Rank and File
A Clerk’s War
Tuesday 22nd May to Thursday 24th May 1940
Tuesday morning I made sure I listened to the morning broadcast of the “Wehrmachtbericht”, but there was no mention of the Battle of the South Celtic Shelf. Though I would normally take this as a bad sign, there was always the possibility that nothing happened during the night, or that Großadmiral Raeder had reverted to radio silence. I would have to wait until I had a chance to slip into the Kriegsmarine room.
That could be a while. There was a mass of paper from our military observers in China. A short time ago, after direct advice from OKH, the Japanese moved their main supply base on the mainland from Hamhung in Korea to the major port of Dalian. This made far more sense, and our officers attached to the Japanese logistics units had been providing much interesting information on the transfer of huge amounts of war materièl and fuel across the mountains of Korea and Manchuria. Now the Japanese High Command has again altered the location of its primary stockpiles: to Dagu in North Eastern China. At last the front line troops in China are getting regular supplies, and there are signs of more reinforcements in the Home Islands.
China: the Imperial Japanese Army, now receiving supplies more efficiently, is on the offensive. It cannot be long before they can cross the Yellow River and commence the assault of Jinan.
Japan: freshly called up divisions are making for the port of Osaka, where Admiral Yamaguchi waits with a fleet of troopships.
During the night Müller again beat General Vivancos. This is becoming repetitious, as after minor casualties to both sides (15 men of 20.Infanterie to 18 men of 8a Divisíon de Infanterie), the Spanish evacuated Isona, heading further into the mountains into La Pobla de Lillet.
In frustrating news, the Spanish seem to have become aware of our logistics problems. The FARE, already bombing our troops with impunity, began to attack roads, bridges and rail facilities across Tudela. Several hundred bombers from 1er and 2o Grupo de Estratégico were involved in the attack, which knocked out nearly 20% of the province’s infrastructure, as well as destroying 1,200 tonnes of supplies and 550 tonnes of fuel.
Strategic bombing of Tudela: the Luftwaffe is unable to intervene
Of course this did not affect General Behlendorf, far away on the coast of the Bay of Biscay in Llanes. He is leading 6th SS Freiwilligen Gebirgsjäger Division into its first battle, for Oviedo. It is fair to say that he did not expect its first action would be against a Belgian infantry division in Spain. This is the second Belgian unit identified fighting alongside the Republican forces, but this division must have been rushed to the front, as it shows signs of being poorly prepared. Its commander, General Rodz, will be hard pressed to hold even the inexperienced soldiers of the 6th SS.
Battle of Oviedo
By now it was time for my morning coffee. After Gisela had delivered the repulsive Getreidekaffee (how I miss the Brazilian blends we used to have – but those are now saved for special occasions and the Ministerial offices) I took the opportunity to wander the corridors until I found myself in the KM room. It didn’t take me long to catch up with the news. During the night Air Marshall Peirse had returned with his mixed group of aircraft and inflicted more damage, although at a huge cost. Another 32 aircraft were destroyed as they pressed their attacks, but damage to the Nordseeflotte was now getting critical. Flottenchef Raeder’s frustration at his inability to close with the enemy was evident in his short messages. The Royal Navy persisted in staying out of effective range of our guns, relying on their planes to cripple our ships.
A flight of Short Singapore flying boats heads for home after an attack on the Nordseeflotte
I was about to leave when another report came in from the “Bismark”. The British planes had returned in daylight, and this time there were even more. As well as the 3rd Carrier Air Group, 14th RAF Fighter Group and 15th Royal Navy Coastal Command, our radio intercepts show the 11th, 13th, 16th and 17th Carrier Air Groups took part in an overwhelming attack. Plane after plane was blown to pieces or spun out of control into the sea, but they could not be stopped. When the Britsh aircraft headed back to their bases or carriers, 7th Zerstörergeschwader had ceased to exist, every ship destroyed. “Bismark” and “Scharnhorst” had minor damage, as had the “Admiral Scheer”. “Deutschland” and “Königsberg” were slightly more damaged, but the “Emden” was only at 75% efficiency. “Stuttgart” had been particularly badly hit, with a bomb taking out a 15cm triple gun turret, and torpedo damage slowing her considerably. She was at barely half strength, and unable to contribute further to the battle. 5th Zerstörergeschwader, the flotilla in which my friend Karl Behrens served, was still with the fleet, but it too was virtually defenceless, with several ships burning or taking water. No word on Karl’s destroyer: the Flottenchef’s report understandably concentrating on the capital ships.
