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.

12 Surprising Facts About Red Dawn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn stormed into theaters. The Cold War-era film envisioned a WWIII-like scenario of what it would look like if Communist Soviets and Cubans invaded a small Colorado town, and what might happen if a group of teenagers fought back with heavy artillery. The cast included then-unknowns Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and Charlie Sheen, plus rising stars Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell (who had co-starred in 1983’s The Outsiders), plus veteran actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean “Avenge Me!” Stanton.

John Milius, who had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Apocalypse Now and who had co-written and directed 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, directed Red Dawn from a script—originally named Ten Soldiers—written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds. With a budget of $17 million, the film—the first to be distributed with the newly formed PG-13 rating—grossed $38.3 million. Here are some things you might not know about Red Dawn.

1. John Milius rewrote the script of Red Dawn.

Kevin Reynolds wrote Red Dawn while still a student at USC film school. MGM optioned the script and asked Milius to direct it. “I brought the writer in and said, ‘This isn’t going to be easy for you to take because, you know, you’re kind of full of yourself, but I’m going to take this and I’m going to make it into my movie, and you’re just going to have to sit back and watch, and it may not be too pleasant,” Milius told Creative Screenwriting. “My advice is to take the money you have and spend it on a young girl. Enjoy getting laid and write another script. Because this isn’t going to be fun to watch.’”

Milius said Reynolds’s script was similar to Lord of the Flies. “I kept some of that, but my script was about the resistance. And my script was tinged by the time, too. We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than his vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

2. Milus had a very unique way of auditioning actresses for the film.

Red Dawn co-casting director Jane Jenkins explained that Milius would ask each auditioning actress “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?” “And he’d always say a bunny, not a rabbit,” Jenkins said. “And he’d say, ‘Could you kill a bunny and skin it, and eat it?’ And the girls were horrified at that suggestion, and needless to say didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it were life or death …’ got to go on and read for the parts they eventually were going to play.”

3. Red Dawn was described as "the most violent movie ever made."

After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn “the most violent movie ever made.” They said it contained 134 acts of violence an hour, and they rated it X. “This summer’s releases are the most violent in the history of the industry, averaging 28.5 violent acts an hour,” the Coalition said. They also gave X ratings to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

4. Milius put Patrick Swayze in charge of Red Dawn's cast.

Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, and Doug Toby in 'Red Dawn' (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Because Patrick Swayze was older than most of the actors, and because he had more acting experience than them, Milius trusted Swayze to control his co-stars. “Milius is a very intense director,” Swayze said in the Red Dawn commentary. “He’s a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my lieutenant of the art. I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”

5. The U.S. military named an operation after Red Dawn.

In 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray named the mission Operation Red Dawn. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie,” McMurray told USA Today. A commander in the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division had already named the target farmhouses Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, so McMurray said the name made sense.

6. Milius knew Hollywood would "condemn" him for making the film.

“I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it,” Milius said in the Red Dawn commentary. “That I’d be regarded as a right wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken.” Milius supposedly left one of his guns on his desk while journalists interviewed him, so he demonstrated his ideals well.

“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” he said. “Hollywood was very left-wing. But I have a lot of contractions. I’m a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash.”

7. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did not get along.

Not all the actors were thrilled with Milius's decision to put Swayze in charge of the cast. Swayze told Daily Mail that he butted heads with Jennifer Grey in particular, who disliked how he ordered her around. “At the end of Red Dawn, however, when we shot her character’s death scene, she seemed to warm to me,” he said. “It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together.” Almost exactly three years later, the pair’s chemistry would ignite the dance floor in Dirty Dancing.

8. Patrick Swayze got frostbite.

Filming in Las Vegas, New Mexico, sometimes meant extremely cold conditions. So cold, in fact, that Swayze ended up with frostbite. “I got frostbite so bad in my hands and my toes, that now if my hands and fingers get the slightest bit cold it feels like someone’s shoving toothpicks under my fingernails,” he said in the Red Dawn commentary.

C. Thomas Howell had a different perspective on the cold temperatures. “You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen,” he said. “That’s what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other.”

9. William Smith frightened Charlie Sheen.

William Smith played the Russian Colonel Strelnikov, but in real life he had been a Russian Intercept Interrogator for the CIA. “He was terrifying,” Sheen said in the Red Dawn commentary. “I don’t know if he was in character the whole time, but you couldn’t talk to him on the set. You just kept your distance. But it worked in the movie—look how brilliant he is in the film. He’s an imposing force.”

10. Milius thought Red Dawn was a "zombie movie with Russians."

In the ‘80s, the Cold War was in full swing, and the world lived in fear of a nuclear attack. (Not totally unlike today.) “Red Dawn the film was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country,” Milius told Mandatory. “People actually thought that way. That’s why I made that movie, that’s why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that. That’s what made it an exciting movie.”

Milius compared the film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In this case, I made a movie of the same vein but with Russians. It’s like a zombie movie with Russians. That’s what it was like at the time. People were paranoid about aliens and people were paranoid about Russians. It was Close Encounters with Cold War Russians.”

11. The studio cut a love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe.

In the Red Dawn commentary, Thompson described a “beautiful love scene” between her and co-star Powers Boothe, who was 13 years older than her. “I say, ‘I’m going to die before having made love. Will you please make love with me?’ We said okay, and disappeared out of frame. And they took the scene out of the movie, which was sad because it explained my character. It was a nice scene.”

12. Fans still yell "Wolverines!" at C. Thomas Howell.

Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

One of the most iconic lines in the movie comes from C. Thomas Howell’s character, Robert. From a mountaintop he shouts “Wolverines!” which is the name the guerilla group gives themselves. It’s also the name of their high school mascot.

