Milan Commune (1097— c. 1240)

Foot Berrovieri

Company of the Carroccio

Equitatores

In the wake of the Patarine struggle, the various factions tried to develop a more inclusive government. The archbishop continued to be the nominal leader, but power gradually passed into the hands of laymen. The commune (commune civitatis), first mentioned in a document of 1097, consisted of a popular assembly and an executive council composed of consuls elected from the city’s three factions—capitanei, valvassores, and cives.

By the early twelfth century, political consolidation was accompanied by military and economic expansion. To gain access to central Italy and the Adriatic, Milan attacked Lodi and Cremona; to reach the Ligurian coast, it defeated Pavia; and to secure the Alpine passes, it destroyed Como. Milan’s expansion brought it into direct conflict with Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155-1190), who wished to reassert direct imperial rule over Italy. Twice, in 1158 and 1162, Frederick successfully besieged Milan. The second defeat was particularly severe: Frederick ordered the demolition of Milan’s walls, gates, and towers, and the palaces of his principal enemies; moreover, he expelled the entire population, forcing them to live for four years in the suburban areas. Milan’s isolation, however, was only temporary. Growing aversion to imperial rule among the communes of northern Italy soon led to the formation of the Lombard League, whose forces defeated an imperial army at Legnano (1176). By the Peace of Constance (1183) the Lombard communes secured their de facto autonomy from the empire, while still recognizing their de jure sovereignty.

Communal liberty did not, however, put an end to Milan’s social tension. In 1198, the city’s shopkeepers and artisans formed an association known as the credenza di Sant’Ambrogio to protect their political and economic interests. Opposing them was the motta, composed of lesser nobles, wealthy commoners, and merchants; die great nobles for their part remained closely tied to the archbishop. To maintain peace and achieve political reform the Milanese increasingly resorted to the one-man rule of a foreign magistrate, the podestà. The policies introduced by the podestà included protecting the citizenry from arbitrary confiscations by the government (1205); laying the groundwork for the general assessment of properties (catasto); making commoners as eligible for public office as nobles were (1214); codifying customary law (1216); and constructing a new communal palace, or Broletto nuovo (1228). The renewed confidence of the Milanese became evident in 1220 when they not only refused hospitality to Frederick II (r. 1215-1250) as he traveled from Germany to Rome for his imperial coronation, but also opposed his coronation as king of Italy. In 1226, a second Lombard League (strengthened by papal support) was formed against Frederick II. This time the empire prevailed, at the battle of Cortenuova (1237). Within the city, the commoners, fearing reprisals from the nobility who had sided with the emperor, elected a new official—known as the capitano del popolo—to rule alongside the podestà. The first such capitano was Pagano della Torre (1240), who was already prominent as leader of the Credenza di Sant’Ambrogio and a member of the anti-imperial and pro-papal faction known as the Guelfs.

Carroccio

The carroccio was the standard-bearing cart, usually drawn by oxen, of the northern Italian cities. It served as a symbolic focus of patriotism and a rallying point in battle. These carts were meant to unite the divergent social groups within the emerging city-states of Lombardy and Tuscany. Their use (at least as early as 1039) paralleled and coincided with the adoption of civic patron saints and the development of the commune and an independent popolo in many cities. The main purposes of the carts were to accompany a city’s troops on campaigns, to serve as a platform for patriotic or pious harangues and for celebrations of the mass before battle, and to provide a highly visible point of reference for troops during battle. To lose a cart to an enemy was shameful, and captured carts were often treated brutally.

The earliest known Milanese cart was that of Archbishop Aribert (1039). It consisted of “a high wooden pole like the mast of a ship which was fixed to a strong wagon; at the top was a gilded apple and from this descended two ribbons of dazzlingiy white cloth, and in the center a holy cross was painted with our Savior portrayed, his arms extended,” In the later twelfth century Saint Ambrose (the patron saint of Milan) replaced the crucifix, and later still the cloth was scarlet and a gold cross replaced the apple. Three pairs of oxen drew this carroccio, which clearly embodied both ecclesiastical and civic symbolic elements. Soldiers of Cremona and Parma captured the Milanese wagon in 1149, and in 1160 imperial troops killed the oxen, captured the banner, and overturned the cart. When Frederick I Barbarossa captured Milan the next year, he seized the carroccio and ninety-four civic banners as booty. At Legnano in 1176, however, Milanese troops rallied around the carroccio, warding off defeat at Frederick’s hands. When the Milanese invaded the area of Cremona in 1213, they lost both an important battle and their carroccio; and in 1237, at Cortenuova, the Milanese carroccio, after being stripped of its ornaments and reluctantly abandoned by the Milanese army, was taken by Frederick II and sent to Cremona and then Rome, where it was displayed in the Campidoglio.

The carrocci of other cities differed in ornamental detail, but all served the same functions. The wagons, masts, and banners were carefully tended in peacetime and were ritually blessed before use. Peacemaking between rivals within a single city often occurred around the carroccio, and carrocci were exchanged when Parma and Cremona ended their hostilities in 1281. In the 1230s Fra Giovanni preached civic peace and reconciliation from the carrocci of Padua, Brescia, Mantua, and Vicenza, and from that of Verona he declared himself podesta and duke of Verona. Often, legitimate podesta took their oaths of office from the city’s carroccio, and captured cities swore submission from the carroccio of the victor.

Despite their importance in peacetime, carrocci were above all meant to bring together for battle the often fractious elements of the city-state. Both nobles and commoners guarded the carroccio on campaigns, and both were expected to fight to the death to protect it in battle.