Air attack on the Nordseeflotte at 9AM 22nd May
After the punishment of the air attacks, Großadmiral Raeder informed Oberkommando der Marine that he was taking the fleet west, back towards the French coast. He did not admit that he had been beaten, referring only to the severely damaged British heavy cruisers, but the mood in the KM room made it clear that we had suffered a defeat. The question was: can he get his ships back to port without further losses?
At 1PM, another message, this time even shorter and more strained in tone. The British aircraft had returned, and had again broken through the flak barrier. As I write this I have the benefit of the after-action reports from the individual ships, as well as intelligence summaries from our radio intercepts. The English airmen showed complete disregard for safety in their desire to retain command of the seas. Aircraft losses for this one action were: 3rd CAG: 7 planes, 14th RAF Fighter Group: 17 planes, 15th RN Coastal Command: 4 planes, 11th CAG: 7 planes, 13th CAG: 6 planes, 16th CAG: 9 planes and 17th CAG: 5 planes. A total of 55 aircraft lost in a single hour, flown by crews determined that the Kriegsmarine could never challenge the Royal Navy on the High Seas. They seem to have achieved their objective, at least for now. The fleet that was steaming a full speed west was a shadow of its former glory. The two largest ships, “Bismark” and “Scharnhorst” were still in good shape, though nowhere near full strength. “Admiral Scheer” had several guns out of action, but the rest of the fleet was badly affected by the repeated air bombardment. “Stuttgart” was battling to stay afloat, and only a couple of ships remained from 5th Zerstörergeschwader.
A Fairey Albacore releases its torpedo at one our ships
Little news came from Spain, and that little was not good. Although General Engelbrecht was certain he had broken 8/4a Division, Exea Vilar must have pulled off a miracle by persuading his men to stand and fight. So 4th Gebirgsjägers, instead of an easy march south across the flat plains, must again begin the task of clearing pockets of resistance. Surely it can’t take long – the enemy infantry must be near exhaustion. The FARE was also showing that it was full of fight: Spanish heavy bombers had maintained their attacks on infrastructure and supplies, this time in Rodella. Results were similar to the earlier attack in Tudela, though the 38 tonnes of fuel that went up in flames was the total stockpile for the province. The reappearance of Ludlow-Hewitt and 4th CAG over Llanes (giving the 6th SS “Freiwilligen” its first taste of air bombardment) showed that the Royal Navy had not been deterred by the sortie of the Nordseeflotte.
Second Battle of Cosa
The Spanish bombers attack road, rail and communications in Rodella, and take the opportunity to destroy several supply dumps
Later that afternoon there was good news from the Bay of Biscay – the Nordseeflotte had broken contact with the Royal Navy and was now moving down the Breton Coast, heading for port. Our relief was short-lived: at 6PM another one line message: another British fleet was moving to intercept. Within minutes more information was received, and none of it was particularly pleasant. The enemy ships were tentatively identified as the battleship “Royal Sovereign”, the heavy cruiser “Cornwall” and three destroyer squadrons. Once again an aircraft carrier was well to the rear, this time the “Unicorn”.
As soon as the fleets came into sight, destroyers from both sides leapt into action, heading to screen the capital ships and threaten a torpedo run. Both sides paid a heavy price, as the last ships of 5th Zerstörergeschwader were sunk after taking direct hits from the 15inch and 6inch guns of the Royal Navy flagship. No destroyers could have survived the impact of those broadsides – my thoughts went immediately to Korvettenkäpitan Behrens. No details were given, but I knew his chance of survival was slim. The British destroyers also suffered: one squadron was almost obliterated by the combined fire of the “Bismark”, “Scharnhorst” and “Admiral Scheer”. With “Stuttgart” and to a lesser degree “Emden” crippled, it was up to “Königsberg” to assume responsibility for keeping the Royal Navy destroyers at a distance. She also was targeted by the enemy, with HMS Cornwall pouring shells from her 8inch guns at the light cruiser. “Königsberg” took several direct hits, but was still able to maintain position.
A Royal Navy “Tribal” class destroyer (believed to be the “Maori”) tries to close with the Nordseeflotte during the opening minutes of the battle of the Breton Coast.
