Operation Weserübung, the German surprise assault on Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940, was in many a resounding German success. This is often attributed to the complete strategic surprise achieved, leaving the Norwegian leadership scrambling to get to grips with the rapidly developing situation, something they never quite succeeded with (the strategically insignificant capture of Narvik being one of few successful Allied offensive operations).
But in this chaos, a few memorable exceptions showed that the commander in the field has the ability to react in time to sudden developments, and even to wrestle the initiative from the enemy.
The best known example of this is oberst (colonel) Eriksen, who commanded Oscarsborg Fortress, and whose decision to open fire upon the unidentified warships that sailed past the fortress on their way to Oslo in the early hours of the morning halted the German invasion fleet.
Visst fanden skal der skytes med skarpt!
Sure as hell we’ll use live rounds!
Col. Eriksen when asked if they really were to open fire
A less well-known story, especially outside of Norway, is that of sekondløytnant Hannevig, and his Telemark regiment.
At the outbreak of hostilities sekondløytnant (2nd Lt.) Thor Olaf Hannevig’s only military background came from having passed an eight-month course to get his commission as an officer in the reserve in 1915. By 1940 he was a close to 50 year old business man with interests in such diverse fields as ship-owning, banking, farming and distilleries. On the whole, he was described as a colourful adventurer.
Upon mobilization he reported for duty at Telemark infanteriregiment nr. 3 (Telemark Infantry Regiment no. 3) in Heistadmoen west of Oslo. There he was turned away at the gate, as the regimental commander saw continued resistance as a lost cause. Hannevig, however, refused to give up without a fight, and travelled west to set up defences there. By raiding military depots in the area he acquired (without permission) light arms for his unit, while at the same time he sent out a new mobilisation order through the local constabulary. By mid-April he had assembled and trained a 150-300 men strong force of volunteers in the western parts of the Telemark, defiantly labelling his new unit as the Telemark regiment.
Hannevig’s plan was to fight a delaying action, hoping for reinforcements from the west. The first battle of the “regiment” took place at the bridge of Åmot, where it ambushed a German unit on the 21 April. The Germans halted their offensive until 1 May, while waiting for reinforcements which brought up their strength to two battalions. In a series of skirmishes during the following days, the Norwegians incurred further losses to the Germans, while blowing bridges and destroying the roads to slow the attackers.
On 3 May reports of the surrender of the Norwegian 4th Division in Vestlandet brought an end to the hopes of reinforcements, and Hannevig entered into negotiations with the Germans about surrendering. Due to demands that any surrender be unconditional, he instead “disbanded” the regiment two days later, with most of the 75 soldiers left simply reverting to civilian clothes and going home. After this he waited for the German advance to catch up to his position, and on 8 May he surrendered together with a few of his closest men. By then the 28 German POW’s held outnumbered the Norwegians, which consisted of four soldiers (including Hannevig) and six female auxiliaries.
It can be argued that both Hannevig and Eriksen fought in vain. Neither operation had any lasting effect on the campaign, as German paratroopers captured Oslo without the help of the amphibious force and Hannevig’s operation was way too small to have any impact other than dragging two German battalions into an area of secondary importance. However, what both show is the importance of local leadership at all levels taking charge and leading to the best of their ability, especially if there is a general breakdown in communications. In light of the Crimean invasion and the importance placed upon airborne troops and strategic surprise by the Russian Armed Forces, this is still today a valuable lesson for both active duty and reserve soldiers, NCO’s, and officers.
The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.
The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.
A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.
At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.
When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.
The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.
Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.
This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.
These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.
The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.
Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.
The skirmish of Schmarden was one in a long line of battles fought along the eastern front during the First World War. Like countless other battalion-sized operations, it would probably have slipped into total obscurity, if not for the fact that the German Landwehr Bataillon that conducted the attack was reinforced by the Pionier Kompanie of the Königlich Preussisches Jägerbataillon Nr. 27.
Just south of Schmarden, today’s Smārde in central Latvia, the Russian troops had managed to create a forward line of defenses that extended close to the German lines, and a decision had been made to perform a nighttime attack to destroy this forward line. A German battalion of reserve infantry would perform the attack in two waves, with the first wave capturing the target and moving up 500 meters past it, in order to let the second wave destroy the fieldworks. After this was done, all German troops would then withdraw back to their starting position.