By the early fourteenth century, with the advent of professional armies and leaders, the carroccio fell into disuse, so that the historian Giovanni Villani (1275-1348) felt it necessary to describe in detail the Florentine cart which had been captured and burned by the Sienese at Montaperti eighty years before.

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Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era I

In the years after the end of the First World War the RAF became deeply involved in a series of imperial campaigns as the British sought to impose their will on the sprawling regions of the globe they now controlled or for which they were responsible. During the interwar years air forces came to be identified as an ideal and cost-effective way of maintaining order and control in the face of rebellions and insurrections, and not just by the British government. With air campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in particular the RAF forged a role that rendered it a crucial tool in the fight to retain control of imperial possessions at relatively low cost at a time when London was desperately attempting to rein in spending. As is often the case, the received wisdom is at odds with the reality, but there is little doubt that for a period of years after the armistice of 1918 the RAF’s role in imperial policing was a vital component of its survival strategy in the face of efforts by the older services to break it up. It is also true, however, that the RAF developed other reasons to justify its existence in the 1920s and played a broader role than mere force in the maintenance of empire.

Yet, as the RAF began the process of being scaled back into a peacetime force it was far from clear exactly what role it would play and thus how it should be constituted. From its peak of 300,000 in 1918 the RAF was reduced by 1920 to some 30,000 personnel and from 180 operational squadrons down to a mere twenty, with only two based in the UK. Some 10,000 machines and 30,000 engines had been sold off by 1920 as the British endeavoured to realign both expenditure and force composition in the economically uncertain yet diplomatically stable post-war era.

Political machinations were to aid the RAF’s survival substantially during this delicate period, and the appointment of Churchill as Secretary of State for the Air, even though he simultaneously held the role of Minister for War too, proved vital. Churchill was a keen advocate of air power as well as a shrewd and combative politician. Perversely, his position was bolstered by the overly ambitious and unrealistic tone adopted by Air Vice Marshal Frederick Sykes, then the CAS. Sykes had replaced Trenchard in April 1918, but Sykes’s vision for the RAF in the post-war world was out of kilter with the tone of government, which was increasingly founded on fiscal pruning and retrenchment in a world with few perceived or plausible threats. Sykes lobbied for the creation of an imperial air force to help bind the empire together, but his estimate of 348 squadrons with 110,000 personnel was both wildly profligate and politically naïve. Churchill moved Sykes on and brought back the obdurate and more politically astute Trenchard as CAS.

Yet they clashed too, and Trenchard’s initial estimates were forced downwards by Churchill. The new CAS wanted an RAF of 124 squadrons costing some £23 million to £25 million; anything less would be useless, Trenchard argued. Churchill offered £13 million, and eventually they fixed on a sum of £15 million. Trenchard’s willingness to accept this compromise resulted in the Lloyd George government looking upon him favourably, but the Air Staff’s hope that the RAF would be recognized as the principal arm of imperial defence was dashed.

Trenchard set in motion a series of initiatives and policies that would lay the structural foundation of the post-war RAF, based on realism, a degree of opportunism, and political expediency. His famous memorandum of December 1919 set out a vision for the RAF much more in line with the prevailing economic and political climate, one based on limited initial and immediate capability but focused more heavily on training and long-term establishment. Trenchard was attempting to lay the foundations of a permanent service with deep roots, and the Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell and the RAF Staff College at Andover were established to underpin this long-term vision.

Trenchard was, however, astute enough to recognize that though he and many of his staff saw the RAF’s future as a truly independent force with a strategic role, this was neither appropriate nor marketable in the early 1920s. The only way in which this future might be realized would be if the RAF could first embed itself in the defence establishment more completely, and in 1921 this was far from certain. Indeed, if there was a period when the RAF’s future was in some doubt it was then, as the army and navy manoeuvred to partition the air force. Later squabbles over the RAF’s future were more intended to squeeze concessions and commitments out of the Air Staff and the break-up of the RAF was never likely, but in 1921 it was a distinct possibility; the Air Staff and Trenchard were too canny to allow this to happen, however, particularly compared to the War Office, and most obviously over the policy that became known as ‘Substitution’.

From 1919 onwards the British government developed a policy of substituting mechanized equipment, such as armoured vehicles or aircraft, for traditional conventional forces such as infantry and cavalry, particularly in matters of imperial policing and control. This, it was contended, would reduce costs and lead to modernization. It was the Air Staff who saw this as an opportunity, while the War Office hesitated. The Air Staff’s policy of stepping in to fulfil the role of imperial control and policing proved hugely successful for the RAF, ensuring its viability. The link between aerial policing and the RAF’s future was clear; in one RAF memo in 1920 Trenchard noted that he ultimately hoped that the RAF would become the dominant force in imperial defence, this being the first step to becoming ‘more and more the predominating factor in all types of warfare’.

