WWI Centennial: Avenging Angel—Operation Michael

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 304th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

“We out here who knew that this thing was coming upon us, creeping nearer every day with its monstrous menace, held our breath and waited,” the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote of Germany’s final offensive in the spring of 1918. “When at last the thing broke it was more frightful in its loosing of overwhelming powers than even we had guessed.”

“Operation Michael,” named for the fearful avenging archangel of the Bible, was chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s all-in gamble to end the war with a crushing blow against the Allies on the Western Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Central Powers’ victory over Italy at Caporetto enabled Ludendorff to transfer a million men from the defunct Eastern Front and elsewhere to the Western Front to carry out the attack.

Europe, March 21-31, 1918
Erik Sass

The massive offensive targeted the British Army—now the stronger partner in the Anglo-French Alliance, with around 3.9 million soldiers under arms in March 1918, including 1.5 million on the Western Front, compared to around 2 million French soldiers total. By shattering the Allied line and driving a wedge between the French and British armies, Operation Michael would threaten the British Expeditionary Force with encirclement and the loss of its supply bases in the Channel ports, forcing the British to withdraw or be destroyed, hopefully followed by French capitulation (below, the ruins of the French village of Bapaume).

Bapaume ruins, 1918
German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Gibbs indicated, the impending German onslaught was common knowledge on both sides. Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, noted in his diary on March 20, 1918, “Each of the combatants seem to be almost completely aware of the designs of the other. Observation from the air, captured prisoners, listening posts, intercepted messages, the Intelligence Department … all help to make the information complete.” Gibbs reviewed the alarming intelligence gathered by the Allies in February-March 1918:

"Our flying scouts reported abnormal movements of troops on railways and roads far back behind the German lines. They reported new aerodromes established opposite our front, new hospitals, and field-ambulances … new ammunition dumps everywhere. Prisoners taken in our raids repeated the rumors in the German trenches of an offensive on so vast a scale that it would crush the British Army for all time …"

While the exact timing and location of the main thrust remained a closely guarded secret, on both sides everyone from top brass to the men in the trenches knew that the clash would likely determine the outcome of the war, not to mention the personal fates of countless combatants. John Jackson, a British soldier, remembered, “Any moment we expected a great attack by the enemy, but we did not know where or when the shock would come. The feeling of an impending battle was, however, in the atmosphere and everybody seemed strained and tense, waiting for we hardly knew what.” Similarly, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on March 19, 1918, “We are most conscious of the greatness of the moment, and have got into a terrific state of tension, and even when we have any time for rest, we genuinely can’t sleep any more, not for a second.”

Germans at the Somme, 1918
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ludendorff’s strategy centered on concentrating overwhelming numbers against a decisive point in the enemy line—in other words, brute force—in a bid to break through, end the stasis of trench warfare, and reopen war of maneuver (above, German troops on the Somme in March 1918). Altogether, Operation Michael would hurl a total of 67 German divisions in the Second, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies against the British Fifth and Third Armies as well the French Sixth Army, with the main blow falling on the British Fifth Army, numbering 26 divisions, giving the Germans an almost three-to-one advantage. If these attacks succeeded they would then proceed to the second phase, Operation Mars, with the Seventeenth and Second Armies pivoting northwest towards Arras, Albert, and Amiens in order to push the British north and crush them in a vise with the German Fourth and Sixth Armies, while the Eighteenth Army prevented the French from reestablishing contact with their allies.

Western Front, March 21, 1918
Erik Sass

Operation Michael would employ “infiltration tactics” on a large scale, in which storm trooper units armed with grenades, mortars, and machine guns would advance swiftly, exploiting surprise to penetrate enemy lines and create gaps that regular infantry following behind could widen and exploit (it would also incorporate a small number of Germany’s monstrous tanks, the A7V, developed belatedly and never built in sufficient quantities to be decisive; below, French soldiers with a ruined German tank). In addition to the tidal wave of men, the Germans assembled more than 1000 planes for the offensive, giving them local air superiority for artillery spotting, ground attacks against troops and vehicles, and aerial bombardment of rail hubs and supply depots. Most importantly, the Germans had assembled 6608 heavy guns and field artillery and 3534 trench mortars to deliver the most ferocious bombardment in history, using a new mathematical technique to target the guns without having to “register” or test fire them first, preserving the element of surprise.

French soldiers with an overturned tank, 1918
Der Weltkrieg in Bild, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ironically, much of the fighting would take place on the old battleground of the Somme, where British and French forces had forced the Germans back at a huge cost in blood in summer and autumn 1916, prompting the Germans to conduct a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in spring 1917. The ravaged battlefield presented special challenges in terms of mobility and communications, including the difficulty of moving up artillery, ammunition and other supplies in the event of a successful advance. Nonetheless, Ludendorff was so confident of success that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage traveled to observe the kaiserschlacht, or “emperor’s offensive,” which they hoped would be crowned with victory. Their hopes would be disappointed—but only after they had unleashed an apocalypse.