To facilitate the destruction of the fieldworks, it was decided that combat engineers were needed, and it so happened that nearby the 27th Royal Prussian Jäger Battalion had a company of engineers grouped as the battalion reserve. This unit was made up of Finnish volunteers, who had managed to leave the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland in order to reach Germany and get military training there. This was all done in anticipation of the coming War of Independence. The members of the battalion, simply called Jääkärit in Finnish, came to provide the core of the ‘White’ Finnish Army in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, and several of the key officers in the Finnish Army during the Second World War had received their training in the clandestine battalion. As such, the importance of the battalion for the development of the Finnish armed forces is hard to overstate.
In July of 1916 the infantry component of the battalion was responsible for a rather calm stretch of the frontline in today’s Latvia, but the engineers had been held in reserve and hadn’t seen any real fighting. The attack near Schmarden would be their baptism of fire. Probably due to this, the company would not operate as a whole unit, but the engineers were attached to German squads either in pairs or in small groups of three. Exactly a hundred years ago, at midnight the night between the 24 and 25 of July, the troops started moving.
While the sky was relatively dark, the tall vegetation in no-man’s land meant that the Russian sentries was alerted by the sound of troops moving, and soon the advancing forces were fired upon by not only rifles and machine guns, but heavy weapons and artillery as well. Despite this, they managed to press on, and soon reached the first line of defences. These were relatively lightly defended, but when moving up the additional 500 meters they met harder resistance in the main and rear trenches.
The battle as a whole was a rather messy affair, with the advancing troops becoming split up and intermixed. It also seems like the Russian positions weren’t completely destroyed, and the withdrawal was complicated by both Russian and German artillery targeting the no-man’s land. According to the battle reports, the Finnish engineers had by and large shown great courage, and five of the sixteen Russian prisoners of war captured were captured by the Finns. However, it was also reported that in the heat of the battle some had forgot that their primary task was the demolishing of the Russian fortifications, with the Finns at times having advanced in front of the German infantry, and some even ditching their shovels to be able to keep up with the more lightly equipped infantrymen! Still, the general consensus seems to have been that the engineers performed well for being completely ‘green’, and Lt.General Wyneken is said to have thanked the Finns for their part in the fighting.
Unremarkable as Schmarden was, the total losses for the Finns were two soldiers killed in action and a further seven suffering minor wounds, it marked the first time since 1809 that a Finnish combat unit had taken part in an attack against a Russian force on the battlefield. It was also destined to remain the single major offensive operation undertaken by the 27th Jäger Battalion. Schmarden Day is today each year celebrate on the 25 of July as the service branch day of the Finnish combat engineers, so happy Schmardenin päivä to all my pioneeri readers!
The description of the battle is largely based on this text on from the homepage of the Ostrobothnian Guild of Combat Engineers.
And now for some out-of-schedule aviation geekiness:
Yesterday I encoutnered an off-hand comment about whether the Spitfire or the Messerschmitt (understood to be the Bf 109) was the superior fighter. This is a matter of debate that arises any time aircraft aficionados gather, but it’s Saturday, and I’m slightly bored, so I feel for writing something lighter.
The aircraft that came to be the Supermarine Spitfire was the brainchild of R. J. Mitchell, a talented engineer that had designed some of the most iconic racing seaplanes of the interwar years. Willy Messerschmitt’s bird had a rather different background, with Messerschmitt learning the trade by designing sailplanes. Much (too much) has been made of these different pedigrees, and how they shaped the fighters that came to be. Still, both designs had much in common, being powered by large liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines, relying on all-metal monocoque structures, and having a single low-slung set of wings. In fact, the Spitfire and the Bf 109 were amongst the first mature fighters to discard the biplane design in favor of the single low-mounted wing that has since dominated the world of fighter aircraft.
The engines of the aircrafts deserve a closer study, as these played an integral part in the development of both series. The Messerschmitt prototype flew with a rather unlikely powersource, namely a British-made Rolls-Royce Kestrel. In the early pre-war versions of the Bf 109 this was then replaced with a Jumo 210 V-12 engine (Jumo standing for Junkers Motoren), but by the time the war broke out the E-version of the Bf 109 had introduced the excellent Daimler-Benz DB 601. By mid-42 a further upgraded version of the DB 600-series had been launched in the form of the DB 605. This would then power the two final versions of the Bf 109, namely the Bf 109G ‘Gustav’ and the Bf 109K ‘Kurfürst’.
