Tokugawa Ieyasu Wins the Battle of Sekigahara

21 October 1600

Japan, after the death of its feudal overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1535–98), was threatened by anarchy. A council of five co-regents had been nominated by Hideyoshi to rule Japan after his death and during the minority of his son Toyotomi Hideyori. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), as head of the regency council, emerged as a dominant figure but Ishida Mitsunari (1563–1600), another council member, challenged his authority.

Mitsunari and Ieyasu were supported by the war lords of, respectively, western and eastern Japan, and came to do battle at Sekigahara, a narrow pass of strategic importance between Lake Biwa and Nagoya in central Japan on 21 October 1600. At about 8 a.m, as the mists cleared after a night of driving rain, the first shots of musketry were heard. The contest between the 80,000-strong army of the west and the slightly smaller army of the east was even until midday. But Ieyasu’s espionage network, ahead of the battle, had already persuaded elements of the ‘army of the west’ to defect. A force on the hill above that army’s southern line advanced on its own allies and delivered the victory to Ieyasu.

Mitsunari’s defeat led to his execution and Ieyasu either banished the nobles who had supported him or deprived them of their lands. He then redistributed the fiefdoms among his own supporters. But since many feudal nobles supported Hideyori’s legitimacy the ambitious, but cautious, Ieyasu allowed the seven-year-old boy to keep his father’s stronghold, Osaka castle, and gave him his granddaughter in marriage. The battle was the last major opposition to Tokugawa power. The emperor, whose power was merely nominal, confirmed Ieyasu’s authority when, in 1603, he appointed him shogun – supreme military ruler of Japan. When Ieyasu retired in 1605 he ensured that the title of shogun was transferred to his son Tokugawa Hidetada. A dynasty had therefore been established but Ieyasu retained effective control until his death.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Japan had dissolved into a collection of some 400 effectively independent states and the emperor’s authority was just a formality. But Japanese attempts at establishing central authority dated back to the country’s emergence as a distinctive civilization in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The constitution of 604 had asserted the emperor’s authority over the nobility, the national reforms of 646 established the emperor’s title to all Japanese land, and Nara became the country’s administrative capital. Buddhism, imported from China through the adjacent Korean peninsula, was used to elevate imperial power. But Japan, unlike Korea, failed to transplant the much-admired Chinese example of a hierarchical and centralized administration. Buddhist monasteries and great families were granted private estates as a reward for crown service and this diminished the imperial patrimony. In 794 the emperors decided to move their court to the new capital of Heian (Kyoto) in order to escape the political influence of Buddhist monks at Nara. However, they then found themselves dominated by the Fujiwara clan, whose members intermarried with the imperial family and became the country’s predominant power. The absence of a central army meant that the country’s provinces were run by the monasteries and by the private armies of nobles. Samurai soldiers roamed the countryside and observed their own chivalric code. By the twelfth century, a time when Fujiwara power was waning, the samurai were influential in court politics.

Shoguns, as supreme military rulers, ruled with the aid of provincial subordinates – the shugo. The flow of power to the peripheries proved to be a chronic feature of Japanese political and military life: the shugo established themselves as regional rulers and the shoguns’ power diminished. But the shugo themselves lost their authority in the provinces after the civil war (1467–77) caused by a quarrel about the shogunate succession. The real victors were a new class of feudal warriors and provincial power-brokers known as the daimyo. Samurai warriors provided the daimyo with private armies, which led to internecine warfare. They in turn, as befitted their vassal status, received their own small estates. In the west such feudalism had led to national legal and political structures but Japanese feudalism militated against any such authority. Daimyo castles dominated their particular areas as centres for trade, urban development and the arts. Within their fortresses some of the daimyo became influential patrons of the ritualized Noh drama, the tea ceremonies, painting and prose romances which gave Japan a national cultural style despite the fragmentation so evident elsewhere.

The man who ended the chaos by establishing a centralized despotism started life as a victim of the age of Japanese anarchy. Tokugawa Ieyasu was born into a struggling warrior family and his father’s alliances meant that Ieyasu’s mother was separated from the family when her son was two. At the age of seven he became a hostage of the powerful Imagawa clan and two years afterwards Ieyasu’s father was killed by one of his vassals. The Imagawa educated Ieyasu as both warrior and administrator and his earliest campaigns were waged on behalf of the clan. But the age’s dominant figure was Oda Nobunaga, with whom Ieyasu formed an alliance after Nobunaga’s defeat of the Imagawa. Nobunaga had captured Kyoto and started an anti-Buddhist campaign, slaughtering monks and destroying temples. The Portuguese had by now introduced firearms into the country: muskets were reproduced and tactics changed. Nobunaga exploited these developments. The castle of Azuchi, built as his base on the shores of Lake Biwa in central Japan, showed the novel quality of his power. Earlier castles were defensive citadels built in remote mountain strongholds but Azuchi, built on the plains, asserted political and administrative order rather than just military control. Ieyasu was able to return to his family’s estates, near Nagoya on the central east coast, where he established a tax regime and a system of civilian administration to run his small army. He replaced the Imagawa during the 1570s as the dominant regional power so that he became the daimyo in charge of a prosperous and well-populated area.

Nobunaga, following an attack by one of his vassals, died in 1582 and Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerged as his successor within the Oda territories. During the 1580s Hideyoshi extended his authority over the daimyo of south-west Japan and his defeat of the Hojo clan enabled him to consolidate control of eastern Japan. Hideyoshi suggested that his ally Ieyasu should surrender his coastal provinces in return for the Hojo lands further east and the Tokugawa vassals and army were therefore transferred to land centred on the fishing village of Edo (Tokyo).

Hideyoshi in his vast domain and Ieyasu in his compact one followed policies designed to sustain their authority. Hideyoshi disarmed the peasantry and insisted that the samurai should now live in castle towns rather than roam the countryside ever ready to lend support to rural rebellions. A land survey yielded new taxes and Hideyoshi moved to suppress the Christian faith established in Japan by the Portuguese in 1572. Ieyasu placed large tracts of land under the direct administration of his own officials, drew up land surveys, and confiscated villagers’ weapons. Artisans and businessmen were encouraged to come and work in his new castle town.

After his victory at Sekigahara Ieyasu issued regulations and established administrative bodies which controlled the activities of the nobility, the Buddhist clergy and the daimyo. His aim was the creation of a stable and self-sufficient state by autocratic means: farming and trade were segregated, private investment banned and different parts of the country were only meant to communicate with each other by travelling along the strictly controlled five Imperial highways which converged on Ieyasu’s court. The Japanese were stopped from travelling abroad and, after the ban on the building of large ships (1638), had few means of travel to tempt them. Japanese hostility to trade grew since they saw from the examples of Goa, Malacca and Macau how missionaries always followed in the traders’ footsteps. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, had first arrived in Japan in 1549 and Christianization had been rapid. By 1615 some half a million of Japan’s eighteen-million population were Christian. Ieyasu embarked on a systematic anti-Christian policy which later culminated in the slaughter of 37,000 Japanese Christians at Hara castle near Nagasaki after Christian peasants, aided by samurai mercenaries, rose in rebellion. Three thousand one hundred and twenty-five officially recognized Catholic martyrdoms occurred during the Tokugawa era. All Japanese now had to register at local Buddhist temples and alien faiths were proscribed.

The need to control the daimyo ensured that both Ieyasu and his son kept them hard at work building, extending and embellishing the castle at Edo. By the time of Ieyasu’s death it was the world’s largest castle. Surrounding it were the mansions in which the daimyo lived as virtual hostages. The issue of the succession to Hidetada still plagued his father, especially when Toyotomi Hideyori attained his majority in 1614. The seventy-one-year-old warrior therefore led an army to seize Osaka castle and finally crush the Toyotomi clan with the help of Hidetada, who raised an army of 90,000 warriors. After a year-long campaign the castle fell and Hideyori, along with his family, committed suicide.

Ieyasu established the isolationism of the Edo period (1603–1867), which was dominated by the Tokugawa shogunate and as a prolonged period of peace is without parallel in advanced societies. Economically, the experiment was successful for a long time: cities boomed and agriculture expanded. The population grew to some thirty million by the early eighteenth century, but with virtually no foreign trade the state had to be financed almost exclusively from agricultural taxes whose burdens caused many peasants to leave the land. Samurai fell into debt and rural discontent spread. The peace meant that the army was largely redundant and the educated samurai joined the ranks of the bureaucrats who ran the highly centralized administration created by Ieyasu and which remains in place today. This concentration of power also produced enormous powers of patronage which proved to be another longterm national legacy. Japan’s introspective sense of its cultural uniqueness – and of its distinctiveness among its Asian neighbours – deepened during this period. But keeping the west at bay proved a high-cost policy. Japan could not assimilate western technology on its own terms. And western technology meant western power. A secluded society grew vulnerable to the feared ‘barbarian’.

Coldstream Guards: Waterloo

At the beginning of 1815 life in England was just beginning to return to normal after nearly 28 years of unrelenting war against Napoleon Bonaparte and everyone was looking forward to a period of peace. Then on 26 February 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba, landed in the South of France and was soon back in Paris as Emperor once more, with most of the country supporting him.

The Allies (Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria) began assembling an Allied Army under the supreme command of the Duke of Wellington to deal with Boney once and for all, but it was a slow process, for the troops had, as usual, been disbanded as soon as possible after the end of hostilities. The 1st Battalion of the Regiment was in London, but the 2nd Battalion was sent in May to join Wellington’s army in Belgium as part of 2nd Guards Brigade, commanded by Major General Sir John Byng of the Third Guards. The brigade was in 1st Division, commanded by Major General Sir George Cooke of the First Guards, together with 1st Guards Brigade.

On 15 June 1815 Napoleon suddenly launched a ‘blitzkrieg’ across the frontier at Charleroi and advanced rapidly in a two-pronged attack towards Brussels, where Wellington had his headquarters. The Duke was taken completely by surprise and exclaimed “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God. He has stolen 36 hours march on me.” He was at that stage uncertain as to where Napoleon’s main blow would fall, but he deployed his troops during the night of the 15th and awaited developments.

16 June 1815

The next day, the 16th, Napoleon attacked and defeated the Prussian army at Ligny. The Prussian commander, Marshal Blücher, retreated to Wavre in order to be able to support Wellington, as he had promised to do. Napoleon at the same time ordered Marshal Ney to capture the important crossroads at Quatre Bras on the main route to Brussels. Quatre Bras was defended by only 8,000 Dutch and Belgian troops, and they were attacked on the morning of the 16th by some 20,000 French. Somehow they managed to hold their ground until the afternoon when the British reinforcements sent by Wellington began to arrive. By the evening the Allies outnumbered the French and Quatre Bras was secure.

Among the British troops sent to Quatre Bras were the two Guards Brigades. 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards had been encamped at Enghien and orders were received at 0130 on the 16th to move immediately with all speed to Braine le Comte. The Battalion set off at 0430 and when it arrived was promptly told to hurry on to Quatre Bras.

It was a flaming hot June day, but by marching non-stop for thirteen hours, the men covered twenty-six miles and finally reached Quatre Bras at about 1700. The battle was still on and they were thrown straight into the fray. The brunt of the fighting fell on 1st Guards Brigade, who were in the lead; the 2nd Battalion was not heavily engaged. By nightfall the French withdrew and the crisis was over, leaving the exhausted troops to snatch some welcome rest.

17 June

The next day Wellington ordered all the troops at Quatre Bras to withdraw to his previously selected defensive position along the ridge at Mont St Jean, some three miles south of the village of Waterloo, where he now had his headquarters. The move was carried out successfully, though there was a sharp rearguard action on the way at Genappe, in which the battalion’s light company was engaged.

Just as the army reached its positions there was a tremendous thunderstorm with torrential rain, so that within minutes everyone was soaked to the skin. There was no shelter, they had received no rations that day and they were exhausted, having marched almost non-stop for the last two days. But thankfully they threw off their packs and tried to get some rest in the waterlogged fields.

2nd Guards Brigade was positioned on the west end of the ridge of Mont St Jean, with 1st Guards Brigade on its left. It formed the right of the Allied line and some 500 yards to its front lay the château and farm of Hougoumont, a key outpost halfway between the British and French lines.

Just as the men were settling down, despite the steady rain, the unwelcome order came at about 1900 that the four light companies of the two Guards Brigades were to move forward immediately and occupy the farm and orchard of Hougoumont.

The light companies had been the last to arrive at Mont St Jean, having been with the rearguard, and they were more exhausted than most. But they now set off into the driving rain with the prospect of a sleepless night ahead.

The 2nd Battalion light company was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wyndham, and it was given the task of occupying the actual château and farm buildings of Hougoumont. The Third Guards light company occupied the large garden and the area round the farm, while the two light companies of the First Guards held the orchard some 500 yards to the east.

They were only just in time, for soon after they moved into the farm some French cavalry appeared, hoping to seize the position, but they were driven off with a few volleys. The men in the farm buildings may well have thought that they would enjoy a comfortable night under cover, but they were soon disillusioned, for they were put to work fortifying the buildings in every way possible. Loopholes were made in the walls and firesteps constructed; all the entrances were closed, and where possible barricaded. Only the North or Great Gate was deliberately left open, so that reinforcements, supplies and ammunition could reach the farm from the main position behind.

Those in Hougoumont were certainly better off than their comrades on the ridge. Ensign Charles Short, aged only sixteen and a half, described his uncomfortable night:

“We were under arms the whole night expecting the attack and it rained to that degree that the field where we were was halfway up our legs in mud; nobody, of course, could lie down. The ague got hold of some of the men. I with another officer had a blanket and with a little more gin we kept up very well. We had only one fire and you cannot conceive the state we were in. We formed a hollow square and prepared to receive Cavalry twice, but found it was a false alarm both times. Soon after daylight the Commissary sent up with the greatest difficulty some gin, and we found an old cask full of wet rye leaves which we breakfasted upon. Everyone was in high spirits.”

18 June

The torrential rain finally eased off as dawn broke on Sunday, 18 June 1815 and everyone ‘stood to’ ready for the expected French attack. It was a miserable, muddy morning, and 72,000 sodden Allied troops faced an equally sodden 68,000 French veterans a mere 1,000 yards away across the valley.

Ten miles to the east, unknown to Napoleon, 60,000 Prussians under the indomitable 73-year-old warrior Marshal Blücher set out at dawn from Wavre to march to support Wellington, as Blücher had promised they would. The crucial question was whether they could arrive in time.

All was set for the Battle of Waterloo.

All the troops in and around Hougoumont, both Coldstream and Third Guards, were under the overall command of Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonell, (pronounced Macdonell) of the 2nd Battalion. He was a large, powerful officer, renowned for his bravery, having been awarded a gold medal (the equivalent of a Victoria Cross) for his distinguished conduct at the Battle of Maida in 1806. He would certainly distinguish himself again at Waterloo.

