30/11/1917 Cambrai: the Germans strike back

The British have called a halt to their attacks at Cambrai. While the first day‘s successes were not repeated, the battle so far has done wonders for British morale, showing that the combination of tanks and carefully targeted artillery is able to smash through even the strongest defences.

The British think the battle is over now, but they are wrong. The Germans have reinforced the Cambrai sector and now they launch an unexpected counter-attack, hoping to recover the ground lost in the fighting so far. The Germans do not have tanks to spearhead their assault, but they do have the infiltration tactics developed by Hutier at Riga and then used to great effect at Caporetto.

When German stormtroopers attack after a short but intense bombardment they attack the right flank of the British, ripping through their lines. The Germans are supported by a significant deployment of air power, with large numbers of ground attack aircraft harrying the British. Only the deployment of the few tanks the British still have available prevents their complete collapse.

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German stormtroopers attack (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The German Empire  pt1)

29/11/1917 Fate catches up with German fighter pilot Erwin Böhme #1917Live

Last year German fighter pilot Erwin Böhme accidentally caused the death of his commander, fighter ace Oswald Boelcke, when their aeroplanes collided during a dogfight. The distraught Böhme had to be dissuaded from killing himself.

Since then Böhme has made his reputation as a fighter pilot, notching up an impressive rate of kills. Three days ago he was awarded the Pour la Merité, Germany’s highest award for bravery. This morning he shoots down his 24th enemy aircraft, a British Sopwith Camel. Later in the day he sets off on another patrol over the Ypres salient. Spotting a British aeroplane on a reconnaissance mission, he swoops to attack. Unfortunately he overshoots and the British fliers manage to score enough hits on his Albatross to set its fuel ablaze. Böhme goes down in flames, crashing on the British side of the lines.

The British retrieve Böhme’s charred body and bury him with full military honours. He was 38 years old, almost twice the age of most other fighter pilots.

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Erwin Böhme (Wikipedia: Erwin Böhme)

Erwin Böhme shot down (Barry Weekley studio: Aviation Galleries) follow link for more pictures of warplanes from the First World War and beyond

25/11/1917 Negomano: Lettow-Vorbeck smashes the Portuguese #1917Live

Germany’s Lettow-Vorbeck is being pressed hard in East Africa. The Germans had sent a Zeppelin airship to bring much needed supplies to him, but it had to turn back after learning that its intended landing site had been overrun by the British. Today the Zeppelin arrives back in Bulgaria.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s supply situation is increasingly critical, with his army (mostly locally recruited Askaris) running low out of guns and ammunition. Shortage of medicine is also a severe problem, particularly of the quinine that prevents the European officers from succumbing to malaria. But today the Germans achieve a victory that will allow them to fight on.

Pressure from the British and South Africans has forced Lettow-Vorbeck to retreat his force across the border into Portuguese Mozambique. The Portuguese have made some preparations for conflict with Lettow-Vorbeck since their declaration of war on Germany last year. However they appear to have gravely underestimated their opponent. Lettow-Vorbeck attacks the Portuguese today at Negomano, smashing their force there and driving them from the field. In the process he captures a large quantity of arms and ammunition, as well as medical supplies.

South Africa’s Deventer is leading the British pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck. He had hoped that the campaign was coming to an end, but the Germans’ unexpected victory means that the war in Africa will continue.

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German forces attack across the Rovuma river (Wikipedia: Battle of Ngomano)

Route of the L-59 Zeppelin on its unsuccessful mission (Historic Wings: Das Afrika Schiff)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Ngomano)

23/11/1917 Germany’s Zeppelin safari aborted #1917Live

Germany has sent the L-59 Zeppelin on a mission from Bulgaria to German East Africa, to bring desperately needed supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck‘s embattled army. After crossing the Mediterranean the airship has flown south through British occupied Egypt. To avoid interception by British aircraft, it flies at maximum speed and zig zags along the Nile to throw pursuers off course.

The L-59 manages to avoid the British but the Afrika-Schiff cannot evade the elements. The cold desert nights freeze the crewmen but they also cool the hydrogen gas that keeps the L-59 aloft. In turbulent air this morning the Zeppelin nearly crashes but the crew manage to keep her in flight. Then by day the terrible heat of the Sahara wreaks its toil on the crew, making it difficult for them to concentrate or work, in some cases even leading to hallucinations. But the airship flies on, crossing from Egypt proper to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The L 59 is now more than half way on its journey but then it receives an unexpected message by wireless. The British have captured the intended landing site of the L-59 in German East Africa, forcing Lettow-Vorbeck’s men to retreat into the mountains. A Zeppelin landing there would be impossible. The L 59 is ordered to return to Bulgaria.

