Veterans – History in the Making 13
Operation Michael – The Last German Offensive
On 21st March 1918 Operation Michael, a major German military offensive started from the securely held Hindenburg Line. It would prove to be the final offensive that the German forces undertook and was a major turning point in the First World War.
The Operation was designed to break through the allied forces lines in a North Westerly direction in order to seize the channel ports which were part of the main supply route for the British Expeditionary Forces with a view to driving the British into the sea. But two days after it was launched the Commander and Chief of the German General Staff, General Ludendorff changed his mind and decided to push West along the whole of the British front, North of the Somme. His thoughts were to separate the British and French land forces and by doing so they could concentrate on the British, they were seen as the superior enemy in comparison to the French forces.
Also at this time the Russian forces had in effect surrendered any lands they had taken and under the new Communist regime withdrew from fighting in the War completely, leaving just the Western Front for the Germans to concentrate on. Ludendorff moved fifty Divisions from the East to the West assuming that his troops would now outnumber those of the allied forces. By the start of the Operation Germany had nearly two hundred Divisions along with three Brigades on the Western Front.
Much of the ground fought over was now barren wilderness as an aftermath of the Somme and as such it was open ground with good sight of any incoming enemy forces. The German Army had trained in open warfare tactics and the development of the Storm-Troopers, elite infantry units, came into being. In addition and having learnt from the British improvements in tank and artillery warfare tactics at Cambrai, Ludendorff had concentrated on blanket bombardment on all British gun and artillery positions as his forces were advancing.
Thanks to intelligence from aerial photography and questioning German deserters, the British Third Army under command of General Byng, were aware an attack was imminent and estimated it would start around 17th March and as such were prepared. When it did not happen as expected, between 18th and 20th March a unit from the Royal Irish Fusiliers who had been training intensively broke through German lines and returned with prisoners who confirmed the attack would start the following Morning.
The bombardment by German forces started at just after half past four in the Morning and by five o-clock visibility was down to ten metres. Whilst the German forces did advance during the first day they also took some serious casualties, some forty thousand with slightly less on the allied forces side. At the same time the Royal Flying Corps were involved in air battles above the battlefield and lost sixteen aircraft and crew to the Germans losing fourteen.
On the continuing days of fighting the British Forces continued to fall back in a controlled fashion although as reinforcements were called in to assist many units got fragmented and soldiers were left to fend for themselves or join other units or other nation’s units.
The final German attack of the Operation came at Ameins on 4th April when fifteen German Divisions attacked seven Allied Divisions comprising of British and Australian forces. Ludendorff’s plan was to secure the town and this battle saw the first use of tanks in direct action against each other. Not only that, after the main fighting had stopped the British and Australians went back for more and recaptured the town. The casualty numbers for the advancing German Army were rising and reinforcements were becoming harder to find. As well as supply routes being damaged all replenishments of food, fuel and ammunition were being slowed up.
The following Morning Ludendorff ordered another attack on the town but it was repelled by the occupying Allied forces and Ludendorff called off the Operation.
During Operation Michael the Germans had captured one thousand two hundred square miles of land. Over seventy five thousand British troops had been taken prisoner with the loss of nearly twelve hundred artillery pieces and two hundred tanks. Nearly one hundred and eighty thousand British lives were lost whereas German losses amounted to nearly two hundred and fifty thousand.
Following this Operation as a final foray for Ludendorff and the German forces, the allies, along with the increased numbers on the French side with the arrival of the US Rainbow Division were able to push back and advance towards their goal although it would take another nine months of fighting to accomplish success.
Were any of your relatives involved it these battles? If so we would like to hear from you at Forgotten Veterans UK.