"AS IF THE WORLD WERE COMING TO AN END"

The storm broke at 4:40 a.m. on March 21, 1918, when a bright white rocket above St. Quentin signaled Germany artillery to begin raining shells on British and French trenches, strong points, and communications along a 43-mile stretch of front (below, footage of Operation Michael). The German guns fired an incredible 1.16 million shells in the first five hours alone, reaching 3.2 million by the end of the first day—more than the British had fired during the entire week preceding the Somme offensive, working out to an average 64 shells per second in the opening phase and 37 shells per second for the whole day. Around a third of the shells in the initial bombardment were gas shells of various kinds, including mustard gas and “buntkreuz” (variegated) shells, the latter typically containing phosgene mixed with sneezing or vomiting agents, intended to force enemy soldiers to remove their gas masks in order to expose them to the more poisonous gases.

Ernst Jünger, an infantry lieutenant, described the opening moments of the historic battle in his memoir Storm of Steel:

"Shortly before the show, the following flash signal was circulated: ‘His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.’ It was greeted with applause. The watch-hands moved round; we counted off the last few minutes … The tempest was unleashed. A flaming curtain went up, followed by the unprecedentedly brutal roaring. A wild thunder, capable of submerging even the loudest detonations in its rolling, made the earth shake. The gigantic roaring of the innumerable guns behind us was so atrocious that even the greatest of the battles we had experienced seemed like a tea party by comparison. What we hadn’t dared hope for happened: the enemy artillery was silenced; a prodigious blow had laid it out. We felt too restless to stay in the dugout. Standing out on top, we gasped at the colossal wall of flame over the English lines, gradually obscuring itself behind crimson, surging clouds."

Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, recorded the high spirits among artillery crews, reflecting widespread confidence in victory:

"At last we’re there, and with a crash our barrage begins from thousands and thousands, it must be from tens of thousands, of gun-barrels and mortars, a barrage that sounds as if the world were coming to an end … The gunners stand in their shirt-sleeves, with the sweat running down and dripping off them. Shell after shell is rammed into the breach, salvo after salvo is fired, and you don’t need to give fire orders any more, they’re in such good spirits …"

The German opening bombardment unfolded in 11 distinct stages and sub-stages, altogether lasting around five hours. These included, first, targeting communications and artillery batteries with high explosives and gas, then shifting to frontline trenches and secondary defenses with “registering” to confirm targeting, followed by howitzers raking the ground between the various British defensive lines to hit any soldiers who climbed out of the trenches to take shelter in shell holes (a defensive trick learned from the Germans). The howitzers then turned on enemy strongpoints, while field artillery hit the stretches of shell holes between the British trenches with more poison gas. Finally, all the German guns returned to targeting the British frontline defenses, laying down a wall of fire to create a “creeping barrage,” forcing the defenders to remain under shelter so the German storm trooper units and infantry could advance in relative safety.

The German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ordinary British and French soldiers on the receiving end of the German bombardment were understandably terrified by this volcanic onslaught. Unsophisticated British defensive tactics only increased the number of casualties, as around two-thirds of the British troops were deployed in frontline trenches, rather than further back in safer rear trenches, exposing them to the full brunt of the enemy barrage. The German guns also targeted British and French artillery with surprising accuracy, thanks to the new fireless “registering” techniques (above and below, British guns in action). Ivor Hansen, the British gunner, wrote in his diary:

"We felt that the whole German artillery was shooting directly at our Battery. Over the shells rained projectiles of all calibers, shrieking, screeching, whining, and moaning. Amid the hail of steel we could detect gas shells by their peculiar whine and sloppy bursting sound. This was the hottest bombardment I had ever experienced … Any moment we expected death, for the shells seemed to be making straight for us and as they screamed forward we crouched together against the side of the dug-out nearer the enemy."

Operation Michael, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British troops held their frontline positions wherever possible, displaying remarkable bravery, according to Stanley Spencer, a British NCO:

"The enemy bombardment commenced at a little before 5 a.m. and before it was properly light. It consisted entirely of trench mortar bombs of all calibers as far as the front line was concerned, and at first was mainly gas rather than high explosive. It very soon reached a simply terrific intensity … compelling us to put on our gas respirators at once. Everyone felt sure that the great attack was coming at last, but there was no confusion and every man stood to his post and waited in readiness for whatever should happen next. As it became light a fairly thick white mist lay over No Man’s Land. In the trench itself the smoke and gas from the incessant deluge of trench mortar bombs, coupled with the condensation of moisture in the goggles of our respirators, made it impossible to see for more than a few feet ahead."

Back in the German trenches, the sound of thousands of guns firing in unison combined with the inferno of explosions and miasma of poison gas to create an otherworldly scene over the battlefield, according to Jünger:

"At our rear, the massive roaring and surging was still waxing, even though any intensification of the noise had seemed impossible. In front of us an impenetrable wall of smoke, dust, and gas had formed … Even the laws of nature appear to have been suspended. The air swam as on hot summer days, and its variable density caused fixed objects to appear to dance to and fro. Shadows streaked through the clouds. The noise now was a sort of absolute noise—you heard nothing at all. Only dimly were you aware that thousands of machine-guns behind you were slinging their leaden swarms into the blue air."