“I get that about twice a week in real life,” Howell told USA Today in 2012. “And about 40 times a day through Twitter.” He said in real life he doesn’t shout back, “but on Twitter, I cannot help typing a ‘Wolverine’ with a few exclamation points on it.”

10 Things You Might Not Have Known About Pearl Harbor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Pearl Harbor is best known as the site of the Japanese military strike that propelled the United States into World War II. But Pearl Harbor's contributions to history didn’t begin—or end—on what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941. From epic rock concerts to astronaut visits, the storied lagoon has seen quite a lot. Here are 10 things you may not know about it.

  1. Pearl Harbor's Hawaiian name is Wai Momi.

Translated, that means "Pearl Waters"—a reference to the plentiful shellfish that lined its floors. (The area is also known as Pu’uloa, or "Long Hill," due to its terrain.)

Unfortunately, overharvesting, pollution, and human-induced sediment changes decimated the harbor’s native oyster population by the end of the 19th century. But in February 2019, the U.S. Navy announced that it was teaming up with the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center and O'ahu Waterkeeper two reintroduce to native bivalve species: The Hawaiian oyster and the black-lip pearl oyster. Since they filter out pollutants, their presence may help clear the water in the Pearl Harbor area.

  1. A shark goddess was said to live in Pearl Harbor.

According to Hawaiian legend, Kaʻahupahau was a former human who had transformed into a shark. It was said that she lived with her brother (or son) in the caves beneath Pearl Harbor. Together, the pair defended the scenic lagoon and the native people who fished there. In 1902, the entrance channel was artificially widened so large American ships could pass through. (Hawaii wouldn't become a state until 1959, but it was annexed in 1898.) Locals became concerned that the project would upset Kaʻahupahau. When a newly finished dock collapsed in 1913, it was said to be the irate deity’s work. Others speculated that damage to the harbor caused Kaʻahupahau to leave—and she took the oysters with her.

  1. Pearl Harbor’s resident naval station was established in 1908.

In 1887, 11 years before Hawaii’s annexation, the United States was given the exclusive right to set up a naval base in Pearl Harbor. But the federal government didn’t formally establish one there until 1908. Decades later, in 1940, that naval station became the main base of operations for what would soon become the U.S. Pacific Fleet, where it was intended to curb Japanese expansionism. The fleet’s relocation to Oahu set the stage for the devastating surprise attack.

  1. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came in two waves.

Before the assault on Pearl Harbor, Japan stationed six of its Imperial Navy’s aircraft carriers, which carried 414 planes in total, at a pre-chosen locale 230 miles north of Oahu. The ships maintained radio silence to keep their movements a secret. On December 7, 1941, at 6 a.m., the first wave of Japanese planes took to the air, and just before 8 a.m., they began an all-out assault on the Hawaiian base. Caught unaware, the American forces were pummeled by bombs and torpedoes.

A second wave arrived on the scene at about 8:50 a.m. Unlike its predecessor, this one didn’t include any torpedo planes and it inflicted less damage. Still, by the time Japan’s second wave pilots returned to their carriers at 9:55 a.m., the U.S. had lost 188 airplanes while 159 more sustained damages. Some 21 American ships were sunk or damaged. And then there was the human cost: 2403 Americans died in the attack, and an estimated 1178 others were injured.

  1. Thirty-eight sets of brothers were on the doomed USS Arizona.

Nearly all of the American vessels that were hit during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack were later repaired, but the USS Arizona wasn’t so lucky. The 608-foot Pennsylvania-class battleship went under after an ammunition magazine exploded. Some 1177 marines and sailors perished aboard the Arizona. Altogether, there were 38 sets of brothers, representing a total of 79 men, on the battleship at the time. Within that group, 63 individual men were killed.

  1. Pearl Harbor was rocked by mysterious explosions in 1944.

On May 21, 1944, a tank landing ship (or Landing Ship, Tank) in the lagoon’s West Loch suddenly burst into flame. Next came a string of explosions that killed 163 people, damaged more than 20 buildings, and took out a grand total of six LSTs. The disaster’s cause has never been verified, but it has been theorized that someone may have accidentally set the whole thing off by dropping an explosive mortar shell.

  1. Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida visited Pearl Harbor in 1951.

By all accounts, the visit was a muted affair. Yoshida was returning from a diplomatic visit to San Francisco when he opted to spend a little time in Hawaii. On September 12, 1951, the prime minister briefly met up with Arthur Radford, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor. Three other Japanese prime ministers have since visited the lagoon. Ichiro Hatoyama dropped by in 1956; Nobusuke Kishi made the trip in 1957; and Shinzo Abe gave a speech there (with Barack Obama by his side) in 2016.

  1. Elvis Presley helped raise money for the USS Arizona memorial fund.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the building of a USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. Three years later, the king of rock ‘n roll put on a benefit concert to raise money for the project. Presley sang “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and 13 other classic songs before a roaring crowd of around 5000 fans in Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena. The big event raked in over $64,000 and created public interest in the memorial—which was officially dedicated in 1962.

  1. After returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 crew made a pit stop in Pearl Harbor.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Due to concerns about lunar diseases, the astronauts were confined to a quarantine trailer—which was ferried to Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Hornet. The contraption was later transported to Houston, Texas, with all three space travelers still inside.

  1. The naval base at Pearl Harbor merged with another military property in 2010.

Prior to 2010, Pearl Harbor’s resident naval base and the neighboring Hickam Air Force Base were two separate properties. But that year, they were combined into the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. According to its official website, the base currently has a population of over 66,300 and is “home to more than 175 tenant commands, 11 ships, 18 submarines and six fixed-wing aviation squadrons.”

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