Soon after dawn Wellington rode down to Hougoumont to make sure that all was well and he ordered up a force of around 1,000 Nassau and Hanoverian troops, whom he sent to occupy the copse just south of Hougoumont – a reinforcement that was very welcome.

Just before 1100 he came down again to see that his orders had been carried out. He was accompanied this time by his Prussian Liaison Officer, General Müffling, and together they had a word with Colonel Macdonell. The Duke stressed the vital importance of holding Hougoumont and told Macdonell that his troops must “defend the post to the last extremity”.

Müffling, who rather fancied himself as a tactician and liked to discuss military matters with the Duke, questioned whether the farm really could be held, seeing how exposed it was and how few men, a mere 1,500 or so, had been allocated to its defence.

“Ah,” replied the Duke. “But you do not know Macdonell.”

Half an hour later, at about 1130, the first shot of the Battle of Waterloo was fired. It was directed against Hougoumont, and from then on until the end of the day a total of seven enemy attacks would be launched against this key position – but it held out.

Napoleon had intended that the assault on Hougoumont should only be a diversion, designed to make Wellington weaken his centre by sending reinforcement to the farm. But the ploy did not work, because the Duke declined to change his plans. Moreover the French commander concerned, Napoleon’s brother Jerome, was determined to show his worth, and so, contrary to orders, went on attacking in the vain hope of capturing it.

The first attack against Hougoumont was made at 1130 by Bauduin’s Brigade and it drove back the Nassauers and Hanoverians holding the copse. But as the French troops emerged from the wood, confident that Hougoumont was now within their grasp, they were stopped in their tracks. Between them and the farm was a thirty-yard strip of open ground, a veritable ‘killing ground’, swept by accurate musket fire from the windows and loopholed walls manned by the Coldstream. Desperately, the French launched one attack after another against the South Gate, but in vain, and throughout the day the gate was never forced.

The Closing of the Gate

The French lost some 1,500 men in this first assault, but they soon attacked again with a second brigade. This time they swept round to the west of the farm, supported by cavalry, and came very close to success, being thwarted only by the famous Closing of the Gate.

The open ground to the west of the farm was held by the light company of the Third Guards who were heavily outnumbered and were forced back to the North Gate, through which they withdrew into the courtyard of the farm. They then attempted to shut the gate behind them against the pursuing French, who were close on their heels. The attackers were led by a giant of a man called Lieutenant Legros, known appropriately as ‘L’Enfonceur’ or ‘The Smasher’. Seizing an axe from one of the pioneers, he swung it against the panels of the gate and forced his way through, followed by between 50 and 100 men.

For a moment it seemed to them that the capture of Hougoumont was in sight. Desperate close-quarter fighting developed on all sides. Some French soldiers reached as far as the château, but they were heavily outnumbered and eventually every single one of them was killed, except for one unarmed drummer boy, who was spared.

But even as this bitter fighting was taking place inside Hougoumont, more of the enemy were trying to force their way in through the gate. Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell was by the Garden Gate and when he became aware of the danger he at once realized that it was vital that the great North Gate be closed.

Shouting to three other Coldstream officers nearby to join him, he rushed towards the gate. As the four of them reached the area of the Draw Well they were joined by two more Coldstreamers4 and four men from the Third Guards. Shoulder to shoulder the group drove back any enemy in their way and fought their way through to the North Gate.

Colonel Macdonell put his shoulder to it, together with Corporal James Graham, who was also of sturdy build. Others joined in, either adding their weight to those at the gate or else hacking and firing at the Frenchmen who were still trying to force their way in.

Very slowly the two heavy panels were pushed together and then held in position until the massive crossbar could be dropped into place. Finally the entrance was barricaded and reinforced with any pieces of timber that could be found.

But the struggle was not yet over. Even while the gate was being secured, some of the enemy tried to scale the walls, and one French Grenadier, standing on the shoulders of a comrade, leaned over the top and took aim at Colonel Wyndham. Fortunately Wyndham saw him out of the corner of his eye; he had no musket himself, but, picking one up, he handed it to Corporal Graham, who managed, just in time, to shoot the Frenchman.

So the Great Gate was closed and was never again forced, but it had been “a near run thing”. The enemy never managed to penetrate into Hougoumont again during the rest of the day and it is not hard to appreciate why Wellington declared later that “The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates [at Hougoumont].”

Major General Byng, commanding 2nd Guards Brigade, had been keeping a close watch on the fighting round Hougoumont, and when he saw the mêlée at the North Gate he ordered the remainder of the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards to move forward and counter-attack the French who had penetrated to the north side of the farm.

The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Woodford, (a Peninsular War veteran, who would later become a Field Marshal) led three companies down to the North Gate soon after it had been finally closed and, after some stiff fighting, they drove the French back down the lane and then into the wood.

“We found the enemy very near the wall,” he recorded later, “and charged them, upon which they went off, and I took the opportunity of entering the farm by a side door in the lane” (the West Door).

The rest of the battalion (less two companies left on the ridge with the Colours) then moved into the farm. Colonel Woodford was in fact now the senior officer in Hougoumont, but he generously declined to take over command from Colonel Macdonell, who was doing so well, and they fought the battle together for the rest of the day.

The 600 or so additional Coldstreamers were a welcome reinforcement for the hard-pressed light companies inside Hougoumont, and in particular their arrival made it possible for Colonel Macdonell to strengthen the defences along the east wall of the garden and so offer better support to the troops defending the orchard.

So far the fighting had all been around Hougoumont, but at 1300 Napoleon at last launched his main attack, advancing with 18,000 men against Wellington’s centre after a murderous 30-minute bombardment by 80 guns. It was repulsed, largely thanks to the charge by two brigades of British Heavy Cavalry, and Napoleon had to think again, for his whole plan had been frustrated.

There was now a brief lull for the defenders of Hougoumont, but at 1445 a new threat developed when the French brought up a battery of howitzers and began to shell the buildings. They fired ‘carcass projectiles’ (incendiary devices), which soon set fire to many of the roofs of the farm. By 1500 the château, the chapel and the Great Barn were all ablaze. Napoleon no doubt hoped that the fire would drive out the defenders, where his troops had failed, but he would be thwarted yet again.

“The heat and smoke of the conflagration were very difficult to bear,” wrote Colonel Woodford. “Several men were burnt as neither Colonel Macdonell or myself could penetrate to the stables where the wounded had been carried.”

At this moment Corporal James Graham, who had helped to close the gate, approached Colonel Macdonell and asked permission to leave his post in the firing line in the garden. Well aware of Graham’s bravery, the Colonel queried why he wanted to retire at such a critical moment.

“I would not,” replied the Corporal. “Only my brother lies wounded in that building which has just caught fire.”

Permission was promptly given, and his brother, Joseph (who had also been involved in the Closing of the Gate) was removed to safety, whereupon Corporal Graham immediately returned to his post.

There were wounded men from both sides in the burning buildings and many were burnt alive. Most of Hougoumont was now blazing fiercely and there was little that could be done about it. The chapel was ablaze and there are eye-witness accounts of how the flames licked through the wooden door and set fire to the feet of the life-size, wooden statue of Christ on the Cross that hung just above the door. But then they stopped, miraculously it seemed to some, leaving the feet charred and blackened, but the remainder of the body untouched.

The fire had meanwhile been noticed by Wellington, who immediately wrote a message repeating his original orders that Hougoumont must be held at all costs. It was written, as was his custom, in his own hand on a slip of ass’s skin which provided a smooth surface that was largely waterproof and could be wiped clean (an early version of talc!).

“I see that the fire has communicated from the Hay Stack to the Roof of the château. You must however still keep your men in those parts to which the fire does not reach. Take care that no men are lost by the falling-in of the Roof or Floors. After they have both fallen in, occupy the ruined walls inside the Garden; particularly if it should be possible for the enemy to pass through the Embers in the inside of the House.”

What a remarkable example of the Duke’s personal attention to detail!

It was a grim scene indeed inside Hougoumont at this moment. Burning timbers crashed down on the men in their positions and thick, choking smoke billowed everywhere, making their eyes stream as they strained to watch for the next enemy move. Red-hot flying sparks burned their uniforms and started new fires. Through the roar of the flames came cries for help from the wounded and the wild neighing of panic-stricken horses. Enemy shells still crashed into the buildings and the musket fire was incessant. Yet the defenders stayed at their posts and fought on.

Private Matthew Clay of the Third Guards was among them, positioned in the château, and he described the scene:

“I was told off with others under Lieutenant Gough (sic. probably Ensign Gooch) of the Coldstream Guards, and was posted in an upper room. This room was situated higher than the surrounding buildings and we annoyed the enemy’s skirmishers from the window. The enemy noticed this and threw their shells among us and set the building which we were defending on fire. Our officer placed himself at the entrance of the room and would not allow anyone to leave his post until our position became hopeless and too perilous to remain. We fully expected the floor to sink with us every moment, and in our escape several of us were more or less injured.”

So, while Hougoumont blazed and disintegrated round them, the defenders remained at their posts, and not a single Frenchman managed to penetrate into either the buildings or the garden.

But enemy pressure on the approaches to Hougoumont from the north was steadily increasing and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the vital line of communication to the North Gate was kept open by the 2nd Battalion, whose responsibility it was. It was just as well that they were successful in this task, for a new crisis now arose as supplies of ammunition began to run low.

The situation was saved by the heroic action of a Private of the Waggon Train, who was in charge of a tumbril of ammunition on the ridge. An officer on the staff recorded the incident:

“I merely pointed out to him where he was wanted, when he gallantly started his horses and drove straight down to the farm, to the gate of which I saw him arrive. He must have lost his horses as there was severe fire kept on him. I feel convinced that to that man’s service the Guards owe their ammunition.”

The Regimental History states that the tumbril arrived “about one o’clock” and “proved most seasonable”.

Elsewhere the battle was steadily building up to a crisis. At 1600 Ney launched the first of the two great cavalry charges that the French would make that day. Over 4,500 horsemen pounded across the muddy valley and on up the slope where the Allied squares awaited them. Five times they attacked, but they could not break the squares, and five times they were beaten off.

For over an hour the attacks went on with the utmost gallantry and determination; but even when Napoleon threw in a further 5,000 horsemen the ever-dwindling squares stood firm. Finally it was the French who withdrew, with the vital breakthrough still not achieved.

The defence of Hougoumont can be said to have contributed to the defeat of these cavalry attacks. The fact that both Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte were still in Allied hands meant that as the French cavalry advanced they were under fire from both flanks. They were therefore forced to charge on a very restricted front of only 800 yards, thus losing some impetus as well as providing a better target for the Allied artillery. Hougoumont has been described as “a thorn in the side of all the French attacks” and this was certainly true of the two cavalry charges.

But the defenders were not allowed to remain mere spectators for long. Just about the same time as the two cavalry charges, a powerful attack by some three infantry regiments was made against the south-east corner of the orchard. The sector was held by the Third Guards, supported by two battalions of the King’s German Legion (KGL), but they were forced back as far as the Hollow Way, where they rallied. The Commanding Officer of the Third Guards reported:

“But when the attacking troops attempted to pass through the orchard they received so destructive a fire from the Coldstream Guards posted inside the Garden Wall that they were completely staggered, and we meanwhile advanced and regained our post.”

The seventh and final attack on Hougoumont came at about 1830. The gallant KGL had been finally driven out of La Haye Sainte, when their ammunition ran out, and the French now had troops to spare for a final assault on Hougoumont. It again came in against the Third Guards in the orchard, and once more Colonel Hepburn, commanding the Third Guards, declared:

“Again the fire of the Coldstream did us good service. In fact it was this fire that constituted the strength of the post. We once more advanced and resumed our station along the front edge, from whence there was no further effort to dislodge us.”

At 1930 came the climax of the battle. The Prussians were now closing in in growing numbers against Napoleon’s right flank and he had to take one final gamble, whether to withdraw while he could or to make one last desperate bid for victory. He decided to risk all and launched his invincible Imperial Guard against the centre of the Allied line. But it was too late. They were repulsed and withdrew back to the French lines.

“La Garde Recule”

These three words spelt in effect the defeat of France and the Grande Armée was soon in full retreat. But round Hougoumont the bitter fighting continued unabated, with neither side being aware of the fate of the Imperial Guard.

As the Allied line moved forward the weary troops in Hougoumont remained at their posts. Exhausted, they watched in the gathering gloom as the enemy, who for the last nine hours had done their best to kill them, now disappeared into the wood where at dawn that same day it had all started.

After a while the Coldstreamers in Hougoumont were ordered to move back and bivouack for the night in a field just behind the farm, where they joined Nos 7 and 8 Companies. The Third Guards too bivouacked nearby, joining up with their light company who had been with the Coldstream in Hougoumont all day.

At the Roll Call that evening there were many names that went unanswered in both battalions. The losses were not as grim as in some of the regiments on the main position, but they were heavy enough. The 2nd Battalion lost 348 all ranks, while the Third Guards’ casualties were 236. Altogether the 6,000 or so Allied troops who were eventually involved in the defence of Hougoumont suffered around 1,500 casualties against French losses estimated at more than 5,000.

There are varying accounts of the numbers involved on each side in the struggle for Hougoumont. There is little doubt that the French committed 13–15,000 troops to their continuous attacks on the farm and orchard. This represented the major part of three divisions (Jerome, Foy and Bachelu) which might otherwise have been available elsewhere on the battlefield and might well have made a difference to the outcome.

Wellington committed altogether a maximum of 3,500 troops to the actual defence of Hougoumont itself, with perhaps a further 2,500 in support behind the farm. But even on the basis of around 6,000 Allied troops defending Hougoumont against 14,000 French, this was a most satisfactory and economical ratio from Wellington’s point of view. He fed in reinforcements only as essential and yet tied down most of a French corps for the whole day. Nor did he weaken his centre as Napoleon had hoped he would.

That night Wellington wrote in his Despatch:

“It gives me the greatest satisfaction to assure your Lordship that the army has never on any occasion conducted itself better. The Division of Guards … set an example which was followed by all.”

Wellington’s confidante, Thomas Creevy, related later that as the Duke was at work on his Despatch he “praised greatly those Guards who kept the farm against the repeated attacks of the French.” He also commented:

“You may depend upon it that no troops but the British could have held Hougoumont and only the best of them at that.”

Nor had the Duke forgotten that General Müffling had, on the eve of the battle, ventured to question whether Hougoumont was defensible at all. He now could not resist making the brief comment when he next saw him: “You see, the Guards held Hougoumont.”