After five hours of furious shelling, the German storm troopers and infantry finally went “over the top” around 9:40 a.m. Despite all the orderly preparations, the waves of attackers soon became jumbled together amid the sheer momentum of their onslaught. Jünger described the weird combination of calm and chaos as they advanced:

"No man’s land was packed tight with attackers, advancing singly, in little groups or great masses towards the curtain of fire. They didn’t run or even take cover if the vast plume of an explosion rose between them. Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on the enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more. In the midst of these masses that had risen up, one was still alone; the units were all mixed up. I lost my men from sight; they had disappeared like a wave in the crashing surf."

As hoped, they found the enemy’s defensive positions totally obliterated in many places:

"We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy. The shredded wire entanglements provided no obstacle at all, and we cleared the first trench, barely recognizable as such, in a single bound. The wave of attackers danced like a row of ghosts through the white seething mists … There was no one here to oppose us."

German tank in Operation Michael, World War I, 1918
German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By 2 p.m. attackers from the German Second Army were swarming over the British Fifth Army’s trenches, encountering fierce resistance in places, but still carried forward by sheer momentum:

"A man next to me lobbed hand-grenades at the British as they ran. A steel helmet took off into the air like a spinning plate. It was all over in a minute. The British leaped out of their trenches, and fled away across the field. From up on the embankment, a wild pursuing fire set in. They were brought down in full flight, and, within seconds, the ground was littered with corpses … Our success had a magical effect. There was no question of leadership, or even of separate units, but there was only one direction: forwards! Each man ran forward for himself."

Meanwhile, German engineers worked frantically building roads and leveling terrain, enabling field artillery to move forward over the pockmarked battlefield and support renewed infantry assaults.

German troops towing a mortar, World War I, 1918
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Enemy penetrations all along the British line threatened to isolate and cut off small groups of defenders remaining in intact trenches, but they continued to hold out with amazing grit, fighting hand-to-hand around trench traverses. However, there was no question about the eventual outcome, as the Germans committed wave after wave of new troops. Spencer described growing alarm as the German tide surged around his unit, bringing up field guns and mortars to deliver punishing close-range bombardments (above, German troops towing a light mortar):

"Very rapid advances had been made by the enemy during the morning on our flanks and we were thus left in the most uncomfortable position, being fired at from almost every side at once. I was standing in a fire bay at about 4 p.m. when one of these shells burst on the parados … A great flash of flame shot across the trench over my shoulder, straight at the feet of the man on the fire step. He fell backwards into the bottom of the trench, as the man by me and I both staggered and rolled over under the concussion of the explosion. My face was pitted with grit and powder and one or two tiny shell splinters entered near the corner of my left eye, but otherwise I was unhurt. The man by my side was hit in the back and the one on the fire step had his left foot completely burnt off. When I could properly open my eyes and look round I found that the first man had gone, but the other one was lying in the trench looking in a dazed sort of way at the charred grey stump at his ankle where his boot and foot had been a minute before."

By the end of the first day British troops were withdrawing under heavy fire, as often as not without orders and with no way to alert divisional headquarters to their movements. Paul Maze, a French liaison officer with the British Army, remembered the confusion of the retreat on March 21 (below, a British gun crew retreating):

"All communication appeared to have been severed. Avoiding the road, I strode into vagueness to look for our “brown line” about 800 yards north of the village. The visibility was very bad. I stumbled forward, thinking of the seriousness of the situation, a feverish anxiety growing all the while in my mind … The ground was marked everywhere with fresh shell holes; the uproar rising from the line had become alarming. Shapeless figures were running through the fog past me … Then men were under no illusion as to what they were in for."

British retreat in Operation Michael, World War I
British government, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

Although the Germans had achieved a huge success by the standards of static trench warfare, there were already signs of trouble. Ominously, the advance was already very uneven, indicating that even with overwhelming force on their side, the battle was not going to plan.

While the German Second and Eighteenth Armies smashed through British and French defenses on the southern half of the battlefield with remarkable speed, to the north the German Seventeenth Army was stuck, held up by a determined British defense of the salient in front of Cambrai, recently the scene of a British surprise attack with tanks in November 1917. According to Ludendorff’s plan, the “Cambrai salient” had to be eliminated on the first day of the attack in order for the German heavy artillery to be transferred north for Operation Mars, the subsequent attack northwest, pivoting around Arras.

French gunners in World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ludendorff had no choice but to give the Seventeenth Army more time to achieve its initial objectives, but the delay gave the British and French more time to assess the situation and begin to react—critical breathing room, even if it were just a day or two. Further, as the German Second and Eighteenth Armies surged forward further south it would eventually threaten to open gaps in the German line of attack, leaving them vulnerable to Allied counterattacks.

The Germans were also paying a terrible price for their extraordinary gains, as retreating British and French forces assumed new defensive positions and inflicted extremely heavy casualties before withdrawing again (above, a French gun in action). Jünger himself witnessed several gruesome deaths as they exchanged fire with retreating enemy soldiers from an old British trench on the morning of March 22:

"One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured on to the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. His snore-like death-rattle resounded in lengthening intervals, and finally stopped altogether. I seized his rifle, and went on firing. At last there was a pause. Two men who had been just ahead of us tried to make it back over the top. One toppled into the trench with a shot in the head, the other, shot in the belly, could only crawl into it … The man with the wound in the belly, a very young lad, lay in amongst us, stretched out like a cat in the warm rays of the setting sun. He slipped into death with an almost childlike smile on his face."