The news of a further naval engagement prompted a quick reaction by OKH. Over the protestations of the Luftwaffe, both 1st and 2nd Seefliegerkorps were ordered to carry out naval strikes off the Breton Coast, and to do so aggressively, regardless of losses. The reluctance of the Luftwaffe was understandable: the four geschwader were already 81 aircraft below their full complement of 400 planes. A direct order from Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, however, is not to be ignored, even by a Generalmajor, so Geisler and Stumpff took their Dorniers back out to sea.
Standing in the KM room listening to the naval experts analysing the day’s events was too much for me. I slipped back to my office, where I decided I would clear up a few things while waiting for the bombers to report on their mission. 6th SS “Freiwilligen” has its first battle honour, a clear win in Oviedo. 74 casualties inflicted, 47 suffered. Not an overwhelming victory, but respectable, especially considering it took only a matter of hours. General Behelndorff will be pleased. The uplift of another victory in northern Spain was dispelled by further logistical bombing, this time in the province of Guardo.
Going through these reports meant I was still at work at 8PM when the first details came through of air attack. Minor damage was inflicted on the aircraft carrier “Unicorn”, but the British fleet had withdrawn out of gun range of the Nordseeflotte, and was able to give anti-aircraft cover. Because of this, most of our attacks were on the “Cornwall” (which took several hits) and the destroyer squadrons. The crippled squadron was eliminated, another saw half its ships sunk, and the third had a ship forced to withdraw from action. The Royal Navy, by pulling back to defend the “Unicorn”, perhaps lost an opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the Kriegsmarine, as our fleet is in no condition to fight a pitched battle, even against just one battleship and heavy cruiser.
Breton Coast: our naval bombers give the British a taste of their own medicine
The next day Großadmiral Raeder admitted defeat. On the face of it the battle was a draw, with one destroyer squadron sunk from each fleet. The damage to our fleet, however, means that it will be confined to port for some weeks, while the Royal Navy will be able to resume its air attacks on our troops in Spain. Not an auspicious result for our first naval action outside the waters bordering the Reich. The naval bombers were recalled: while they could possibly have inflicted further damage, the Luftwaffe sees no point in taking more aircraft losses fighting against huge numbers of carrier based fighters.
Defeat: we have lost the Battle of the Breton Coast
The Royal Navy’s concentration in the Bay of Biscay may have had one benefit: the Regia Marina has been able to secure its convoy lanes to Africa and for the past few weeks supplies and fuel have been unloaded on the docks at Tarabulus. To date, little has made it to the east where the wreck of the Army of Libia is fleeing is disorder. Enough, however, has been distributed to divisions near the port to allow General La Ferta with six divisions to start marching towards their beleaguered compatriots.
Libia: could this be the beginning of a counter-attack by the Regio Esercito?
The Spanish strategic bombers continued their destruction of road and rail systems behind our lines, with further bombing missions in Guardo successfully destroying more supply and fuel dumps. With infrastructure in Guardo already very primitive, the loss of a quarter of its transport capacity was not appreciated by the logistics section of Sud-Frankreich Army.
Better news came from Cosa where 4th Gebirgsjägers are now sure that the province is clear: 60 more Spanish were killed before their short-lived ardour dissipated. Engelbrecht lost another 18 men though, and several hours of valuable time.
Something must have fired up the Spanish, because General Müller became the second commander in as many days to be forced to eat his words. His advance (through torrential rain) into Isona has been blocked, though at least his opponent is not Vivancos and 8a Division. As his lead units report light armour acting in an uncoordinated manner, Müller believes it is 2 Brigada Blindada, fleeing south from Keitel’s 22.Infanterie in La Pobla de Suert. As soon as the main force of 20.Infanterie moved up, the Spanish vanished, leaving 29 dead and captured. Only four members of an Abteilung platoon were lost.
Second Battle of Isona
Final news for the day came from General Keppler. The rainstorms sweeping across central Spain have missed Segovia, and he is not wasting the opportunity to use his mobility to crush a cavalry division which is the only Spanish unit between him and Madrid. He points out in his message to headquarters that he is still waiting for replacements for his Panzer IIDs, but accepts that they will be more than enough to handle 3/1a División de Cabelleros.