Compared to the Bf 109, the Spitfire had a more straightforward development, with the engine forever associated with the aircraft being the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This powered the prototype (as well as the early Spitfire Mk I in the Battle of Britain), and in refined form it powered the Mk VIII that roamed the skies of Burma in 1945. In parallel, a number of late-war Spitfire variants were also powered by the markedly bigger Rolls-Royce Griffon.
It is easy to overlook exactly how huge these improvements were. The Spitfire Mk I that went to war in 1939 featured a Merlin II, giving it 775 kW of power for a top speed of 580 km/h. The aircraft was armed with eight light machine guns in the form of the 0.303 Browning (7,7 mm). Only four years later, the Merlin 60-series (61, 63 and 66) gave Spitfires of the marks VIII, IX and XVI some 1280 kW of power, for a top speed in excess of 650 km/h. The armament consisted of two 20 mm cannons backed up by two heavy .50 calibre machine guns (12,7 mm), and for ground attack up to 450 kg of bombs could be carried. This remarkable increase in power and speed was taken even further by the late- and post-war Griffon-engined versions, in which the final version of the Spitfire, a carrier-based version named Seafire F.Mk 47 mounted a 1752 kW Rolls-Royce Griffon 88 driving a contra-rotating prop, propelling the aircraft to a top-speed of almost 730 km/h! In the meantime, the Bf 109 had progressed from the pre-war Bf 109A ‘Anton’ with its 493 kW Jumo 210D to the Bf 109K-4 ‘Kurfürst’ featuring a Daimler-Benz DB 605DC with a boosted output of 1470 kW.
Herein lays the true remarkability of the aircrafts, the fact that they could take on ever larger amounts of power, and still maintain their fighting capability. Extremely few front-line aircraft stayed in production throughout the Second World War, and both the Spitfire and the Bf 109 belong to this exclusive club.
This puts the question of greatness into perspective. Both planes evolved continuously during their long careers, and any attempt at an answer will have to include a reference to the timeframe in question. There is no doubt that the post-war Griffon-powered Spitfires in the form of the land-based F.Mk. 24 and the carrier-based F.Mk 47 were the all-out finest fighters, as the development of the Messerschmitt had (almost) ended by that time. During the late-war years the Spitfire also held the edge, with the Mk IX being a finer plane than the Bf 109G/K, which were starting to show signs of the airframe not being able to absorb the vast increases in power while maintaining the fine handling in the same way the Spitfire could. During the early war years, the question is harder to answer. The Bf 109F ‘Fredrich’ probably held a slight edge over contemporary Spitfires when it came out, especially over the North African desert, were the Messerschmitt’s dust covers hampered its performance less than the corresponding items on the Spitfire. During the battle of Britain, it is impossible to pick one over the other. The Bf 109E had heavier armament, and a slightly higher top speed, but the thin wing discouraged pilots from taking the aircraft ‘to the limit’ in dogfights, as overstressing the wings could have fatal consequences. In capable hands, both aircraft could more than hold their own against any aerial adversaries.
Still, the final word would go to the Messerschmitt, and in a very unlikely way.
After the war, the Czechoslovak aircraft industry had to find a way to supply the country’s reborn air force with fighters. As the Bf 109G had been produced in the country during the German occupation, it was a natural choice. The ‘new’ fighter was named Avia S-99, but after only a minor batch had been delivered, a warehouse fire destroyed the stored stocks of DB 605 engines. A new engine had to be found if production was to continue. This was solved when it was decided to mate the Jumo 211F engine and propeller used by the Heinkel He 111 to the airframe of the Bf 109G, a decision based more on availability than any finer points of engineering.
The resulting aircraft, dubbed the Avia S-199, was probably the worst version of the whole Bf 109-family to reach production. The large paddle-bladed propeller caused a huge amount of torque, making the aircraft extremely difficult to handle on take-off and landing. The layout of the Jumo-engine also meant that the fearsome 30 mm cannon that had been firing through the propeller hub on the Bf 109 G/K had to be discarded. All in all, it would most probably have slipped off into the pages of aviation history largely unnoticed, if not for developments in the middle east.
Upon Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, the country faced a massive attack from all sides by neighboring Arab states. One of the major problems was that the young state lacked any kind of combat aircraft, and due to an arms embargo, acquiring them proved difficult. Czechoslovakia was eager for any influx of dollars it could find, and was willing to part with a number of S-199’s. The aircrafts enjoyed a brief but eventful career in Israeli service, sporting an extremely high accident rate, but also scoring the first kills of the new air force when Mordechai “Modi” Alon, squadron commander of the sole Israeli fighter unit at that time, managed to shoot down two converted C-47 transport planes that were bombing Tel Aviv (Alon would later die in a non-combat accident with the S-199). However, of the (circa) seven kills attributed to the Avia in Israeli hands, at least one is confirmed as being a Royal Egyptian Air Force Spitfire. In a weird twist of irony, the Messerschmitt won the last of countless of duels. And it did this flown by a Jewish pilot, who had shot down two Bf 109’s while flying for the US Army Air Force during the Second World War.
