, the Squadron Leader and one of the section leaders. Most of the surviving Belgian Aéronautique Militaire officers were now in senior positions, while the expansion of the AM continued. Having started the war with three Aviation Regiments, there were now six.

This particular squadron was part of the First Aviation Regiment, whose task was Army Cooperation. The fourth regiment was a mirror of this pre-war unit. Each regiment was made up of six squadrons, five of the Army Cooperation squadrons flew Hurribombers, and the sixth flew Lysanders. Four squadrons were preparing to receive Beaufighters. Second and Fifth Regiments were fighter squadrons and were mostly flying Spitfire Ibs, with four squadrons still flying Hurricanes, but would transfer onto Spitfire IIs when available.

Third and Sixth Regiments were bomber squadrons. These had started the war with Battles and Fairey Foxes. They now had a variety of ex-RAF twin engine bombers. There were eight squadrons of Hampdens, four of Blenheims, and four were transitioning onto Wellingtons. The Blenheim squadrons were acting more as an operational training unit rather than on active duty. The 40 Brewster B-339 aircraft delivered in July and August 1940 were very quickly grounded. The Belgian Government were in litigation with Brewster in the American courts over the defective build quality that had caused the deaths of at least three pilots. Instead of scrapping the remaining aircraft, Finland had quietly bought them and were fixing them up for the FAF.

Like the AdA, and the RAF, many of the officers and NCOs in the Balloon Commands had transferred onto flight training and had given the three air forces a swifter injection of new pilots and navigators. Most of the pilots in this squadron however had been selected for pilot training in early 1940 and had done their flying training with the British, either in the UK or in Canada. As they climbed into their aircraft in the dawns early light, they readied themselves for another day in the war-torn sky. Waiting for the Very Light that would signal them to take off they went through their own pre-flight routines.

22 April 1941. 07:00hrs. The Weser Front.

The progress of the three British Armies out of their bridgeheads continued in a methodical and considered way. Some generals, particularly Percy Hobart, wanted the armoured divisions to push ahead and make a dash for the Elbe. However General Alan Brooke looking at the forces in his Entente Army Group felt that it wouldn’t take much for the Germans to be able to snip off the best of his armoured units and leave the armies without the majority of their tanks. While 3rd Army had Comet tanks, the other two armies were still relying on mostly on A13 cruisers and Valentines with their 2-pdr guns, and that didn’t fill him with a great deal of confidence.

On the other hand, the advance by leapfrogging one Corps attack after another had worked well in 1918 and so far in this war. It wasn’t perhaps as revolutionary as Hobart and his cronies wanted, but this way was tried and tested. It was also within the capability of the training of the officers and men of the armies. The planning that had been done during the previous winter had worked out that from the crossing of the Rhine to capturing Berlin, a distance of some 300 miles, would take somewhere between thirty and forty days. 21 days since the crossing of the Rhine, the British armies had advanced 200 miles, two-thirds of the distance to the German capital. From the point of view of the planners they were on schedule. As had been shown in the pause before crossing the Weser, the issue was less about the speed that the troops could advance at, but how difficult it would be to keep them supplied.

Even while German resistance was sparse, there were two factors that had to be taken into account. The first was that the soldier on the front line had no great desire to get himself killed, especially as it seemed that the war would be over sooner rather than later. That meant that units advancing were taking no chances at being ambushed or walking into other kinds of traps. There was still a prodigious use of artillery and also the RAF’s Tactical Command were expending a lot of ordnance.

The second factor was having to occupy enemy territory. When a Company or Battalion took over a hamlet or town, a process of clearing it had been established. Signs were put up instructing the civilian population that the British had arrived, not as oppressors, but as liberators. Captured troops had to be turned into prisoners of war. Weapons had to be searched for, other men of military age had to be processed to make sure that they weren’t a threat, or if they were deserters, to be interrogated. While those in positions of authority, such as mayors or policemen, were to remain in post in the short term, a process of de-Nazification was to be implemented. In the first instance all German courts were suspended until a civil law review could take place. The occupied territory was under military rule, and military law would be enforced.

Some debate about suspending schools had also been discussed, but had been rejected. The experience west of the Rhine was that most teachers could generally be relied upon to revert back to the pre-Nazi curriculum. In addition, the teachers would go through a sifting process to weed out the rabid Nazi ideologues. Unsurprisingly very few of these identified themselves. The occupying authorities found it tiresome to have to deal with all the denunciations that people in towns and villages made. It was clear that some of this was petty, getting back at people who they had grudges against, and others who tried to deflect attention away from themselves by pointing the finger at others. All of this was a large drain on resources. Not least among these was getting enough German speakers to do the language interpreting that an occupying army needed.

There was a “no fraternisation” policy for the British troops. This was a difficult order to carry out. The civilian population of Germany was in many ways very like the people back at home. The soldiers, despite their griping, had many more luxuries such as chocolate and cigarettes than the Germans had seen for some time. Any serious breaches of military discipline such as looting or rape, were dealt with most severely, but officers and senior NCOs were less strict with cases of fraternisation. For the men in the front line this was less of an issue, but for the “tail” of the army, there were plenty of men who took advantage of the situation they found themselves in.

22 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Bremen. Germany.

The universal carrier that carried the British delegation was flying a prominent white flag as it approached the outer limits of the German defensive positions. Brigadier Copland-Griffiths, CO of the First Guards Brigade, was hoping that this parley would bear fruit. After the dropping of leaflets over the city, and a team with loudspeakers imploring the people of the city to save themselves, topped with a judicious use of artillery on a positively identified strongpoint, the time seemed right to approach the Germans with terms for a surrender.

Fighting through a city would be a nightmare and there was a real concern in I Corps not only about their own possible casualties, but also among the civilian population. As the site of the Focke Wolf factory, the city had received a good bit of attention from the RAF. They had managed to halt production at the factory, but there had been a lot of bombs dropped to achieve that, not all of them by any means confined to the factory itself. Even if the civilian population hadn’t been targeted directly, they still had suffered.

As the driver brought the carrier to a halt, Copland-Griffiths, with an aide carrying the flag walked towards the German officer that was waiting for them, his colleague also holding a white flag. The Welsh Guard’s German was poor, but his aide was fluent. The German Colonel’s English was impeccable. It was his duty to escort the Brigadier to the German commander’s HQ. General Walter Lichel, formerly commander of 3 Infantry Division, had lost an arm when his HQ had been bombed by the French AdA in the retreat to the Rhine. Whilst recovering from his wounds he had been appointed commander of the Bremen garrison, made up of various units that had multiple levels of training, mostly limited. Having received the Fuhrer’s order to destroy everything of value to the enemy, and orders to hold the city to the last, the approach of the British with terms of surrender was causing him some angst.

Lichel was very aware that his ability to defend the city was limited. Not only was the garrison underequipped and trained, they had limited stocks of ammunition. The population had been forced to dig trenches and tank traps, but these were of limited use without soldiers to man them. The British and the Belgians now had him more or less surrounded. In a siege, they could probably hold out for a week or so before the hunger really started to bite at the civilians.

Copland-Griffiths laid out the British terms. If the German troops laid down their weapons they would be well treated. Likewise, the civilian population would become the responsibility of the British army. There were rations available to be brought into the city if that was necessary. Once the rest of Germany had thrown off the yoke of the Nazi Party, and was at peace, the German soldiers would be allowed to return home and rebuild their country. Lichel knew that these were the best terms he was going to be offered. He also knew that the Brigadier was dangling a carrot, but also carrying a very big stick. Lichel asked for a ceasefire until 08:00hrs the next day to consult with the civilian leadership of the city. If the terms of surrender were agreed, a delegation of both military and civilians would meet the British Commander at the same place that Copland-Griffiths had arrived at earlier.

General Edwin Morris, Commander of 1st Division, of which 1st Guard’s Brigade was part, listened to the report that the Brigadier had brought back. He sent off a message to General Franklyn, the Corps Commander to inform him of the situation. It was now a matter of waiting. He also ordered his batman to get his best uniform ready for the morning. If he was going to take the surrender of a German city, he should at least look the part. Copland-Griffiths sent word to the Grenadier Guards to turn out a couple of companies in good order to give the Germans a good first impression of their British conquerors.

22 April 1941. 20:00hrs. Emmerthal, Germany.

Richard O’Connor’s IV Corps, part of Second Army, were ready to force a crossing of the Weser, just south of Hamelin. The 6th Division were assigned as the assault troops, with 1st Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment at the forefront. They had been exercising for a night crossing and were gathering in preparation. With First and Third Armies already across the river, O’Connor hoped that there wouldn’t be much opposition. The RAF had been busy during the day, as had the Royal Artillery, with a particular emphasis on clearing mines, there had been a liberal use of Fuel Air Bombs with this in mind.

The French 2e Army were due to kick off their assaults between Hoxter and Kassel in the early morning. Once a suitable bridgehead was achieved, the French 1e and 7e Armies were aiming at the Elbe, 1e Army aiming for Magdeburg and 7e Army for Leipzig, swinging around the south of the Harz Mountains. Meanwhile British Second Army would swing around the north of the Harz Mountains, keeping contact between the main British thrust towards Hamburg and the French thrust to Magdeburg.

O’Connor’s original plan had involved the use of the helicopters of the Air Assault Brigade, however the situation in Denmark had meant that they weren’t available. This would mean that the Argylls had a harder job securing the high ground that over looked the crossing point. The remains of the road and railway bridges would give the engineers a solid foundation for the replacement bridges that would need to be erected. A dozen Valentine DD tanks had been included in the assault plan, and innovation that had proven its worth now on a number of occasions. Behind them the Matilda IIs of 3rd Armoured Brigade would open up the route for the rest of IV Corps to exploit.

The cold front that had moved in during the day brought low cloud and rain, making the night seem darker. A bank of searchlight batteries trained their lights on the bottom of the clouds to provide the assault force with some illumination as star shells and Very Lights were of limited use in the conditions. The beams also gave the troops a sense of direction. The Argylls found that things did not go well. The river’s current was running faster than they had expected. One company ended up in the wrong place and were hit by friendly fire, before radio contact brought an end to the firing. The company whose job it was to secure the ridge to the right of the crossing were held up by a couple of machine guns posts, backed by mortars. It was only after dawn that they were able to achieve their objective, by which point the company had lost fifteen killed and more than forty injured. When the Leicestershires crossed behind the Argylls. they fared much better, and the plan began to get back on track. As had been discovered at other places, once the initial crust of German resistance was smashed, there were only isolated pockets where some Germans made a last stand.

23 April 1941. 14:00hrs. Entente Army Group Headquarters. Germany.

General Alan Brooke’s staff were reviewing the progress that had been made since the crossing of the Weser three days previously. Montgomery’s Third British Army’s VII Corps had arrived at Hannover, and 3rd Armoured Division were probing around the south of the city near Laatzen for a way to push past it. Second Canadian Division’s 4th Brigade had followed the line of the Linden Canal and were currently taking control of Ahlem and Davenstedt. Meanwhile the 6th Brigade were encountering light resistance as they followed the railway line through Empelde into Linden. The 43rd (Wessex) Division had the difficult job of maintaining contact with VI Corps to their north and the Canadians because of the branching of the Mittellandkanal and the Linden Canal with the river Liene between the two canals. However, they were keeping up with the Canadians to Montgomery’s satisfaction.

VI Corps’ job was to advance towards Celle, where they should meet up with the First Army’s thrust south of Bremen. They too were making steady progress, with the 4th Indian Division making most of the running.

The ANZACs progress was also notable. Their main force was at Springe, with reconnaissance units heading towards Hildesheim, in this way keeping the southern flank of the advance protected. With Hannover within his grasp Montgomery sent a delegation to seek the surrender of the city, hoping for a similar outcome as happened in Bremen. At this point however there was still some dubiety about the German response. All advice that had been given to the commanders of the Entente armies was to avoid fighting in built up areas as much as possible. Certainly, from Montgomery’s point of view, the plan was to surround the city, and then move on, leaving the ANZACs to tighten the stranglehold, while the other two Corps would continue eastwards.

Auchinleck’s First Army, after the successful taking of Bremen, were also moving eastwards. III Corps’ progress towards Celle to meet up with Third Army was marked by the Gurkha’s fearsome reputation and ability with night patrols. Although they had further to go, it looked as if the race to Celle would probably be won by the Nepalese rather than Montgomery’s Indian Division. I Corps task, with 2nd Armoured Division in the van, was towards the Elbe and Hamburg. They had been spreading out looking for the path of least resistance. Knowing that the area around Soltau was an important Wehrmacht training area, that was their immediate objective, while was Lüneburg would be next. As they had been averaging between ten and twenty miles per day, Harold Franklyn reported that his I Corps were expecting Soltau to be within his grasp within a day or so. Dempsey’s II Corps were solidifying their hold over Bremen and its surrounding area.

The Belgian thrust north of Bremen towards Bremerhaven and the coast was slower, mostly due to the terrain, and the less mechanised nature of the Belgian army. It would be the best part of a week before Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven would be in their hands.

In the southern area of Brook’s responsibility, Wilson’s Second Army, O’Connor’s movement out of the bridgehead and the reports from the French attacks over the Weser, were meeting with the same pattern: a hard crust of German resistance, followed by easier going. Brooke’s reserve, the Entente Army of Poles, Dutch and others were ready to move forward when the call came. The logistical challenge of moving all the military vehicles over the river was a continuing headache.

23 April 1941. 19:00hrs. Munich. Germany.

General Edmund Wachenfeld, Commander of Wehrkreis VII, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was on the radio claiming his kingdom to be once again independent of the “Prussian-Nazi State.” Furthermore, he was promising that all those troops who took control of the area from the “Nazi occupiers” would be well rewarded for their service to the crown. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was declaring that the French and Italian forces who were pressing in on all sides of the Kingdom of Bayern were coming, in his name, as liberators! He was calling on all Wehrmacht forces in his Kingdom to cease all resistance.

It wasn’t clear from the broadcast just what exactly the borders of the Kingdom of Bayern might be exactly. Wachenfeld guessed that would be something that the French and Italians would be arguing about in the peace conference that would take place once the war was finished. However, that was less of a problem than the fact that his door burst open and three members of his staff now had him at gun point. It seemed to him that his term of office as Commander of Wehrkreis VII had just come to an abrupt end. He wasn’t a stupid man, so he raised his hands above his head and said, “All hail King Rupprecht!”

3 April 1941. 20:00hrs. New York, New York. USA.

Charles Lindbergh waited for the applause that had followed him being introduced to the America First rally. He looked down at his notes, and then, when a hush had fallen over the room he began to speak.

“There are many viewpoints from which the issues of this war can be argued. Some are primarily idealistic. Some are primarily practical. One should, I believe, strive for a balance of both. But, since the subjects that can be covered in a single address are limited, tonight I shall discuss the war from a viewpoint which is primarily practical. It is not that I believe ideals are unimportant, even among the realities of war; but if a nation is to survive in a hostile world, its ideals must be backed by the hard logic of military practicability. If the outcome of war depended upon ideals alone, this would be a different world than it is today…

There are many interventionists in America, but there are more people among us of a different type. That is why you and I are assembled here tonight. There is a policy open to this nation that will lead to success--a policy that leaves us free to follow our own way of life, and to develop our own civilization. It is not a new and untried idea. It was advocated by Washington. It was incorporated in the Monroe Doctrine. Under its guidance, the United States became the greatest nation in the world. It is based upon the belief that the security of a nation lies in the strength and character of its own people. It recommends the maintenance of armed forces sufficient to defend this hemisphere from attack by any combination of foreign powers. It demands faith in an independent American destiny. This is the policy of the America First Committee today. It is a policy not of isolation, but of independence; not of defeat, but of courage. It is a policy that led this nation to success during the most trying years of our history, and it is a policy that will lead us to success again…

The United States is better situated from a military standpoint than any other nation in the world. Even in our present condition of unpreparedness, no foreign power is in a position to invade us today. If we concentrate on our own and build the strength that this nation should maintain, no foreign army will ever attempt to land on American shores…

The time has come when those of us who believe in an independent American destiny must band together, and organize for strength… During the last several years, I have travelled over this country, from one end to the other. I have talked to many hundreds of men and women, and I have had letters from tens of thousands more, who feel the same way as you and I. Most of these people have no influence or power. Most of them have no means of expressing their convictions, except by their vote which has always been against this war. They are the citizens who have had to work too hard at their daily jobs to organize political meetings. Hitherto, they have relied upon their vote to express their feelings; but now they find that it is hardly remembered except in the oratory of a political campaign. These people--the majority of hard-working American citizens are with us. They are the true strength of our country. And they are beginning to realize, as you and I, that there are times when we must sacrifice our normal interests in life in order to ensure the safety and the welfare of our nation.

Such a time has come. Such a crisis is here. That is why the America First Committee has been formed--to give voice to the people who have no newspaper, or news reel, or radio station at their command; to the people who must do the paying, and the fighting, and the dying, if this country enters the war.

Whether or not we do enter the war, rests upon the shoulders of you in this audience, upon us here on this platform, upon meetings of this kind that are being held by Americans in every section of the United States today. It depends upon the action we take, and the courage we show at this time. If you believe in an independent destiny for America, if you believe that this country should not enter the war in Europe, we ask you to join the America First Committee in its stand. We ask you to share our faith in the ability of this nation to defend itself, to develop its own civilization, and to contribute to the progress of mankind in a more constructive and intelligent way than has yet been found by the warring nations of Europe. We need your support, and we need it now. The time to act is here.”

His speech over, Lindbergh listened to the applause for a few moments before sitting down. With the war almost over and with President Dewey in the White House, there weren’t nearly as many people at the rally as the organisers had hoped. However, those who had attended were obviously impressed by his speech.

Author's note: Please note that this is a filleted version of the original speech which can be found here. I thought it worth mentioning in passing, as it seems to me to sum up the American POV that I have been working from ITTL.

24 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Downing St. London.

Sometimes Admiral Alan Grose felt that he wanted to strangle the Prime Minister. For over a year now he had spent almost every day with Winston, whose sole aim in life, it seemed to Grose, was to suck his brain dry. The cigar smoke he had come to ignore, the impetuosity he couldn’t ignore. Once again Alan gave his little cough, which Winston had come to recognise as the beginning of a conversation which began, “Yes, Prime Minister but…”

It had been extremely difficult for Grose to give his information and knowledge in as neutral a way as possible. He had been schooled to believe that the job of the military advisor was to give the politicians the information as clearly as possible, to provide a range of options of what was actually possible, and then, to implement the decision that the politician chose. Thankfully “Winston’s Oracle”, as he had come to be known in certain circles, got on very well with the ranking members of the General Imperial Staff. They had come to have confidence that he was Royal Navy through and through and had the best interests of the nation at his heart. The had been fears expressed in the early days that the advisors from the Bristol Group would attempt to be very directive of where things should go, almost like a silent coup. However, with a few exceptions, they had proven themselves most trustworthy. Especially in trying to deal with Winston’s impetuosity, like today.

When Denmark was being liberated, Churchill had wanted the forces that had been assigned to invade it, to sail through the Great Belt and make an amphibious landing on the German Baltic coast, even east of the Oder. That notion had thankfully been side lined, but today’s idea was even more dangerous. The continued quietness of Stalin had Winston poring over maps of the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine and Byelorussia. The Dnieper River seemed to Winston like a good place to aim for after Berlin and Warsaw. The Ukrainians and Byelorussians would probably welcome the Western Armies as liberators, he thought. There was no need to invade Russia itself, but if the USSR’s border was on the Dnieper, well that would give the eastern European nations a good bit of breathing space. With a strong British backed Poland and Romania, the three Baltic States and the liberated former Soviet Republics would become something of a buffer zone. Communism’s westward expansion would be severely hampered.

The problem for Grose was that Churchill knew that the early stages of what might have been the German invasion of Russia had gone very well, and that their progress to the Dnieper had indeed been somewhat spectacular. Stalin was still technically allied with Hitler, furthermore liberating that part of Poland that Stalin had grabbed in 1939 was part of the promise that had led Britain to the Declaration of War in the first place. Thankfully he didn’t seem to be suggesting that they should do it immediately Warsaw was freed. There would obviously need to be a pause to “catch our breath” and have all the armoured divisions with better tanks to take on the T-34s and KV-1s they would have to face.

Grose usually found that if he asked about the French, it distracted Winston somewhat, so he did. Would the French armies be part of this attack, he wondered? Winston took a long draw on his cigar and blew the smoke into Grose’s face, this being his way of expressing his annoyance about being asked about the French. Once Grose had finished coughing, Winston suggested that their declaration of war had also involved the freedom of Poland, so they’d probably have to. Grose jumped on the “probably”, had he had discussions with the French prime minister then? He got another face full of smoke for that.

The other consideration that usually stopped Winston in his tracks was to ask what the Chancellor of the Exchequer might say, so Grose brought that one up too. Another face full of smoke and a definite growl was the reaction to that one. Britain’s wartime finances were the subject of a great deal of worrying on the part of Sir Kingsley Wood, while Churchill muttered about penny-pinching. Wood, with the support of his counterpart in Paris were keen that the war should be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible before the country’s finances were in an even worse state. The idea the war would be extended to take on the Soviet Union once Germany was defeated would give Wood apoplexy.

Grose reminded Winston that having taken the decision to expand the army to around 52 divisions, the idea of invading the USSR, would mean that that would need to be reconsidered. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff wasn’t present to confirm it, but Grose estimated that the army would need to grow to around at least 75 divisions to be able to fulfil their role of occupying Germany, deterring Japan, and then invading Byelorussia and Ukraine. That figure would be much, much higher without the full weight of the French. Winston stared at him with a beady eye, a look that Grose knew well, it meant that he had the Prime Minister on the back foot. Perhaps, he suggested, that we might ask the War Office to look at the possibility and begin to draw up some plans for how and when such an invasion might be realistic? Winston’s growl grew deeper, sending off ideas to the War Office was usually the last anything was ever seen of them. However, he nodded his assent and blew some more smoke in Grose’s face.

Alan Grose had one last trick up his sleeve on occasions such as this. “While I remember Prime Minister, we received a report on the test firing of the new long range missile system. I wonder if you might like to peruse it?”

24 April 1941. 20:00hrs. Stuttgart. Germany.

The motorised elements of 31e Division had reached the city earlier in the day, and offered to take the surrender of the city. Stuttgart had been on the receiving end of a fair amount of bombing by the AdA. The Porsche and Daimler-Benz factories and the railways being the main targets. Civilian casualties had been substantial due to the inaccuracy of the aerial bombing. The French bombers had flown in force over the city in the morning, dropping leaflets calling for surrender. There were a number of military units and bases in and around the city, and the civilian leadership were worried that the military units would try to hold the town against the French army. It took a few hours of negotiations, but eventually Stuttgart was declared an open city. The 31e Division therefore moved into the built-up area to handle the surrender. 24e Division continued the advance southeast towards the Danube at Ulm, following the autobahn and railway.

When news of the capture of Stuttgart reached General André-Gaston Prételat, at General Entente Supreme Headquarters, there was a moment or two of sheer exuberance. There had been a short, but fierce fight at Nuremberg. If every major city became a battlefield, the casualty list would just get too high. If resistance in the south of Germany continued collapsing as it seemed to be doing, and especially if the big cities fell without a fight, then the conclusion of the campaign for large sections of the French army was imminent. First Army Group, especially First and Seventh Armies still had the task of moving east and they would need to be supported and reinforced. However, Second Army Group would soon be on occupation duties. Prételat thought it wouldn’t be too long before a partial de-mobilisation could be envisaged. All this was such a different reality from the situation 20 months into the Great War.

Georges Misserey’s Eighth Army was fully across the Rhine moving north and south to clear the east bank and aimed to link up with Fifth Army. Third Army was in reserve while Fourth Army were approaching Erfurt and the river Saale at Jena. Fifth Army, having captured Stuttgart and Nuremberg, had Ingolstadt and Regensburg as their next objectives. First Army Group’s crossing of the Weser had gone well and they were now making progress towards Magdeburg, though it could be as much as another week before the French were on the Elbe.

First Entente Army Group were also making good progress, they might reach the Elbe a couple of days earlier if Brooke was to be believed. Overall, the picture was looking pretty good. The Italians and the Yugoslavs had done well, their thrusts from the south had really been a dagger in the gut of the Nazi Regime. The Italian movement towards Munich was still glacial, but the Yugoslavs had surprised everyone with their arrival in both Bratislava and Linz. Tonight, Prételat felt that he would sleep well.

25 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Aabenraa. Denmark.

The Royal Marine Division had been gathering after their rushed arrival in Denmark. The replacements were still being integrated and the officers weren’t too enamoured with the way things were going. The haphazard way they had been shipped over the North Sea meant that it had taken the best part of three days to get everyone and their equipment sorted. Some of the men had been involved in disarming German troops, though the Danish forces had been largely responsible for that task. A number of MG34s seemed to have been liberated by the Marines, they’d learned the hard way in Holland just how great their rate of fire was.

In due course the Division, along with the French 1re DLI, had been moved south to the border. There the two divisions were initially digging in, ready should the German attempted to invade from the south. It was becoming clear from aerial reconnaissance, and from the patrols that had been sent out, that any German units that had been in the area, were withdrawing south of the Kiel Canal. The order for the two divisions to advance towards Kiel was expected imminently. The problem seemed to be getting the Norwegian and Belgian Divisions organised to support and follow up the move. The Danish Divisions were fully committed to regaining control over their own country, though liaison troops were working with the Entente forces.

Once more the Dutch Mariniers were working alongside the Royal Marines. As with their British counterparts they were still in the process of integrating replacements. They had their full complement of Valentine tanks, as did the Royal Marines, and today there were due to have an exercise for the infantry and tanks to cooperate with one another. Much had been learned over the last year, but all too many of the replacements were of junior officers, who had to be properly instructed in the hard-earned knowledge. Part of the exercise was also to coordinate with the Fleet Air Arm. HMS Formidable was off the coast and would be providing support from its Skua and Sea Hurricane squadrons. The Barracudas were still not judged ready for operations, meaning the Skuas would have to soldier on. In the absence of much of an aerial threat from the Luftwaffe, this wouldn’t be too onerous. The Norwegian and Danish Air Forces were generally providing top cover in their Spitfires, and the Norwegian Hurribombers would be supporting the French division.

25 April 1941. 16:00hrs. Oberammergau. Germany.

The white flags flew over the devastated town. Best known for its passion play every ten years, it had suffered its own passion that morning. The Italian advance through the valleys and passes had been hampered at every turn by demolitions and ambushes. The German 5th Light Division had used every trick in the book to slow the Italians. Although their Alpine troops had managed to keep the advance moving, it was the weakness of the Italian Engineers that was the greatest problem. The infantry could move, but their vehicles had to wait until every rockslide, every tree had been removed from the road. Every culvert had been blown, the road mined, the one thing the 5th Light Division seemed to have in abundance was explosives, and they had used them enthusiastically.

The advancing Italian infantry would get a dose of machine gun and mortar fire to put them to ground, then when they moved up with whatever artillery support could be given in the confines of the narrow valleys, the Germans had disappeared, leaving just another set of booby traps and mines for the over-worked engineers to deal with. The Regia Aeronautica had been hampered by low cloud, even a few late snow showers, so the Germans had been able to lay their traps with minimal interference. General Francesco Laviano, commander of the 62nd Division Marmarica, had done everything in his power to move his division as quickly as possible. The Divisional Engineers had been supplemented by the entire 26 Corps’ Engineers, but it just took an age for each and every kilometre that they could advance.

Oberammergau however was the final bottleneck, once past it the valley opened up and the German defenders would find it much more difficult to hold the Italians back. Here however the Germans had used a unit of four Panzer IIIs in addition to the infantry. Well positioned, their 50mm guns had made the Italian tankettes easy pickings, and once again, the Italian infantry found themselves attempting to take on a powerful force, in less than ideal conditions. It was only when Gemona Battalion of the 3 Alpine Division Julia managed to get round behind the German defenders that the battle opened up and the remains of the town were secured.

The progress of the Ariete Division along the River Inn valley had suffered similar opposition and delays. The previous day they had set out from Kiefersfelden and had a severe fight against the German 6th Mountain Division. They had finally got through the final pass and were now approaching Rosenheim. Although the terrain had opened up for them the German defenders had made it as difficult as possible for the Italians with their demolitions over the many watercourses that lined the route. The Italian engineers were struggling to keep the carros moving, having used up most of their bridging equipment they were having to improvise with whatever resources were at hand.

At Salzburg, the main Italian force, with the Centauro armoured division at its heart, were also about ready to move north into Germany proper. One element that had hindered this movement more than anything else was a band of Austrian soldiers that had stayed behind as the Italians went past and seemed to be able to ambush supply convoys at will. It was estimated that there were less than three hundred Austrians involved, but large numbers of Italian troops had had to be left to defend the tenuous supply routes, and each convoy had to be well guarded. It was the usual methodology of causing rock falls and blowing or mining the roads had stymied the Italians forward progress excessively.

Italian High Command were now looking at unleashing their armoured thrusts at Munich, one from Salzburg and the other from Rosenheim. As far as their intelligence could gather, the Germans still had a Panzer Regiment in the vicinity. While it was hoped that Rupprecht’s appeal to the Bavarians to lay down their weapons would make the next section of their attack easier, the planners had to assume that not all the Germans would welcome the Italian troops as liberators. And so it proved.

25 April 1941. 23:00hrs. Over Germany.

Flight Lieutenant Tadeusz Pawel Chlopik, with his AI radar operator Oliver McNaughton flew their Beaufighter over the river Elbe. Their squadron had left RAF Duxford and were now based in Holland. As part of the night fighter force covering the Entente Army Group the pair had raised their tally to five enemy aircraft shot down. The Luftwaffe, it was believed, were licking their wounds further east, but there were still the occasional attempts to do some reconnaissance or nuisance raids. Ground Radar coverage this far forward was spotty at best, and so the RAF was flying one of their new Wellington AWACs over Bremen. McNaughton therefore didn’t have to rely entirely on his AI radar. Compared to the early sets he had been trained on this latest model was a vast improvement, but it still wasn’t quite as effective as he would like.

A large raid by RAF Wellingtons were returning from Berlin, where they had hit the city just before night fell. There were some Mustangs still with them, but Chlopik and another five Beaufighters were providing remote cover from German night fighter interference. To prevent collisions the Wellingtons were well spaced out on their homeward journey. The possibility that this loose stream of bombers might be too tempting a target for the Germans proved correct, and a serious of warnings were received from the AWACs to the various Beaufighters to investigate possible bogeys. When Chlopik got the call he turned the aircraft onto the bearing he’d been given and began to descend to the height he’s been ordered to. McNaughton fiddled with his AI set trying to get the best return he could. In a few minutes McNaughton began picking up a return and gave his pilot more precise instructions to put them onto an intercept course.

One of the things that was being trialled on some night fighters was an infra-red spotlight, with the pilot having specially prepared goggles to be able to “see” anything that was shown up. The AI radar brought them within range of the bogey, the infra-red beam reacted well to the Bf110’s engines and leading edges. It was clear enough for Chlopik to bring the enemy plane onto his sights and dose it with cannon fire. The problem was that, although he had been warned to do so, he hadn’t removed the special goggles, and so when the German aircraft burst into flames, Chlopik was blinded for a time. He’d had the experience before of losing his night vision, but this was of a different magnitude altogether.

The calm voice of his Belfast born observer helped him keep the night fighter straight and level, and having told the AWACs what the problem was, McNaughton helped him turn the aircraft for home. After what seemed like an eternity, some vision started to return so that by the time they landed back at their base, Chlopik was able to bring the aircraft down safely. He would spend the rest of war grounded and his experience was communicated widely to the other night-fighters who were trialling the equipment.

26 April 1941. 12:00hrs. Wolfsschanze. East Prussia.

There was a private little game being played by some of the junior officers. They were taking bets with each other on how far into a briefing with the Fuhrer present before the word “traitor” was spoken. Nobody bet on any longer than five minutes if they had any hope of winning. The news of the Entente push into the Reich, to say nothing of the Italians and Yugoslavs, was unbelievable. Certainly, it wasn’t the speediest invasion, the British and French were still only moving about 20 miles per day on average, even against only limited and sporadic resistance. But each day’s briefing listed towns and cities that had fallen into the enemy’s hands, all too often without a fight.

There had been a large air raid on Berlin the previous evening and communications with the capital had been patchy ever since. It wasn’t clear what the problem was, though the fear of another military coup was never far from anyone’s mind. Generally, the OKW was working from East Prussia, but the three Army Groups (north, central and south) used the OKH resources in Berlin as a communication hub. All of the frontline Generals only had their jobs because they were judged to be ideologically trustworthy, but that didn’t stop there being an SS “liaison” in each headquarters down to the level of division. If another coup was underway, then the chances were that these men would be the first to be eliminated.

It was clear to anyone who wasn’t blind, deaf and dumb by now that the writing was very much on the wall. The Fuhrer order to destroy everything in the path of the Entente, and the standing orders for all units west of the Elbe to stand and fight to the last, were obviously being ignored. Even in the Redoubt there were increasing numbers of desertions. One which had incensed the Fuhrer particularly was almost a whole squadron of fighters on a training mission had flown across the Baltic to Sweden to be interned. It was reported that two pilots had been shot down by their comrades when they tried to stop the defection.

The loss of the Ruhr valley was not being offset by the increased efforts of Silesia. Those elements of German industry that had been transferred to the East during the winter were still not at the point of being able to get production up to anything like what was needed. For those who weren’t blinded by propaganda, the reality of the troops on the ground, on both sides of the Elbe was that were desperately short of everything. The situation was that the deficit of ammunition and fuel was critical, but even food was getting scarce. The transport system was no longer functioning properly, the Entente air forces made sure of that. When the reports came in of units offering a little resistance and then surrendering was more often than not the result of having the means to resist. Fighting to the last bullet might not actually take too long if there aren’t that many bullets. That idea would count as defeatism if it was mentioned, and so the word “traitor” was bandied around liberally.

26 April 1941. 18:00hrs. Dunkirk. France.

The train ferry had docked an hour earlier and at last the locomotives were able to start bringing the flat cars off the ship and onto their destination at Arras. Each flat car had a brand new Comet tank straight from the factory on it. Once delivered to Arras each tank would be checked over by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and then reloaded onto tank transporters that would carry them forward to the Field Maintenance Centre nearest the unit that would be receiving them. At this point the tanks would be handed over to the Armoured Replacement Group (ARG) and fully provisioned with fuel and ammunition.

Over the winter this structure had been implemented to increase the readiness of replacement crews into frontline units. The Royal Armoured Corps Depot, where some 2000 men were being trained each month, in specialist skills such as gunnery, signals and maintenance. Once this phase of their training was complete, they went onto the next phase. The AGR was made up of armoured delivery regiments and closer to the front, armoured delivery squadrons. When the freshly trained men arrived at the ARG they went through a more specific level of training for the battlefield, closely supervised by men who had learned the vital lessons that might give them the chance to survive in the front line.

As these men were judged ready, either as whole crews with replacement tanks, or individually to replace casualties, the delivery squadrons fed battle ready men and machines to their new units. For those on the front line this saved a great deal of time and effort that earlier in the war they would need to give “on the job training” to barely trained replacements.

The Comet tanks that had come from the Royal Ordnance tank factory in Leeds, which contributed to the British production of tanks reaching over 360 during March. Valentines from Elswick made up just over a third of the total, with 30 Matilda IIs completing the figure. Tank production was only one part of armoured vehicle production. The Sexton self-propelled gun which was going to the Royal Horse Artillery regiments; the various Royal Engineer vehicles, such as bridge-layers, mine clearance and recovery vehicles; the armoured personnel carriers based on the Crusader chassis; the ubiquitous universal carriers; as well as armoured cars were all being produced in increasing numbers.

1st Armoured Division’s cruiser tank equipped regiments were transitioning onto Comet tanks at every available opportunity. These particular tanks being unloaded from the train ferry were destined for the Queen’s Bays. For the surviving troops of the regiment, the Comets were a far cry from the Vickers light tanks and A9 cruisers they had started the war with.

29 April 1941. 08:00hrs. Schwerin. Germany.

General Maximilian von Weichs, commander of 2nd Army, didn’t want to think about it must be like at the front. He’d always been a staff officer during the Great War, his experience of the trenches was always at a distance. As reports came in from his men at the front it was easier not to consider just how awful the reality that they were reporting was actually like. After the British assault had ground to a halt having their forward troops killed by their own bombers, he’d had time to put his reserves into place. That meant that when the English had got their act together, his own men were ready for them. The RAF had done pretty bad damage to his own positions. If they hadn’t hit their own troops the chances were that the English troops could have broken through to at least his secondary line of defences.

A couple of local counterattacks had kept the initiative out of the hands of the English, though that wasn’t stopping them. The reports he’d been getting since dawn was that there’d been a problem with desertion during the night. Most of his frontline units were reporting that they were short-handed, and it seemed worse among his reserves. A radio message in the clear had been beamed into this HQ suggesting that his men lay down their arms, promising that they would be well treated, or inviting them just to go home. The fact of desertions and that radio message which seemed to overwhelm most of the frequencies his men were using, probably not unrelated. If pushed, Von Weichs couldn’t really blame the men. They knew as well as he did that the war was lost. At least most of the SS and Gestapo were somewhere else, so there was a chance that some of the deserters would make it home, rather than hanging from lampposts with signs round their necks.

The Luftwaffe had promised that they would try to hit the British crossing point on the Elbe today. As far as he could gather, they hadn’t quite managed to get a bridge over the river yet, they were still using ferries. Whether or not the fly-boys would appear was something that he wasn’t prepared to bet on. If they did come, the chances were that they’d be shot from the sky. The British, for the all problems their bombers had caused the other day, still commanded the skies. The bombers hadn’t been seen again, but their close support aircraft were just as busy as they’d always been.

The situation at the Kiel Canal was stable for the moment. Though it felt as if it was the calm before the storm. When the British came, and there was no doubt they would, his whole position would become untenable. Once that happened, the Fuhrer’s orders were for all units to make their way to the Oder line. That would involve a minimum 150kms retreat, under constant aerial attack. Few units would have the fuel to make it, so it would be walking pace. Probably not even a few units would make it. The British had given a code word to be used if he wanted to negotiate a surrender. He had filed it away, just in case. He went back to reading the situation reports from the front, once more trying to avoid imagining what they were really describing.

29 April 1941. 09:00hrs. Over the Elbe. Germany.

Major Oskar Dinort knew this was a bad idea. The Stukas had mostly been retired since they’d been torn apart over Belgium and Holland. Orders had come down from on high that every effort had to be made to stop the British crossing at the Elbe. So, the Stukas had been chosen, chosen probably as they were thought of as being expendable. Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 had been hiding back in East Prussia, but they’d flown the previous day to an airfield at Rostock, where they’d been fuelled and armed for this morning’s mission. Their flight profile had kept them at tree top level since taking off, but about twenty minutes before they had clawed for height to get to the 4600m that was necessary for acquiring the target and starting the dive.

Dinort knew that his thirty-two aircraft were escorted by three times as many Bf109s. None of these were in sight, they would be useless in close protection as the Stukas were too slow. He hoped that they were somewhere ahead and above him, fighting off the Spitfires which were his big fear. Among the pilots there had been some discussion about what the British had in terms of anti-aircraft weapons protecting their crossing. Last May and June, before the Stukas had been withdrawn, the British seemed to have been strengthening their light flak. A year later, it was almost certain to be stronger again. However, holding the Elbe for as long as possible was crucial, and if that meant that StG 1 had to be sacrificed, then so be it. His rear gunner was humming the “Ride of the Valkyries” over the intercom, which was getting on his nerves, though he suddenly realised he was whistling along.

The flak started while they were still some distance from the Elbe, heavy stuff and pretty accurate. There had been a lot of speculation about the British use of radar, which seemed to be much more effective that had been thought before the war. They had already worked out the British must be using radar to guide the fighters, hence the treetop approach. But if their flak was radar guided, that was well in advance of anything their own troops had, and would make the next few minutes pretty sticky. Dinort naturally moved his plane around the sky, changing height and speed, trying to throw off the British aim. The gaggle of Stukas would have been easy meat for British fighters, but the Bf109s must have been doing their job, the Spitfires were nowhere to be seen.

Looking through the bombsight window in the floor of the cockpit, Dinort picked out a ferry crossing the river, moving the dive lever to the rear, the dive brakes automatically activated. Setting the trim tabs, he reduced the throttle and closed the coolant flaps. Dinort felt his stomach lurch as the aircraft rolled 180° into a dive. Checking the red tabs on the upper surfaces of the wing which were his visual indicator that, in case of a g-induced black-out, the automatic dive recovery system would be activated. The Stuka dived at an 80° angle, holding a constant speed of 550 km/h due to the dive-brake deployment, which increased the accuracy of the aim.

Dinort noted the light on the contact altimeter coming on to indicate the bomb-release point at about 500m. He released the bomb and initiated the automatic pull-out mechanism, depressing a knob on the control column. The U-shaped crutch located under the fuselage swung the bomb out of the way of the propeller, and the aircraft automatically began a 6 g pull out. Once the nose was above the horizon, the dive brakes were retracted, the throttle opened up full, and the propeller was set to climb. Dinort had been aware of a lot of buffeting and some dings from near misses. The rear gunner started screaming, a shell had exploded close to the canopy, shattering it, but Dinort couldn’t do anything, but throw the plane around trying to exit the kill zone.

The engine started to run rough. The radio was filled with screams and reports of planes going down. Dinort fought the controls, trying to get some height. The rear gunner had fallen silent, which seemed a mercy. There were another couple of big bangs and the controls went loose in his hands. The plane was obviously finished. They were too low to bail out, so Dinort looked for somewhere to try to put it down. There was little no control however, so he cut off the engine, hoping to glide. Dinort was an excellent glider pilot, but the Ju87 wasn’t designed with this in mind. It all took just a few seconds, though it seemed like an age to Dinort. When he came too, the plane was on fire, he managed to get out of his harness and got himself out of the cockpit, though his hands were burnt. The tail gunner was burning along with the rest of plane. Dinort hoped he had died before the plane had crashed.

Some English soldiers appeared, their bayonets glinting in the sun. Dinort raised his injured hands. He found that his legs didn’t seem to want to keep him upright. A medic arrived and looked over his injuries. Dinort’s English wasn’t bad, but he must have hit his head pretty hard, he found it difficult to understand what they were saying. Not long afterwards he was on a stretcher being carried back towards the river. He counted six wrecked Stukas, and just to add insult to injury, he was carried over the river on the ferry he’d aimed at.

29 April 1941. 10:00hrs. Rostock. Germany.

Rostock-Marienehe Luftwaffe base had taken some hard hits over the winter, as it was the home of Heinkel Flugzeugwerke. However since the previous day it had become the temporary home to Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 and two Gruppes of Jagdgeschwader 27. The Bf 109s and Stukas had departed earlier and were under orders to maintain radio silence until necessary. They were now due back, and the ground-crew were waiting to refuel them, so that they could get back eastwards as quickly as possible.

Those monitoring the radio had listened in horror as the fighters and then the Stukas had been attacked by Spitfires and flak. The German flak units were on full alert, and all eyes and ears were fixed on the sky to the southwest waiting for the sight and sound of the returning planes. The Stukas should be first back, the Bf 109s covering their backs. A black Labrador was the first to react, obviously his hearing was better. The first Stuka was obviously in trouble, there was a clear line of smoke emanating from the engine. The plane came straight in to land, though whether or not it would be able to take off again, without a great deal of work, remained to be seen. Other Stukas started to arrive. Of the 32 that had taken off, only 10 made it back. Perhaps some had gone to alternative landing sites, though from the descriptions of the pilots and tail gunners that was doubtful. The British flak had been deadly. Then the Spitfires had managed to get among the survivors. It was clear that the decision to retire the Stukas had been the right decision. Bringing them back for this mission had just reinforced the reason why the decision had been made in the first place. They just weren’t able cope without total command of the air, and the British flak seemed to have the measure of the dive-bombing technique.

The Stuka pilots thought that they’d done some damage to the British crossing, but no one was too sure. There were a couple of Ju 88s that were going to try to make a reconnaissance flight over the area to see what, if any, damage had been done. Then the Bf 109s started to arrive back. A couple of the fighters had a full load of ammunition which would suggest they would face some questions when they got back to East Prussia. As the numbers of fighters began increasing, it became clear that their efforts to protect the Stukas had cost them dearly. The intelligence officers were attempting to put together some kind of idea of how many kills that been made on the RAF and what their own losses were.

Meanwhile the ground crews were attempting to refuel the aircraft and patch up some of the minor damage. The pilots were either being debriefed or trying to drink something before the next part of the mission, to return east. The sound of aircraft engines had people looking up looking for stragglers. However soon the flak batteries started firing, and the siren started sounding. A squadron of Beaufighters and two of Hurribombers had obviously followed the last of the Bf 109s. The Luftwaffe had dispersed the aircraft as well as they could, but the cluster bombs and low-level strafing added to the destruction that they had already endured. The RAF didn’t have it all their own way, three Beaufighters and four Hurribombers were shot down either by ground fire or by the staffel of fighters that were flying over the base to protect it from just such a raid.

When the surviving aircraft had been refuelled and took off, it was a much reduced number than had arrived the day before. Eight of the 32 Stukas and forty of the 96 Bf109s flew away. Another six fighters would probably be able to fly again if some spares parts could be found for them from among the aircraft which had been written off. In the afternoon only one of the Ju88s returned from the reconnaissance mission. Once the film was developed there didn’t seem to be much discernible damage done to the British crossing point. Certainly, the build up of British forces had continued steadily as far as anyone could tell.

29 April 1941. 13:00hrs. Singapore.

General Wavell stepped off the flying boat onto the barge that would carry him to the welcoming committee. His appointment as Supreme Entente Commander South East Asia was about to become effective, when he stepped ashore. He’d spent a large part of the flight reading through the reports that he had commissioned. The report from Air Chief Marshall Ludlow-Hewitt on the preparedness of the air forces in South East Asia was of an improving situation. The naval report looked quite healthy, and the planned arrival of reinforcements under the command of Admiral Andrew Cunningham would make a big difference. General Paget’s convoy was still on the way with further reinforcements for 14th Army, which would bring that army up to full strength, though a lot of training and heavier equipment would be needed before it was battle-ready. All in all, Malaya and Singapore were as secure as they could reasonably expect. The situation in French Indo-China was also improving, not as quickly as Malaya, but the Dutch East Indies still had some distance to go. Now that the Netherlands were completely liberated, it could only be hoped that they would be in a better position to send out significant reinforcements.

However the report that Wavell had found most interesting was the intelligence assessment of the possibility of a Japanese attack. The author of the report, with the most unusual alias of Wolf, had used various intelligence reports, much of which were disguised, though Wavell thought he could see the hand of the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB), the code breakers in a lot of what he read. The possibilities, based on the presumed attitudes of the Japanese war cabinet and civil administration, suggested that even with Entente fleet in the South China Sea, and improved defences in SE Asia generally, there was still a strong possibility of a Japanese attack. The author put the odds as being: Pearl Harbour 60%; Philippines 80%; Hong Kong 90%; Malaya 40% (the build up being a significant deterrent); Dutch East Indies 60%; French Indo-China 60%. As for Singapore the danger was judged to be a pre-emptive air attack, a bit like the Royal Navy’s Operation Judgement that Cunningham had planned for the Italian fleet.