Though it was the revolt in Iraq and its aftermath (1920–1) that gave the impetus to Trenchard’s vision for a formal air control policy, the RAF had already been involved in imperial control missions before then. In 1919 the RAF deployed aircraft with some success in helping to put down the rebellion known as the Third Afghan War. Initially RAF efforts were directed towards supporting friendly ground forces but this was dangerous due to the operating conditions and limited in effect due to the quality of the available aircraft. RAF officers lobbied for a more coordinated and focused bombing effort to be targeted against Afghan towns, cities, and large encampments. Beginning in May the campaign had significant effects. Afghan settlements were largely incapable of dealing with the raids and considerable damage appears to have been inflicted, both physically and on morale. By the end of May RAF bombers were dropping around a tonne of bombs per day, many on Jalalabad, but it was a symbolic raid on Kabul itself that had the most significance. Carried out by a four-engine Handley Page V/1500 heavy bomber originally designed to bomb Berlin, the raid was later considered by General Charles Monro, commander-in-chief, India, to be ‘an important factor in producing a desire for peace at the headquarters of the Afghan Government’. King Amanullah, the leader of the Afghan rebellion, pointed out the hypocrisy of the British, however, for while the bombing of London by the Germans had been condemned in the UK as barbaric and uncivilized, it appeared to be acceptable when perpetrated against non-Westerners.

This was a pattern to be repeated throughout the era. The RAF was more freely deployed around the empire against non-white peoples, but also against more remote targets; plans to use air forces in major urban centres such as Cairo or Calcutta, though set out, were never employed due to the obvious human and political costs. And of course, the most significant rebellion against British rule in the period, in Ireland, saw very little military use of the RAF at all, a policy Trenchard strongly adhered to. Though aircraft flew reconnaissance and resupply operations in Ireland, there is very little evidence of them being used in more offensive duties, even though senior British leaders and commanders hotly debated the option. By March 1921, in the closing stages of the fighting, the use of aircraft in very specific, controlled, and limited offensive operations had been authorized by the British government. Yet, even then the RAF employed offensive weapons in only 3 per cent of their flying time and in all probability caused no casualties.

Though the RAF could point to the success of the Afghan War, which concluded in August 1919, the aftermath was less satisfying. A drawn-out series of actions stretching into 1920, supported by the RAF, were conducted against recalcitrant tribes along the North-West Frontier as the British sought to restore order in the wake of the Afghan uprising. In these endeavours, the RAF was less able to shape events, and though some tribes were brought to order by air action alone, some were not, and ground forces had to be deployed in considerable numbers. Senior army and air force officers consequently disagreed about the decisive factors, and not always along service lines.

The campaign that highlighted the RAF’s role in imperial policing was that conducted in Somaliland in 1920 against Mohammed bin Abdulla Hassan—a so-called ‘Mad Mullah’—and his Dervish forces. The Mullah had increased his influence across Somaliland, further aided by the Germans during the war, and by 1918 the British were determined to act to impose their will on the area. In 1919 the War Office stood back from serious involvement, allowing Trenchard to make the RAF’s case for reinstating British rule, at minimal cost; just one squadron and no increases in ground support beyond what was already station in Somaliland. In short order the RAF spearheaded the campaign in January 1920, surprising and then scattering the Mullah’s forces, which were then mopped up by the ground forces, supported by air actions. The RAF’s involvement lasted around a month at a cost of just £70,000, with just three aeroplanes lost and no combat deaths.

Yet even in this much lauded campaign, debate ensued as to the actual level of effectiveness of the RAF’s actions. While army officers conceded that air actions had been crucial, it was argued that ground forces had still been vital elements, that the Somali Camel Corps had been weakening the Mullah by persistent action for many years, and that a combined campaign from the start would have yielded even better results. It was also true that the Mullah’s popularity was already on the wane by 1920 due to his increasing recourse to brutal methods of imposing rule, so that when calamity came, his troops melted away. The Mullah also weakened his position by abandoning his forces’ preferred guerrilla tactics for occupation methods, based on permanent bases and forts. These provided obliging and highly vulnerable targets for air attack.

Nevertheless, the tone of RAF operations in an imperial policing role had been set. Further success in Sudan underlined Trenchard’s approach. In a land of few roads to support modern ground operations and huge distances to cover with only a sprinkling of friendly troops to rely upon, the RAF was called upon in December 1919 to aid operations against the Garjak Nuer tribe, which would not toe the line and stop raiding other communities. H Unit, as the RAF contingent of just two DH9A aeroplanes and under thirty men was called, found the going tough at first with awkward operating conditions and evasive Nuer tactics. When both RAF aircraft were put out of action a third was flown in from Egypt, a distance of over 1,800 miles and an early example of the long and flexible reach of air power.

The turning point in the campaign came when the British ground forces, aided by the RAF, switched tactics to targeting the Nuer villages rather than seeking battle. The human cost was severe with children and the elderly paying the price. Cattle were targeted, and when supplies began to run out the Nuer submitted. RAF operations were highlighted by the army as being crucial to the success of the campaign, and again there were no RAF casualties. Indeed, the army’s main issue had been the small numbers of aircraft available when more might have expedited victory.

Ultimately the implementation of a formalized RAF air control policy was to come in Iraq in 1922, but it took two years to get there. Early in 1920, in his role as Secretary of State for War, Churchill was seeking cuts in expenditure for the garrisoning of Iraq, then standing at £18 million for a force that included some 14,000 British troops, backed by Indian and other local elements. Churchill wanted this to be achieved in part through substituting mechanized equipment for conventional elements, but the War Office baulked at the idea. Churchill turned to the RAF for a plan with the incentive of a £5–6 million increase in the air force estimates. Trenchard and the Air Staff took the initiative, citing early examples of the RAF’s effectiveness in the imperial role. Though it was not entirely possible at that time for the RAF to meet the requirements of Churchill’s policy for Iraq, Trenchard was ambitious enough to claim that it could, and came up with a scheme based on aircraft and supporting ground forces to plug the gap. It would require one hundred aircraft with around 4,000 British personnel and 10,000 Indian troops, all supported by a small number of local forces. Churchill’s enthusiasm was not matched by the cabinet’s support, however, and they remained unconvinced that a few aeroplanes could replace 100,000 troops.