Battle of Segovia
The fact that we have lost half our Zerstörers in just over a week is still being absorbed by the Kriegsmarine. What makes it even more devastating is that the ships sunk were our best – the Type 1936A model. The original plan had been to rely on the existing ships for another year or so and then start work on a new model, which would then be the construction type should we wish to expand our fleet. This option is no longer available: we cannot expect our light cruisers to provide all the screening necessary for our fleets. With great reluctance the Cabinet has approved a contract with Deutsche Schiff und Maschinenbau AG for a new Zerstörergeschwader, with a possibility of another order in the next few months. Unfortunately nothing we can do now will speed this process – it will be 8.5 months before the new ships can join the Kriegsmarine. While these Cabinet meetings are supposed to be secret, when commercial decisions are being made there are always a few secretaries or junior officers present who can’t resist the need to tell an interesting story, and I heard that Minister Göring was apoplectic that manufacturing capacity was to be diverted from aircraft production. He was in the middle of a rant when he was interrupted by the Führer, who pointed out that if the Luftwaffe had been able to do its job, the KM would not need new destroyers. I would have loved to have seen the Reichsmarschall’s face as he slowly resumed his seat.
With both major Kriegsmarine fleets now in harbour, being surveyed by naval engineers before repair work commences, all action is now in Spain. The Spanish strategic bombers are becoming quite an annoyance with their logistical strikes. During the night they struck at Abejar, a province with a fairly decent road and rail network. It is now reduced to about half what we would expect to find in a modern state. More fuel and supplies were destroyed – local inhabitants are suspected of feeding information on stockpile locations to the Republicans.
At dawn the rain and storms resumed. It is beginning to appear that spring is the rain season in Spain, and the storms over Madrid have led to the cancellation of a proposed parachute assault on the city. General Böhme is disappointed that 2nd Fallschirmjäger will not have the chance to start its military history with a daring and history making attack, but OKH considers it too risky to attempt an airbourne assault in possible thunderstorms, particularly when we have no idea how many troops are based in the capital.
So we must fight our way into Madrid on the ground, and despite the rain this should not take too long. General Curtze and 20.Infanterie are already moving into Gualadjara, where General Franco suffered a massive defeat during the Civil War. Back in 1937 the mainly Italian “Corpo Truppe Voluntarie” was badly mauled here, even though it had tanks, trucks and aircraft and was fighting a purely infantry force. It was a sign that the rebellion was losing badly and led to Franco’s men openly mocking their Italian allies with a new marching song:
“Guadalajara no es Abisinia
Los españales, aunque rojos, son valientes
Menos camiones y más cojones”
“Guadalajara is not Abyssinia
The Spanish, even the Reds, are brave
(Try) fewer trucks and more balls”
Whatever the history of the province, Curtze is not likely to repeat the Italian mistakes. While weather conditions are similar, his enemy is nowhere near as prepared, and his motorised infantry are much better equipped that the Italians ever were (including “cojones”). Although outnumbered nearly two to one, Curtze predicts the battle will be hard but that he should reach the Tagus within days.
Battle of Guadalajara
In the north-west, 6th Gebirgsjägers are pushing towards La Coruna, with an assault into Benavente. 13/7a División Organica is already hard pressed by Hell’s men, and General Durruti Durrante cannot hold out for long. La Coruna is still some distance away, but General Rommel has made the capture of the port and airfield a priority.
Battle of Benavente
The first priority, however, is still Madrid, and now we are close to the city. Keppler has informed Sud-Frankreich headquarters that he has control of Segovia. Pozas Pera and his cavalry were completely outclassed by our light tanks, and the result was a foregone conclusion. Keppler reported 5 men killed (apparently in an ambush): 86 enemy casualties were logged.
If the Luftwaffe does not do something soon about the strategic bombers then I will not be surprised if Minister von Blomberg and Chief of Staff Bayerlein do not raise the issue at the next Cabinet meeting. The damage to infrastructure in Spain is now becoming appreciable, and it must be heartbreaking for our dedicated supply units to see piles of military supplies and fuel destroyed after we have carried them halfway across Europe. Tardajos is the latest province to be hit, and while the loss of supplies can be absorbed in the short term, the longer term effect of the loss of 20% of the transport infrastructure could have an impact on our front-line units.
Any impact is yet to come. After 1PM Kreß von Kressenstein urged 30.Infanterie forward into Tortuera, pushing General Metallana Gómez and 1 Brigada Montaña back towards the Tagus River. The Spanish unit has recovered in the week since the old general last tangled with them, and this may be a slightly harder battle than Calamocha. I admit I have a soft spot for Kreß von Kressenstein: it is good to see a veteran of the Great War still able to keep up with the young commanders.