Wavell would need to make a meeting with Admiral Thomas Hart as soon as possible. The reports about cooperation with the Americans were a real worry. Douglas MacArthur seemed to be as closed minded as you could get, and the Philippine politicians seemed to be incapable of seeing anything other than what MacArthur told them. If Japan went after either the Philippines or Pearl Harbour, Wavell’s orders were to go to their aid. Japanese aggression had to be seen as a threat to the whole region. The main USN Pacific Fleet was still based in San Diego, so it seemed to Wavell that an attack on Hawaii was less likely; but if the Japanese wanted the oil of the Dutch East Indies, then the Philippines would likely have to be seen as a stepping stone.

The forces on Hong Kong could possibly give the Japanese a bit of bloody nose, nothing more, they would however be a trip wire, and that would mean war between the Entente and the Empire of Japan. Cunningham was working up a series of plans that would take the war to the enemy and make life for the Imperial Japanese Navy very interesting. The Fleet Air Arm had been testing the defences of Singapore against a surprise attack, so if the Japanese did try it, they’d find themselves in a world of hurt. Until HMS Victorious and HMAS Melbourne arrived the combined British, French and Dutch fleet would be at a disadvantage, if the entire IJN aircraft carrier force was brought to bear. Though land based air was improving steadily which might help offset that advantage.

The situation with Thailand was much improved, there had been a fair amount of woo-ing, which seemed to have paid off. They were still neutral, but their neutrality leaned more towards the Entente than the Japanese, and without the Japanese on their border, it could well stay that way. Thank God for all the captured German weapons, between selling much of it to the Chinese it made the situation in China much worse for the Japanese. Some of the German weapons had been supplied to the Thai army, so the Japanese had lost a good bit of leverage. Stalin was staying very quiet. The chances of the Japanese going north seemed at best remote, but there was a good-sized Japanese army keeping an eye on the situation, which if they were to be redeployed would be a complication Wavell could do without.

Regarding intelligence overall, the arrival of the RAF’s ‘Y’ interception unit some months ago, provided improved listening to Japanese radio traffic, and the FECB had been beefed up since their move to Singapore from Hong Kong. It wasn’t yet as good as Ultra seemed to be against the Germans, but it was improving rapidly. The intelligence community had been industrious at uncovering Japanese spies, and they seemed confident that they could close down most of the Japanese assets very quickly when given the order to, starting with the barber in the Peninsula Hotel, who seemed to be the head of the Japanese network in the colony. Other than signals intelligence there weren’t many other Entente sources to draw on. Work was underway to gain some more sources, but that part of the report was best described as gloomy.

When the launch tied up alongside, the band struck up and the new Supreme Entente Commander stepped ashore. General Lionel Bond, as outgoing GOC Malaya, made the introductions to the civilian and military figures gathered to greet their new commander. The French and Dutch were outnumbered by the British, Indian and Australian delegations. Admiral Geoffrey Layton, who would be replaced by Cunningham when he arrived, led Wavell through the inspection of the honour guard, made up of all three services, and each of nationalities of the Empire’s army. The RAF and Fleet Air Arm provided a flypast, while the ships in the harbour joined in giving a salute to the new C-in-C.

A brief speech was expected of Wavell, and the BBC were recording it to be broadcast later. As Wavell approached the microphone, an aide handed him the text of his speech.

“German aggression has taken our peoples back to war, only 21 years after the end of the war that was meant to end all wars. Their brutal and unprovoked attack on Poland was the final straw that led Britain and France to once more take up arms to defend the peoples of Europe from unrestrained tyranny. Poland wasn’t enough however for Hitler. First Denmark, then Norway, followed by the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were the targets for German expansionism. France itself was invaded, and through an extraordinary feat of arms, German aggression was first stopped, then thrown back. Even as we speak, the combined armies of the Entente are on the river Elbe in the heart of Germany, destroying that tyrannical regime and moving to liberate Poland.

“The Entente has been forged in the face of tyranny, and sharpened in battle. Here, on the other side of the world, this same Entente stands united and strong. We say to any nation that would seek aggression that should you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. The combined forces on land, sea and in the air of the Entente in South East Asia are here to protect and defend the interests of peace-loving people. We do not seek war, but we shall not refuse it if necessary. As the Germans are learning to their cost, unprovoked aggression will be met with steely determination and deadly force.

“I look around at the people from all over the world, Europe, Africa, India, Australasia, North America, as well as from here in Asia itself, who are here to defend peace and prosperity. A world united by shared values and hopes. Anyone who would believe that they could take on this world, with all its powers, would be sadly mistaken. United, strong, determined and ready. These are our watchwords. Let anyone who has ears to hear, let them listen.”

29 April 1941. 17:00hrs. Cuxhaven. Germany.

The Belgians arrived at the Kriegsmarine base where they found it deserted. There were a few minesweepers and U-boats which had been sunk, it wasn’t immediately clear if they had been scuttled, or sunk in some of the previous air raids. From what could be seen at low tide, it looked like there was at least one ship which had been sunk at the entrance to the harbour, which would cause some headaches in due course. The engineers went ahead of the troops, checking for booby traps or other threats, especially demolition charges on the infrastructure. The town itself had surrendered peacefully.

Since the surrender of the German forces on Heligoland, which had been supplied from Cuxhaven, one of the problems to be faced were the extensive German and British minefields in the German Bight. The Royal Navy had a party which accompanied the Belgians. They hoped to find some of the pilots who had run supplies out the island as they would likely know the gaps in the minefields. The chances were that they were hiding among the population, though getting them to come forward might not happen immediately. From what could be gathered from the local population, the German sailors had been deserting for some time. Many had simply crossed the river to Hamburg, and were probably either on their way home, or simply laying low.

The offices of the Kriegsmarine base had been cleared of materials, there were a few places where it was obvious that the files had been burned. Finding a copy of a map of the German minefields was therefore highly unlikely. That meant finding the harbour pilots would be all the more important. Since Cuxhaven had been the harbour from which passenger liners had set sail to America, the Royal Navy party found it difficult to believe that those who’d made their living from the harbour would all have fled from the advancing Belgians.

There was some disappointment that none of the German minesweepers were still intact. When Heligoland, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven had been captured a good number of Kriegsmarine vessels had been captured, including U-boats. The sheer size and complexity of the minelaying efforts of both sides meant that any German minesweepers would have been added to the efforts to clear the sea lanes. The senior RN officer believed that would be a task that could take a few years, not least because of the way the RAF had sown mines willy-nilly from the air.

What the party did find intact was a large store of mines. These would probably have damaged the town if they’d been blown up, so they’d been left in their bunkers. That would give the boffins back home a chance to examine them to see where they were better or worse than the ones the British were using. The detonators however were missing, probably thrown into the harbour or removed to Hamburg or wherever the senior officers had gone. In the meantime, the Royal Navy party continued their assessment of the port and its facilities drawing up a list of what would be necessary to get it operational again.

30 April 1941. Oversight Committee. Whitehall. London.

Let’s start with the overall strategic situation. The progress into Germany continues apace. Despite the current difficulties at the Elbe, it is clear that the days of the Third Reich are numbered. The intelligence estimates of the National Redoubt are still in some doubt. The Swedes are telling us that they are finding a lot of chaps turning up looking to pass through or even seeking asylum. We’ve asked them to be careful when they process them. There might be some who’ll be guilty of crimes against humanity. We have a couple of people in Stockholm speaking with the Swedes about what they might look for.

The Italians and Yugoslavs are rolling up the south of Germany and into Czechoslovakia. The French seem happy enough with the way things are going down there. There are a few people in MI6 who are due some discreet mentions in the right circles for their work with the Vatican and the Italians. Can you imagine how much more complicated things would be if we had to fight the Italians in the Mediterranean? As it is we’ve been able to concentrate completely on the European Campaign.

The situation in the Far East is going as planned. The fleet is on its way, as is the convoy with the army reinforcements. General Wavell has taken up his appointment and, while it is early days, he seems quite confident about the situation and being able to bring it altogether. Jimmy Marshall-Cornwall is on his way to Egypt to take up command there. Hopefully the place will remain quiet, certainly Iraq is all calm at the moment. The same with Palestine, where the First Cavalry Division are in the process of mechanisation.

The rest of the Empire is pulling its weight, I don’t know what we’d do without the Canadian factories. The Indian Army continues to expand, and we should see the best part of six divisions in Europe, as well as three in the Far East. That is a whole army worth. Equipping them continues to be problematic, especially in terms of armoured vehicles. The South African Division provides the Middle East’s main force. There are two full African divisions in the Far East. The ANZACs are doing well, as are Australian and New Zealander navies. It is the Empire Air Training Plan which has been their stand out contribution to the war effort. If it wasn’t for that, the RAF would be struggling for pilots.

The Americans continue to be difficult to read. Generally, there are civil relations at most levels. When President Dewey talks about neutrality, he is being completely honest. Yes, I know, a politician! The China lobby are being very helpful as are the Jewish groups, each in their own way. The American military build-up is happening, slowly. Without the French, or our orders for aircraft, the Army Air Force is growing, and the Medium M3 tank is about to go into production. Most of their focus is on the navy, as we knew they would. They’ve done a little to beef up the Philippines, some extra infantry and some aircraft. They aren’t interested in much in the way of cooperation, at least at an official level. It seems that there are a number of semi-official visits to British and French ports by American ships. So at least some kind of warning is being given.

Moving on to the Navy. As mentioned, the China Station fleet reinforcements are on their way, and are working up on the way. The same with the French ships. HMAS Melbourne and HMS Duke of York are still on track to join them by November. The Admiralty are having doubts about leaving HMS Malaya out there. She never went through a reconstruction, so they want her to go back to Alexandria and send out HMS Warspite in her place. Having HMS Ark Royal, HMS King George V and HMS Repulse available in the Mediterranean, while the Italians are quiet and the French are still strong, seems more than enough. To be honest, I think their Lordships would want KGV and Warspite, leaving Malaya and Repulse to cover the Mediterranean.

HMS Formidable continues with Home Fleet, along with HMS Glorious and Furious, between refits. Furious is still currently in Belfast. HMS Implacable and Indefatigable are coming along and should be commissioned in 1943. As to the carriers’ air groups, Cunliffe-Owen are pumping out SeaFires as fast as they can. The problems with the Griffon engine and the Barracuda continue, but Fairey and Rolls Royce are doing their best to get it working. In the meantime, the SeaHurricanes, Skuas and Swordfish soldier on. Having Illustrious, Victorious and Melbourne fully equipped and trained with the best aircraft possible is still the aim.

Regarding aircraft carrier construction, Unicorn is well advanced. The plans for two Malta class and four Hermes class are still being drafted. John Browns in Clydebank are due to lay down the first Malta class later in the year. The fact that the drawings have more than a passing resemblance to a Midway class carrier from another reality isn’t lost on those in the know. The question of where such a monster will be based is having to be faced. Some dredging work will have to take place in Portsmouth if the big carriers are to be based there.

The cruiser construction program continues, HMS Hermoine, Euryalis, Charybdis, Cleopatra, Mauritius, Trinidad are all due to join the fleet this year. There are another three Didos, five Bellonas and six Crown Colonies under construction. The Minataur class ships are under review, and at this point are unlikely to be ordered. The Abdiel class of minelayer will stop at four.

As the last of the Emergency Destroyer Program comes to an end, the plan is to have a pause, while we work out what to go with next. The Q and R class emergency programme destroyers have already been cancelled. The Hunts and Flowers which were started before January 1940 are finishing off, and Black Swans will be the only escorts continuing to be built. The Ton and Algerine Class minesweepers are the main focus of our efforts in this area, which looks as if it is going to be crucial. Other than that, most of the ship building efforts are going into amphibious warfare, RFA support ships and improved civilian ships.

Having said all that, it seems that the Navy has had a team in Wilhelmshaven looking over the Tirpitz. As suspected all work had stopped on her, and there was a fair amount of stripping, armament mostly. They think that she is salvageable and it is believed by some that she could be completed and join the fleet in about a year or so. Winston, as you can imagine, did something of a little jig when he heard the news. Once all the mines are cleared and she can be moved to a dry dock, then a proper inspection can take place. In the meantime, it seems that we’ve to keep our eyes open for any German 15-inch gun turrets laying around. Whether or not she can take 15-inch turrets from the R class ships that will be decommissioned is to be explored. It seems that HMS Vanguard may live in a new form, if Winston gets his way.

Let’s look at the army now. All three armies in Europe are doing well, though casualties have been bad, replacements are coming through the training establishments fast enough. The 14th Army in the Far East is awaiting their last reinforcements. As with the Indian Army, the issue is mechanisation. Of the three armoured Divisions, only one is currently fully equipped with Comets. The first quarter’s total tank production was 943. This was split between Matilda IIs (95), Valentines (335) and Comets (313). The other 200 were a mixture of SPGs, AA tanks and ARVEs based on the Comet chassis.

A shipment of Valentines has gone out to Palestine for First Cavalry. Of the three Cavalry brigades, one will go to Malaya in Valentines to give 14th Army an armoured component. The second is needed as a reconnaissance Brigade, they’re getting armoured cars. The third will be the basis for 11th Armoured Division, which will stay in the Middle East and let us bring 7th Armoured Division to join the 4th Army.

In addition to the armoured divisions, each Army has an Armoured Brigade, and there are two more Brigades in formation. The 46th to 51st Royal Tank Regiments are almost ready to be deployed. With six more armoured regiments, the plan is to link them with two of the 66th Infantry Division’s Brigades, to create another two Armoured Divisions. The 66th is already training to be a mechanised division, so we would have 4th and 5th Armoured Divisions. These would be initially equipped with Valentines, and therefore would be slow. On the other hand, 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions have done well with the same problems. Vickers are starting the process of looking at running down their production of Valentines, so that they can move onto the Centurion. Plans for the Centurion are coming along, it could possibly be operational by late 1942.

The production of 25-pdrs in the first quarter totalled 1055. Other guns, including Bofors (616) and 6-pdrs (884), was 2481. The other guns in that category include everything up to medium artillery. That doesn’t include 349 3.7-inch AA guns. That figure will start to decline at the end of this year as just about all the heavy AA units will be fully equipped. Just under 27000 rifles, 1860 Brens and 19500 Sterlings were manufactured. The output of mortars and Carl Gustavs are slightly increased over the last quarter, 1170 CGs, with 50000 rounds, 1335 2 inch and 690 87mm mortars. 22854 wheeled vehicles in addition to the universal carriers. Ammunition production continued to increase last quarter, 318.7 million small arms rounds, and 5.185 million filled shells. In terms of production, industry is doing very well. The aim for 36 Divisions by September 1941 is well within reach. This in addition to the Empire Divisions, which allows us to put five full armies on the field, four in Europe and one the Far East. It does leave us a bit thin at home, in the Middle East and in India itself. Thankfully without the threat of the Luftwaffe to British airspace, we have been able to reduce the numbers of Heavy Artillery Regiments, allowing the Royal Artillery to keep increasing the numbers of Field Regiments for all the new units, including the Indian ones.

Now the RAF. After the debacle the other day Bomber Command are undergoing a root and branch investigation into what happened. They are obviously very upset, they really thought they had worked out how to do the bombing. Early reports seem to suggest that the planning was too rushed. However, that aside, things are going well. The Luftwaffe attack proved that we really do have control of the air. The attack was gutted, with little loss on the ground. We reckon their losses were probably four times ours. The Spitfire IIs certainly have the edge over the Bf 109 Emils. The Stukas will go down in history the way that some people remember the Fairey Battle.

Production figures, for the first quarter: 4865 total aircraft production. 104 Halifaxes, 675 Wellingtons, 390 Beaufighters and 83 Mosquitos, 1670 fighters (951 Spitfires, 649 Hurribombers and the first 70 Typhoons), 53 reconnaissance (mostly Austers), 311 for the Fleet Air Arm (Seafires and Barracudas mostly) and 1606 trainers. Some of those Wellingtons will be going to the Far East, as will some Beaufighters and Hurribombers. The first couple of squadrons are transitioning from Hurribombers to Typhoons. So far there are some problems with the airframe and the engine. A lot of work is being done, though the biggest problem seems to be with the pilots. The engine is much more powerful that what they are used to in the Hurribomber, and the Typhoon is a bit of a beast in comparison. There’s been a couple of fatal accidents and many more near misses.

Now a word on jets. The first flight of the prototype Hunter earlier this month showed up a few problems, so work continues. The difficulties in creating suitable turbine blades is one of the bottlenecks. L.B. Pfeil from Special Metals Corporation has been stellar in working on the right kind of alloys. Using some of the blades that came back with the Bristol ships has given him a lot to work with, the whole field of metallurgy is making enormous strides. There are no end of University professors whose war work will prevent them from getting much deserved Nobel Prizes.

With work on the Avon being at an advanced stage, Napier’s team is looking at the more complex Tyne engine as a turboprop. Harry Ricardo and Frank Halford, having got the Gnome going for the helicopters, are now working on a Tyne clone. Lionel Haworth is also part of that team. The first stage they’ve dealt with has been to study it in every aspect. That having been done, they’ve been looking at various sizes of engine that would be of use. Turboprops tended to be used on commercial and transport aircraft, rather than fighters or bombers. Armstrong Whitworth plans for the Argosy among other types look as if the turboprop would be ideal. The team have decided to for something in the Tyne range, providing around 4000 s.h.p. A smaller version, called a Dart for simplicity, with about 1600 s.h.p is being looked at almost as a by-product.

Their first prototype ran in November last year, and the second, which was closer to the weight and power desired, ran in February this year. So far, the second engine has been running well in the various bench tests. The next stage of testing is to use an adapted Wellington. They plan to mount a third prototype engine at the front of the fuselage, below the cockpit, and see how it goes. If that is successful then they’ll replace the two engines on another Wellington to give it a thorough air-worthy trial. As it isn’t an urgent priority progress isn’t as fast as the team would wish, the Avon and Gnome have precedence. Progress is steady and should be available for production in 1942.

The other line that is being followed, at a slower pace, is to take Whittle’s design forward either towards a Nene or Goblin type. A good bit of this research is a deliberate whitewash, which some of our competitors or potential adversaries are being fed. The Nene did very well in the MiG 15, and everyone loves the Vampire. Either of which would be nice earners if sold to some of our friends to get them into the jet age. Meanwhile our Hunter would be far superior to anything that anyone else will have for years to come. Power Jets is working away quietly, and we’re likely to see the first flight of the jet engine later this year. Geoffrey De Havilland has been asked to look at a Vampire type, twin boom; while Fairey are looking at a swept wing MiG 15 type. Again, both are low priority, but progressing nonetheless. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re much further ahead than we would be otherwise.
1 - 6 May 1941.
1 May 1941. 08:00hrs. Schwerin. Germany.

General Maximilian von Weichs, commander of 2nd Army knew that the end was near. Despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe, and for once, it really was a good effort, the Elbe line was about to fold. Seventeenth Army’s commander, General Herman Hoth reported that his positions at the Kiel Canal had been breached during the night. These infernal helicopters that the British seemed to have in abundance had been used to put troops behind the main line of defence. When the British and French barrage lifted, those positions were assaulted from both sides, and there was nothing to be done except surrender or die, and few chose to die. Since Hoth held his northern flank, that put everything around Hamburg in mortal danger.

The latest information that von Weichs had was that the enemy crossing at Domitz was now served with a bridge, so the British were getting their tanks into the battle. What was worse was that his estimates of how long his ammunition reserves would last, had been uncannily accurate. Four day’s worth was now exhausted, and whatever the men were using was only what they had at hand. The artillery, such as had survived the terrible counter-battery fire, were spiking their guns and abandoning them. The panzers that hadn’t been knocked out, either from aerial attack or from the British anti-tank guns and rockets were out of fuel. So, he had done his best with what he had and now he was sitting with his radio operator having broadcast the code word the British had said to use to negotiate a surrender.

While they waited for a reply, he’d informed Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who commanded Tenth Army south of the river Havel, of what was happening. Headquartered at Brandenburg, Tenth Army were already being probed by the French at Magdeburg. Just like von Weichs they had expected that the French would pause and build up before attempting a crossing of the Elbe. Perhaps emboldened by the British, they didn’t seem to be waiting for the usual preparatory period. All three Generals holding the Elbe line had contacted Berlin to keep them informed of the situation. The usual reply had come back about fighting to the last man and last bullet. Von Weichs was tempted to reply that his bullets had already run out.

The radio message came back from the British. Negotiations were straightforward. All German positions were to lay down their arms and fly white flags. The British troops would arrive and take them for processing. As for Von Weichs and his staff, they were to wait where they were, a reconnaissance unit would be racing towards the position, and God help anyone who shot at them on the way. Von Weichs had no other option, he agreed to the terms and sent out a signal to all the units in his command to do exactly what they were ordered.

1 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Dunkirk. France.

Feldwebel Günther Kaufer was used to giving the “welcome briefing” to new POWs who arrived in the camp. What was slightly disconcerting, when he allowed himself to think about it, was just how often he’d had to do it, and to so many. When he’d arrived in the camp three weeks previously, it had a capacity of 4000. That capacity had now been exceeded and a twin camp was being built on the other side of the wire. Many of the prisoners were supplying the labour, and for a trained soldier it was seen as a light duty. Some of the men who’d been carpenters or plumbers, indeed anyone with a trade in the construction industry, was putting their skills to good use. The experienced men tended to be supervising the rest who were just being used as labour.

That was part of the briefing to the new guys. The food was reasonable once you got used to the French bread. The accommodation acceptable, conditions, altogether weren’t too bad at all. The French guards were old guys, mostly veterans of the last lot. A few were nasty, but mostly if a prisoner didn’t cause any trouble, he had nothing to worry about. All in all, it was a hell of a lot better than being shelled and bombed in a bunker on the front line at least. Their health was checked regularly, by both the camp doctors and the Red Cross. The Red Cross were trying to keep the men in touch with families in Germany. Those whose towns and villages had been captured by the Entente forces found it fairly straightforward. Those from further east, it was much harder. Kaufer’s injury at the Rhine kept him from working, so he got this job. These new arrivals had been captured on the Weser, and from what the guards were saying, the Elbe had been crossed too. Kaufer himself was from Michendorf, just south of Potsdam, so contact with home hadn’t happened yet, though he hoped Else and the children got word that he was still alive. If what he was hearing was true, it wouldn’t be long before the French got there.

Among those who’d arrived this morning were a few more of the men from his old regiment, the Graf Neun, the Ninth Infantry Regiment. After the meeting was over, he got talking with them, catching up with what had happened after he’d been captured. The sad tale of so many of his comrades killed or missing, the rout back to the Weser, and yet another desperate and futile defence. There were a few odd things said, things that made Kaufer wonder if these men had put up as much of a fight as they claimed. But who was he to judge? If truth be told, being here in a safe camp, with three meals a day, French cigarettes and nobody trying to kill him, he wasn’t contributing much in the defence of the Fatherland. But then again, he could feel where the English bayonet had gone through his side. He’d done his bit, for all the good it’d done.

1 May 1941. 12:00hrs. Dömitz. Germany.

The 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry had drawn the short straw, or honour as the order had put it, to race ahead of the main force to the German HQ at Schwerin to take the surrender of a German general. Lt Col Guy De Witte Mullens had an Officers call to work out the best way to achieve the objective. Like the rest of the reconnaissance units the Yeomanry were equipped with a variety of vehicles. They had started off with 28 light tanks and 44 carriers. Now they had a mixture of Daimler Dingoes, universal carriers, Guy Armoured Cars, and there were still a few Vickers Mk 6 light tanks kicking about. Two full squadrons were now in A13 MkIVs. They were pretty well used, and none of the mechanics were very keen on them, they all took a lot of work to keep them running. The crews however thought they were speedy enough and better protected than what they had had before.

The plan was worked out, and with the support of a couple companies of 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment in lorries, who would add some infantry muscle to reconnaissance unit, they would move off in two mixed columns. An RAF Forward Observers travelled with each column with a Hurribomber squadron on call, in case they ran into any trouble. They had about 35 miles to go, and strict orders not to fire, unless fired upon, an order that they were not particularly happy about. The other odd part of the situation was that once they cleared the current front line, they were to meet up with a couple of German staff cars which would escort them through the German lines and on to the objective. Much to the amusement of the Quartermaster, they had been asked to provide enough petrol for the German vehicles to accomplish this.

At the appointed place a German colonel and Major were waiting, and having filled the cars’ tanks, they were off, the German cars flying a large truce flag. The British vehicles had managed to deck themselves out with various large Union Flags, and there were not a few blue and white Cross of St Andrew’s Scottish flags flying too. One armoured car had managed to acquire a Canadian flag from somewhere, another flew a French tricolour just to confuse matters. As the columns set off, the gunners were on tenterhooks as the sheer number of German soldiers who seemed to be either milling around or moving away from the front. Most of the non-armoured vehicles were bristling with extra machine guns, a lot of MG34s had found new homes in the British army, for the sheer rate of fire it presented.

Two intelligence officers were dressed as Subalterns from the Yeomanry having been “volunteered” to ride in the German cars to keep them honest. Armed with Sterling sub-machine guns, they were chosen as they were good German speakers. The conversations as they drove along the roads towards Schwerin started off fairly generically, with the usual chit chat that strangers make at the beginning of the journey. What was of great interest to Military Intelligence was how the Wehrmacht viewed the current political situation. Having had one attempted military coup, what were the chances of a break between the armies in the field and the now remote regime leadership.

The German Colonel was fairly tight-lipped, he was obviously following orders he didn’t agree with, escorting a British column to Army HQ. In the other car, a Major was a bit more forthcoming, especially when a hip flask of whiskey had been produced, “one for the road!” The report that was written later described the Major’s viewpoint as “defeated.” He, and from what could be gleaned, many of his men, were glad that war was coming to an end. Hitler was a fool, who had promised much, but had achieved nothing but disaster after disaster. The Major hadn’t taken part in the invasion of Poland, but had been due to sail for Norway with the second wave of reinforcements. Since the first wave had all but been wiped out, a halt had been called, and so he had survived.

Afterwards he’d been involved in the training of new drafts of troops. But they never had enough of anything. He remembered drilling soldiers who had to carry broomsticks, because there weren’t enough rifles. How was he expected to train men to shoot, when a whole company had ten rifles between them, and two live rounds for each man to practice with? The winter had been a terrible time. Although they were too far east to be within range of the Jabos, the shortages of everything, including food, and heating oil, had been bad enough for the soldiers, but for the civilians it was terrible. If it wasn’t for all the stuff being shipped in from Poland, things would have been much worse. What that meant for the Poles wasn’t something that he even considered.

Since being moved to the Elbe line his men had spent their time working with the Todt organisation in digging fortifications, at least it kept them warm, and the rations had improved a little. On the other hand, they began to have first-hand experience of the bombing, something that he’d rather forget. There was little or no tactical or battle training, there just wasn’t the ammunition for it. If truth be told, there wasn’t the will for it either. He was able, with a little prompting, and the sharing of some chocolate to go with the whiskey, to confirm that the SS and other regime structures had all started withdrawing towards the east since February. There were still a few swastika armbands being worn, but the army had more or less stopped using the Nazi salute, and had returned to the normal military fashions.

The aftermath of Jodl’s failed coup had put the final nails in the coffin of his own lukewarm support of the regime. Too many officers had simply “disappeared”, never to be seen again. There was a great deal of distrust sown everywhere, no one trusted anyone, not even old friends. Those who came from the Prussian officer class had been particularly hard hit in the fall-out. His own promotion to Major was in no small way the result of having to replace men who had been purged. What was clear was that there didn’t seem to be any appetite for another attempt at overthrowing the regime. Everyone was too scared to even think about it. Now, the only hope was to melt away into the civilian population, or keep a supply of surrender leaflets handy, as toilet paper if asked, of course. Taking the British to Schwerin was something of a relief. At least Von Weichs had the good sense not to throw away the lives of the men for nothing.

As promised there were no attacks on either of the columns, and since the Germans had been leading them, there were no map reading errors, a fault not uncommon among the ‘Ruperts’ of the cavalry regiments. On arriving at the German HQ, Lt Col Mullens, whose batman had managed to persuade him to wear his number two uniform, was tidy enough to take the formal surrender of General Von Weichs and his staff. The handing over of the General’s sidearm was part of the theatre of the moment as was the lowering of the Swastika flag, and the running up of the Union Flag. A piper from the Gordon Highlanders had been loaded onto one of the lorries, the Fife and Forfar’s Brass band hadn’t had much time to practise over the last few months. The Germans had to stand to attention while the piper attempted the regimental march, “Wee Cooper of Fife”, a tune he didn’t know too well. The faces of the German officers betrayed a certain distaste for his instrument, even if he’d been playing something he knew.

With the ceremony completed, the senior Signals NCO dashed off the message that the mission was complete, and so General Auchinleck’s army got the message to proceed with all haste to their next objective: Rostock.

2 May 1941. 07:00hrs. Itzehoe. Germany.

Terje Rollem, Rittmester in DR 1 (Dragoon Regiment 1) wondered briefly when the last time Norwegian soldiers went into battle on foreign soil, not including Sweden. Having passed through Denmark, his regiment were the lead element of the 1st Norwegian Division. Having been part of the First Entente Army in Belgium the previous year, the Norwegians were equipped with a variety of Entente weapons. His own regiment were using second hand French H39 tanks, the order for Somua 40s still hadn’t been delivered. Then again, a year ago the Norwegian army had all of one tank. So, things were improving.

The Norwegians were supporting the French 1re DLI who’d crossed the Kiel Canal the day before, and were now recuperating from their efforts. The 2nd Norwegian Division, which hadn’t been with the Entente Army, but had remained in Norway, tended to have a more British flavour to their equipment, and they were working with the Royal Marine Division who were on the east coast, currently by-passing Kiel. The French, Norwegians and Danes heading towards Hamburg where it was hoped they would meet up with the British First Army.

If there was one thing that Rollem had discovered since last April when he’d been called up to resist the German invasion of his country, was that his conscript training was nothing compared to what he’d gone through since moving to Belgium. General Brooke had insisted that before the Norwegians got anywhere near the enemy, they had to be thoroughly retrained in modern manoeuvre warfare. While his H39 wasn’t the best tank in the world, he’d learned how to make the most of what it was capable of. Two Dragoon Regiments, probably the best trained units in the Norwegian army, which wasn’t saying much, were chosen to become mechanised cavalry. DR 1 had got the French tanks, while DR2 got Vickers light tanks.

Rollem’s own tank was a command tank which had a dummy main gun, though retained the machine gun. Instead of the gun and its ammunition, they had shoe-horned in enough radio equipment to keep in contact with his own squadron, as well as with the artillery and higher command. The other tanks in the Dragoons carried fewer rounds for the guns to let radios be added. Unless they came up against something really dangerous, the thick armour would probably be enough to keep him out of trouble. Having said that he more often than not had to sit on the hatch and look over the top of the turret to be able to see anything useful. That was exactly what he was doing currently, his binoculars surveying the scene.

The driver responded to the order to move after the first two troops of tanks had started leapfrogging one another, moving from cover to cover. So far, no enemy fire was incoming, but Rollem had the artillery on the radio net, ready to call in a fire mission. The 3rd Infantry Battalion were providing the troops as they approached the objective. When his driver brought the tank came to a halt, Rollem saw some movement over to his right. When he focused his binoculars, it clarified as a Panzer III. He notified the artillery, and then put out a general alert to the units that were advancing.

The first ranging shot from the artillery had to be corrected. Once he’d done that, he ordered one of his troops to keep moving to the right, trying to make sure they could outflank the German positions. Through the smoke and the dust of the artillery strike tracer rounds started to come from the German positions. One of the H39s was hit, and stopped, flames starting to come from the engine compartment. Rollem saw two figures appearing from under the tank, using the escape hatch in the bottom of the tank. The rest of tanks started firing into the town, joined soon enough by the infantry, including their support weapons.

The rules of engagement had been to hold off from firing on civilian structures unless fired upon. Since that was obviously the case, Rollem had no hesitation in calling in the artillery. Rollem was tempted to put through a call to the Fleet Air Arm forward observer. HMS Formidable was off the coast and their Skuas were ready to plaster anything that they were called on to attack. Between the artillery and the mortars, the level of German fire had started to decline. Soon enough, Rollem could see some white flags. Bloody Germans! Make a show of resistance, then put up the white flags. The artillery fired another salvo. Rollem hesitated until another salvo fell on the German positions, at which point he called a cease fire.

This was always a dangerous moment, if the Norwegians rushed in to take the Germans prisoner, they could be caught out if it was a ruse. That hadn’t happened too often, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Rollem trusted in the H39’s armour protection and ordered two of the troops to move up into the German positions. He heard the sound of aircraft engines over the noise of his own tank’s engine. It seemed that the Forward Air Controller was taking no chances, two of the Skuas made a low pass over the town, the others were much higher, ready to start their dive bombing attacks if they got the word. The white flags were in much greater view now, obviously the artillery and the threat of air attack had focused the minds of the German defenders.

An hour later, Rollem was sharing a cup of coffee with his men. The two men who’d bailed out of their burning tank were singed around the edges, but otherwise unhurt. The senior German officer had been frog marched toward the Divisional HQ, while the Norwegian infantry secured the town. The other squadron in the Dragoon regiment were south of the town now, fulfilling their reconnaissance role. His men had gone through their baptism of fire, and so Rollem wanted to get them to talk through what had happened, and what lessons they needed to learn. They might only be facing sporadic resistance, but getting his men home safely was important to the young officer. If they could review the action and identify any improvements they could make, then getting home was going to be a much better bet.

2 May 1941. 09:00hrs. Leipzig. Germany.

General Didelet, commander of 16e Corps d’Armée, had a few moments to consider the historical irony. A forebear of his had been with Napoleon at Leipzig in October 1813, and here he was looking through his binoculars at the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the memorial to the Battle of the Nations. Then, the combined armies Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Saxony, and Württemberg had inflicted a defeat on the Grande Armée. Now Didelet was about to fight a second battle of Leipzig. This time the German forces were holding the city, while the French 7e Armée were approaching from the west.

Didelet had spent some time in Berlin as the French Military Attaché, so his spoken German was fairly fluent. Various attempts had been made to contact the German garrison and offer terms of surrender. No successful contact had been made, so Didelet had deployed his divisions to make a pincer move to surround the city. The terrain was going to be difficult, there were a lot of mines and rivers that could easily channel movement into killing zones. Many of the men in 16e CA were replacements, the journey from the Rhine to the Weser had been costly. Didelet’s Corps was made up of 2e Division Mécanique, 21e and 36e DIM, there were enough veterans to leaven the replacements, however for many of them, this would be their first taste of action.

2e DM were partly equipped with the new Renault G1Rs, which were still giving mechanical problems. They were generally considered over-engineered, with too many new, untested systems such as the auto-stabilization and semi-automatic loader system for the gun. The majority of the chars were Hotchkiss H39s, which, while limited because of the single man turret, was more than enough for the work that the French army was asking of them. There were very few panzers around, so going up against other armoured vehicles wasn’t their main concern. One of the battalions of these Chars, with the assault company of one of the infantry regiments, preceded by a strong unit from the Divisional reconnaissance group were pushing around the north the city. There was an abandoned Luftwaffe airfield, which had been heavily bombed in the previous few months. It was cleared by the reconnaissance group, and the chars and the infantry moved forward following the railway line and the main road towards Taucha.

To the south of the city 21e DI took the lead moving through the open cast mines and the other rough ground. The ground here suited infantry tactics better, so 137e RI took the lead in extended order. Leipzig was Germany’s third largest city, with 750000 inhabitants. As part of IV Wehrkreise there had been some military forces in the city, though the majority of these had fallen back behind the river Elbe at Dresden, the military commander of the city Colonel Heinz Ziegler had put together around two thousand men who were determined to make the French pay for the city. Many of these Germans were members of the hastily formed Volkssturm, made up of civilians, too old or young to be called up, but hastily trained and given whatever weapons could be found. All the attempts that the French had attempted to contact him had been deliberately ignored, instead he had used the time to oversee the efforts to turn a number of strategic buildings into fortresses.

As the French troops made their way around the city it became apparent that there was fighting going on within the city itself. Since the French were deliberately surrounding the city rather than entering it directly, it was obviously some kind of internal conflict. Mid-morning a civilian car, flying white flags came racing towards the French lines. Once it had been established what was happening the occupants of the car were brought to General Didelet’s HQ. A senior member of the civilian police force was requesting French help to stop the Ziegler’s attempt to turn the city into a battlefield. The commander of the police had tried to reason with Ziegler, but without success, in fact he had been shot as he refused to order his men to join the resistance to the French. The man had been a popular commander with his men, and so the police had attempted to get the troops to give up, having some success with some of the Volkssturm. There were now a few places the police, with their very limited weaponry were attempting to forcibly remove the Wehrmacht troops. But to achieve that they would need help.

Didelet considered for a few moments, before agreeing. Among the vehicles assigned to the 2e DM were a troop of ARL V 39 self-propelled guns. He ordered these forwards, with two battalions of infantry to go and support the German police. Once again, the historical irony played through his mind. Among the Grand Armée of his ancestor were 40000 troops of the Confederation of the Rhine. Once more the French and German forces would band together to fight the Prussians. It would take all day, but eventually the main centres of resistance were destroyed one by one. The final last stand by Zeigler and about a hundred of his men was in the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, which had to be levelled by artillery fire, before the final defenders capitulated. As Didelet surveyed the smoking ruins he wondered if it would be rebuilt, but he had no answer to that question.

2 May 1941. 11:00hrs. Renault Factory. Billancourt, Paris. France.

The French concept for the use of chars was slow to pick up on what the crews were telling them from their experience. Like the British before the war, the French believed in two different types of char, one for the cavalry, another for the infantry. Thankfully the idea of a third type for breaking through the Siegfreid Line was now a footnote in history. The British had been sharing their data as the Comet was being developed, in the hope that it would help the more complex French system to provide a suitable armoured vehicle. However, the very complexity of the French system militated against having such a straightforward solution. The British had chosen to go with a centralised decision-making process in choosing to have one tank, the Comet, with a family of armoured vehicles using the same chassis. While Matilda IIs and Valentines were still being produced, it was expected that both these types would give way to a heavier battle tank, named as the Centurion, when it was ready for production.

The French were still producing four chars. The Renault R40 at 120 per month, Hotchkilss H39 (300 per month), B1 ter (50 per month), and the Somua S40 (16 per month). In addition, they had also put both the ARL V 39 and Somua Sau40 self-propelled guns into production, each at about ten units a month. The Renault factory that had been producing the D2 had now swapped over to the G1R, and production was reaching thirty a month currently.

Louis Renault had been stung by the extensive criticism of his chars from the army. Problems of reliability had plagued the D2 and were now a real concern in the G1R. While the G1R had been well on in its development phase through the summer months of 1940, and the need to get it into production as planned by September 1940, meant that it hadn’t had time to mature before being delivered to the Division Méchanque that were waiting for it. Now the lessons learned were being taken much more seriously. The Renault Company, in collaboration with FCM, were working on a new turret for the troubled char, modelled on Panzer IV turrets which had been examined. Being a three-man turret, which was considered to be essential, it was a good starting point for mounting the APX 75mm gun.

The early work on the G1 chassis had envisioned a torsion-bar suspension, Cleveland transmission and a double-track system. All of these were considered problematical. Working with ARL, Baudet-Donon-Roussel and SEAM (some knocking together of heads by the French Government had been necessary) the new char was fitted with initially with a 280 hp Hispano-Suiza engine. The rebuilt design had six large road wheels per side and the transmission was petro-electrical and of the Gebus-Roussin type. The engine was discovered to be underpowered and so it was decided to install an air-cooled Potez 12V 320 hp engine, placed transversely in the hull.

Because of all the changes and feedback Renault were of the opinion that the next version, especially with the new turret should be renamed the G2, as it was significantly different from the current version. The idea was that this char would eventually replace the B1 bis and ter. The G2 would continue to fit the requirements of a maximum speed of at least 40 km/h; a range of 200 km; a protection level equal to that of the Char B1 bis (i.e. 60 mm all around). With the weight being in the region of 30 tonnes, there was an argument to change the engine to something more in the region of 450hp.

2 May 1941. 13:00hrs. Rangoon. Burma.

SS Parracombe tied up alongside the dock. Setting off from Greenock four weeks previously she carried a cargo of twenty-one Hurricanes. In addition to the aircraft the ship was carrying enough spares and ammunition to fully equip a squadron for a few months’ intensive action. Having passed through the Suez Canal, the ship had picked up Sq Ldr Patrick Dunn, the new commander and six pilots for 67 Squadron, created as an off-shoot from 80 Squadron. Some of the ground crew had also joined the ship, their first job would be putting the aircraft together once they arrived at the airfield. 221 Group, which would be responsible for the defence of Burma, was starting to take shape.

With the universal wing and Merlin 27s, which were specifically engineered to be best suited for tropical operations, the Hurricanes were able to act either as fighters or as ground attack aircraft. On the voyage out, the pilots had been briefed on the potential threat from Japan and a full assessment of the likely Japanese aircraft that they might face. The strengths and weaknesses of each of types were examined, with particular emphasis on the ways in which to make the most of the Hurricane’s strength and avoid its weaknesses. It seemed to the pilots that avoiding getting into dogfights was the main lesson they’d been given. The fact that “boom and zoom” tactics was what they had been trained in since the beginning of the fighting in Europe seemed even more applicable in the Far East.

As in most RAF Squadrons out-with the main theatre of action, the pilots were a mixture of young, newly qualified men, with a core of pilots who’d been in the fight and were now being rested, or recovering from injuries. One of those in the latter category was Pilot Officer Roald Dahl, who’d suffered a skull fracture from a night landing mishap. Dahl had flown ten missions with 287 squadron after he’d passed out from flying training, before his accident. Having shot down two Ju-88s he was one of the experienced pilots, who had been given the task of preparing the young pilots for the reality of air combat. Returned to duty in February he’d been chosen to be one of the founder members of 67 Squadron, his return to duty coinciding with the sailing of the SS Parracombe.

Dunn had recognised that Dahl’s talents weren’t just in the field of air combat, and so had given him the task of helping with the new squadron’s intelligence section. In this capacity Dahl had been responsible for some of the lectures that the men had received on the journey. It was obvious from spending time on the voyage with him that Dahl’s abilities would mark him out for greater things, and Dunn was keen to let Group Captain Edye Manning, CO of 221 Group in Burma, know that he had an exceptional talent that should be developed.

Leaving the disembarkation of the squadron’s personnel and the aircraft and stores in the capable hands of his deputy and senior NCO, Dunn and Dahl were driven to the RAF HQ at Mingaladon Aerodrome, now known as RAF Mingaladon. Group Captain Manning, an Australian, had arrived just two weeks previously and had been on a whirlwind tour of the country that he was now responsible for. He’d found that the Burmese government had done extremely well in building the infrastructure for the RAF expansion, and now he was delighted to welcome the commander of his first fighter squadron.

67 Squadron would be based at RAF Mingaladon for two reasons. Firstly, to defend Rangoon, but secondly to work with the army’s XV Corps HQ. Many of the units arriving in theatre, especially the African and Indian troops had almost no experience of working with aircraft. They needed to get to know all the lessons that had been learned in Europe at such a high cost. Discovering that Dahl had been a Lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles, Manning immediately wanted him to organise a familiarisation course for the newly arriving African troops.

While the squadron’s primary role would be air defence, they would have to be used to help train everyone. The arrival of anti-aircraft batteries and Radar cover would all need to be integrated into a working system. Having a full squadron of fighters would help enormously in putting everything together into an effective force. More aircraft, including Wellingtons and more Hurricanes, were currently at sea on the way, and Manning was keen to get as much training and preparation underway before the imminent start of the monsoon season that would likely affect the available flying time from May to September. However, Manning was determined, and this would be something of a mantra over the next few months, that a little rain wasn’t going to stop them from getting on with their jobs.

2 May 1941. 18:00hrs. Transport House. London.

It was a small room, but for the group using it was more than adequate. Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party and Lord Privy Seal in the War Cabinet, was filling his pipe while the others got themselves settled.

Clement Atlee: Right, Gentlemen, let’s get started. With the progress towards victory moving along, it seems an opportune moment to take a closer look at next month’s party conference and the post-war election which is sure to happen sooner rather than later. James, do you want to give us a picture of where we are in party terms?

James Walker (Chairman of the Labour Party): Thanks Clem. There are two things we need to consider. The first is the strength of the party currently. The second is the message that we want to run on for the election. As to the first…

Arthur Greenwood (Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Minister without portfolio): …Sorry to interrupt Jim, but I would add a third, which is the likely opposition we’ll face, in other words, Winston.

James Walker: Well, I suppose that would be part of the message we have to get over, that what Winston’s offering isn’t what the country will need.

Herbert Morrison (Home Secretary): Never mind Arthur, Jim, just carry on.

JW: Right, the strength of the party. Well, it is a long six years since the last general election. As you know we had an excellent result then with 38% of the vote, and went from 52 seats to 154, but then it couldn’t have been any worse, could it? We did well at the local elections in 1938 too. Membership stands a little below 400000. It looks like the last of the National Labour mob are ready to call time, so we’ll pick up some of their support. The whole anti-Stalin, enemy of the people propaganda, looks like it is undermining the Communist Party, and to a lesser extent, Maxton’s Independent Labour lot, we should benefit from that. From what can be gathered from our people on the doorsteps of Britain, we could certainly give the Tories a run for their money. We still need a big swing in our direction, but with the right message, and a good deal of work, I think we could pull it off.

George Lathan (Labour Party Treasurer): Well, the war chest is fairly healthy, not having had an election to fight for a few years. If we are going to fight an election, then we’ll need to get the begging bowl out, there’ll be a lot of expenses, and with many of our supporters in uniform, we’ll have to think pretty carefully how we’ll deal with that.

Herbert Morrison: So, Jim, generally things aren’t too bad, and we have a realistic chance of forming a government? Is that a fair summary? Because that the fact that we’re in bed with the Tories in the coalition isn’t going to play well on the doorsteps, is it?

Arthur Greenwood: And we’d have to oust Winston for that to happen, ‘the man who won the war!’ We also have to face the fact that there’s a lot of our supporters who aren’t happy that we haven’t made much progress towards the nationalisation of key industries, starting with the railways.

Clement Atlee: Arthur, I think we need to look at our own strategy before worrying what Winston will do. Let’s try to get an overall picture before we focus in on individual policies. Ernest, you’ve made a start on some ideas, do you want to bring us up to date?

Ernest Bevin (Minister of Labour): Well, in the vast amount of free time I have (the others laugh), I have been looking at what would catch the hopes and dreams of the people after they’ve won a second victory in thirty years. There are three lines that we should be pushing. First, as you’ve been doing Clem in your last couple of speeches, we need to differentiate ourselves from Churchill, and focus on what we’ve achieved over the last 18 months. The reconstruction of the country, with no return to the way things were before the war, is a line which has resonance.

We need to push all the achievements we’ve managed so far in coalition: Protection of workers’ rights, compensation, increases in unemployment insurance and pensions, payments to servicemen’s dependents and a minimum wage for agricultural labourers. There’s no way a Tory government would have done all that, so we can differentiate ourselves quite well from Tories by pointing this out. To that end the NEC has a pamphlet ready to be published this month, “A Record of Social Legislation in War Time.” That covers it all, and sorry for having to have your photographs taken, but it should brighten up the cover a bit.