It took the anti-British revolt in Iraq to force matters. The rising in Iraq against British rule broke out in the spring of 1920 just as the cabinet in London was still debating the rights of wrongs of Churchill’s air control scheme. The political squabbles mattered little as the Arab rebels scored a series of successes despite the presence of thirty imperial infantry battalions and five cavalry regiments, supported by artillery batteries and two squadrons of the RAF. Many in Britain were already set against British involvement in the region, for a whole variety of reasons, and the revolt stirred up yet more considerable political discontent. The RAF contingent flew increasing numbers of missions against the insurgents, though operating and living conditions were harsh.

For the RAF the initial shortage of aircraft was a major problem and in May they had only eleven functioning aeroplanes, eight of which were ageing BE-8s, though these were subsequently replaced by Bristol F.2b fighters. By August the situation was so desperate that Churchill authorized the RAF to employ chemical weapons if necessary, even though there were no useable bombs available. The army only held tear gas shells, though stocks had to be requested from Egypt, and it is unclear as to whether these weapons, or indeed any lethal chemical devices, were ever employed in Iraq by the British.

Aircraft built for European conditions struggled in Mesopotamia, with sand and dust causing problems for engines and airframes alike, while hazards such as plagues of locust and whirlwinds added further to the RAF’s problems. The aircrew despaired of the conditions, living in decaying tents, suffering extremes of temperatures, and existing off tins of rancid meat and dry biscuits. On his first ten days’ duties in Iraq one officer recorded:

We were up on eight of them before dawn, off to Diwaniyah where we had to fill up [with fuel] ourselves—no joke on a BF [Bristol Fighter]—then bombing of the Diwaniyah–Samawah area, landed at Samawah, again filled up by ourselves, bombed by ourselves, left again, bombed the same area again and landed Diwaniyah to fill up and back to Baghdad.

Imperial Policing in the Interwar Era II

Flying boats on the Nile, 1930. Down route to the empire, Supermarine Southampton flying boats at buoys, probably on the River Nile c.1930. Long-range operations to Africa and the Far East were commonplace for flying boat crews for the two decades between the wars.

The reach of empire, 1928–39. Imperial air policing was advocated by the RAF in the interwar period as a cost-effective method of maintaining the British Empire. It paved the way for airline routes.

Initially called in on fire-fighting sorties, the RAF much preferred concentrated and focused raids and argued that these had a much more significant impact. Units also employed tactics whereby villages and civilians were targeted, often on the grounds of being reprisal raids, but with the general intention of degrading the support network for the insurgents.

By the autumn the revolt had been broken, but not until further resources had been pumped into the area, including yet more RAF aircraft from Europe. As some semblance of control and order was imposed, the scale of the effort to achieve success caused many in the UK to blanch. By December the British still had 17,000 of their own troops and 85,000 Indian soldiers based in Mesopotamia, at an estimated annual cost of some £30 million. General Haldane, commanding the imperial forces in Iraq, argued that he would in future need thirty-three infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments to maintain British rule; a wholly unrealistic figure both economically and politically in late 1920. The War Office suggested that a future commitment of one division would be able to hold Basra and the oil fields, but little else.

Trenchard’s views were already known on how Iraq could be policed and controlled principally through the efforts of the RAF, and his position was bolstered by the comments of Arnold Wilson, the chief British representative in Baghdad, who argued that aircraft had saved the day in the campaign in Iraq.

At a conference in Cairo in 1921 to resolve matters of administration and control of Britain’s overblown commitments across the Middle East, Churchill, by then the Colonial Secretary, started to push through the air control plan, backed by a range of other new measures.

Trenchard was well pleased with the outcome, but the War Office attempted to derail the plan, pushing for the break-up of the RAF; they argued that aeroplanes were auxiliary to troops and Air Staff policy was now working against this. The War Office’s initiative was swept aside by Lord Balfour and the Committee for Imperial Defence and Trenchard’s fully fledged air control scheme was given the green light by the autumn of 1921.

The adopted plan was for eight RAF squadrons, two British and two Indian infantry battalions, three companies of armoured cars, and other minor supporting forces to take on the task of delivering security and policing for Iraq. However, it was one thing for Trenchard and the Air Staff to offer up the new scheme; it was quite another to deliver it. Indeed, when the RAF, under the command of Air Vice Marshal John Salmond, took responsibility for security in Iraq in October 1922 the political situation was still in a state of flux. A bombing campaign in the north against insurgents under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud, supported by Turkish supplies and troops, yielded great success and included the first examples of the air evacuation and air insertion of troops, in both cases helping to swing the fighting in Britain’s favour. In the latter case Mahmud’s forces were threatening Kirkuk, secure in the knowledge that the roads from the south were impassable due to flooding. But 45 Squadron, under the command of one Arthur Harris, airlifted in 480 troops to secure the position and the threat evaporated.

A more coordinated effort in Kurdistan in 1923 again proved highly effective and the validity of the RAF’s policy for Iraq appeared to be vindicated. The success brought political benefit back in London too as it provided Trenchard with extra ammunition when facing the Salisbury Committee’s investigations into armed service relations, a battle the Air Ministry won relatively easily. Trenchard wrote to Salmond: ‘I cannot emphasize too much the value your successful command in Iraq has been to us.’