“The Bravest Man in England”

All ranks who took part in the Battle of Waterloo received in 1816 a silver Waterloo Medal, the first general issue made to the British Army. In addition, they had the letters ‘W.M.’ (Waterloo Man) put after their name in the records; this was perhaps of even greater importance to them since it counted as two years’ extra service.

Officers in the Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards benefited also in that the privilege of ‘double rank’ was extended to include Ensigns, who were now given the rank of Lieutenant.

Corporal James Graham (now a Sergeant) and Sergeant Fraser of the Third Guards were both awarded a special medal for their gallantry at Hougoumont. Sergeant Graham was also nominated by Wellington for an annuity of £10 a year which had been offered by a patriotic citizen, the Reverend John Norcross, Rector of Framlingham in Suffolk, to be given to “one of his brave countrymen who fought in the late tremendous but glorious conflict.”

Unfortunately, after only two years, the Rector went bankrupt and the annuity ceased. But when he died some time later he left £500 to be given to “the bravest man in England”. Wellington was invited to nominate this individual, and he wrote:

“The success of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont. The gates were closed in the most courageous manner at (sic) the very nick of time by the efforts of Sir J. Macdonell. I cannot help thinking Sir James is the man to whom you should give the £500.”

So it was settled, but the gallant Colonel immediately shared his award with Sergeant Graham, declaring:

“I cannot claim all the merit due to the closing of the gates of Hougoumont, for Sergeant John Graham, who saw the importance of the step, rushed forward and together we shut the gates.”

Coldstream Guards: The Struggle against Napoleon, 1793–1815

The French Revolution of 1789 led to over twenty years of conflict between England and Napoleonic France that would only end at Waterloo in 1815. It is a war that is of particular historical interest because of the series of remarkable parallels between the struggle against Napoleon and that against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany 146 years later.

In both cases a ruthless, ambitious dictator conquered and dominated all Europe, and Britain stood alone against him for several long years. The British Army was driven from the Continent at Corunna in 1809 as it was at Dunkirk in 1940. There was a recurring threat of invasion that was only thwarted by our sea power and in both struggles the nation was inspired by the oratory of a great leader, be it William Pitt or Winston Churchill. Both dictators tried and failed to defeat Russia. Above all, our supremacy at sea enabled us not only to thwart invasion threats and blockades, but in due course to take the offensive by attacking the enemy’s possessions overseas and finally launching our own invasion of Occupied Europe.

The actual campaigning against Napoleon began in 1793 when the French Government sent an expeditionary force against Holland who was an ally of England at that time. The British Army had as usual been reduced to a dangerously low level as soon as there was a moment of peace and it was only with the greatest difficulty that an effective force could be raised at all. The troops most ready for action were the Foot Guards and they were hurriedly formed into a Guards Brigade consisting of the 1st Battalion of each Regiment, together with a fourth or Flank Battalion formed from the grenadier and light companies.

They sailed for Holland in February 1793 and the Regiment thus had the dubious honour of being among the first troops to engage those of Revolutionary France on the Continent. They were extremely ill-equipped, with no transport, no reserve ammunition and few stores; shipping was so short that they had to be transported across the Channel in Thames coal barges.

It was not a particularly successful campaign, but there was one moment of glory when the Guards Brigade was sent to support the Prince of Orange, whose troops had been driven out of the village of Lincelles. On arrival there was no sign of the Dutch force that was supposed to reinforce them and they found themselves expected to attack 5,000 strongly entrenched enemy even though they had only 1,100 men. Despite heavy artillery and musket fire, the three Guards battalions stormed the defences and cleared the village, thereby earning one more Battle Honour. It was the Regiment’s seventh and was the first to be awarded at the time, rather than much later.

The campaign dragged on, but little was achieved and no one was sorry when the force was withdrawn in April 1795. During the next three years Napoleon established his dominating position in Europe, just as Hitler did between 1939 and 1941, and by 1797 Britain stood alone, facing an apparently invincible dictatorship.

Determined to defeat this impudent island, Napoleon planned invasion. But although he assembled a large invasion fleet off Dunkirk, he was prevented by the Royal Navy from using it. Then in February 1797 the fleet of his ally, Spain, was destroyed off Cape St Vincent and in October his Dutch fleet was defeated at Camperdown. So, as in 1940, the invasion barges never left France and England breathed again.

Just as Hitler attacked Egypt in 1940 when his invasion plans failed, so Napoleon in 1798 struck in the Middle East and occupied Egypt. Even though his fleet was destroyed by Nelson in Aboukir Bay on 11 August 1798, he pushed on into Palestine, only to be halted in 1799 by the defiant garrison of Acre under Sidney Smith. He thereupon decided to cut his losses, abandoned his army in Egypt and returned to Europe to continue his conquests there.

So by 1801 Britain stood alone yet again and the daunting prospect was made worse by the imposition of a monstrous new ‘income tax’ at the exorbitant rate of two and a half per cent. But by skilful use of her sea power, she started operations at opposite ends of Europe that would within the next twelve months dramatically change the situation.

In January 1801 Nelson destroyed the Danish fleet in Copenhagen, while General Sir Ralph Abercrombie set sail from Minorca on an expedition that was intended to drive the French out of Egypt. He had with him a Guards Brigade consisting of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion Third Guards. They sailed with him to the Bay of Marmorice on the coast of Turkey where they were relentlessly trained with the Royal Navy in carrying out an opposed landing until everything ran like clockwork. It was an early instance of thorough combined operations planning and training and it would pay good dividends.

On 8 March 1801 the assault force landed at Aboukir Bay, a beach some ten miles east of Alexandria. It was covered by the guns of Aboukir Fort and was such a strong position that the French commander had allotted only 2,000 men to its defence.

As dawn broke three lines of assault boats, each containing fifty men, moved slowly inshore towards the two-mile-long beach, in perfect formation, as if on parade. There was no firing and no cheering, only the rattle of the rowlocks. Then with a roar the guns in Aboukir Fort opened up with a storm of grapeshot, round and chain shot. A direct hit sank a boat of fifty Coldstreamers, then a Third Guards boat was hit and it looked as if the landing might fail.

But without reply the flotilla pushed steadily on and at last they reached the shore. Despite heavy enemy fire the men formed up in line and prepared to advance inland. But the battle was not yet won. There was some confusion, due to the heavy casualties, and a French cavalry charge almost drove them back into the sea. But it was repulsed and the three brigades advanced. The French withdrew and a bridgehead was safely established. It had been a highly hazardous operation, but, thanks to the fine discipline, leadership and training, it was an impressive victory.

Cairo was captured on 27 June and on 28 September a force that included the Guards Brigade seized Alexandria. This marked the end of a highly successful campaign that left Egypt in our hands and ended French expansion in North Africa. In December 1801 the 1st Battalion sailed home with the brigade, stopping briefly en route in Malta.

For their ‘conspicuous service’ in this campaign both the Coldstream and Third Guards were awarded the distinction of carrying on their Colours a badge of a Sphinx, superscribed with the word ‘Egypt.’

Threat of Invasion

Despite his setback in Egypt Napoleon still dominated Europe and in 1802 England signed the Treaty of Amiens, which it was hoped would lead to peace. But within a year it became clear that Napoleon remained set on world domination and by May 1803 Britain and France were again at war.

Britain stood alone in defying the Emperor and, as in 1798, there was a very real threat of invasion. But as in 1940 Britannia ruled the waves and, although Napoleon assembled a Grand Army of 160,000 and a fleet of 2,100 barges, he was still thwarted by the Royal Navy.

“Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours,” he demanded angrily of his admirals, “and we shall be masters of the world.” But Admiral Villeneuve could no more grant him that than could Admiral Raeder and Field Marshal Goering grant it to Hitler 137 years later.

In England almost a tenth of the population joined the Volunteers, the equivalent of the Home Guard of 1940, only to find to their indignation that, as in 1940, there were not enough muskets to go round and many were issued with pikes! Martello Towers were built to defend the coast, while among the forces defending the capital were three Guards Brigades, the 1st and 2nd formed from the Regular battalions while the 3rd contained the depot battalion of each Regiment.

The threat reached its peak in the first days of 1804. All Press mention of troop movements was forbidden and any editor who disobeyed was liable to arrest. Plans were made for the gold in the Bank of England to be moved to Worcester Cathedral and the Volunteers hurried to their posts. Invasion seemed inevitable, but the Royal Navy was not dismayed.

“I do not say the French cannot come,” growled Lord St Vincent, the First Sea Lord. “I only say they cannot come by water.”

He was right. As 1804 passed, Napoleon’s fleets dared not put to sea and his hopes of a successful conquest of England steadily dwindled. Then, when a combined French and Spanish fleet finally ventured out of Cadiz on 21 October 1805, it was promptly destroyed by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar and the threat of invasion was ended.

Britain immediately began to think once more of using her sea power for offensive operations and in October 1805 2nd Guards Brigade, which included the 1st Battalion, was sent to Hanover to join an Allied force there, but the campaign petered out and the troops returned home in February 1806.

Undaunted, the same brigade was sent in August 1807 on a daring but this time successful expedition to Denmark. Copenhagen was captured and the entire Danish fleet was removed, just ahead of Napoleon, who had also planned to seize it.

The Peninsular War, 1808–1814

Having failed to crush England by invasion, Napoleon now tried to starve her into submission (as did Hitler with his U-Boats from 1940). He issued the Berlin Decrees, which forbade any European country to trade with us, and he enforced it ruthlessly. But there was one defiant exception, Portugal, who was not only England’s oldest ally, but also did most of her trade with us.

When Portugal defied Napoleon he promptly sent an army to invade the country in November 1807. The following spring he also invaded Spain, whereupon both countries appealed to England for help. Eager to support any nation that was prepared to stand up against the French, the British Government boldly agreed to send troops to Portugal. So, on 1 August 1808 14,500 men under the command of a promising young general called Sir Arthur Wellesley landed at Figueiro and the Peninsular War had begun.

There were no Coldstreamers involved at this stage, but the force included 1st Guards Brigade composed of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the First Guards. Wellesley successfully drove the French out of Portugal, but was then ordered home, and handed over to Major General Sir John Moore. He was ordered to advance into Spain to support the Spanish army there, but this provoked Napoleon to intervene himself at the head of an army of 200,000. His ‘blizkrieg’ forced Moore to retreat in haste in January 1809 to the port of Corunna in order to save his army (the only one that England possessed).

The retreat over mountains in midwinter involved extreme hardships and, as the demoralized 15,000 survivors straggled into Corunna on 11 January 1809, there occurred a famous incident, much valued by Guardsmen of all Regiments. It cannot be better described than in the words of the military historian, Sir John Fortescue:

“A brigade caught the General’s eye at a distance, for they were marching like soldiers. ‘Those must be the Guards,’ he said, and presently the two battalions of the First Guards, each of them still 800 strong, strode by in column of sections, with drums beating, the drum major twirling his staff at their head and the men keeping step as if in their own barrack yard. The senior regiment of the British infantry had set an example to the whole army.”

They also established a tradition that day that would inspire future generations of Guardsmen of all Regiments in years to come. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Coldstream set the same standards of discipline on the Retreat from Mons in 1914 and so did the 1st and 2nd Battalions on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

Undaunted by the disaster of Corunna, the British Government resolved, as in 1940, that they would fight on regardless, and within a mere three months a second expeditionary force was on its way to Portugal, again commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley. This time it included 2nd Guards Brigade, composed of the 1st Battalions of the Coldstream and Third Guards, who would together fight on for the rest of the Peninsular War.

The Crossing of the Douro, 12 May 1809

The Guards Brigade was part of Sherbrooke’s 1st Division, and on 12 May it took part in Wellesley’s remarkably bold Crossing of the Douro and the capture of the Portuguese city of Oporto. The Guardsmen were due to be among the first troops to cross in the main assault, but the 29th Foot (Worcester Regiment) were in front of them in the assembly area and sent back word that the streets were so narrow that such big men as the Guardsmen would never get through. It was not true, but it gave the 29th the satisfaction of beating the Guards to it!

Talavera, 28 July 1809

Having driven the French out of Portugal for the second time by his capture of Oporto, Wellesley turned south and boldly advanced towards Madrid. But he had now to cooperate with the Spanish Army, which proved far from easy, and as a result of their incompetence he found himself having to fight the Battle of Talavera on 28 July 1809, although outnumbered two to one.

“Never was there such a murderous battle,” he himself declared, but at the end of the day it was the French who withdrew, despite their superiority in numbers. The Guards Brigade was again in the 1st Division and at one moment the battalions advanced too far and found themselves cut off and under fire from both flanks. They were rescued by a timely charge by the 48th Foot (Northamptonshire Regiment) and rallied in time to join in the final victory. Talavera was awarded as a Battle Honour and a special medal was struck for issue to ‘meritorious officers’.

Wellesley withdrew after the battle back into Portugal, where he remained on the defensive until he felt strong enough to take the initiative again.

Battle of Barrosa, 5 March 1811

In March 1810 three companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment joined the Peninsular Army as part of a Composite Guards Brigade of all three Regiments. It was, however, used to reinforce the garrison of Cadiz and so found itself besieged there for the next two and a half years.

But they did have one moment of glory, which was the Battle of Barrosa, one of the finest actions against overwhelming odds in the history of the Regiment. In 1811 part of the garrison, including the Composite Guards Brigade, was withdrawn from Cadiz and sent by sea to Tarifa, west of Gibraltar, with the aim of then marching back towards Cadiz and attacking the besieging French force from the rear.

But, again due to Spanish incompetence, the rearguard of the force was ambushed by some 9,000 French near the village of Barrosa and was cut off from the main body. The British were only 5,000 strong, but they were commanded by a fine, fighting soldier, Lieutenant General Thomas Graham, who decided that the only hope lay in a bold counter-attack. The 2nd Battalion of the Regiment and the 2nd Battalion First Guards were involved in desperate close-quarter fighting, led by General Graham himself. They were outnumbered almost two to one, but finally it was the French who withdrew, and the enemy commander spoke afterwards of “the incredibility of so rash an attack”.

It was not a major battle, but it was a great victory and a fine feat of arms, which became a very well-earned Battle Honour for the Regiment.

Battle of Fuentes d’Onor, 3–5 May 1811

The 1st Battalion meanwhile, as part of 1st Guards Brigade, took part in the Battle of Fuentes d’Onor (3–5 May 1811), a hard-fought two-day contest on the Portuguese border, which Wellington described as “a near-run thing”. The Regiment was not too heavily involved, but it was awarded another Battle Honour.