AG: Ah, yes. I thought I looked particularly statesman like for that photograph.

EB: Arthur, you never fail to amaze me. The second line that we need to push is the notion that the kind of planning that has been essential to victory a kind of scientific socialism. But we need to make sure that that idea isn’t linked in any way to Stalin’s 5-year plans. If we want the kind of social and economic reform that should mark out a victorious nation, we need to keep using the successful model, rather than going back to the old market strategy of the Tories. Something like “Finance is the servant, not the master of political policy in wartime, it must continue in that relation when peace comes. Our great national resources are assets to be efficiently administered for victory, they must be similarly administered as we turn from peace to war.”

AG: Hear, hear. That’s good Ernest, do you have that written down? We could use that.

EB: Yes, Arthur, I just read it out from “The War and The Peace” document, haven’t you read it? Anyway, thirdly, we need to capture the imagination of the people. Now, I have an idea, which may seem a bit odd, but Clem’s speeches have got me thinking. What is the miracle of our victory?

HM: Miracle? Do you mean, well, you know, the miracle? (Glances surreptitiously at those who weren’t privy to the Bristol Group secret)

CA: I presume, Ernest, you mean the way the country has pulled together and achieved a mobilisation of effort that has defeated what seemed to be an unbeatable foe?

EB: Of course. There’s no doubt that the people have to be assured that the efforts they’ve worked so hard for these last couple of years must reward them with a better future. As you all know Beveridge’s committee is looking at Social Insurance, education and health. The debates about the “Welfare State” which have been in the press over the last six months’ or so are very much in our favour. To win an election we need to speak to people who wouldn’t normally think about voting Labour. We need to appeal to that sense of victory for us all.

AG: We can’t use “A land fit for heroes” again, that is so last war.

EB: When Clem proposes The War and The Peace to Conference next month we need it capture people’s imagination, not just the party’s.

GL: That’s all well and good but with Harold Laski around at Conference, there’s always the possibility of something going wrong.

JW: The bloc votes from the Trade Unions will overwhelm any sniping from the floor.

EB: Clem and I have been talking, and I think that his speech could be the very thing that ignites the imagination.

AG: With all due respect to Clem, Winston is the orator in the Government.

EB: Which is all the more reason for Clem’s speech to be much more effective, coming from him.

CA: I think what Ernest is talking about is that, while Winston’s flair for rhetoric is all very well, it is the content the people will read. We might have some play on the radio, but, getting the speech into the press will be the main concern.

EB: We need something deeper in tone, reverential almost, about unity. The experience of everybody pulling together, we can tap into the desire for a common cause and hope for the future.

JW: To do that it can’t be too politicised. Partisanship would undermine the message.

EB: Precisely, Jim. We can take the message into the culture and values for which we’ve been fighting. Hard work, respect, decency, these are things that speak to the heart of middle England. If we dress it up in the language of the dialectic like Laski tends too, then people hear Stalinism, and that’s an enemy.

CA: I want to say something that goes to the heart of what we believe. Nazi faith denies the intrinsic worth of man. All the effort we’re putting in to rid the world of fascism is making clear to the British people that victory and reconstruction are indivisible, the spirit and the idea of the one are the spirit and idea of the other.

HM: We do need to emphasise winning security at home, perhaps the Reconstruction Committee might have some ideas about that.

CA: That committee and the main NEC Policy Committee have so many overlaps in their remits, enough to warrant a rethink on the membership of both. I think after the Conference, we should probably have a look at that.

JW: Can I just say that it would make a big difference to the membership if we could put repeal of the Trades Disputes Act at the centre of our platform.

GL: That, and the nationalisation of the railways. Promise those two things, and the membership will be fired up.

CA: We certainly need an efficient rail network, and I have a draft of a letter for the Prime Minister calling for the nationalisation as an instrument of reconstruction. However I think John Anderson is likely to lead the opposition in Cabinet to it.

HM: And repealing the Trades Disputes Act?

EB: I’ve been walking a very fine tightrope with that in the Ministry of Labour. Put it in the King’s Speech in our first term as Government by all means, but we need to get elected first, and for that we need to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Conference is the first step towards that.

CA: Perhaps we might look at the Conference in a bit more detail then…

3 May 1941. 07:00hrs. A field near Hagenow. Germany.

Captain Freddy Riding cursed and fumed as he chased the cows away from his Auster. There was something about the fabric of the aircraft that cows loved to eat, and it seemed that German cows and Kent cows had exactly the same taste for his aircraft. The field had been chosen as a landing ground for its proximity to the HQ of 2nd Armoured Division and its flatness for the aircraft to take off and land. The ground crews had arrived in the wake of one of the Armoured Division Royal Horse Artillery Regiments and had got to work preparing the field for flight operations. As well as trying to keep the cows out of the way, they also had to dig slit trenches, put up tents, organise latrines and camouflage. Riding and the other three aircraft had landed just before darkness the previous evening.

As a pre-war regular with the Royal Artillery Riding had been involved in the battles that had halted the German thrust into Belgium and had broken some ribs by accident during a gun drill that had taken him out of the battle as the tide turned. The role of Air Observation Post, an observer for the Royal Artillery in an aircraft, had been proven highly effective and desirable during the battles on the Escaut. In February 1940, D Flight, the first AOP unit of the RAF was established under the command of Major Charles Bazeley. Working up in France when the storm broke, Bazeley’s small unit had proven the effectiveness of the pre-war theory, and the RAF had been forced to allocate resources for two squadrons. The pilots, drivers and signallers were Royal Artillery, while squadron adjutants, technical staff and equipment officers came from the RAF. They had started off flying Tiger Moths, until enough Austers were available.

The Royal Artillery had combed through their personnel files to find suitable candidates for the roles of pilot. Riding was identified as a possible candidate, he had a civilian’s pilot license and had previously applied to be transferred to the RAF in 1938, and so he had been volunteered to use his ability to fly in this new role. It had been shown it was a lot easier to train an artilleryman as a pilot than it was to train a pilot to be an effective observer for the artillery. In the winter of 1940 Riding and a group of forty men of the Royal Artillery had suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune being instructed by the RAF who weren’t the least bit happy in having the brown jobs flying their planes.

The fact that the planes were Taylorcraft Austers went someway to mollifying the air force, who really didn’t consider them “real” aircraft, and so the twenty RA officers who passed the course were transferred into 651 and 652 squadrons. The experience of trying to bring together two separate traditions of the Army and RAF had not been terribly heartening, but the men were aware of the necessity of making it work, and so they had. Another six squadrons were well on their way to adding to the number, one of which was under the colours of the Royal Canadian Air Force, another for the Polish Air Force.

Since arriving back at the front, Riding had been part of C flight of 651 Squadron. Each flight was attached either to a division’s artillery force or to an Army Group Royal Artillery (AGRA), the medium gunners. C Flight had the pleasure of working with 2nd Armoured Division, whose CRA (Commander Royal Artillery) was Brigadier Hetman Parham, who had been one of the proponents of the AOP idea, while commanding 10th Field Regiment in May and June of the previous year. Parham had served during the winter at the RA’s depot at Larkhall refining the lessons learned from the early battles. His promotion to CRA in 2nd Armoured Division was seen as a stepping stone towards becoming Brigadier Royal Artillery for one of the armies.

Having accepted the surrender of the German forces on the Elbe, 2nd Armoured Division, and indeed most of First Army were racing towards the Baltic coast. The job of the AOPs was mostly Tac/Rs (Tactical Reconnaissance) at this point. They’d been heavily involved in shoots before the German surrender, so this activity made a nice change. As on most days, when Riding was flying, one of the ground crew came along as an observer. Today it was Lance Bombardier Windle, whose job was to keep an eye out for enemy planes, taking one less thing for the pilot to look out for. Windle, like all the others who volunteered, received no formal training, received no flying pay, had no expectation of promotion, and his time in the air was in addition to his normal duties. The position in the rear of the aircraft made it difficult to escape a crashed plane, so it really was a dangerous activity and Riding was very conscious of how grateful he was for the extra pair of eyes.

The Auster III was powered by a Gypsy Major engine, as usual the priming pump was giving trouble, so it had taken a good number of efforts to get it started. Riding went through his checklist before taking off. At one point someone had suggested putting some armour plate at various points in the cockpit to protect the pilot, but the Auster struggled with weight at the best of times, so the pilots had to try to avoid being shot at if at all possible. The agility of the Auster was a crucial element in the struggle to survive. When bounced by enemy aircraft they had discovered that their best defence was to find the nearest clump of trees, get as close to it as possible and circle it very slowly. The stalling speed of enemy fighters was too high to stay on the tail of an Auster in such a manoeuvre, and if Windle or whoever was acting as observer was quick enough to spot the danger, then the pilot could take advantage of the aircraft’s nimbleness to evade the danger.

Maps of this part of Germany were relatively scarce, in fact the one that Riding had wedged under his thigh was a German map, which had been liberated from a German officer, a much higher quality that what he was used to. The Divisional Intelligence officer had requested reconnaissance of the Elbe-Lubeck Kanal, and the rivers Trave, Stepenitz and Wakenitz. The objective was to look for intact bridges, and to add to the danger, radio silence had to be observed, so if the worst came to worst, they’d be down without being able to request help. It was a beautiful morning, with clear blue skies, and it was likely to get warm as the day drew on. There was a light covering of morning mist that made getting a view of the canal and rivers pretty difficult until the sun would burn it off.

Riding had pored over the map the previous evening working out the best route to take, and flying about 300 feet above the mist, his map showed that he was approaching the first bridge. His plan was to have plenty of speed in a shallow dive, to break through the mist, observe and pull out with full revs to gain height again. There was no room for error, no second chance, and the flying and map-reading training came into play. The plan worked perfectly, he had bagged his first bridge, marking the map appropriately.

Captured Germans had told intelligence that they cursed the “crows”, the little dark green high wing aeroplane. They knew that one of them in the area would precede a barrage and they would often try to shoot them down if they could. However, if they were too keen, then some red smoke would suddenly appear among them, then the Hurribombers would appear to napalm them. The observation aeroplanes were dreaded by the German troops, they were angels of death to them. This information was passed on to the AOP squadrons, and so the pilots knew that they were doing something right, it also explained why so many of the aircraft returned with holes, or worse, didn’t return at all.

Thankfully, from Riding’s point of view, the German terms of surrender seemed to have been holding, he didn’t come under fire at any point. He also discovered that most of the bridges were still intact. When he returned and gave his report, the planning for the next move of the Armoured Brigades were mapped out. Riding was later decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross for his work, Windle went unrewarded, such was the way of the military authorities.

(Author’s Note: For an excellent first hand account of the work of the AOP "Above the Battle" Ronald Lyell Munro, Pen and Sword Aviation 2016. I've drawn heavily on it for this update. Riding and Windle are real people.)

3 May 1941. 12:00hrs. Barby. Germany.

General Maurice Lucas, commander of 32e DI, hung onto his helmet as he was ferried across the river. The explosions from the German artillery were falling all around and soaking the men on the raft with the geysers of water they threw up. The General had jumped onto the raft, which was carrying part of a battery of 75mm artillery guns from the 3e RAD (Régiment d'Artillerie Divisionnaire). It was clear from the experience of previous river crossings that getting heavy equipment over to support the infantry as quickly as possible, not waiting for suitable bridges to be built, was crucial in blunting German counterattacks.

In the early hours of the morning the 122e RI had secured the town. Although the railway bridge had been blown and the ferry crossing had been made unusable, the regiment’s engineers had brought up their 34 boats, and two companies abreast had made for the other side of the river. A squadron of chars had provided close support, and as the rafts were created, they were fed into the battle. With the divisional artillery catching up, and the AdA putting in four waves of attacks on the German positions on far side of the river, a foothold had been established, and 1re Army had a focal point.

Lucas was going over to consult with his two regimental commanders who were at the forefront of the fighting. The 122e had been reinforced by the lead elements of 143e RI, while 7e RI were waiting for their turn to cross. Getting the whole division over the river and pushing forward was Lucas’ intent, with Walternienburg, about 2km from the river the first main objective. As the British had found at Dömitz, the German defenders were well placed and heavily fortified. The AdA had become particular aficionados of napalm, over the last year, and were hated by the German troops for it. The whole area had the smell of petroleum and burnt flesh. As the two infantry Regiments expanded their foothold, the German resistance in the first line began to crumble.

Three attempts to counterattack, one of which included throwing a Panzer Regiment into the breach were unable to push the French back into the river, though they had come close. General René Prioux, when informed of the bridgehead had ordered his most mobile and powerful divisions, 1re DCr and 4e DM to converge on Barby, he also committed the Army’s engineering and bridging resources to the sector. As the crow flies it was only 120km to Berlin. With their eyes on the prize, the French troops prepared themselves to punch through the final lines of resistance and march on Berlin.

3 May 1941. 14:00hrs. Hanover. Germany.

There was a certain degree of satisfaction when a job was jobbed. Lance Corporal Charlie Chalmers had the honour of nailing the sign up beside the track. “This railway line has been reopened by No 5. Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, Royal Engineers.” It wasn’t the first sign they had put up, and there’d be a lot more still to do, but as the locomotive pulling the freight trains full of essential war equipment blew its whistle, the men of 150 Railway Construction Company, R.E. shouted and waved their helmets in the air. Even the hundred or so German prisoners who’d been labouring in the task raised an ironic cheer. The other three construction companies in the Group (159, 160 and 161) were at various other points along the line that ran from the Weser, through Hanover towards Stendal, where it awaited a crossing of the Elbe.

This section of line which they had repaired, from Minden to Hanover, ultimately went all the way back to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. In due course it would go all the way to Berlin and points eastward. No 2 Railway Construction and Maintenance Group were working on fixing the line from northern Netherlands through Bremen towards Hamburg. It was needed to support First Army in their push for the Baltic. This line was supporting Second and Third Armies. To their south, their comrades in the French Genie units were attempting to repair the main lines through Cologne and the Ruhr towards Leipzig to support their northern thrust. In the south of Germany more were working on the lines through Frankfurt towards Munich and beyond. The progress of these efforts was hampered due to the excessive damage that had been done to the infrastructure of the network, first by the Entente’s forces and then by the retreating Germans. Similar work was being done wherever the railways had been damaged in the war.

Both the British and French had been relying heavily on the expertise of civilian workers from their respective railway companies. The toll taken on German rolling stock, and locomotives in particular, meant that the Entente logistical commanders were having to bring their own trains forward to replace the destroyed German stock. The Belgian and Dutch railway systems, which had also been heavily damaged, particularly the bridges, had little to spare as their own resources were tied up getting their own house in order. The large numbers of German prisoners had been particularly useful in suppling a lot of the manpower for filling in holes and repairing tracks. The presence of unexploded ordnance was an issue, and all too often progress was halted until bombs and shells could be made safe.

Some of the factories in France and Britain that moved into tank production from their core business of locomotives were moving back to producing trains. Large orders were being made, which ultimately the successor of Deutsche Reichsbahn would have to pay for. Armstrong Whitworth’s Scotswood factory was one of those that were returning to locomotive production. One of the lessons that had been learned over the last few months was that steam trains were easy targets to identify from the air, and very vulnerable to attack. General Montgomery was particularly keen that any trains that were moving towards his front line shouldn’t be steam locomotives as they quickly became targets for enemy artillery if it was in range. Since Armstrong Whitworth had the British license to build Sulzer diesels, it was keen to promote these more ‘stealthy’ locomotives.

Their experience with diesels had meant that they were one of the companies that had access to new designs for more efficient diesel engines, not least Napier’s new Deltic design and a captured Deutsche Reichsbahn SVT 137 high speed train, with its Maybach engines. A new generation of diesel locomotives was planned and Armstrong Whitworth had high hopes for large orders for the British market, as well as for export. In France, SNCF were also looking at increasing the numbers of TAR (Train Automoteur Rapide) from Société Franco-Belge after having another SVT 137 train to examine. The Belgian factories in Seneffe and Godarville had suffered very little damage, while the French factory in Raismes had un-interrupted production of locomotives and rolling stock.

3 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Tangermünde. Germany.

Corporal John Callaghan didn’t like the look of the new subaltern. Freshly minted from Sandhurst and he had the smell of a MC-Wallah about him. The originals, the men of the 1st Battalion, Tyneside Scottish, who’d shipped over to France in 1939, were getting fewer. Callaghan had a horrible feeling that 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Dickson-Fellowes, left to his own devices, would make that number even less. Since he’d shown up the day before, he’d been prancing about, looking every inch an officer. He almost deserved a sniper’s bullet, just for that. Worse than that even, the man didn’t seem to even be listening to Company Sergeant Major Collins, another original who was doing his best to put the man straight. No doubt the Company CO, Captain Wiggins, another original, though he’d started off a sergeant himself, had given the CSM the task of keeping him alive, and therefore his men alive too.

Dickson-Fellowes didn’t much like the look of the platoon he’d been assigned. Their ‘get up and go’ seemed to have got up and gone. The CSM had been trying to explain about how few of the original cadre of territorials from 1939 were still alive. Even the replacements had been replaced a few times. It wasn’t any great surprise that he was 7 Platoon’s seventh leader. Most of his predecessors had been injured, rather than killed, but still, seven was his lucky number. He couldn’t wait to get stuck in and have a crack at Jerry. All the way through his training as he’d followed the news of victory after victory, he’d had a sneaking suspicion that it’d all be over before he got here. The Dickson-Fellowes were an army family. Rupert had been named for his grandfather who’d died at Spion Kop. His own father had been mentioned in dispatches at Third Ypres, he’d seen his name on the wall at the Menin Gate on his way here. He’d grown up with his step-father’s tales of derring-do, though how someone in the Pay Corps had such an active war did seem odd in retrospect. Now Second Army, and specifically, 7 Platoon of 1st Tyneside Scottish, 70 Brigade, 23rd Division, V Corps, were about to cross the Elbe on their way to Berlin. And Rupert Dickson-Fellowes was going to lead them into battle!

Private Tom Shankley was, without a doubt, a slovenly soldier. Always had been, always would be. Gaiters flapping, pockets undone, pretty filthy, with a tongue that could cut steel, a cigarette perpetually hanging from the corner of his mouth, intoxicated as often as could be managed. He was another original, and at that very moment, the target of 2nd Lieutenant Dickson-Fellowes attempt to get his platoon up to scratch. The tirade that was directed at him from this young officer had come as something of a shock to Private Shankley. He was having a nice kip after a liberated bottle of schnapps and a bit of a romp with a farmer’s daughter, who didn’t seem to mind the smell, or rather put up with it for the packets of Woodbines she’d got for her affections. When he was rudely awakened he’d fired off a quick barrage of his best and most foul South Shields irritation. Luckily the young officer didn’t speak much Geordie, so a lot of it passed right over his head, but the heart-felt sentiment was clear enough. So here he was, standing to attention (well, as near as he could manage), while this snotty nosed kid gave him a dressing down such as he hadn’t had since dear old RSM Davies had bought it on the Rhine. It almost made him nostalgic for the old bugger.

Private Donald MacIntyre watched from his shell scrape while the new officer went through the old salt like a hot knife through butter. He’d arrived at the same time as the subaltern, “fresh meat” someone had called him. Corporal Callaghan had claimed him for his squad, and he’d spent his time digging. At least that bit was like training. He was pretty handy with a pick and a shovel, the quickest in his troop to dig a foxhole. He wasn’t quite as confident with his rifle, he’d barely scraped a pass in target shooting, but digging he could cope with. Corporal Callaghan wasn’t too shouty, he was glad of that, there’d been a lot of shouting by the NCOs at Catterick. There’d even been “battle drills”, but it looked like the real thing was going to kick off, and if he was completely honest with himself, he felt he was going to soil himself every time he even thought about it.

The officer’s tirade was starting to die off, he had obviously run out of things to shout. The training NCOs never seemed to run out of things to shout, especially on lads like himself. He hadn’t been much good at school, but he was a big lad, so he hadn’t had to worry too much with bullies. The NCOs had made up for that. “Slow” “Thick” “Stupid” were among their favourite descriptions of him, though those words were usually hidden among a thicket of swear words. His mam didn’t like swearing, she’d always given him a whack if he spoke a bad word. It was one of his greatest trials in joining the army. Every second word he heard was a bad word. He’d had to learn to say a few, otherwise people just made his life unbearable. The officer was stamping off somewhere and the old salt made a rude gesture to his back, before disappearing down into his foxhole again. MacIntyre picked up his entrenching tool again and dug a little deeper.

4 May 1941. 02:00hrs. Fischbeck. Germany

Corporal Callaghan squirmed into the dirt as far as he could. The tracers from the Spandaus seemed to be aimed directly at him. He wasn’t entirely sure where his squad were, and he didn’t want to raise his head to look for them. “Lord,” he prayed, “let me be a mole or a grass snake, to get further into this earth.” Another flare popped off turning the night into day. Now it was time to lie as still as possible, any Jerries would see his movement, don’t even breathe, he told himself. Bloody officer was shouting. Did he have a death wish? That was fine for him if he wanted to get himself killed, but just shut up and leave the rest of us alone. Covering fire! How on earth were his men meant to set up the Bren gun and give covering fire? They’d be torn to pieces by the German guns. He couldn’t order his men to do that, it would be deadly. Just stay silent, silent as a grass snake, silent as a mole. If the officer wants to be a hero, let him. Just let me be.

2nd Lieutenant Rupert Dickson-Fellowes really was surprised at how much he was enjoying this. All his life the stories he’d read and listened to, were of men doing daring and dangerous things. Here he was, under fire from the enemy for the first time, and all he could feel was excitement. It was as good as racing through country lanes in his Morgan 4-4, with his sister in the passenger seat screaming for him to slow down. He could hear someone screaming here too, one of the men no doubt. They were brave lads, most of them anyway. Now if they could just clear this machine gun position, they’d be able to move forward and knock Jerry for six. He started shouting orders, “Get that Bren gun up and give us covering fire!” Where is the mortar crew? Start dropping on that enemy position!” “Fix Bayonets, prepare to charge!” He had his Webley out, none of that modern 9mm nonsense for him. He liked the weight and the feel of the big revolver in his hand, just like his father would have at Passchendaele, and his grandfather at Spion Kop. “Right lads, up and at them!” He blew his whistle and pushed himself off the ground. The bullet took him in the chin, his lower face destroyed in a spray of blood, saliva, teeth and skin.

Private Shankley saw the young officer’s face explode. He’d seen worse, not much worse, but still, he’d seen worse. Typical though. How many officers was that now? Some had been alright, well, alright for officers. Most he hadn’t even noticed. The problem now was the whole platoon was pinned down, and sooner or later that would be a problem for him personally. He took another draw from his Woodbine. It wouldn’t be long now till the machine gunner had to change the barrel. That was the problem with the Jerry guns, fearsome things, but sooner or later they’d overheat, then you could do something about them. Sure enough, the tracers disappeared, along with the sound of a tearing sheet. Shankley could see one of the new lads, a big lad, probably handy with that entrenching tool he had in his hand. He pushed himself up from the ground, keeping at a crouch, and tapped the big lad on the shoulder, “come wi’ me, bonny lad.”

Private Donald MacIntyre had made a mess of himself. He couldn’t help it, and he hoped no one else would notice. The whole thing had been terribly scary, getting across in the boat, but it was a mortar round that had made him lose control of himself, it was just so close, he was sure he must have been hit, but he seemed completely intact, except the mess in his trousers. Everyone had gone to ground when the German machine gun had opened up, so he’d done the same. He had his entrenching tool which he had used to build up a little wall of earth in front of himself. Twice he’d heard bullets striking it, so just as well he’d done it. Then the officer had been shouting, but it was really horrible when he was shot like that. Surprisingly he was getting pretty angry at everything. The mess in his pants, the shooting and the flares, the army generally. But the Jerries, most of all he was really angry at the Jerries. They were obviously beat, so why were they still fighting?

As he felt the tap on his shoulder, and the calm voice of the soldier telling him to come along, MacIntyre picked himself up and followed the other man. God, he really was stupid, he still had his entrenching tool in his hand. He must have left his rifle in the dirt. He’d get a bollocking for that when it was over. That corporal would tear a strip off him for leaving his rifle behind. The older soldier was speaking to him again. “Right bonny lad, got your shovel with you? Good man, good for close in work that is. Take this grenade and throw it as hard as you can to that wee hill over there, OK? Ready? One, two, THREE!” Both grenades exploded and the two soldiers rushed in behind them. Shankley went in with the bayonet, MacIntyre slammed his shovel down on a German’s shoulder, screaming blue murder as he did so. Both Germans were down, there were another couple already wounded by the grenade. Shankley shouted for the rest of the platoon to move up, while he threw another couple of grenades in the direction any counter attack might come from.

Corporal Callaghan heard Shankley’s call, there wasn’t any more machine gun fire coming towards him. He picked himself up and called for the rest of the squad to follow him. He tripped over the body of the subaltern, but got into the German position and soon had the Bren gun team set up to hold off any Germans. A few minutes later CSM Collins came by. “Well done, Callaghan, now get your section forward and keep an eye out for the left flank. C Company should be over that direction, so make sure you don’t brass up any of them, or we’ll never hear the end of it.”

4 May 1941. 05:00hrs. Prague. Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Sergeant Leon Nouhen rode his motorbike as fast as he could across the Charles Bridge over the river Vltava in the centre of Prague. Every time he did this, crossing a bridge, he was half expecting it to blow up below him. But his luck continued, reaching the far side safely. He swerved to a halt beside the Bridge Tower, and picking up his MAS38 machine pistol he ran to the top. The place was empty, and from a quick look around, it didn’t look like the bridge was prepared for demolition, though some engineers would look at that more closely. Half the platoon had raced across the bridge with him and they were fanning out looking for trouble. He used his torch to signal the rest of his platoon to come across, and the odd combination of motorbikes and Peugeot 402s raced over and soon his men were spreading out to the environs of the bridge. His signaller was on the radio with the information that the Charles Bridge was secure. 19e GRDI, the reconnaissance regiment for 16e DI, had reached the outskirts of the city the evening before, and had made the decision to use the cover of darkness to attempt to seize the main buildings of the city and the bridge. Half a troop of armoured cars, with a couple of lorries carrying men passed through Nouhen’s position at speed heading for the train station.

Major Gatinet, the commander of the GRDI, was at Prague Castle, where he was waiting while the political leadership of the town were roused from their beds. Gatinet had four men with him, he’d been told they were detached from the 2e Rgt Tcheque for translating and other responsibilities. These Czech soldiers had the names of some of the police or army who would give assistance to the French troops. Gatinet suspected that these were no ordinary soldiers. On their way to Prague, they had added the best part of a company of former Czech soldiers, mostly from Pilsen. It was these Czech soldiers who were trying to round up some support, while the French reconnaissance troops captured the essential buildings.

The German forces had obviously slipped away, probably behind the Elbe, though that wasn’t clear. The whereabouts of Konstantine Neurath, the Nazi Reichsprotektor was unknown, as was Karl Frank, the police chief. President Hácha had been found dead, along with a great number of leading Czechs at the Gestapo Headquarters. Work on identifying the bodies would take some time, but it was believed that most of the government had been killed, including Alois Eliáš, the Prime Minister. In the absence of any leadership, the role of taking over the radio station and broadcasting the news that Prague was liberated was all the more important. It was clear that former President Edvard Beneš’ exile in England was about to come to an end.

4 May 1941. 13:00hrs. Hamburg. Germany.

The body of Karl Kaufmann swung in the breeze, from the lamppost where it had been strung up. The Nazi Gauleiter had been captured as he attempted to flee the city. He had given orders as Reichsverteidigungskommissar of Wehrkries X for all units to fight to the death and make Hamburg a cauldron to boil the English army to death. The fact that he then attempted to flee the city did not make him popular with the soldiers who stopped his personal Fiseler Storch from taking off. To be fair, the fact that he had stayed as long as he had, unlike most of the diehard Nazis, was unusual. He had projected as air of omnipotence during his tenure, and it seemed that he had bought into that view of himself. For him and his companions who were swinging alongside him, that omnipotence had proven a lie.

He had decided to leave the city during the night. The RAF had put on quite a show the previous evening. Although they were still learning the lessons from the mistake at Dömitz, just about every bomber in the force had flown over the city dropping leaflets pleading for the populace to make sure that their city would not be reduced to rubble. The Halifax and Wellingtons had been preceded by flights of Beaufighters and Hurribombers, almost daring the Flak batteries to show themselves. With hundreds of Spitfires escorting the bombers, the RAF had flown over 1000 sorties. Four aircraft had been lost to mechanical failures or accidents, but none were lost to enemy action. What remained of the Luftwaffe’s Flak divisions had learned hard lessons involving napalm and cluster bombs. They had also been advised to keep what little ammunition they had to be used against the expected ground assault. Though, as with a great many of the military units in the city, many of them had abandoned their posts and uniforms and were attempting to mingle among the civilian population.

General Herman Hoth, commander of Seventeenth Army, responsible for the defence of the whole area, had folded whatever forces he had back into the city as ordered by Kaufmann. Between the Entente force moving south from Denmark, and British First Army, which moving north from Dömitz had reached Wismar and Lübeck, his army was surrounded. Now that Kaufmann was no longer in a position to threaten him, Hoth had contacted General Auchinleck seeking to negotiate a truce and subsequent surrender.

Realistically Hoth had little option in the matter, even if he was mad enough to do as Kaufmann had dictated. His reserves of fuel and ammunition was almost entirely spent, his men were not far short of mutinous, and the RAF had total command of the air. The civilians were desperate. The sound of the artillery had been growing ever louder, and the idea that their city would become a battlefield filled them with panic. With the last of the Nazi Party officials dead or fled, Hoth’s Headquaters was besieged by people pleading with him to declare Hamburg an open city. Even his own wife, in her most recent letter from Berlin, had urged him to leave aside the oath he had sworn to Hitler, and to think more of his own people and his Fatherland.

Looking back over the great victory in Poland, perhaps they had all been under some kind of spell. Believing that somehow, by strength of arms, they could defeat the French and British in a matter of months, the death of his XV Corps at the Meuse, had proven that this was a false belief. Whatever the reason, and despite all the hopes, Germany was beaten. With the half the country already occupied, turning Hamburg into rubble and killing thousands of its inhabitants would be pointless.

The radio operator handed him earphones and a microphone. The British general was obviously relieved that Hamburg would be an open city. All that was necessary now was to finalise the details.

4 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Wismar. Germany.

It was all pretty surreal for the men of 1st Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Following the tankies of 2nd Armoured Division, their arrival on the Baltic coast was met with very different reactions. Just this morning a squad of men had been accosted by an eleven-year-old boy, in short trousers, wearing his Hitler Youth uniform tunic. He wouldn’t stop shouting “Heil Hitler!” In broken English he protested that Germany would still win the war. In the end a couple of the men grabbed him by the ankles, upturned him, stuck his head in a lavatory bowl, pulled the chain, flooding his face with water. The sullenness of the civilian population towards the British Army was greatest among the young. If a British soldier was spat upon, it was almost certainly by someone whose formation in the Hitler Youth had prepared them for a very different outcome to the war than what they were experiencing.

On the other hand, some of the residents were almost jubilant that the British had arrived. One Company commander had given his men strict instructions to be particularly wary of this kind, “Me thinks they doth protest too much” he was heard to misquote. A couple of fights had had to be broken up, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on, there were few men in the Battalion who could understand German, but it looked a lot as if some old scores were being settled.

A third group of people that the soldiers had to deal with were the prisoners of war, and much more complexly, those men of military age who had obviously shed their uniforms. With the collapse of the German army there were plenty of men who had to be processed, and the Battalion commander wasn’t best pleased that his men were having to undertake this task, it should really have been something for the rear echelon troops to be bothered with. But it looked as if General Auchinleck was going to have to order a halt to his army to chew the big chunk of Germany that they’d just bitten off. They did however have a system in place, which at this point was to disarm whatever troops surrendered. Sports stadiums were first choice to be utilised as holding camps until a proper processing could be undertaken.

The fourth reaction was found at the Dornier factory. Here the British troops found a substantial number of forced labourers, mostly Jews from Poland, but there were also various people labelled ‘criminal’ by the Nazi Regime. If the German soldiers were underfed, and the civilians malnourished, then these poor souls were nearly starved to death. The Battalion Medical Officer had been rushed to the factory and was attempting to work out some kind of treatment. Those who had enough energy to be moved by the arrival of the British army had a mixture of anger at what had happened to them and worry about their comrades.

The civilian workers at the factory had been drafted in to support the Medical Officer’s work, and they protested their innocence at the treatment of the forced labourers. Getting their hands dirty in cleaning up the men was enough to silence them for the moment. The army had had enough experience over the last few months of finding camps of forced labourers, which meant that the Medical Officers had been briefed about how to help the starving men and women, without endangering them. It was hard thing not to give them too much too soon, and those soldiers that had witnessed these conditions were far less likely to be generous to the children and other civilians who generally feigned ignorance of what had been done in the name of the Reich.

5 May 1941. 08:00hrs. Rangoon. Burma.

Convoy WS7X arrived in port with HMS Colombo having provided the escort from Bombay. The four troopships, Duchess of York, Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, Strathmore and Warwick Castle carried 59th (Staffordshire) Division and various other troops which would be part of XV Corps. Merchant ships had been arriving over the last couple of days carrying the equipment and stores for the Division and other Corps troops in Burma, with more expected over the next few weeks. General James Steele, 59th’s Divisional Commander was met by General Thomas Hutton, XV Corps Commander. Steele had commanded 132nd Brigade in 44th Division in the fighting in Belgium and Holland the year before, and had proven himself a good leader. His promotion to take command of 59th Division in February was to prepare them for this overseas posting.

The docks at Rangoon had gotten used to the arrival of soldiers and their equipment in various convoys, so the process of getting the men off the ships and loaded up to take them to their initial camp was fairly straightforward. The senior officers went to the Corps HQ to go through their orders. Hutton was delighted to have the Staffordshires in theatre. The 2nd African Division were currently undergoing jungle training, while the other division in the Corps, 6th Indian, were still in Malaya. They were due to arrive in Burma in July, by which time, 59th and 2nd African Divisions would be well acclimatised. At that point the three divisions would be able to start working together as a Corps, the deadline of October 1941 for their full readiness could then be met, hopefully.

As soon as they were fully disembarked, 59th Division would be transported by rail to Mandalay. Here they would receive jungle training under the supervision of Brigadier James Scott’s 1st Burma Brigade consisted of 2nd Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with the 1st and 5th Burma Rifles Battalions. General Hutton was particularly glad to have greet the commanders of the Royal Artillery regiments that would be part of his Corps’ command. The 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade were to take up residence around RAF Mingaladon. Having been responsible for the defence of the Clyde since 1939, they’d barely had to fire a shot in anger. The 83rd, 100th and 111th HAA Regiments, along with 18th and 60th LAA Regiments, were all equipped with 3.7-inch and Bofors 40mm guns. Importantly the Brigade was also equipped with a fully functional radar system. The 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, which had been responsible for the defence of North East England, was already in Malaya, giving Singapore much greater protection.

As if a whole AA Brigade wasn’t good enough, XV Corps now boasted a full complement of two Royal Artillery Medium Regiments (70th and 71st) and one Heavy Regiment (57th Newfoundland). While the Ordnance BL 6-inch 26cwt howitzer in the Medium Regiments and BL 8 inch howitzers in the Heavy Regiment were all cast offs, as newer guns went to the regiments in Germany, it was enough firepower to gladden a Corps Commander’s heart. Some ex-South African 60-pdrs, which had arrived with the 2nd African Division would now be given to the Burmese Brigades, providing them with heavy hitting power. Unlike the RA regiments in Germany, 59th Division’s Royal Artillery Field Regiments (61st, 116th and 110th) were all equipped with the older 25 pdr Gun Mk 1 (18/25 pdr). Compared with 2nd African Division’s Ordnance QF 3.7 inch mountain howitzer, these Mk 1 guns were a big improvement, and the 59th’s gunners had far more practice working on a divisional level.

A full complement of Corps Troops Royal Engineers had also arrived: 577th, 578th Field Companies with 576th Field Park Company, formerly the Hampshire Fortress Engineers. There was no end of work waiting for these men to provide the forces in Burma with the kind of infrastructure that would enhance the defence of the colony. 13th Field Survey Depot, 517th Field Survey Company and 588th Army Troops Companies, and three Road Construction companies had also arrived for the Burma Army under GOC Major General McLeod.

The one area that was still lacking in 14th Army were armoured forces. One Brigade of the Cavalry Division, currently converting to tanks in Palestine, were slated for the Far East. In India, the First Indian Armoured Division was still under construction. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was furthest on, with three regiments carried mostly in “Tatanagars”, Armoured Carrier, Wheeled, Indian Pattern or ACV-IP. The 1st and 2nd Armoured Brigades were still waiting for enough tanks to be fully equipped. They had a supply of Vickers Light Tanks which had been used for training, and would probably equip the reconnaissance regiments. The Canadian Pacific Railway factory in Montreal had just started producing Valentines and it was hoped that they might produce enough of these to equip the Indian Armoured Division. Vickers and Metro-Cammell’s two plants in Britain had produced 335 Valentines in the first quarter of 1941, enough to equip an armoured division. With the new Canadian production coming on stream, General Wavell had been promised that three Brigades worth of Valentines would be in his area of responsibility by the October 1941 deadline.

McLeod now had the makings of an effective force in Burma, though there were criticisms in Britain about the transferring so many units to the Far East while the fighting in Germany was taking so much effort. It was considered that the creation of the 4th Army for Europe was being delayed by the expansion of the 14th Army in Malaya and Burma. For many people the possible threat of a Japanese attack was far more remote than the reality of the fighting in Germany. No one was under any illusion that forming and equipping five field armies was about as much as the British Empire could sustain, while maintaining peace and security in the far-flung parts of the world. While it was hoped that 14th Army would pass the war without firing a shot in anger, it was far and away the most diverse Empire army with three Indian, three British, two African, and one Australian Divisions. The proposed 4th Army in Europe would most likely consist of a British, Canadian and Indian Corps.

Prime Minister Churchill was determined that the British Far East possessions should be properly defended, as far as possible. The likelihood of a Japanese attack would be greatly reduced if adequate forces were on hand to give them pause for thought. “A stitch in time saves nine” had been his argument with the War Cabinet for sending the forces to the Far East. As it was, with the successes in the advance into Germany, a Fourth Army in Europe would probably end up as an army of occupation, unless Stalin did something really silly. General Wavell wasn’t complaining, he had only taken the job as the Entente Supreme Commander in the Far East on the proviso that he’d be given the tools to do the job he was tasked with.

5 May 1941. 17:00hrs. Budapest. Hungary.

The visit from the French and British representatives was not something that Regent Miklós Horthy had been looking forward to. It reminded him a little of sitting in the waiting room of a dentist: necessary, but with the expectation of pain to follow. If it was any consolation, his Prime Minister Pál Teleke, looked even more uncomfortable than he did. It was a sad state of affairs that the two most powerful men in the Kingdom of Hungary, were be sitting on tenterhooks waiting for the arrival of a couple of wishy-washy diplomats.

Hungary was a proud nation, with an illustrious history. But since the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and particularly since the Treaty of Trianon, it had been a struggle to come to terms with a new reality. The rise of Mussolini and Hitler had shown the power of strong nationalism, a course that Horthy himself had followed. As Hitler’s influence grew, and particularly since the economic ties with Germany had been strengthened, it seemed the right path had been to hang on to the Fuhrer’s coat-tails. That had all been well and good until early 1940 when Hitler’s reach had proven to exceed his grasp. The failure of the invasion of Norway, and then the inability to knock France and Britain out of the war, had seen great pressure on the Hungarians to add their forces to that of the Wehrmacht.

Hitler’s requests for aid had become more and more strident as his army was defeated again and again. Horthy, noting that Mussolini’s relationship with the Fuhrer was also getting cooler, decided on a course of neutrality, though the volte face of the Italians had come as a shock. The Hungarian army stood on its borders in a purely defensive posture. The growing closeness of Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece had been a further worry. Any hopes of getting back the historical Hungarian lands that had been lost were swept away, as Germany itself was invaded, and now seemed to be on its last legs. Now the waiting was over and the representatives of the French Republic and the British Crown were presented to him in the state room, and he knew he was in the presence of the victorious powers, the same powers that had imposed the treaty of Trianon on his nation.

The Yugoslavian army occupied Vienna and Bratislava, the French army it appeared was in Prague, so Czechoslovakia might well become a nation again. What would the Entente make of the Vienna Award when Hungary had taken possession of Carpathian Rus/Ruthenia and other parts of Slovakia? If there was a new Treaty of Trianon, or worse, then any gains that had been made would be lost again. The German army in Poland seemed to be melting away, and soon it would be free again, and Poland would be a strong part of the Entente. The Romanians were obviously friendly with the Entente forces, leaving his country surrounded by enemies of Hitler. But worst of all was he had Stalin on his eastern border to worry about.

Anyone who knew Horthy, knew that his antipathy towards Communism was one of his strongest motivations. Moving closer to Hitler had been the lesser of two evils, to bolster Europe against Stalin’s hordes. However, once Hitler took on Britain, and Horthy had warned him not to do that, it left Stalin untouched and powerful. Horthy’s one hope was that, having kept Germany at arms-length during the war, any consequences would be muted by the need to face up to Stalin’s regime.

The representative of the Republic of France, Robert de Dampierre, and British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Hungary, Owen O’Malley had both been in Budapest for over a year, and this wasn’t their first meeting with Horthy and Teleke, it was likely to be the most interesting. The briefings they had received from Paris and London were quite clear and firm. There would have to be some kind of post-war settlement regarding borders and as long as everyone understood that, then at this point the Entente governments had no axe to grind. Hungary had taken advantage of their relationship with the Nazis when it suited them, and then had seen the change of wind direction and had kept their nose clean. That meant that they wouldn’t be at the winning side’s table. Nor would they be seen as an enemy combatant, and that would be beneficial.

It was argued in certain quarters that two of the causes of the war were “ethnic justice” and irredentism, the desire to reclaim or reoccupy areas that had been lost. The Sudetenland Crisis had been an example of these causes. The fear in Paris and London was that a post-war settlement might only fuel another European conflict unless steps were taken to deal with these causes. Because of the way in which ethnicity had been used by the Nazi Regime, with such horrible consequences for minorities such as the Jews, it would have to be faced head on. Moving forward through “ethnic cleansing” was only going to sow the seeds of future problems. While there was a multi-lateral commission meeting in Paris to begin the groundwork for a post-war settlement, at this point there was agreement that the idea of a “pure nation” was certainly unacceptable. As nations with colonial empires the language that was coming out of Washington DC about “self-determination of peoples” was for France and Great Britain double edged. While for those parts of central Europe that had been acquired before or during the war, the self-determination of peoples was a reasonable idea. However, if it was applied in India or Indo-China, it was a different kettle of fish. Therefore, de Dampierre and O’Malley were reticent to be too clear in their answers to Horthy and Teleke’s questions about Ruthenia and other areas.

If Ruthenia was to remain Hungarian, the big question was whether or not Poland would get back those parts of the country that Hitler had carved up with Stalin in the Ribbentrop-Molotov deal. If they did then Hungary would have Polish neighbours, and if not, then he had Soviets on his doorstep, and he much preferred the first to the second choice. For Paris and London, the carrot that was dangled in Budapest was the notion that there would be a post-war Europe that would have peace and prosperity as its main goal. Peace would be guaranteed with an alliance of member states with common cause, democracy and the defence of human rights. Prosperity would come through having some kind of agreement on access to the markets of the countries of such an alliance. The stick was large, and well-seasoned armies, that were moving eastwards to destroy the last vestiges of the Nazi regime. Horthy would have to make a decision, and make it very soon, about which way he wanted to be treated when the fighting had finished.
6 May 1941. 10:00hrs. RAF Matlaske. Norfolk. England.

Squadron Leader George 'Grumpy' Unwin had been returned to frontline flying duties having spent a bit of time passing on his experience to new pilots coming through Training Command. He had been appointed to 56 Squadron which was one of the two squadrons attempting to get to grips with the new Typhoon fighter-bomber. Unlike the Hurribomber, which Unwin had been pleased to avoid, the Typhoon truly was both a fighter and a bomber. Unlike the Hurricane which had been forced into a bomber role that it wasn’t the best at, and in doing so lost some of its ability as a fighter because of it, the Typhoon was actually able to do both.

Hawker at Langley had done miracles to get the aircraft from the drawing board in early 1940 into squadron service in just over a year. Likewise, Bristol had worked flat out getting the Centaurus up and running successfully. It was clear that all the problems in both the airframe and the engine weren’t entirely fixed, and the squadron already had four fatalities since they had taken delivery. Unwin had been relieved that there wasn’t any great pressure from higher up the RAF chain of command to rush the squadron into service. Unwin had been assured when he was given command of the squadron that they would have time to master the aircraft and explore its potential before unleashing it on the front line.

That was exactly what he was doing today. He was leading a formation of four Typhoons out over the North Sea where the Royal Navy had kindly towed a hulk out for target practice. Flying at 15000ft, with a full load for the four cannons, two of the aircraft were carrying eight Rocket Projectiles 3 inch (RP-3), two were carrying two 1000lb bombs. Even so heavily laden, on the way out, they’d been able to make a mock attack on a Wellington squadron that heading towards Germany. Thankfully the bombers had been warned to expect it by ground control, so there hadn’t been any firing on either side. Unwin had been impressed that, even heavily laden, they could give a good account of themselves against other aircraft. If it had been a squadron of Spitfires or Mustangs, they would probably need to ditch the bombs to get into a knife fight with dedicated fighters, but they weren’t sitting ducks either. They could just pour on the gas and fly away from the Spitfires, and they could probably out-dive the Mustangs.

Red 2’s voice came over the R/T to say that his engine temperature was climbing, and it was starting to run a little rough. Unwin ordered him to pancake immediately, there was no point in taking any risks. He’d have been surprised if all four aircraft had managed to get through the whole flight without some kind of mechanical. Getting the plane, and far more importantly, the pilot, back on the ground, the problem could be examined and hopefully fixed. Bailing out over the sea was never a good choice, and losing the aircraft meant that discovering the cause wouldn’t be possible, then they wouldn’t be able to work out a fix for all the aircraft. In order to be safe rather than sorry he ordered Red 4 to return to base alongside Red 2. That way the wingman to could an eye out for any external problems, and, if the pilot had to bail out, then his position could be marked.

Unwin and his wingman flew on, beginning to lose height as they approached the target area. They both had the RP-3s and Unwin was keen to have a go with them. He’d only once fired them before as part of his qualification on the type, but this would be a good chance to see just exactly what could be done with them. Getting the information that the range was clear, his wingman spotted the target and Unwin positioned his aircraft for a dummy run, while his wingman circled the area. The Typhoon was a very different beast to the Spitfire he’d been more used to. He’d always felt when the strapped himself into a Spitfire that it was as if it became an extension of his body. Flying a Typhoon seemed more like hanging for dear life onto the back of a tiger, it was so powerful, and dangerous. He had learned to take his time, to double and triple check everything, and as the big aircraft felt as if it was throwing itself at the sea, he talked himself through what he was doing, giving a running commentary to his wingman. Should something go catastrophically wrong, then at least his wingman would have an idea of what the problem was. The target, an old merchant ship, grew in size at an alarming rate, and Unwin realised that if it had been a rocket run, he would already have overshot the target. Pulling up and climbing back onto the wing of the other Typhoon he started to get his breath back. The two pilots swapped roles, his wingman going into a dive and giving a commentary, while Unwin watched from on high. Twice more they did this, before Unwin felt ready to do it for real and fire off the rockets.