In 1922 the highly influential Royal United Services Institute published C. J. Mackay’s prize-winning essay, ‘The Influence in the Future of Aircraft Upon the Problems of Imperial Defence’, indicating the growing importance of the idea of air control and policing, while Wing Commander C. H. K. Edmonds, in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in 1923, stated: ‘First, we are all of us imperialists, and we wish to see the empire defended as securely as possible. Second, we are all taxpayers, so we want the defence to be as economical as possible.’

By 1925 the success of air control was clear; costs for the security of Iraq had been reduced from £20 million in 1921–2 to under £3.5 million three years later, and the north and Mosul in particular had been secured against the Turks. Leo Amery, the then Colonial Secretary, and Sam Hoare, Secretary of State for Air, both toured the region in 1925 and noted the impact of the RAF. Amery stated that ‘the Air Force has transformed the whole situation in Iraq. It is due to its ceaseless vigilance that the work of political reconstruction has gone so smoothly’, while Hoare commented that ‘I cannot imagine a more striking testimony to the efficacy and economy of the air as the key for exercising control in suitable areas of the Middle East.’ It was of course fundamental to the success of British efforts that suitable political initiatives were undertaken, notably the incorporation of a collaborative Sunni elite into the administration of Iraq, though this of course was to store up problems for the future.

Unsurprisingly the RAF’s policy of air control was viewed as a cost-cutting model for other parts of the empire and British mandates and protectorates, though not always with success. In Palestine, the RAF had assumed responsibility for the control and security of the region in 1922, and over the ensuing years costs had been reduced and ground forces pared back. Much of the RAF’s responsibility centred on policing Bedouin incursions into Palestine. In 1929 the RAF’s scant forces were found wanting when Arab resentment over an upturn in Jewish immigration raised the idea of a Jewish National Home and precipitated an outbreak of attacks on Jewish settlements in which some 200 people were killed. Despite playing a part in bringing the troubles to an end it was clear that air control had not been sufficient and extra ground forces were deployed in the aftermath, though the RAF remained in command. When a more serious outbreak of trouble erupted in 1936, the commander, Air Vice Marshal Richard Peirse, wanted to employ harsh measures to regain control, but opposition to his ideas of bombing, martial law, and forced labour caused London to intervene. Peirse was replaced with Lieutenant General Jack Dill and more ground troops were despatched to quell the rebellion. It is doubtful whether the army’s measures were any less destructive, but the shift in policy brought RAF air control to an end in Palestine, though the RAF continued to play a key role in the region through to 1948.

In Arabia, however, the RAF enjoyed greater success in helping to resist the efforts of the Imam of Yemen extending his zone of control further south towards the British-controlled port of Aden. In 1921 the RAF deployed aircraft to Aden to support friendly forces in the region, and in the following year Trenchard recommended scaling down ground forces in favour of RAF assets; two battalions were subsequently withdrawn or disbanded. In 1926 the Imam’s forces had further encroached upon British interests, but the costs of despatching a significant ground force to deal with the matter were rejected as prohibitively costly. Trenchard stepped in with a scheme based on the RAF squadron in Aden supported by three armoured cars and some local levies. This came into force in 1928, and within two years the regular infantry had gone. The scheme worked effectively, the Imam’s power was curtailed, and he was forced, under aerial duress, to restrain his ambitions. Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence, wrote to Trenchard in 1928 extolling the virtues of air control policy: ‘This example [Aden] is a triumphant vindication of your theories.’

Elsewhere across Africa, the air control policy had less traction, despite the success in Somaliland in 1920. In Egypt the RAF played an important role in supporting British interests, but ground forces remained the main weapon in a densely populated nation, while in Somaliland, once order had been restored, the costs of developing a permanent air presence were considered too great compared to those of maintaining existing troops. In the Sudan in 1927–8, RAF aeroplanes had helped to put down a rebellion in the south of the country, though some grumbled that the air attacks had dispersed the rebels before they could be properly dealt with by ground forces. Nevertheless, the Air Staff continued to advance the idea of a full-blown air control scheme for East Africa, and it gained support from the local white settlers who were largely happy to see the disbandment of the East Africa Rifles. In 1934 a scheme was proposed in a joint army–air force report (authored in part by Air Vice Marshal Cyril Newall, a future CAS) to replace some ground forces with an RAF squadron and move to an air control model. The scheme foundered, however, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the previously stable situation was replaced by uncertainty.

In India, despite frontier successes, any broader RAF plans for a higher-profile role butted up against the peculiarities of the defence structures already in place and the position of the Indian Army. The value of air power was enhanced by the part played by the RAF in dealing with still-lingering troubles among Waziristan tribes in 1925, but as was often the case the air force and the army then differed on the real value of the air actions. A subsequent plan to expand RAF influence in the North-West Frontier came to nothing.

The RAF later played a role in the defence of Kabul in 1928–9, air-lifting civilians to safety, but a scheme in 1929 to expand air policing and control for the frontier failed because of the political consequences of putting Indian Army officers out of work. The great majority of available resources continued to be pumped into the Indian Army throughout the 1930s, leading to the stagnation of the air force, a matter largely unaddressed by the outbreak of the war in the Asia-Pacific theatre.