On to the Offensive, 1812

By the beginning of 1812 Napoleon had withdrawn troops from Spain to build up his army for the invasion of Russia in June and, as a result, Wellington was at last in a position to go on to the offensive in the Peninsula. In January 1812 he captured the key fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo and the 1st Battalion took part. This was followed by his dramatic victory of Salamanca on 22 July 1812 when “40,000 Frenchmen were defeated in 40 minutes”. Again, the 1st Battalion was involved and the light companies of the Guards Brigade received a special mention in Wellington’s Despatches for seizing the key village of Los Arapiles and holding it against constant counter-attacks. Salamanca became the Regiment’s eleventh Battle Honour.

From there Wellington went on to liberate Madrid on 12 August, which forced the French to lift their two-and-a-half-year siege of Cadiz. The liberated garrison, including the Coldstream Detachment, promptly marched north, determined not to miss any more fighting. They covered 400 miles in nineteen days but only reached the main army on 18 October, in time to return with it to winter quarters in Portugal.

In October 1812 1st Battalion First Guards arrived in the Peninsula from England and thus made a total of five Guards battalions in the Peninsular Army. Wellington therefore formed two Guards Brigades both of which were placed in 1st Division, now commanded by General Graham of Barrosa fame.

The Great Advance, 1813–14

So we come to 1813 when Wellington decided that, following Napoleon’s disastrous losses in Russia, there was now a chance of the Peninsular Army finally driving the French out of Spain altogether. The parallels with 1944 are striking at this point, for Napoleon, like Hitler, was now committed to a war on two fronts against confident, well-trained Allied armies that were steadily liberating the occupied countries of Europe and advancing towards the enemy’s homeland.

Wellington set off from Portugal on 22 May 1813 and by the end of the year had advanced 500 miles, crossed the Pyrenees and established his army deep in French territory. The last eighteen months of the war brought both triumphs and disasters for the Regiment, who were represented by the 1st Battalion and also their detachment in the Composite Battalion. Both fought in the overwhelming victory of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, but then suffered severe losses in the costly siege of San Sebastian, where a detachment of one officer and fifty-three men volunteered for the storming party on 21 August and suffered over fifty per cent casualties.

Both Guards Brigades took part in the series of operations in the Pyrenees, including three bold river crossings over the Bidassoa (7 October 1813), the Nivelle (10 November) and the Nive (9 December;) the last encounter becoming the Regiment’s twelfth Battle Honour.

The advance continued in 1814 and 2nd Guards Brigade distinguished itself at the Crossing of the Adour on 23 February 1814, when two Coldstream companies and six from the Third Guards held a precarious bridgehead across the river through the night against constant attacks.

On 5 April 1814 Napoleon abdicated and on the 12th an armistice was signed between Wellington and the French commander, Marshal Soult, at Toulouse. But the war ended on a tragic note, particularly for the Regiment, because of the Sortie from Bayonne. The bulk of the Allied Army began enjoying the end of hostilities, but the 1st and 5th Divisions were still besieging Bayonne, 140 miles to the west, where the French garrison of 14,000 was still holding out under its fanatical commander, General Thouvenot. He had been told of Napoleon’s abdication and the armistice, but refused to believe it and vowed to fight on.

1st and 2nd Guards Brigades both formed part of the besieging force and were positioned to the north of Bayonne. Having been told of the armistice, security seem to have been relaxed. Unfortunately, the French had other ideas and at 0300 on 14 April they launched a powerful sortie northwards from the citadel with 6,000 men.

The attack achieved complete surprise and the brunt of it fell on the two Guards Brigades. There was fierce, confused fighting throughout the night and, although by dawn the sortie had been repulsed, this was not achieved without heavy casualties. The Allies lost 826 men with 231 taken prisoner. Out of this total the Coldstream lost two officers and thirty-two men killed and five officers and 122 men wounded – a tragic end to a highly successful campaign.

The dead from the Guards Brigades were buried by their regiments in military cemeteries on the outskirts of Bayonne, one for the Coldstream and one for the Third Guards, on the sites of their battalion camps in 1814. They still exist today and are thought to be the oldest British Army cemeteries.

So the Peninsular War was over at last and in July 1814 the Coldstreamers in the two Guards Brigades returned home after five years of active service overseas. They had certainly played their part in the final victory, earning six Battle Honours.

But there was one final round yet to be fought against Napoleon at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Operation Gallop (Skachok), 29 January–18 February 1943

Vatutin’s Southwest Front was still recovering from Operation Little Saturn and the advance to the Donets, when the Stavka directed it to begin planning for a follow-on operation to crush Heeresgruppe Don and liberate the Donbas region. Most of Vatutin’s units were at 50 per cent strength or less and his supply lines had not caught up with his forward combat units. Nevertheless, he believed that he still had enough strength to deal von Manstein a decisive defeat. Vatutin’s plan was characteristically bold, using the 6th Army and the 1st Guards Army to smash through a thin screen of German infantry divisions northwest of Voroshilovgrad and then pivot southward to seize a crossing over the Donets. Once these armies had secured a crossing over the Donets, an armoured group led by Popov would be committed to push south to seize Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, thereby cutting off Heeresgruppe Don. It was a vision of mobile warfare influenced by the pre-war concept of Deep Operations (glubokaya operatsiya), which had theorized armoured penetrations of up to 200km. Thus far in the Second World War, Deep Operations had only been attempted once before, during the armoured raids against the Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya airfields in late December 1942, with mixed results.

Mobile Group Popov consisted of the 3rd, 10th and 18th Tank Corps and the 4th Guards Tank Corps, with a total of just 212 tanks. All these units were reduced to one-third of their authorized strength in tanks and manpower; for example, General-major Pavel P. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps started Operation Gallop with just 40 tanks. Vatutin had transferred much of the assets of the 5th Tank Army into this ad hoc group, leaving the ‘tank army’ with just three rifle divisions and no tanks. This reconfiguration of his remaining armour was done in large part in an effort to deceive von Manstein about his intentions, since the rump 5 TA remained in place opposite Gruppe Hollidt on the lower Donets. However, the mobile group was an ad hoc formation that lacked the support units to conduct a protracted mobile operation. Vatutin expected Mobile Group Popov to traverse 270km in one lunge, whereas full-strength Soviet armour units in Operation Uranus and Little Saturn had only been able to advance 100–120km in one lunge, which corresponded with how far a T-34 could be expected to go cross-country on one load of fuel. Nor was the lacklustre Popov the man to lead a daring armoured advance deep behind German lines, and he had demonstrated an inability to defeat Gruppe Hollidt when he had far stronger resources.

Yet beyond the understrength units and questionable leadership, the greatest threat to the viability of Operation Gallop was the woeful state of the Southwest Front’s logistical support, which was still dependent upon railheads on the far side of the Don. Simply put, the Red Army at this point still lacked the support infrastructure to sustain mechanized Deep Operations. Vatutin’s front was extremely short of trucks and thus he had been unable to build up any forward logistic depots to support the offensive. Even with the trucks available, they had great difficulty moving on roads that were often covered with a metre of snow. There were limited numbers of ZIS-42 halftracks based upon the ZIS-5 truck, but their lack of front-wheel drive severely reduced their mobility in snow or mud. Nor could the VVS help much with transport aircraft – in stark contrast to the Luftwaffe’s Ju-52 transports that routinely provided aerial resupply – since the 17 VA supporting the Southwest Front had only a single transport regiment with 20 Li-2 transports (based upon the American-built DC-3). Furthermore, the VVS preferred to use its Li-2s as night bombers instead of bringing up fuel for tank units at the front. Thus, when Popov’s armour drove off into the white snowy wilderness beyond the Donets, they would essentially be out of supply for an extended period.

Nevertheless, Vatutin believed that Operation Gallop, with the Voronezh Front’s Operation Star occurring on its northern flank, would carry the day despite a host of problems. Indeed, Soviet operational planning was driven by post-Stalingrad hubris and an almost French-style attitude that they would muddle through somehow. In the process, any potential German responses were ignored. This style of planning, which omits terrain, weather, logistics and the enemy, begs for disaster.

On the morning of 29 January, General-leytenant Fedor M. Kharitonov’s 6th Army attacked on Vatutin’s right flank with four rifle divisions while General-major Vasiliy I. Kuznetsov’s 1st Guards Army (1 GA) attacked on the left flank with three rifle divisions. In this sector that was over 100km wide, von Manstein had Armee-Abteilung Lanz with the 298. and 320.Infanterie-Divisionen and the 19.Panzer-Division, which only had a small number of operational tanks. The Germans were hopelessly outnumbered in this sector and they elected to conduct a fighting withdrawal which upset Vatutin’s timetable. Vatutin relied on his rifle divisions to conduct the pursuit, enabling his armour to enjoy a few more days of rest, and committed only the 4th Guards Tank Corps to assist the infantry. Although mauled, both German infantry divisions eventually succeeded in retreating across the Donets at Izyum and Zmiyev. The 19.Panzer-Division pulled into a hedgehog north of the Middle Donets at Kremennaya and put up stiff resistance for two days before pulling back across the river. Consequently, the 4th Guards Rifle Corps (4 GRC) of Kuznetsov’s 1GA did not begin crossing the Donets until 1 February. The 6th Guards Rifle Corps, with the 18th Tank Corps in support, crossed the Donets further east near Lysychansk and mounted a fixing attack against the 19.Panzer-Division. Meanwhile, Kharitonov’s 6th Army slowly moved westward against light resistance, but did not capture Izyum until 5 February and did not reach Zmiyev until 10 February.

Ominously, the first elements of the SS-Panzerkorps were already beginning to arrive in the vicinity of Kharkov just as Operations Gallop and Star were commencing and had been detected on the Northern Donets by Soviet scouts. Yet more immediately serious was von Manstein’s successful effort to transfer the bulk of the 1.Panzerarmee from the Rostov area on his right flank to Slavyansk on his left flank, a move he described in chess terms as ‘castling’. Von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division, with 35 tanks, was the first to arrive at Slavyansk, just as the 4GRC was crossing the Donets to the northwest. Generalleutnant Hermann Breith’s III. Panzerkorps headquarters also established itself in Artemovsk and selected positions for the 3. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen, which were still enroute. Vatutin waited until Kuznetsov’s infantry had moved three rifle divisions across the Middle Donets and established viable bridgeheads before committing Popov’s armour. Poluboyarov’s 4th Guards Tank Corps (4GTC), with 37 tanks, was the first across on 1 February and while 4GRC went to secure Slavyansk, 4GTC brushed past the city and went on to occupy Kramatorsk. However, by the time that the vanguard of 4GRC arrived outside Slavyansk, Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 7 was firmly established in the town, along with artillery.

Kuznetsov elected to mount a set-piece attack on the German defence in Slavyansk on the morning of 2 February, but only had the 195th Rifle Division nearby. Not only were the initial attacks by this division repelled by von Funck’s Panzergrenadiers, but the 7.Panzer-Division mounted a counter-attack with tanks on 3 February that threw the Soviet infantrymen out of the city suburbs. Kuznetsov thought he could pry the 7.Panzer-Division out of Slavyansk with a little extra firepower, so he requested Popov to bring up the 3rd Tank Corps while 1GA brought up the 57th Guards Rifle Division. Poluboyarov’s 4GTC formed a defensive hedgehog at Kramatorsk, but took no active role. By 5 February, von Funck’s 7.Panzer-Division was nearly encircled in Slavyansk and it looked grim for Heeresgruppe Don, since there was now a huge gap between Armee-Abteilung Lanz and Breith’s III. Panzerkorps. There was literally nothing to block the 6th Army or Popov’s armour from pushing west and south to sever von Manstein’s lines of communication. However, like the Chateau de Hougoumont at Waterloo in 1815, capturing Slavyansk became an object in itself and Vatutin, Kuznetsov and Popov lost sight of the real objective at a critical moment. Rather than simply bypassing Slavyansk, Vatutin decided to commit the bulk of Popov’s armour to reducing the German hedgehog in the city.

Popov was able to attack the 7.Panzer-Division’s hedgehog with three of his tank corps, along with the infantry of 4GRC, from three different directions and almost completely encircle the division, but the city did not fall and fighting went on for more than a week. Given the fact that Breith had relatively few tanks and only modest amounts of infantry and artillery, the stand at Slavyansk against the bulk of 1GA and Popov’s armour seems improbable. The answer lies in logistics – Vatutin’s frontline units were running out of fuel and ammunition and could not afford a protracted battle. German logistics were somewhat better, since Breith’s panzers were operating close to friendly rail lines. Furthermore, Breith was able to bring up the 3.Panzer-Division to the east of Slavyansk, which engaged the 10th Tank Corps from 3–11 February. The 11.Panzer-Division, with 16 tanks, was brought up from Rostov and sent against the 4GTC at Kramatorsk but was badly ambushed, losing 10 SPWs and many anti-tank guns. Popov sent the 3rd Tank Corps to Kramatorsk to reinforce Poluboyarov, which temporarily halted the German counter-attack. Once the Germans brought up the 333.Infanterie-Division and some artillery, the two Soviet tank corps began to suffer heavy losses. Unsupported tank units tend to perform poorly in an extended defence, particularly in an urban environment. By this point in Operation Gallop, Popov’s armour was not being used as an exploitation force for Deep Operations, nor was it massed against a single objective. Instead, Popov’s four tank corps were dispersed between Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and Lysychansk and half his armour had actually shifted to the defence.

In contrast, the German Panzer-Divisionen were depleted but well-coordinated. Many of the German Pz III, Pz IV tanks and StuG III assault guns involved in the counter-attack mounted winterketten (winter tracked extenders), which improved their mobility in snow. By the second winter of the War in the East, German tankers were somewhat better adapted to winter operations, compared to the first winter in which virtually all of their tanks became non-operational. Freezing cold weather still caused problems, particularly with routine maintenance; grease turned nearly solid at temperatures hovering near or below 0 degrees F and road wheels or support rollers without proper lubrication quickly burned out. Although operational readiness rates were poor during the winter battles, by early 1943 the Panzer-Divisionen had learned to keep a portion of their armour running even under the worst weather conditions. Indeed, the ability of the German Panzer-Divisionen to adapt and operate in winter weather conditions in 1943 enabled von Manstein’s mechanized units to slowly regain the initiative. Furthermore, the combined arms nature of the Panzer-Divisionen – in contrast to Soviet tank units – enabled them to substitute mobile Flak guns, Panzerjägers and Pioniers to make up for the shortage of tanks.