Another German officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled endless lines of improvised ambulances filled with wounded headed for the rear as fresh reserve troops moved up:

"What almost made me sick was the traffic to the left of us coming back from the battle zone. It moved very slowly and I barely could stand the sight. Many of the vehicles were horse-drawn forage wagons and I believe they were put into service at the last moment when casualties began to exceed expectations. All of them were filled with severely wounded men lying motionless, pale and bloody looking. I had seen many wounded before, but not in such an awful parade, one vehicle after another without end. The sight shook me up and I became frightened. After a while I forced myself to look away."

RETREAT AND COLLAPSE

Despite the astronomical losses, the Germans retained a decisive advantage in manpower and artillery, and from March 22-27 the offensive ground remorselessly on, pulverizing Allied defenses and forcing retreat after retreat. In fact, over the next few days the Allies suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the war, with the collapse and virtual annihilation of the British Fifth Army (below, wounded British soldiers await transport).

Wounded soldiers in Bapaume, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Germans bagged thousands of British and French prisoners and 400 heavy guns in the first day of the offensive alone. Private Alfred Grosch, a British soldier taken prisoner on March 22, wrote of the sad scenes as French civilians commiserated with their erstwhile defenders in his diary:

"Relentlessly onward we go. Back, back, right clear of the battlefield, moving all night … What a crowd: hundreds, perhaps thousands, French and English—a long column stretches down the road and behind us … we go through a village, the inhabitants line the road with pails of water, we drink as we pass. The women wring their hands at the sight of us, and when they can pass us a piece of bread quickly, so that our guards cannot see the action. We got to Guise; the castle on the hill is visible some way off. We enter the town, which, though in German occupation, is still full of French inhabitants. They rush into the ranks, push tobacco, bread, and food into our hands. One woman braves the guards, and rushes to me with a can of hot coffee, then she is gone. The men throw their caps to those who are without. Tears are in all eyes."

Those who escaped death or capture also found themselves marching for days on end without rest during the retreat. Jack Martin, a British sapper, described chaotic scenes and looting as battered British forces fell back on March 23, 1918:

"We were met by a continuous stream of retiring troops, fatigued almost to the point of absolute exhaustion, staggering along hardly knowing where they were going. Hot, tired horses pulling guns of all calibers while, on the gun limbers, artillerymen, who had been firing their guns for three whole days and nights, slept a precarious slumber in the continual danger of being jolted in the road and being trampled by the team immediately behind. At the camp we heard that the canteen at Achiet-le-Grand had been abandoned … leaving the canteen to the mercy of the troops. In a very short time it was utterly ransacked and I daresay it held at least £2000 worth of stuff … some of our fellows brought back two cases of whisky and numerous boxes of biscuits and cigarettes. From the top of the rise near the camp we could see the bursting shells approaching nearer but we did not get the order to move until the shells were dropping in the camp."

British officers managed to prevent the retreat from turning into a rout, at least at first, by staging desperate rearguard defensive actions, digging in temporarily to allow other units to retreat in relatively good order. But by the third day of the German offensive things began to fall apart. Stanley Spencer, a British NCO, described losing contact with his men as they retreated under fire on March 24:

"Shell after shell screamed over us to crash amongst the houses and along the road beyond us; great clouds of rolling black smoke rose and drifted across the village, while at the same time low-flying enemy aeroplanes raced overhead and poured machine-gun bullets among the crowds of men. Orders were at once given to scatter across the fields and our Company melted away in all directions. I did not see them again that day."

Mixed up with another unit, Spencer took part in repeated withdrawals over the rest of the day, falling back again and again as German planes directed artillery fire on to them with merciless precision, while the roads were jammed with retreating heavy artillery—a rare sight in the war, indicating how serious the situation had become (below, a British heavy gun in retreat):

"We spread out as a thin outpost line to the southeast of Barastre and the men began to dig themselves in with their entrenching tools on a forward slope of short grass. There was no cover whatever and the enemy shelling began shortly … Soon afterwards we retired to some higher ground about a quarter of a mile farther back … We had been there barely 20 minutes when enemy aeroplanes came over and spotted us. A few minutes later field gun (3-inch) shells began to burst all round. Second Lieutenant Lynch was soon killed … Further orders came up to retire again and we trailed back across the open country by platoons at wide intervals … The road itself was simply choked with transport, so tanks and batteries of artillery were hurrying across country. To the north and east dense clouds of black smoke were drifting across the sky from burning stores that could not be removed. To the south near Le Transloy great sheets of flame shot up from a long line of huts steeped in petrol."

Haevy gun retreating, Operation Michael, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As Spencer’s account indicates, planes now played a crucial role in “combined arms” tactics, serving as aerial artillery spotters, bombing enemy positions and transportation hubs, and strafing columns of troops with machine guns. Although the Germans had achieved temporary air superiority, British fliers still managed to inflict considerable damage on the attackers, who were suffering their own logistical problems. Nagel, the German officer, recounted one attack:

"On March 24 we got into another incredible traffic jam … This time British planes came roaring in, four or five at a time, strafing without mercy. None of our fighters were in sight. We had to open up and fire as best we could right over the heads of men and horses only a few feet away. Nearby infantry let go with machine guns. With few interruptions these fights and attacks continued all day long. To the left of us was the usual procession of the Red Cross vehicles. While we worried about the danger of these constant attacks from the air, I wondered how a wounded man must have felt, completely helpless in those wagons while machine-gun bullets spattered all around."