The RAF was also involved in more political and diplomatic imperial control and maintenance efforts in the interwar era. Long-distance flights from Cairo to the Cape were carried out by RAF aircraft, pioneering routes later developed by Imperial Airways. In addition, flying boats were to prove critically important in this wider global role in an age when few airstrips around the empire were capable of supporting large long-range land-based aircraft, or where other facilities were in short supply. Flying boats, which could utilize inland waters as bases, could patrol or reach regions more easily and help build or maintain the links the empire needed. If a support ship could be employed as well, the possibilities were significant. As early as 1919, long-range flying boat cruises were being trialled and by the mid-1920s flying boat expeditions were reaching out to Egypt and Malaya/Sarawak. In 1928–9 Supermarine Southampton flying boats conducted a fourteen-month world tour reaching Australia. RAF evaluations indicated the political elements of such tours, and that the cost was considerably less than that of sending a Royal Navy cruiser force. By the 1930s, the RAF’s view of specialized maritime air power had been largely focused on flying boats and seaplanes and this was to shape rearmament policy in the 1930s, and not entirely in a positive manner.

The issue of the RAF switching its maritime air power efforts towards flying boat development mirrored later debates about the impact air control and imperial policing had on the development of the RAF in Europe, particularly in terms of aircraft technology and notions of bombing. In the early 1920s the RAF had largely employed aircraft such as the Bristol Fighter and the DH9A in policing duties, but these aircraft had limitations and were phased out in favour of the Westland Wapiti and the Fairey IIIF. These aircraft were selected for their ruggedness rather than high performance.

There is little direct evidence, however, that the imperial policing role significantly shaped metropolitan RAF policies, procurement, and thinking in the 1930s. The tasks of air control were usually fulfilled by aircraft considered obsolescent by European standards, and governed by particular tactics and doctrine, developed specifically for each theatre. When air expansion was adopted in Britain in the 1930s, as a reaction to the emergence of German and Japanese threats, it was largely governed by its own inherent rationale.

Trenchard, in his final days as CAS in 1929, had offered a yet grander vision for air control in a paper entitled ‘The Fuller Employment of Air Power in Imperial Defence’, yet in truth the high point of the policy had already been reached, with political constraints and geographical limits hindering further expansion. As the 1930s progressed, the deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Far East brought other issues to the forefront and the RAF was to be drawn into a different strategic environment.

Yet, there is little doubt that air control and policing had, despite its limitations, played a significant role both in ensuring the survival of the RAF and more widely in British imperial policy in the interwar era. It was best suited to relatively light-touch environments in open terrain with dispersed populations; there was little stomach for the bombing of more significant urban centres. Restraint in the use of air control was pragmatic on both political and military levels, issues that would be exposed and shaped later in the extreme emergency of the Second World War.

LEGNANO 1176


The wedge formation consisted of battle lines ‘made up of a number of deep wedges of cavalry, followed by infantry. The more heavily armed knights would lead the wedge, while the more lightly armed men-at-arms would form the centres. The idea was to slice into the ranks of the enemy and disrupt their formation, after which the infantry could follow up to provide the final blow.

The Milanese carroccio was a ceremonial wagon built to reflect the town’s pride and wealth. Taken with the town’s militia to the Battle of Legnano, it was meant to encourage the more inexperienced soldiers when they faced Frederick Barbarossa’s veteran forces, and did so successfully to judge by the result of the battle.

Frederick Barbarossa’s military career has been celebrated since his death. His career included several marches through the Alps to put down northern Italian rebellions. Most of these were victories. Yet it is perhaps his defeat by the Milanese and other northern Italian militias at the Battle of Legnano that is most remembered.

On one of his numerous campaigns through the alps into northern Italy, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s army was defeated by non-professional soldiers drawn mostly from the town militias. The Battle of Legnano was a victory of inexperienced over professional troops.

Throughout history, the Alps have stood as a geographical hindrance to any military force trying to cross over or through them. From Hannibal to Hitler, armies have been tormented by man and nature as they tried to travel through narrow and precipitous passes, making the journey long, gruelling and dangerous. Above all, this mountain range protected Italy. More than any strategy, army or weapon, the Aps saved Italy from numerous conquests. During the Middle Ages, the Italian people were politically and legally part of the Holy Roman Empire, but they almost always sought their own sovereignty, especially after the towns of northern and central Italy increased in population and wealth during the High and Late Middle Ages. This meant that medieval Italians generally opposed being ruled from north of the Aps.

However, the Holy Roman Emperor often had other considerations that kept him from Italy. The difficulty of the Alpine passage, as well as the distance between there and his powerbase in Germany, allowed only an emperor who was completely secure at home to campaign in Italy. Such security was rare in medieval Germany, due to its custom of imperial election, which frequently fomented jealousy among imperial candidates and their adherents. When such security did reign, though, and the emperor came south, the Italian towns were often unwilling to surrender their political independence without a fight. When these wars were fought, the Italians usually were defeated by the more professional, more experienced, more skilled, better-led, and better-armed and better-armoured German troops. But sometimes the Italians were victorious. One of the battles won by the Italians against the Germans was fought at Legnano on 29 May 1176 between the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the soldiers and militia of Milan and other allied Italian towns.

THE OPPOSING FORCES

Frederick Barbarossa was already an experienced military commander when he was designated the successor to Emperor Conrad III (1138-52) in 1152. In fact, it may well have been the generalship he exhibited when fighting Duke Conrad of Zahringen’s rebellion on behalf of Emperor Conrad that led to his being recognized as his successor, despite having no familial ties to him. This same military leadership no doubt won him a unanimous election, a rarity in medieval German politics.

It had been a while since the Italians had seen a German army south of the Alps. Neither of the two emperors who preceded Frederick, Lothair II and Conrad III, were strong enough to pursue any more than a diplomatic connection with the inhabitants of Italy; in essence, the Italian towns were virtually independent for more than 50 years. Among other things, the Holy Roman Empire had been unable to collect taxes and other duties, while the Alpine passes were so filled with bands of thieves, that few traders, pilgrims, churchmen or other travellers could pass through them safely without paying for protection.