Amazingly, the biggest Soviet success in Operation Gallop was achieved by infantry, not tanks. While Popov’s armour and 1GA were tangled up trying to overcome III Panzerkorps’ defence, a handful of rifle divisions from 4GRC marched southwest toward the Dnepr. On 11 February, the 35th Guard Rifle Division captured the important rail junction at Lozovaya. The way to the Dnepr River was open. The 6th Army also had infantry near Zmiyev within 35km of Kharkov. Suddenly, Vatutin realized that a decisive victory was possible and that he needed to extract Popov’s armour from the useless slugfests at Kramatorsk-Slavyansk. He ordered Kuznetsov to shift his axis of attack westward, bypassing Slavyansk for now. Bypassing enemy armour units can be perilous since its leaves a mobile threat on one’s flanks, but Vatutin was buoyed by the Stavka’s overly-optimistic assessment that Heeresgruppe Don was withdrawing westward and the desperate stand at Slavyansk was merely a rearguard action.

For their part, 1.Panzerarmee believed that Group Popov could not get around their open left flank south of Kramatorsk because of the numerous Balkas (ravines) filled with deep snow; the Germans regarded this area as impossible for their tanks. However, the Soviet tankers did not share this view. Late on the night of 10–11 February, Poluboyarov pulled his 4GTC out of Kramatorsk, bypassed the 11.Panzer-Division’s left flank and boldly conducted an 85km night march through the bleak and snowy wasteland. At 0900 hours the next morning, his tanks seized the rail junction at Krasnoarmeyskoye and cut Heeresgruppe Don’s primary line of communication. Although there was a secondary route to the south through the Zaporozhe to Mariupol line, the loss of Krasnoarmeyskoye was a serious threat to von Manstein’s forces because it immediately delayed the timely arrival of fuel and ammunition. In order to reinforce success, Vatutin sent Poluboyarov the 9th Guards Tank Brigade and ski troops and told him to hang on, employing 4GTC as a blocking force. Von Manstein reacted at once, ordering the III and XXXX Panzerkorps to launch immediate counter-attacks to defeat Popov’s enveloping manoeuvre. The SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking, fresh from the Caucasus, was sent to destroy 4GTC, while the 7. and 11.Panzer-Divisionen went after the 10th Tank Corps, still near Slavyansk. Initially, the German attacks achieved little, due to the difficulty of manoeuvreing through deep snow and inadequate support. Poluboyarov had deployed anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns firing in direct fire mode to slow the German advance. On 12 February, one Kampfgruppe from Wiking fought its way into Krasnoarmeyskoye, but the action devolved into a week-long battle of attrition, rather than one of rapid manoeuvre. On 15 February, Gruppe Hollidt was finally forced to abandon Voroshilovgrad as part of the retreat to the Mius River and Slavyansk was ceded two days later, but the German defence along the Donets had wrecked Vatutin’s timetable for Gallop.

On 17 February, the stalwart 35th Guards Rifle Division captured the town of Pavlograd, only 55km from the Dnepr River. Shortly afterwards, Vatutin committed his last front reserves – General-major Petr P. Pavlov’s 25th Tank Corps and the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps – to reinforce the 6th Army’s push to the Dnepr. By 18 February, Pavlov’s tankers captured Sinel’nikovo, just 32km from the Dnepr. Apparently on the verge of a major victory, Vatutin did not realize that his offensive had already culminated and that the Germans were gaining the advantage. Popov’s four tank corps were all virtually immobilized, very low on fuel, food and ammunition, and no longer capable of offensive action.

As a tanker, running out of fuel is a traumatic event. I recall when winter weather played havoc with my battalion’s fuel supply and our tank company was forced to make an extended march without much fuel remaining. One after another, tanks began running out of fuel and we had to abandon them and their crews; I remember tossing a box of rations to my sergeant as we passed his immobilized tank, telling him to keep his men warm and that we would come back for them in a few days. Once the column was gone, his tankers chopped down small trees and made a fire, spending the next three days huddled under blankets near the fire. Their tank was frozen and silent inside and, later, proved most difficult to start again even when refuelled. The main gun breach was covered in frost and, had a round been placed in it, it would have become stuck. I imagine that Popov’s immobilized tankers did much the same, trying to stay warm and waiting for resupply, but in just a few days of this cold and hungry misery, their ability to fight must have been severely degraded.

Operation Star (Zvezda), 1–16 February 1943

In late January, the Stavka began directing Golikov’s Voronezh Front to prepare for a follow-on offensive toward Kharkov as soon as it was across the Oskol River in force. Golikov’s forces were depleted after weeks of heavy combat, but he still had Rybalko’s relatively intact 3rd Tank Army (3TA), which the Stavka wanted to use to secure an important objective before the spring mud arrived. Marshal Zhukov inserted himself into the planning process for the offensive designated as Operation Star (Zvezda) and unilaterally decided that Golikov’s Front had the ability to capture Kursk and Belgorod as well. Consequently, rather than a focused offensive to seize Kharkov, from the outset the Stavka-dictated plan for Operation Star forced Golikov to disperse his forces against multiple objectives on diverging axes. Rybalko’s 3TA and General-leytenant Mikhail I. Kazakov’s 69th Army were expected to advance 200–250km and encircle Kharkov within five days – a very tall order. As with Vatutin’s Operation Gallop, Golikov’s supply situation at the start of the offensive was poor, his units were tired and well under strength and there were no significant reserves immediately available.

Opposing Golikov, Heeresgruppe B had managed to erect a thin screen line along the west side of the Oskol River, to cover the gap left by the destruction of the Hungarian 2nd Army. Armee-Abteilung Lanz blocked the southeastern approaches to Kharkov with two infantry divisions and had fortified Kupyansk. Generalkommando z.b.V. Cramer, another ad hoc formation, had received the Großdeutschland Division to protect the northern approaches to Kharkov and had deployed the 168.Infanterie-Division to protect Belgorod. After heavy fighting at Rzhev, the Großdeutschland Division was worn down, but this elite formation still had an under-strength Panzer-Abteilung with 14 operational tanks on 11 February (including three Pz III and six Pz IV) as well as a few assault guns. In the north, the battered 2.Armee protected the approaches to Kursk from the rest of Golikov’s armies. However, Heeresgruppe B did not have a continuous front east of Kharkov and significant gaps existed between blocking positions. The German covering forces were extremely weak and incapable of sustained defence; if faced with Soviet armour, the best that they could hope to achieve was delay.

Just before Operation Star began, the first elements of General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps arrived in Kharkov from the west. This powerful formation consisted of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Divisionen Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Das Reich and Totenkopf. Except for Totenkopf, which had to be rebuilt after its protracted blood-letting at Demyansk, the other two Waffen-SS Divisionen had spent the bulk of 1942 in France and were well-rested and nearly fully re-equipped with the best weaponry Germany had to offer. Altogether, the SS-Panzerkorps had over 50,000 troops in its ranks, as well as six SS-Panzer-Abteilungen with 317 tanks (including 28 Tiger, 95 Pz IV Ausf G, 162 Pz III Ausf L, 10 Pz III Ausf J and 22 Pz II Ausf F), three Sturmgeschütz-Abteilungen with 63 StuG III Ausf F/8 assault guns and three Panzerjäger-Abteilungen with 45 Marder II/III tank destroyers. In addition, each division was provided with 7.5cm Pak 40 and 8.8cm Flak guns which significantly improved their anti-tank capabilities. However, this large formation with hundreds of AFVs took almost two weeks to arrive by rail and would require time to assemble. Hitler was adamant that the SS-Panzerkorps would not be committed into battle piecemeal and ordered that it would remain under OKH control until ready for battle. Nevertheless, von Weichs was able to make a case that some of the earliest arriving Waffen SS units would need to screen the assembly area in Kharkov since there were no other Heeresgruppe B combat units in the area that could accomplish this task. Once the OKH conceded on this point, Heeresgruppe B liberally interpreted this to dispatch the Das Reich’s SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland and a reinforced reconnaissance battalion (SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Das Reich) as a covering force forward of the Donets near Velikiy Burluk, while the rest of the SS-Panzerkorps assembled in Kharkov. By the afternoon of 31 January, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland had two battalions screening far to the east of the Donets.

Rybalko kicked off Operation Star on 1 February by moving his 3TA across the Oskol River. He started the offensive with 165 tanks in his 12th and 15th Tank Corps, but used his four attached rifle divisions and General-major Sergei V. Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC) on 2 February to push back the German blocking detachments, rather than committing his armour too soon. Rybalko also wisely decided to bypass the German Stützpunkt at Kupyansk and make straight for the Donets River at Pechenegi, where he intended to cross. Kazakov’s infantry advance on Rybalko’s right flank, while the 6th Army from the Southwest Front covered his left flank. Outflanked by Rybalko’s 3TA, the German 298.Infanterie-Division was forced to abandon Kupyansk – demonstrating once again that it is best for armour to bypass enemy strongpoints rather than hit them head-on. The infantry division was forced to abandon much of its artillery in the retreat and fell back in columns toward the Donets, hounded by Rybalko’s tanks. However, Rybalko’s advance units quickly noted the presence of the Das Reich blocking units, which led him to believe that the SS-Panzerkorps could arrive in force to defend the Donets crossings at any moment. Based upon this assessment, Rybalko decided to commit both his tank corps into battle ahead of schedule on 3 February in order to accelerate the advance to the Donets. While Rybalko’s two tank corps made good progress toward the Donets, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Deutschland at Velikiy Burluk put up very stiff resistance, which halted some of Rybalko’s infantry and forced him to divert a brigade from General-major Vasiliy A. Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps to deal with his unexpected obstacle. Although the Waffen-SS troops eventually ceded the town of Velikiy Burluk, they maintained a salient that interfered with the advance of both Rybalko’s 3TA and Kazakov’s 69th Army. The Großdeutschland Division also put up very stiff resistance, which delayed Kazakov’s 69th Army for several critical days.

Nevertheless, the rest of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps reached Pechenegi on 4 February and was shocked to find that elements of the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) were already defending the heights on the far side of the Northern Donets. The LSSAH detachments were small, but included SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion, some Panzerjägers and a few assault guns. The Germans emplaced a few 8.8cm Flak guns on the heights and they were able to engage Koptsov’s tanks at distances up to 6,000 meters and succeeded in setting nine tanks on fire. Afterward, Koptsov kept his tanks under cover in Balkas (ravines) and sent his infantry forward.

Rybalko’s attached infantry units made three separate attempts on 4–6 February to cross the river, which was less than 50 metres wide at this spot, but each attempt was repulsed by intense German fire. Nor were Waffen-SS junior leaders like Meyer content to fight a static defensive battle, and instead he crossed the Donets and ambushed a Soviet column, inflicting an estimated 250 casualties before returning to the German-held side of the river. Similarly, the Das Reich also opted for an active defence. Once the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and the I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2 arrived at the front, they were committed to a major counter-attack into the right flank of Rybalko’s 3TA on the morning of 5 February. The Luftwaffe even managed to provide a few Stuka sorties to support the attack. Just after dawn, a Kampfgruppe from Der Führer and at least two companies of tanks attacked southward into the Soviet 48th Guards Rifle Division near Velikiy Burluk and caught it by surprise, advancing 10km. Rybalko was forced to detach the 179th Tank Brigade to deal with this enemy action, which distracted him from crossing the Donets. A second SS-Kampfgruppe, supported by 2./SS-Panzer-Regiment 2, pushed eastward toward the village of Olkhovatka. Rottenführer Ernst Barkmann, commanding a Pz III tank, was involved in the attack. Here, the Das Reich’s lack of recent mechanized combat experience was evident in the lack of reconnaissance prior to contact with the enemy. The overconfident SS-tankers rolled toward the town in a frontal assault, straight into a well-prepared anti-tank defence that shot them to pieces; about 13–14 tanks were knocked out. Barkmann’s Pz III was one of three that made it into the village and they encountered close-quarter combat:

At full speed the Panzer raced toward the village. ‘Watch out! Molotov Cocktails! Bottles filled with gasoline burst on the nose of the Panzer. Burning gasoline ran downward…Then the commander saw the flash from a muzzle and recognized a Pak behind a house corner. Opposite, the enemy Pak commander spotted the Panzer, which had closed in to about 30 meters. He brought the Pak around to destroy it. Barkmann saw the blank ring of the muzzle swing toward him. They were still some ten meters apart. ‘Run over the Pak!’ The engine howled. At the moment when the Panzer rammed the gun and pushed its barrel down, the shot roared. Two seconds too late! The shell hit the ground below the Panzer without effect.

After securing the village, Barkmann’s Panzer was sent back to the assembly area to escort recovery vehicles to come and retrieve the damaged tanks, but was not able to return until after sunset. Driving back in the dark, through deep snow and with limited visibility, Barkmann’s Panzer became stuck in a drift. By the time that two FAMO recovery tracks found Barkmann’s tank at sunrise, Soviet infantrymen were closing in on his position and a 76.2mm anti-tank had been brought up to engage the immobilized tank. The Soviet anti-tank gunners were quite good, first destroying one FAMO and then shooting up Barkmann’s tank; he managed to escape on foot.

Frustrated by his inability to just push across the Northern Donets, on 7 February Rybalko sent Sokolov’s 6th Guards Cavalry Corps (6GCC), reinforced with the 201st Tank Brigade, to cross the Donets River further down at Andreyevka where the 6th Army had already secured a bridgehead and to sweep around to the south to cut the main German rail line heading into Kharkov. However, this cavalry raid was spotted and the Germans dispatched a Kampfgruppe from Das Reich that drove it off. Rybalko’s 3TA was effectively blocked and his timetable for taking Kharkov ruined. Instead, Rybalko began preparing for a deliberate assault crossing of the Donets and had to hope that Golikov’s other armies were doing better in their sectors. To the north, Kazakov’s 69th Army was slowly pushing back the Großdeutschland Division, but it was Moskalenko’s 40th Army, bearing down on Belgorod, that provided the means to unhinge the German defence on the Northern Donets. Although Moskalenko did not have a lot of tanks, he used them well, forming small mobile strike groups based upon the 116th and 192nd Tank Brigades. Korps z.b.V. Cramer only had the 168.Infanterie-Division defending Belgorod, which was easily bypassed by Moskalenko’s armour. Alarmed by the sudden appearance of Soviet armour near Belgorod, Cramer directed Großdeutschland to send its reconnaissance battalion and two motorized infantry battalions, along with five Pz IV tanks and two StuG IIIs, to reinforce the Belgorod sector, but it was too late. During the night of 7–8 February, Moskalenko’s troops fought their way into Belgorod, which threatened to envelop the entire German front north of Kharkov.

Combined with the loss of Belgorod, Kazakov’s 69th Army continued to push against Großdeutschland and Das Reich. On 8 February, Das Reich made another attack against Soviet forces near Velikiy Burluk, but once again failed to conduct adequate pre-battle reconnaissance and eight tanks were destroyed by anti-tank gun fire. For the first time, the Das Reich committed a few of its newly-arrived Tiger tanks, but the company commander SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Grader was killed in the opening action. After this, both Großdeutschland and Das Reich were obliged to withdraw across the Donets on 9 February.