The struggle for air supremacy played out above their heads in countless “dogfights,” some involving scores of planes. Rudolf Stark, a German pilot, left this impressionistic description of a spiraling dogfight with a British squadron in his diary on March 24 (below, a British plane after an accident during takeoff):

"Turn, turn, turn, high and low. Tracer bullets cleave the air. Machine guns rattle everywhere, engines roar, bracing-wires groan and howl in dives. We are flying a big merry-go-round, one behind the other, so that we cover one another’s tails. I see a Sopwith attack the Albatros in front of me and shoot at him sideways. He breaks away and goes into a turn to escape. Our turns grow narrower and narrower … My tracer bullets skim along the edge of his fuselage, but again and again he pulls himself out of my sights. At last I get on the mark—a hit—petrol squirts out of the machine and hangs in a long streamer of haze from its tail. The Englishman is hit and goes down in a spin. I have no time to follow him down, because I am attacked at once. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Everywhere the rattle of guns. The air is thick with the threads of tracers, which are torn by propellers and twisted into all sorts of shapes by propeller winds. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Another English formation joins the dogfight, which becomes fiercer than ever. Turns, turns, turns, turns. I am standing still in space, and the world is going round me in crazy circles. Then I turn, and the world stands still."

Damaged British plane, World War I
Australia War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

THE PARIS GUN AND REFUGEES

Meanwhile, March 23, 1918 brought a new kind of terror to French civilians, as the Germans unleashed “Langer Max,” better known as the “Paris Gun” or “Big Bertha”—actually a collection of seven repurposed ultra-long-distance naval artillery pieces, supported by cables and capable of hitting targets up to 75 miles away. The advance of the German Eighteenth Army in the south enabled the Germans to build special rail spurs and circular concrete emplacements northeast of Paris, from which the gun dropped shells on the French capital.

Paris Gun, World War I
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coming at the rate of about one every quarter-hour, the first shells shocked and mystified Parisians, who at first blamed very high altitude bombers or even enemy agents hiding in their midst. William Graves Sharp, the American ambassador to France, remembered the reaction to the first shells falling on Paris on March 23, 1918: “People were stupefied … it was stated that there was not the slightest sound made by them in passing through the air. They simply dropped from space like some huge meteorite, without its warning trail of light…”

Paris Gun shells, World War I
Australia War Memorial, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Paris Guns had no real military impact, inflicting mostly symbolic damage. The worst incident occurred on March 29, 1918, Good Friday, when a shell caused the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church to collapse on the congregation, killing 91 churchgoers (below, damage to the church).

Paris church in ruins, World War I
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The long-distance shelling, striking defenseless people at random, certainly inspired fear and revulsion against German “barbarity,” but like aerial bombardment of civilian populations, it never succeeded in provoking mass panic and civil disorder, as hoped. Instead targeted civilians quickly grew acclimated to the periodic destruction, according to Marion Gregory, a volunteer interpreter working with American nurses in France, who soon adopted the blasé attitude of Parisians:

"It began at 7:30 in the morning and went on all day at intervals of 15 minutes, no one knowing what it was. We all thought for hours it was the long-expected daylight raid, and for the first time I went to the cellar; but an hour under ground, with a candle the only light, was enough for me, and I went up again to the apartment … The shops and public offices were all closed; and the Metro stopped running that day; but the next day when they learned the unbelievable news that they were fired on from the very front, the great people of Paris settled down once more to the normal things of life, paying no heed to the constant firing of “La Grosse Berthe”—she became a part of everyday life."

More serious from a military perspective were the crowds of refugees fleeing villages in the path of the German advance, who competed with retreating British and French troops for space on small, primitive roads. Many observers compared the exodus to the first days of the war, when Belgian and French peasant families fled the invaders for the first time, and now were forced to give up their homes again. Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, described the pathetic scenes as they rushed to the front to reinforce the Allied line:

"Dozens of high-sided French carts come through the village lumbering on towards the rear, piled high with all manner of household effects and grandmothers or grandfathers jammed amongst the load. Hundreds of overladen wheelbarrows trundle through the village with poor, lonely old men and broken-hearted women shoving all their earthly possessions before them … And poor lost little kids seeking protection. Pinned inside one boy’s pocket is a crumpled piece of paper bearing the penciled address of a woman in Abbeville. Night, and ready to move forward at any minute … Away on the horizon we see the gun flashes and, here and there, the steady glow of a burning village."

