Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 10

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Operation Mars

Towards the end of March, with Allied reinforcements in place, the German assault lost its momentum.  German attacks had become less sophisticated with conventional infantry assault tactics being adopted by ill trained ‘trench’ divisions, a result of the high rate of casualties sustained by the stormtrooper divisions.  German artillery support had become negligible.  The German supply lines were fully stretched and exposed to constant harassment by the RFC.  The supply problems were magnified by them having to pass through the ‘devastated’ zone, an area created by the Germans themselves on their withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in 1917.  On the 28 March Ludendorff, realizing perhaps that his offensive had been sidetracked in favour of exploiting local success, attempted to put Michael back on track.  A hastily prepared 29 division assault, Operation Mars, was launched against the left flank of BEF 3rd Army where it linked with 1st Army.  The attack failed and was cancelled on the day it began.  The failure was it part due to faulty German tactics but also the defences attacked were stronger and the new defensive principles, particularly in the area held by XIII Corps in 1st Army, were correctly applied.  Ludendorff realising that ‘Michael’ had failed switched his attack.

Operation Georgette

Ludendorff had wanted to follow Operation Michael immediately with the previously planned Operation George.  The Germans were however exhausted, and the resources no longer existed with which to implement the full operation.  A scaled down version, Operation Georgette, comprising a sharp thrust in the direction of Hazebrouck, intended to isolate the bulk of the BEF forces in the Ypres salient and force a general withdrawal, was implemented.  The attack began on 9 April following a ‘Michael’ style artillery barrage.  The Portuguese 2nd division in the path of the main attack were rapidly overrun.  The British 55th division to the south refused their left flank and formed a firm defensive line.  To the north the British 40th division was outflanked and attacked from the rear.  On day two the Germans widened their attack to the north capturing most of the Messines ridge.  By the end of the day the British were hard-pressed to hold a line along the river Lys.

In the Lys area like the Somme differences were evident in the defensive principles employed by BEF units.  Even in the 55th division, which stubbornly held its position, an understanding of the defence-in-depth principles were lacking.  The 55th divisional commander wrote in reference to the term “Battle Zone”:

‘To this day I don’t clearly comprehend what this term implies – nor have I met anybody who did.’  Travers, How the War was Won p. 93.

The key difference between the Georgette and Michael offensives was the availability of BEF reserves that allowed a defensive line to be maintained:

‘In the Lys fighting in April, reserves, if only in small number, were available, and, in spite of the gap left by the Portuguese, a defensive line was formed and maintained.’ Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Vol 2, p. 480.

After a week sufficient allied reserves had arrived and with German logistical problems making themselves felt the offensive began to lose momentum, stopping finally on 29 April.

Next: Conclusion

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