By 10 February, the Großdeutschland was protecting the northern approaches to Kharkov, while Das Reich and LSSAH were defending the eastern approaches to the city. Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was still incomplete, since Totenkopf had not yet arrived. On the night of 9–10 February, Rybalko’s 3TA began its deliberate crossing of the Donets with infantry seizing small bridgeheads. On the morning of 10 February, elements of Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps crossed and seized Pechenegi while General-major Mitrofan I. Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps did the same at Chuguyev. German resistance at the river’s edge was light, since the bulk of LSSAH had pulled back into a tighter perimeter closer to the city. The original concept for Operation Star was that Rybalko’s 3TA would envelop Kharkov by manoeuvre, rather than attempting to storm into the city with a frontal assault, but this was now abandoned. On 11 February, Rybalko’s two tank corps, supported by four rifle divisions, began attacking westward straight toward the city. Slow, grinding progress was achieved, but Rybalko’s tanks were being regularly picked off by Panzerjägers and StuG IIIs – this was not how a tank army was supposed to be employed. The Das Reich had established a strong defensive position at Rogan, east of the city, which could not easily be stormed without significant artillery preparation, but Rybalko’s tankers only had limited air and artillery support.

Meanwhile, Sokolov’s 6GCC continued to try and sweep around to the south of Kharkov and Hausser decided to conduct a major counter-attack to remove this threat to his line of communications. A covering force known as the Deckungsgruppe was left to hold off Rybalko, while an assault formation known as Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was assembled under the LSSAH’s commander SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich consisting of three subordinate Kampfgruppen. Kampfgruppe Meyer had the LSSAH’s reconnaissance battalion, Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Kumm consisted of two battalions from the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Der Führer and two companies from II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1; Kampfgruppe Witt consisted of one infantry battalion from LSSAH, plus engineers, the Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung and artillery. In addition, LSSAH committed five of its Tigers to the operation. This was a very large force, including half of Hausser’s available armour and a good portion of his infantry and artillery, leaving the defence of Kharkov short-handed. However, Hausser figured that he would be able to crush Sokolov in a couple of days and then return his forces to defend Kharkov before Rybalko could overcome the blocking position at Rogan. In order to achieve decisive results in warfare one has to accept risk, but that decision has to be based upon sober analysis, which in this case was lacking. The Germans did not have a lot of respect for Soviet cavalry, which heretofore had not been equipped with heavy weapons. However, Sokolov’s 6GCC was quite well equipped, since Rybalko had dispatched it to serve as a mobile group and in addition to its three cavalry divisions, had Polkovnik Ivan T. Afinogenovich’s 201st Tank Brigade (equipped with 25–30 Matilda and Valentine tanks), a multiple rocket launcher battalion, an anti-tank regiment with 76.2mm ZiS-3 guns and an anti-tank battalion with 45mm guns.

At 0800 hours on 11 February, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich began its attack southward against Sokolov’s 6GCC from assembly areas near the rail station at Merefa. The German plan was ambitious, anticipating Kampfgruppe Meyer and Kampfgruppe Witt to conduct enveloping manoeuvres against Sokolov’s east and west flanks, while Kampfgruppe Kumm went up the middle. Straight up, the Waffen-SS found that off-road manoeuvre was practically impossible due to snow that was up to two metres deep; tanks that attempted to move through it would ‘belly out’ with snow compacted against their hull and tracks to the point that they just skidded in place. The Tigers proved particularly useless and one caught fire near Merefa and had to be abandoned. Consequently, the German attackers were road-bound and despite the support of some Ju-87 Stukas from StG 77, they could not conduct proper manoeuvre warfare. In the centre, Sturmbannführer Martin Groß led his II./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 in an ill-advised frontal assault into the town of Birky, which was well-defended by anti-tank guns and the German Panzer attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Aside from this setback, the two German flanking movements went much slower than expected due to the snow and the lead elements were quickly running out of fuel. By the end of the second day of the counter-attack, the German pincers had still not closed around Sokolov and many of the villages were skillfully defended by Soviet rearguards which inflicted painful losses. Furthermore, the Soviet cavalry was not road-bound in the snow and easily slipped away from the slow-moving Panzer columns. Sokolov was soon alerted to the German pincer attack but, rather than withdraw, he fortified several towns included Okhoche, 50km south of Kharkov; he realized that the longer he could tie up the SS armour in these side-show actions would benefit Moskalenko’s and Rybalko’s assaults upon Kharkov.

On 14 February, the jaws of Angriffsgruppe Dietrich finally closed around the 6GCC at Okhoche. Wünsche’s I./SS-Pz. Rgt. 1 and a battalion of SS-Panzergrenadiers confidently attacked the village across an open field – again without proper reconnaissance – and ran into a hailstorm of tank, anti-tank and mortar fire. One infantry company was virtually annihilated and Wünsche lost a number of his tankers before falling back. Sokolov had skillfully deployed his anti-tank guns and concealed about 25 of Afinogenovich’s tanks inside or next to buildings. After skirmishing with the Germans for the rest of the day, Sokolov ordered his forces to withdraw southward to avoid encirclement. Later, the Germans found five abandoned tanks in Okhoche (probably Matildas), but the rest of the Soviet armour had escaped with Sokolov’s cavalry. At 1730 hours, Angriffsgruppe Dietrich received orders that it was to suspend its attack due to the deteriorating situation in Kharkov and return to Merefa. Although Sokolov’s 6GCC had suffered significant losses, it had not been encircle or destroyed and the diversion of so much of Hausser’s resources to this effort weakened the defence of Kharkov just as Moskalenko’s 40th Army was enveloping Kharkov from the northwest.

While Angriffsgruppe Dietrich was pushing southward away from Kharkov, Moskalenko’s 40th Army ran roughshod over Armee-Lanz and kept forcing Großdeutschland to pull back to protect its open flanks. By 12 February, Moskalenko was sweeping down behind Kharkov with four rifle divisions and it accelerated when he committed General-major Andrei G. Kravchenko’s 5th Guards Tank Corps into the battle. Supported by a fresh infantry unit, the 25th Guards Rifle Division, Kravchenko’s tanks smashed through Lanz’s blocking detachments, cleaved Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus in two and reached the northern outskirts of Kharkov by the evening of 13 February. Furthermore, the Deckungsgruppe left to keep Rybalko out of eastern Kharkov was attacked repeatedly and forced to yield the blocking position at Rogan on 12 February. The Soviet pincers were closing and only a narrow line of communications for the German units in Kharkov remained to the southwest. Suddenly, Hausser’s SS-Panzerkorps was in serious trouble.

Moskalenko followed up Kravchenko’s bold advance by pushing infantry units into the northern part of Kharkov on 14 February. On the same day, Hitler gave von Manstein command over both the SS-Panzerkorps and Armee-Abteilung Lanz. The first elements of the Totenkopf Division were just arriving in Kharkov as Kravchenko’s tankers moved into the northern suburbs, but the division’s tanks and heavy weapons were still en route. Von Manstein directed Totenkopf to assemble in Poltava, west of Kharkov, since he recognized that the unit could not immediately contribute much to the defence of the city.

Hitler ordered that Kharkov was to be held at all costs, but Hausser did not see it that way. Both of his divisions were fixed in place holding off Rybalko’s constantly attacking 3TA and Großdeutschland was fending off the 69th Army’s attacks, but there were no significant reserves left to stop Moskalenko’s advance into the city. As the Soviets began to threaten to cut the German lines of communication into the city, by evening of 14 February Hausser requested permission to evacuate the city. Both von Manstein and Lanz refused this request. However, Hausser had no intention of dying in place and at 1645 hours he ordered his two divisions and the Großdeutschland to begin evacuating the city. At 1800 hours von Manstein ordered Hausser to stop the withdrawal, but Hausser refused to comply. Throughout 15 February the SS units disengaged his units and conducted a tactical withdrawal through the city and to the southwest through Merefa. Soviet artillery bombarded the city, but otherwise the Soviets did not make a major effort to interfere with the evacuation. The final rearguard consisted of Major Otto-Ernst Remer’s I./Grenadier-Regiment Großdeutschland (equipped with SPWs) and Hauptmann Peter Frantz’s Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung Großdeutschland. On 16 February, Rybalko’s tankers met up with Kravchenko’s tankers in the centre of the city, completing the liberation of Kharkov.

For a few days, Golikov’s forces were tied up in the congested streets of Kharkov, but on the morning of 18 February Rybalko sent Koptsov’s 15th Tank Corps probing to the west and encountered Großdeutschland’s blocking positions. About 20 Soviet tanks, including T-34s, overran two German infantry companies, then knocked out two German tanks. At the same time, Zinkovich’s 12th Tank Corps attacked the 320.Infanterie-Division at Merefa and captured the town. Generalkommando z.b.V. Raus, which controlled these two divisions, was strained on 19–20 February to prevent Rybalko from attacking into the rear of the SS-Panzerkorps, which had pivoted to the southeast and was assembling for a counter-attack. Hausser was forced to detach both the SS-Schützen-Regiment Thule and the SS-Totenkopf-Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung to reinforce Raus’s faltering command. Nevertheless, Rybalko attacked again on 19 February and forced Großdeutschland and the SS-Regiment Thule to retreat.

SMK – SERGIUS MIRONOVICH KIROW

The first indigenous Soviet medium tank design, the T-28, incorporated multiple turrets and was intended for an independent breakthrough role. Inspired by the Vickers A6 (its suspension was a clear copy) and German Grosstraktor designs, it grew out of the 1932 Red Army mechanization plan and was first produced by the Leningrad Kirov Plant. Intended for an attack role, the T-28 had a central main gun turret and two machine-gun turrets in front and to either side. The T-28 weighed 28,560 pounds, had a six-man crew, and was powered by a 500-hp engine and had a road speed of 23 mph. It had only 30mm maximum armor protection. The prototype mounted a 45mm gun, but production vehicles had a 76.2mm low-velocity main gun and two machine guns. Combat experience with the T-28 led to changes. Armor was increased on the C version to 80mm for the hull front and turret. Some T-28s substituted a low-velocity 45mm gun in the right front turret for the machine gun normally carried there. The T-28 had a poor combat record, however.

The Soviets also came up with a number of heavy tanks. Indeed, from the early 1930s Soviet heavy tank design was dominated by multiturret “land battleships,” many of which saw service in the 1939–1940 Winter War with Finland and even into the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. Among these was the T-35 heavy tank with five turrets. Weighing some 110,200 pounds, the T- 35 had a crew of 11 and was powered by a 500-hp engine that gave it a speed of nearly 19 mph. It had only maximum 30mm armor protection, however. The T-35 mounted a 76mm gun, two 45mm guns, and six machine guns.

The Soviet experimental SMK (Sergius Mironovitch Kirov) heavy tank (with two turrets, one superimposed), which never went into production, was even larger. Weighing 58 tons, it had a 500-hp engine, a crew of seven, and 60mm armor, double that of the T-35. It was capable of 15 mph. Armament consisted of a 76mm gun, a 45mm gun, and three machine guns. Although these huge machines proved no match for the more nimble German tanks and artillery in 1941, the turrets, guns, and suspension systems developed for them did find their way into the KV series of heavy tanks.

In the mid 1930’s the multi-turreted T-35 heavy tank entered service with the RKKA (Red Army). It was developed in the Design Bureau (later Zavod #185) of the Leningrad’s “Bolshevik” plant in 1932. In 1933, all blueprints was transferred to the Kharkov Locomotive Works (ChPZ) named after Komintern and the improved T-35A was manufactured here.The T-35 was to be manufactured until an even more powerful super-heavy tank was developed. A super-heavy T-39 tank was designed in 1932-34, but none of them was approved. In July 1932, a government decision was taken that recommended the designers at ChPZ to design a new variant of a T-35 with improved (uparmored, upgunned) hull and turrets. Because of a delay at ChPZ, designers from Leningrad’s Kirow Plant (LKZ) and Zavod #185 were called in to design own variants. A team at Zavod #185 led by N. Barykov designed a T-100 (Izdieliyc 100). The Leningrad’s Locomotive Works (LKZ) team was led by Colonel Z. Kotin , and it developed the SMK heavy tank. It was a three-turret tank with a 76.2mm gun fitted in the main turret and two 45mm guns in the smaller turrets. Maximum armor protection was 60mm and it was to protect the machine from 76mm gun projectiles. Several T-35 components were used, and completion of the first prototype was scheduled for May 1st 1939. A 1:1 scale wooden mock-up of the SMK was presented to a special commission on October 11th 1938, and on December 9th 1938, the first finished prototype was demonstrated at the Kremlin. Stalin reportedly personally   removed one of the smaller turrets and recommended an increase in armor thickness. Since January 1939 construction of the first double-turreted SMK prototype began. On 30th April 1939, a nearly finished prototype rolled out from the assembly building for the first time. The prototype was sent to Kubinka Proving Grounds on 25th of July, and trials began in the night of July 31st and 1st of August. On the 20th of September that SMK prototype was presented to representatives of the Communist Party, Defence Commisariat and other industry agents.

In December 1939 it was decided to send the SMK to continue its trials under real combat conditions. The crew partially consisted of LKZ workers and partially of army tankists, the SMK under command of Senior Lieutenant N. Pietin was sent by rail to Karelian Pass. Here, the SMK linked up with experimental tanks T-100 and KW, and joined the special super heavy tank company under command of Captain I.L Lolotushkin of the 91st Tank Battalion in the 20th Armored Brigade. The tank saw combat for the first time on December 17th 1939 in the area of Hottinen. On 19th of December it took part in an attack on Finnish fortifications near Summa and was immobilized and the crew was evacuated by the T-100 heavy tank.

The SMK remained in this position for more than two and a half months. The Finns made several attempts to tow away this unknown tank, however they didn’t possess any equipment powerful enough for its purpose and in addition Soviet artillery was shelling the area heavily to prevent access to the abandoned SMK. Many stories about the Finnish attempts to examine the SMK in detail were later reported in the USSR (for example that on a mysterious disappearance of the driver’s hatch), but no stories have been found in Finland. German intelligence quickly found out the appearance of this new “100 ton tank”, but it was pretty overlooked. In German tank recognition directorates the SMK tank were named

PzKpfw. Mark T-35C 752(r). In February 1940 Soviets gained access to the SMK, and on February 26th the SMK was inspected by a representative of the ABTU (Armored Forces Directorate) who found a damaged bottom and a lack of external equipment. In March 1940, six (!) T-28 tanks connected to each other could tow the SMK to the Perkijärvi rail station. The SMK were here stripped and were sent back to LKZ by rail. After this, ideas were abandoned to construct super-heavy tanks, and such was the end of one of the “Leningrad-monsters”.