The Zeppelin’s volunteer crew beg their commander to continue the mission: they want the L 59 to fly on to crash land in the mountains, so that Lettow-Vorbeck will receive at least some of the supplies. Any of the crew who survive the crash-landing will also be able to join Lettow-Vorbeck’s army. But Captain Ludwig Bockholt is adamant that orders must be obeyed. The L 59 turns about and begins to retrace its steps.

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The L-59 in flight (Historic Wings: “Das Afrika-Schiff”)

21/11/1915 Germany’s Zeppelin safari #1917Live

German possessions in Africa have been overrun by the Allies. The one exception is in German East Africa, where German forces under Lettow-Vorbeck continue to resist.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s men are desperately short of medicine, ammunition and spare parts for their military equipment. British sea power makes it impossible for Germany to supply Lettow-Vorbeck by sea. But this is the 20th century and there are now other means of travel. Germany decides to send a Zeppelin on a mission to resupply their East African forces.

Today the L-59 departs from Bulgaria on the 5,500 kilometres journey to German East Africa. This will be a one way trip as the Germans in East Africa have no hydrogen to resupply the airship. The Zeppelin’s crew, all volunteers, will join Lettow-Vorbeck’s army and the L-59 itself is to be cannibalised for military equipment. As well as medical and military supplies, the L-59 carries Iron Cross decorations.

The mission is a dangerous one. The L-59, now nicknamed das Afrika-Schiff, will be travelling across British controlled territory. And no Zeppelin has ever made such a long trip without refuelling.

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Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Historic Wings: Das Afrika-Schiff)

L-59 (Historic Wings: Das Afrika-Schiff)

27/10/1917 Fighter pilot Arthur Rhys-Davids fails to return #1917Live

Just over a month ago Arthur Rhys-Davids took part in the unequal struggle that saw German ace Werner Voss shot down after battling seven British fighter pilots. Since then Rhys-Davids has been sketched by William Orpen, who plans to paint a portrait of the flier.

Today Rhys-Davids is promoted to lieutenant. He heads off on a routine mission over enemy lines but he does not return. He appears to have fallen victim to German fighter pilot Karl Gallwitz. His body is not recovered.

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Portrait of Arthur Rhys-Davids, by William Orpen (Wikipedia)

24/10/1917 Caporetto: Austria and Germany strike back against Italy #1917Live

The previous 11 battles on the Isonzo have all seen the Italians attack the Austro-Hungarians, making minimal gains and suffering terrible casualties. The last battle however shook the Austro-Hungarians badly, with the Italians coming close to achieving a breakthrough. Fearing that the next battle will see their men collapse, the Austro-Hungarians have decided to strike back. They have reinforced their men on the upper Isonzo with soldiers taken from the Eastern Front and the Germans have supplied troops to spearhead the assault: seven of the 17 divisions committed being from Austro-Hungary’s ally. The offensive is also being commanded by a German general, Otto von Below.

While the Italians suspect that an enemy counter-offensive is possible, they think it unlikely before the spring. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians are careful to conceal their preparations as much as possible, deploying aircraft to prevent the Italian air force from observing their men moving forward. So when the artillery opens fire in the small hours of this morning the Italians are stunned by the scale of the bombardment, not realising the enemy has so many guns in the sector.

The Austro-Hungarians had retained a bridgehead over the Isonzo at Tolmein. It is from here that they and the Germans now strike. The attack uses novel infiltration tactics, avoiding frontal assaults on enemy positions and instead moving forward through weak points, bypassing resistance and leaving Italian hold-outs to be isolated and mopped up by follow-up troops.

Italian morale has been sapped by the scale of losses in previous battles and the brutal discipline of their officers. Now the Italian troops collapse in the face of the enemy onslaught with men abandoning their positions and streaming to the rear or surrendering en masse. Many soldiers throw away their rifles to avoid being pressed into some kind of pointless last stand. By the afternoon the Italians have lost Caporetto, known to German-speakers as Karfeit and to Slavs as Kobarid, with 2,000 Italians surrendering here alone.

By the evening the Italian forces on the upper Isonzo are in a state of rout. The enemy has taken some 20,000 prisoners. Meanwhile at his headquarters at Udine Cadorna only gradually becomes aware of the scale of the disaster. He orders a withdrawal from the Bainsizza plateau, captured in the last battle, and starts considering a retreat from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento river.

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German assault troops (Battlefield: Caporetto, rhe battle that changed Italy)

Otto von Below (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)

map (La Grande Guerra 1914-1918: Novant’anni fa la Battaglia di Caporetto, Ottobre 1917;
Un’occasione per riflettere)