Two years after ascending to the throne, Frederick undertook his first campaign through the Alps, ostensibly to be crowned as emperor by the pope and to clear up the lawlessness of the roads and passes, but also, certainly, to bring Italy back into a political and economic union with the rest of the Holy Roman Empire. The latter aim brought an immediate response from the stronger northern and central Italian towns and their neighbours. But Frederick Barbarossa realized little from this campaign, except for his coronation, necessitating his return again (and again).

That the townspeople of Milan led this first rebellion against Frederick is easy to understand since their wealth derived largely from being in control of many of the passes through the Alps. Any traveller who wished to journey along the shortest paths into Italy had to pass through Milan. This meant that the town was continually filled with pilgrims and traders, who spent large amounts on housing, transportation, guides, protection and victuals from the townspeople. As so often in medieval Europe, wealth translated into a longing for independence. Of course, this meant that the Milanese frequently opposed any control from the Holy Roman Empire or its lords. Perhaps also due their wealth, they were able to inspire the citizens of neighbouring towns to join their rebellions against the empire, even if neutrality might have served them better.

THE CAMPAIGN

When Frederick Barbarossa returned to Germany in 1155 without securing Italy’s subjugation, his barons saw this as weakness, and the recently crowned Holy Roman Emperor had to quell dissent among them. Eventually, Frederick was able to placate or defeat all of his adversaries, through diplomacy as well as military power. His second campaign to Italy took place in 1158, and this one turned out to be quite a bit more successful than his first. His greatest victory was without a doubt the capture of Milan, which fell on 7 September 1158 to Frederick’s forces after a short siege. Other rebellious Italian towns quickly surrendered.

But there was still no peace south of the Alps. Once Frederick returned to Germany, Milan and most of the rest of Italy again declared their independence, forcing the emperor’s third expedition south of the Alp; in 1163. On this occasion, his army faced a new alliance of earlier enemies, the Lombard League. The Lombard League had been formed initially by the smaller towns of Verona, Vicenza and Padua, hut soon more substantial allies joined in: Venice, Byzantine Constantinople and the Kingdom of Sicily. In the beginning, Milan stayed out of the league, although probably more out of fatigue than disagreement with its purpose. Facing the unity and military strength of the Lombard League, Frederick’s 1163 campaign failed, as did another campaign, his fourth, in 1166. In this latter expedition, it was not only the Italians who defeated the invading Germans, but also disease, in particular fever, which almost annihilated them. Seeing their success, the Milanese joined the league.

Frederick Barbarossa did not campaign in Italy again until 1174, when he went there to prevent an alliance between the Lombard League and Pope Alexander III. Since being made pope in 1159, Alexander had remained neutral in more northerly Italian affairs, although never a friend or supporter of Frederick. Now he had begun to entertain the Lombard League’s petitions for alliance, and with it, obviously, papal approval for their rebellion. Such an arrangement was not in Frederick’s interest, and he was determined to stop it. When he was unable to do so diplomatically, he launched a new campaign. It was during this campaign, in 1176, that Frederick fought and lost the Battle of Legnano.

DISPOSITIONS

The original sources for the Battle of Legnano do not provide adequate detail for all of the action on the battlefield. Surprisingly, despite its importance to his military career, the chroniclers and biographers of Frederick Barbarossa, generally quite descriptive about all facets of his life, are silent on the battle, while the few local Italian histories are quite short.

From 1174 to 1176 Frederick travelled around Italy, trying to bring the Lombard League to battle. By 1176 he had become frustrated at the lack of progress he had made: the Italians had not been pacified, nor had the pope backed down in his support of them. Early in the year, the emperor had called for reinforcements from Germany, and in April, 2000 additional troops arrived from Swabia and the Rhineland. This force was led by Philip, the Archbishop of Cologne, Conrad, the Bishop-elector of Worms, and Berthold, Duke of Zahringen, a nephew of the empress. From the sources it appears that these soldiers were mounted men-at-arms – knights and sergeants – seemingly without any attendant infantry. Traditionally, the infantry should have been there, and why they were missing is not explained in the original sources.

There are several possibilities; perhaps it was because of the speed Frederick required of them; perhaps the Germans normally had their infantry supplied by local allied Italians or mercenaries; or perhaps Frederick Barbarossa felt that cavalry reinforcements were what his army needed at the time. Too little is known about Fredericks military organization or his needs on this campaign to determine the reason why there were no infantry among these reinforcements. But had they been present, the Battle of Legnano would probably have turned out differently.

MANOEUVRES

The emperor was at the head of his own 500 cavalry, and these joined the German reinforcements at Como early in May. This was certainly not the entire German army at Frederick’s disposal in Italy at the time, and it may be that the 500 cavalry were only his bodyguard, who accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor to protect him on the journey to meet up with the Swabian and Rhenish reinforcements.

If this was the case, then Frederick likely wanted to add these to his army so that he might campaign more effectively against the Lombard League. He may even have felt that such a large cavalry army, all equipped in heavy armour on powerful, expensive horses, might intimidate the Italians into surrender without the need for military action – the most successful campaign is the one that brings its desired result without actual fighting.

But Frederick’s main army was at Pavia at the time, putting the town of Milan between this force and those with him. Frederick hoped that he might be able to travel around Milan without meeting opposition from the Lombard League.