Refugees in France, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

MISSION CREEP

And still the onslaught continued in the south over the old Somme battlefield and beyond on March 25-27, as the British Fifth Army simply shattered and disintegrated under the mighty hammer blows of the German Eighteenth and Second Armies. Martin, the British sapper, described the continuing retreat amid freezing temperatures on March 25—a horrible ordeal for everyone, but especially so for the wounded:

"The opening of the barrage at dawn woke us and we found our blankets and heads covered with white frost … The traffic on the road was increasing every minute and soon it began to flow over into the fields on either side. Hundreds of wounded men were struggling to get back. All kind of wagons and limbers and civilian carts had been requisitioned to carry them back to hospital but the quantity of transport was insufficient; consequently, all those who could walk or even only hobble had to do so."

Spencer left a similar account of that fateful day:

"We had no line trenches or communication trenches and could not stir a foot from our shell holes except in the open; we had no more food and no reserve of ammunition; we had no supporting troops behind us and no artillery at all; and we had not even seen one of our own aeroplanes for days … Soon after 10 a.m. a runner got through from the right to say that the line had broken and the men were in full retreat … Still we hung on, though the barrage became heavier … Then the machine-gun barrage that swept over us seemed to double in intensity, so that we could scarcely hear each other shout above the drumming and chatter of the guns and the scream of the bullets. After two or three minutes of this deluge of fire … scores of the enemy sprang to their feet and came leaping down the hill towards us, some shooting as they came … That was the end. I saw no man hold up his hands in surrender but everyone turned and ran."

By March 26, as the remnants of the British Fifth Army streamed north (soon to be incorporated into the new Fourth Army) the Germans had finally succeeded in driving a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force to the north and the French Army to the south—bringing the Allies to the brink of total collapse. The British Third Army had lost contact with the French Sixth Army, and the route lay open for the Germans to seize Amiens, the central logistics hub of the Western Front.

But Ludendorff’s ambition and opportunism proved to be the downfall of Operation Michael. To the north the Seventeenth Army was still stuck, slogging slowly forward near Arras on the northern end of the offensive. As a result, Ludendorff eagerly threw his reserves behind the successful advance of the Eighteenth Army, even though its original mission had simply been protecting the German southern flank against French counterattacks. In other words, the main effort (by the Seventeenth Army) had failed, while a support operation (by the Eighteenth Army) had snowballed, in a classic example of “mission creep.” In the middle the Second Army, assigned the task of conquering Amiens, soon became overextended trying to support both the stalled Seventeenth Army to the north and the Eighteenth Army racing ahead in the south.

Gun line, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even worse, the German advance had outstripped their own supply lines in the south: by March 27, some of the lead German forces were up to 40 miles from their rail supply lines, leaving the transport of artillery ammunition—the lifeblood of the offensive—to horse-drawn wagons and scarce trucks. At the same time, the French were moving up two whole armies, the First and Third, to plug the gap with the British, and the Allies signaled their determination to continue the fight with the choice of the aggressive general Ferdinand Foch, a hero of the Miracle on the Marne, as supreme commander of all Allied forces (above, British guns).

Now, as the German offensive sputtered, Ludendorff made another desperate gamble: even though Operation Michael had fallen short of its original objectives, on March 28 he launched Operation Mars, the northern attack, in a long-shot bid to regain initiative.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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]

The Quest to Find—and Save—the World's Most Famous Shipwreck

Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums
Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Anders Franzén lived for shipwrecks. An engineer and expert on the naval warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was especially obsessed with the old Swedish men-of-war that had once menaced the Baltic Sea.

When he wasn’t busy at his day job with the Swedish Naval Administration, he’d spend hours combing through archives in search of maps and documents, hoping they might reveal the location of Sweden’s great sunken warships. And when he learned that one wreck might still be trapped, undiscovered, not far from his home in Stockholm, he was hungry to find it.

For five years, Franzén spent his spare time searching for the shipwreck. He had little luck. Trawling the waterways around Stockholm—what locals call the ström—with a grappling hook, Franzén's “booty consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees, and dead cats,” he’d later recall.

But on August 25, 1956, Franzén's grappling iron hooked something 100 feet below. And whatever it was, it was big.

Franzén gently lowered a core sampler—a tool used by oceanographers to get soil samples from the bottom of bodies of water—and retrieved a dark and soggy chunk of black oak. The following month, Franzén's friend Per Edvin Fälting dived into the ström and see what was down there.

Vasa Diver
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.

Fälting had to work blind. Just 30 yards below the surface, the brackish waters were pitch black. The diver ran his hands over the mysterious object and tried to get a feel for what it might be.

“I can feel something big,” Fälting said to Franzén over a diver’s telephone, “the side of a ship. Here’s one gun port and here’s another.”

There was a pause.

“There are two rows,” Fälting said. “It must be the Vasa.”

 

The Vasa was the greatest warship to never go to war. Named after the Swedish royal family—the House of Vasa—the vessel was commissioned by King Gustavus II Adolphus in 1625 and was earmarked to become his navy’s flagship. Gustavus had big dreams for the Vasa: He wanted the most lethal warship in the Baltic Sea, one that was as beautiful as it was deadly.

For three years carpenters, sailmakers, painters, woodcarvers, ropemakers, and hundreds of other artisans and craftsmen rushed to build the king’s vessel. The Vasa would be a floridly crafted masterpiece with at least 700 delicately carved sculptures, figurines, and ornaments: Angels, devils, lions, emperors, warriors, musicians, mermaids, ghastly faces, heavenly facades—all painstakingly crafted from oak, pine, and lime wood.