The plan was to release all eight on the one pass, which seemed to be the advice they were getting from the Hurribomber squadrons. The rockets were fairly inaccurate, so rippling them of, blanketing the target was best chance of achieving success. Having done the dive a couple of times Unwin felt that he had some sense of control of the aircraft, rather than the other way round. As the target grew in his gun sight he depressed the button and in the matter of a few seconds all eight rockets had left his wings. He craned his neck to see what kind of effect he had managed, while his wingman described that he’d managed two direct hits, four short and two long. Unwin was not at all disappointed with that, at least he’d actually managed to hit the target. While he flew lazy eights and watched his wingman go through the same process. Pilot Officer Ben Watson was a recent graduate from the Empire Training Scheme in Rhodesia, his home country. Watson had passed through his operational training unit on Hurribombers, so he’d had a bit more experience using the rockets, even with that, he only managed one more hit than Unwin had, though his misses were much closer.

The two aircraft began to climb again and set their sights for home and lunch. After an uneventful return to base, they came into land, where it looked as if Red 2 had made it back safely, though there was a fire engine in attendance. When Unwin had climbed down from the cockpit, and handed the aircraft back over to the crew chief, he and Watson walked over to the Intelligence Officer to make their report. Here they found Pilot officers James Nash and Trevor Harding drinking strong cups of tea. Nash had some bandages on his hands. It seemed that the engine had gone on fire once he had landed and had got his hands a bit burned as he was escaping from the cockpit. It had obviously been a close-run thing. But he was safe, and that was the main thing. An aircraft could be built much more quickly than a pilot trained. Walking away was pretty much the best outcome.

6 May 1941. 11:00hrs. Farmingdale. New York, New York. USA.

Lowery Brabham had resigned from the Army Air Corps in July 1940 to join the aircraft company Republic as a test pilot. Six months later he was Chief Test Pilot. Just eight months after a prototype for a new single-engine fighter was ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps, Brabham was at the controls ready to take it up for its maiden flight. Designed by Alexander Kratveli it employed the new Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine. On a wet morning, with Kartveli watching, Brabham performed an extensive run-up on the concrete ramp. He checked, double checked and even triple checked every engine instrument. He performed several mag checks and made sure the engine was at optimal operating temperature. When he was satisfied that everything was working correctly, he taxied the Republic XP- 47B for a few runs. Then he picked up speed on the wet sod field and got airborne after a scant 2,500 feet of take-off roll.

Brabham was instantly pleased with the fighters handling and power. It was the first aircraft he had flown that had reserve take-off power. As he climbed and the ambient pressure dropped, acrid smoke began to fill the cockpit. The canopy on the prototype "Thunderbolt" could not be opened in flight, but there was a small sliding window. Brabham opened it but immediately wished he hadn’t! The smoke got worse and it became impossible to breathe. The air rushing past the vent served only to lower the relative pressure across the vent, resulting in even more smoke being drawn into the cockpit. Brabham considered baling out, but it would probably be the end of the company to lose the prototype. He decided to land the aircraft as quickly as he could. Returning to Famingdale, with its wet grass runway was too dangerous. Instead, he changed course for the nearby Army Air Corps facility at Mitchel Field, trying to hold his breath all the way!

Thankfully, the first landing of the XP-47B was a smooth one. As he went through the landing procedures, the flaps, landing gear and brakes all worked as designed. Brabham taxied in towards the Air Corps hangers. His arrival, however, was a surprise, Army Air Corp personnel ran out to see the big plane, with the four-bladded propellor winding down. They had never seen anything like it before. Officers soon got things back under control and the new fighter was quickly rolled into a hanger and the doors shut. As Brabham got his breath back, he had a number of things that he wanted to get off his chest, but after finishing it all he did have to say, “I think we’ve hit the jackpot here!”

Men from Republic arrived and began an inspection to determine what had caused the smoke in the cockpit. While Bradham had been running up the engine and going through his checks, oil had been accumulating in the ducting leading to the turbo-supercharger installed behind the cockpit. The ducting ran just below the cockpit. The engine was fitted with a pair of wastegates that dumped excess boost and thereby regulated manifold pressure. The wastegates in turn were controlled by a governor. At low altitudes the governor monitored and was itself controlled by maximum manifold pressure. At altitude, the governor responded to turbine speed. As the XP-47B had climbed out, the governor closed the wastegates. The oil in the ducts was rapidly heated and began to give off smoke. If Brabham hadn’t kept his nerve, a simple fault could have killed the whole program.

The XP-47B would remain at Mitchel Field for about a month as modifications were made to prevent future smoke in the cockpit. Some additional, but minor changes were implemented and surprisingly, no national insignia was yet applied to the wings and fuselage. The XP-47B was never delivered to Wright Field, as had been the practice for all new designs for many years. It was tested in the skies over Long Island. Having been assigned to Republic in order to expedite any required changes, it would remain in hands of its manufacturer until its inadvertent loss in 1942.

Authors Note: This is as OTL, some of the technical data and events came from this source:

6 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Oflag IV-C. Colditz. Germany.

Pilot Officer Hank Wardle had enjoyed the last couple of days, they were the best he’d had since being shot down in April 1940 doing a reconnaissance in a Blenheim. He’d been the sole survivor of the crew and had been shuffled from pillar to post through a number of different POW camps. He’d ended up here in Colditz Castle because of his propensity for escape attempts. There weren’t too many prisoners here who spoke English, and so, the dozen or so British and Commonwealth prisoners tended to stick together. The French were the biggest group, about 150 of them, but they were a bit odd. The pilots were fine, but some of the infantry officers were hard to take. There were about 60 Polish officers, a dozen Belgians, ten Dutch and a couple of very sorry for themselves Luxembourgers.

So the day before yesterday they’d discovered that the guards had all disappeared. Didn’t even leave a note, the buggers. They’d cleared out the armoury, but there were a good number of uniforms left lying about as if surplus to requirement, and they’d left behind enough food and drink for the prisoners to make merry for a night. The senior officer present, a French General who thought he was the next thing to God Almighty, decided to Lord it over the “prisoners.” Giving orders right, left and centre he was. “No Savvy!” became the favourite words of the Brits, then the Poles, even some of the Belgians tried it. Quite a few “inmates” decided to make off on their own, heading for destinations unknown.

Wardle decided to stay put, someone would turn up eventually and claim him, he supposed, and the thought of marching through a war zone didn’t really appeal. He was free, at least there was no one guarding him. He did consider heading into the town and hiding out there, just in case some Germans decided to reopen their Oflag. They’d found a working radio in the guards’ barracks, and the reports seemed to put the French Army not too far away, and with any luck somebody would come looking for their lost general. In that case, Wardle thought he’d be able to hitch a ride and head back in style.

Sure enough, not ten minutes ago, a cheer went up and a column of French reconnaissance troops rolled up into the courtyard. The French General had lined up his men in proper ranks to greet their countrymen. The other nationalities were a bit more enthusiastic and less formal. If there was one thing that the Wardle would ever be grateful to the French Army for, it was they travelled with copious amounts of wine. True it seemed to be liberated German stuff, but welcome nonetheless. The best part of the whole thing was the way the French General was treated. It seemed that these hard-fighting reconnaissance troops had heard about this guy, and were singularly unimpressed by his credentials. Wardle supposed that Generals in the first part of the war who ended up in prisoner of war camps probably weren’t too good at their jobs.

As the day turned to evening, a somewhat tipsy Canadian Flying officer headed back for this cell, or room as he should call it now. The French troops had promised that some trucks would appear the next day and pick them all up. As he went to sleep, he wondered what his year in captivity would mean for him. Would it be ticket home to Manitoba, or back to the squadron? He hoped it would be the first option, and he went to sleep trying to work out just how much back pay he was owed.

7 May 1941. 08:00hrs. Alt-Daber Fliegerhorst. Near Wittstock. Germany.

The training cadre at Fallschirm-Schule 2 had decided to make a fight of it. The first actions of the Fallschirmjägers in Norway had been a disaster. Then their planned drops in Fall Gleb in Belgium and the Netherlands was scaled right back. Those units that had gone never came back. The hopes and dreams for an elite fighting force that would be delivered from the air, by parachute and glider, had never really had the chance to prove itself. More and more of the specially trained troops had found themselves being reassigned to line units, so that what had begun as 7th Flieger-Division, was little more than a few battalions scattered here and there, mostly now in East Prussia. It seemed that the British had developed helicopters or auto-gyros big enough to drop men behind the lines and had used them effectively. That just made the men of the parachute school all the more determined that their name would not be lost to history, but they would prove what they would have been capable of, if given the chance.

It was somewhat ironic (at least to those who had information from the Bristol Group universe) that the forces the Fallschirmjägers found themselves up against on that damp May morning happened to be New Zealanders, specifically 22nd Battalion, 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade. Captain Johnson’s C Company were the lead Company as they approached the airfield. The Battalion’s Carrier Platoon were working their way around eastwards to approach from that flank, while C Company moved up from the direction of Wittstock, following the railway line, with a troop of four Comet tanks from 43rd RTR.

The commander of the Fallschirm-Schule 2, Major Heilmann, had about a company’s worth of troops he could count on. Most of these men were dedicated Nazi Party members, who had joined the Luftwaffe before the war, with high expectations of being the spearpoint of the German lance. He also had about three hundred men who had been undergoing training. In fact, he had had six hundred, but there had been a lot of desertions over the last couple of days. As Fallschirmjäger, they weren’t much for fixed defences, so he had split his force into three company sized units. Two were made up mostly of trainees, and the other was his dedicated troops, mostly the instructors from the camp. One group of trainees were around the barracks area, another at the perimeter of the airfield. He led his own company, which had concealed itself in a small wood two hundred meters from the barracks, which he intended to use as the hammer to hit the British in the rear as they attacked the anvil of the troops in the airfield itself. The plan was to hit them hard, and then fall back towards Berlin, causing as much mischief as they could.

The New Zealanders were well seasoned troops, and although there hadn’t been too many contacts with the enemy in the last couple of days, the usual rules of engagement were to fire first and ask questions later. Captain Johnson stood on top of Troop Commander’s turret and examined the place through binoculars. “I don’t like the look of that place,” he commented. The tank commander shrugged his shoulders and put the radio onto the artillery frequency. Calling up a stonk on the coordinates from his map, they waited a few minutes until the ranging shot from a 25-pdr exploded, the tank commander called in the correction and watched as two batteries worth of artillery blanked the place with high explosive for a minute or so. In the meantime, Johnson had got two of his platoons, each with a tank, to move up in tactical formation, closing with the position while any sensible German would be cowering in a hole.

When the artillery battery ceased fire, the Battalion mortar platoon opened up, giving the infantry and tanks a bit more cover as they closed. An anti-tank gun took a shot at one of the Comets from the perimeter of the airfield, managing a hit on the tracks. That annoyed the Troop leader, who wanted to call in another artillery barrage. Johnson stopped him from doing so, as his men were now too close to the German positions, another barrage would not only be dangerous, but would also stop the momentum they had built up. The Comet, although now stuck was still able to use its main gun, and the 6-pdr had fired off a couple of HE rounds towards the suspected anti-tank gun position, while the co-axial machine gun was laying down a veritable sea of tracer. A second shot from the anti-tank gun careened off the turret, without penetrating. There were at least two MG34s which had also opened up on the attacking New Zealanders.

The Lieutenant commanding 10 Platoon had two of his sections pouring fire onto the German position, along with the 2 inch mortar, while he led the third section, with rest of the Platoon HQ, towards the German gun position. Having got themselves into a position with a bit of cover, the Lieutenant got his reinforced section to fire off their rifle grenades and the M79 grenade launcher, adding to the weight of fire coming down on the German position. As soon as they’d fired off the grenades, they followed them up with a rushing attack in two teams. Not all of the Germans had been suppressed and one of the New Zealand teams were hit by a burst of fire from an MG34, putting them to ground, with one dead and two wounded.

Johnson swore as he watched what was happening, and signalled for his reserve platoon to move up in support, with the remaining two tanks in support. 9 Platoon with the other Comet started to take fire from the barracks area, and Johnson realised that this was a bigger problem than his company should face alone. He got onto Lt Col Andrew at Battalion HQ and gave a situation report. When it was acknowledged and Johnson was informed that D company would be arriving to support him, he turned his attention back to battle that was unfolding before him. He was in two minds about whether to call his men back to a safe distance and let the artillery soften up the Germans a bit more, or attempt to keep up the pressure on them. The fact that the Germans were in at least two positions, and it seemed in good strength, would argue for the first. But with three tanks in support, and so far, only one anti-gun, which seemed to have been silenced, he was confident that his men should prevail, but at what cost was the question in the back of his mind.

Major Heilmann watched on from his position, cursing the anti-tank gunners for firing too soon. The 37mm guns he had only had enough penetrating power from close range, though a shot on the tracks had stopped the tank, and he was impressed by the accuracy of the gunner. He watched the British troops go through their fire and movement drills, which he judged were adequate, but not up to Fallschirmjäger standards. The use of artillery, mortars and grenades was good, but their Bren guns couldn’t put down the rate of fire of the MG34s, and so were at a disadvantage. If he understood the British playbook, more troops would be joining the fight, and so he waiting to spring his trap to give him the best possible outcome.

Lt Col Andrew was disappointed that the weather wasn’t suitable for air support, so he got onto the artillery net to prepare them for a more complete barrage, they might need the whole artillery regiment’s support if the Germans were in bigger numbers than had been encountered so far. He also informed his Brigade commander, Brigadier James Hargest, what was going on. Hargest asked if he had it under control, and Andrew was confident enough to say “yes, at the moment.” Having already given orders for D Company, his reserve company, to move up in support of C Company, he then contacted A Company to stop what they were doing and prepare to move to the airfield. He was a bit worried about the carrier platoon being off on its own, and managed to get a radio message to the OC bringing him up to date on the situation. Lastly, he spoke with the Squadron Commander of 43rd RTR who were supporting the Battalion, but he already had been informed by his Troop commander and was sending another troop of tanks in addition to those moving up with D company. It seemed reasonable to expect that a dozen tanks would be more than enough to deal with anything the Germans might have, short of an unexpected panzer battalion. However, he wanted to see for himself and so he got into one of the HQ’s universal carriers, and with two others as escorts, including one of the signal’s radio carriers, went towards the sounds of the guns.

9 and 10 Platoons were now fully engaged, along with the one mobile tank, while 11 platoon were rushing forward to support them with the other two tanks. The Captain commanding the carrier platoon had taken stock of the situation and hurried his men to continue their movement, so that he could swing back and take the barracks area from the flank and rear. Unfortunately, he couldn’t contact Johnson directly to coordinate the timing of that. The signals had to be passed through battalion radio net, there was still a lack of radios in the battalion, though things had improved greatly over the year since they’d arrived in France. The carrier platoon had four Carl Gustavs among them, and so felt confident that they’d be able to deal with any dug in positions. The New Zealanders, like the rest of the British army, had come to love what the 84mm weapon could do to what it was fired at. The exception to that rule were the men who crewed the weapons, who were invariably deafened when firing them, and found them awkward and heavy to carry.

A second anti-tank gun unveiled itself at suicidal range, knocking out the tank that accompanied 9 Platoon, its crew being immediately killed by Kiwis return fire. The problem was that without “their tank”, the platoon went to ground rather than keeping moving forward. Johnson was beginning to regret not pulling back when he had the chance and letting the artillery do the work. The fact that the troop leader of the tanks berated him for the same reason, didn’t help. The first couple of platoons from D Company arrived, and Johnson and Captain Campbell of D Company had a quick meeting to decide what to do. They agreed to wait until the second troop of Comets arrived, and then D Company would attack from the left flank, hopefully in concert with the carrier platoon coming from the right flank. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, and in fact the two attacks went in separately.

5th Brigade commander, Brigadier James Hargest wasn’t entirely satisfied with Andrew’s situation report, and so he gave orders for his reserves 28th (Maori) Battalion, to begin to move towards the airfield. Having done that he then notified 23rd Battalion that a battle was developing which may require their participation. With the possibility that they would need more than the allotted artillery regiment, he then contacted General Freyburg’s Divisional HQ bringing his up to date with what was happening and giving an assessment of what was happening, as far as he had that information. Freyburg confirmed that the Divisional artillery assets would be made available, 5th Brigade was the only unit in contact with the enemy.

Heilmann watched as events unfolded and was happy with the way in which the two groups on the airfield had done their duty. The arrival of the enemy’s reinforcements was just as he predicted, though the presence of increasing number of tanks would make things much more difficult. Other than two more 37mm anti-tank guns, his ability to take on armoured forces was limited. Just as he was considering this, the carrier platoon made its entrance into the battle.

The German group in the barracks area had prepared itself for an all-round defence. The universal carriers used by the British army were well known and their weakness of being open topped was also taken into account. As the first section of four carriers raced forward, under the cover of the combined machine guns of the rest of the sections, they halted and added their fire while the second section leapfrogged them. As they moved forward again another section raced to take their places. The German defenders had bided their time, and when the first two sections were close enough, two MG34s opened fire on them from elevated positions in the buildings, and a veritable cloud of ‘potato masher’ grenades were thrown in their direction. Four carriers were immediately out of commission, and the other four reversed as fast as they could. The men on the Carl Gustavs didn’t need to be told, and soon the big HEAT rounds were demolishing the buildings from which the fire had come. Most of the German machine gun groups had already changed positions, so most of these explosions didn’t make any great impact on the numbers of defenders. Though yet another form of explosive device adding to those they were already experiencing didn’t help their fraying nerves.

With the attack from the right flank being beaten back, as far as Captain Campbell could see from his position with D Company, it seemed that his own attack would then have to go in by itself. Once more the question about pulling back and letting the artillery soften up the positions was asked, but the men from 9 and 10 platoons were still bogged down, and would be unable to retire far enough for the artillery support to be anything but ‘danger close’. Campbell’s 12 and 14 Platoon, with four Comets offering their firepower and armoured bulk moved forward and started to roll up the German unit of the perimeter’s positions. In the close combat there wasn’t much chance of surrender, and the liberal use of rifle grenades and Mills Bombs meant that when the fighting ceased, the only surviving German trainee Fallschirmjägers were those who were badly wounded or had played possum.

Major Heilmann watched the destruction of a third of his force with cold-bloodied calculation. The group in the Barracks had done well against the carriers, and were now under intense bombardment from mortars of various types. The enemy now had two company’s worth of troops in his trap, while he had almost 300 men. If he attacked now, he could be able to gut them like fish, then make his escape before he was completely outnumbered. If he delayed much longer, he wouldn’t have an anvil to pin the enemy against, and so he gave the order for his men to advance on the English troops.

Captain Johnson cursed himself for not having done more than a cursory check of that wood on his flank. Originally his reserve 11 Platoon had been due to clear it, but they’d been sucked into the fighting, and if he was entirely honest with himself, the fact that the carrier platoon had passed it, without being fired upon had made him presume it was empty. Now a large body of Germans, with strange shaped helmets were streaming out of it, with a large number of machine guns making the survivors of his Company go to ground.

Major Heilmann felt the thrill of battle surge through his body as his legs pumped pushing him forward with his MP38 on his hip, ready to slay the enemy. The rational part of his brain was impressed by the quickness of the riposte of the enemy, after an initial surprise they had started putting a lot of fire in his direction. The tanks, as he had feared were mobile pillboxes, and although their main armament wasn’t much use, their co-axial machine guns were taking a toll on his men.

When Captain Campbell was hit in the initial fusillade, and D Company came under crossfire from the barracks area, as well as from the soldiers coming from the trees, it had been enough to paralyse the men for a few moments. Experience took them to ground, and practise got them to bring their rifles and Bren guns to bear on the greater threat. The tanks provided a sense of refuge, though the numbers of bullets pinging off the armour was a distraction for the troops in closest proximity to them. 13 Platoon which had been providing a base of fire for the other two platoons moving forward to the perimeter of the airfield were able to turn their guns onto the rushing German troops, without the distractions from the Barracks positions. The Second in Command of the carrier platoon, now in charge while the Captain’s wounds were treated, saw what was happening and got his surviving Bren guns into action.

The New Zealanders who suffered most from the German onslaught were 9 and 10 Platoons, who were already short on ammunition and weakened from their endeavours. To all intents and purposes, they ceased to exist, while 11 Platoon were badly mauled. D Company were rocked back taking a lot of casualties. Major Heilmann’s attack was broken off as he could see the English troops beginning to get their act together. His men had done their job, giving the enemy a bloody nose, and now it was time to withdraw to live to fight another day. As they got back into the woods, they had left about thirty men behind on the field. The plan to break into three columns and evade southwards was well honed, and Heilmann went with the central group.

Back at the airfield the final German troops in the barracks area were finished off by the tanks and soon those who were able attempted to surrender. When Lt Col Andrew arrived on the scene at the same time as A Company and the rest of the tank squadron, it took a bit of time to work out who was where and getting medical support to the wounded. He wanted to get A Company to chase the Germans, but when he got in contact with Brigadier Hargest, he was ordered to stay where he was and secure the rest of the airfield. 28th (Maori) Battalion was on their way and they would take up the pursuit.

Major Heilmann’s group moved from cover to cover as quickly as they could. He had traced three routes on the maps in advance of the trap, so that his men would have a good escape plan. What surprised him, was the fact that the path he had chosen for his own escape happened to be crossed by the Maori Battalion’s own path towards the airfield, he hadn’t expected the British forces to be as far advanced past Wittstock as it turned out they were.

B Coy under Captain Rangi Royal was at the head of the battalion line of march, and the forward platoons started to hear the sounds of German voices approaching. The men quickly deployed into an ambush formation and when the German troops appeared in their midst, the fire from the Bren guns and rifles devastated the Fallschirmjäger. While they were still rocked back on their heels, the Maoris, with terrible war cries fell on the surviving Germans at the point of the bayonet.

Major Heilmann saw the big dark faced Englishman approach with his 12 inch bayonet aimed directly at his guts. Whether it was the surprise of the colour of his skin, or by the noise that was emanating from his mouth, Heilmann couldn’t explain why his burst from his MP38 completely missed him, but the bayonet didn’t waver and he felt the shock of the steel penetrating his guts. His last conscious thought was reading “New Zealand” on the shoulder of the uniform of the man who killed him. Killed by an untermensch. It was too much for him to bear. Private Pomare Kutia twisted the bayonet as he’d been trained and fired off a round into the collapsed body of the German to help pull the bayonet out of the body. The German had a surprised look on his face, the private thought, he thought it should have been pain, but it certainly looked more surprised than anything.

7 May 1941. 12:00hrs. Premnitz. Germany.

Sometimes it felt as if there was not much else to say about Germany except there were a lot of rivers. This particular river, the Havel, was a real pain because it seemed to curve round on itself. It had only been fifteen miles from the Elbe, but the Germans had put up quite a fight. The officer had suggested that if they were on the Medway in Kent, defending London from a German invasion, and the next line back was the Thames, then the men of the West Kents would be fighting as hard as Jerry was. It was all very well for the officer to say it, but surely any German soldier with a modicum of common sense would know that they were already beat.

12th (Eastern) Division were responsible for forcing a crossing here, which they were told was the last river obstacle before Berlin itself. Someone had dug up an old road sign that said it was 70km to Berlin from here, which someone else had translated as 45 miles. That was just a bit less that from Ashford to central London as the crow flies. So maybe all the fighting was understandable. Certainly, there were a lot of German soldiers who’d had the common sense to surrender when their positions became untenable, some had even surrendered after the initial contact. Poor looking souls for the most part. Looked like a lot of them hadn’t had a proper meal in ages. Not much in the way of equipment either. At the Meuse and the Rhine, even at the Elbe there had been lots of mortars, lots of machine guns. They didn’t seem to have anything like as much ammunition. But there was always the chance the few bullets the Germans had would still have a Kent man’s name on it.

At least all these river crossings meant that the West Kents were well trained and practiced in assaulting across a river. While the artillery was bombarding the far side, keeping Jerry’s head down, the assault troops moved up to the river with their boats. Then the indirect fire from the Vickers would start up, as would the mortars. Then after five minutes, another quick barrage from the artillery to catch any Jerry who’d came out from their bunkers. A fair bit of smoke would finish that bombardment, and then it was into the boats and paddle as hard as you could. On the far side jump up with the rifle and the bayonet and hope there were no mines waiting underfoot. Jerry liked his mines, no doubt about that. There’d be a lot of men on crutches back home in Kent, with a foot or lower leg blown off. Those were bad, but there was some kind of jumping mine that went off around crotch height. Probably better losing a foot than your manhood.

Then forward, always moving forward. The smoke and confusion usually meant you can’t see what is going on round you. Just the Corporal occasionally shouting for “five rounds rapid, front…fire!” Then you drop off the couple of Bren magazines you were carrying, glad to get some of the weight off from your webbing. Not much of chance to grab a sip from your canteen, though your mouth is as dry as dust. Then the command from the Lieutenant, to dig in. The Germans always counterattack. You have get out your entrenching tool and dig as if your life depended on it, because it usually does. Here they come, you have to give them credit, certainly no one can doubt their bravery, even if you doubt their sanity. Ten rounds rapid fire, a few grenades thrown, the Bren gunners chattering away, and then there’s no more counterattack.

Time for a breather, reload the rifles, take a sip from the canteen at long last. The corporal looks keeps a beady eye on you, making sure it is only a sip, there’s no telling when there will be more water brought up. The sergeant appears with a couple of runners, more bullets for everyone. A few men are charging the Bren magazines while the officers decide what to do next. Some cigarettes are lit. The sound of artillery, everyone cowers down, it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility for your own artillery to drop short. You just hope someone has told the artillery just how far forward the company had advanced. Thankfully the artillery hits the German positions. Judging when to stand up and advance is always dicey. The Lieutenant blows his whistle, and the platoon stands up and begins to move forward, starting it all over again.

7 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Gibraltar.

Field Marshal John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, took the salute from the garrison as he took up his appointment as Governor and Commander in Chief of Gibraltar. Since being replaced as the Commander of the BEF in January 1940, the Field Marshall had had a number of different jobs, most importantly as ADC General to King George VI. The role of Governor General seemed a good role for him, and Gort was glad of having something significant to do.

Once all the formalities were over his chief of staff began the process of updating his new commander in chief. His predecessor Sir Clive Liddell had begun to allow the return of those who had been evacuated, a process that would probably take another six months to complete. With the continuing absence of conflict in the Mediterranean theatre some of the reinforcements that had been sent to Gibraltar were likely to be withdrawn. The Canadian Tunnelers’ work of expanding the tunnel network inside the rock was continuing, and the expansion of the runway was also underway.

The 82nd Heavy AA Regiment were well positioned, though their presence was under review, as there was no aerial threat current, or expected. The Gibraltar Defence Force had been mobilised and were supporting the Coastal Batteries and the AA regiments. It was now considered that the 9th AA Regiment, the original unit was probably adequate for the threat level. General Franco was continuing to be very quiet and respectful towards his British and French neighbours. The Italians were now fighting against the Germans, and so were unlikely to pose any kind of threat. The chances of any further reinforcements were highly unlikely as the need just wasn’t there. The Royal Navy still had a strong presence, which was more than adequate to deal with any potential threats.

What Gort told the Chief of Staff surprised him somewhat. Relations between Britain and Portugal had been warming and Salazar was acting as something of a go-between with Franco. The sale of Tungsten to Germany from Spain had stopped, and the British and French were now buying up Spain’s output for a better price than Franco had been getting from Hitler. While Franco’s political view of the world was frowned upon in the Entente, even in Spain it was becoming clear that Fascism, or Spanish Catholic Authoritarianism as he preferred, wasn’t winning any friends. After the upheavals of the civil war, the fact that the Entente were still hostile towards Communism and the Stalin regime meant that Franco was slightly more open to Entente’s advances than he might be otherwise.

With that in mind, Viscount Gort had been given the task by London to do what he could to sweeten relations with Spain. In return for Spanish concessions on the future of Gibraltar, Britain and France were prepared to look much more positively at trading links to Spain, as well as with Portugal. Gort had been specifically asked to be in contact informally with the Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, heir to the throne of Spain, to begin a conversation about what a restored monarchy might look like. As Gort had been ADC general to the King, it was felt that his approach would be received positively. Since the Count had served in the Royal Navy, he was something of an anglo-phile, it was just a pity that Gort was a soldier rather than an admiral.

The Chief of Staff immediately saw the danger inherent in the two roles: to sweeten relations with Franco; while at the same time being in contact with the heir to the Spanish throne; might well work against each other. If Franco believed the British were attempting to oust him with the return of the King, he might become unreasonable. Gort believed however, that Franco would be open to some form of constitutional monarchy, as long as it didn’t upset his Falangist apple cart. The contact he was to make with the Count of Barcelona, was to try to find a way in which Juan could present himself to Franco, not as a threat, but as an asset. The Chief of Staff wondered where those who had briefed Gort were getting their ideas from, as it seemed like a very long shot. It was something that Gort could get his teeth into and was quite excited about.

7 May 1941. 21:00hrs. Berlin. Germany.

(Entry in the diary of Marie Vassiltchikov)

The sound of artillery fire has been growing louder. The rumours are that the British are approaching from the north and the French from the south. Spent all day trying to find food, no shops are open, they haven't been for a few days now. A dead horse was being butchered in the street, and I managed to get half a kilo, though I had to dig my nails into the hands of an old lady who tried to prise it off me. Tatiana managed to get some wood, and so we were able to cook it with the few carrots and potatoes we had squirrelled away.

Tatiana tried to get in contact again with Jake Beam at the American Embassy. No success. She said there were thousands of people at its gates trying to get help. The other embassies are the same, I went past the Brazilian embassy but couldn’t get close. Our hope is that having worked at the British Legation in Lithuania, and speaking French as well as English, we might have the hope of a job with the occupying powers.

There are a lot of soldiers on the streets, they were rounding up men, what for wasn’t clear, but probably to dig fortifications. No trams are running, and very few vehicles of any description. It was raining for much of the day, so there were no aircraft to be seen. Though the sound of their engines told me they were above the clouds. Another lot of leaflets were dropped last night. There is no sign that the city will be declared open, as they demand.

The last of the candles is about finished, I need to keep a stub in case we have to go to the basement. Things look very bleak.

8 May 1941. 08:00hrs. Ludwigslust. Germany.

General Noel Beresford-Peirse, formerly GOC 4th (Indian) Division, had proven an excellent commander, and had been promoted to command VI Corps in Third Army. General Desmond Anderson, whom he replaced, had recalled to London to take over the Intelligence Corps to sort it out. That left 4th (Indian) Division needing a new commander, and after some thought, it was decided to give command to Major-General William Slim, who had been commanding 10th (Indian) Division, one of the line of communications units.

On arriving at the Divisional Headquarters, Bill Slim got down to work, meeting his senior officers. Brigadier Wilfred Lloyd of 5th (Indian) Brigade, Brigadier Harold Briggs of 7th (Indian) Brigade, Brigadier Reginald Savory of 11th (Indian) Brigade were joined by their own immediate staffs, along with the divisional staff. Slim was aware that any one of these Brigadiers could easily have stepped up to Divisional Commander, and he knew that he would probably lose one or more of them to the new Indian Divisions being assembled back in France.

On the whole what Slim heard from his subordinates was encouraging. The role of the division in Third Army currently was to follow up the main thrusts of VII and ANZAC Corps. So much of their current activity was to occupy the towns and villages that the main thrust had passed through. What was clear was there was a large degree of resentment among the German population at the presence of the Indian soldiers. The officers of the Indian army were all too familiar with the casual racism their men endured all too often at the hands of British troops and civilians, the fact that the German civilian population shared that racism was no surprise. Slim was keen on making sure that his men would suffer as little indignity as possible, and so he reaffirmed Beresford-Peirse’s orders that any disrespect shown to the men should be punished effectively. The Germans had to learn a hard lesson, and Slim had no compunction to spare the rod.

11th (Indian) Brigade were currently on call to move forward in support of the ANZACs should they encounter any major German resistance that needed a strong infantry element to overcome. Slim knew that Savory’s Brigade would fit that role very well. He exempted from the occupation role, keeping them together, and assigning them the lion’s share of the Divisional vehicles to make sure they were able to react quickly to any request for help. Briggs’ 7th (Indian) Brigade had been hard used at the crossing of the Wesser and still wasn’t up to full strength. So Slim wanted them to concentrate of occupation duties, making them responsible for that task in the first instance. Lloyd’s 5th (Indian) Brigade would support them as far as needed, but Slim didn’t want them too tied down, so that they could support 11th (Indian) Brigade, if necessary, at short notice.

Once he was up to date with the current dispositions of his Division, Slim spent the rest of the next two days visiting the various units under his command, to get a feel for them, and more importantly for them to get a sense of their new commander and his concern for their welfare.

8 May 1941. 12:00hrs. Treuenbrietzen. Germany.

General René Prioux had had to delay his army’s march to Berlin to allow Martin’s 7e Army to get across the Elbe at Torgau so that his right flank wasn’t hanging in the wind. 1re DCr and 4e DM had made good progress to Treuenbrietzin but had come to a stop on 6 May. Prioux had given his 5e DINA (Division d'infanterie Nord-Africaine) orders to protect the right flank of the advance, and a strong push by the 24e RTT (Rgt de Tirailleurs Tunisiens) towards Torgau from Wittenberg meant that when Martin’s attack across the river had gone in, the day before, the Germans were in danger of being flanked, and so the crossing had gone well.

On his left flank, the 101e DI, a former fortress division, had been following the railway through Wiesenburg and Bad Belzig. Generally, the resistance from the German forces had been mixed, as it had been for the last month or so, patchy, some might call it. Some units fought with tenacity; others gave up at the first chance. However large number of German first line units had disappeared. It was presumed that they had been withdrawn to East Prussia, which was what all the intelligence pointed to. However, the threat of a large and mobile army that was unaccounted for, had to be taken into account. The French were still paying full attention to their flanks.

Just to add to the complications, Prioux was having to liaise with the British Second Army, General Wilson’s command. They were approaching Berlin from the west and north and so they needed to coordinate their attack on the city so that defenders would be caught in a vice, rather than be able to deal with each attack one at a time. Wilson’s progress, unlike his own, had a lot more troubles. The route the English were taking was more difficult terrain, they’d had to cross the river Havel the day before. The latest information he received was that the 1st Mechanised Corps were fully across the river and were now poised to push their way into Spandau, where they would have to cross the Havel again.

The one good thing about the two-day halt was that his logistical troops had taken the time to resupply the units. It also allowed 1re DCr and 4e DM to be joined by three motorised infantry divisions: 1re, 12e and 15e DIM. 4e DM would be working with 15e DIM on the right flank of the movement towards Zossen and Mittenwalde. 1re DCr, 1re and 12e DIM would aim up through Trebbin and Ludwigsfelde. Just to add to the good news the weather was set clear for the next few days, giving the RAF and AdA clear skies to support the thrusts into the city. A large leafletting raid had taken place during the night, calling for the surrender of the city, for the sake of the civilian population. It wasn’t clear what effect this would have, but all the information was pointing to a large number of civilians had abandoned the city, heading eastwards.

8 May 1941. 17:00hrs. Berlin. Germany.

Feldwebel Horst Block couldn’t believe it had come to this. Infantry Regiment 235 of 102nd Division had been decimated at the Weser, and the survivors eventually had ended up as part of the Berlin garrison. There were a lot of people like him, older men, many of them veterans, commanding Züge of half-trained lads, most of whom didn’t look as if they were old enough to shave. Block certainly didn’t understand the kids. They’d had up to eight years of Hitler Youth indoctrination, and were all for fighting to the death for the Fuhrer. The same Fuhrer who had made himself scarce directing the war from as far away as he could get.

As to equipment, well, they all had rifles, and bayonets, some even had bullets. Most bullets had been kept for the MG34s, which was now a platoon weapon. One per platoon. Maybe a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition. Then it was cold steel and rifle butts. That was they had to defend Berlin. Old men and boys, a shortage of equipment and not a clue. The bombers had been over again last night. Leaflets, rather than bombs. But the bombs would follow. Then it would be turn of the artillery, and the English and the French, they loved their artillery. The Wehrmacht artillery, now where was that? There were a few door knockers, 37mm anti-tank guns that would be worse than useless. Most Regiments still had some mortars, though how many bombs they had was open to question. Block had seen some 88mm anti-aircraft guns, under Luftwaffe control, which was a sick joke. A Luftwaffe without any aircraft, at least none that Block had seen for a long time.

The lads were hungry too. Boys of that age were always hungry, but the quality and the quantity of the rations had been poor for some time. Not as bad as the civilians of course. At least there wasn’t much use for the horses in a static defensive position. Most of the horses had supplemented the rations, not that there was much meat on them either, poor things. The best part of each day had been spent digging, or building road blocks, so it was hard menial labour the lads were doing, and getting nothing like the amount of food they needed. Some of the civilians had shared things, but that was weeks ago, and there was nothing much left to share any more. Even cigarettes were becoming as valuable as gold. Still the lads at night would sit around the camp fires, if they weren’t in air raid shelters, and sing their Hitler Youth songs. Block was old enough to be a father to most of them, and that was what they called him “Vater”. But he knew he couldn’t keep them safe, or feed them, so what kind of father was he?

9 May 1941. 07:00hrs. Over Berlin. Germany.

It had worked in Hamburg, and the RAF was hoping that it would work again in the German capital, only this time, the AdA had joined in. At first light 300 fighters flew low over the city. The French had come first, their Dewoitine 520s and Bloch 152s fighters wanted to wake up the city. They also wanted to see what kind of anti-aircraft artillery would show itself. There were another 300 LeO 451 and Amiot 354 bombers fully armed with a variety of weapons to make any flak unit wish they’d followed the advice in the last lot of leaflets, promising a terrible death to any flak crew who dared open fire on the Entente aircraft. A few shots were fired in the direction of the fighters, but nothing organised, and nothing terribly dangerous. The French bombers then flew at medium altitude for ten minutes. They flew in a loose figure of eight over the city, making it absolutely clear just who had control of the skies. To underline that demonstration the aircraft dropped to lower altitude and dropped their ordnance on the Tiergarten.

Their aiming point was the Grosse Stern, the victory monument and then the carpet of bombs and napalm followed the road towards the Brandenburger Tor. It was a fairly accurate bombing run, a few bombs went off course, but the whole of the park was obliterated. As the noise of the bombers’ engines faded, the fighters once more flew low, as low as they dared, following roads and railways so that anyone who witnessed it knew full well that any movement could easily be pounced upon. The fighter’s ability to loiter was limited and so the various squadrons formed up and flew off back to their bases.

Then came the RAF following only a few minutes later. Beaufighters and Hurribombers replaced the Dewoitines and Blochs. A few anti-aircraft guns did try their luck, and once again infantry units opened fire with their machine guns. This time they were punished. The mixture of cluster munitions and napalm, backed up by cannon fire had soon silenced anyone who had a notion to pick a fight. Photoreconnaissance Spitfires and Mosquitos had been busy over last few days getting photographs of anywhere it looked like there were road blocks or other prepared defensive positions. Each of these were targeted, mostly with napalm, it was clear that this was the most feared weapon. All of this took little more than ten minutes. But in that small amount of time 250 British fighter-bombers gave a clear indication of what they intended to do to the defenders of the city: they would burn.

After the fighter bombers came the medium bombers. 300 Wellingtons with plenty of Spitfires flying in escort had chosen Flughaven Berlin-Tempelhof for their demonstration. It had been bombed before and was no longer a functional airfield. But from 3000 feet, in three waves the 300 bombers dropped their loads of 1000lb bombs. 1200 bombs rained down, mostly on the target, though there were a few strays once again. Wherever Berliners were taking cover, the impact of the bombs felt like an earthquake in their body.

As the Wellingtons climbed back up to 10000 feet, the Spitfires buzzed the city, a few pilots got slightly carried away and started doing aerobatics, for which they got a dressing down afterwards from their senior officers, then were bought a pint in the mess by their mates. As the Spitfires climbed back up to shepherd the Wellingtons home, then came the French again. This time they were flying Glenn Martin 187s and Douglas DB-7Bs, escorted by MB157s, but this time they only dropped leaflets, though half the bombers had a load of bombs, just in case.

As the French departed the RAF Halifax force arrived, with Mustangs escorting them. The four engined planes had the simplest job, they were to drop leaflets. There were two leaflets, one obviously aimed at the civilians, the other aimed at the military. For the German soldier it simply read “Kapituliert oder ihr werdet exterminiert.” (“Surrender or we will exterminate you”) The message for the civilians was stark, but it had the whole of the city wondering what exactly the English meant: “Widerstand ist sinnlos... Möchten Sie einige Gedichte hören?"("Resistance is useless... Do you want to hear some poetry?") Was it an opening to say that they respected Die Kultur? That the nation of Schiller and Goethe did not have to be exterminated?

All morning it continued, bombers and fighters flew over the city, returned to base to refuel, then returned to make it clear to the population in the city that there was nowhere really to hide. Between both air forces they flew more than 2000 sorties over the German capital. A few aircraft were lost to mechanical failures and accidents, one Hurribomber had crashed in the Wedding area of the city, possibly the result of ground fire, but more likely the pilot had just flown too low and hit something. Mid-afternoon, a couple of hours after the last big show of strength a few photoreconnaissance aircraft flew over the city to seem what impact had been made. They reported a large number of people, presumably civilians, who were streaming out of the city towards the east. When the photographs were developed and studied, that was confirmed, and it seemed that among them were plenty of men in uniform, suggesting that the psychological warfare tactic was partly successful. For the rest of the day, and all through the night there were always at least two squadron’s worth of aircraft flying over the city. At night the bombers dropped illumination flares from high altitude bathing the city in multicoloured light.

9 May 1941. 09:00hrs. Wustermark. Germany.

Sergeant Iain McGregor’s platoon cleared out the last few houses in front of the canal, with an A13mkIV tank burning furiously just behind them. A couple of Germans used some kind of petrol bomb, it was suicidal but effective. The rest of the company were clearing out the rest of the village. It was a bit of a mess, no white flags anywhere, so it had got a dose of fire from two batteries of the Royal Artillery’s 25-pdrs, as the team of Seaforth Highlanders and 9th Queen's Royal Lancers raced in. There couldn’t have been more than a platoon’s worth of German troops, but they’d caused a fair bit of mischief for all that.

“Sarge, you need to come and see this.” McGregor had seen a fair bit of stuff that would turn his stomach over the last year. He had a horrible sinking feeling that this would be another thing that would keep him awake at night for years to come, if God spared him. Sure enough, the village church was full of dead bodies, piled high. At first McGregor thought they had been killed by a shell or something, the church was damaged. But one of the few prisoners that had been taken, shed light on it. These had been the residents of the village that had attempted to hang out white flags. The German Captain in the charge of the defence of the place, had got his men to round them up and shoot them for “aiding the enemy.” Wustermark wasn’t much bigger than McGregor’s home village of Urquhart, near Elgin. He reckoned that probably up to half the village was lying in the church. His first order was to make sure the prisoner lived, he would be needed as a witness, and if he had pulled a trigger, then he was wanted as a criminal. He himself wanted the rip the man apart with his own bare hands, and if he felt like that, then no doubt the men would feel the same.

His second order was to look for the body of the German Captain that had ordered it. There was a chance that some of the defenders had made it across the canal, but if the man was dead, he wanted him identified. His third order was for this radioman to contact battalion and let them know what had been found. Crimes against civilians had to be notified, and McGregor wanted to make sure this crime was recorded. If Germany wanted to exist in the future it would need to deal with what their soldiers had done to their own people. The last order was to round up whoever they could find, and start digging a large grave. There weren’t enough prisoners or surviving civilians to do the job, so the men of the Seaforth Highlanders took up their spades and shovels and started preparing a grave for the villagers. As the morning drew on a number of people arrived. Rev William Jamieson, the Seaforth’s padre had come along to perform the burial rites, a couple of officers from the Military Police who took evidence, and then a military film crew who were to document the crime, and no doubt be used for propaganda purposes.

All of this began to anger the Scottish soldiers, who were keen to lay the bodies to rest, rather than having their dignity further eroded with being filmed and examined. McGregor’s platoon was pulled out of the line, as they would need to be interviewed. That was a mixed blessing. On the one hand they were delighted not to being shot at, but on the other hand, being around policemen was never a comfortable feeling for the soldiers.

10 May 1941. 13:00hrs. Berlin. Germany.

Heinrich von Vietinghoff, commander of Tenth Army, and therefore de facto commander of the Berlin garrison, had watched the enemy aerial displays the day before, and had received the reports from the areas where the British had bombed strongpoints. Some of these were decoys, and so the British had wasted some napalm, though they didn’t seem to have any shortage of the stuff. Others had been real enough and the hospitals were struggling with all the burn victims, for most the only treatment was a lethal dose of morphine to take away their pain.

Some helpful aides had brought him copies of the leaflets that had been dropped, and there was much discussion about what on earth the English were talking about. “Do you want to hear some poetry?” mystified the German soldiers. A delegation of the civilian leadership of the city were keen to see him, led by the Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, Konrad Von Preysing. Berlin had suffered from a large number of air raids over the last year, and while civilian casualties had been manageable, the demonstration put on by the RAF and AdA the previous morning had shocked the people to the core. The British and French radio had been broadcasting details of a massacre of civilians in a church to the west of the city. There was some doubt about the verity of the story, but there were enough details, including a German soldier who claimed to be an eyewitness, that enough people were convinced it had happened. The population now had to fear their own soldiers, as well as those of the British and French Empires who were now only miles away. Some parts of the outskirts of the city were now being bombarded by large calibre artillery fire.

Since the death of Goebbels in April, the position of Gauleiter of Berlin had not been filled. Most of the senior Nazis were either dead or in East Prussia. Among those who had arrived with Archbishop Von Preysing was Ernst Schlange, former Gauleiter of Bradenburg, until he had been forced out by Goebbels. The proposal put to Von Vietinghoff, was that a civilian government of Berlin, headed by Schlange, would be formed and offer to surrender the city to the advancing British and French armies. If Von Vietinghoff wanted to lead his men eastwards to continue the fight behind the Oder River line, they could do so. However, it was the strong opinion that the time for fighting was at an end. If the Nazis wanted to fight on in East Prussia that was their concern, but they had brought nothing but hardship and horror to the German people, so good riddance to them.

Von Vietinghoff, as with most of his officers, hadn’t taken part in the previous military coup against Hitler because he had sworn an oath of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler. Archbishop Von Preysing made a compelling case for the repudiation of the Wehrmacht’s Oath to the Fuhrer. Their previous oath, to the Constitution and President, was binding on them. An oath to the person of Hitler, especially as he had shown himself unworthy of such obedience, created an intolerable conflict between the good of the people of Germany and the lunacy of the regime that had failed the people entirely.