There was yet another chapter in the story of the Bf 109. During the latter part of the war, Spain had secured license production rights of the Bf 109G from Germany, but they too found that the DB 605 where not available. In this case, the Germans desperately needed all available engines for themselves. For their homebuilt HA-1109 they therefore used French-made Hispano-Suiza 12Z, but soon a need for more power (and less torque) was evident. Although the plane was outdated as a fighter by this time, the Spanish Air Force decided that an improved version could be useful in counter-insurgency operations in their North African colonies. Thus was born the final version of the Bf 109, the dedicated ground-attack HA-1112-M1L “Buchon” of 1954-vintage, fitted with a, you guessed it, Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
Youngest and most famous of the RAF’s operational frontline squadrons, No. 617 ‘Dambusters’ recently ended their last operational mission with the Panavia Tornado when they returned home from Afghanistan last week. The story of the Dambusters is well known, how the squadron was set up with hand-picked crews to perform a special mission with a weapon tailor-made for the purpose. What is less well known is the history of their immediate predecessor, No. 106 Squadron, and especially its C Flight.
No. 106 Squadron first appeared in 1917 as a reconnaissance squadron, serving in Ireland during the troubles until it was disbanded. In 1938 it was reformed, and by the time it traded its Manchesters for Lancasters in 1942 its C Flight was regarded as the most accurate unit in the whole No. 5 Group. Guy Gibbson served as the Squadron Commander.
This is where the special missions came into the picture. The problem of how to put the heavy German surface units out of action occupied quite a lot of time and resources from both the RN and the RAF during the war. While Coastal Command had noticed that harbor raids with torpedoes could potentially damage or sink even the heaviest capital ships, they were extremely hazardous. Bomber Command, on the other hand, operated from a safer altitude, but the bombs did little damage to the heavy armored decks of the battleships and heavy cruisers. The Capital Ship Bomb promised to solve the issue. It was designed to, when dropped from a high enough altitude, penetrate the armored decking, after which it would detonate and send a heavy carbon-steel plate through the bottom of the ship.
The Capital Ship Bomb had been in development for two years, before it was felt that it was ready for use. For its day, it was very large, and originally it was intended that the Manchester would carry it, as it was the only British bomber in service with a uninterrupted bomb-bay large enough. However, as the Manchester proved to be plagued by engine problems, a modified Lancaster seemed the obvious choice. Thus the so called Lancaster ‘Provisioning’ with bulged bomb-bay doors was born, and the best unit available was chosen to carry out the first raid on Gdynia and the half-finished carrier Graf Zeppelin. The battleship Gneisenau was also present, but was apparently only a secondary target.
On the night of 27th/28th of August 1942 four of C Flight’s Lancasters took off with a single CSB each. Guy Gibbson flew the lead plane himself, but it was to no avail. The bombs, with the large round disc in the front, proved to be almost impossible to aim accurately, and all missed their target. Instead of embarking upon a radical redesign of the shape to make it more streamlined, the whole project was more or less abandoned. The first raid also proved to be the last for the weapon.
There was however no shadow cast upon the squadron. A new special mission followed, with No. 106 being responsible for the introduction of the 8 000 lbs (3 600 kg) HC-bomb (or ‘Super Cookie’, as it was called) into service. The weapon was the heaviest bomb produced at that point, but the squadron proved that it could even be brought over the Alps, when in late 1942 they struck targets in northern Italy with it.
By this time, the famous bouncing bombs were starting to mature, and it was decided to split C Flight from its parent unit to better be able to proceed with preparations for the dambusting raid in total secrecy. C Flight became No. 617 Squadron, and, as they say, the rest is history.
No. 106 Squadron continued to serve with some distinction as a ‘regular’ bomber squadron until the end of the war, when it was disbanded a second time in 1946. In 1959 it was reactivated yet again, this time as a RAF Strategic Missile squadron, equipped with the PGM-17 Thor IRBM. In 1963, with the removal of Thor from the British arsenal, No. 106(SM) Squadron was disbanded for the third and final time.