The boat’s exterior would be a palpable rainbow (gilded in gold leaf for extra measure). “The hundreds of sculptures clinging and clambering about the Vasa were an orgy of pink naked flesh, of steel-blue armor, of sanguine reds, poisonous greens, and marine blues,” writes Erling Matz in The Vasa Catalog. As Lars-Åke Kvarning writes in Scientific American, these ornaments had many purposes: “To encourage friends, intimidate enemies, assert claims, and impress the world with this picture of power and glory.”

Vasa Stern
iStock.com/rusm

The ship itself was constructed from 1000 oak trees and had three decks, including a stack of two gundecks, which would hold 64 cannons. The design was unprecedented in its size and complexity.

King Gustavus, famous for his military prowess, demanded it. At the time, he controlled “Finland, Estonia, and [Latvia], and he had just won the small part of Russia that touches the Gulf of Finland,” Kvarning writes. “By thus excluding the czar from the Baltic, he had nearly made [the Baltic] sea into a Swedish lake.” He was also juggling multiple wars and was anxious to get his hands on a new warship that would help preserve his dominance. He told the builders to make haste.

It was a foolish decision. In the early 17th century, constructing a functional ship was a matter of trial and error. (And according to Matz, there was a lot of error: In the 1620s, of the 15 naval ships Sweden lost, only two sank in the heat of battle.) There were no calculations to do or construction drawings to make. A new design was usually partially modeled on its predecessors—but the Vasa had none. The shipbuilders had to basically eyeball it. Worse yet, the Vasa’s master shipbuilder died mid-way through construction.

Vasa gundecks
iStock.com/pejft

Baffled by the ship’s giant dimensions, the Vasa’s architects were never able to confidently determine how much ballast the vessel needed. They filled the hull with approximately 121 tons of stone but believed it needed much more. But the king, who had personally approved the ship’s dimensions, effectively forbade any alterations—and anyway, adding more ballast would have brought the lowest gundeck dangerously close to the waterline.

When the nearly completed Vasa began floating in port, the ship’s skipper, Söfring Hansson, decided to test the boat’s stability. He asked a herd of 30 men to run back and forth across the deck; after just three runs, the ship began to teeter precariously. Some of the ship’s officers wanted to inform the king that the boat was on the verge of capsizing, but Gustavus wasn’t in town. The problem was ignored.

On August 10, 1628, crowds gathered at Stockholm’s waterfront to see the Vasa off. After attending a church service, the sailors—along with many women and children, who were invited to join the maiden voyage—boarded the boat. Four of the 10 sails were unfurled and, guided by a light breeze, the vessel lurched into Stockholm's ström just before 4 p.m. The crowd cheered.

And then it began to scream.

A slight gust caused the glimmering ship to tilt to its left. The Vasa briefly righted itself, only to return to its awkward, portside lean. The captain immediately demanded that all the gunports be closed, but it was too late—water had breached the openings. As one surviving crewmember recalled, “By the time I came up from the lower deck, the water had risen so high that the staircase had come loose and it was only with great difficulty that I climbed out.”

Vasa Bow
Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Dozens of men, women, and children began jumping from the ship. Stockholm’s waters became peppered with helpless, flailing bodies. Sailors clambered up the ship’s sinking masts. Within minutes, the Vasa was underwater and 30 people were dead.

The world’s meanest warship had been felled by a gentle gust of wind. It had traveled barely 4000 feet.

Hearing that his prized warship was submerged, Gustavus—who was away in Prussia warring against Poland-Lithuania—demanded an inquest to find and punish the people responsible. The captain and a few shipbuilders were tossed into captivity and an investigation ensued. Some investigators claimed the cannons hadn’t been tied down and had rolled to one side, causing the boat to heel over. (Not true.) Others claimed the captain had been negligent. (He wasn’t.)

The truth was, the Vasa was just top-heavy: If anybody deserved blame, it was the man who demanded such clumsy dimensions—the king. But to implicate an infallible man who ruled by divine right was to implicate God himself. Like the Vasa, the case quickly sank from public view.

 

There is a secret swirling in Stockholm’s harbor: The water there is too brackish and deoxygenated to support the wood-munching shipworm Teredo navalis. In salty seas, this flat little bivalve will gorge itself on wooden piers, hulls, and shipwrecks—slowly destroying all signs of man’s handiwork.

But not in the Baltic. Wooden shipwrecks remain preserved in remarkable condition. (This is especially true in Stockholm, where, according to the Vasa Museum, “Centuries of raw sewage dumped into the harbor have created a dead zone at the bottom, where even bacteria cannot live.”)

Days after the Vasa sank, Sweden’s Council of the Realm sent a British man down to salvage the wreck, but the mission failed. In 1663, a Swede named Albrecht von Treileben plunged into the chilly ström under the protection of a diving bell and managed to retrieve more than 50 of the ship’s expensive bronze cannons.

Diving Bell
Vasa Museum // Public Domain

After that, the Vasa’s location was forgotten for 300 years. The closest thing to a salvage mission came in 1920, when two brothers requested permission from the Swedish government to find the ship and turn the vessel’s oak into Art Deco furniture. (The request was denied.)

