On this day – The German Spring Offensive begins – 21 March 1918

British Troops moving up

On this day one hundred years ago the Germans launched Operation Michael, part of the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle).

Kaiser with Ludendorff

Also known as the Spring Offensive it was actually a series of attacks along the Western Front between March and June 1918 during the First World War and marked the deepest advances made by German forces since 1914.

The surrender of the Russians as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk at the beginning of March 1918 allowed Germany to move nearly 50 Divisions from the Eastern Front to the Western Front as they realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the arrival of large numbers of American soldiers in France. The Spring Offensive actually consisted of four different operations codenamed Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau, and Blücher-Yorck.

Operation Michael was the main attack intended to break through the Allied lines then outflank and defeat British forces holding the front from the Somme River to the English Channel. Once this was achieved, it was hoped that the French would seek terms for an armistice. The other offensives were subsidiary to Operation Michael and were designed to divert Allied forces away from the main offensive on the Somme.

German Spring Offensive Map Use this One

No clear German objective was established before the start of the Spring Offensive and they changed constantly as the tactical situation developed. In contrast, the Allies concentrated their forces to defend critical areas like the vital rail junction at Amiens and the approaches to the Channel Ports leaving other areas lightly defended.

Panoramic attack

The Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain their advance and each offensive subsequently petered out. By late April 1918, the danger of a breakthrough had passed with the German army suffering heavy casualties and now occupying ground that would prove impossible to hold.

Haig 2

At the height of the fighting in early April where the outcome was in the balance, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (shown above), Commander in Chief (CINC) of the British Army in France issued his famous ‘Backs to the Wall’ special Order of the Day (shown below):

‘There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.’

Special Order of the Day

In August 1918, the Allied counter-offensive began with the support of almost two million American soldiers. The ‘Hundred Days’ Offensive resulted in the Germans retreating or being driven from all of the ground taken in the Spring Offensive, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the capitulation of the German Empire, resulting in the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

8 August 1918

You can find out more about the German Spring Offensive here: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/1918-victory

On this day – The Battle of the Ruhr begins – 5 March 1943

S Sugar 467 Squadron RAAF

On this day 75 years ago the Battle of the Ruhr began, a five month campaign of strategic bombing during the Second World War against the heavily defended Ruhr Valley, the industrial heart of Nazi Germany.

The campaign bombed 26 major Combined Bomber Offensive targets including the Krupp armament works at Essen, the Nordstern synthetic oil plant at Gelsenkirchen and the Rheinmetal–Borsig plant in Düsseldorf.

Bomber Command Badge

The British bomber force that took part came from RAF Bomber Command and consisted mainly of the twin-engined Vickers Wellington medium bomber and the four-engined Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax (a famous example ‘Friday the 13th‘ from 158 Squadron RAF is shown below) and Avro Lancaster.


Friday the 13th

RAF Bomber Command operations were conducted at night with the use of newly developed navigational and blind bombing aids like Oboe, H2S and Gee. The force was also supported by the newly formed 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group RAF (under the command of Australain Air Commodore Don Bennett DSO) to mark the route and aiming points to guide the main Bomber force to the target.

8 Group RAF

The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) was responsible for the daylight bombing campaign and used two 4-engined bomber aircraft, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (shown below) and Consolidated B-24 Liberator.


The German defence consisted of anti-aircraft artillery (also called “flak”) and day and night fighters. The Kammhuber Line (a section of which is shown below) used radar to identify Allied bombers and then controllers directed day and night fighters onto the bomber stream.


During the battle RAF Bomber Command estimated that 70% of the aircraft lost were due to German fighters. British aircrew called the area ‘Happy Valley’ or the ‘Valley of no Return’.


The Battle of the Ruhr severely disrupted German industry with steel production falling by 200,000 tons, leading to the armaments industry facing a 400,000 ton shortfall. This disruption resulted in the Zulieferungskrise, or sub-components crisis, with monthly armaments production failing to increase between July 1943 and March 1944.