There were still a few dedicated Nazis among the staff officers, one of whom, angered by the Archbishop, brought out his pistol and shot, wounding him severely. For most of his comrades, especially for Von Vietinghoff, that was the final convincing argument. Gunfire cut down those who wished to fight to the death, granting them their last wish. Von Vietinghoff broadcast in the clear to all his units that they were to remain in place and await word on a ceasefire. If any man or unit wanted to fight on, they were ordered to leave their equipment and make their way towards the Oder, they would be unhampered in doing so. All civilians, informed by trucks carrying loudspeakers that travelled around the city, were to remain indoors, unless they too wanted to become refugees. They were informed that the roads to the east were still clear for people who wanted to travel, but that both the British and French were on their way to surround the city, and so travel was unadvisable.

In the hours that followed, once more the streets of Berlin became a battlefield of men wearing the same uniform. For those who wished to fulfil the wishes of the Fuhrer and fight to the death, very often their own men would give them that satisfaction. Because the soldiers were hearing the same information as the civilians, those officers who attempted to conceal their orders to stand down soon discovered that unconditional obedience was no longer acceptable or desired.

A delegation, led by Ernst Schlange made their way to Potsdam where representatives of the Entente armies would meet them and organise the surrender of the city. The French First and British Second Armies were ordered to hold in place, but the French Seventh and British Third armies were to continue to advance towards the Oder.

10 May 1941. 19:00hrs. Wolfsschanze. East Prussia.

The news of the capitulation of the Berlin garrison had been communicated to Adolf Hitler in his bunker. The fact that it had happened was less of a surprise than the speed at which it had happened. The reality of the collapse of the fighting spirit of the Wehrmacht had been well documented, nevertheless there had been high hopes that the Weser and Elbe lines would have put up a stronger and longer fight. Any military man worth his salt knew that the “National Redoubt” was a panacea. While there were plenty of water obstacles to slow the Entente advance, it was clear that the SS and other troops had nothing that would really stop the British and French, especially if they did not have command of the air.

More Luftwaffe planes had taken training flights that ended up landing in Sweden seeking asylum, those left behind would find it difficult to win control of the air for any length of time. Training flights were now heavily restricted. A lot of Nazi officers and officials had also disappeared, probably the same way, though it seemed a good number had gone into Hungary. These obviously had no stomach for a last gallant stand against impossible odds. Desertions among the rank and file was still happening despite the harsh measures to stop it.

Hitler’s commanders reckoned that the British and French armies would have to pause for some time on the Oder and Neisse rivers to resupply, perhaps for up to a week. The fact that they hadn’t paused at the Elbe had surprised them, so they weren’t making any promises. There were about 300kms from the Oder to the Vistula, which might take the Entente about 10 days once they were fully across the Oder. There were forces defending the Oder, but not as strong as those guarding the Elbe, for all the good they had done. There was another 180kms from the Vistula to Rastenburg, the heart of the redoubt. There were likely to be three, perhaps four weeks before the Entente armies were on top of them.

Hitler looked at the situation maps, asking again and again which units were represented by markers. He wanted to throw some units across the Oder and ride into Berlin, smashing both the Entente armies, and bringing some retribution to the cowards and traitors who had surrendered the Reich’s capital with hardly a shot being fired. He wanted people strung up on lampposts, especially that Von Preysing and Von Vietinghoff, they needed to be made an example of. His advisors pointed out the thrusts of the British Third and French Seventh Armies heading for the Oder. Any German unit heading for Berlin would run slap bang into them and be chewed up long before they could reach the city.

“A matter of time” was all that Hitler could bring himself to say. He had lost his bravado some time ago. Time and again he was sure that he would have mastery of the battlefield, as he had in Poland. But now Poland was merely a buffer zone between those who sought his demise and his remaining faithful followers. He couldn’t decide which was better. To stay here and bleed the Entente armies, or to lead a great attack, sweeping forward with all his might and meet the enemy on some great battlefield of destiny. His advisors were aghast at the suggestion. All the planning and preparation was designed to make the Entente think twice about committing their troops to another Verdun type battle. The democracies would never accept the numbers of casualties that the National Redoubt would cost them.

Throwing everything into an attack, when it was clear that the Entente had total command of the air would be nothing more than suicide. Any ‘battlefield of destiny’ would just be another description of bombed out German columns, like the Ardennes had been in May 1940. To make such an attack would be ludicrous. Hitler went off in a sulk. More often than not that had been his response to further bad news. His doctor, if pushed, would say that the Fuhrer was suffering from depression, possibly manic depression, he could lose his temper or have great flights of fancy. Then he would come crashing down and go into a deep trench of despair, which almost nothing could alleviate. The doctor had tried a variety of drugs and combination of drugs, but nothing seemed able to break the cycle.

11 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Potsdam. Germany.

General Henri Giraud, the French First Army Group commander and General Alan Brooke, Commander of First Entente Army Group represented their respective forces in the meeting with Ernst Schlange and General Von Vietinghoff. A tent had been erected in Bornstedter feld where the meeting would take place. To make a point both Entente generals flew in Sussex Helicopters, with some Wildcats providing an escort. While the Germans has some familiarity with helicopters, some of those present had seen the work done by Anton Flettner, the size and sophistication of the helicopters was confirmation that their intelligence about the British and French capability for war in 1940 had been very wrong.

An agreement had been reached the previous evening about a ceasefire being put in place from midnight, to be followed by this meeting. Paris and London were keen for a more general surrender of German forces than those simply in Berlin itself. Unfortunately, Von Vietinghoff only had command of his own army, and for all intents and purposes centralized command for the Wehrmacht had broken down. The German forces behind the Oder weren’t under Von Vietinghoff’s command, and although he had contacted General Georg Von Sodenstern, who commanded 19th Army, he had had no luck in persuading him to throw in the towel.

Giraud and Brooke had spent an hour or so in the early morning talking through their approach to the situation. Both Generals were keenly aware that their armies were at the end of their tether. British First Army at the Baltic had been stripped of much of its POL (Petrol, Oil and Lubricants) and ammunition resupply to allow Montgomery’s Third Army to keep moving towards the Oder. Wilson’s Second Army had just enough to reach Berlin, but had expected that they would need to besiege the city for a period of time. The French 7e and 1re Armies were in much the same situation. Having consulted with Prételat at Reims, there were in agreement that the French 1re Army would move into Berlin itself. British Second Army would throw a cordon around the city to the north and east. The 7e and Third Armies would continue as planned to the Oder, which should be easier since Von Veitinghoff commanded most of the forces that were opposing them. Once they arrived at the Oder and closed the pocket around Berlin, all Entente forces would hold in place to allow a build-up of supplies to be made, as well as resting the troops.

There were a lot of other questions that would have to be discussed with the German delegation, not least the problems of supplying a city’s worth of population with sufficient food. The weather was getting warmer, so the concern for coal could be laid aside in the short term. Dealing with large numbers of prisoners had become a growing problem for the Entente forces. For the most part German prisoners were marched to the nearest rail head and put on trains back to France or Belgium. Another army’s worth of prisoners would make that problem more acute. It was better than fighting through the rubble of a destroyed city. The parley got under way, the Germans in no real position to do anything but acquiesce to the Entente demands.

11 May 1941. 21:00hrs. Berlin, Germany.

(Entry in the diary of Marie Vassiltchikov)

Other than the sound of aircraft flying overhead, the city has been silent all day, the sound of artillery fire has been absent. Thankfully the sound of gunfire stopped too, it was as if there was a civil war among the soldiers. Most people, like us, have stayed indoors, as ordered by the loudspeakers, but we could see some people leaving the city to the east. There were others on the streets, but they looked like they were out searching for food. For once the absence of soldiers has been worrying, we fear some people will take advantage of the situation and begin looting houses, even those that are occupied. We have put as much furniture against the door as we could manage.

We will have to go even hungrier for the next few days, and the water supply seems to be working only intermittently. We think we will be fine for two days, after that, we will need to take our chances and go out. Perhaps if the French or British come, they will bring food, though we have little to trade for it.

11 May 1941. 21:00hrs. Berlin. Germany.

Feldwebel Horst Block looked at the wound in his leg and wondered how long it take for it to go septic. He and his four men were all that had survived the pitched battle with the youngsters who weren’t prepared to surrender. At first, he thought they would just head east, but they had worked themselves up into some kind of fury. The Lieutenant in charge was a fool, and if he was honest with himself, Block was kind of glad the youngsters had killed him. If they hadn’t, he’d probably would have had to do something himself before the fool got everyone killed. But despite Block’s best efforts to persuade them just to go, it had come to a fight. He’d got a bayonet in the leg for his troubles, and he hated himself for having the kill a couple of boys. For boys were all they were. Some mother would be grieving for them, no doubt. To be killed by their own feldwebel, what had the war come to?

Block hobbled along with an improvised crutch, their best bet was now to find somewhere to go to ground. Once the French rolled in, they would turn themselves in, and take what was coming. They had discussed whether or not they should shed their uniforms and try to blend into the civilian population, but Block needed treatment and would more likely get help as a POW than as a suspect civilian. One thing they all agreed on was that they just didn’t want to be on the streets in uniform at the moment. Things could easily turn very ugly very quickly, and with a hole in his leg, he would be a liability for his squad. They had some bread, so they’d be alright for a day or so. A day or so would probably be all it took for the French to turn up.

12 May 1941. 09:00hrs. Berlin. Germany.

The thirty serviceable Hotchkiss H39s of BCC 25e, accompanied by a battalion of infantry from 106e RIM in various trucks made their best speed towards the centre of the city. In two columns they had crossed the canal and were proceeding up the Teltower Damm and surrounding streets heading for Zehlendorf. The other H39 equipped BCC of 1re DCr were on their right, following the canal towards Tempelhof. The two BCC of B1 Ter chars were following behind, at their statelier pace, with the rest of 12e DIM. 1re DIM were over on their left, following the route of the railway, keeping the Große Wannsee on their flank. The other Corps (4e DM and 15e DIM) was over to the east attempting to get across the Spree near Köpenick.

Above the French chars flew a squadron of Bloch MB 157s at low level, daring anyone to fire a shot at the approaching French troops, inviting a swift and fiery response from the French fighters. As expected, the streets were mostly deserted, but the French soldiers scanned the windows and doors for any sign of an ambush. Having achieved their initial objective, there was a pause while the Major in charge of the battalion had a conference with his squadron commanders. They poured over a map trying to work out the route they should take towards Wilmersdorf. Quite a few of the troops were Parisians, and knowing the damage that had been done a year ago to their city, they were fairly pleased to see some parts of Berlin that had obviously been bombed, though most of the city, at least here in the outskirts, that were wholly untouched.

On some streets, as directed in the ceasefire agreement, units of German soldiers were lined up, their weapons piled up separately, awaiting processing as POWs. The French commanders were concerned about “itchy fingers” on triggers in the chars and among the infantry. Thankfully the morning’s dash had so far been unhampered. During the night the Corp’s reconnaissance units had gone into the city heading for the most important buildings: political, military and communications. These should all be in the hands of French troops by now, and one of the roles that these main force columns had was to reinforce the reconnaissance troops as they were encountered.

Once 1re Army were in complete control of the city, the various divisions would be allotted particular areas to be responsible for, until such times as other units could be brought forward to act as occupation forces. At some point there would have to be a proper victory march through the main streets of the city by the French army, but for the moment, it was essential to have the place under their full control. Dire warnings against looting or crimes against the civilian population had been read out to the French troops before they left their positions. There would enough problems managing a city the size of Berlin, without causing the civilians to work actively against the occupiers.

12 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Simonstown. South Africa.

The crew of HMS Victorious had been glad of the run ashore, but now they lined the flight-deck as the aircraft carrier slid out of port. Having set sail from Scapa Flow on 11 April they had docked in the Royal Navy’s South African base just over a week ago. The voyage from Scapa Flow to Simonstown had been an extended work up exercise for the carrier, and a great deal had been learned about using the ship. There were also a number of defects that had necessitated some-time in the dockyard. There had been nothing major, but a few seals had to be fixed and other parts of machinery replaced. While docked the ship had hosted General Jan Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, who was keen see the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier.

The flight crews had also been put through their paces in various exercises, and had lost some comrades to accidents along the way. 800 Naval Air Squadron were flying SeaFires and had the worst record for accidents. For all the work done to make it suitable for carrier operations, the SeaFire still wasn’t quite the right aircraft for the job. But then, given the choice between flying SeaFires or Fulmers, the pilots wouldn’t hesitate in choosing the SeaFire, even if landing was always a bit of a nightmare. 825 Squadron were old hands, their Swordfish, with the various improvements in air surface radar had become a potent reconnaissance aircraft. The hope had been to have a squadron of Barracudas on board, but the aircraft were still judged not ready for operations. Instead, the Swordfish carried on as torpedo bombers, 801 NAS provided a squadron of Skuas in the dive-bombing role. 809 NAS provided a flight of four Fulmers with Air Interception Radar which could be used either as night fighters or experimentally as airborne early warning and control aircraft. So far on exercises this had been of limited use. HMS Victorious also had four Sussex helicopters on board acting as in a search and rescue role, with a secondary anti-submarine role.

HMS Nelson had left the rest of the fleet and had put into the dry dock at Durban for some work to her boilers. She would have to be worked on for about three weeks, and so would follow the rest of the fleet when fully operational. HMS Victorious would rendezvous with HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Renown to carry on to Trincomalee and then Singapore. The hope was that once the Barracudas were declared airworthy, some would be shipped out to Ceylon, and then join HMS Victorious there. Otherwise, they would eventually make their way to Singapore where HMS Illustrious would also receive a squadron of them.

13 May 1941. 11:00hrs. Keitz. Germany.

Küstrin came into sharp focus as he manipulated his binoculars. For General Montgomery and his Third Army their arrival on the Oder, just over a week since their crossing of the Elbe was something to be very proud of. The fact that the French still hadn’t appeared at Frankfurt an der Oder yet added to the feeling of satisfaction. The French were probably too busy living it up in Berlin, though if their logistics were anything like his own, Montgomery could well understand why General Martin’s 7e Army were still on the way.

Montgomery had sent reconnaissance troops out north and south to confirm that the Germans had indeed blown the bridges or destroyed the ferries over the river. That was certainly the information from the RAF’s photoreconnaissance flights, so his order from General Brooke to hold on the Oder line would have to be obeyed. His army was at the end of a long tether, and even if he had wanted to, getting a bridgehead over the Oder was probably beyond their means. The problem of having large numbers of prisoners, and a civilian population that was on the brink of starvation, was adding to the burden of his logistical organisers.

Blamey’s Australian and New Zealanders at Seelow, on the ridge there facing back into Berlin in case any fleeing Wehrmacht units tried to escape back towards their own lines. Most of the people they were encountering were civilian refugees, with carts and bicycles piled with possessions trying to move east. It was a sad indictment of the German war effort among them were a lot of men who were obviously deserters. The New Zealanders were organising camps for people to be processed, and it was hard to see some of the best soldiers in the world having to play nursemaid to herd of defeated humanity.

Anderson’s VI Corps were strung out along the line of march protecting the supply lines and trying to police the area the army had passed through. That left McNaughton’s VII Corps as his remaining fighting unit. The Comet tanks had done very well, but getting enough petrol forward was limiting their movement. A battle group of tanks and troops from 3rd Armoured Division were carrying on to Frankfurt an der Oder to meet up with the French, the rest of the Corps were staying put to eke out the last of their fuel reserves, just in case.

Focussing again on Küstrin, Montgomery was looking for signs of yet another defensive line. The chances of seeing anything was remote, the Germans had had to become must better at camouflage, the RAF had seen to that. An army film unit were recording him looking over the river, and he had a nifty little speech prepared that would play well in cinemas back at home. As far as he could remember no British army had ever stood on the river Oder. The comparisons to Marlborough and Wellington that were playing in his mind might make him sound somewhat puffed up, so he would leave it unsaid, but anyone with some sense would make the obvious connections for themselves.

Turning to the camera, and getting a nod from the Captain in charge, he cleared his throat. “What you can see behind me is the river Oder. It seems a long time since last May when the BEF stood strong on the river Escaut in Belgium, holding back the German invasion of that gallant little country. In a year we have crossed the Meuse, the Rhine, the Elbe, and hundreds of other rivers and canals. Today we stand on the Oder, and Berlin has fallen. We started this war because of the German invasion of Poland, and now we are only 50 miles from the Polish border. Soon enough we shall cross this river, then the Vistula, freeing Warsaw. Soon Poland will be free again and Hitler will be consigned to the ash heap of history. This army, made up of men from Britain, its Dominions and Empire, have marched and fought some 500 miles in just over 365 days. I can think of no greater feat of arms in the history of our Empire. We have done great things, but we still have to close with the beast in its lair and finish it off once and for all. Thank you.”

End of Book 2.
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Book 3. 14 May 1941.
14 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Entente Supreme Headquarters. Reims, France.

Supreme Commander André-Gaston Prételat had been joined by General Alan Brooke, commander of First Entente Army Group; General Henri Giraud, commander of the First French Army Group; and General André-Georges Corap, commander of Second French Army Group. Prételat’s deputy General Charles Huntziger gave the assembled generals an overview of the current situation.

Denmark was now completely liberated and some of the forces that had been involved in that were being readied for the next phase of the war. British First Army were on the Baltic coast, Second Army were moving around the north of Berlin, while Third Army was at the Oder. The Belgian army was acting primarily as occupation troops, with a corps of Dutch troops helping in that role. The Polish Army was Brooke’s reserve and were being prepared for making the move into Poland itself.

Giraud’s First French Army Group had 1re Army taking control of Berlin, while 7e Army were moving on the Oder to link up with British Third Army. 2e and 9e Armies were now spread back across the line of march to the Rhine. Corap’s Second French Army Group had 4e Army advancing towards the Oder having crossed the Elbe at Dresden, while 5e Army were continuing to liberate Czechoslovakia with the objective of getting to the Oder at Breslau. 3e, 6e and 8e Armies were all tied down in occupation duties.

In addition the Yugoslav army continued to work with the French 5e Army, concentrating on Slovakia, and were on the road to the Oder at Kattowitz, where they would halt for the time being. The Italian army were occupying much of Bavaria, and part of Austria, supporting Crown Prince Rupprecht’s attempt to recreate that part of Germany as an independent nation.

The vast majority of the Wehrmacht had ceased to exist, though the numbers in the “national redoubt” were difficult to estimate. There was certainly a defensive line behind the Oder that was fortified and manned, though it did not look formidable. The problem for Prételat was one of the Entente’s own making. Having been so successful, the armies had outstripped their means of supply. While the factories of Britain and France, (and increasingly Belgium) were working around the clock, the sheer scale of the advance meant that they had used up the majority of their war stocks.

It was clear that a halt on the Oder was going to be necessary, though there were plenty of Generals who were arguing for their armies to be given whatever supplies were available and they would race to Warsaw. General Sikorski was at the forefront of that demand, and while it was expected that the Polish Army would be capable against weak German forces, making the 450km distance would take almost all the resources of the all three Army Groups. Instead it was agreed that all armies would halt on the line of the River Oder. How long the halt would be for was the subject of some debate, but a minimum of a week was necessary, though in fact a month was more realistic. The worry was that the Polish people would rise up against the German occupiers, but unless the Entente armies were fully equipped to go to their aid, they could find themselves in serious trouble. It was clear that work would have to be done to request that the Poles should wait to be liberated, rather than trying to throw off the shackles themselves. The date of 22 June 1941 was discussed as being the latest day for the next phase of operations to begin.

Most of the rest of the day was spent looking at what that operation would look like. The three pronged attack continued to be favoured, as it had worked well up until now. Brooke’s Army Group, not including the Polish army would continue along the Baltic coast and north of the Netze river until the Vistula. Giraud’s Armies, including the Polish Army would take the central route south of the Netze, following the Warthe with Warsaw as the objective. Corap’s Second Army Group would continue along the southern path, aiming ultimately for Lublin. The Romanians were keeping most of their forces on alert in case the Soviets attempted to pick off a bit more territory, but as Corap advanced, he could expect support coming from the Romanians.

While the general direction of attacks were quickly agreed the problems of having to keep so many units back in Germany as occupation troops was a worry. The Belgians and the Dutch were doing the lion’s share in Brooke’s area of responsibility. His Fourth British Army was due to be added to the order of battle, but he would need all three of his armies, with the Fourth acting as reserve if the Polish army was going under Giraud’s Command. Both French Army Group Commanders had the same fears, there were five French armies tied down in Germany itself, it would be six except for the Italian contribution.

Obviously the pacification of Germany had to be high on the list of priorities, so that at least two full armies could once more take their place in the forthcoming attack, even if only as reserves. Generally the area of Germany west of the Rhine was needing fewer troops, the occupation was now more of a police action, and it was expected that the rest of the country was follow the same pattern. The French were generally using their least capable divisions in these occupation duties, as well as resting those which suffered heavily in fighting. Still, the sheer magnitude of what had been achieved was causing problems all of its own.

15 May 1941. 17:00hrs. Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. USA.

Captain Howard Benson was finally able to relax as the last of the dignitaries disembarked from the newly commissioned USS Washington, BB 56. The second North Carolina Class battleship was now prepared to begin her shakedown and underway training the next morning, so Benson had every intention of trying to get an early night, tomorrow was going to be another long day.

He found a pile of paperwork that seemed to have appeared from nowhere on his desk, and so he decided to have another cup of coffee and try to clear the desk. He had commanded USS Tennessee, BB 43, for a period of time in 1934, and he was enjoying again the captain’s quarters on a capitol ship. Comparing the Tennessee to the Washington was a little pointless, the new ship was bigger, faster and carried 16-inch rather than 14-inch guns. What worried Benson was that the vibration problems that were plaguing Washington’s sister ship, North Carolina, were likely to be a problem for him too. So far no solution had been found, experiments were still going on with different types of propellers to try to fix it. That was a problem for tomorrow however.

The daily briefing sheet gave him a chance to look at where the Department of the Navy would likely find a job for his new command. In Japan the Kaga, an aircraft carrier, had departed the dry dock at Sasebo the day before. According to intelligence she would be joining up with four other carriers, Akagi, Sōryū, Hiryū and Ryūjō in First Air Fleet. That was over 300 aircraft they would be able to field.

The British had been warning of the increased danger to surface fleets from air attack, but there wasn’t much evidence to support this. Most of the losses in the European war were due to submarines. The Limey’s had lost Royal Oak and Courageous to U-boats. Their other carrier, Hermes had been lost to land based aircraft. The Nazis had lost most of their fleet, either to torpedoes, like Graf Spee and Bismark, or surface action like Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Hipper.

So if the Pacific was where USS Washington ended up then it would be the Japanese surface fleet they’d be facing. Most of their battleships were even older than the Tennessee, though they had three new big ones under construction, if the Limey’s were to be believed. Up against the Kongō class, Benson was confident that his ship would prevail, the Nagato class might give more of an even fight.

The Atlantic was quiet now. The few Nazi U-boats that still existed were in the Baltic, though what had happened to them now that the British were in their home ports was unknown. The French and the British were both sending the lion’s share of their fleets to the South China Sea. They obviously were as worried about the Japanese as the folks in Washington DC. The Italians seemed to have thrown in with the Entente, so the Mediterranean was quiet too. The Soviets had little to worry Uncle Sam’s fleet with, so it looked like USS Washington would most likely end up in the Pacific. That was the only place where anything interesting might be happening.

Reading on he saw that the Pacific fleet had commenced Fleet Exercise No. 1 off California coast. The month long exercise would involve mostly cruisers and destroyers bombarding San Clemente Island, and a marine landing there. Benson wondered what lessons they would have picked up from the British landings in Holland and Denmark. The new helicopters that the British had suddenly unveiled were very interesting. He wondered how long it would take the Navy to get something like them. The British had been something of an enigma this last year. They had gone from being quite needy to quite stand-offish, which he felt was their natural state.

There were a lot of the regular paperwork that every ship’s captain had to deal with, so Benson got his head down and started getting through it. Such was a peacetime navy in a time of war.

16 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Greenock. Scotland.

The troops came down the gangplanks off the troopship with their greatcoats on. It was a lovely spring day, most of the men working on the docks were in shirt sleeves. For the troops which had just arrived from Egypt, it felt cold, and the wind coming up the Firth of Clyde seemed cutting to them. The majority of these men from 1st and 6th Royal Tank Regiment had been in Egypt since before the war had started in 1939. The fact that they were getting home leave buoyed them up, but in three weeks’ time they were to report to the Armoured Fighting Vehicles School at Bovington in Dorset.

The process of bringing home the troops for the 7th Armoured Division, had begun some weeks previously when 7th and 8th Hussars had arrived in Greenock. Before long the last of the units, the Royal Scots Greys and 11th Hussars, would be sailing home too. The Royal Tank Regiment men knew that they were to be trained on the new Comet tank, which would be a big change from the odds and ends of worn out tanks they’d been working with in the desert. Those tanks they had had been left with the Cavalry Division, which was about to become 4th Armoured Division. With the British armies on the Oder, there was some who hoped that the war would be over by the time they deployed. A good number of the pre-war cadre had been “poached” when Percy Hobart took over First Armoured Division, more had been assigned as battle replacements as the war had gone on. Therefore part of their job of getting ready to deploy would be to integrate replacements to bring all six regiments back up to full strength.

A lot of speculation had been going on about the way in which the tanks were being used by the army in Europe. One of the things they expected in the training would be a greater emphasis on combined arms operations. The 3rd and 4th Regiments of the Royal Horse Artillery had also sailed home and these would be getting to grips with Sextons, the self-propelled 25-pounders. The Infantry Brigade that was assigned to the 7th Armoured Division, 165th had been designated as “mechanised” and were currently training with the new Armoured Personnel Carriers.

17 May 1941. 08:00hrs. Above the Oder. Germany.

Pilot Officer Mike Kolendorski, left the formation of four fighters and turned his Spitfire towards a Ju88 which he had spotted below. It was obviously trying to do a reconnaissance of the British forces and a lone bomber was a tempting target. A naturalized American, son of Polish immigrants, he had been living in California with his wife Charlotte May prior to enlisting in the RAF in Canada. Having gone through the Empire Training Scheme he had been flying operationally since the previous autumn. He hadn’t had much combat and longed for his first kill. His wife had filed for a divorce because he had volunteered and yesterday he had just had the final notice that his marriage was officially over. The thought of pouring some 20mm cannon shells into the German bomber, as if it were his wife’s lawyer, was very appealing.

There were a good number of Americans flying in both the RAF and the AdA, more in the RCAF. There had been talk of creating specifically all-American squadrons in the RAF, but the idea had been quietly shelved, no-one in London wanted to rub President Dewey’s nose in it. The French had recreated the Great War’s Lafayette Escadrille, with its Chief Sitting Bull motif, but it wasn’t exclusively American. Some of the Americans that Kolendorski had trained with found the RAF to be quite “stuffy”, the RCAF squadrons were more to their taste. But for Kolendorski he enjoyed the camaraderie of his squadron with pilots from Scotland and Wales as well as England, there was also a New Zealander and an Australian. His problem was he always wanted to get to grips with the enemy, so much so, he was constantly getting into trouble for pushing the boost control on his engine too often, reducing its service life. His other temptation, which was worse in the eyes of his squadron leader, was that he was likely to break formation and attempt to attack enemy aircraft by himself.

This was precisely the problem that he had currently. Over the R/T his Australian wingman shouted out a warning that there were bandits above him at his six o’clock. The rest of the flight were doing their best to close the gap that had opened up between Kolendorski’s Spitfire and the rest of them, but the two Bf109s, obviously escorting the reconnaissance bomber, had the better position and soon any attempt to get a shot at the bomber had to be forgotten as he attempted to break out of the trap he had allowed to be sprung on him. His Spitfire had some clear advantages over the Bf109s, but by ignoring orders he had put himself into harm’s way. German pilots who were still flying were either very good or very green, unfortunately for Kolendorski, the two he encountered were very good. They only made one pass, before diving away for home from the other Spitfires. However on that one pass they managed to leave a line of bullet holes along the side of the Spitfire, Kolendorski was killed instantly when a cannon shell exploded in the cockpit. His aircraft spiralled into the ground on the far side of the river.

Why the RAF pilots hadn’t been warned by radar control that the bomber was escorted was a mystery. Something that would be investigated, however there was no mystery about the loss of the pilot and plane, he had disobeyed orders and left his formation, hunting for personal glory. This message was repeated through many squadrons: that discipline in the air really is a matter of life or death, not just some stuffy rules made up to take the fun out of flying.

18 May 1941. 15:00hrs. Qinyang. China.

General Hayao Tada, the commander of the North China Front Army took the reports from his subordinates. The Chungyuan operation had begun on 7 May with a three pronged attack, the objective being to clear the Chinese First War Area Army from north of the Yellow River. The commander of 1st Army, Lt. Gen. Yoshio Shinozuka who provided the greatest weight of the attack from Jiangxian reported that despite all the efforts of his three divisions and two independent brigades, he had been unable to make the kind of progress that he had expected. Similarly, the other two prongs, from Tada’s own command had also failed to complete their objectives, and had suffered heavy casualties.

Tada surprised him when he asked for a frank assessment of why his army had failed to take its objectives. Normally Shinozuka would have expected a diatribe about the lack of Bushido spirit. The honest answer being sought, the commander of 1st Army tried to be as frank as he could. The thing which had surprised his forces more than anything else was that the Chinese seemed to have two advantages. Firstly they had been prepared for the attack. Secondly, they were much better equipped than any Chinese army he had encountered before.

Why had they been prepared was the question? The consensus was that the Japanese preparations for the attack must have been noticed by the local population and that information had reached the Chinese commanders. In addition there had been quite a lot of activity by the Chinese Air Force, both in reconnaissance and in bombing, which presumably had an effect on the enemy’s preparations.

As to the better equipment of the Chinese army it was clear that the supplies they were getting through French Indo-China and the Burma Road meant that they were in possession of much better weaponry than the Japanese had encountered before. The arrival on the battlefield of a battalion of Panzer I and IIs had come as a shock. Thankfully for the Japanese the Chinese obviously weren’t well trained on these, so that their usefulness in the battle had been limited. On the other hand the Japanese 4th Cavalry Brigade, which had the majority of the Type 94 tankettes in the Front Army, had suffered heavily, the Chinese had obviously received some German 37mm anti-tank guns and these, unlike the panzers, had been used effectively. In addition it seemed that more and more of the Chinese units were equipped with Mauser rifles, MG 34 machine guns and increasing numbers of mortars. So far they didn’t seem to have too much in the way of improved artillery, but it was clear to the Japanese commanders that this wouldn’t remain the case for much longer. Whoever was supplying the Chinese army with German weapons was causing the Imperial Japanese Army higher casualties and greater difficulty.

The next report came from the commander of the Japanese air force, whose 1st and 3rd Hikodan were assigned to the Front Army. It seemed that the supply of foreign aircraft had also been increased. The light bomber Sentai, equipped with Ki-30s and Ki-48s had been hard hit by Soviet made fighters, especially the I-16s. The Ki-27 fighters had had a hard time protecting the bombers as the Chinese were flying French Bloch 151s which were much more of a match than the Soviet fighters had been. The Japanese pilots were still better trained, but if the Chinese continued to improve, the senior officer was worried that command of the air might become more of an even match.

For General Tada all these reports from his subordinates confirmed his own interpretation of events. The question was whether or not to continue with the attack? If they continued, it was possible that the Chinese would eventually break, but the cost had already been greater than had been expected. If they stopped, the Chinese would in all likelihood just grow stronger. With the failure of the Japanese 11th Army at Shanggao in March, and now this setback, his report would not make for happy reading back at the Imperial Army’s Headquarters. The objective of clearing the north bank of the Yellow River however was still an important one. Tada had read the reports from Shanggao that the 11th Army’s use of poison gas had been ineffective. Perhaps they hadn’t made the best of it, and there was still hope that gas would make the difference here. He began issuing orders for the attack to be delayed for a day until the special weapon could be brought forward and made ready. Once that was done it was just a matter of waiting for the right wind direction.

19 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Moscow. CCCP.

The NKVD firing squad had been busy all morning. The men were somewhat surprised, most of the traitors and saboteurs they had been shooting since breakfast didn’t usually merit the full treatment. The deaths in the cells by piano wire or a bullet in the back of the head were much more common. To those who were paying attention it would be noted that all who were being shot had been senior members of the VVS, the Military Air Forces. A big stink had happened when a German Ju-52 had touched down in Moscow’s airfield in April without anyone from the PVO (Air Defence Forces) being aware of it. The firing squad were among those responsible for cleaning up that mess.

For Pavel Rychagov, Commander of the VVS, the arrest and loss of so many of his senior officers just made what he was trying to do all the more difficult. But complaining would get him nowhere, except probably joining his erstwhile comrades. The process of making the VVS fit for purpose, Rychagov, reckoned had been set back by at least six months after this latest purge. He would now have to look through the lists of officers who could be promoted to fill the dead men’s shoes. However, he was very aware that the NKVD’s 3rd (Special) Branch, under their new commander Abakumov, would be concerned not so much about their professional abilities, but their ‘loyalty’ to the state.

Rychagov would never be able to voice, to anyone, his thoughts that this was a terrible waste of good men. He was having to promote very junior officers to senior positions. For example, these papers in front of him: Major K M Gusev, a squadron commander, was recommended to replace the commander of the VVS in the Belorussian Military District. Or Senior Lieutenant I I Kopets jumping to Colonel and becoming the Deputy Commander of the VVS in the Leningrad Military District. What these changes would do to the Air Force’s readiness could only be guessed at.

It was clear from reports that the British and French air forces had smashed the Luftwaffe. Between the purges and current introduction of new types of aircraft, his own command would fare much worse than the Luftwaffe under similar circumstances. He could only do his best to protect the frontline squadrons from the effects of the purges, and hope that the capitalists wouldn’t decide to keep moving east.

20 May 1941. 15:00hrs. FBI Offices. Washington DC. USA.

Director J Edgar Hoover did not like William Stephenson, the British Security Coordination director, nor did he have much regard for the other man in the room, William J Donovan. If anything, the feelings were mutual, but in the interests of American security, the three men were having to cooperate.

Part of Hoover’s dislike of Stephenson was due to a suspicion that the British SIS weren’t being entirely honest with their American cousins. In fact, to Hoover’s mind, they were treating the Americans like country cousins, nice but dim. However, what Hoover couldn’t argue with was some of the fish that were being caught because of British tip offs. There was a Nazi spy ring under surveillance in New York that were just about ready to be swept up in the FBI net. Nicknamed the Joe K ring, the British had brought this one to Hoover’s attention; the larger and more dangerous group led by Duquesne was also due to be rolled up, but that was an all-American affair.

Today’s information was about a Japanese diplomat who had been assigned to Hawaii and would likely be collecting information about the American naval base at Pearl Harbour. Hoover had taken notes and would have the FBI office in Honolulu watch out for Takeo Yoshikawa.

The surprising thing about Stephenson’s information was that it wasn’t limited to German or Japanese groups. What the British had shared with the FBI pointed to a huge amount of work being undertaken by the Soviet NKVD and GRU which was breath-taking, something that Hoover secretly admired. The FBI already had its eye on the Communist Party of the United States, but some of what the British had given had thrown that net much wider. The whole thing was eating into the Bureau’s resources, but that was a good reason for requesting more funds from Congress. The British had handed over some information regarding Jacob Golos and his contact Elizabeth Bentley. These two were already known to the FBI, but the significance of them, and a couple of other names that had been handed over, meant that there was a whole lot of Special Agents who were heavily involved in determining who else was involved and just how deeply the Soviets had managed to penetrate the American system.

Donovan’s presence at the meeting was on a related matter. President Dewey, having received the reports from Hoover about Soviet and Nazi spies, wondered about what the USA was doing about getting information out of potential enemies. Donovan, a fellow Republican, had already been involved with the FDR administration, and was one of the few men that Dewey had continued with. Stephenson, under orders from London, was happy to support the formation of some kind of American organisation. Hoover hoped that England would be one of the places that would be investigated, there was just something funny about the way the war had gone from 1940. The idea that they had some kind of senior Nazi source only went so far to explain just how “lucky” they had been.

Donovan however was keen to recruit people with the “right stuff” who would be suitable to begin providing the kind of information that would be useful to the government. Hoover’s input was necessary, as his organisation had among the widest range of talents and abilities in Federal Government. Donovan however was asking not just for types that wouldn’t be acceptable as Special Agents, he was looking for people whose skill sets would be frowned upon in polite society. The kind of people that Hoover’s men were currently tailing and getting ready to arrest. He was looking for the kind of people who could recruit, by fair means or foul, people who would be prepared to become traitors to their country. Hoover found this whole notion distasteful, but President Dewey had personally “requested” his support for Donovan’s task. Therefore, the rest of the meeting was taken up looking at a number of files that had been collated of people that Donovan might consider recruiting, and then, with British help, begin training.

21 May 1941. 19:00hrs. Royal Naval Base Rosyth. Scotland.

Captain Cecil Harcourt watched carefully as HMS Duke of York moved up against the wharf to which it would be moored, he really didn’t want to scrape the paint on the battleship’s first main manoeuvre. They had set sail from the Clyde that morning with many of John Brown’s workers cheering heartily as their ship went off to take up the tasks for which she had been built.

Much of the next month would be taken up with embarking admiralty stores, bringing on board the rest of the crew, especially the radar qualified specialists, and then undergo sea trials. It was expected, if all went well, that HMS Duke of York would sail to Scapa Flow in June where she would be accepted into service and then begin working up exercises. Harcourt knew that the ship’s first deployment was to be Singapore, and the Admiralty wanted her there in November at the latest, accompanied by HMAS Melbourne. The ship had the summer to make sure she was in tip top fighting condition, before setting out in October for the Far East.

When the ship was finally moored securely, the Captain let out a short sigh, that he had managed the whole manoeuvre without incident. He knew the ship’s officers would be busy with the many tasks that lay before them, but he took the opportunity of having most of the senior staff present to say an encouraging word about his confidence in them and in the ship’s crew. Since the majority of the crew had already served together on HMS Royal Sovereign there was a happy atmosphere aboard, something that Harcourt wanted to encourage. HMS Duke of York was a powerful ship, and with a well-trained and happy crew she would be a match for just about anything.

Part of the happiness of the crew was down to their accommodations. Since the Admiralty had proposed HMS Duke of York to be sent to the Far East at an early stage, some work had been carried out during the fitting out stage to provide a degree of air conditioning to be available in the majority of messes, as well as in the “gloom room”, so that the radars would be suitably cooled. The idea of Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) had been something of a problem for the ship’s designers and builders. A great deal had been learned in attempting to fit out HMS Duke of York, and that learning was being taken to heart for both HMS Anson and Howe which would follow along. For the Royal Navy had to consider the crew’s comfort in either the Arctic or the Far East.

One of the specific problems in introducing HVAC, as well as the increased Radar suite was the supply of adequate electricity. A number of diesel generators had been installed throughout the ship to supply the extra demand. In future builds it was hoped to move to an Alternating Current system, but those ships already under construction would continue to use the Direct Current system. The ability of British industry to supply the needed materials for an Alternating Current system was still at an early stage. What the added diesel generators did for HMS Duke of York was to double the designed 2400 kW supply which was provided by eight steam driven 300-kW machines. The secondary purpose of adding the diesel generators was to ensure that the loss of steam would not also result in a loss of electrical power in the ship, something that was being replicated throughout the navy.

Harcourt took a few moments on the bridge to watch as the routines and traditions of a bridge watch were played out, happy with all that he surveyed, he headed back to his cabin to get on with the inevitable paperwork.

22 May 1941. 11:00hrs. Moscow. CCCP.

Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador to the Soviet Union was very familiar with the office of the People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and the office of Vyacheslav Molotov in particular. While Von Ribbentrop had got his name on the agreement with Molotov, Schulenburg had been the architect of much of what had been achieved. He normally felt very comfortable with Molotov, but as they had the customary chit chat over some tea, he wasn’t feeling particularly at ease.

Since the failed coup attempt, the Foreign Ministry had become something of a backwater, relatively few of the senior staff had moved from Berlin to East Prussia. Now with Berlin under French control, the instructions Schulenburg had received from the Fuhrer put him in a very awkward position. Molotov picked up on that and asked him what had the come to see him about.

“Well, Commissar, the Fuhrer, Herr Hitler, asks for a military alliance with the Soviet Union against the capitalist Entente. He is aware that the non-aggression treaty that we signed in 1939 does not call for this. However the British and French have made it clear that one of their aims is to “liberate Poland”. It would seem clear that since the Soviet Union was party to the invasion of Poland in 1939 that once the Entente has finished with Germany they will turn their eyes to you.”

Molotov looked at him for a moment or two before answering. “That part of ‘Poland’ as you call it was taken from us in the Treaty of Riga. With the cessation of the ‘Polish State’, we simply took back what was ours.”

Schulenburg nodded, that was the answer he had expected. “That may well be the case, but how it is viewed in London and Paris, particularly with Sikorski being taken so seriously there? The Fuhrer is in no doubt that that they will turn their eyes to Poland, the Baltic States, even Finland. However, he is certain that together, the forces being gathered in East Prussia, which are just waiting for the right moment to strike, if supported by a Red Army thrust from Bialystok, would knock them all the way back to the English Channel.”

Molotov prided himself in his diplomatic skills, however the sheer lunacy of what he was hearing made him laugh out loud, much to Schulenburg’s discomfort. Once he had regained some semblance of a straight face, he couldn’t help but ask, “And you, Ambassador, what do you think my answer might be?” Schulenburg shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. He said, “Commissar, I understand that the Fuhrer’s request may seem out of the ordinary, but you have to see the Anglo-French threat.” Molotov was very aware of the threat, but the sheer weakness of the Nazi position was such that they were asking to put the head of the Soviet bear into the British lion’s mouth. Molotov answered, “There is a big difference between a possible threat, and actually declaring war on the Entente. So I ask you, Ambassador, what is your opinion?”

Schulenburg’s discomfort increased. It was clear that the Fuhrer was either completely mad or desperate, or indeed both. Of all of the things that he had been asked to present to Molotov and his predecessor, this was far and away the most outrageous. There was obviously no one with any diplomatic skills trying to advise Hitler, or he wasn’t listening to any voice of reason. While Schulenburg hadn’t been involved in any way with the attempted coup, he was desperately sorry that it had failed. None of which he could share with Molotov. All he could say was, “The threat is real. Britain and France declared war on us because of Poland. I can’t see how they will simply accept the Soviet Union sitting on territory that the Polish government in exile considers Poland. Furthermore, they know that you have been supplying us. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they know about the secret protocols of the pact you made with Von Ribbentrop.”

That last sentence did surprise Molotov. “How would they know that? Has your security been so lapse?” Schulenburg nodded his head, “It seems that they must have had some kind of high level spy, they seemed to know every move we made. Who on earth it could be is unknown, but they must be dead by now, just about everyone with that kind of information is dead now.” Molotov shook his head, Beria would need to know that. Then he said, “I am sorry Herr Ambassador, but your request for us to enter into a military alliance with an already defeated Germany is not in our best interest. I doubt the French would want to make war on us, it didn’t go too well they last time they invaded Mother Russia. However, is there anything else I can do for you?”

Schulenburg paused for a moment. “Perhaps you know that my family is now within the area of Germany that is occupied by the French. I haven’t heard from them for some time. I wonder if you might be able to make discreet inquiries about their well-being. At some point, I imagine that I will no longer be in a position to continue in my current role. When that day comes, perhaps, some assistance to get to Sweden would be very welcome.” Molotov smiled, “I’m sure a rail ticket could be provided for you. Now if you don’t mind, I have some other people who have appointments.” Schulenburg stood and clicked his heels together, “Of course, thank you for your time.”

23 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Indian Ocean.

Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten watched as the latest test of the new Squid system was prepared. HMS Kelly had undergone quite a few changes while being refitted. The anti-submarine mortar system required a highly advanced ASDIC system. That had meant that space had to be created under the bridge. Along with the new air warning and fire control radars the “gloom room” was a busy place. Mountbatten preferred to be on the bridge, able to see what was going on around him, so he had insisted that the voice pipes to the Operations Room were supplemented with an intercom system that made communications clearer.

What the Captain wasn’t happy with was that to fit the two Squid mortars he had had to lose the X 4.7-inch mounting. No destroyer captain wanted to be in a position where he didn’t have enough fire power when he needed it. While the Squid offered a much better chance of taking on submarines, the danger was they would have the wrong armament at the worst moment. In addition to the loss of the X mount, HMS Kelly had also had the aft torpedo tubes removed and replaced with a twin Bofors mount. Along with four twin Oerlikon 20mm mounts, the destroyer was now very well prepared to take on aerial threats. About this Mountbatten was happier, but again, he could end up needing the torpedoes and not having them. Such was life in the Royal Navy.

The intercom crackled into life, announcing that a suitable biological target had been located. The First Officer noted that all was ready and Mountbatten nodded his assent, and then the order to fire when ready was given. For the next few minutes he felt like a spectator as the team responsible called out the various distances and depths. At the mortar tubes the fuzes were set and reset. In the ASDIC room the range recorder noted the best firing solution and the mortars were fired automatically. The six thumps of the mortars firing could be felt through the deck of the ship and the projectiles soared overhead, clearly visible to the Bridge crew. The six splashes landed ahead of the bows and after a few seconds six plumes of water were thrown up as the charges exploded. The surface of the water boiled as the destroyer ploughed through the remnants of a large shoal of fish. Going by the quantity of dead fish on the surface the test had been a success.

What worried Mountbatten was that distance ahead of the bows which the charges dropped at wasn’t that far. The K Class of destroyers were already very wet in the forward compartments because of the design of the bow, having six charges going off only yards from the bows, couldn’t be good for the ship. The first trials of the Squid on HMS Ambuscade had worked out the optimum speed at which to make an attack on a submerged target. While HMS Kelly had followed that experience to the letter, Mountbatten couldn’t help but worry that they’d be too close to the target if they weren’t entirely careful.

As usual after a test of a new system there was a lot of reviewing that had to be done, later in the day they would work with HMS Kelvin, the other ship armed with the Squid system to do a joint attack. The purser wondered if the ship might slow down to allow some of the floating fish to be harvested for the galley. It was a lovely clear day, and Mountbatten couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so the ship slowed and one of the boats was lowered to pick up some of the after effects of their exercise. He also sent a damage control team down into the bows and paint locker to check to see if any seams had been disturbed by the explosions. As the ship’s boat returned, the captain couldn’t help think that the ASDIC system would be a real boon to the fishing fleet after the war.

24 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Gütersloh. Germany.

The former Luftwaffe airfield was under new management. Having been captured in the middle of April the well-practised process of clearing the site of unexploded ordnance had taken place. Then the Royal Engineers and the Pioneer Corps had turned up en masse to get the airfield back up and running. The Field Companies and Road Construction Companies wasted no time and so Advanced Landing Ground Y99 was readied for use. Unlike most of the airfields they completed this one had an extra-long runway as the RAF wanted it capable of handling bombers as well as fighters. They also saw this particular location, just over 200 miles from Berlin as a useful base that could well be more permanent than some of the other airfields that had been created in the hurry to keep up with the army.

A few more Advanced Landing Grounds were being prepared closer to the Oder for fighters, but with the majority of the remaining Nazi forces in East Prussia, having a base that bombers could use as a forward base to put the enemy within easier range for the Wellington fleet was deemed necessary. To that end, to test the new facilities a single Wellington bomber was coming in to land. It had flown from its home base at RAF Exning in Suffolk, a distance of 320 miles. A round trip to East Prussia flying from Gütersloh would be just over 1100 miles, allowing the Wellingtons to carry a full load of bombs.