Battle of Tortuera
The other two battles that started this afternoon both involved Gebirgsjäger divisions. General Eppich and 5th Gebirgsjäger Division took only hours to convince 15/8 and 2a Divisions that it was futile to try and stand their ground. Ascaso Abadía pulled them out after only a couple of skirmishes, one division heading north-west to Cangas del Narcea, the other south-west to Murias de Paredes. He would appear to be trying to block our progess west to La Coruna, but the forces he has available will not be able to slow, let alone halt, our Gebirgers.
In the east, the rains have finally moved away from Cosa and 4th Gebirgsjäger can continue their push southwards. The opposition in Montalbán, although a division in name, seems more like a reinforced regiment. A headquarters unit will give General Hernandéz Sarabia some assistance, but the drive towards Valencia is likely to be slowed by only a day or so.
For the rest of the day, most of the news was good, the only negative reports being from the Channel where Generalmajor Waber and his interceptors had a couple of bruising encounters with several carrier air groups and two full RAF fighter groups (and the remnants of 11th RAF). Needless to say, our aircraft (and pilot) losses were heavy, though it was a change to see that the carrier air groups are showing the signs of their battering at the hands of the Nordseeflotte’s anti-aircraft.
Air Battle of Portsmouth: 9PM 24th May
Any disappointment at the Luftwaffe’s woes was offset by two victories in Spain. Our Italian allies have been avenged in Guadalajara, with Miaja Mienert’s 20,000 men breaking off and retreating as soon as Curtze was able to overcome the pouring rain and get his whole force into battle. 20.Infanterie lost 36 men, and inflicted more than five times that (183) on 1a División and the two headquarters units. General Hell also had a fairly respectable win in Benavente. After fighting all day, the Spanish suddenly abandoned the province late in the afternoon, crossing the Duero and leaving Benavente to 6th Gebirgsjägers.
A good end to the day, though it would have better had it not been for the build-up of damaged roads and bridges due to the Spanish bombing. But even the thought of the victories in Spain could not remove the gloom I felt as I travelled home. Never again would I be able to catch the train to Kiel or Wilhelmshaven and enjoy a few drinks with Korvettenkäpitan Karl Behrens and his fellow officers. A few days past the first anniversary of the war, reality has intruded into my paper world.
Spain at end of 24th May, showing the impact of logistical bombing
Spain at end of 24th May, showing supply flows
Villarda: Bayo Giraud with 1er Grupo de Bombardeo and Grupo Táctico n.1 FARE (2 x TAC): 72, 131, 99, 142, 117
Villada: Camacho Benítez with 1er and 2o Grupo Táctico (2 x TAC): 56, 109, 100
Cantalejo: Camacho Benítez with 1er and 2o Grupo Táctico (2 x TAC): 43, 98, 82, 79
Berlanga: Bayo Giraud with 1er Grupo de Bombardeo and Grupo Táctico n.1 FARE (2 x TAC): 99
Villada at the end of 25th May: Ott’s 3.Infanterie has taken heavy losses from the uninterrupted bombing, and it is having a severe effect on their attempt to cross the Duero.
Villardefrades: Sperrle with 1st Kampffliegerkorps (1 x Bf 109E, 2 x JU 88): 138, 231, 132, 250, 231
Segovia: Dörstling with 6th Kampffliegerkorps: (1 x Bf 109E, 2 x Ju 88): 135
RAF (RN Fleet Air Arm)
Lannes: Ludlow-Hewitt with 4th Carrier Air Group: 74
Villada: Harris with 11th and 13th CAG: NIL, NIL
Sahagún: Ludlow-Hewitt with 4th CAG: 57, 40
Cistierna: Cunningham with 6th and 7th CAG: 55
Berlanga: Denny with 7th CAG: 13
We were lucky in Villada: the aircraft that attacked were still armed with torpedoes and armour-piercing bombs (confusion on the flight decks of the aircraft carriers?) that did no damage to our troops.
Unterseebootsflottes Activity Report
Cape Finisterre: 1 transport (UK): Portsmouth – Benghazi: Fricke with 3rd U-flotte
Coast of Cádiz: 1 transport (UK): Plymouth – Gibraltar: Wolf with 4th U-flotte
Gibraltar Approaches: 1 transport (UK): Dover – Hong Kong: Wolf with 4th U-flotte
Cape Peñas: 1 transport (UK): Dover – Aden: Dönitz with 2nd U-flotte
Eastern Madeira Plain: 1 transport (UK): Dover – Hong Kong: Wolf with 4th U-flotte
Iberian Plain: 2 transports (UK): Dover – The Maldives: Aßmann with 1st U-flotte