Bomber Command Memorial

RAF Bomber Command losses during the Battle of the Ruhr were estimated at 4.7% over the 43 attacks with 18,506 sorties flown. Some 5,000 aircrew were lost. In 2012 the Queen unveiled the RAF Bomber Command Memorial (shown above) on Piccadilly at Green Park in Central London. It commemorates the sacrifice of 55,573 aircrew from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other countries of the Commonwealth who lost their lives during the war serving in Bomber Command.

One of my favourite military artists is Piotr Forkasiewicz with some of his imagery shown above. You can see his portfolio of work and purchase prints here: http://peterfor.com/albums/31856

You can find out more about Australian aircrew’s experiences in the Battle of the Ruhr here: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E213

You can find out more about the Bomber Command Memorial here: https://www.rafbf.org/bomber-command-memorial

On this day – The loss of HMAS Yarra (U77) – 4 March 1942

HMAS Yarra Canberra Times 14 March 1942

On this day in 1942, HMAS Yarra (U-77) was lost defending a small allied convoy south of Java against overwhelming odds.

A ‘Grimsby class’ sloop, HMAS Yarra was launched at the Cockatoo Island Dockyard, Sydney, in March 1935 and commissioned the following January. Displacing more than 1,000 tons, she was over 80 metres long with a beam of 11 metres and armed with three 4-inch anti aircraft guns, four 3-pounder guns, a quadruple .5-inch anti aircraft machine-gun, and depth charges. She had a top speed of 16.5 knots and a complement of 151.

HMAS Yarra‘s initial war service was in Australian waters, on patrol and escort duties. In August 1940 she left for the Middle East. In April 1941 she escorted a convoy from Bombay to the Persian Gulf followed by service again in the Mediterranean in November-December 1941.

With the outbreak of war with Japan, HMAS Yarra left the Mediterranean for now Indonesian waters, arriving in January 1942. She carried out escort and patrol duties, including the successful rescue of over 1,800 survivors from the troopship Empress of Asia, which was sunk along with many other ships in the convoy BM 12 off the southwest coast of Singapore.

On 27 February 1942 orders were given to clear all remaining allied ships from Batavia (now Jakarta). At about midnight HMAS Yarra and another sloop HMIS Jumna sailed escorting a convoy to Tjilatjap.


Arriving off Tjilatjap (modern day Cilacap) at 11am on 2 March 1942, the ships were warned not to enter harbour. HMAS Yarra was ordered to take the convoy, which consisted of the depot ship Anking, the tanker Francol and the motor minesweeper MMS 51, to Fremantle in Western Australia while HMIS Jumna sailed for Colombo. No time was to be lost, as powerful Japanese naval forces were known to be operating in the waters south of Java.

Steaming south east at an average speed of 8.5 knots, HMAS Yarra and her convoy made steady progress during the night of 2-3 March 1942.  The following morning two lifeboats were sighted and HMAS Yarra picked up survivors of the Dutch merchant ship Parigi, which had been sunk by the Japanese two days earlier.

At 6.30am on 4 March 1942, the lookout in HMAS Yarra sighted a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron to the north-east consisting of the IJS Atago (pictured below), IJS Takao and IJS Maya, each armed with ten 8-inch guns, and two destroyers.

IJS Atago

Immediately the commander of HMAS Yarra, Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin (pictured below) made a sighting report, ordered the convoy to scatter and, placed his ship between them and the enemy, laying smoke and preparing to engage.

Robert Rankin

HMAS Yarra was out-gunned and out-ranged. Against such odds her task was hopeless, yet she kept fighting even as her convoy was overwhelmed and sunk, ship by ship.

