WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

When Germany Planned to Airdrop Fake Money to Take Down Great Britain in World War II

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Nothing looks particularly remarkable about the World War II-era printing plate at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. It displays the text and serial numbers you would expect to find on British banknotes from the time, but this artifact didn't come from the British government—as the video from Atlas Obscura below explains. The plate was a tool used by Nazi Germany in an attempt to delegitimize the economy of Great Britain.

When they weren't combating troops on the battlefield, Germany was devising ways to bring down other European nations using spy tactics. One of these strategies was called Operation Bernhard. By printing 130 million pounds of fake British currency and slipping it into Britain via airdrop, Germany hoped to cripple the nation's economy.

To make the banknotes, Nazis relied on forced labor from artists, bankers, and known forgers being held captive in concentration camps. Details from the authentic bills—including watermarks, serial numbers, and the type of paper used to make them—were replicated in the forged documents.

Despite the effort put into the project, the fake banknotes never made it into British circulation. The Luftwaffe, the airfleet Germany had planned to use to drop the bills over Britain, had sustained too many losses by the time the plan was ready to be set in motion. Germany may have used some of the counterfeit cash to launder money and pay off spies working for the army, but by the end of World War II, any remaining evidence of the scheme was disposed of in a lake in Austria.

Years later, those artifacts were recovered, and the Spy Museum recently added the pound notes and a forged printing plate to its collection. According the museum, the plate is the only known surviving printing plate created by Nazi Germany for Operation Bernhard.

To see the artifacts and learn more about them, check out the video from Atlas Obscura below.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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