No 3 Group of Bomber Command, flying Wellingtons had generally been used primarily for tactical bombing, especially of transport targets and enemy airfields. Therefore, their bases in Suffolk were getting too far from the front line. What had originally been No 1 and 2 Group of Bomber Command were now Tactical Command. The majority of the aircraft were Hurribombers, with increasing numbers of Beaufighters. What was left of the Blenheim fleet had gone back to Training Command. The Typhoons, which would replace the Hurribombers, were still taking some time to be ready for operational service. The increasing numbers of Mosquitoes were going into No 4 Group, which would take over the tactical responsibilities of No 3 Group, which would be transitioning slowly onto Lancasters, joining No 5 Group flying Halifaxes as the heavy bomber force.

The Wellington did a circuit of the new airfield and then came into land. Despite the minimum activity of the Luftwaffe, the plane was quickly moved to a revetment where the refuelling would take place. The facilities for the crew were still very primitive, a NAAFI van provided hot tea and sandwiches for the flight crew as they waited for their bomber to be readied to return to base. In the meantime the three squadrons which had made Advanced Landing Ground Y99 their home began to return from their morning sortie. A squadron of Spitfires and two of Beaufighters had been over the Oder dropping their loads on possible German defences. Two Beaufighters had returned with some holes in them from ground fire. The Spitfires, able to escort them because of drop tanks, had once again nothing to show for their efforts.

25 May 1941. 13:00hrs. Vliegbasis Woensdrecht. The Netherlands.

British First Air Assault Brigade had returned to this Dutch airbase while they were regrouping. The losses among the First Battalions of the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Border Regiment, Second Battalions of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment and South Staffordshire Regiments had been horrific, but what they had achieved cemented the importance of “air mobility.”

To this end a second Brigade was being formed, and so the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment had been reassigned to Second Air Assault Brigade. They were joined by two Battalions of the Kings Royal Rifle Brigade: 9th (The Rangers) and 11th (Queen’s Westminsters) Battalions. The RAF were struggling to keep up with demand for training helicopter crews, and so the Second Brigade wouldn’t be operational for a few months.

As with the Royal Artillery’s Air Observation Post, a good number of army volunteers had come forward for training as helicopter flight and maintenance crew. So the establishment of an “Army Air Corps” had happened in November 1940. No 30 Group of the RAF, the helicopter pioneers, had basically been re-rolled as the core of the new Army Air Corps, much to the chagrin of the Air Ministry. The formation of the Helicopter Pilot Regiment had been made attractive to the RAF personnel with better pay and permission to wear both their RAF and Army insignia. Each of the infantry, artillery and engineer units in the Brigades retained their names, but added “Air Assault” to the title. A new beret was worn by all the AAC units, maroon in colour, with a Golden Eagle cap badge. Because of the press coverage of their successes, anyone on leave wearing their distinctive beret was feted as a hero.

Eventually it was expected that the two Brigades would be joined by a third to create an “Air Assault Division”, or possibly an “Air Mobile Division”. The stories of what had been achieved by the Royal Marines and First Air Assault Brigade was galvanising a number of regimental Colonels to suggest that their regiments would be well suited for the role. The Lovat Scouts for one were terribly keen on a role more in keeping with their “traditions”. In addition to this the allied forces were keen on forming their own units, with Poles, Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians all undergoing flight training. How long it would be before they would be able to buy helicopters was unclear, all production was geared for the Army Air Corps and the Fleet Air Arm.

A great deal had been learned during the fighting, especially in the Netherlands. Much of the training that the new drafts to the three Battalions of First Air Assault Brigade was the fruit of hard experience. What hadn’t changed was the intensity of the training. Seeing themselves as “elite” had a knock on effect on what was considered suitable levels of competence at every level of the unit. While the basics of fitness, marksmanship and small unit tactics were all covered to a high degree, the need for aggression, self-reliance and improvisation were also highly sought after, especially among the officers.

26 May 1941. 09:00hrs. Trimconalee. Ceylon.

The French fleet that was sailing to reinforce the Entente forces in the Far East were exercising with the Royal Navy out of Ceylon, hopefully far from the prying eyes of any Japanese vessels. The battleships Richelieu and Dunkerque with two heavy cruisers, Colbert and Duquense, the light cruisers Jean De Vienne and Marseillaise, with the destroyers Guepard, Valmy, Verdun, Frondeur, Fougueux, and L’Adroit had left the Mediterranean in late April and had waited at Ceylon for the British fleet to arrive. HMS Illustrious with some escorts had arrived from Singapore to join up with her sister carrier when she arrived to begin working together. While they were waiting for the main fleet to arrive from South Africa the French fleet had been undergoing a series of exercises on damage control. The Royal Navy had been sharing a lot of methods and equipment over the past year with their allies, which the French fleet in the Mediterranean had been less than enthusiastic about. However away from their home base and with the encouragement and enthusiasm of the East Indies commander Rear Admiral Ralph Leatham, they were prepared to pick up some of the ideas and practises which were now part of the Royal Navy’s normal routine, since early 1940.

With HMS Nelson still undergoing repairs in Simonstown, the arrival two days ago of the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, and battlecruiser HMS Renown, along with cruisers the HMS York and Bonaventure, the destroyers HMS Isis, Kelly, Kelvin, Laforay, Mashona and Matabele made for a very strong force. HMS Cardiff and Andromeda, from the Bristol Group, heavily camouflaged to make them appear less futuristic were also part of this fleet.

The purpose of today’s exercise was to work at developing the most effective way of defending the fleet against a coordinated attack by enemy aircraft. The SeaFires of HMS Victorious would be part of that defensive role. Victorious’ four Fulmars with the Swordfish and Skua squadrons, had flown ashore, and would work along with HMS Illustrious’ aircraft with as many shore based aircraft that the RAF could provide. All of the ships that had been sent east were radar equipped, though generally the level of competence among the operators was mixed.

HMS Cardiff and Andromeda, as the most valuable and irreplaceable ships in the fleet were in close proximity to HMS Victorious. Because HMS Cardiff had the 965R type radar which gave a range of 250 nautical miles, she worked together with the SeaFires on Combat Air Patrol. HMS Andromeda had her SeaWolf system to act as “goalkeeper” for the aircraft carrier and the two futuristic ships. However the main role of goal keeper were the two Tribal class destroyers, HMS Mashona and Matabele. These had all their 4.5 inch guns replaced with twin 4 inch HA/LA Mark XVI turrets. Their 2-pdr pom pom and all the .5 inch machine guns had been replaced with 8 Bofors 40mm guns and another eight Oerlikon 20mm cannons, giving them an strong weight of fire in the anti-aircraft role.

The two French battleships had had more anti-aircraft armament added, as had the British battleship and battlecruiser, but they were still considered weaker in AAA than the British ships. The Richelieu had 12 x 100mm guns and her original light AAA suite was 16 × 37mm cannons and 28 × 13.2mm Hotchkiss heavy machine guns. The Hotchkiss had all been replaced with 20mm Oerlikon cannons. The 37mm canons had been augmented by another 8 x 40mm Bofors, but the plan to replace all the 37mm cannons with Bofors guns had run into production delays.

The Dunkerque was worse off. The long range 3 × quadruple and 2 double 130 mm turrets had a very slow rate of fire. 5 × double 37mm turrets and 8 × 13.2mm Hotchkiss mountings was all she was built with. Like the Richelieu the Hotchkiss mountings had been replaced with Oerlikon 20 mms and had been doubled. The 37mm turrets had also been supplemented with 8 Bofors guns, but compared to HMS Queen Elizabeth, with ten twin 4.5in dual-purpose mountings for long range and eight x four 2 pdr pom poms around the funnel and another thirty two Bofors, with most with radar control, and another thirty two Oerlikon 20mm cannons, the French ship was considered under gunned.

The various other Anglo-French cruisers and destroyers had a mixed arsenal and part of the aim of the exercise was to try to figure out what was the best way of grouping the ships so that they could maximise the power of their defensive armament. As the day progressed it became clear that any coordinated aerial attack on the fleet would mean casualties, mostly on the lighter ships on the periphery. It was also clear that a single squadron of SeaFires wasn’t enough to protect the fleet. When HMS Illustrious’ Fulmars and Sea Hurricanes joined the defensive side, rather than escorting the attacking aircraft, things improved a great deal. The plan as the combined fleet sailed to Singapore was for the two carriers to exercise coordinating their two air wings to provide both a strong attacking force and be able to defend the carriers from any aerial attack. When HMAS Melbourne arrived, with another squadron of SeaFires, that task would become much better.

Over the next couple of days the combined fleet would continue to exercise together, then on route of Singapore they were scheduled to have an exercise with the Dutch fleet and finally to find themselves up against the threat from the Entente Fleet’s Submarine force. They would spend the rest of the summer in various exercises, whether working out of Singapore, or forward based in either Indo-China or Hong Kong. The fact was that Ceylon wasn’t terribly secure from prying Japanese eyes, so the fact that a large Anglo-French fleet was in the Indian Ocean and presumably heading towards Singapore was noted by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Something that the code breakers of the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB) were able to confirm had been received in Japan.

27 May 1941. 10:00hrs. Loire near Tours, France.

General William Fraser and his staff were in the middle of an exercise which pitted the 10th Indian Division against French forces who were defending the crossing of the Loire River. This had been used since before the assault on the Rhine as an exercise area for dealing with large water crossings. It was clear that the exercise was far too early for the Indian troops. 20th Brigade had only arrived from India earlier in the month and were still in the process of being fully equipped. It was the first time that all three Brigades had been together as 21st and 24th Brigades had been used as Line of Communication troops. Fraser was looking for positives and there was no doubt that there was plenty of fighting spirit among the troops, having four battalions of Gurkhas would make sure of that. Fraser could see the potential that many of the Indian officers had, and given time, to prepare they would do very well.

What Fraser didn’t expect was the unannounced arrival of General Harold Alexander who had recently been confirmed as commander of Fourth British Army. Alexander was aware that his presence might be intimidating to the Division’s staff, but he was keen to see what the division looked like, and to get a feel for its commander. His arrival coincided with a disastrous attempt at crossing the river by 4th Battalion, 13th Frontier Force Rifles. Everybody knew, including Alexander, that such an event was common in this type of exercise, however, what pleased the Army Commander was the way in which the Brigade Commander, Charles Weld got in among the problem and started getting it sorted out. Likewise, Fraser and his staff didn’t panic, even with their new commander present, and helped to sort out the problem.

As the day progressed there were many lessons to be learned from the exercise, some positives, but many things that needed further attention. Alexander had seen what he wanted, and so left the Divisional Staff to get on with their job, while he did a short tour around the individual units to speak to the men and take a sounding of how they were faring. Alexander had served in India and knew the quality of the Indian troops that would be under his command. His whirlwind tour proved very heartening, both for himself and for the men. As he departed, he wrote a short note of thanks and congratulations to General Fraser and the whole of the 10th Indian Division and that he looked forward to leading them in battle. The note was copied by Divisional HQ for distribution to all units. So although the exercise had been unimpressive, there was still a feeling of strong morale in the Division.

Alexander in the aircraft carrying him back to Fourth Army’s new Headquarters at Lommel in Belgium was wrestling with trying to imagine what kind of a team the Corps and Divisional Commanders under his command would make. The strong right arm of his army would be II Mechanised Corps. This would consist of 7th Armoured Division with 61st and 66th Divisions. He would also have I Indian Corps 7th, 9th and 10th Indian Divisions. His Third Corps would be Canadian, with 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions. At least 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions would be battle hardened, the rest were all as green as grass. ‘Piggy’ Heath had been promoted from commander of 5th Indian Division to take over I Indian Corps, Mosley Main taking over the Division in his place. Andrew McNaughton would take over I Canadian Corps from VII Corps that he currently commanded. He would be replaced by Richard McCreery who had commanded 3rd Armoured Division. Which left II Mechanised Corps, and Alexander had argued long and hard that he wanted someone who could make the most of it. General Justice Tilly, who had commanded 2nd Armoured Division had been given the role, and he in turn was replaced by Michael Gambier-Parry.

When he arrived back at Army HQ, his staff updated him on what had been happening while he was in France. The deadline for the crossing of the Oder and the advance into Poland had been set for 10 June 1941. First and Third British Armies would be the main forces to make the thrusts, with Second Army in reserve. There was a message from General Alan Brooke asking Alexander for an accurate assessment of when Fourth Army would be ready for deployment. Sitting down with his staff and going through everything, he couldn’t envision the Army to be fully operational until at least September, three months being the absolute minimum. He knew that Brooke would want him quicker than that, but hopefully he would realise the reality of getting his disparate units fully geared up for battle couldn’t be rushed.

28 May 1941. 03:00hrs. Warsaw. Poland.

The sound of explosions woke up most of the inhabitants of the city. There had been no air raid warning, and it sounded as if there had been one main blast followed by a lot of secondary explosions. Because of the blackout conditions a good few people opened their windows to see if they could work out what had blown up. The glow of fire could be seen coming from the east bank of the River Vistula. Those nearer the scene, many of whom were having to pick up broken glass, identified railway sidings as the source of the blast.

A train loaded with ammunition had been tracked by the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (ZWZ), the Union of Armed Struggle, and then when the train had come to a halt, two operatives managed to sneak on to one of the wagons and plant explosives. Both had successfully evaded the German patrols and returned to the rest of the unit. The timer had been set for 3am, as the details of the train’s movements had been passed to the resistance by an insider who worked on the railway. The train was due to sit in the siding for an hour, and it was far enough away from civilians to cause as few casualties as possible. The explosion would also hopefully wreck that part of the railway system, which was another aim.

This attack was one of many that had the German forces in Poland tied down. The Union of Armed Struggle had been formed in 1939 after the defeat of Poland by the Germans and Soviets. General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, an aide of General Sikorski, was in overall command from his base in Paris, though the local commanders in Warsaw and Lwów had great freedom of action. Since the summer of 1940 men and equipment such as weapons and explosives were being funnelled into Poland either through Romania or by air drop. As the front line was advancing through Germany the rate at which material was finding its way into the hands of the ZWZ was increasing.

General Sirkoski had empowered Colonel Stefan Rowecki, the ZWZ commander in Warsaw as his deputy in Poland, with broad powers. The role that had been given to the resistance was to prepare the ground for the arrival of the Polish Army, with the French and British, which would be coming to liberate the nation. Actions such as the destruction of an ammunition train were part of that strategy. The Nazis were taking hostages and there were reprisals against the civilian population, however the ZWZ were not deflected from their assignment. A general uprising was planned, but hard as it was, it had to be timed so that it coincided with the arrival of the Entente Army, rather than giving the Germans time to defeat the uprising before help could arrive. As the assault over the Oder seemed to be taking so long, there was a great deal of impatience.

29 May 1941. 16:00hrs. However,. Denmark.

The flotilla of minesweepers had been working all day, it would soon be time to return to their base at Helsingor for some rest. It was a true Entente force, made up of ships from the navies of Britain, Canada, Norway, France, Holland and Denmark. The waters that led into the Baltic had been strewn with mines by both the Germans and the British. The trouble was not only in the quantity of the mines, but also in the multitude of types. The classic floating mines were comparatively easy to deal with. However, there were magnetic, acoustic and pressure mines in abundance. Most of the British mines had been dropped from aircraft, and so it was impossible to know where exactly they had ended up.

A couple of Wellington bombers with a 48ft diameter loop mounted under fuselage, had been flying around the area that the mine clearing vessels were working in. With an engine producing a magnetic field they flew very precise patterns hoping to trigger any magnetic mines below them. Some of the ships carried Type ‘A’ Mark IV Towed Box for dealing with acoustic mines. However, many of the minesweepers were impressed trawlers whose dragnets were used to simply lift any kind of mines off the seabed and hopefully be detonated safely. The Swedish navy were working alongside in their own territorial waters, and while maintaining their neutrality it was in their best interests to get the sea lanes open once again.

Over the period of time that the minesweeping operation had been going on six vessels had been sunk or damaged, more than 100 men had lost their lives. There were many more miles of sea to clear and a lot of time and effort were going in to studying how best and quickly to reopen the seas to navigation. Currently the work was going into clearing lanes that could be marked for safe passage. Even these needed to be re-swept regularly to make sure that no mines had drifted into the cleared lane. The objective of this particular flotilla was to clear a way into Copenhagen. Once that had been opened, with the side effect of opening up Malmo in Sweden, the hope was to go further into the Baltic.

On the other side of Zealand, in the Great Belt, more minesweepers were at work. In addition to the conventional minesweepers, here the Danes were also using motorised barges as suicidal mine clearers. Then there came the old merchant ships inspired by the German Sperrbrecher vessels. With a reduced crew, reinforced bow, and their holds filled with buoyant material, these simply sailed forward, following up the barges, in advance the rest of the minesweepers. Since they were no longer required for commercial work, their loss to mines was considered cost-effective. Their wrecks might cause a danger to shipping in the future, but the depth of the water was considered deep enough to use this method.

As with the invasion of the Netherlands, it was hoped that if sufficient paths could be cleared then an amphibious force could sail into the Baltic and make a landing behind the German positions, hastening the process of their defeat. The Royal Marine Division and the French 1re DLI that were preparing for just such an operation from Denmark. General Alan Brooke had also assigned 1st Norwegian Division and the Belgian Ardennes Chasseur Division to this task, should it become possible.

30 May 1941. 10:00hrs. A secluded country house. England.

The arrival in England of some Very Important Prisoners had been well prepared for. As the progress of the Entente armies had made their way through Germany there were a number of people that Britain wanted to get their hands on. Scientists and engineers were at the top of the list, however there were others whose names appeared in various books and journals brought back on the ships of the Bristol Group. The capture of Peenemunde had netted a number of these individuals, not least Wernher Von Braun, whose arrival at the country house for evaluation and debriefing was now getting under way.

Some of the scientists and engineers that were wanted were unaccounted for, it was expected that at least some of these would be in Hitler’s bastion. In fact the fact that Von Braun and the team at Peenemunde hadn’t been evacuated to East Prussia spoke more about the disintegration of the Reich than anything else. Now that Von Braun was in British hands, with some of the work on the A4 rocket in his possession, the process of vetting him about his work for the Nazis could begin. The question was also to be asked about whether he would be prepared to work for Britain, and there was a very simple plan to see if he could be enticed.

“Herr Von Braun”, began the enticer, “as you know the British Empire is spread out over the globe and fast communications are essential to its organisation. You may be aware that the current technology being used is undersea cables. These are mostly efficient, but some of our scientists are exploring another idea. You are aware that radio signals can be “bounced off” the earth’s atmosphere and so are able to go much further. Our scientists posit the theory that if a number of man-made devices were in orbit around the earth they could be used to beam signals between continents. These “satellites” as they have been dubbed, could be very useful for communications. There may be other uses, looking weather patterns etc. However the fundamental problem of getting the satellites into orbit, we presume will take rockets.”

“Ja”, Von Braun said, “Very big rockets. To achieve an orbit would require a rocket to reach an altitude of 2000kms or so. For that, off the top of my head, if the “satellite” weighs 100 kilos, you would need an engine that could provide (making some scratching's on a piece of paper), 300000 kilogramme force!” “Indeed,” replied the enticer, “Our calculations were roughly for about 80000lbs of thrust. But obviously such an undertaking would need a lot of calculations and work. Then of course the pipe dream is always inter-planetary travel, starting with putting a man on the moon. Well, that would need a huge rocket, wouldn’t it?”

Wernher Von Braun’s face told the enticer all he needed to know. The fish had taken the hook, now it was a case of reeling him in. Von Braun said, “It has always been my dream to see man conquering the heavens. But such a project would be very expensive I believe?” Yes, thought the enticer, first the hook, then the line. “Well that is very true. The Entente with the French Empire and the Dutch and Belgians too, means that getting started with satellites for communication and weather predictions would be a good start. There are some other scientists who would be keen on having platforms outside earth’s atmosphere to examine the galaxy, and the process of attempting to put a man on the moon or a trip to Mars would have all sorts of beneficial side effects. Hopefully when this war is over, all that money that has been wasted on weapons could be reallocated to the peaceful exploration of space.”

Von Braun’s body language, sitting up straight and eyes searching the face of the enticer, to him that he had him, hook, line and sinker! “Of course, such an undertaking would need a very large group of people. Perhaps some of your colleagues who might need to be convinced that working together in some kind of European Space Agency would be a way of advancing the human cause?” Von Braun nodded, “Ja, I think as scientists and engineers, the goal of exploring space would be something that they would be very interested in. I might talk to them, if you like?” The enticer replied, “That would be most kind of you Herr Von Braun, thank you.” “No, please, call me Wernher, and it would be my pleasure.”

31 May 1941. 09:00hrs. Meeting of the Oversight Committee. London, England.

Let’s start with the senior service. Home Fleet battle-line consists of HMS Rodney, Prince of Wales, Valiant, Barham, and Resolution. HMS Ramillies and Revenge have arrived back from the Mediterranean. HMS Revenge has gone into inactive reserve and Ramillies will join Royal Sovereign as a training ship in the meantime. The carriers are HMS Formidable, Glorious and Furious, with HMS Eagle acting as a helicopter carrier, and HMS Argus as the training ship. In the Mediterranean currently are HMS KGV, Warspite, and Repulse, with HMS Ark Royal. The Admiralty have agreed to swap over Malaya and Warspite from China Station and the Mediterranean fleets. They have also decided to move HMS Furious after her refit to the Mediterranean to allow HMS Ark Royal to go to Singapore. Those moves will take place in June.

Which leaves the China Station, or Far East Fleet as we have to learn to call it now. Currently HMS Malaya and Illustrious are the main force, with the French battleship Strasbourg. The combined Anglo-French fleet are finishing up their exercises at Ceylon and will arrive at Singapore next month. Queen Elizabeth will be joined by HMS Warspite instead of Malaya, and HMS Nelson when she leaves South Africa. HMS Illustrious will be joined by HMS Victorious, and Ark Royal in due course. HMS Duke of York is still at Rosyth getting her finishing touches, and HMAS Melbourne is due to be commissioned in July, the two of these should get to Singapore by October at the latest all going well. Which means that should the Japanese think about moving south at the end of the year they will face three French battleships, Strasbourg, Richelieu and Dunkerque, HMS Duke of York, Nelson, Queen Elizabeth, Warspite and Renown. With HMS Illustrious, Victorious, Ark Royal and HMAS Melbourne. Oh, and lots and lots of submarines.

Still to come are the last two KGV battleships HMS Howe and Anson. Both are looking good to be commissioned towards the end of this year and early next year. They will be manned mostly from the crews of HMS Ramillies and Revenge. I should mention that in the minutes of the last meeting that the Prime Minister expressed an interest in getting the Tirpitz completed and into service under the White Ensign. You will be glad to know that he has been dissuaded from such a venture. I swear Alan Grose is going to heaven for that one alone!

In terms of aircraft carriers, HMS Unicorn is furthest along, and she will indeed be a maintenance carrier as originally planned, probably for service in Far East Fleet. HMS Implacable and Indefatigable are coming along, though the changes to their flight decks and everything means we still aren’t expecting them until autumn 1942 and then spring 1943. The programme for Rapana class Merchant Aircraft Carriers is coming to an end, with four completed conversions and two more underway, along with the Pretoria Castle. Since we no longer have to use convoys their role has almost disappeared, so the seven conversions will remain until the end of the war, just in case, then will be restored to their original configurations.

The designs for the next class of aircraft carriers is now well advanced. The Malta Class ships will start being laid down, HMS Gibraltar in Belfast when Unicorn is done. HMS Malta will be Clyde built at John Browns. The all-welded construction means a lot of retraining is having to go on at the shipyards, and there’s been some Union troubles because of it. But it has been explained to them in no uncertain terms that if they want a long term future they have to move with the times. The plans for four Hermes Class, or Centaurs as some insist on calling them, are also well advanced. The first, HMS Hermes will be laid down in June at Swan Hunter on Tyneside. The second HMS Albion will be laid down by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness in October. The third and fourth, HMS Centaur and Bulwark will be laid down in 1942. Whether they are all commissioned with those names remains to be seen. With the Australians taking HMS Melbourne, the Canadians are expressing an interest in a carrier too. In due course HMS Furious, Glorious, Argus and Eagle will all be scrapped. The Illustrious class ships and Ark Royal will continue on for the foreseeable future, though one or two might be sold off to the French or Dutch possibly.

There is no change to the plan for cruisers, destroyers and other escort ships. Those still building will be completed, with as many enhancements as can be shoe-horned into them. The aim of keeping the size of the navy at or about 1939 levels remains the plan. So eventually some of the really old and worn out ships will be retired, with the newer ships being much better equipped. So the Royal Navy will be about the same size, but a whole lot more capable. New capability in amphibious warfare is coming along, and the landings in the Netherlands pointed out a lot of things that need to be taken into consideration. The possibility of doing something similar in the Baltic is being considered. The Royal Marine Division is proving itself to be extremely useful, and all indications point to it becoming a permanent feature, with the capacity to move it around the world and land it on hostile shores being created.

The mine hunting role that is going on now around the North Sea and Denmark’s coasts is a reminder of the need for increasing our capability in mine hunting. The Ton class ships are a good start, but there is a lot more needed in sophistication. If war does come with Japan, we’ll be dropping a lot of mines in their path that will need to be cleared eventually. Progress regarding the other weapons that are being developed are coming along nicely. A Mark 44-clone homing torpedo is being tested, and the first Squids are now aboard ships. The problems with the proximity fuze are being ironed out and we are not far off having them in service in all the main heavy anti-aircraft artillery. The fuzes for the 40mm weapons are taking a little longer. In terms of missiles, progress on the Sea Cat (with the Army’s Tiger Cat version) remains positive. There is no date yet for when we might see them in service, though the follow on cruiser and destroyer classes are being designed for, but not necessarily with this system.

Just while I am on this point, can I mention that we’ve had a few security issues over the last month? Two were pretty standard Soviet attempts to infiltrate the complex in Cardiff, one by attempted break in, and the other a honey-trap for someone who works in the Andromeda building. MI5 are on the case, and their assessment is that is fairly amateur stuff, almost desperate. The third was a lot more worrying. One of the ratings off HMS Bristol, who was working on the 4.5–inch Mark 8 gun team at Woolwich, went missing for a couple of days. When he turned back up his story was a bit odd. He doesn’t remember very much, as if he was on a bender. His handlers think he may have been drugged and abducted. If so, we don’t know who was involved, though MI5 have their suspicions about the Americans of all people. All the people who came back have had the training about security and their cover story, but we can’t know for certain what happened. How did he end up in a position to be abducted? It seems there was a girl involved, and he ditched his watcher for a little R&R. The girl is being given a thorough check to see if there was a honey-trap scenario, but at this point she looks clean. However, in the light of the incident, all the men who came back are going to have to go through a refresher course. That includes me!

Moving on, the RAF are still expanding. Last month the aircraft manufacturers delivered 1668 aircraft. That was 32 Halifax and the first six Lancaster bombers. 232 Mediums, mostly Wellingtons but also 25 Mosquitos. 130 Beaufighters, 572 single engined fighters, about half of which were Spitfires (280), and the other half was made up of Typhoons, Hurribombers, and 30 Mustangs were delivered from America. There were only twelve Austers, there is some kind of problem with their factory I believe. There were 574 other miscellaneous aircraft including trainers and transports. Finally, the Fleet Air Arm took delivery of 110 aircraft, split between Sea Hurricanes, SeaFires, Barracudas and Swordfish. Just to give you an idea, that is 650 more aircraft than were delivered the same month last year, that’s an increase of 39%! As to having enough pilots, aircrew and ground crew to staff all these aircraft, the training programmes both here in the UK and in the Empire Air Training Scheme are at full blast. Losses to enemy action have been relatively light, so there are plenty of experienced men out there.

The new types, the Typhoon and Barracuda, are still plagued with teething troubles, but since they’ve had a pretty much rushed process from drawing board to flight testing, we shouldn’t be surprised. Squadrons are being formed with them, but there is an emphasis on safety at the moment, and we don’t want to risk too many pilots. Fairey have assured us that the Barracuda will be sorted by mid-summer, but we really want them on the carriers in the Far East Fleet. The Hurribombers can continue in the meantime, but a wing of Typhoons would be a welcome addition. A navalised Typhoon is being tested, and looks pretty good, probably better than the SeaFire.

The next generation of jets is making solid progress. A decision was made early on not to do a rush job, so the Hunter is taking shape, the prototype has had a couple of test flights, and there’s still a fair amount of learning going on, not least on the engine. A twin engine bomber in the style of a Canberra is also well into the design stage, a four jet engine V-bomber is also being mulled over. Some people were arguing for a massive thing like a B52, but presuming that we still have bases all around the world, do we really need something that large? The whole question with the RAF, as always, is the case for strategic bombing. In their heart of hearts they still really believe that bombing can win a war. If and when they get nukes, that just confirms their heart’s desire. It is getting to the point where the argument is will the big bombers carry free-fall nukes or stand-off air launched nukes. It seems that we unintentionally brought back the Mutual Assured Destruction mentality of the Cold War, which is one of the very things we set out to try to avoid.

On a more practical note helicopters have proven themselves time and again. Everybody now wants them of course. The Air Assault Brigade is being expanded to two initially, and then probably to a Division sized unit. Having mastered the Sussex and Wildcat versions, Westland are looking at trying to do something much bigger, something like a Chinook, though realistically it is going to look more like the old Belvedere than anything else. In terms of equipment for the Navy’s helicopters, the dipping sonar from the Lynx is being studied to see if it can be reversed engineered, and if the Mark 44 torpedo comes to fruition, then that gives the ASW chaps a pretty good platform. For the Army Air Corps, they like the Wildcat gunship. It is still pretty vulnerable, but a Mark 2 version will be an improvement. A heavier lift helicopter is also desirable for them, especially for carrying artillery and ammunition.

It is slightly out of our remit, though it might have military applications for inflight refuelling and transport, are a couple of passenger airliners. Vickers is beginning to look at something like a VC10 with jets, while Bristol is looking at turboprops for something like the Britannia. To be honest, I think they are getting ahead of themselves, but looking at the post-war world makes a lot of sense for them as companies. In the short term the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign II with the Hercules Engines is being looked at for continuing BOAC’s routes when this is all over. Transport Command is happy enough with them, but would prefer an all metal construction rather than fabric. The company is looking at an Ensign III which would use Centaurus engines and be all metal, but those in the know aren’t convinced they will be able to deliver.

Just going back to missiles for a moment. One group of entrepreneurs from those ‘special’ Royal Marines that came back on HMS Onyx have been pushing for a MANPAD, or SLAM as they prefer to call it. Basically it is something based around the Blowpipes that were brought back, but looks and feels a lot more like a Soviet SA-7 or an American Redeye. It has been so far down the list of requirements that no one has really bothered much with it. But infra-red technology has now progressed to the point where air to air missiles are becoming feasible, and so therefore are shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles. It is the kind of thing that the Royal Marine Division and Air Assault Division might see as being desirable. So, anyway, these entrepreneurs went to the company that makes the 2 inch rockets and “borrowed” a few. They’ve been playing around with them, when they haven’t been up to any other mischief, were hounding the team working on infra-red technology. Their first idea, and you have to hand it to them, was for an unguided rocket. They just adapted the 2 inch rocket into a bazooka type thing and the idea was to fire it off in the general direction of an enemy plane, in the less than certain hope it would either hit the thing or cause the pilot to, and I quote, “become distracted!” unquote. The fact that the exhaust from the launcher would pretty much fry the poor chap holding the thing was, and again I quote, “unfortunate”, unquote. The chaps in the Projectile Development Establishment at Fort Halstead have now got involved and a budget has appeared from somewhere, so God help us. Anyway, the problem as always is that everyone wants Gucci 1982 kit and everybody’s favourite toys are being cited as the very thing that would solve everything. Personally I see more sense in getting increased numbers of the SPAAGs (Self Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun) into the inventory, which are far more likely to do some damage to enemy aircraft, than a scared squaddie with a rocket on his shoulder.

Production numbers for the army last month were as follows: 360 tanks which breaks down as 31 Matilda IIs, 113 Valentines and 120 Comets. The other 96 were a mixture of SPGs, APCs, AA tanks and ARVEs based on the Comet or Crusader chassis. Matilda production will soon begin to decline as Vulcan move on to other projects. For the Royal Artillery there were 337 25-pdrs, 91 3.7-inch AA guns, 950 other guns, including 6-pdrs, Bofors and some guns for the Navy. Just over 9000 rifles, 630 Brens and 5000 Sterlings were manufactured. The output of mortars and Carl Gustavs are slightly increased over the previous month, 400 CGs, with 15000 rounds, 450 2 inch and 230 87mm mortars. Altogether there were 2376000 filled shells and 116.1 million rounds of small arms ammunition produced. 7261 wheeled vehicles were manufactured, and the clothing industry produced over a million pieces for uniforms. Again comparing to the same month last year the total output for tanks was up 40%, 25-pdrs up 32%, AA guns are slightly down, as the threat of air attack has been removed. 31% increase in other guns; small arms, excluding rifles, which have stayed much the same, is 21%. Increases of 50% in filled shells and 57% on small arms ammunition. For all we love to hate the Ministry of Supply, you can’t argue with the results. I hope the British workforce get some kind of recognition of the outstanding efforts that they’ve put in the last 18 months or so.

The current situation in Germany is that a great deal of this output is being moved up towards the Oder for the next phase of the war. There are a lot of chaps chewing at the bit to get going, there is a really strong possibility, by all accounts, that there will be very little opposition, the Heer seems to be disintegrating. The chaps in Poland are convinced that once the attack goes in, there will be a general uprising, cutting off whatever forces do actually fight from any supplies. General Sikorski is urging patience on his countrymen, while the Polish Army is poised and ready for the march on Warsaw. It is the best part of 300 miles, but they are hoping to go full blast and try to get there in about two weeks.

The French army is suffering a bit of indigestion from how much of Germany they’ve swallowed. The assault armies are getting there, but their logistics in terms of repairing road and rail links aren’t far forward as we are in the north of Germany. Because most of our supply routes are initially through Belgium and the Netherlands, those two countries have been doing sterling work getting their infrastructure back in place. Once again the Bailey bridge has proven its worth over countless crossings. The French lines of communications seem a bit more difficult than ours.

One of the things we have been noticing over the past few months, is that the German population in places like Aachen which have been occupied for some time now, are becoming pretty positive about the new situation. The lack of Nazi propaganda and the way in which justice is being dealt with, seems to have swayed the majority over to the fact the post-war situation may not be as bad as they feared. There have been a few incidents where the Germans are unhappy if the occupation troops aren’t white, and that has affected the Belgians and ourselves, as well as the French. There are far bigger problems trying to maintain the non-fraternisation policy among the troops than from any kind of German resistance. Other than some Hitler Youth graffiti and minor disturbances, the occupation is peaceful. Hamburg for example we expected to be a major headache. However the fact that it wasn’t fought over or bombed to a crisp, has meant that the civilian population are just glad that for them the war is over, and so we’ve been able to reduce the size of garrison. That has taken a lot of pressure off Second Army in particular and is allowing Alexander to get on with forming Fourth Army, rather than stomping on the German populace.

As previously agreed the Italians and Yugoslavian troops are doing a lot of the garrisoning of Austria, Czechoslovakia and southern Germany, or the Kingdom of Bayern as it is trying to call itself these days. Poor old Hungary is now pretty much surrounded and is making a lot of very friendly noises. The Romanians are holding their breath in terms of what Stalin is going to do which his part of Poland. Bulgaria are standing quietly in a corner hoping no one will notice them. Turkey is also friendly, but is also watching Moscow carefully.

As you know the Soviet’s use of one time pads has made our ability to crack any codes almost impossible. We also don’t have much in the way of human intelligence coming out of Moscow. We do have a few irons in the fire and there are a couple of low level people being run from the Embassy, but they are more than likely NKVD plants, so anything they say is taken with a pinch of salt. We seem pretty positive that most of the worst penetrations by the Soviets of ourselves and France are neutralised. The Americans have taken a few of our hints and J Edgar Hoover is on the case. At least we hope so. We can only hope that the Soviets are struggling as much as we are to have any insight to what is happening at the highest level. That being said, out best guess is that Stalin is watching and waiting to see what becomes of his erstwhile friend, Herr Hitler. How Stalin will feel in a couple of months with an Anglo-French army on his borders, with some very pissed off Poles remains to be seen.

The other unknown is our old friend, the Japanese. The code breakers have had much more success against them, and everything we are seeing still points to the possibility, but not probability, of a push against the Far East colonies. All the deterrence that we are sending out will hopefully strengthen the hand of those who would argue against coming south, but as the old saying goes, if you want peace, prepare for war. So as well as the Navy’s reinforcements, the 14th Army is not long from being fully prepared. The RAF have started moving some assets eastwards, and so have the French and Dutch. Again the warnings we’ve been sounding in Washington DC are receiving a mixed reception. As for the war in China, the surplus German equipment that has been finding its way into the Chinese Army’s hands is making a difference. Things for the Imperial Japanese Army are getting a good bit more difficult. Will that make them less likely to look south, or more likely? Only time will tell.

Lastly a short word on Tube Alloys. Much of what had been done over the last few months has been in the theoretical side. The team are waiting for the facility in Canada to come on stream with enough generating power for what they will need. The team seem confident that the preparatory work they have done means that they have a plan of action of how to get the material and then they will have to deal with the engineering tasks of making the thing go boom. Quite rightly they are being very coy about times and dates, but they report that progress is being made at a satisfactory rate.
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1-15 June 1941
1 June 1941. 15:00hrs. House of Commons. London, England.

Speaker of the House: Order! Order! A statement from the Minister of Education.

R A Butler: Thank you Mr Speaker. The Right Honourable and Honourable Members know that when the Prime Minister appointed me to this role that I was given the task of examining the current educational practice in our country and to make recommendations for the improvement thereof. The last few months have been very busy and I and my department have had numerous meetings with all of those involved in education in our country. Today my department is publishing our Green Paper entitled, “Education after the War.”

Firstly, can I note the importance of this issue. The raising of the President of the Board of Education to a ministry in its own right expresses the government’s intention to make the education of our children and young people a priority, even amidst this terrible war. The Right Honourable Member for Epping has rightly given us the task of “establishing a state of society where the advantages and privileges, which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few, shall be far more widely shared by the men and youth of the nation as a whole". The Green Book is guided by that desire and there are a number of proposals set out in it.

The first is that the nation needs the education system serve the needs of the nation. Therefore we must be bold and generous in restructuring the framework so that it serves the country’s educational needs.

The second proposal is that full time schooling should fall into three categories. Primary level which will cover nursery schools and classes, Infant and Junior schools ending at the age of 11. Secondary schooling will cover Secondary schools of all types, the Modern School, Grammar School and Technical School, with leaving ages ranging from 16 to 18. The leaving age is proposed to be raised to 16 without exceptions. Further Education covers all education after the age of 16.

The third proposal is that a single type of Local Education Authority is established throughout the country. This would have the duty to provide secondary education and all secondary schools, provided, maintained or aided by the Local Education Authority are to be free. There are obviously difficulties here regarding grammar schools and church schools, but the paper sets out a number of solutions for discussion.

The fourth proposal examines the period of time from the age of leaving school, to be raised to 16 under the second proposal, and the on-going education of young people up to the age of 18 and college and university enrolment. The Fisher Act of 1918’s proposals for Day Continuation Schools, which has never quite come into being as intended is examined again, particularly in the light of the need for an expansion of school building provision. This proposal also deals with the health and physical well-being of children, especially the handicapped.

The fifth proposal deals with the recruitment and training of teachers. We propose that the training period for all teachers should be extended to three years, part of which would be spent in schools having practical application of the methods of teaching being experienced. There are also recommendations regarding the salaries of teachers and how the finance of education is to be reformed. The present elementary grant formula and the percentage grant for higher education should be replaced by a single block grant to be determined for a period of years. The direct grants payable to bodies other than Local Education Authorities are to be continued.

The sixth recommendation takes into account what we have discovered since the beginning of the war. Credit for much of our success so far must go to the scientists and engineers who have made great strides forward in our ability to wage total war. These scientists and engineers started off life in schools like all the other children. If we are to bring forward into peacetime the same ability for forward progress, then more and more of our children, boys and girls, must receive the ability to have the very best science and technology teaching and learning. Please do not see that as in any way diminishing the arts, our review of the current education system, particularly at tertiary level, noted that the arts and humanities are one of the strong points of educational provision.

So, the proposal is that there will be an emphasis in all levels of schooling on what is being called STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. We recognise that this won’t be easy, all too many of our teachers will need to be retrained in these subjects themselves, the progress of science is such that it is very difficult to keep up with developments. But in future the curriculum of every school in the land will need to provide adequate time for Maths and Science, so that our children can be inspired to take up careers in Engineering and the new technologies.

I commend the Green Paper to the House…

2 June 1941. 10:00hrs. Bahn. Germany.

So it had finally happened. Just before dawn the people were woken with the sound of guns. It wasn’t unexpected, it was just that it had been relatively quiet for some weeks. It was clear that when the British had arrived at the Oder they had paused there, presumably to bring up more supplies before the inevitable attack across the river came.

Not that it had been completely quiet. The cursed RAF had been shooting up anything that moved in daylight. How the farmers were ever going to feed the people was unknown. It seemed that there was an aeroplane looking for every horse and cart for miles around. The arrival of an artillery barrage told the people, and the soldiers, that they didn’t have as long to wait now. Obviously the British had brought up enough shells to begin their softening of any possible resistance. While Bahn was 20km from the river, and so out of range of the field guns, that wouldn’t last long.

For General Friedrich Karst, the commander of the German 262nd Division guarding this part of the river, he couldn’t help note that even so far from their own country the British were able to bring forward more than enough supplies. Here he was, commanding a “Division”, which was little more than a Regiment and a half, and he couldn’t even get enough food for his men, never mind ammunition. He had dispersed his troops as widely as possible, to prevent too many of them coming under attack at any one time. It would make trying to stop the British more difficult when they came. But, if he was honest, there was no great desire to stop them. In fact if they wanted a travel pass onwards to Poland he would happily supply them with one. If they wanted an escort he would supply the men to do so, but he didn’t have any petrol for his non-existent vehicles to go with them.

Ever since the surrenders of large formations at the Elbe, there was constant monitoring of the radios and telephone exchanges by Nazi officers. There was to be no repeat of German commanders arranging with their opposite numbers to give up the fight in an organised fashion. Instead he would just have to continue to wait. He had a few good men, whose English was passable, ready to make contact when the British appeared. Not that he really expected the main force to pass through his area of responsibility. The main roads and railways that ran west to east were north and south of him. But there certainly seemed to be enough English that some unit would be needed to keep the main thrusts together. Not that he could mention this to a living soul, otherwise he would end up hanging from a lamppost like all too many men in uniform.

The noise of the guns started diminishing. His elderly batman came in with some hot soup. “It sounds as if they were just clearing their throats,” he said. He was old enough to remember his first time in uniform when he’d experienced the British barrages at Ypres in 1918. General Karst nodded. He’d been a junior officer in the last lot too, though he’d mostly been on the Eastern Front. However he’d commanded a regiment on the Rhine, the survivors of which were the core of his division. That had been more than enough of a British barrage to last a lifetime or two. The rest of the troops in his Division were old men and boys. Most had some basic infantry training, though basic was something of an overstatement. The veterans generally stuck to themselves, they considered the new men as being little better than bullet magnets. Their General knew that none of his men were rabid Nazis. They were good men, proud Germans, and this war had been hard on them.

The high command in East Prussia seemed to look on the troops on the Oder as little more than a speed bump on the road. Why they didn’t just give up and make peace was beyond him. The war was lost some time ago, any deaths now were a pointless waste. As far as could be discerned from British radio broadcasts the civilian population in occupied Germany were being well treated. Karst couldn’t help but wonder how the German regime would have treated the British population if England had been invaded. At least the Anglo-Saxons weren’t untermensch, so they wouldn’t be as badly treated as the Jews in Poland. Karst had had a bunch of starved Jews digging trenches and bunkers for his area. It was pathetic, they didn’t have the energy to do a day’s work. Some of the older men who remembered the hard times of hungry winters tried to slip them some bread. The SS guards had gone crazy at that, Karst had had to intervene personally otherwise there would have been bloodshed. Since the failed coup attempt the SS were very wary of Wehrmacht units. Not that you saw many of the death’s head troopers any more. Most of them had run off to East Prussia. That was why Karst wanted to give a travel pass to the English. If the Nazis wanted to make a last stand, let them. Just let the rest of the country get back to some kind of peace.

Reports from some of his forward units started coming in, a few casualties here and there, and reports of a few kids unable to deal with the noise and danger of their first barrage. Some lines had been cut, but it would be night time before he sent out anyone to find and fix them. The standing order was for everyone to hunker down, it wouldn’t be long now until they came, and then it would all be over.

3 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Celebes Sea.

A combined Entente fleet were involved in an exercise testing the increased Dutch defences of Borneo. The attacking fleet consisted of two British cruisers, HMS Aurora and Belfast, two Tribal Class destroyers HMS Bedouin and Eskimo; the French cruisers Tourville and Marseillaise with the destroyers Valmy and Verdun; the Australian cruisers HMAS Australia and Hobart, with the destroyers HMAS Vendetta and Voyager; the New Zealand cruisers HMNZS Achilles and Leander. The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy had become the independent Royal New Zealand Navy on 1 January 1941. The commander of the fleet was Commodore Edward Parry whose flag was aboard HMNZS Achilles. In company with these warships were a number of civilian ships that had been impressed to carry two battalions of Australian troops and one battalion of Indian troops. These would act as a landing force to test the ground forces. Not part of the fleet, but accompanying it were two American destroyers, old four-stackers, USS Pope and Parrot, who “were along for the ride”.

The Nederlands-Indië Eskader (Dutch East Indies Squadron) was under the command of Rear-Admiral Doorman. The squadron comprised the cruisers HNLMS Java, Tromp, Jacob van Heemskerck and flagship De Ruyter; destroyers HNLMS Gerard Callenburgh, Isaac Sweers, Tjerk Hiddes, Van Ghent, Kortenaer, Witte de With, Piet Hein, Banckert, Evertson, Van Nes and Van Galen. The gunboats Flores, Soemba and Gruno, Mine laying vessels Willem van der Zaan, Medusa, Hydra, Van Maerlant, Jan van Brakel, Douwe Aukes and Nautilus; Mine Sweepers Jan van Gelder, Jan vanAmstel, Pieter de Bitter, Abraham Crijnssen, Eland Dubois, Abraham van der Hulst. There were also eight motor torpedo boats in two flottilas. In addition there were 20 submarines based at Surabaya: O-16, O-19, O-20, O21, O22, O23, O24, O25, K-VII, K-VIII, K-IX, K-X, K-XI, K-XII, K-XIII, K-XIV, K-XV, K-XVI, K-XVII, and K-XVIII. Though some of the oldest submarines were in reserve, most of the others had been through a process of refurbishment during the past year, courtesy of the Royal Navy.

Many of the most modern ships in the Royal Netherlands Navy had been under construction before the German invasion. As soon as was practical these were either sailed or towed to shipyards in the UK for completion and fitting out. The difficulty that created for the Dutch fleet was that some of the ships were equipped with British weapons, though most also sported British radar sets. The exercises with the British and French fleets in Singapore and Indo-China had given the Dutch crews plenty of experience, and going up against the combined Entente fleet was the culmination of a great deal of planning.