Specifications:

  1. Crew: 7
  2. Weight: 55.000kg
  3. Speed: 35km/h
  4. Range: 225km
  5. Length: 8.75m
  6. Width: 3.36m
  7. Height: 3.35m
  8. Ground clearance: 50cm
  9. Range: Road – 220km, Terrain – 160km
  10. Armament: 1 x 76.2mm L-11 Model 1939, 1 x 45mm Model 1932 L/46 gun, 4 x 7.62mm DT,
  11. Gun depression/elevation: -7 +35
  12. Ammunition: 150 x 76.2mm shells, 300 x 45mm shells, 3.969 DT rounds
  13. Vision & sight device: 2 x POP device, PT-1 vision devices, vision slits
  14. Armor: 20mm – 60mm
  15. Engine: V-12 cylinder GAM-34BT petrol engine, 850hp
  16. Fuel capacity: +1200 liter
  17. Fuel consumption: 600 liter / 100km
  18. Transmission: 5 forward gears, 1 backward gear
  19. Length of track on ground: 585cm
  20. Tracklinks / side: 120
  21. Track width: 700mm
  22. Communication equipment: 71-TK-3 radio set, TPU-6 intercom,

Frederick II and the Silesian Wars

Prussian Infantry of the Guard Regiment 15.

Prussian Hussar Regiment No.3 (Black or Death Hussars) Of Frederick II

Frederick II was deeply alarmed at this threat on his eastern frontier – he was well aware of Russian designs on East Prussia and always tended to overestimate Russian power. Desperate to alleviate the pressure on his eastern frontier, he entered into a curiously open-ended agreement with Britain, the Convention of Westminster of 16 January 1756. The British agreed to withdraw their offer of subsidies from the Russians and the two states decided to undertake joint defensive action in Germany in the event that France should attack Hanover. This was a hasty and ill-judged move on Frederick’s part. He did not take the trouble to consult his French allies, although he ought to have guessed that this unforeseen pact with France’s traditional enemy would infuriate the court at Versailles and drive the French into the arms of the Habsburgs. Frederick’s panic reflex of January 1756 exposed the weakness of a decision-making system that depended exclusively on the moods and perceptions of one man.

Prussia’s position now unravelled with perilous speed. The news of the Convention of Westminster sparked fury at the French court, and Louis XV responded by accepting the Austrian offer of a defensive alliance (the First Treaty of Versailles, 1 May 1756), under which each of the two parties was obliged to provide 24,000 troops to the other in the event of its coming under attack. The withdrawal of the British subsidy offer also enraged Elisabeth of Russia, who agreed in April 1756 to join in an anti-Prussian coalition. Over the next few months, it was the Russians who were the driving force towards war; while Maria Theresa took care to confine her preparations to relatively inconspicuous measures, the Russians made no effort to conceal their military build-up. Frederick now found himself encircled by a coalition of three powerful enemies whose joint offensive, he believed, would be launched in the spring of 1757. When the king demanded categorical assurances from Maria Theresa to the effect that she was not combining against him and had no intention of starting an offensive, her answers were ominously equivocal. Frederick now resolved to strike first, rather than waiting for his enemies to take the initiative. On 29 August 1756, Prussian troops invaded the Electorate of Saxony.

Here was another totally unexpected and profoundly shocking Prussian initiative, and the king was alone in deciding upon it. To a certain extent, the invasion was based upon a misapprehension of Saxon policy. Frederick believed (wrongly) that Saxony had joined the coalition against him and had his officers search the Saxon state papers (in vain) for documentary proof. But his action also served broader strategic objectives. In his Anti-Machiavel, published shortly after his accession to the throne, Frederick had delineated three types of ethically permissible war: the defensive war, the war to pursue just rights, and the ‘war of precaution’, in which a prince discovers that his enemies are preparing military action and decides to launch a pre-emptive strike so as not to forgo the advantages of opening hostilities on his own terms. The invasion of Saxony clearly fell into the third category. It allowed Frederick to start the war before his opponents had amassed the full strength of their forces. It provided him with control of a strategically sensitive area that would otherwise almost certainly have been used as a forward base – only eighty kilometres from Berlin – for enemy offensives. Saxony was also of considerable economic value; it was ruthlessly milked during the war, supplying more than one-third of Prussia’s entire military expenditure, though it is difficult to establish how heavily the issue of finance and resources weighed in Frederick’s calculations.

The invasion of Saxony might have been defensible in purely strategic terms, but its political impact was nothing short of disastrous. The anti-Prussian coalition acquired the momentum of self-righteous outrage. Russia had already put an offensive construction upon the alliance, but the French had not. They might well have remained neutral if Frederick had bided his time and become the victim of an unprovoked attack by either the Austrians or the Russians. Instead, France and Austria now contracted a Second Treaty of Versailles (1 May 1757) with an openly offensive character, in which France promised to supply 129,000 troops and 12 million livres each year until the recovery of Silesia had been accomplished (France was to be rewarded with control of Austrian Belgium). The Russians joined the offensive alliance with a further 80,000 troops (they planned to annex Polish Courland to Russia and compensate a Russian-controlled Poland with East Prussia); the territories of the Holy Roman Empire put forward an imperial army of 40,000 men; even the Swedes joined in, in the hope of grabbing back some or all of Pomerania.

This was not, in other words, just a war to decide the fate of Silesia. It was a war of partition, a war to decide the future of Prussia. Had the allies succeeded in their objectives, the Kingdom of Prussia would have ceased to exist. Shorn of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, along with the lesser territories claimed by various members of the imperial contingent, the Hohenzollern composite state would have returned to its primordial condition: that of a landlocked north German Electorate. This would have been in precise accordance with the plans of the key Austrian policy-makers, whose objective was, as Kaunitz crisply put it, ‘la réduction de la Maison de Brandebourg à son état primitif de petite puissance très secondaire’.

That Frederick should have prevailed against such a massive preponderance of forces appeared miraculous to contemporaries and still seems remarkable to us. How can it be explained? Clearly the Prussians enjoyed certain geographical advantages. Frederick’s control of Saxony gave him a compact territorial base (excluding East Prussia and the Westphalian principalities, of course) from which to launch operations. He was sheltered on the southern fringes of Silesia by the Sudeten mountains of northern Bohemia. His western flank was covered by the British-financed Army of Observation in Hanover; this sufficed to keep the French at bay for a time in that sector. For the four years 1758–61, Prussia received a hefty annual subsidy of £670,000(roughly 3,350,000 thalers) from the British government, a sufficient sum to cover about one-fifth of Prussian war expenditures. Frederick (who decided early on not to defend either East Prussia or the Westphalian territories) also enjoyed the advantage of internal defensive lines, while his enemies were operating (with the exception of Austria) at a great distance from home. Dispersed around the periphery of the main theatre of operations, the allies found it difficult to coordinate their movements effectively.

There was also, as in virtually all instances of coalition warfare, a problem of motivation and trust: Maria Theresa’s obsession with the destruction of the Prussian ‘monster’ was not shared by most of the other partners, who had more limited objectives. France’s concerns were focused primarily on the Atlantic conflict and French interest in the struggle with Prussia dwindled fast after the devastating Prussian victory at Rossbach (5 November 1757). Under a renegotiated Third Treaty of Versailles, signed in March 1759, the French cut their military and financial commitments to the coalition. As for the Swedes and the assorted German territories represented in the imperial army, they were in it for easy pickings and had little inclination to persevere with an exhausting war of attrition. The strongest link in the coalition was the Austro-Russian alliance, but here too there were problems. Neither wished to see the other benefit disproportionately from the conflict and, on at least one crucial occasion, this distrust translated into Austrian reluctance to commit forces to the consolidation of a Russian victory.

But this should not be taken to imply that Prussia’s ultimate success was in any sense a foregone conclusion. The Third Silesian War dragged on for seven years precisely because the issue proved so difficult to resolve militarily. There was no uninterrupted string of Prussian victories. This was a bitter struggle, in which success, for Prussia, meant surviving to fight another day. Many of the Prussian victories were narrowly won, costly in casualties and insufficiently decisive to shift the balance of forces engaged in the conflict definitively in Prussia’s favour. At the battle of Lobositz (1 October 1756), for example, the Prussians managed to gain tactical control of the battlefield, at heavy cost in men, but left the main body of the Austrian army unbroken. Much the same can be said of the battle of Liegnitz (15 August 1760) against the Austrians in Silesia; here Frederick accurately assessed enemy positions and moved quickly to strike at one of the two separated Austrian armies and disable it before the other could respond effectively. This initiative was successful, but left the Austrian forces in the area largely intact.

There were a number of battles in which Frederick’s intelligence and originality as a field commander were brilliantly in evidence. The single most impressive victory was at the battle of Rossbach (5 November 1757) against the French. Here 20,000 Prussians found themselves outnumbered two to one by a combined French-imperial force. As the French-imperials wheeled around the Prussian position, hoping to outflank them on their left, Frederick redeployed with impressive speed, despatching cavalry to sweep away the regiments of horse at the front of the allied advance and repositioning his infantry in a lethal scissors formation from which they could subject the French and imperial columns to heavy fire and attack. Prussian losses totalled 500 men to the enemy’s 10,000.

One of the central traits of Frederick’s battle-craft was a preference for oblique over frontal orders of attack. Rather than approach in parallel frontal array, Frederick tried where possible to twist his attacking lines so that one end, often reinforced by cavalry, cut into the enemy position before the other. The idea was to roll the enemy up along his own lines rather than assault him head on. It was a mode of manoeuvre that required especially skilled and steady infantry work, particularly where the terrain was uneven. In a number of battles, Prussian attacks from the flank using complex infantry deployments worked with devastating effect. At Prague (6 May 1757), for example, where Prussian and Austrian numbers were roughly matched, Frederick managed to wheel the Prussians around on to the right flank of the Austrians. When the latter redeployed in haste to meet his advance, local Prussian commanders recognized and exploited a gap in the ‘hinge’ between the old and the new positions and drove a salient through it, irreparably shattering the Austrian force. The classic example of the oblique marching order in action was the battle of Leuthen (5 December 1757), where the Prussians were outnumbered by the Austrians nearly two to one; here a Prussian feint attack gave the impression of a frontal approach while the mass of the Prussian infantry swept around to the south to scoop up the Austrian left wing. In this extraordinary set piece, the ‘moving walls’ of the Prussian infantry were flanked by coordinated artillery fire as the Prussian guns moved from firing position to firing position along the line of attack.

However, the very same tactics could also fail if they found the enemy prepared, were not supported by sufficient troop numbers or were based on a faulty understanding of the situation in the field. At Kolin (18 June 1757), for example, Frederick tried as usual to wheel around the Austrian right flank and roll the enemy up from the wing, but found that the Austrians, in anticipation of this, had extended their lines across his route of approach, committing him to a disastrous uphill frontal assault against heavily defended and numerically superior positions – here it was the Austrians who won the field, at a cost of 8,000 men to Prussia’s 14,000.

In the battle of Zorndorf (25 August 1758) against the Russians, Frederick completely misread the Russian deployment and, wheeling around from the north to roll up the Russian left wing, found that the enemy was in fact facing him head-on; the fighting was savage and losses were very high – 13,000 Prussian and 18,000 Russian casualties. It is still unclear whether we should regard Zorndorf as a Prussian victory, a defeat or simply a brutal stalemate. Frederick’s next major encounter with the Russians exhibited some similar features. The battle of Kunersdorf (12 August 1759) opened promisingly with accurate Prussian artillery and infantry fire on the Russian right flank, but soon became a disaster as the Russians turned to construct a solid local front against the Prussian advance and the Prussian infantry got themselves jammed into a narrow depression where they were exposed to the Russian guns. Here again, Frederick showed a flawed awareness of how the battle was unfolding; the unevenness of the terrain made cavalry reconnaissance difficult and he seems to have failed to take adequate account of the poor quality of his intelligence. The cost was hair-raising: 19,000 Prussian casualties of which 6,000 were dead on the field.

Frederick was not, then, infallible as a military commander. Of the sixteen battles he fought during the Seven Years War, he won only eight (even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and count Zorndorf as a victory). Yet it is clear that in most respects he had the edge over his opponents. His isolation was also a kind of advantage – he had no allies to consult. By comparison with Russia, France and Austria, the Prussian military decision-making process was fantastically simple, since the commander-in-chief in the field was also the sovereign and (effectively) the foreign minister. There was no need for the kind of elaborate discussion that slowed the reflexes of the Habsburg monarchy. This advantage was reinforced by the king’s personal indefatigability, talent and daring, and by his readiness to recognize where mistakes had been made (including by himself). If one contemplates the course of the Third Silesian War as a whole, it is surprising how often Frederick succeeded in throwing his enemies on to the tactical defensive, how often it was he who defined the terms on which battle would be joined. This was partly due to the by now widely acknowledged superiority of Prussian drill training, which allowed the walls of blue uniforms to turn at will as if on invisible pivots, and to redeploy at twice the speed of most European armies at this time. With these assets Frederick combined the ability to keep a cool head at times of crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than after the catastrophe at Hochkirch (1758), where the king, drenched in the blood of his horse, which had been hit under him by a musket ball, commanded and oversaw a calm and effective withdrawal under fire from the killing ground to a safe defensive position, and thereby prevented the Austrians from driving home their advantage.

Frederick’s ability to keep recovering from defeats and inflicting new and painful blows on his enemies was not enough to win the war on its own, but it sufficed to keep Prussia above water for as long as it took for the allied coalition to fall apart. Once it became clear that Tsaritsa Elisabeth was terminally ill, Russia’s days in the coalition were numbered. Elisabeth’s death in 1762 led to the succession of Grand Duke Peter, an ardent admirer of Frederick, who lost no time in negotiating an alliance with him. Peter did not survive for long – he was thrust from the throne by his wife, Catherine II, and murdered shortly afterwards by one of her lovers. Catherine withdrew the offer of an alliance, but there was no resumption of the Austro-Russian compact. The Swedes, who had little hope of securing their objectives in Pomerania without great-power support, soon defected. After a string of shattering defeats in India and Canada, the French, too, lost interest in pursuing further a war whose objectives now seemed strangely irrelevant. The peace they signed with Britain at the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763) left the Austrians high and dry. Their treasury was exhausted. At the Peace of Hubertusburg (15 February 1763), after seven years of bitter struggle and prodigious sacrifice in money and lives, Maria Theresa confirmed the status quo ante bellum. In return, Frederick promised that in the next imperial election, he would vote for her son, the future Joseph II.