Anking received many hits before sinking 10 minutes later. By that time HMAS Yarra was also on fire and listing heavily to port. MMS 51 was on fire and sunk by close range automatic gunfire from one of the Japanese cruisers. The Francol was also hit many times but still remained afloat, finally sinking at about 7.30am. HMAS Yarra, shattered by numerous hits, was the last to go.

HMAS Yarra 2

Soon after 8.00am, Lt Cdr Rankin ordered abandon ship. Minutes later he was killed when an 8-inch salvo hit the bridge. HMAS Yarra‘s end, which came after close-range shelling by the two Japanese destroyers, was witnessed by 34 survivors on two rafts.

HMAS Yarra Ships Crest

After sinking HMAS Yarra the Japanese cruisers made off to the north-east, picking up one boatload of survivors from Francol as they departed. A collection of boats, rafts and floats was left scattered over a wide area. Before dusk a passing Dutch vessel, Tawali, rescued 57 officers and men from Anking. However, in spite of frantic signals, she failed to sight two Carley floats containing 14 men from MMS 51. For the next two and a half days they drifted about until picked up by the Dutch steamer Tjimanjoek on 7 March.

Meanwhile Yarra’s men, their numbers sadly reduced by wounds, exposure, and thirst, continued to drift helplessly. On 9 March, 13 of the sloop’s ratings were picked up by the Dutch submarine KlL. Of HMAS Yarra‘s complement of 151, 138 (including the Captain and all of the officers) were killed in the action or died subsequently on the liferafts.

Rankin crest

In commemoration of Lieutenant Commander Rankin’s leadership commanding HMAS Yarra (II), the sixth and final Collins class submarine (commissioned in 2003) was named in his honour (HMAS Rankin (SSG-78) is pictured below).

HMAS Rankin at Beuaty Point TAS

On the 4th of March 2014, the then Governor General of Australia, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce AO, CVO presented the current HMAS Yarra (IV) with the Unit Citation for Gallantry (UCG) (insignia shown below) in commemoration of the loss of her predecessor.

Unit Citation for Gallantry

You can find out more about HMAS Yarra (II) here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-yarra-ii

You can find out more about HMAS Rankin here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-rankin

You can find out more about the presentation of the Citation here: http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Mar2014/Events/890/Brave-crew-recognised-for-extraordinary-acts-of-gallantry-in-1942.htm#.WlLvzFWWbIU

War Poetry – ‘Aftermath’ by Siegfried Sassoon CBE, MC (1919)*


“Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”

At the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 the actor Charles Dance gave a beautiful rendition of this poem. You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ks-x5Dfj5k

*this poem was very popular in the 1920s and often formed part of Remembrance services held throughout Britain and her Dominions.

Great Battles – ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’* – The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres

Friday 10 November 2017 marks the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly referred to as ‘Passchendaele’.

The Third Battle of Ypres was the major British offensive in Flanders in 1917. It was planned to break through the strongly fortified and in-depth German defences enclosing the Ypres salient, a protruding bulge in the British front line, with the intention of sweeping through to the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The battle comprised of a series of limited and costly offensives, often undertaken in the most difficult of waterlogged conditions – a consequence of frequent periods of rain and the destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands drainage systems by intense artillery bombardment. As the opportunity for breakthrough receded, Sir Douglas Haig still saw virtue in maintaining the offensives, hoping in the process to drain German manpower through attrition. The main battles associated with Third Battle of Ypres were:

– Pilckem, 31 July to 2 August
– Langemarck, 16-18 August
– Menin Road, 20-25 September
– Polygon Wood, 26 September to 3 October
– Broodseinde, 4 October
– Poelcapelle, 9 October
– Passchendaele (First Battle), 12 October
– Passchendaele (Second Battle), 26 October to 10 November.

Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred 38,000 casualties. The combined total of British and Dominion casualties has been estimated at 310,000 (estimated German losses were slightly lower) and no breakthrough was achieved. The costly offensives, ending with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres salient by a few kilometres.

* Taken from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’ written by him in October 1918 and first published the following year.