The Dutch government had being buying equipment from the Americans in the cash and carry days. Much of this equipment had been delivered, and the greatest help had been in terms of aircraft. Militaire Luchtvaart van het Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger ("Military Air Service of the Royal Netherlands East Indian Army", ML-KNIL) had ordered 144 Brewster B-339C and 339D models all of which were now operational. These were joined by 24 Curtiss Wright H75A-7 fighters (export version of the P36 Hawk). 48 Consolidated PBY-5s and 48 Hudsons had been ordered and delivered. These aircraft gave the Dutch the increased ability to patrol the seas around their colony, along with 24 Dornier Do 24 K-1 flying boats which had escaped from the Netherlands in May 1940. The British had supplied four ASV equipped Swordfish for training purposes, and more ASV sets were being fitted to the patrol aircraft. These new and improved aircraft were added to the existing fleet of 120 Glenn Martin 139s (the export version of B10s). For transport the ML-KNIL had twenty-four Lockheed L18-40s (export version of Model 18 Lodestars). In addition to these American aircraft some of the home based aircraft which had fled to England had been shipped out to the DEI. These included 24 Fokker G1A heavy fighters, 48 Fokker CX scout planes and 24 Fokker T.VIII floatplanes.

On the ground the Royal Netherlands East Indian Army (KNIL) had taken delivery of the 73 ex-British army Vickers light tanks that had originally been ordered in 1938. They had also received a number of second hand Panzer Is, IIs and a small number of Panzer IVs, mostly those captured on Dutch territory and restored to working order. It was the arrival of German field artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, mortars and machine guns that had really given the KNIL the firepower they desired. With the combat experienced troops that had been shipped out from the Netherlands giving the local troops plenty of training, any attempted invasion of the Dutch East Indies would find itself in a battle.

The exercise had commenced before dawn, and the first sign that things would not go well for the attacking force was when a PBY aircraft spotted and shadowed the Entente fleet. In the absence of any aircraft carriers, the Dutch were able to continue to plot the course and speed of the attacking force. Admiral Doorman had put a picket line of submarines at the Sulu Archipelago. While one or two of them might have got a torpedo attack on the attacking force, that wasn’t their primary job. Like the aircraft they were to shadow the fleet and pick off any ships that were judged to have been damaged by the umpires.

At 10:00hrs the first air raid warning was given by the Entente fleet as its radar picked up a force approaching their position. 18 Glenn Martin 139s, escorted by 20 Brewster 339Ds began their attack run. While the Entente fleet’s anti-aircraft gunnery had been strengthened, the umpires judged that one destroyer would have taken a direct hit and that one of the troop transports would have been sunk, as the bombers had concentrated on the slower merchant ships, as had the fighters which had made mock strafing passes. Three bombers and one fighter were judged to have been shot down. As the level bombers departed a flight of Fokker T.VIII floatplanes made a low-level torpedo attack. The umpires once again judged a destroyer and transport to have been struck in that attack, and four aircraft to have been lost. Commodore Edward Parry was less than impressed by the judgment of the umpires and made his feelings about this clear to the senior umpire on HMNZS Achilles.

As the attacking fleet approached Tarakan Island, the first objective of the invasion force, it was met with a minefield which attempted to channel the fleet into the guns of the coastal battery. There followed a brisk naval action when four motor torpedo boats and a destroyer sallied forth from concealed positions at the mouth of the Kayan river. With the backdrop of land, the radars on the attacking fleet’s ships didn’t pick them up, so it fell to the age old job of look-outs to spot them. In this case it was a coordinated attack as another wave of fighters and torpedo bombers attacked at the same time as the fast ships. The tactics were purely hit and run, a spread of torpedoes would have been launched at the attacking fleet, which once again the umpires judged to have taken casualties. The Dutch ships were also considered hors de combat.

The attempt to force a landing proved most difficult as there weren’t proper landing craft, so the Australians, like their forebears in Gallipoli in the Great War had to be rowed ashore. While this was happening the Brewster fighters flying from the Island’s air strip made multiple passes. The umpires judged that there was enough firepower from the ships to silence the shore defences, and to cause a number of the fighters to be shot down. However casualties among the landing boats would have been severe. The problems with mines, and the arrival of two Dutch submarines would have caused more damage and loss to the ships. The arrival of a combined force of Hudson bombers and more torpedo bombers, heavily escorted by Fokker G1s from Balikpapan added to the misfortune of the Entente fleet.

Commodore Parry’s frustration grew at the time it took to get the Australian troops ashore, meaning that his fleet was in a confined position. According to the umpires nearly all the ships had taken some kind of damage, and two cruisers and a destroyer were judged to have been sunk. The concentration of the aircraft attacks were still firmly on the transports, and once the umpires had judged these to have been either severely damaged or sunk, Parry knew that the mission was a failure.

Admiral Doorman’s main fleet, consisting of his cruisers and destroyers were still out of sight, and his submarine force was able to do as intended to pick off some more of the ships as they withdrew towards Singapore. For General Wavell and Admiral Cunningham as they reviewed the findings of the exercise it reinforced what they already knew, that a fleet without air cover was very vulnerable to land based aircraft. If Parry’s fleet had been accompanied by at least one aircraft carrier it would have done better, but even one carrier might not have been enough to protect the ships from the onslaught. For the Dutch authorities the success of the aerial and submarine attacks affirmed their investment in these tools. The cost, if the attack had been real would have been high, but concentration on the troop transports, as hard as it was for the pilots to focus on, would mean that an attacking force would not be in possession of the land, or of an airstrip from which to operate their own aircraft.

For General Gerardus Johannes Berenschot, the KNIL’s commander in chief, there were however a number of issues that he took from the exercise. The British delegation who had reviewed the Dutch East Indies airfields and air force had recommended that the airfields should be made ready for demolition should they fall into enemy hands. The commander of the airfield in Tarakan had not done so. If the Australians had managed to take the airfield it would have been able to be brought into action against the Dutch forces. This led to the demotion of the airfield commander and another officer was tasked with completing the preparations.

For the two American destroyer captains one of the lessons they picked up on was the dearth of anti-aircraft weaponry on their ships. They each relied mainly on machine guns, and seeing how the Entente fleet, with much more in way of 40mm and 20mm guns, still struggled against air attack. The only American ship in the Asiatic Fleet with radar was USS Boise and the Americans noted that every ship in the Entente fleet had the aerials associated with radar. It was also noted that the Dutch submarine fleet played an important role, and that much of the work of the destroyers was in anti-submarine warfare. A couple of pointed remarks were made by British and Australian personnel about the importance of checking that the torpedoes actually worked when fired, which was fed back to Admiral Hart at the end of the exercise.

4 June 1941. 17:00hrs. Third Army HQ. Finowfurt. Germany.

General Montgomery called the meeting of the commanders of the units in Third Army to order. The three Corps commanders, Noel Beresford-Peirse (VI Corps), Richard McCreery (VII Corps) and Thomas Blamey (ANZACs) were present with their chiefs of staff. The commanders of each of their divisions were also present. VI Corps: Bill Slim (4th Indian), Bevil Wilson (53rd Welsh) and Montagu Stopford (56th London). VII Corps: John Crocker (3rd Armoured), Harry Crerar (2nd Canadian) and Charles Allfrey (43rd Wessex). ANZACs Iven Mackay (6th Australian), John Lavarak (7th Australian) and Bernard Freyberg (2nd New Zealand).

For the last week the Army had been on manoeuvers and generally Montgomery was happy. There had been some changes in personnel, not least Andrew McNaughton who had stepped down from VII Corps as he was trying to get the Canadian Corps up and running. Harry Crerar was looking like the kind of divisional general that Montgomery liked, but that division would be reassigned shortly to be replaced by the very green 15th (Scottish) when the 2nd Canadians joined the new Corps.

As with anything that Bernard Montgomery was in command of the levels of training that his army were undertaking were very high tempo. Despite the very successful push from the Elbe to the Oder, there were a lot of men who had come into the army as replacements for battle casualties. These had to be molded into the kind of fighting men that would be needed for the next phase which was the push to the Vistula.

Part of the manoeuvers that had just been completed was a rehearsal of going back over the Elbe, to prepare the troops once again for another river crossing. There was now such an expertise among the support troops about how to go about creating a successful crossing that the rehearsal had gone very smoothly. All that needed to be in place were the ammunition and fuel dumps for the next phase of the attack. However the main purpose of this meeting was to sort out some of the differences that were expected after the Oder had been successfully breached.

Intelligence were affirming that the intermittent resistance experienced from Wehrmacht units over the last month was likely to be even more intermittent. A number of special reconnaissance units have been scouting the areas behind the front line and confirm that the levels of German preparation for defence is very low, as is morale as far as can be discovered. Once attack had broken out of Germany itself and into Poland, any resistance was likely to minimal until we hit the redoubt in East Prussia. The Poles are very confident that our troops will be welcomed as liberators. Now that is all very well, but it does mean that once we reach Polish territory we’re going to have to be very careful about the rules of engagement. We don’t want to alienate the people by blowing them up and destroying their livelihoods.

The overall plan you all know already: The main thrust by the Polish Army with the French 1re Army will be from Frankfurt an der Odor to Posen where they have to cross the Warthe river. Then straight onto Warsaw. Their southern flank will be protected by French 7e Army moving from Glogau to Kalisch to Litzmannstadt, then to the south of Warsaw. We protect the northern flank of the Polish thrust, following the Netze river for the most part. So our objectives are Landsberg to Bromberg at the Vistula. To protect our northern flank First Army will continue along the Baltic coast taking in Koslin, Stolp and Danzig. Just because of the distance between the two British armies, Second Army’s I Mechanised Corps will run between First and Third armies along the partial autobahn taking in Stargard and Neustettin heading for the Vistula at Graudenz.

Now to our own objectives. From the Odor to the Vistula is about 160 miles as the crow flies. Previously we have used the right hook, left hook method, having one Corps swing first, then have a second Corps take over from them for the next objective. Generals Dill and Prételat, because of the intelligence are rather less worried about protecting flanks and more about reaching the heart of Poland as quickly as possible. There are pretty poor roads ahead of us and not much in the way of railway tracks. So what I am going to do is send Crocker’s 3rd Armoured Division up the main road at best possible speed, with Allfrey’s 53rd Division in support in case of any real trouble. To support that main thrust the 22nd Armoured Brigade with Stopford’s 56th Division will advance along the railway line which is to the south of the road.

Because the Australians have their own Armoured force, Mackays’s 6th Australians will use the roads to the north of the main road to move forward. Now that is going to be a difficult feat, as the roads are poor and you’ll have much further to go. However speed is the watchword for this operation. We want to push forward at about 30 miles per day, reaching the Vistula on D+7 at the latest. The Corps commanders will sort out the rest of the line of march. Most of your Divisions will end up occupying territory and coming to the aid of the Polish civilian population. We have been assigned some Polish speaking aides to assist in our efforts. Now I am going to hand you over to the Deputy Quartermaster General for an update of where we are logistically.

Brigadier Alexander Anderson stood in front of the assembled officers. “As you know all of the efforts have been to bring forward enough supplies to replenish our stocks. Then to build up for the next phase. As of 09:0hrs this morning we were up to being fully stocked. The next few days is about stockpiling further material so that as we push forward we can bring enough forward to keep up the momentum. We’ve been asked to try to avoid having too long a wait at the Vistula. So we have been given some of the logistic resources of Second Army to help with that. However it is clear from the intelligence people that feeding the local population is going to be an issue. I am told that the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders have been going all out to send more food, which is going to be very necessary. You all know the difficulties we’ve had with the German population, but at least the Poles are friends. I will hand over the Medical Officer now, as this relates to his area of expertise.

Colonel Joseph Lloyd got up in front of the assembled officers and began by saying that the RAMC units that were part of Third Army were all fully equipped and ready to move. “As regards the civilians, we have been coming across a lot of people who are undernourished. In fact most of the civilian population fall under that category. The death rates among the elderly and young children are therefore higher than expected. However, there are another class of people who we have been finding who are in fact starving to death. Malnutrition cases have been found in people who are Jewish, people who have been made in slave labourers, including POWs.

Now, from what we can gather from intelligence, the situation of the general Polish population will be much worse than the Germans, who seem to have been shipping food from occupied Poland to feed their own people. It seems that the Germans have also been concentrating the Jewish population into a number of ghettos, and from what we can gather their situation is even worse. Now the men will no doubt want to share some of their rations with the people who are suffering, and that is completely understandable. However, each Regiment’s Medical Officer needs to brief the men on the symptoms of malnutrition and what not to do. Such cases are to be referred to the MOs, who will have the proper information and treatment for all such cases. I’m afraid that our men are going to see some pretty terrible sights. Their desire to help has to be channelled in such a way as to make sure that they don’t do more harm than good. I believe the Chief of Staff wants to take over? (Small laughter in room).

General Freddie De Guingand, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff stood up and came to the front of the gathering. “Yes, thanks for that Colonel Lloyd. There are three other matters which I need to bring to your attention while we are all gathered. Firstly the recent exercise showed up a couple of points about coordination with the Artillery and Air Force. Over the last year or so we’ve all been getting used to the Forward Air Controllers and Observers, sterling work being done by them all. However, once we move into Poland, our normal practice of bomb first and ask questions later has to be suspended. Yes, I know that that puts our troops in greater danger. However we have been very careful to make sure that the Polish people know how to show themselves to be friendly. I am told that we can be pretty sure that if a village or town is flying white flags that it will indeed be undefended. There weren’t many German false flags thankfully, but I am afraid that the reconnaissance troops in particular will only be allowed to call for artillery or air support IF, and only if they are under fire themselves.

The second point is that we can expect, as it was in Belgium and Holland, that there will be irregular Polish troops who will be trying to keep open bridges and roads for us. There is a particular recognition signal that they will be using, and once again, it is very important for everybody to know this and honour it. As General Montgomery said we will have Polish speaking liaison officers throughout the army, and particularly among the spear-tip units.

On a slightly different topic, the rules about Fraternisation among the Polish civilian population will initially be as strict as they have been among the Germans. Now I know that that might not go down too well among the other ranks. However it is really important, at least until the Polish Government is re-established to make sure that as allies, we are whiter than white in terms of our relationships. Therefore any case of rape or looting must be dealt with in the most severe way possible. I think that was all I needed to say, so I’ll hand you back to General Montgomery.

5 June 1941. 22:00hrs. Chongqing. China.

The air raid sirens finally sounded the all-clear. For five hours the bombers of the Japanese army and navy had made hundreds of sorties over the city. Large part of the city were on fire, there had been a heavy use of incendiary bombs. The civil defence units and the fire-brigade were responding as best they could, but some parts of the city would have to be left to burn themselves out, all the workers could do was to create fire breaks to stop the inferno spreading.

Most of the population were well used to these bombing attacks and spending time in air-raid shelters. In the Shibati district one of the tunnels that was used as a shelter had been in an even worse condition than usual. The shelter should have had electric lights and fans, but the generators to power these had never been connected. At about 10pm, as the sirens sounded the all-clear people began to emerge from the darkness. However rumours started that the Japanese were about to return, and that they would be using poison gas. At this point the air-raid wardens began to force people back into the shelter, even though most people were trying to make their way out.

In the darkness and confusion it wasn’t long before people lost their footing and soon people were suffocating and panicking. In the next few hours hundreds died trapped underground in the dark. Tang Zhengchang fought his way towards the entrance. From below him in what he thought was a pile of corpses a hand reached out and grabbed his shorts, he could hear a moaning voice saying, “Sir, please help me…” The hand held onto him with such ferocity that as Tang pulled away leaving his shorts in the hands of the person below him. He fled from the tunnel, naked from the waist down.

It would take some days for the extent of the disaster to become clear, and even then official reports were toned down to prevent more gloom being added to the city’s mood. The official figures said that 461 people died, though a police report at the time numbered the dead at 1527. What the rescuers were struck by was the way they found the bodies, entwined in each other’s arms as they lost consciousness, clothing was ripped as the desperate people had tried to claw their way out of the tunnel. It also appeared the bodied had been soaked in water, the corpses were so copiously covered in sweat.

6 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Aérodrome Avignon-Châteaublanc. France.

The Armée De L’Air’s first squadron of Consolidated LB-30A four engined bombers were coming in to land having been on a training flight. The crews were a mixture of newly qualified aircrew and some whose experience on four engined bombers were on the Farman F222s. The big American beasts were proving difficult to get used to. Most of the crews had been shipped out to California where they had learned to fly them. Three aircraft had been wrecked in accidents, including two which involved fatalities among the crews. The French crews then ferried the aircraft over the Atlantic in a marathon flight from San Diego to Montreal to Iceland to Prestwick to Reims and finally to Avignon. It would likely be months before the squadron could be declared operational. Today’s training flight had been to fly out over the Mediterranean and drop bombs in a designated area. The mission had been less than successful. Between navigation errors and inexperienced bomb-aimers the practise bombs had been dispersed in a very wide area, mostly not in the designated area.

As far as the rest of the LB-30A squadrons, they were like this one, G.B. I/21, all under the command of the Groupement d'Instruction de l'Aviation de Bombardement du Sud-Est (G.I.A.B.S.E. - South Eastern Bomber Training Command). Deliveries from California remained at a slow but steady pace, but at least now the pilots could learn to fly the bombers in France, and then travel to the United States, then ferry the new aircraft home. The first four of the aircraft had been designated as transport aircraft plying the Atlantic route. The AdA had noted that the big bomber would be very vulnerable in actual air combat, but its range, load and service ceiling all outmatched anything that French companies could offer. For those who had flown the Farman F222s, it was the difference between night and day. It was a difficult aircraft to master and the expectation was that more would be lost in accidents, particularly in hard landings.

It was hoped that the first LB-30A equipped Groupement de Bombardement with four squadrons would finally be ready for deployment towards the end of the year. For Commandant Plique, commander of G.B.I/21, as he watched the rest of his squadron land before coming in last, there were real concerns about what and where the AdA would use the aircraft for. With the final piece of Germany soon to be occupied, and then Poland to be liberated, by the time his squadron were operational the chances were that the war would be over. Some AdA units were being shipped to Indo-China, but he doubted that that would be where he would end up. The greater worry was what would happen with the Soviets. If they refused to give up the part of Poland they had occupied, then it could be possible that his aircraft would be used to bomb Moscow, or sent to Syria to bomb the oilfields at Baku. However not concentrating on what you were doing was often how you got killed.

Plique realised that his musings had meant that his aircraft had drifted off the glide path onto the aerodrome below him. The heaviness of the controls meant that there was no way he could correct the error, so he radioed that he was going to do another circuit of the aerodrome and take another attempt at coming in to land. The problem in the back of his mind was that he was also beginning to run short of fuel. The bomber finally started to respond to his efforts to change heading and height, but in his panic he had over-compensated, and he realised that he was losing control of the aircraft. He shouted over the intercom for the crew to bail out, if the bomber was going down, which in his heart of hearts he already knew, then saving as many crew as possible was necessary. He could feel the heaviness of the controls as if it was fighting against him, and with all his strength he battled to keep the aircraft as straight and level as possible while the crew exited the aircraft. The height at which they were bailing out wasn’t great for getting their parachutes opened but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Once again Plique found that he had over-compensated as he fought for control, and was entering into a roll for which it was simply unsuited. The bomber by now was almost standing on one wingtip and aerodynamically it just couldn’t remain in the sky. The roll continued so that when the aircraft crashed it did so inverted, Plique died instantly, though five of crew did make it out alive.

7 June 1941. 08:00hrs. 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, though word on the awaited crossing of the Oder was mostly speculation. As usual he scanned the news for his old Hampshire Regiment, though there was little to see.

The editorial made reference to the fate of the Poles who had been taken prisoner by the Soviets. There were reports reaching the west that a program of extermination was being undertaken by the NKVD in the Katelyn area. Many senior Polish military and civilian leaders had perhaps already been shot. It seemed that the Times had taken up the cause of questioning the record of Joseph Stalin in terms of the way in which people regularly disappeared and the “Gulag” system that they had exposed.

This latest report named Lavrentiy Beria and Vasily Bolkhin of the NKVD as the initiator and executioner of this latest crime against humanity as the Times had taken to calling these events. It seemed that policemen, priests, lawyers, public officials and intellectuals were all in danger of being killed as Stalin wanted to wipe off the cream of Polish society, so that should Poland regain its independence it would already be weakened. The military leaders such as generals and admirals would meet a similar fate. The further question of where all the Polish people who had been expelled from their homes was also discussed in the editorial.

It was terrible what the Soviets were doing, perhaps the Hampshires would find themselves up against the Red Army after they had finished with Hitler’s Nazis. He neatly folded the paper ready to do the crossword during his lunch hour.

8 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Landsberg an der Warthe. Germany.

The cursed RAF never seemed that far away, and the alert had gone out throughout the defensive positions that a raid was on its way. The Germans had been extremely careful with the positions they had created for the defence of the Oder line. Nothing moved in day time and there were extraordinary efforts made to conceal and camouflage everything. So far it seemed to be paying dividends, with little or no direct attacks on any of the main strong points. Some of the secondary and dummy positions had been hit pretty hard, so it seemed to be working quite well.

What the Germans hadn’t reckoned on were a number of reconnaissance troops that had come into being over the last year. The RAF continued to rely on aerial photography and the people who examined the photographs were very adept at seeing through the efforts of the Germans. They had also been experimenting with Infra-Red technology and photography and this was beginning to become effective. The Royal Marines had developed a “Special Boat Section” which focused on amphibious landing support. The members of the original SBS who’d arrived back in 1939 on HMS Onyx had deigned to work with the army at developing their own “Special Forces.”

On the one hand the army had been taking some of the Machine Gun Battalions and transforming them into reconnaissance units, equipped with a variety of vehicles. This was becoming known as the Reconnaissance Regiment, though they mostly kept to their own cap badges. There were now more divisions that needed a reconnaissance element than the Cavalry units could provide. On the other hand the Gurkhas had the particular reputation for being silent and deadly in their patrols behind enemy lines. There were a lot of soldiers in the British Army whose skill set and outlook suited them better for a different kind of unit than the normal infantry battalion could give them.

Because of the ability to either parachute or drop in by helicopter further behind enemy lines, an Air Service Brigade had been formed from volunteers. (The SBS men were determined that their great rivals, and to their mind inferiors, the SAS, should never see the light of day). The ASBs reflected in some ways the Commando idea that Churchill had envisioned in 1940 in another universe. No one was entirely sure where the nickname of Alien Space Bats had come from, but for some reason it had stuck. Volunteers, drawn in no small measure from the Gurkhas and Guards, were taken on a ten week intensive training program, devised by the SBS so that they could undertake the rigours of moving behind enemy lines and acting either as a reconnaissance resource, or acting in demolitions or ambushes to harass the enemy.

Over the last two weeks over 200 men had gone behind the German lines in small teams trying to gauge where and how the Germans intended to resist the attack over the Oder. Having got a good picture of the main line of German defences, that information had been passed onto the planners of the British Expeditionary Force, and in preparation for D-Day the RAF were now going to attempt to smash as much of the enemy’s positions as possible. A few of the stay behind units were using radios to guide the aircraft onto the German positions, and it was a clear day, so the bomb aimers had a good picture of what to look for as they began their bombing runs.

This would be one of the largest RAF bombing raids of the war so far. The Wellingtons and Halifaxes carried the large capacity bombs that would attempt to destroy as much of the deeper bunkers and concrete installations. They would be followed by the tactical aircraft of Hurribombers and Beaufighters which would be primarily dropping napalm to cause as much horror as possible among the German troops. Once they had gone, the heavy, medium and field regiments of the Royal Artillery were dialled in to add to the devastation.

Nothing the RAF could do would ever be described as pinpoint accuracy, but the information they had was pretty solid, and so much of the defensive line was hit hard, undoing all the good of the camouflage and concealment. Once more for the Germans it seemed that the British seemed able to read their minds or maps. The next day a similar raid was made on some of the fall back positions and assembly areas for the dispersed units that would man the front line. For the German commanders that survived the onslaught it was clear that the arrival of British forces over the river was imminent, but their ability to do anything about that was even less capable than it had been previously.

9 June 1941. 19:00hrs. South of Stettin. Germany

Lieutenant Campbell couldn’t quite remember how many rivers they’d crossed since they had crossed the Scheldt in Belgium just over a year ago. Now he commanded C Company, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, of the 153rd Brigade, of the 51st (Highland) Division, of I Mechanised Corps of the Second British Army. I Mech Corps had the main assault role, with 51st Division at the spear-point crossing just south of Stettin where the autobahn bridges used to stand.

Campbell had examined the maps but had come forward with a few NCOs to do a little recce of the route they’d take to the river. It was the 4th Battalion, Black Watch that would be first across, the Gordons were to be the second wave. Campbell met a couple of the Black Watch officers doing the same as him, having a look at the ground they were to cover. No one was entirely happy with the plan, but then junior officers were often unhappy with the plans they were given.

The main problem was that the River Oder was in two sections, the West Oder which would have to be crossed first, was over 170 yards wide. Then it was just over a mile to the Oder, as it was marked on the map, which was another 220 yards wide. The area between the two branches of the river was presumed heavily mined. The RAF had used up a lot of fuel air explosives to detonate the mines, but the chances of all of the mines having been disposed of was low. That meant that once the Black Watch got across the river, they and the engineers would need to clear paths through to the Oder. Then the assault boats would need to be ported across the cleared lanes and the whole process start all over again, this time with the Gordons making the assault.

Campbell couldn’t understand why the first river hadn’t been crossed in the last couple of weeks, while everybody was sitting around waiting for resupply. That would have eased the job that had to be done on the morrow. The artillery was all set up and ready to lay down a barrage and smoke screen just after midnight. The Black Watch would start their crossing just after that, so that hopefully the Gordons would be able to make their crossing before dawn. It was a tight timetable, and if it was after dawn before the second river crossing could be managed the sun would be rising in their faces. The intelligence people were confident that other than mines and other booby-traps there would be no organised resistance. Sometimes Campbell wondered if the intelligence people weren’t just sitting around drinking a lot of whiskey and making stuff up. Disorganised resistance was every bit as dangerous as if it were organised.

Once the two rivers were crossed it would then take the engineers long enough to get ferries and then bridges over the crossings so that the tanks and other vehicles of First Armoured Division could punch through towards the Vistula, yet another bloody river to cross. Eventually perhaps he’d make it back to Banchory on the River Dee, that was the only river he really wanted to see.

10 June 1941. 02:00hrs. Frankfurt An Der Oder. Germany.

The artillery had been firing for about twenty minutes and was currently walking eastwards away from the river. Under the cover of the bombardment 32e Infantry Division’s 143e RI pushed their assault boats down the bank and into the river. Supported by a dozen R39 DD chars the first two companies quickly managed across the river with no casualties. The 32/2e Companie de sapeurs mineurs checked for mines and other traps while the infantry fanned out and pushed forward. As the night progressed all the French troops found as they advanced were empty prepared positions and the occasional landmine. Much of what they were advancing through was forest which had been shelled, so making the progress slower than it might be.

6e Company of II Battalion reached the airfield which was their objective just after 04:00hrs. Once more they found the place abandoned, but the company commander Captain Dejean lost a leg to a landmine. As it was still dark and the men were jumpy, so when group of German soldiers appeared from a bunker they were immediately fired upon. It was only afterwards that they were found to be unarmed and carrying white flags. The Germans were Luftwaffe personnel who had been tasked with defending the airfield. As soon as the French bombardment had started the commanding officer had ordered the men to stand ready, but had found himself suddenly in possession of a live hand grenade with the pin pulled. The senior NCO ordered the remaining troops into the only surviving bunker and planned to remain there until the French arrived so that they could surrender. The timing had gone wrong and he had been killed along with six other soldiers, another fifteen were wounded and now being treated by the French medics.

Back at the river Compagnie d'Equipages de Ponts 129/16 and 103/16 were hard at work trying to get a pontoon bridge over the river. The men and vehicles of 6e GRCA (Groupe de Reconnaissance de Corps d'Armée) were desperate to get across and push onward towards Schwiebus. If the Germans were going to resist anywhere it was thought that they would have manned the Ostwall. While it had been built to defend against attacks coming from the east, the French intelligence sources seemed to think that it was a more likely line of resistance, since it seemed that the Oder itself was only lightly defended so far.

Just to the north of Frankfurt An Der Oder a second French crossing had also been made with 101e DI taking the lead, with the village of Trettin as their first objective. Further south the 7e Army began its crossing of Neisse River at Forst, they would have another 100kms to cover before reaching the Oder at Glogau. The intial crossings were also unopposed, it was hoped that once the bridging was completed then the 1er Corps d'Armée motorisé (Ier CA) would be able to get moving as quickly as possible.

11 June 1941. 17:00hrs. Stargard. Germany.

Captain John Broadwood leaned out of his Humber armoured car’s turret focussing his binoculars on the town ahead of him. It seemed to be coated in white paint, which when it came into focus it turned out to be white sheets and flags flying from everywhere they could be. The pilot in the forward observation aircraft had already reported this, and now Broadwood was seeing it for himself.

The 12th Royal Lancers, acting as the reconnaissance regiment for 1st Armoured Division, were equipped with a mixture of these Humber armoured cars, Morris Light Reconnaissance Vehicles and there were some A13 tanks on strength, if they could be nursed into movement. The role of the cavalry remained, as it had for centuries, for reconnaissance and screening. Broadwood’s orders were very clear: “Keep pushing forward.” About two miles behind him were two squadrons of Queens Bays with their new Comet tanks and three companies of the Rifle Brigade. It would be up to them to deal with anything in or around the town itself.

Broadwood radioed in his report and had a quick meeting with his squadron’s vehicle commanders. It was getting on in the day and the general wanted Stargard captured before dark. So Broadwood, against his instincts ordered his squadron to advance by troops, leapfrogging their way to the outskirts of town. Once they were there, each troop had a road they had to take to secure the town, until the Rifles arrived and did the infantry job of holding the ground. Just to clarify, he repeated the Rules of Engagement: ‘open fire only if directly threatened’. At least they didn’t have to wait until actually under fire to return fire, but they should have to positively identify a threat from a German position before attacking it. This particular piece of thinking didn’t particularly help when faced with ambushes. The commanders of his vehicles knew that his own interpretation of the Rule was best described as ‘liberal’.

The Lancers hadn’t taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, but they had joined the Light Brigade in Crimea to replace the losses from that infamous day. As he watched the first troop race off down the road he had a horrible feeling that he was sending them off onto the guns of an enemy without proper support. He had switched the radio to the frequency to call in an air-strike. If a single shot came from the Germans, his troops were to hunker down and let the RAF step in with cluster bombs and napalm. Broadwood’s experience over the last year would have preferred to have called in the air-strike and then have his troops go around the burning town.

The first troop had come to a halt in firing positions, so the second raced on down behind them under the cover of their guns. So far, so good. Nobody had fired at them, and the trigger fingers of the gunners remained itchy, but unused. Broadwood received a report from one of the other squadrons to say that they had reached Klempen to the north, and had had no contact with the enemy. Another Squadron were aiming at Wittichow in the south, but they hadn’t reported in yet. One of the troops was following the railway line into the town and were now at the outskirts of the town. The railway had been badly damaged by bombing, so their vehicles were finding it hard going. With three of his four troops in position, Broadwood ordered his own HQ troop forward. One of the A13CS tanks followed them down the road on over-watch, a good sized HE round was always a good first response to an ambush. The driver floored the accelerator and the armoured car flew down the road, speed is also a good defence against an ambush. His four vehicles were to sweep straight into the town and to the barracks just to the right of the railway station. If the Germans were following the rules laid out in the leaflets that had been dropped then any German troops should be there with their weapons piled up separately.

Broadwood’s throat was feeling as dry as dust as they rounded the corner and entered the parade ground. Sure enough lined up against one end of the barracks was a unit, which to Broadwood’s eye looked just shy of a battalion. The other armoured cars drew up beside his, the machine guns all trained on the German troops. Lifting the hatch, Captain Broadwood pushed himself up. He had little or no German to speak of, but as traditional in the British army, a loud shout in English was usually enough for any foreigners to understand, “Who’s in command here?” A German officer, who looked fairly elderly to Broadwood’s eye, clicked his heels, ordered the assembled German troops to stand to attention, and strode forward, his pistol held out with the handle facing the British vehicle.

Broadwood jumped down, and almost unconsciously returned the salute he’d just been given. Major Albert Schneider did speak some English and offered the surrender of the town and its garrison, which as Broadwood had guessed was about 500 men. Most of the men were residents of the town, too old or young to be drafted into the army, but making up the Volkssturm. Schneider himself was a veteran of the Great War, with a son lost somewhere in Holland. He had followed the instructions on the leaflet to the letter, and had a number of men under guard in the barrack’s cells, who had wanted to fight on. These were mainly boys from the Hitler Youth who didn’t know any better, he explained. Broadwood, gave his gunner orders to radio through a situation report to the Regimental HQ, to be passed up to the Brigade. Stargard was for all intents and purposes captured, without loss.

12 June 1941. 15:00hrs. Stettin. Germany.

Due to the nature of the river system and docks of Stettin, the British First Army’s crossing of the Oder was always going to be problematical, and against solid opposition it would be very dangerous. So they had waited until the I Mechanised Corps attack had gone in. A task group from 50th (Northumbrian) Division had moved north from their crossing point and had cleared the far bank of the town. The Royal Engineers now had two Bailey Bridges over the West Oder and Oder itself where railway bridges had once stood.

Lieutenant Banks, commanding C Company, 1st Battalion, The King's Own Scottish Borderers, 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, crossed the second bridge in the comfort of a universal carrier. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles were already ahead of them, the 2nd Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment were following on. 3rd Division were in the vanguard of the push, with Gollnow as the first objective, just under 20 miles away.

Banks had seen a lot of changes to the British army since he’d arrived in France back in 1939. The professional soldiers in the company were few and far between now. The replacements had been replaced a couple of times. He himself had gone from being a sergeant to commanding the company. The material changes were also extraordinary. His Sterling sub-machine gun was a tangible example, but there were other things that were perhaps less obvious, but the radio crackling behind him was a good example. When the division had arrived in France their signals platoon managed, just about to keep links between the companies and Battalion. Over the year more radios appeared, so that now as company commander he had full communications with each of his platoons as well as with Battalion HQ.

Two Hurribombers flew low over the column, and Banks reflected on yet another change since 1939. All the talk about the German success in Poland was to do the with the Stuka and the way in which the Germans used speed and manoeuver to overwhelm the Polish troops. The RAF had been a revelation, blunting the German attacks and supporting the troops in ways that were unknown before the war had kicked off. It hadn’t all been plain sailing, but it was quite impressive when you thought about it.

The bridge they were crossing too, pretty impressive, and the anti-aircraft guns defending it, things really had changed. Banks wasn’t clear on where or how the changes had come about. He didn’t realise that because of the early successes of the Royal Navy in the Norwegian campaign, there was no need to build new escort vessels to fight the battle of the Atlantic or to repair all the ships damaged at Dunkirk. This meant that British industry had been able to focus more of their efforts on equipping the army, without also having to replace all the equipment lost at Dunkirk. The RAF too, because of the much better showing by the French AdA, had been able to shift their focus away from Strategic bombing to tactical bombing. These were all things that might have happened in another universe, but here the British army hadn’t lost everything in Norway, Dunkirk, Greece and Crete, being lifted off the beaches by the Royal Navy. There was a confidence that came from victory, a confidence that Banks and his men felt strongly as they pushed through the last sections of Germany towards the liberation of Poland.

The radio crackled again bringing Banks back from his reverie. Newly minted Second-Lieutenant Charles Westwood, commanding 11 Platoon was reporting that his platoon had completed crossing the bridge, so that the whole of the Company was now on the eastern bank of the Oder. Banks acknowledged the message and handed the microphone back to the signaller in the back of the carrier. Lance Corporal McDonald, the driver of the carrier made a comment about keen as mustard officers, which made the sergeant in Banks smile. The problem with keen as mustard newly arrived second lieutenants was that they didn’t necessarily live long enough to become seasoned lieutenants. Banks had made sure that Westwood’s platoon sergeant was a sensible one, who’d hopefully keep the young man from doing anything too daft.

Every now and again as they progressed up the road they came across a lorry at the side of the road. Mechanical breakdowns in some of the older vans and lorries was still a problem, but at least they had enough vehicles to carry the entire Brigade up to Gollnow, that saved a lot of marching. The road they were following was through a forest, and Banks had warned his officers and NCOs to keep the men on high alert as they passed through. There were too many opportunities for ambushes or snipers taking pot shots at the vehicles as they passed through. Just because they hadn’t been attacked didn’t mean that they wouldn’t be. Banks told McDonald to pull over to the side of the road, and jumped down from the carrier. He just wanted to check that his orders were being followed. As the first lorry, carrying men of 10 Platoon came along, he could hear singing. He waved the driver to pull over behind his own carrier.

The singing tailed off when the men saw the Officer Commanding approaching the vehicle. Banks pulled himself up and looked over the men. In his best platoon sergeant voice he reminded them of standing orders about being on the look-out. Chastened by the vitriol the lorry got back on the road, the men all with their rifles covering their flanks. Banks liked the fact they were in high spirits, and as far as he could see or smell it wasn't from a bottle or two. But he’d written far too many letters home to families of men who’d been killed, and he saw no reason to want to write more if lads were killed unnecessarily. Victory disease was probably just as dangerous as anything else. Climbing back into the carrier he re-joined the advance towards the Baltic coast.

13 June 1941. 15:00hrs. Neu Mecklenburg. Germany.

Since crossing the Oder just north of Küstrin, British Third Army had been in a running series of fire fights. Their line of advance along the north banks of the river Warthe and Netze had coincided with the fortifications that had been built along that line, known as the Pomeranian Wall (Die Pommernstellung). While the fortifications had been originally designed to face any threat coming from the east, the Todt Organisation had been busy trying to provide more strong points along the British line of advance eastwards. The RAF had done a lot of damage to these positions, but there were still enough to be a thorn in the side of the British advance.

General Montgomery’s orders were straightforward, 3rd Division and 43rd (Wessex) Division were to carry on the armies advance at best speed, leaving the follow up forces to deal with any German who wanted to stand and fight.

The 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry, the 3rd Armoured Division’s reconnaissance regiment, had found to its cost the ability of small parties of Germans to put a couple of rounds into the sides of their armoured vehicles which was wearing them down considerably. Elements of the 41st (Oldham) RTR and 5th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, which made up the lead battle-group, had got back into the habit of firing first and asking questions later. The Germans had been well warned that resistance was futile and that any attack on the British advance would be met with overwhelming force. The smell of napalm greeted the British troops wherever they went, the RAF continued to slash and burn at the positions that the reconnaissance forces identified as hold outs.

The Derbyshire Yeomanry had started off the war as an armoured car regiment. They were now equipped with Comet tanks and a variety of reconnaissance vehicles. The tanks gave them a pretty powerful punch if they got into trouble, but the universal carriers and open topped reconnaissance vehicles like the Daimler Dingo proved vulnerable to hand grenades. One of the things that the British soldiers had become almost immune to was the sight of bodies hanging from trees and lamp posts. However Second Lieutenant Bill Jamieson pulled over his Dingo as the three men hanging ahead of him were wearing the new type of camouflage smocks that were appearing among British soldiers.

On further examination these bodies were indeed men of the Air Special Brigade, who’d been sending back information regarding the German positions to the RAF and Royal Artillery. Not only had they been captured and hanged, itself a war crime, the men were in uniform after all, but when the bodies had been cut down from the lamp post it was clear that they had been tortured too. It had to be communicated to higher authorities. The bodies were given as much respect as possible until a Royal Army Medical Corps unit to arrive to take the bodies back for a post-mortem exam, to confirm the suspicions.

Capturing and torturing soldiers who should be treated as prisoners of war was incendiary behaviour by the Germans. The perpetrators of the action probably knew exactly what they were doing. They could now point to the danger for any Germans who attempted to surrender that the Entente forces might treat them more harshly, or not even accept their surrender because of this atrocity. If they could get the British and French to act in retribution for this, then not only would the German forces, but also perhaps the civilian population, might be prepared to resist more effectively. As news of the finding spread up through the chain of command it became a matter of the greatest concern.

Rumours would not doubt spread like wildfire through the rank and file of the armies. Men, especially this close to victory, would no doubt be tempted to act out of their basest instinct. It was clear to Generals Montgomery and Brooke that they had to deal with the matter quickly and clearly. Brooke issued an order of the day which noted the facts, so that these, rather than rumours, would be heard throughout the British Armies. He reiterated that the Rules of Engagement had not changed because of this horror, the British army would not stoop to the bestiality of the Nazi regime. Any German who surrendered was to be treated according to the Geneva Convention, and that an investigation would be carried out to bring the perpetrators to justice, even if that had to continue after the cessation of hostilities.

14 June 1941. 17:00hrs. Breslau. Germany.

Colonel Jaluzot had been chief of staff to Colonel Beauchesne’s group of reconnaissance units that had lifted the siege of the Eben Emael fortress in Belgium the previous May. Now as commander of the 7e Army’s combined Groupe de Reconnaissance his task had been to punch through to the Oder with all possible speed. There had been but a handful of casualties, most from accidents rather than enemy action. They’d arrived at the Oder within a day of crossing the Neisse River, travelling the 100km very easily.

There were two jobs that had to be done once that initial objective had been achieved. They had brought enough assault craft with them to attempt to create a bridgehead over the river, and they’d managed that in two places, the primary one at Glogau and the other at Neusalz an der Oder. Pontoon bridges now were in place and advanced elements of 7e Army were now across the river in two places.

The second job Jaluzot’s men had been given was to continue to probe along the river Oder in a southerly direction to see what and where any resistance might be encountered. This morning the lead elements had reached Breslau and Jaluzot had arrived to confer with his subordinates. As they had passed through Lüben a German officer had made contact with the French to inform them that there was a strong force in and around Breslau, under the command of Karl Hanke (Gauleiter of Silesia). The Wehrmacht officer who gave this information did so because his family were in Breslau and he was worried for their safety. As he understood it, Hanke had put together a large Volksstrum force. As far as could be understood from the captured Germans there weren’t many actual Wehrmacht troops in the town, they’d all pretty much deserted. But their weapons and supplies were in the hands of the citizens, and that was a worry.

Jaluzot knew that there was no way that any French forces were going to get bogged down in street to street fighting, Aschaffenburg had seen to that. A perimeter would be thrown around the place, no food or supplies going in or out, then it would be reduced by artillery and air raids until the survivors decided to give up. This was exactly what the Wehrmacht officer was scared of. The general population of the town would have no chance as it was reduced to rubble. When the German officer protested, Jaluzot could give little more than a shrug of his shoulders, what did he expect? The war was lost for Germany and no Frenchman was prepared to sacrifice himself so that a Nazi could feel good about his resistance. As for the general population, they voted Hitler into power, now they were paying the price.

Arriving at the outskirts of Breslau, Jaluzot saw for himself some of the preparations that the defenders of the town had taken, not least the bodies hanging from lamp posts of deserters and other “criminals”. He radioed in a situation report to 7e Army HQ and told his men to stay back out of sight. Once he had passed on his report, he sent a strong force towards Oppeln, where they ought to meet up elements of the 5e Army, if they weren’t all still getting drunk in Prague.

15 June 1941. 15:00hrs Wolfsschanze. East Prussia.

The sound of the air raid sirens had become so familiar as to become background noise. The RAF seemed to have unlimited large bombs with which they were doing the utmost best to destroy the ability of the National Redoubt to have any kind of command and control over what was happening at the Oder. The problem was that they were succeeding. No sooner than a new radio relay was set up or repaired, then along came some Halifaxes with 1000 kilo bombs and even if they didn’t hit it, and sometimes they didn’t even hit the base, something else would be lost, a bunker with personnel, or worse a fuel depot.

The Fuhrer’s depression seemed to have deepened, and all around him there were fewer and fewer “die-hards.” Anybody who could, had found a reason for leaving. Someone had to check on production at such and such a plant; someone had to look at where munition trains were being held up; someone had to look into this or that. No one was deserting as such, just, that they had somewhere else to be, and so they would never be seen again. From the Fuhrer bunker came the occasional order to hang someone or send non-existent armies to stem the flow of the British and French.

That afternoon’s briefing had been a classic example. If the forces on the Oder were meant to be a speed bump, then they had failed miserably. The reports were that the British had penetrated about 150kms beyond the Oder in 5 days. The lines on the map showed that along the Warthe and Netze rivers Landsberg an der Warthe and Driesen had been captured, with reports that some British forces were in the vicinity of Schmeidemühl, that as far as could be ascertained the attempts to stop them had been less than successful. Stargard and Dramburg were in British hands and the forces based in Neustettin were reporting contact with the enemy. Along the Baltic coast the garrison in Kolberg seemed to have been bypassed, while the forces on the river Wipper at Schlawe were reporting that the British had arrived in front of their positions.

The French advance seemed to be slower, but Schwiebus was in French hands, and what little information could be gathered from the Ostwall positions, they were under terrible aerial attack, but it looked as if the main French force had bypassed them and that Posen would soon be under attack. The other French army had advanced from the River Neisse to the Oder with little or no opposition. The reports were that two crossings of the Oder had been completed and that the French were now across the old border into Poland and running riot. Further south than that, Breslau reported some fighting but the French did not seem to be taking the bait to attack the Festung.

The usual talk of traitors and cowards felt almost formulaic, with no passion left anymore. The mutterings of the SS officers about the Wehrmacht sounded more fearful than bombastic. It was clear that the German army was defeated, and since the Entente propaganda about how well the German people were being treated in the occupied zone was working, trying to get a total resistance organised among the population was impossible. Hitler slumped into a chair beside the map desk and rubbed his hands over his face. In his heart he too was defeated. His closest companions and supporters had been massacred during the April Coup. All he had round him now were failures and second rate men pushed beyond their abilities. A description that he couldn’t bear to apply to himself.
16-30 June 1941
16 June 1941. 10:00hrs. Festung Kolberg. Germany.

The leaflets had made it quite clear, that if the garrison didn’t surrender by 09:00hrs, then the town would be levelled. The population expected that retribution would come from the air, so when a single old fashioned bi-plane amphibian appeared in the sky they were surprised. The Walrus had been launched from the catapult of HMS Valiant, and was about to correct the fire from the fleet off-shore. Operation Catherine had been one of Winston Churchill’s flights of fantasy at the beginning of the war. The idea of putting a strong fleet into the Baltic would have been little more than madness. However, circumstances had changed and now Kolberg was on the receiving end of a bombardment from ships of the Royal Navy and Marine National.

The efforts to clear channels through the minefields to enable ships to get past Denmark into the Baltic Sea had borne fruit at last. The 15-inch guns of HMS Valiant, Barham, and Resolution rained down hell on Kolberg. The French battleship Provence added her 340mm guns to the carnage. A variety of British and French cruisers and destroyers engaged the German positions which, along with the battleships’ secondary armament, added to suffering of the German population and destruction of the garrison. The Walrus had focused much of the bombardment on the outer parts of the town where defensive structures could be found, but a fair number of shells from the big guns had fallen into the town itself.