There is a tendency, when we reflect on the European wars of the mid eighteenth century, to visualize them as diagrams with rectangles and sweeping arrows, or as compact arrays of brightly painted soldiers on the green baize of the war-gamer’s table. When we focus on ‘moving walls’, ‘oblique marching orders’ and the ‘rolling up’ of enemy flanks it is easy to lose sight of the terror and confusion that reigned on most battlefields as soon as the serious fighting began. For the troops on an exposed front or flank, coming under fire meant maintaining formation and discipline while projectiles ranging from musket balls to canister shot and cannon balls scythed through closely packed rows of standing men. Opportunities to display individual dash and daring were limited – it was more a matter of mastering an overwhelming instinct to flee and take cover. Officers stood in especially exposed positions and were expected to display absolute calm before their men and each other. It was a question not just of personal bravado, but of the collective ethos of an emergent military-noble caste.

Ernst von Barsewisch, the son of a modest Junker landowner in the Altmark, had been educated at the Berlin Cadet School and later served as a Prussian officer in many of the battles of the Seven Years War. His memoirs, based on diary entries sketched while on campaign, capture the mixture of samurai fatalism and schoolboy camaraderie that could sometimes be observed among officers in action. At the battle of Hochkirch, Barsewisch happened to be positioned near the king on a section of the Prussian wing that came under Austrian attack. There was a thick hail of musket balls, most of which were aimed at the chests and faces of the standing men. Just next to the king, a Major von Haugwitz was shot through the arm and shortly afterwards another ball buried itself in the neck of the king’s horse. Not far from where Barsewisch was standing, Field Marshal von Keith (a favourite of the king’s) was torn from his horse by a shell and died on the spot. The next commander to fall was Prince William of Brunswick, brigadier of Barsewisch’s regiment, who was drilled through by a musket ball and fell dead to the ground. His terrified horse, an immaculate white stallion, galloped riderless back and forth between the lines for nearly half an hour. To help master their nerves, Barsewisch and the young noblemen around him engaged in light-hearted banter:

Early in the action I had had the honour that a musket ball had drilled through the peak of my hat at the front just above my head; not long afterwards, a second ball shot through the large upturned rim on the left side of the hat, so that it fell from my head. I said to the von Hertzbergs, who were standing not far from me: ‘Gentlemen, should I put this hat back on my head, if the Imperials want it so badly? ’‘Yes, do,’ they said –‘the hat does you honour.’ The eldest von Hertzberg took his snuff box in his hand and said: ‘Gentlemen, take a pinch of courage!’ I stepped up to him, took a pinch and said: ‘Yes, courage is what we need.’ Von Unruh followed me and the brother of von Hertzberg, the youngest, took the last pinch. Just as the eldest von Hertzberg had taken his pinch of snuff from the box and was raising it to his nose, a musket ball came and flew straight into the top of his forehead. I was standing right beside him, I looked at him – he cried out ‘Lord Jesus’ – turned around and fell dead to the ground.

It was through this collective sacrifice of its young men – note the presence of three von Hertzberg brothers on one section of the Prussian line! – that the Junker nobility earned its special place within the Frederician state.

The great majority of first-person battle narratives stem from officers, mostly of noble birth, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the phenomenal sacrifice of humbler men in the field. For every officer killed at the battle of Lobositz, more than eighty private soldiers were slain. In a letter to his family, the cavalryman Nikolaus Binn from Erxleben near Osterburg in the Altmark reported twelve deaths among the men from his home district, including an Andreas Garlip and a Nicolaus Garlip who must have been brothers or cousins, and added reassuringly: ‘all those who are not named as dead are in good health.’ On 6 October, five days after the battle, Franz Reiss, a soldier of the Hülsen Regiment, described his arrival at the battlefield. As soon as he and his fellows had formed up in line, he wrote, they had come under heavy Austrian cannon fire:

So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for [preserving] my health. In the very first cannon shots our Krumpholtz took a cannon ball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was an amazing sight. Now, dear child, just think how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.

In the aftermath of an action the battlefield descended into chaos. To remain wounded on the field could be a miserable fate. In the nights that followed the battles of Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, the battlefield echoed with the shrieks of the Prussian wounded being killed by Cossack light troops of the Russian army. Even if they escaped deliberate brutality, wounded soldiers needed determination and good luck to survive. The Prussian army had a relatively large and well-organized surgical support service by the standards of the day, but in the disorder following an action (especially a lost one), the chances of finding one’s way in time to proper care might be very slim. The quality of treatment varied enormously from surgeon to surgeon and the facilities for handling infected wounds were very rudimentary.

After Leuthen, where a musket ball bored through his neck and lodged itself between his shoulder blades, Ernst von Barsewisch had the good fortune to run into a captured Austrian soldier who happened to be a Belgian graduate of the surgical school at the University of Lyon. Sadly, the Belgian no longer had his fine surgical tools to work with – his Prussian captor had snatched them as booty. Using the ‘very bad and blunt knife’ of a shoemaker, however, he was able to hack the ball out of Barsewisch’s back with ‘ten or twelve cuts’. Less fortunate was Barsewisch’s comrade Baron Gans Edler von Puttlitz, whose foot had been shattered by canister shot and had grown infected while he lay out in the cold untended for two nights and a day. The captured surgeon told him that an amputation of the leg below the knee was his only hope, but Puttlitz was too confused or too terrified to consent. The infection gradually spread and he died a few days later. Shortly before he died, he told Barsewisch that he was his parents’ only child and begged him to be sure that they were informed of the place of his burial. ‘This death affected me greatly,’ wrote Barsewisch, ‘because this was a young person of about seventeen years, and from his wound he had watched his death draw nearer, creeping slowly, hour by hour.’

The Seven Years War, unlike the Thirty Years War of the previous century, was a ‘cabinet war’ fought by relatively disciplined bodies of troops equipped and supplied by their own governments through relatively sophisticated logistical organizations. It was thus not marked by the kind of pervasive anarchy and violence that had traumatized the populations of the German territories in the 1630s and 1640s. But this did not mean that the civilians in occupied areas or theatres of combat were not subject to arbitrary exactions, reprisals and even atrocities. Following their invasion of Pomerania, for example, the Swedes demanded from the neighbouring Uckermark in northern Brandenburg contributions totalling 200,000 thalers, double the amount of contribution raised annually by the king from that province. The Hohenzollern provinces of Westphalia were under French and Austrian occupation for much of the war; here the military authorities imposed an intricate system of contributions and extortions, often supported by the kidnapping of local notables as hostages. French soldiers from the defeat at Rossbach committed numerous excesses as they passed through Thuringia and Hessen. ‘If one wished to relate all of these disorders, one would never get to the end of it,’ one French general reported. ‘Over a forty-league compass, the ground was swarming with our soldiers: they pillaged, killed, raped, sacked, and committed every possible horror…’

Particularly problematic were the ‘light troops’ used by most armies at this time. These units were recruited on a voluntary basis, operated semi-autonomously from the regular army, were not provided with the standard logistical support, and were expected to support themselves entirely through exactions and the acquisition of booty. The best-known examples of such troops were the Russian Cossacks and the exotically clothed Austrian ‘Panduren’, but the French too retained the services of such units. During the first phase of the Russian occupation of East Prussia, some 12,000 light troops made up of Cossacks and Kalmucks rampaged through the country with fire and sword: in the words of one contemporary, they ‘murdered or mangled unarmed and defenceless people, they hanged them from trees or cut off their noses or ears; others were hacked in pieces in the most cruel and disgusting manner…’ During 1761, the Fischer Free Corps, a light unit in French service, broke into East Frisia – a small territory in the north-west of Germany that had fallen to Prussia in 1744 – and terrorized the civilian population with a week of rape, murder and other atrocities. The peasants, drawing on a local tradition of collective protest and resistance, responded with an uprising that reminded some contemporaries of the Peasants’ War of 1525. Only through the deployment of French regular army units stationed nearby could peace be restored in the area.

Conflict at this level of intensity was the exception, not the rule, but in all provinces touched by the war, there were substantially raised mortalities, mainly through the so-called ‘camp epidemics’ that spread from overcrowded troop hospitals. In Kleve and Mark, the mortality for the war years amounted to 15 per cent of the population. In the city of Emmerich, situated on the bank of the Rhine in Kleve, 10 per cent of the townsfolk died during 1758 alone, mainly of diseases contracted from French soldiers fleeing out of north-west Germany. The demographic losses for nearly all of the Prussian lands were breathtaking: 45,000 in Silesia, 70,000 in Pomerania, 114,000 in the Neumark and the Kurmark combined, 90,000 in East Prussia. In all it seems that the war took the lives of about 400,000 Prussians, amounting to roughly 10 per cent of the population.

Silesia Campaign 1807

On 6 January 1807, Breslau finally falls to Jérôme’s besieging army of Bavarians and Württembergers (now fighting as ‘IX Corps’). After thirty-one days the Prussian garrison under General von Thiele capitulates and marches into captivity. Heartened by this development, Napoleon orders sieges of Danzig, Graudenz, and Kolberg to commence. He raises a new ‘X Corps’ for the task: a medley of Saxon, Polish, French and German troops, some 26,000-strong.

Diplomatic attempts to persuade Tsar Alexander to accept the French status quo were equally unavailing. It was with some reluctance that Napoleon turned his mind to the problem of defeating Russia’s armies, for he recognized the magnitude of the task, and it was some time before a scheme formulated in his mind. At the time of the capture of Berlin he was claiming vaguely that “we must, sooner or later, encounter and defeat the Russians,” but later in October more information about Russian moves and intentions came to hand, information that persuaded the Emperor that it was desirable to lead his army over the Vistula before permitting them to enter winter quarters that year. If the French were cantoned along and to the east of that great river, the corps would be in a good position to cover the operations already in progress against the remaining Silesian fortresses and at the same time protect the planned sieges of the important ports of Danzig, Köslin and Strälsund on the Baltic coast. Furthermore, the fact that the army would have the River Oder and its fortresses to its rear would provide a road of retreat and a second line of defense should events in Poland go adversely.

In an attempt to secure accurate information of Russian intentions, on November 5 1806 Napoleon ordered Davout “to scour the country in advance” and make a reconnaissance with the 2,500 dragoons of General Beaumont’s division as far as Posen. At the same time, on the southern flank, Jerome Bonaparte was instructed to seize Glogau in Silesia. While these moves were being executed, new and crucial intelligence reached Imperial Headquarters on the 9th.

A force of at least 56,000 Russians had definitely moved westward from Grodno in late October, which made it quite possible that they could have reached the easternmost frontiers of Prussia by the end of that month, and might well arrive near the vital center of Thorn on the Vistula by mid-November. Two days later, Davout reported that there was no sign of the enemy near Posen, where he was in the process of setting up field bakeries. On the basis of these pieces of information Napoleon finally made up his mind. Although the exact position of the Russians and the real intentions of Austria were not yet clear, it was certainly in his interest to secure the most advantageous winter quarters from which to launch a decisive offensive in the spring of 1807. If the Russian commander, General Bennigsen, was to be forestalled on the Vistula and prevented from joining up with Lestocq’s Prussian corps in the vicinity of Warsaw, it behoved Napoleon to advance at once and occupy both Thorn and the Polish capital with the minimum of delay. Once he had gained the west bank of the Vistula, he could decide on the advisability of any further advance in the light of the information that would by then have come to hand; if necessary, he could turn to deal with Austria.

Orders were accordingly issued. The initial advance was to be made on a broad front behind a screen of cavalry with the intention of acquiring the earliest possible tidings of Russian dispositions. Eighty thousand men, comprising the corps of Davout, Lannes, Augereau and Jerome, under the temporary command of Murat, were designated for this task. To the north, the Vth and VIIth Corps would move from Stettin and Berlin respectively towards Thorn, while in the center Davout’s IIIrd Corps was to push on beyond Posen and make for Warsaw. To the south, Jerome’s command (the IXth Corps) was to advance from Glogau toward Kalisch in such a way as to secure the southern flank against any possibility of Austrian intervention (however remote this likelihood now appeared); while on his extreme right, General Vandamme’s division was to move on Breslau to seize the Silesian fortresses as occasion offered.

Napoleon orders Jérôme to press down the River Oder to Breslau, to take this important fort. Poland is peppered with fortified towns, and Napoleon knows that as his army advances, every one of these hostile islands of stone must be taken, otherwise his lines of supply and communication will remain vulnerable.

The extreme northern flank was entrusted to Mortier’s VIIIth Corps on the 11th, Louis Bonaparte being ordered back to guard Holland. Napoleon himself would, for the present, remain at Berlin organizing the rear areas and ensuring that the remaining corps of the Grande Armée, as they returned from pursuing Blücher, were sent forward along the correct roads in the second wave—namely, Bernadotte and Ney toward Thorn, and Soult (with his own command and the four cavalry divisions constituting Bessières’ Second Cavalry Reserve) in the direction of Warsaw.

Napoleon’s decision to invade Poland was not wholly dictated by military requirements; there was also a strong political motive. During the past 35 years this unfortunate country had no less than three times been partitioned by its powerful and voracious neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria. The Emperor was well aware that he was now in a position to play the role of “deliverer,” and by reconstituting the ancient kingdom might hope to gain a cooperative ally in eastern Europe besides perhaps 50,000 troops to swell the Grande Armée. Once again, his motives were wholly opportunist; in his heart of hearts Napoleon evinced little true sympathy with Polish national aspirations. “Poland! So much the worse for them,” he once exclaimed. “They have allowed themselves to be partitioned. They are no longer a nation—they have no public spirit. The nobles are too much; the people too little. It is a dead body to which life must be restored before anything can be made of it. I will make officers and soldiers of them first; afterward I shall see. I shall take Prussia’s portion; I shall have Posen and Warsaw, but I will not touch Cracow, Gallicia or Vilna.” Indeed, Poland required careful handling; too brusque an approach might sting Austria into immediate hostilities, and Napoleon was equally eager not to overoffend the Tsar’s known susceptibilities and thus compromise any future chance of a negotiated settlement. In consequence he was careful not to make any direct promise of political freedom, nor did he call on the Poles to revolt against their present masters. Once Warsaw was in his hands, he contented himself with forming the six departments already wrested from Prussia into a semiautonomous political unit, setting over it a council of seven Polish noblemen. For the rest, Napoleon was very cautious. “I should like to make Poland independent, but that is a difficult matter,” he once confided to Bourienne. “Austria, Russia and Prussia have all had a slice of the cake; when the match is once kindled, who knows where the conflagration may stop…. We must refer this matter to the sovereign of all things—time.”

Battles continue in the Grand Army’s rear, with the campaign against enemy fortresses in Silesia and Pomerania. In the former province, Jérôme’s IX Corps – having marched south-east from Breslau to subdue Prussian garrisons at Brieg and Schweidnitz – is investing Kosel and Neisse.

Journal of the Operations of the Siege of Breslau