Franzén, on the other hand, was determined to keep the Vasa in one piece. Problem was: Nobody knew how. Nobody had ever attempted to raise a shipwreck so big or so old.

Crackpot ideas swirled. “One idea was to freeze the Vasa in an immense block of ice and let her float to the surface,” Matz writes. “The idea was then to tow the iceberg to a suitable position and let it melt in the sun, whereupon the Vasa would emerge.” There was even talk of lifting the ship by filling the empty hull with ping pong balls.

Vasa blueprints
Illustration by Bertil Erkhammar, courtesy of the Vasa Museum

Thankfully, Franzén’s discovery generated so much interest in the Swedish media that the navy offered to supply boats and train divers, while the Neptune Salvaging Company generously offered to return the ship to the surface pro bono. Divers would use water jets to dig tunnels beneath the shipwreck. Heavy cables would be piped through these passages, creating a basket that could help lift the ship.

In 1957, the first divers plunged into the ström. Working in complete darkness, they carefully began the dangerous work of hollowing out six tunnels, ignoring the fact that tons of ballast could, at any moment, collapse onto their heads. It was a deadly workplace. “Girders, plans, and other paraphernalia meant that the air pipes and lines could easily get stuck,” Matz writes, “And they did.” (It didn’t help that, as the divers dug, they discovered at least 17 skeletons.)

After two relatively uneventful years, the tunnels were completed. The wires were piped through and strung to two pontoons (cheerfully named Oden and Frigg), which gently lifted the wreck 8 feet off the seabed. Starting in August 1959, crews slowly moved the Vasa to shallower waters and set her back down. They would repeat this motion—lift, move, lower—at least 18 times. After each successful drop, the crews would shorten the wires, ensuring the boat would inch closer to the surface with the next lift.


Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

But before the Vasa was allowed to surface, the hull had to be made watertight. The iron bolts that once held the ship together had rusted away, and the salvage crew had to patch and fill those cavities while still submerged. (They also installed new watertight hatches on each port.) This underwater handiwork took two years.

Finally, on April 24, 1961, three giant bilge pumps began purging water from the ship’s interior and the Vasa was, once again, kissed by sunshine. Within two weeks, the Vasa was not only above the surface—it was floating.

 

For years, the Vasa was housed in a misty, cave-like warehouse. It was there, in the Wasavarvet, that the ship took a rigorous shower in preservatives.

Vasa preserved in water
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

The Vasa's wood contained approximately 800 tons of water—and it all needed to be removed. Researchers, however, couldn’t simply let the ship sit out and dry, because the waterlogged wood would shrink and split. To prevent cracking, preservationists had to spray the Vasa with a mixture of water and polyethylene glycol (25 minutes on, 20 minutes off) for 24 hours. This process, which came to involve 500 automated spray nozzles, lasted 17 years.

Slowly, water dripped from the Vasa and strings of excess polyethylene glycol trickled down, hardening to form stalactites resembling fine white candles. When the PEG-shower had finished, the humidity in the storage facility had to be gradually cranked down over the course of 10 years.

By that point, archaeologists—who had to be vaccinated against diseases such as jaundice and typhus before touching the boat—had already sifted through tons of mud and sludge in search of artifacts. By spraying down the Vasa’s decks with garden hoses, they had uncovered more than 30,000 items, including clothes, personal effects, barrels of meat, candlesticks, coins, and a piece of glassware containing a 66-proof alcohol. (“I can testify, from personal experience, that the liquor was good,” Kvarning wrote.) Divers also combed the ship’s watery gravesite to recover thousands more objects.

Vasa in PEG Solution
Archives, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

Of these, every wooden artifact was dunked into a vat of polyethylene glycol solution. Dozens of cast-iron cannonballs—which had rusted so much that they now weighed as much as a Styrofoam balls—were dried in hydrogen heated to more than 1900°F. Six of the Vasa’s crumbling sails, which could only be cleaned while submerged in liquid, were dried in a mixture of alcohol and the solvent xylene. (They took more than a decade to conserve.)

Meanwhile, the Vasa’s sterncastle—the elaborate perch protruding from the ship’s rear—had fallen into shambles. “[W]orkers had to identify and locate many thousands of structural components, ranging from heavy beams to tiny bits of wood—a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to be assembled without benefit of blueprints,” Kvarning writes.

Otherwise, the whole of the Vasa remained in fantastic condition. The fine ornamentations, although missing their brilliant colors, were still magnificent in their details.

Today, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In 2000, the humidity in Stockholm was so high that the presence of soggy museum visitors caused sulfur buried in the ship’s wood to produce corrosive acids. The ship is also shapeshifting. To monitor wood deformation, geodetic measuring devices are being used to map slight changes in the ship’s shape (which is currently settling 1 millimeter every year [PDF]). To combat a potential breakdown, carpenters have built a replica of the Vasa’s hull, which is undergoing a battery of stress tests that will hopefully teach preservationists how to improve the ship’s stability.


Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums

That hard work, however, has already paid off. Today, the Vasa Museum is the most popular cultural institution in all of Scandinavia. Home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship, the place is more than a vital time capsule—it’s an homage to an ongoing rescue mission more than 300 years in the making.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER