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Modern British Army


Lord Guthrie

British Paratroopers Conduct Operation To Capture Taliban Leaders...SEGERA, AFGHANISTAN - JULY 5:  British Paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment deploy from Chinook Helicopters during an operation to capture Taliban leaders on July 5, 2008 in the village of Segera, Kandahar Province. Afghanistan. The 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment conducted a joint operation with U.S led Task Force Paladin and Afghan Border Police in the village of Segera in the Province of Kandahar to capture Taliban leaders. According to the military, during the operation about eight Taliban were captured and detained.  (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)


Britain was the last of the great powers to introduce conscription and the first to abandon it. For all but twenty-four years of the British army’s continuous existence since 1660 it has relied on volunteers. Unlike that of any other major power during those three and a half centuries, however, the British army has never existed because of a clearly identified threat to the ‘homeland’: France, for example, with her long borders, was always vulnerable to attack from rival Austria or the Netherlands, as were they in turn from France; Prussia positively floated on the map of Europe during the period, her borders resting wherever the Prussian army could make a defensive position; and Russia, though always able to trade vast tracts of territory for time, relied ultimately on her army to settle matters in the marches of Eastern Europe, the Baltic and the Levant. For a century and a quarter after independence the US army, too, fought its frontier wars with native tribes and with Mexico. Britain, on the other hand, always felt secure enough behind its ‘wooden walls’: the enemy could never come by sea, as successive sea lords confidently asserted, and when the Germans once tried to come by air the retort was emphatic.

Because of this, the British army has always had to argue its rationale – and thus for its rations. And more often than not it has been half-starved, for trade and empire were activities of choice, while to politicians of all colours continental military entanglements were something to be avoided altogether. Indeed, as a national insurance policy the army has always been more ‘third party’ than ‘fully comprehensive’. And even when from the middle of the nineteenth century its numbers grew larger for reasons of empire, these numbers were dispersed around the world, rarely combining in more than divisional strength, whereas other nations organized their forces on an altogether larger scale – into army corps and even discrete armies. The British army did not as a rule think big in this way, although it did think globally – or, at least, its soldiers were at ease globally. When for example the 25th Middlesex – a Kitchener battalion – was sent to Siberia via Vladivostok on its own in 1918 as part of the anti-Bolshevik intervention, the soldiers did not bat an eyelid. Afterwards the Middlesex’s commanding officer merely reported that ‘One and all behaved like Englishmen – the highest eulogy that can be passed upon the conduct of men.’ For 150 years British army officers, often very junior ones, have had to relate what they were doing on the ground to the grand strategic object that London desired. Nowadays, young NCOs are doing the same.

From my time in uniform, and from reflecting on its past, I know that the army is a conservative organization: it mistrusts revolutionary change. Field Marshal Lord Carver, Britain’s most intellectually able and battle-experienced soldier of the last century, perhaps explains why in his Britain’s Army in the 20th Century: ‘Using the experience of the past as a guide to the balance required to meet future demands has often proved unreliable; but imaginative visions of how to meet them have also been, if not false, at least premature.’ But the army has more often than not proved exceptionally quick to change in wartime, when the requirement is crystal clear – if a little late.

The risk of false trails, of which Carver warns, is always present. Some senior officers have recently observed, for example, that as a result of working closely with the US army for the past ten years a certain ‘intensity’ is appearing in middle-ranking officers where before there was a ‘breezier’ style. This is more than just the old cricketing jibe ‘Gentlemen out, Players in’ when Montgomery arrived with his own men. It is rather that the easy pragmatism, ‘amateurism’ in the best sense of the word, that served the army so well when it was faced with ‘impossible’ situations may be giving way to a ‘professionalism’ which asserts that there is an absolute right way in any situation – a sort of military totalitarianism. But this sort of approach can work only when there are plentiful resources of men and materiel – which is not the usual situation a British officer finds himself in. Indeed, too doctrinaire an approach would rob the army of one of its true force multipliers: the original thinking of its officers. To what extent the Iraq bruising has dented self-confidence in British superiority in ‘small wars’ remains to be seen, but the dangers of an over-reaction, aping American methods when the British army has nothing like the US army’s resources, are obvious. The Iraq bruising may indeed prove to be a significant break in the habit of victory, but the army’s ability to pick itself up after a setback – as I have shown again and again – was a habit acquired much earlier.

Technology can also be beguiling, pointing down thoroughly expensive false trails. During the 2004 ‘stealth defence review’, the then CDS, General Sir Michael (now Lord) Walker, wrote in The Times:

Our advantage will no longer be in numbers, but in effects … one Apache Longbow helicopter flying against a dispersed and well-hidden enemy can be more effective than a squadron of tanks … Imagine if targeting and intelligence information from that helicopter could be relayed simultaneously to commanders on ships via Awacs aircraft, and to individual soldiers among amphibious forces landing to search for that same enemy. All in real time. Imagine how quickly we could make decisions. That is what we call network enabled capability, and it is that technology which permits us to deliver an increased effect with fewer platforms.

‘Imagine’ indeed. As I have tried to show in the previous chapter, the reality of fighting the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has been more ‘Victoria’s wars’ than ‘network enabled’. But even if technology were – had been – the answer in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the battles of Helmand and Basra pointers to what war in the future will look like? This is the permanent dilemma facing service chiefs in deciding where the money should go.

The parlous state of the public finances in the next decade will make the dilemma more acute than ever. No longer will the chiefs be able to ‘advance on a broad front’. Instead they will have to choose between current operations and possible future operations. In this contest between wolves and sledges, as the former CDS Lord Guthrie calls it, the only sensible course is to shoot the nearest wolf: make sure you win the battles of today, for defeat today increases the chance of war tomorrow. This means finding more men for the army and taking a risk that we can get away with fewer Eurofighters, say, and even aircraft carriers. But finding recruits and keeping trained manpower has proved extraordinarily difficult these past ten years. The infantry is chronically some 1,500 to 2,000 men under-recruited – three battalions’ worth – and many trained infantrymen are hors de combat through war wounds or injuries in training. In addition, an infantry battalion’s establishment – its authorized strength – has been so pared down in the past twenty years that most battalions are scarcely able to deploy on operations without heavy reinforcement from another regiment, including the TA. In fact, for its true war footing the army is at least 10,000 men under-established. But could the under-strength army recruit more men?

Several former chiefs are convinced that they could, not least because the current economic climate with its rising unemployment is in the army’s favour at last (and an expanding organization, as opposed to a diminishing one, has its attractions). Just as important, a bigger army would mean a less stretched army, one in which the soldier felt there was the right balance of training, operations, rest and personal development – and fewer seeking discharge in consequence. Avoiding the loss of serving personnel is particularly important among middle-ranking field officers (captains and majors) and senior NCOs, the repositories of operational experience in the regiments. There are other possibilities. The Brigade of Gurkhas, which bore a good deal of the burden of Malaya and Borneo, and now consists of just two infantry battalions and supporting troops (engineers, signals, transport), could easily be doubled in size. They are now virtually interchangeable with British units, and indeed have other characteristics that make them especially effective in places such as Afghanistan – not least facility in local languages. The ratio of infantry to other arms is also manifestly too small: in 1918 the infantry accounted for over half the army’s total manpower; today the proportion is well under a quarter, yet the nature of operations is once more becoming manpower-intensive. Imaginative schemes to integrate the TA more closely with the regular army have also long been discussed, although the sheer impracticalities and uncertainties of employing TA as ‘formed units’ as opposed to individual reinforcements except in times of national emergencies will continue to dog aspirations for greater integration.

Special Forces have never stood at a greater premium than now. The SAS are without question the world leader in clandestine operations against strategic targets, but their strength – at one regular regiment and two TA – is far less than generally supposed. Their manpower is never ‘capped’, however: the standard is an absolute one, and only a few out of every hundred who begin the process for ‘Selection’ make it to Hereford. One of the ‘critical mass’ arguments in debates about the size of the army is indeed the need for a pool large enough to yield the required number of recruits to the SAS; and equally one of the arguments for retaining the Parachute Regiment – though parachute operations in any strength are now almost inconceivable – is to foster a corps d’élite which not only has its effect in the army as a whole but is a fertile seedbed for the SAS. It is also striking just how many senior officers in the army today wear SAS wings – in no small part due to Guthrie’s championing of men who had served with ‘the Regiment’ when he (himself a former SAS man) was CGS.





On March 12th, 1967, Colonel Jack Broughton leads F-105D Thunderchiefs of the 355th TFW out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base against the large thermal power plant at Viet Tri, on the Red River, a short distance to the northwest of Hanoi. Taking the familiar route, approaching the target area flying down Thud Ridge, Broughton pushed his flight of four ships down to the deck and , “going like hell”, Broughton swung the leading Thuds southwest, just enough to give those on the ground the impression they were headed somewhere south of Viet Tri. Not quite abreast of the target, Broughton called the ‘pop’ and as the Thuds passed vertical they rolled to inverted going over the top, completing a giant wifferdill, attacking the guns from the opposite direction. Beneath them the big gun pits were lined up, their gunners confused by the maneuver, and before they could work out what was happening the F-105 pilots emptied their loads of CBU’s into the middle of them. Behind the Thuds came the strike force and, with the air cleared of the usual flak barrage, unloaded their bombs right onto the thermal power plant. The facility was destroyed in one of the best-planned and executed raids of the war.

Artist: Robert Taylor


Phantom Fury by Robert Taylor
The biggest, fastest, most powerful fighter of its day, the McDonnell Phantom was an awesome war machine that came to dominate aerial combat for over two decades. It may have been the size of many World War II bombers but it could out-perform anything that crossed its path; it was quicker, could turn faster, was better equipped with electronics, carried more ordnance than anything comparable, and it had an unbelievable rate of climb. The F-4 Phantom was the benchmark against which every fighter in the world came to be judged; it was simply the best. Robert Taylor’s powerful new painting shows Steve Ritchie, first into action, flying his lead F-4D Phantom through a hail of deadly enemy flak as he exits the target area after a typical FAST FAC mission on enemy installations in North Vietnam, 1972. Behind him a vast trail of devastation marks the mission’s progress, as his fellow Phantom crews continue to wreak havoc with their heavy ordnance, the target area exploding in a series of mighty detonations.


In 1961 Curtis Le May, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, testified before Congress that American air doctrine had not changed since the formation of the US Army’s Air General Headquarters in 1935. Vietnam proved him right.

Strategic bombardment always loomed large in the American conception of how to make war in Vietnam. Planning for an air campaign against the North antedated the Tonkin Gulf Resolution by several months, a fact revealed to general chagrin by the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Sustained bombing began in February, ostensibly in reprisal for NLF attacks on American bases in the South. The campaign, called Rolling Thunder, was designed to achieve psychological and political, rather than strictly military effects, by inflicting gradually increasing punishment. At first the target list was limited to military bases and logistical targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and near the demilitarized zone separating North and South. Over time it would expand to include factories, fuel storage facilities and transportation infrastructure throughout the country. Although the escalatory nature of the plan would later be criticized, the alternative – a campaign that struck harder at the outset – was not obviously more promising, given the dearth of strategically significant targets in the North. A more concerted attack would still have been based on nothing more than psychological speculation about how best to impact enemy morale. To the extent that the Northern war effort depended upon an industrial and logistical infrastructure, its crucial nodes were in China and the Soviet Union, and were thus immune from direct attack.

Area bombing of Northern cities was ruled out; but as the target list expanded, civilian suffering did too. The CIA estimated that 2,800 North Vietnamese were killed each month in 1967. Hanoi always assumed a city-busting campaign was just around the corner, and took pains to disburse and protect its population. Many Northerners spent years living underground. In time, the North acquired formidable air defences, chiefly MIGs and SAMs from the Soviet Union, which felt that its credibility as the guardian of world communism was threatened by the American attack. Over nine hundred US planes were shot down in the course of delivering 643,000 tons of bombs against the North, far more than were dropped on Japan in 1944-5. In monetary terms, the cost of Rolling Thunder exceeded the value of the things it destroyed by a factor of ten. It also failed in its role as a signalling mechanism. The US suspended its bombing of the North seven times between 1965 and 1968, in a vain effort to communicate its willingness to negotiate. Hanoi used the breaks to rebuild and rearm.

The Air Force that Flew Rolling Thunder

The Air Force of 1965 was, in many ways, the Air Force of 1947-only bigger and faster. Its top leadership, to some extent, had stagnated. Its most senior officers had been commissioned as much as a decade before the Second World War. Some of its generals had attained their rank during World War II and had been generals for more than two decades. Many colonels had held their rank since the end of that war. The younger colonels, who had received their commissions in the final months of World War II, had spent their entire careers in an Air Force wedded to the concept of strategic bombing. Airmen like LeMay, who had been on, active duty since the 1930s, implemented the doctrine of strategic bombardment during World War II. Despite the controversy surrounding assessments of its results, airpower enthusiasts clung to their notions of the decisive impact of strategic bombing and advocated its use on North Vietnam.

Faith in technology, wedded to the doctrine that strategic bombardment would be decisive in any conflict, provided an underlying certainty that air power could accomplish virtually anything asked of it.

LeMay’s commitment to the efficacy of strategic bombing was unshakable. He had been a player in the Pentagon’s computer war games in 1964 in which scenarios were devised to reflect as closely as possible any situation that might arise in Vietnam. Two teams, Red and Blue, were assembled. Gen Earle G. Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marshall Green, a foreign service officer with considerable Southeast Asia experience, made up the Red (Hanoi) team. The Blue team included John T. McNaughton, William P. Bundy, and General LeMay.

As the game evolved, Hanoi countered every Blue team move. When Blue bombed, Red moved men south. Because Blue was bombing Red, it was assumed that Red would retaliate in kind. Thus, Blue deployed Hawk sites around its air bases. Instead of sending its bombers (which presumably would have been Chinese since North Vietnam possessed only a handful of MiG jet fighters) against these batteries, Red used sappers to disable the Hawk sites forcing the Blue team to deploy troops to protect the missile sites. The Red team developed as many options as the Blue team, countering every move and forcing an escalation with each step. When Blue expanded the bombing, Red moved prisoners of war and school children into its factories.

LeMay supposedly became furious. During one intermission he reportedly engaged in a heated exchange with Bundy over the political restrictions under which Blue was forced to act. LeMay said Blue was swatting flies when it should be “going after the manure pile,” as he referred to Red’s dikes, oil depots, and ports. He is said to exclaimed, “We should bomb them into the Stone Age.” To which Bundy is supposed to have answered “Maybe they’re already there.” The results of this war game aside, everyone involved in the decision on whether to bomb North Vietnam seemed to focus more on the political events at home.

The Air Force was the most adamant about bombing, always recommending the strongest actions against the North. As early as March 1964, when the commander in chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), developed a three-phased operations plan for bombing in Laos, eastern Cambodia, and North Vietnam, the JCS drew up its 94-targets list. The Joint Chiefs based their list of targets on the assumption that the North was an industrialized country actively engaged in furnishing massive support for the insurgency in South Vietnam and the civil war in Laos. When the administration opted for a more moderate tit-for-tat retaliatory policy in 1964 out of political expediency, the Air Force advocated provoking North Vietnam into actions to which the United States could then retaliate in force. The Air Force proposed launching a massive aerial offensive and reducing the number of ground forces called for in CINCPAC OPlan 37-64 should North Vietnam or China introduce regular forces into the fighting in Laos or South Vietnam.

On 1 November 1964, election eve, word arrived at the White House that Vietcong sappers had attacked Bien Hoa Air Base, a burgeoning complex outside Saigon. Six Air Force B-57 bombers were reduced to smoldering rubble, a dozen others damaged, and five American servicemen killed. The Air Force recommended B-52 raids on Phuc Yen, a MiG-capable airfield outside Hanoi. President Johnson, sensitive to the political realities of election eve, decided against any immediate retaliatory action. The president, however, did ask for options for future actions focusing on bombing North Vietnam. On 11 November, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton’s team at ISA developed a draft memorandum entitled, “Action for South Vietnam,” in which he proposed three options. Option A was to continue the present course with reprisal actions designed to deter and to punish North Vietnam for attacks in the South. Option B, the one favored by the Joint Chiefs, was dubbed the “full court press” and called for systematic attacks on the North-bombing rapidly, widely, and intensely. Option C was labelled “progressive squeeze and talk,” a compromise combining covert air strikes in Laos with bombing in the North, beginning at a low level of intensity in the panhandle and moving upward, both in latitude and violence toward the lucrative targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas. Option C reflected deterrence theory in that it provided for increasing pressure to be applied until the desired outcome was achieved. It also provided the sense of consensus for which the president longed.

The president decided on a modified version of option C. Accordingly, in December covert activities in Laos increased with the beginning of Operation Barrel Roll-armed reconnaissance missions flown along the infiltration routes developing in the Laotian panhandle. In the first week of Barrel Roll the US flew two missions of four aircraft each. The idea was to send a signal to Hanoi. No one knows if anyone in Hanoi was even aware that these missions took place.

Rolling Thunder Begins

The Flaming Dart raids were intended to link actions in South Vietnam to reprisals against the North. The earlier bombings had been in direct response to a North Vietnamese provocation aimed at American forces outside of South Vietnam. Flaming Dart I and II were directly related to the actions of the outside instigator as manipulator of the insurgency in the South. As such, the raids were intended as a signal that the United States planned to hold the North Vietnamese responsible for Vietcong activities in South Vietnam.

After Flaming Dart II, President Johnson huddled with his principal advisors to confirm the direction set by the raids. Later he told Doris Kearns, “Suddenly I realized that doing nothing was more dangerous than doing something.” President Johnson had decided on a course of action: movement toward an expanded bombing of North Vietnam. It was not, however, a well-defined course devised to deliver victory in the classic military sense. The details of Rolling Thunder, as the bombing was dubbed, were vague and centered around option C, the compromise position between those who advocated restraint and those who wanted a larger program. What it did provide was the flexibility and the sense of control that Johnson wanted.

The first Rolling Thunder strikes were flown on 2 March 1965. At the time no one thought the bombing would last longer than a few months. The Air Force submitted a proposal for a 28-day intensive campaign that would have struck all the targets on the JCS list. The Joint Chiefs, however, proposed a program that would do the same things, but do them over a three-month period. No one-not the civilians in the Defense Department or the State Department, not the president, and certainly not the generals believed North Vietnam could endure the bombing for more than six months.

Johann Joseph Wenzel Graf Radetzky von Radetz, (1766–1858)


Chief of the general staff of the Austrian armies against Napoleon and commanding general of Austrian forces during the revolution of 1848 in Italy. In his youth, Radetzky proved his bravery as a soldier; he was wounded numerous times, and he was noted for his intelligence and initiative. As a commander, he demonstrated concern for his soldiers and proposed innovations such as officer training schools, peacetime army maneuvers, and the use of militia (Landwehr). He hated bureaucracy and battled the rigid regulations and stagnation of the Habsburg imperial court. His strategic sense, however, led to the victories in 1813 and 1848-1849 that saved the faltering Habsburg Empire.

Radetzky was born on 2 November 1766 at Trebnice, south of Prague, on the holdings of his father, Peter Graf Euseb. He enlisted in a cuirassier regiment in 1784 and saw his first action in the war against Turkey in 1788-1789. During the French Revolutionary Wars, he led a cavalry charge at Fleurus (26 June 1794) and was promoted to captain. In 1796, he was a member of Jean de Beaulieu’s staff facing Bonaparte’s French army in northern Italy. During the War of the Second Coalition, he attained the rank of colonel and served at the Trebbia, Novi, Marengo, and Hohenlinden. In 1805, he was a Generalmajor under Archduke Charles in Italy. After assisting the archduke in reform efforts for the Austrian Army, in 1809 he commanded Feldmarschalleutnant Johann von Hiller’s rear guard. For service at and after the Battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809), he was promoted to Feldmarschalleutnant. As chief of the general staff, he tried again to reorganize and modernize the Austrian Army, but he faced an impossible task in the face of conservative opposition in Vienna.

Before Austria joined the Sixth Coalition in 1813, the forty-six-year-old Radetzky helped to assemble and organize an army of over 200,000 men under Feldmarschall Karl Fürst zu Schwarzenberg. He authored the Trachenberg Plan (12 July 1813), which guided Allied strategy during the autumn campaign in Germany. While Allied commanders were instructed to avoid battles in which Napoleon himself commanded, they were to seize the offensive against the French emperor’s line of communications and any detached corps. This method led to Napoleon’s expulsion from Germany after the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October).

Radetzky urged Emperor Francis I to have Schwarzenberg’s army lead the invasion of France in 1814, but Austria’s chancellor, Klemens Fürst Metternich, for political reasons, did not endorse this strategy. Radetzky was not allowed to contribute further to the overall Austrian planning. Thus, Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussians led the Allied advance toward Paris, prompting Napoleon’s abdication in April, while Schwarzenberg’s army crept securely along the Aube and Seine rivers.

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and his second abdication in 1815, Radetzky held minor posts in the Austrian Empire while the Habsburg army was allowed to deteriorate. However, as a result of nationalistic revolts in Italy in 1830, he was sent to quell the unrest as commanding general of Lombardy-Venetia.

He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Upper Italy in 1831, and promoted to Field Marshal in 1836, when he was 70. Tough and vigorous despite his age, Radetzky introduced the modern concept of peacetime maneuvers so his army would always be combat-ready; his soldiers were reputedly the best-trained in Europe. His preparedness paid off in 1848 when revolution broke out throughout Italy. Radetzky crushed the uprisings with two major battles, at Custoza (1848) and Novara (1849), in both cases using brilliant tactics to defeat greatly superior numbers. He also commanded during the year-long siege of Venice and negotiated the city’s surrender in August 1849. To safeguard these victories he was appointed Governor-General of Upper Italy that same year. Radetzky’s skills as a fighter and administrator reasserted Austrian dominance of the region and set back the cause of Italian reunification by ten years. Emperor Franz Joseph finally forced him to retire at age 90 in 1857. He died in Milan a few months later and was buried at Austria’s warrior pantheon in Heldenberg. The Italians, aided by the French, made quick capital of Radetzky’s departure: in 1859 they defeated his former army and reclaimed most of the Austrian-held territories. A united Kingdom of Italy was finally established under Victor Emmanuel II in 1861. Beyond his role in military history, Radetzky is remembered for a piece of light music. To celebrate the Battle of Custoza, Johann Strauss, Sr. composed the famous “Radetzky March” (1848) in his honor. At its first performance in Vienna army officers spontaneously began to clap and stamp their feet to the chorus, and audiences since then have made this part of the work’s tradition. The “Radetzky March” is played as the customary finale to the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts.

References and further reading Rothenberg, Gunther E. 1982. Napoleon’s Great Adversary: Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army, 1792-1814. London: Batsford. Sked, Alan. 1979. The Survival of the Habsburg Empire: Radetsky, the Imperial Army, and the Class War of 1848. New York: Longman.

Afghan Pathans


66th Foot at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880.


“Maiwand: Saving the Guns”. Royal Horse Artillery withdrawing from Afghan attack at the Battle of Maiwand, painted by Richard Caton Woodville


Ferocity is an extremely respected personal attribute in the formidable warrior traditions of the Afghan tribes. The Soviet Red Army found that out during ten years of irregular and asymmetrical combat in Afghanistan. And as we shall see in a later chapter they were not the first outside power to encounter the perils of this Afghan way of war. A century earlier the British had a similarly wretched experience and chronicled what they endured for others to read.

As warriors, the Afghan Pathans possessed a ferocious martial temperament and highly developed irregular concepts of warfare. Their warrior tradition was already legendary in Central Asia long before London decided in the summer of 1839 to send a British Army of 15,500 soldiers, many of whom were native recruits, through the Khyber Pass from India to extend British power into Afghanistan.

The decision to deploy that expeditionary force came from those in the British government who sought to expand the frontier of the British Empire beyond India. For the British it was part of their Forward Policy to keep the Russians at bay in Southwest Asia. The intention was to send a signal to the Russian czar and to subdue another native region. The results were horrific. Three years of bitter protracted warfare culminated in the January 1842 decision to withdraw what was left of the British legion from Kabul back to India. That decision played right into the hands of the Pathan warriors and their unconventional approach to warfare. They cut the legion to ribbons. Only one man-the unit’s surgeon-made it out. It was one of the most crushing defeats in British military history.

The debacle of the First Afghan War was not enough to prevent London from remaining committed to its Forward Policy of imperial expansion through domination and direct rule. Although the British could not but recognize that the Pathans were a much greater challenge than they had thought, the British had not rethought their approach when they returned forty years later. Instead, they simply narrowed the effort-focusing on controlling the major cities in the deserts and lowlands. Although this more limited approach met with some success, British Forward Policy was hard to implement against the mountain redoubts of the Pathans.

The Second Afghan War turned into a protracted and irregular struggle of interminable skirmishes, raids, and ambushes that left scores of British soldiers wounded or dead in the Afghan mountains. In these engagements the Pathans proved to be fanatical warriors whom the British soldiers came to respect for their fighting qualities. It was those ferocious fighting attributes that prevented the British from achieving anything close to decisive control in Afghanistan. And it was from these encounters that Kipling drew his chilling descriptions of the Pathan.

Although the Forward Policy was more successful in the Peshawar Valley, the Pathans remained incorrigible and continued to rebel. While those years in Afghanistan have been called part of ‘The Great Game,’ on the ground it was a brutal fight in which the British sought to assert their power and establish supremacy. The Pathans, however, who were fighting to regain their autonomy, made it brutally clear that they were not playing the game by British rules.

The situation came to a head at the battle of Maiwand, where the British suffered another thrashing at the hands of the Pathans. In July 1880, a British/Indian force of 2,500 left Kandahar in order to put down a rebellion by Ayub Khan, the ruler of Herat. Ayub sought to overthrow the Amir of Afghanistan, a protégé of the British. The operational plan called for the British brigade to hook up with a force of 6,000 tribesmen, thought to be friendly. They turned out to be quite the opposite. The entire force ditched the British and threw in their lot with Ayub Kahn, considerably enlarging the rebel army that would fight at Maiwand to 25,000. The battle and its aftermath was another bloodbath. The British force of 2,500 suffered nearly 1,000 dead and another 200 wounded. For Ayub Kahn the casualties were much higher. It took him a week to clear the battlefield of the corpses of his regular troops and of the Ghazis, irregular tribesmen who were described as religious fanatics who fought fiercely. Ayub left more than 5,000 dead and another 1,500 wounded behind at Maiwand.

For the remainder of the British brigade there was more disaster to follow as it began a 45-mile retreat back to Kandahar. Every step of the way the Ghazis relentlessly cut down one British soldier after another. Kipling may have been thinking about this bloody retreat when he wrote those lines from ‘The Young British Soldier.’

This catastrophe finally caused London to abandon its northern frontier Forward Policy of domination and occupation and adopt the less ambitious Close Border Policy of accommodation and indirect rule. As a result, the Afghan tribes saw the British in a much less threatening light-they were no longer occupiers trying to dominate and therefore deserving of violent expulsion. Moreover, since tribal lands were no longer under threat and London took pains to avoid involvement in Afghanistan’s never-ending internal power struggles, life became much easier for the young British soldier.

1512-1520 War with Muscovy


Unknown painter under influence of Lucas Cranach the Elder, known as “The Master of the Battle of Orsha”



In 1512 Muscovy broke the peace by attacking Lithuania again with the aim of capturing Smolensk. In December 1512 Grand Duke Basil himself went to Smolensk, but it was ably defended and when a relief force approached the Muscovites retreated. The Polish-Lithuanian Commander, Ostrogski, ravaged the lands around Seversk and destroyed a 6,000 Muscovite force.

In September 1513 Basil returned to Smolensk with more powerful forces, and a six week siege of repeated assaults was withstood. Polish forces drove the enemy from Vitebsk and Polock and defeated a 14,000 force near Orsza thereby relieving Smolensk.

In June 1514 the Muscovites returned and on this occasion the slow response of Polish-Lithuanian forces led to the surrender of Smolensk. The Polish-Lithuanian army, of over 30,000 troops, led by Ostrogski, arrived and on the 8th September crushed the 80,000 strong Muscovite army at Orsza (8 September 1514). However this spectacular victory was not fully exploited and Smolensk could not be retaken.

Polish artillery at the battle of OrszaIn March 1515 Muscovy formed an alliance with the Livonian Knights, but failed to take Vitebsk, while Polish forces recaptured Wielkie Luki and Torpiec (1516). In 1517 the Polish expedition to Pskow ended in defeat at the siege of Opoczka while the following year brought a comprehensive victory for the Poles against the besieging Muscovites at Polock.

In 1519 three Muscovite armies devastated Lithuania as far as Krewno where the Polish-Lithuanian army was assembling. While allied Crimean Tartars attacked Lvov and Lublin. However the Muscovites failed to gain any significant results and a peace treaty was signed in 1520.


In the war which Moscow started in 1512, breaking the “eternal” peace of 1508, the main attack was directed against Smolensk. When the two first sieges of that strategically important White Russian city ended in failure, Vasil persuaded the envoy of Maximilian I to conclude in Moscow a treaty which, going beyond the Emperor’s intentions, pledged him to join in the struggle against Sigismund I. With Albrecht of Prussia also ready for action after the breakdown of protracted negotiations, and the Crimean Tartars as a permanent threat at the southeastern border, the situation of Poland and Lithuania indeed became critical after the fall of Smolensk in 1514. Seizing that opportunity for pressing his claims to Hungary and Bohemia, the Emperor was planning a congress on German territory where Sigismund and Vladislav would practically surrender in all controversial issues.

But only a few weeks later, in the same year, the great victory of Orsza, won by the Lithuanians under the leadership of Prince Constantine Ostrogski, the most powerful Orthodox Ruthenian magnate, assisted by Polish forces, altogether changed the situation. Welcomed even in distant Rome as a decisive victory of the Western world, that battle did not regain Smolensk, lost for almost a century, but made the Emperor decide in favor of an understanding with the Jagellonians to be negotiated at a congress which started in Pozsony (Pressburg), Hungary, where Sigismund, with his Polish and Lithuanian advisers, joined the King of Hungary and Bohemia.

That congress of 1515 can be called a first Congress of Vienna, three hundred years before the famous one, because it was concluded in the Austrian capital after Maximilian I had met his guests near the frontier. The consequences of that meeting were to prove of primary significance for the history of East Central Europe. The three monarchs, all humanists of distinction, rather liked one another upon becoming personally acquainted. The Emperor promised no longer to support either the grand prince of Moscow against Lithuania or the grand master in Prussia against Poland, but to act as a friendly mediator, advising Albrecht to pay his homage to the king and Vasil III to stop his aggressions. For these concessions made to Sigismund I, Maximilian of course expected some compensation with respect to the succession in Hungary and Bohemia. But no treaty which would guarantee that succession to the Habsburgs after the extinction of the elder branch of the Jagellonians was signed in Vienna. Only a double wedding was celebrated. Vladislav’s only son, Louis, married the Emperor’s granddaughter Mary, while Maximilian himself was married per procuram to Vladislav’s daughter Ann, acting for one of his grandsons, Charles or Ferdinand.

Early evolution of nuclear-armed bombers


B-29 and B-36


1948 … Boeing B-50 strategic bomber

The evolution of nuclear-armed bombers began with the use of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, an aircraft designed in World War II to carry conventional weapons. Crews flew this aircraft to drop the 13-kiloton Little Boy atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the 23-kilotonyield Fat Man that shattered Nagasaki eight days later. The B-29 and a variant, the B-50, then served as the U.S. Air Force’s only nuclear-capable bombers, under the Strategic Air Command, well into the early 1950s. Despite improvements to the propeller engine aircraft and the refinement of operations such as aerial refueling, they were too slow to avoid jet interceptors and lacked the range to hit targets from bases in the continental United States.

The B-50’s development was approved in 1944, when the aircraft was known as the B-29D. Still in the midst of war, the Army Air Forces (AAF) wanted a significantly improved B-29 that could carry heavy loads of conventional weapons faster and farther. As World War II ended, the production of thousands of B-29s was canceled. The B-29D survived, but its purpose was changed. Redesignated as the B-50 in December 1945, the improved bomber was now earmarked for the atomic role. The decision was prompted by the uncertain fate of Convair B-36, the first long-range, heavy bomber produced as an atomic carrier. Of course, some of the B-29s that had been modified to carry the atomic bomb remained available, and surplus B-29s were being reconfigured for the atomic task. Just the same, the B-29s of war vintage were nearly obsolete. Hence, they would have to be replaced by a more efficient, atomic-capable bomber pending availability of the intercontinental B-36 or of another bomber truly suitable for the delivery of atomic weaponry.

While the short-range B-50 was immediately recognized as a stopgap measure, the magnitude of the aircraft’s development problems proved unexpected. The B-50’s first difficulties stemmed from its bomb bay which, like that of the B-29, was too small to house the new bomb and its required components. The fast development of special weapons created more complications, since the individual components of every single type of bomb had to be relocated within the bomb bay’s narrow confines.

In keeping with the usual vicissitudes accompanying the development of any new or improved aircraft, the B-50 soon exhibited engine malfunctions. Then, cracking of the metal skin on the trailing edge of the wings and flaps dictated extensive modifications. And while these problems were being resolved, new requirements were levied on the aircraft. In 1949, as the proposed RB-36 remained a long way off, and because of the older RB-29’s deficiencies in speed, range, and altitude, some B-50s had to be fitted for the reconnaissance role. To make matters worse, fuel tank overflows, leaking fuel check valves, failures of the engine turbo-chargers, generator defects, and the like continued to plague every B-50 version.

Meanwhile, contrary to plans, most B-50s came off the production lines without the receiver end of the new air-to-air refueling system being developed by Boeing. Additional, and successful, modifications therefore ensued. Nevertheless, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had no illusions. The B-50, along with the B-36 (first delivered in June 1948), would be obsolete in 1951. That the B-50 did not start leaving the SAC inventory before 1953 was due to the production problems and many modifications of its replacement: the subsonic B-47.

It began as an outgrowth of the B-29, the B-50 can be traced back to July 1939, when Boeing Airplane Company introduced Model 334A, the B-29’s first direct ancestor. Specifically, however, the B-50 bomber stemmed from a B-29 conversion, initiated in 1944.

Requirements for the B-29 Superfortress, from which the B-29D (later known as the B-50) derived, were issued in February 1940, when the Army Air Corps asked the aircraft industry to submit designs for a “Hemisphere Defense Weapon.” Boeing Model 345 (a further development of Model 334A) was adjudged best of all proposals for bombers with very-long-range characteristics, and the company was authorized in September 1940 to produce the first very heavy bomber to incorporate pressure-cabin installations and other radical changes in design and armament. Development of an improved version of the famed B-29 began in 1944, as a so-called Phase II evolution of the basic design. No specific requirements ensued, but the main intent was to equip the improved bomber with the new Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasps and to do away with existing and often troublesome versions of the Curtiss-Wright R-3350 radial engines. The B-29A assigned to the Phase II development project, once reconfigured with the new Wasp engines, was flown by Boeing as the YB-44 prototype. The AAF approved within a few months a production version of the YB-44, which was then designated as the B-29D, and ordered 200 production models of the improved bomber in July 1945.

Japan’s surrender on 14 August 1945, 3 months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, prompted the cancellation of military procurement. In the process, the 200 B-29Ds on order since July 1945 were reduced to 60 in December of the same year.

The B-29D became the B-50 in December 1945. Officially, the aircraft’s new designation was justified by the changes separating the B-29D from its predecessors. However, according to Peter M. Bowers, a well-known authority on Boeing aircraft, “the redesignation was an outright military ruse to win appropriations for the procurement of an airplane that by its designation appeared to be merely a later version of an existing model that was being canceled wholesale, with many existing examples being put into dead storage.

In any case, the former B-29D featured many changes. The redesignated aircraft, built with a stronger but lighter grade of aluminum, had larger flaps, a higher vertical tail (that could be folded down to ease storage in standard size hangars), a hydraulic rudder boost, nose wheel steering, a more efficient undercarriage retracting mechanism, and a new electrical device to remove the ice from the pilot’s windows. The new aircraft’s wings and empennage also could be thermally de-iced. Finally, the 4 higher-thrust Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines that replaced the standard B-29’s R-3350s gave a power increase of 59 percent, and electrically controlled, reversible-pitch propellers allowed the use of engine power as an aid to braking on short or wet runways. There was also some rearrangement of the crew. Yet, no matter what designation, there was no doubt that the piston-powered B-29D/B-50 would seem antiquated in the post-war era of jet bombers.

The AAF began to plan for an atomic strike force in the first few months of peace that followed the end of World War II. It ordered that 19 additional B-29s be reconfigured as atomic carriers in July 1946, six months after the improved B-29D had become the B-50. Most likely, the AAF already planned that the redesignated bombers would first supplement the reconfigured B-29s and then replace them until a better atomic carrier became available. But the AAF at the time was not in a particularly strong position to press for what it believed to be essential. Hence, the true purpose of the B-50 program did not become official until the spring of 1947.

French and Italian Navies in WWI


Goeben and the Breslau




MAS boats-fast motor torpedo boats. Italian Torpedo Boat MAS 15 racing away from the already dramatically listing Austrian battleship Szent István on 10 June, 1918.

The Italian decision to remain neutral on the outbreak of the war, based on the strictly defensive nature of the Triple Alliance, relegated these naval plans to the dustbin of history. The situation swiftly evolved to the advantage of the French but the preoccupation of the French commander-in- chief with defending the French convoys may well have contributed to the ability of the Goeben and the Breslau to elude British warships and escape to the Dardanelles where their fictitious sale to the Turks took place. Regardless of their strategic implications in the Black Sea and their role in helping to engineer the Turkish entry into the war, the ships were now outside the Mediterranean equation. They would only re-enter it briefly in January 1918 and the results were unfavorable. They sank two British monitors but Breslau was sunk and Goeben narrowly escaped destruction. The French, who received command in the Mediterranean in August 1914, were unchallenged masters of the sea and Austrian forces were too weak to challenge them. The Austrian fleet was essentially bottled up in the Adriatic. On the other hand, the French fleet could not get at the Austrians and had to content themselves with a blockade across the entrance of the Adriatic with periodic sweeps to escort ships carrying supplies to Montenegro. The French were hampered initially by the lack of a base at the entrance to the Adriatic and had to make use of distant Malta. Submarines would soon make the entry of large ships into the Adriatic too hazardous.

Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915 made the French fleet essentially a reserve fleet. Moreover, the Italians were adamant that only an Italian admiral could command in the Adriatic. This meant that two battle fleets were employed watching the Austrians: the Italians at Taranto and the French at first at Argostoli and eventually at Corfu. Here successive French commanders-in-chief trained for a fleet action that never occurred. The naval convention accompanying Italy’s agreement to enter the war also specified that a flotilla of French destroyers and submarines would work with the Italians at Brindisi. The actual number varied according to French requirements, especially after the beginning of the Salonika campaign, and the relationship was far from cordial. It was obviously the arrival of German submarines at Austrian bases that presented the most serious challenge to the Allies at sea. The French found that they were ill prepared for this type of warfare and had recourse to Japanese shipyards for a series of 12 destroyers and also purchased over 250 trawlers from allies and neutrals for anti-submarine duties.

The fundamental interests of the French and the British diverged in the Mediterranean. The French were understandably preoccupied with protecting the north-south routes between France and their North African possessions, as well as supporting the Salonika expedition about which the French were more enthusiastic than the British. The British were more concerned about the east-west routes through the Mediterranean to Egypt and the Suez Canal. The fact that the British had such important trade interests in the Mediterranean and far greater numbers of craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare meant that the British, step by step, took over direction of the anti-submarine war in the Mediterranean, although the theoretical French command remained.

The French found after the war that their situation vis-a-vis the Italians in the Mediterranean had altered to their disadvantage. At least part of the problem stemmed from the cautious policy of the Italians towards their battle fleet. Even during the period of Italian neutrality the Capo di Stato Maggiore Thaon di Revel insisted that, whatever operations were undertaken against the Austrians in the Adriatic, such as support of army operations against Trieste, they should never run the risk of putting their battleships in danger of mines or torpedoes and should seek to cause major damage to the enemy while suffering the minimum. This would be accomplished by the aggressive action of light craft and torpedo-boats while major Italian warships would be preserved for action against their peers. This did not mean the Italian battle fleet would never fight, it would, but only against the Austrian battle fleet if and when the Austrians came out. These fundamental lines would not alter, although the Italians certainly considered the possibility of intervention by the fleet in the upper Adriatic. Painful losses to submarines after Italy entered the war imposed further caution. There were plans for the seizure of certain islands off the Dalmatian coast and a landing on the Sabbioncello Peninsula (later taken up again by the US Navy in 1918), but the Italian Army was reluctant to divert forces from the campaign on land. The presence of the Austrian fleet at Pola as a fleet-in-being ready to intervene meant that heavy ships would have to participate and the potential gains never really seemed to equal the potential risks. The Italians did occupy the tiny and barren island of Pelagosa in the mid-Adriatic, only to abandon it in a relatively short time.

The relationship of the Italian Navy with its British and French allies was frequently a difficult one and seemed to worsen in 1917 and 1918. The Italians seemed constantly to be demanding assistance in ships and matériel yet were reluctant in British and French eyes to take risks or contribute to the anti-submarine effort by providing destroyers for convoys, while they jealously insisted on command in the Adriatic. The Italians, for their part, could argue that their efforts were not really appreciated, that they were the only ally in close proximity to a major enemy fleet since Pola was but a few hours’ steaming distance from the Italian coast. This forced them to divert numbers of light craft for the defense of Venice. Furthermore, it was foolish to risk large ships in the confined waters of the Adriatic where submarines and torpedo-boats could be more effective at less risk. The MAS boats-fast motor torpedoboats-were probably the major Italian naval success of the war. Moreover, the Italians had their own coastal traffic in the Tyrrhenian to defend, as well as their lines of communication to the Italian Army in Albania and Libya. There is no doubt, though, that the Italians bitterly resented their beggar status, the reliance on others for essential items such as coal and the sometimes scarcely veiled aspersions on their courage for failing to do what they considered foolish things. All of this would create a poisonous atmosphere in the aftermath of the war.


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