The leaflets that had been dropped by the RAF had made it clear how the destruction of the town could be called off. Sure enough after 45 minutes of bombardment a radio signal was received giving the message that an unconditional surrender of the town was offered. More than 2500 shells of various calibres had fallen on the Festung in that time. While some thought had gone in to defending the German garrison and population from air-raids, the plunging fire from the fleet’s big guns hadn’t been considered. The damage to the area was enormous, to say nothing of the psychological damage to the survivors. The town of Kolberg had voted heavily for the Nazi Party in 1933, and the garrison had been chosen for their commitment to the cause. But once it became clear that the British intention to level the town was no idle threat, after a brief exchange of gun fire, control of the surviving radio transmitter had been seized by some of the Volkssturm. As locals with family in the town it was clear that they didn’t want to commit suicide by 15-inch shells.

Having gained control of the radio they repeatedly sent the message given in the leaflet until it was acknowledged. When the shells stopped raining down on the town small groups were sent to various places to tear down any swastika flags that were still flying and replace them with the white flags of surrender. A boat from the harbour then proceeded out towards the fleet carrying the new commander of the garrison and senior surviving civilian to offer their surrender in person to the senior British Officer, Rear Admiral Bernard Rawlings. Once that had been done, then one of the British destroyers, guided by a pilot to avoid any mines, carried in two hundred Royal Marines to take control of the town and its environs. The Royal Marines then made contact with 1st Battalion the Border Regiment, who had the landward side of the Festung covered.

Word of what had happened quickly spread along the Baltic coast, and those coastal towns which had been declared Festungs began to re-evaluate that decision. The juggernaut of the Entente forces was obviously unstoppable. The use of radio as propaganda, including having the new mayor of Kolberg broadcast what had happened to his town gave men in a similar position food for thought. The indiscriminate nature of bombs dropped from aircraft, or shells fired from heavy artillery either on land or at sea, meant that the civilian population could not be defended.

While numbers of civilians, often people of means, were clogging the roads heading towards the national redoubt, the vast majority of the German population did not want to traverse occupied Poland. And since the British and French armies had no shortage of petrol for their tanks and vehicles, any German who sought to move eastwards would be doing so at a much slower pace than the Entente armies were advancing. Tension was rising between those who wished to resist the invader, and those who were concerned to protect the civilian population from the invader. Each town and village had to find a solution to that tension, but since the Entente were now in the border areas, the protection of the civilians tended to be the stronger motivation.

17 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Nowy Tomyśl. Poland.

Pułkownik (Colonel) Jerzy Deskur, Commander of the 24th Uhlan Regiment, 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade (the Black Brigade) was furious. If the crowds coming out to welcome their liberators were like this in every town and village all the way to Warsaw, then his men would never get there. There would probably be a baby boom all along their line of march in nine months’ time, and the soldiers would all have died of alcohol poisoning! He needed the road cleared and for the troops to get moving. He tried the radio, but there didn’t seem to be anyone listening.

As he climbed down from his tank a large lady (one part of his mind wondered how was she still so fat when everyone else looked so skinny) got a hold on him and planted a big kiss on his lips. He had to prise her off of him, and run a veritable gauntlet to the tank belonging to one of the squadron commanders. Getting the attention of the man took another piece of work, (he thought he should have brought a crowbar) and started shouting for him to get his men under control. At least the Porucznik (Lieutenant) had the good sense to be mortified by the Polkovnik’s presence. The young officer immediately moved off and started rounding up his men, physically remonstrating with some of them. The NCOs started getting their men back into their tanks, and the engines started.

Deskur climbed onto the front of the lead tank and started shouting and waving his arms about to get the civilians off the road. Some of the locals began to realise what the officer was trying to do, and joined him in clearing the road, so the column began to make some progress. The local priest was blessing each tank with Holy Water as they passed, and Deskur jumped off and got back into his own tank further back the column. As the first couple of troops cleared the built-up area a man wearing an old Polish Army helmet and a red armband appeared at the side of the road and flagged down the lead tank. A radio call came over the net for the Officer Commanding, so Deskur ordered his driver forward.

After a sharp salute, and introducing himself as the senior officer of the local unit of the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (ZWZ), the Union of Armed Struggle, Jozef Wielezynski, formerly a sierżant (sergeant) in the 15 Pulk Piechoty Wilkow (15th Wolves Infantry Regiment). He reported that there were no German forces in the vicinity, the next significant German force was in Poznan. Deskur realised that the information was important and so put out an Officers’ Call over the battalion net. While they were waiting for the various officers to arrive, Wielezynski was asked about the position of the ZWZ in the area. What was important to Deskur was to get to Poznan as quickly as possible, and to do that he would need to be able to get through the next 60kms as quickly as possible. Which meant that every town and village would want to throw a liberation party, which his Uhlans just didn’t have time for, as much as they would want to.

Wielezynski explained that he had about ten men in his cell and that most of them were currently in the town rounding up some of those who had collaborated with the enemy, and some German settlers. Deskur could understand the desire that the ZWZ men were following, but liberating the country was more important than settling individual scores. What he really needed was someone to go ahead of the main force and try to keep the roads clear so that his tanks and the infantry in their trucks could push on. Wielezynski understood what was being asked, and wondered if a motorbike or car could be made available. He himself was go ahead and contact the head of the ZWZ in the next area to try to make that happen. The Germans had destroyed the telephone exchanges and there were no radios to keep in contact with other groups. But one of the men in the ZWZ in the next town was known personally to Wielezynski and he would be happy to make that contact.

The Reconnaissance Troop leader had arrived by this time and suggested that rather than having the ZWZ man head off on his own, he would be better accompanying the Reconnaissance Troop, who, if the information was correct that there were no Germans in the vicinity, would be able to race ahead of the main formation and make that contact with the ZWZ units in advance of the main force arriving. That way the locals would be in a position to hold the civilian population back from the road allowing the regiment to advance more quickly. After a few minutes filling in all the officers of the current situation and the new plan, Wielezynski went off to the Reconnaissance Troop’s armoured cars, which flew suitably large Polish flags. The men would miss out on the heroes’ welcome, that would fall on the follow up forces to enjoy, but the need to get to Poznan and then to Warsaw was the greater good.

18 June 1941. 12:00hrs. Hyde Park. London. England.

General Oliver Leese could have done without this, but that was the army for you. The formation of the Household Division had only been formalised a week ago, but here they were for the first Trooping of the Colour since the summer of 1939 before the outbreak of the war. It was a little later in the month than normal, and very unusually on a weekday but that was the King’s decision. He wanted to mark the establishment of the Division, an idea that he had promoted. Normally just one Battalion would receive their colours from the king. However to make the point that it was a Division that was being formed there were six battalions present: The First and Third Battalions of both the Scots and Irish Guards, the Fourth Battalions of the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. Troops of the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards retained in London for ceremonial duties added to the pageantry.

Part of Leese’s frustration was that his men had spending much of the last two weeks rehearsing for this parade rather than exercising in preparation for joining the forces currently heading for Poland. However no one could argue with the sight of 3600 men in scarlet tunics and bearskins marching in perfect step, their combined bands belting out martial tunes. There was no doubt it was a stirring sight, and parliament had declared the day a public holiday, to thank the workers for all the efforts that had put the forces on the road to victory. That meant that the streets were lined with people waving Union Flags cheering on the troops. As the King and his daughters made their way down the Mall the crowds were ecstatic, the streets were lined with police officers and representatives of many of the regiments currently fighting their way towards the Polish border. There were also plenty of Empire and Dominion Forces in evidence: Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans were all present. The capital’s citizens were making special efforts to make the troops who were far from home feel welcome.

Once the Royal Family had returned to Buckingham Palace and were on the balcony, the RAF finished the morning’s events with a fly past. For many of the Londoners it was the first time that they had seen some of the new aircraft being flown by the air force. The Spitfires, Hurricanes, Wellingtons and Sunderlands were all familiar enough. But Halifaxes, Beaufighters, Mustangs and Mosquitos were all new and hadn’t been seen much over London itself. The helicopters were a particular revelation as they were a completely new type of aircraft. Many people spoke of the whole day as a dress rehearsal for a Victory Parade, which couldn’t be far distant.

The Prime Minister in a radio message that evening echoed that expectation. With the news that the Polish army had entered into their homeland; that the British armies continued to move towards the Vistula at almost heady speeds; and the French advance was meeting little resistance, it seemed that victory was not far away. However the Prime Minister cautioned the British people against complacency. The German National Redoubt had still to be faced, and “like rats caught in a trap” there was every expectation that the Nazis would attempt a last stand that could well end up “a bloody affair.”

With one eye on the international scene Churchill gave a warning to anyone who might have sided with Hitler’s regime before the war (which everyone immediately associated with Stalin’s USSR). He said that the forces of the great democracies of Britain and France, with their empires, would meet any aggression head on, just as they had done with Adolph Hitler. Totalitarianism had proven itself a danger to world peace. He continued, “The peace loving peoples of the world know what cost their peace and prosperity come at. We have shown that we are prepared to meet that cost, in blood, sweat and tears. Let all those who harbour ambitions of conquest against smaller neighbours know that aggression will be met with overwhelming opposition.”

19 June 1941. 10:00hrs. Foreign Ministry. Tokyo. Empire of Japan.

The foreign minister, Yōsuke Matsuoka greeted the representative of the Netherlands East Indies and welcomed him into his office. Over the last few months a series of meetings had taken place to try to negotiate a trade deal for oil and other commodities. The Dutch, French and British had been increasingly vocal in their criticism of the war in China. The Japanese also had great suspicions that these same countries, with financial aid from the China Lobby in the United States, were supplying weapons and other aid to the Nationalists in China.

The news of the bombing of the civilian population of Chongqing earlier in the month was still making international headlines. The Dutch had called a halt to the negotiations for two days in protest to Japanese actions against the civilian population of China. Matsuoka was furious at the slight, but the need for the resources meant that the Japanese negotiators just had to swallow it. When the talks got going again it was clear that the Dutch were trying to drive as hard a bargain as they possibly could, with the clear threat that they could simply walk away if they didn’t get the deal they were looking for.

The Navy had noted with concern the growing preparedness of the Western powers in the South China Sea. It had been noted that the French in Indo-China had been increasing its military forces, the latest to arrive was a full Corps of battle hardened troops from Europe. The British in Burma, Malaya and Singapore had likewise been strengthening their position on air, land and particularly sea. The Dutch too seemed to have been strengthening their hand in the East Indies. It was now expected that the balance of forces in the area would make a Southern Strategy much more difficult. So difficult in fact that it would be almost impossible to fight on two fronts, both in China and to face the combined Western powers. Even the Army was having to reassess what forces might have to be diverted away from China to force the issue in Indo-China and Malaya.

The only good news was that the Americans seemed to be maintaining their isolationist stance. The main Pacific fleet remained based in San Diego, and while there were increases in the US Army’s presence in the Philippines, the Asiatic fleet remained a backwater force. The question of whether the Americans would intervene if the Japanese declared war on the European colonies could not be adequately answered. The American press, like the Europeans, were full of stories of the bombing of Chongqing. If anything their criticism was even more strident, the French and British had been bombing German cities quite happily for some time. Calls to restrict trade with Japan had been growing, and Congress was debating the quantities of scrap metal and oil that America was shipping to Japan, to build and fly bombers to kill more Chinese civilians.

All of which meant that trying to get a trade deal with the Dutch East Indies was all the more important. On the one hand the Dutch were happy enough to sell oil and other resources to the Empire of Japan for hard currency. That in itself wasn’t too much of a problem, however the quantities they were prepared to sell were too low from the Japanese point of view. In peacetime the amount of oil that was being offered would have been regarded as adequate. However it was not as much as Japan wanted or needed to pursue their goal in China. Which was exactly why the Army wanted to go south and seize the resources for themselves. What the Dutch were proposing, a little to the surprise of the Foreign Minister, was that should the Empire of Japan cease its war in China, agree to peace negotiations, then there would be an ability to go back to a free trade situation not only with the Dutch, but also the British and French. That, to use the Western expression was very much the carrot.

The stick in the expression, was a visit that Maksuoka had had from the Ambassadors of Britain, France and the Netherlands. The use of poison gas at Shanggao in May had been roundly condemned in the international press so the fact that the Western Powers lodged a formal complaint wasn’t unexpected. However the surprise had been the explicit warnings that any use of biological weapons in China would be met with severe repercussions. When questioned afterwards by Maksuoka, the Army’s Kempeitai was furious that the Western powers seemed to know anything at all about their special weapons programs. The Foreign Ministry had been seriously embarrassed by the accusations as they knew nothing of this project of which the ambassadors spoke.

The effect of this intelligence was being felt all through the government. The Kempeitai were searching frantically for any possible spies and the Navy were asking serious questions about the behaviour of the leadership of the Army. The civilian leadership had been kept in the dark by the Army and so were extremely upset. The Kempeitai were adamant that Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army was doing exactly what they were set up to do: to prevent epidemics. However a formal investigation of the facility in Harbin was ordered by the Prime Minister’s office. The commander of the facility, General Shiro Iishi, was ordered back to Tokyo to answer questions. The fact that the British Ambassador had named him personally during the meeting with Maksuoka was further proof that the British must have some particular source that was entirely unsuspected by the Kempeitai.

Between this threat of repercussions about the use of ‘special weapons’, the increasing military presence of the Western powers, and what looked to be the imminent end of the war in Europe, Maksuoka was becoming more convinced that the way forward for the Empire was to cut their losses in China and accept a free trade deal. His own belief was that Japan would be better off expanding northwards into Siberia. While the Army had been soundly beaten by the Red Army in 1939, he got the feeling that if Japan went to war with Stalin, the Western powers would not be unhappy. It was clear that once Germany was defeated the threat from the USSR that had attacked Finland and Poland would consume the Entente. If that was to happen, then the Entente would be more than happy to supply enough resources to have Stalin possibly have to fight on two fronts. This was an idea that he would take to Konoe, but in the meantime he would have sign this deal with the Dutch, for some oil was better than none.

20 June 1941. 11:00hrs. Jastrow. Germany.

Lt Col WY Price watched the progress of the flame throwers as they moved along the German positions. He could feel his skin crawl at the thought of what it must be like to be on the receiving end of such a horrible weapon. However his B Company had taken some pretty awful casualties from German mines, machine guns and mortars, so they were only reaping what they’d sowed.

4th Battalion (Sospan) Royal Welch Fusiliers had been given the task of finishing off this last bastion of resistance on the Ostwall. The main problem had been the way in which the Germans had flooded the area, making progress limited to channels which were well covered by machine guns and mortars. While the rest of the Third Army were well on their way to the Vistula, VI Corps were responsible for mopping up these places which had been bypassed.

The nature of the ground certainly favoured the defender, and despite all the attentions of the RAF and Royal Artillery this particular bunch of Nazis seemed to want to fight to the last. Throughout the army the question of why some Germans gave up as soon as they could, while others fought with such ferocity was a matter of great debate. The former was always the preferred outcome, because no one wanted to die, this close to victory. Unfortunately the Welchmen had found the latter in this case.

After the flame-throwers had done their business Price could hear the sound of Carl Gustav rounds and then grenades, as the infantry followed up. There was no doubting the courage of his men, and A Company could be relied upon to get stuck in with bayonets, if there were any survivors. Price doubted there’d be much in the way of prisoners, it didn’t seem to be that kind of day. More often a rifle shot or bayonet was a merciful release to those burned by the napalm or flame-throwers.

Soon enough there was silence over the battlefield. The stretcher bearers were all well forward, and Price expected that there’d soon be a procession of casualties back to the aid station that was just behind his position. The radio crackled beside him, Captain Albert Llewellyn Davies, commander of A Company reported that all was secure, with no further resistance experienced. He would be sending out patrols to check, once the men had had some time to get their breath back, but it looked like the last enemy position had been overwhelmed. There were four killed and ten men wounded in 2 Platoon, which had borne the brunt of the fighting. Price acknowledged the report and gave him a “well done”.

The signaller changed the frequency so that Price could update Brigadier Arthur Trustrum Eve, OC of 158th Infantry Brigade. No doubt he would inform General Bevil Wilson at 53rd Division’s HQ. What had just happened wasn’t realised at the time, but it was actually the last piece of resistance that the British army faced in Germany proper. East Prussia would be another matter, but the rest of the British armies were now pushing through Poland towards the Vistula. Germany, with the exception of East Prussia, was now entirely in the hands of the Entente.

21 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Łódź. Poland.

The arrival of the French Reconnaissance troops at one of Poland’s largest cities was met with a mixed reception. For the Polish inhabitants their liberation was met with great rejoicing. However, in the Jewish Ghetto, the situation was so terrible, that any feeling of relief wouldn’t be possible until the starving survivors had been cared for.

The winter had been hard for everybody, the Germans had looted the Polish population of foodstuffs to attempt to feed the people within the Reich itself. Within the Jewish Ghetto, that meant that the people, who had no ability to bargain or barter for extra rations, were attempting to survive on less than 500 calories per day. Chaim Rumkowski, the chairman of the Judenrat, the council of elders, had attempted to collaborate with the Nazi administrator of the Ghetto, Hans Biebow. This had led to a worsening of the situation for the 150000 inhabitants. The original plan, to make the ghetto essential to the Germans by supplying labour and materials, had become nothing more than a joke as the German economy had collapsed over the winter.

Instead all that was achieved was the locking away of the Jewish population which received less and less supplies from outside. The food which was supplied was distributed unevenly, so that the death rate among the old and young was disproportionately higher. The effects of the starvation diet meant that by the time the remaining German forces had fled the city, there were few inhabitants of the Ghetto who had the energy to do anything about the suffering all around them.

The French troops when they arrived found that the Polish citizens had reacted to the suffering among them in various ways. There were many who ignored it altogether, anti-Semitism wasn’t limited to the Germans. Others however had attempted to help from the little they had. The arrival of the initial French medical group found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people at death’s door. Working with the Polish doctors from Łódź’s hospitals the French medics supplied whatever initial aid that could be given. An urgent request for Army levels of support was radioed back to Headquarters. There had been some planning for such an eventuality, but the scale was much greater than had been feared. If Łódź was like this, what on earth would Warsaw’s Ghetto be like?

22 June 1941. 15:00hrs. Kutno. Poland.

It was the first real opposition that the Poles had encountered since crossing the border. The men of the 24th Uhlan Regiment had been warned by locals that they were about to run into a German force which were defending the town’s important railway junction. However the Polish troops hadn’t realised the size of the German force, so that their initial attack was repulsed with heavy casualties.

The armoured train, Eisenbahn-Panzerzug 6, was at the heart of this particular German defensive position. The railway junction through Kutno was being used to move troops and supplies back towards Warsaw and then northwards towards the National Redoubt. The German commander had been given the task of holding the position long enough to let two trains carrying units that had passed through during the night to hide during the day, so that they could continue their journey the next night.

When it became clear that the German position was stronger than the reconnaissance force could deal with, the main column of the Polish Brigade began to deploy for an attack. While they were doing that the Forward Air Controller called in an air strike. Two Polish squadrons answered the call. No. 306 Squadron (306 Dywizjon Myśliwski "Toruński") flew top cover in their Spitfires, while No. 301 Squadron (301 Dywizjon Bombowy "Ziemi Pomorskiej") carried out an attack on the Germans in their Hurribombers.

The Germans were well aware of the danger of air attack and had taken extra efforts to defend themselves against such a raid. When the Hurribombers came in for their strafing run they found themselves in a blizzard of flak bursts. Two aircraft were immediately shot down and the others banked and jinked their way out of the danger area, none of the aircraft were able to drop their bombs anywhere near the train. The decision not to use napalm or cluster bombs had been made in case of civilian casualties, something that now frustrated the Squadron Leader. The well-practiced use of napalm against Flak positions wasn’t therefore immediately available.

The senior officer of 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade on the spot was Pułkownik Jerzy Deskur, who despite being wounded in the initial attempt to overwhelm the Germans, ordered the artillery which was within range to suppress the German fire. All the orders to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian property had to be laid aside to allow the advance to Warsaw to continue. The 16th Motorised Artillery Battalion were well used to their French built 75mm guns, as this was what they had used in the defence of Poland in September 1939, before their exile. Using them again against the Germans on Polish soil had the sense of coming full circle, and this time, it would be Germans who would be forced out of their country. The first few rounds exploded and then the range and direction were corrected through radio traffic, allowing the gunners got into a rhythm of firing and reloading.

Under the cover of the artillery barrage a battalion of infantry, supported by Comet tanks advanced against the German positions. The armoured train was unable to move after the rails were damaged, and soon it was being bracketed by the Polish artillery. Shots from the 6-pdr guns on the tanks finally silenced the weapons on the train. The Polish infantry were able to close on their enemy and with their FN automatic rifles soon found themselves passing through the German positions. Few of the Germans attempted to surrender, they had been told that the Poles would not honour the Geneva Conventions.

As had been feared there were quite a number of the local population that had been killed or injured in the battle. Some had been used by the German troops as human shields, others who might be described as collateral damage. The Polish troops, more used to their arrival in a town or village being greeted with great enthusiasm, found themselves sickened by the callous disregard for civilians by the local German commander. If anything it only made them more determined to throw the Nazis out of Poland as quickly as possible.

23 June 1941. 15:00hrs. Nowe, Poland.

(Acting) Captain William Campbell, commanding C Company, the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders had a real problem on his hands. Since arriving at the Vistula two days previously, there had been a series of attacks on the British troops. Twice there had been snipers who had taken a life and then disappeared, and once a bomb had exploded killing two men and injuring another four. While the I Mechanised Corps’ advance from the Oder had been mostly straightforward, this particular part of the world was turning out to be less welcoming than they had expected.

The Polish liaison officer had been trying to explain that this part of Poland had only been returned to Poland after the Versailles Treaty as part of what was known as the Polish Corridor. There was a strong German ethnic minority and it seemed that what they were dealing with was known as the Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz. These units had been raised by the Nazis before their invasion of Poland in 1939, and the liaison officer believed that up to a quarter of the local German population were either members or supporters of the movement.

The local Poles informed the British officer that a number of priests, teachers and politicians had all been taken away in 1939, and they firmly believed that they had been executed by the Selbstschutz. The arrival of the Scottish soldiers had aggravated an existing problem, and now the Gordon Highlanders were falling victim to these terrorists.

The orders from Battalion was that the west bank of the Vistula was to be pacified, and Campbell knew he just had to get on with it. On one hand he didn’t particularly want to inflame an already difficult position, but it was clear that the local Polish community would be more than happy for the ethnic Germans to be cleared out of their town and district altogether. His own men were getting pretty jumpy, having taken these casualties, and he knew it wouldn’t take much for a loss of discipline to lead to real trouble.

The First Battalion Gordon Highlanders, as a regular battalion in the army of the British Empire, had a great deal of experience of being in hostile environments. Before the war they been in India on the North West Frontier. While all too many of the old regulars had been lost since the war began, there was still a core of officers and NCOs who knew how “pacification” was done. Since the ethnic Germans were a minority, and the Polish majority were more than happy to help, the Gordons supervised the process of making it impossible for the Selbstschutz to be supported by their community. If some houses and farms were burnt down, some limbs broken and many people made homeless, then that was the cost of supporting Hitler. The fact that some property was ‘liberated’ by Polish neighbours and old scores settled, if it stopped attacks on the British troops then from Campbell’s point of view it was worth the cost.

A number of sweeps were made which resulted in a lot of arrests, any German of military age or bearing was considered a suspect. There would be a proper investigation and a fair trial eventually, but from Campbell’s point of view he just wanted any potential threats to be neutralised. Some weapons and explosives were found and these were taken into evidence. The local lawyer was a German, and he made a real nuisance of himself, challenging every arrest and confiscation of property. The fact that his dead body was found that morning badly beaten, meant that Campbell had to make sure that his own men could account for their whereabouts. It seemed clear that the crime had been committed by local Poles, and so now, Campbell had to lay down the law to the Polish community too. For a moment he looked over towards the Vistula, and wondered when they could cross it and get away from this place. The river Dee seemed further away than ever.

23 June 1941. 09:00hrs. Warsaw. Poland.

The sound of gunfire had woken many people during the night and they were wondering if their liberation was near at hand. There had been increased overflights by British and French planes, some wearing Polish colours in the previous few days. The distant sound of artillery had been growing louder but what could be heard this morning was sustained small arms fire. That was unusual, and raised the hopes of many. The city had often heard the sound of rifle fire, as the Nazis had rounded up anyone they considered a potential threat. The sounds from within the Jewish Ghetto were also nightmarish, as a systematic attempt to starve the whole community to death was being implemented. That meant that the machine gunners on the guard towers were regularly gunning down those who were making efforts to escape their imprisonment.

Efforts by the British and French to make contact with the Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland, Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, had all been rebuffed. Krüger was a true believer in the Nazi cause, and having become Governor-General after the death of his predecessor in the failed military coup earlier in the year. He had taken steps to make sure that the Fuhrer’s wish for Warsaw to be obliterated would be fulfilled. The men of Związek Walki Zbrojnej (ZWZ), the Union of Armed Struggle, had been alerted to this threat, so, with the knowledge that the advance of the Polish forces were fast approaching, they took matters into their own hands.

With a mixture of hidden and captured weapons, as well as some that had been smuggled into the city by the ZWZ, some 12000 armed men rose up, including 500 within the Jewish Ghetto. Krüger relied on a regiments worth of SS troops for the most important roles of dominating the city. In addition there was the best part of a division of Wehrmacht troops who were assigned to less important roles, but in whom Krüger had no faith. That doubt was proved well founded as many German units simply deserted their posts at the first sign of trouble and the absence of their SS overseers.

The most important weapons in the armoury of the ZWZ were radios that were in contact with the RAF and AdA. The Hurribombers and Bréguets, operating at the edge of their effective range, were able to rain down bombs on concentrations of Nazis when they were identified. This proved hazardous to the civilian population. The ZWZ, as well as the armed troops where were in the forefront of the fighting, had a much larger presence of supporters who attempted to clear the civilian population out of areas where fighting was intensive. The majority of the civilian population took shelter wherever they could as it became clear that the city had become a battlefield.

While the Polish forces outnumbered the defenders, it was not going to be an easy task, particularly as protecting the civilian population was playing a large part in their tactics and strategy. However the uprising did have the effect on putting the Germans on the defensive, rather than completing the systematic destruction they had been planning.

To the west, the Polish Army were well aware of the deadly struggle that was going on in the capital, and a concerted effort to push forward as quickly as possible was undertaken. With the relief of Warsaw as their objective, caution was thrown to the wind, and accelerators were floored.

24 June 1941. 10:00hrs. Danzig. Poland.

The men of the 2nd Battalion of the Cameronians picked their way carefully through the streets leading down to the port. They were accompanied by two troops of Valentines from 7 Royal Tank Regiment, and so far they hadn’t had to open fire on anyone. However the population of the city was made up almost exclusively of Germans and that made the Scots nervous. The last couple of weeks had been pretty hairy, there hadn’t been anything much in the way of battles, but they’d suffered some casualties from snipers and booby-traps. The town was remarkably quiet, the population were keeping themselves out of sight. The fact that there was a strong battleship presence off the coast was obviously focussing their minds on not doing anything that would lead to a devastating broadside falling on them.

Above the British troops circled a Walrus from one of the ships. The soldiers marked their advance with coloured smoke so that the navy would know where the friendly forces were. To the pilot and observer in the aircraft it looked like a river of purple lava was flowing slowly down the streets of the city. There was also radio contact between the Brigade HQ and the observer in the Walrus. The population had been well warned what the consequences of armed resistance would entail, and so the Cameronians continued to push forward. Behind them the 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were pushing the purple smoke wider as they advanced inland towards the River Motława.

In Gydnia a similar process was being undertaken by 4th Division troops as II Corps took control of the Baltic coast. Any remaining Kriegsmarine ships in both ports that could had already been sailed away eastwards or been scuttled. Generally however any armed troops that the British came across tended to ready to surrender, not even after a show of force.

It was the sullenness of the civilians that caused the greater issues. While working their way through the main part of Germany, the civilian population had generally been more worried about safety and the essentials of life. Here, because of the history of the Polish Corridor, and because of the ethnicity issues before the war, the population tended to be greater supporters of the Nazi party. The fact that East Prussia still stood as a beacon, while many of the most ardent Nazis had tried to make their way there, there were still enough people who had convinced themselves that the Fuhrer would lash out and throw the Entente forces back from where they had come.

The advance of the Cameronians brought them to port installations, which had been wrecked, but this did not surprise anyone. The bridges over the Motława River and the Marta Wisla had all been blown, also as expected. First Armoured Division and the rest of I Corps had already by-passed the town and were ensconced on the Vistula between Tczew and the sea. The rest of First Army were strung out along the line of advance “pacifying” the area.

Back towards the Oder strenuous efforts were being made to get the main railway line from Stettin to Gydnia open again, as the build-up for the final crossing of the Vistula into the Nazi National Redoubt had to be prepared. Having also captured the railway junction at Tczew (Dirschau), meant that the main line back via Bromberg and Pila to Küstrin would also be available to bring forward supplies once it was made safe to travel on. Many of the German prisoners that had been captured in the advance from the Oder to the Vistula were being used in the first instance as labourers to clear the debris. The railway gangs from Britain and France that had been working together with the locals through Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany had done wonders at getting the network back together, but there was still much to do.

In the Baltic itself the efforts clear pathways through the minefields was continuing, so that the Entente fleet of battleships and battlecruisers were expecting to be joined by the more vulnerable aircraft carriers and landing ships. The amphibious forces that had liberated Denmark were once again available, giving the planners another card to play when looking at how to dismantle Hitler’s redoubt. In the meantime Bomber Command were carrying out round the clock efforts to make the lives of those in East Prussia as uncomfortable as possible.

25 June 1941. 18:00hrs. Warsaw. Poland.

Parts of the city were burning fiercely. The SS troops, and those members of the Wehrmacht who hadn’t made themselves scarce, had been reduced to a few pockets on the west bank of the river. One group held the Średnicowy railway bridge, the last escape route to the east bank. The other group were holed up in and around Fort Legionów. The ZWZ didn’t have enough heavy weapons to reduce the German positions, and so something of a stalemate had evolved. A couple of times airstrikes had attempted to intervene, however accuracy was an issue and concern for civilians meant that air attacks were put on hold. The east bank was where the Germans had concentrated most of their forces and here the ZWZ controlled only a few city blocks around Wilenski station.

The leading units of the Polish army were expected to arrive during the night, and to some extent the ZWZ were doing nothing much more than holding their positions, awaiting the arrival of the professional troops and their heavy equipment. While the German troops were conserving what little ammunition they had left. They had deliberately been attempting to set fires in various sections of the city, their desire for destruction overriding any notion of military effectiveness.

The Jewish Ghetto had been particularly hard hit. The Jewish fighters had managed to cause some casualties among the erstwhile guard units, but the guards had set as many fires as they could before they abandoned their posts. With so many of the inhabitants already starving, and the rest of the city a war zone, there was a lack of ability to fight the fires, and in the overcrowded conditions many lives were lost.

On the outskirts of the city ZWZ troops and supporters were taking up positions to guide the Polish forces directly towards the fighting, and to try to make sure that there were no delays in their attempts to liberate the city. 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade had been burning up the miles as best they could, while the rest of the Polish army followed on as best they could. Attached to the Calvary Brigade to increase their infantry provision was 23e Regiment de Marche de Volontaires Étrangers (RMVE). Made up largely of Spanish Volunteers and Jewish emigrées from central Europe, the needs of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, which General Sikorski had been warned about, meant that having significant numbers of Jewish troops in the relief force was seen as being important.

26 June 1941. 12:00hrs. Rzeszów. Poland.

The arrival of the French army seemed to have taken an age, but the 5e Army was primarily an infantry heavy army and the liberation that had progressed through Katowice, Kraków and Tarnow, with innumerable destroyed bridges and other obstacles to their progress. The only role of the German forces seemed to be destroy and retreat. As far as the French could gather from the ZWZ and locals was that the Germans were falling back towards Hungary, where presumably they were being interred. There was certainly no fight in them, but nor did they want to end up in prisoner of war camps.

The quality of the Wehrmacht units in this part of Poland was always going to be questionable. Holding down the local population and facing off the Soviets, they weren’t the best the army could provide. They had been particularly starved of resources, as the fighting in the west had taken all the efforts of the German war effort. Their standing orders was to fight on, no matter what, but High Command was very far away and out of touch. Those units that were still in the field, withdrew before the French army destroying anything that would be of use. The local Polish population would be suffering for a long time, the way the German troops were wrecking almost everything in a frenzy of destruction.

For the 5e Army troops there was something bittersweet about their progress through Poland. The obvious gladness of the Polish people at the arrival of the French liberators was immediately muted by the awful deprivations that they had obviously suffered. Part of the slowness of the French advance was due in no small part to the need to bring forward enough extra food and engineering resources to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population. Unlike in Germany where some Gallic shrugs met the lack of food for the civilians, here in Poland, where the theft of food from the civilians by the German occupiers met an angry reaction from the French troops.

The other concern for the French commanders as they moved eastwards was the possible reaction of the Soviets in their part of occupied Poland. Attempts to persuade Stalin to pull back to the pre-war borders were meeting silence, which was leaving Paris and London with a worry. However, sorting out the Germans was giving them enough to be concerned with at the moment. General Bourret, having got a crossing over the River Wislok, sent reconnaissance units towards the River San at Jaroslaw and Przmyśl, which was where the border agreed between Hitler and Stalin was. They had orders not to do any more than to check out the situation and report back.

27 June 1941. 08:00hrs. Warsaw. Poland.

Silence descended on the city, at least in terms of gunfire. The sounds of fires burning and vehicles moving through the streets continued, but the last of the German defenders had either died or given up. The arrival of the Polish Cavalry Brigade had swung the battle firmly into the hands of the Poles on the west bank of the river.

What followed was a masterstroke by the French. The GRCA (Groupe de Reconnaissance de Corps d'Armée) of 7e Army from the direction of Łódź had found a nearly intact crossing of the Vistula near Góra Kalwaria, 25 km southeast of Warsaw. A railway bridge had been only partially destroyed by the Germans, the explosives in the charges weren’t strong enough to actually bring the bridge down. The French engineers were able to make enough temporary repairs to allow most of the GRCA to get across the river, so that their arrival on the eastern side of the city from the south the previous evening had surprised the German troops, to the extent that the Średnicowy railway bridge hadn’t been blown.

The rest of the 7e Army was now heading for Góra Kalwaria and then on to Lublin and the River Bug. The Polish Army was now rushing forward to complete the liberation of Warsaw and push forward over the Vistula towards Brest. The French 1re Army, with word that the Vistula was crossed, were now looking to force a further crossing between Wloclawek and Torun. General Charles De Gaulle’s 1re Division Mécanique were already massing at a likely crossing point. When that happened, the plan was that they would move north, opening the way for the British to cross the Vistula and close on what was believed to be the first line of the defences of the National Redoubt on the old East Prussia/Polish Corridor border.

Meanwhile in Warsaw itself, as the day wore on the work of trying to fighting the fires and bringing succour to the civilians continued apace. The situation in the Jewish Ghetto was particularly harrowing. The deliberate attempts to starve the Jews to death had already taken a terrible toll, and the medical staff that had arrived with the Polish forces were having to triage the survivors and try to save those who could be saved. Of the approximately 400000 people in the Ghetto, the death toll was already reckoned to be at least a quarter of that total, with every indication that figure would grow, particularly due to the fires that had been raging over the past few days in the overcrowded area.

A joint group of British, French and Polish officers had been tasked to record and investigate the various crimes against humanity that the Entente forces had encountered in their advance through Europe. After the war it was intended to bring to justice, wherever possible, those responsible. There was still a long way to go in the process, but initial figures of the deaths of the Jewish community alone from mistreatment and deliberate harm was looking as at least half a million deaths.

28 June 1941. 13:00hrs. Baltic Sea.

The flight deck of HMS Formidable receded into obscurity in the mirror as Lieutenant (A) Eric “Winkle” Brown pushed the SeaHurricane towards 10000 feet. Three other fighters had been launched to join the Combat Air Patrol which was moving towards some contacts that had been picked up on radar. The Luftwaffe hadn’t been seen much over the last few months, though the Enigma decodes put most of their strength in East Prussia.

The combined Entente Fleet had been trailing their coat along the coast, with the Fleet Air Arm making reconnaissance in force into the national redoubt. The RAF had been doing most of the bombing with the Halifax and Wellington types, but the FAA were seeking out Luftwaffe airfields that perhaps had been missed. That morning two flights of Barracudas had roughed up a likely looking airstrip, and it seemed that the Luftwaffe had decided to come out to play.

While the four SeaHurricanes that made up the CAP were being joined by the flight of four led by Brown, the rest of the SeaHurricanes were being warmed up, in case they would be needed. The fleet were moving into a formation to defend themselves against air attack. The radar picture was unclear as to what was on the way, so the CAP were being guided towards the incoming raid. There had been vague signs of German reconnaissance flights that hadn’t been able to be intercepted, so it was presumed that this raid had a good notion of where to find the fleet.

“Winkle” Brown’s flight of four fighters were listening intently to R/T instructions as they pushed their engines to maximum to gain enough height in preparation for the interception. The Flight Leader of the CAP reported that he had visual of a force of over thirty bogies heading in the general direction of the fleet. The German aircraft seemed to be staying low, the CAP leader called “Tally Ho!” and led his four aircraft into a diving attack.

HMS Formidable’s Fighter Director Officer (FDO) was Lieutenant James Tricky RNVR, a Public School Science Master in civilian life. Having been working with the squadrons for most of the year, the pilots had learned to trust his instructions and directions. Following his directions Brown found himself up-sun and in a good position to make a diving attack on what he could now identify as HE111s. The first flight of Hurricanes had already split up the formation to some extent, and Brown noticed out of the corner of his eye that the four SeaHurricanes were coming around for a second attack.

The nearest group of German bombers were flying in a very tight formation that meant that it would only be possible to attack the single ‘arse-end Charlie’ with a classic quarter attack. Positioning himself up sun, with the shadow of his aircraft superimposed over the target at the start of the turn-in, then breaking off before reaching the line astern position. All these thoughts were swirling around his mind, when he pulled the red knob of the emergency boost override. Everything in the aircraft started to shake and vibrate with the extra power. He built up an overtaking speed, carefully trimming out the rudder forces as he did so. Turning in towards the target, he started his firing run while still at 40 degrees off, rapidly closing the range, finding he was pulling far too many ‘g’ for accurate sighting, but he pressed down the firing button for two seconds.

He was so close as he broke away that the cockpit was dark with the shadows of the surrounding German aircraft and the air was bumpy with their slipstreams. With his neck pulled in to his shoulders at the thought of the German gunners firing at him, he pulled up, as he did so he looked back over his shoulder to see his Number Two, Bernard “Bully” Bullivant, climbing out behind him, and further back a Heinkel diving into the sea.

The CAP leader, ‘Spike’ King-Joyce, conscious that his flight was running low on fuel, started directing the next four SeaHurricanes which were arriving from the carrier onto the parts of the German raid that there were still in formation. By the way they were flying it wasn’t clear if they were armed with torpedoes or were going to gain height as they closed with the fleet. The fact that they were approaching the way they were made the British officers suspect they were aware of the use of Radar, and its limitations.

Brown meanwhile scanned the skies above looking for any escorting fighters. Lt Tricky wasn’t calling out any danger, but Brown kept his eyes open anyway, fighter pilots couldn’t afford to take anything for granted. Bully had re-joined his leader, as had the other two in the flight, so, Brown called for them to follow him as he dove down for another pass. The 20mm cannons gave him the chance to fire from a greater distance than if they only had .303 machine guns, however closing with the enemy gave them the greatest chance to actually bring them down, and since they didn’t have that much ammunition, every shell counted.

Making another attack, Brown reckoned he had enough ammunition for two more passes, if he was careful. Once more he pushed the emergency boost and pressed home the attack, the other fighters following him. The other issue at the back of Brown’s mind was that they were getting closer and closer to the fleet, at which point the anti-aircraft guns would need a free-fire zone. Whether they’d have time for a third pass was debatable. The Heinkels ahead of him weren’t as tight in formation as the previous group, which gave the four SeaHurricanes an easier job of hitting them. As the four fighters climbed off, one trailing smoke from the attentions of a rear gunner, two Heinkels had dropped out of the formation, one already crashed in the water, the other trailing fire and smoke from its port engine.

King-Joyce’s flight was down to three aircraft as fourth had been involved in a mid-air collision. The third flight of SeaHurricanes had been able to make just one pass head on, which had scattered the German force even more. However they were fast approaching the outer range of the anti-aircraft artillery zone, so ‘Spike’ called off the fighters. The German aircraft started to fly into a veritable wall of flak bursts, their formations already broken up by the fighter attacks. There were enough cruisers and destroyers providing the outer ring of escorts, which when the battleships opened up with their secondary armament, even the bravest pilots began to have second thoughts about what they were attempting. Half of the He111s were carrying torpedoes and those which had survived the air attacks flew as low as they possibly could, the flak encouraging them to drop their loads far too early. The other aircraft had been planning to attempt a skip bombing technique, but again the sheer weight of fire they were flying through, especially when the lighter 40mm weapons came into play, would make such an attempt suicidal.

However as the Heinkels turned away they found themselves once more at the mercy of the SeaHurricanes, the three aircraft from the original CAP had flown off to get back on board before they ran out of fuel completely, accompanied by the one from Brown’s flight which was damaged. Brown was now the senior officer in the air, and he had seven aircraft at his disposal, only four of which had anything like a full load of ammunition. However it looked as if the worst of the danger had passed as the Germans headed for home as fast as their engines could push them. Holding his own three aircraft at height, he let the other four aircraft go down to wave-top height to chase off and attack the stragglers.

Among the fleet HMS Juno was struck by one of the German torpedoes, more by bad luck than by good management. Hit on the stern, she took casualties in the engine room, and lost all power, making it difficult to deal with the flooding. As the ship settled by the stern, the Captain, Cdr. St. John Reginald Joseph Tyrwhitt, ordered the crew to abandon ship. HMS Kipling came alongside to take off the crew, leaving a skeleton crew aboard to try to save the ship. The efforts eventually proved futile, too much damage was done, and so HMS Kipling put two torpedoes into the hulk.

Back in the wardroom of HMS Formidable the pilots of 802 Squadron talked through their actions, claiming at least fourteen enemy aircraft destroyed. In reality they had brought down seven, the flak had taken down another two. One of their own had been lost in the mid-air collision and one of the SeaHurricanes was considered too badly damaged to be repaired.

29 June 1941. 09:00hrs. Nieszawa. Poland.

Lt-Col Paoli’s 249e Regiment’s III Battalion were already across the river, while I Battalion were currently crossing. The night crossing had been risky, but the information was that there would little or no opposition, which had turned out to be true. The Division’s entire Sapeurs Pionniers units were working at getting a second ferry crossing sorted. The S40 chars and Lorraine VBCP 38Ls were awaiting the ferry becoming operational so that they could move across the river and keep pushing eastwards.
The first ferry had been taking over the infantry and the 14e Cuirassier Regiment, equipped with AM 39 Gendron armoured cars, these were fanning out looking for the best way for the Division to move.

One squadron was moving towards Torun another towards Lipno. The local ZWZ were reporting that there were small units of German forces at the most likely crossing points, but otherwise, all other forces had withdrawn behind the East Prussian fortifications. This was borne out by aerial reconnaissance. It was becoming clear to Entente High Command that the Germans just didn’t have the manpower to defend the Vistula line, and instead had concentrated what forces they had within East Prussia itself. With that information planning could take place to get the French 1re Army and British First and Third Armies across the Vistula and start to probe the German defences. Meanwhile the Polish and French 5e and 7e Armies would continue to liberate Polish territory.

General Alan Brooke was taking a lot of advice about how to face the task of reducing the National Redoubt. As with all of those of his generation, the death of so many on Flanders’ Fields, made the idea of a toe to toe engagement with a fanatical enemy abhorrent. Work to create forward landing strips for the RAF was among the highest priorities as the Army advanced eastwards. The factories producing bombs for the RAF and shells for the artillery were working flat out, the Royal Artillery would also play a key role in the destruction of the Nazi redoubt. The Royal Navy would play its role along the Baltic Sea coast, and making sure that as few rats as possible would be able to escape the sinking ship. An unknown was the eastern border with the Soviets. It wasn’t clear if the Nazi regime was still getting any support from Stalin. All the intelligence suggested not, but any covert support would make it difficult to besiege the area if one flank was open. The whole point that Brooke was keen on was to use a sledgehammer to crack this particular nut.

30 June 1941. 10:00hrs. Budapest. Hungary.

Prime Minister Pál Teleke looked over the figures that the Chief of Staff had given him. In the last month nearly forty thousand German troops had crossed the borders of Hungary looking for sanctuary. That brought the total to the best part of 100000. Most had brought their personal weapons, which had been confiscated, but some heavier equipment had also arrived, as whole units decided to cut and run. When Polish troops had arrived across the border in 1939 they had been interred in camps, and the Hungarian army was following the same process with the Wehrmacht troops. The British and French ambassadors had been keen to make sure that the German forces stayed put in Hungary until the fighting was over and the mess could be sorted out. Teleke and the Hungarian government were keen not to get on the wrong side of the Entente powers, and so were trying to make sure that the Germans would indeed stay in Hungary for the foreseeable future.

Many of the German troops had either been on the eastern border of Poland facing the Soviet forces or had been retreating from Slovakia in the face of the French advance. The vast majority of the Germans’ homes were now occupied by the Entente powers, and the question of how and when they might get home was uppermost on their minds. The Red Cross were doing great work in keeping a mail system going, so at least families knew where their soldier sons and fathers were and that they were safe. The fact that their families were generally positive about their conditions under the occupying powers, power and food supplies were being restored effectively, the soldiers weren’t as concerned to get home quickly as they might have been.

The Romanians were expressing a worry that with the German forces generally giving up, especially at the border with the Soviets, that Stalin might see an opportunity to bite off a bit more of Poland while he could. Diplomatic efforts in Moscow were continuing to try to keep Stalin from doing anything, and from all that could be ascertained, the Red Army was not making any preparations for an offensive. For the Hungarians, this was less of a problem than the fact that their neighbours in Yugoslavia and Romania were now clearly allied with the Entente Powers, put them in an uneasy position. It was clear in retrospect that they should have cut ties with Hitler much earlier, however, they hadn’t and now they were at a complete disadvantage.
1-12 July 1941
1 July 1941. 01:00hrs. Königsberg. Germany.

Prinz Eugen, the last Kriegsmarine vessel of any note still active, had got together enough fuel oil for one final voyage. It was clear from the failed Luftwaffe attempt to attack the Entente fleet that the enemy fleet was closing on the city. Admiral Alfred Saalwächter, commander of what remained of the Kriegsmarine had very quietly put together a collection of ships of various types under the cover story of a last sortie to face down the Entente fleet. In perhaps the Navy’s most effective operation of the war, from under the very noses of the Nazi officials, had filled the ships to the brim with civilians. These were mostly the families of Kriegsmarine sailors, but there were many others who had no desire to join in Hitler’s mass suicide. The connivance of enough Nazi officials meant that some of their families too would be part of Operation Hannibal. The plan was to sail northeast at first to avoid the Entente Fleet then west towards Swedish island of Gotland, a distance of just over 200 miles. Hopefully the Swedes would accept them and treat them well, and if the Swedish navy got some extra ships, that might sweete