However, the Milanese knew exactly where the two German armies were, and they also recognized that Frederick’s division of his forces offered them an extraordinary opportunity. The Milanese governors mustered the town’s forces – probably any man who could bear arms – and also called in numerous neighbouring allies to join them. German narrative sources place these troops at 12,000 cavalry, with an even larger number of infantry, but these tallies are surely exaggerated. Modern historians have suggested the number to be closer to 2000 Milanese cavalry, with no more than 500 infantry, the latter drawn from Milan, Verona, and Brescia. Present also was Milan’s carroccio, a large ceremonial wagon that symbolized the wealth and independence of the city.

THE BATTLE

Not wanting the two German armies to unite, the Milanese moved to intercept them. This occurred outside Legnano on 29 May. From the original sources, it appears that the Italian army-which had effectively concealed their movement behind a forest – actually surprised Frederick Barbarossa. Before the emperor could organize his battlefield formation, the vanguard cavalry of the Milanese, numbering around 700, charged into the German vanguard cavalry, which numbered considerably fewer, probably no more than 300. The Germans were quickly routed. But they had bought some time for their army to form up, which quickly took in those retreating and chased off their pursuers.

During this action, the Milanese had also moved onto the battlefield and formed their lines opposite the Germans. The cavalry was ordered in four divisions, with the infantry and carroccio behind these. How the German army was arrayed is not revealed in the contemporary sources. Frederick decided that it was to his benefit to go on the offensive, as he was in `foreign’ territory and could not count on his forces being relieved, while he feared that his opponents’ numbers would only increase if he delayed for too long. He also refused to retreat, although this may have been the wisest strategy at the time; the Annals of Cologne claims that the emperor counted `it unworthy of his Imperial majesty to show his back to his enemies’. So, instead of taking a defensive Stance, the German cavalry charged `strongly’, and their attack quite easily broke through the Milanese cavalry.

INFANTRY STAND FAST

However, pushing through the cavalry, the Germans ran into the Italian infantry, who had held their positions despite the flight of the cavalry – an important and incredibly courageous stand. The German cavalry charge was halted. The Italian infantry – `with shields .set close and pikes held firm’, states Archbishop Romuald of Salerno – caused the German horses to stop, unable to penetrate the massed infantry, and unwilling to run onto their long spears. This was not surprising, because such a result had happened before: if horses could not penetrate or go around an infantry line, they simply stopped. But it was a result that could only come about when the infantry was motivated to stand solidly and not flee, even when they faced soldiers whose armour and warhorses displayed a wealth and power attainable by very few’, if any, foot soldiers. In the twelfth century, such a stand was rare.

The stubborn courage of the Milanese infantry allowed their fleeing cavalry to regroup and return to the battlefield, where they attacked the halted German cavalry in the flank. Frederick’s horsemen, seeing that the charge that hail so recently brought success against their cavalry counterparts had been stopped by lowly infantry, began to waver. They quickly turned from their fight with the infantry and attempted to return to their former positions. But this retreat was very disordered and, lacking their own infantry to regroup behind, it quickly turned into a rout. Some time during this part of the battle, Frederick’s banner was lost to the Milanese, and his horse was killed under him.

Frederick barely escaped – although how is not recorded in the original sources – and for several days, while he made his way secretly back to Pavia, it was feared that he had been killed at Legnano. Many Germans were captured, but the total number of either army slain on the battlefield seems not to have been large, undoubtedly a testimony to the protection given by the mail armour worn by the German and Milanese men-at-arms.

Few battles show the necessity of medieval armies to have both cavalry and infantry on the battlefield better that the Battle of Legnano. The Milanese had both infantry and cavalry in their army, and it was their infantry who were able to hold against the charge of the German cavalry. This gave them victory at Legnano. Frederick Barbarossa had not fielded a similarly organized army, leaving no relief for his cavalry when they began to flee, and this more than anything else decided his defeat.

AFTERMATH

Their victory at the Battle of Legnano brought immediate results for the Italians. By October, Frederick was forced to sign the Treaty of Anagni with Alexander III, recognizing him as pope and giving him numerous concessions. And the following May, Frederick signed the Treaty of Venice, making a truce with the Lombard League and the Kingdom of Sicily.

Furthermore, over the following few years, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was forced to become more involved in affairs in Germany. Another campaign across the Alps was, at least for the time being, unthinkable, and in June 1183 the emperor again made peace with the Lombard League, under the Treaty of Constance, which granted nearly complete sovereignty to its members.

Although Frederick and his successors returned to Italy, they were never able to break the desire for independence among those towns in the north which had experienced this self-government. One might conclude then that at Legnano the Renaissance was horn.

Eighteenth-century Russia Expansion I

Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

Eighteenth-century Russia was dominated by women. Of Peter’s immediate successors, his widow, Catherine I, his half-niece Anna and his daughter Elizabeth together ruled Russia for more than thirty-two of the thirty-six years following his death, and Catherine II, known as ‘the Great’, reigned for more than thirty years thereafter. Peter II (1727—30), Ivan VI (1740-41) and Peter III (1761-2) interrupted the sequence, but had little impact on events.

The fact that most of these rulers were women did not diminish their authority, though there was some muted grumbling among the lower orders. However, none of them had received an education to fit them for supreme office, and apart from Catherine II they tended to be rather more dependent on one or two trusted advisers than most rulers. Cronyism and factionalism do seem to have increased at the Russian court, though this may be an impression given by observers who expected it to be so. The eighteenth century was a heyday for gossips. Empress Anna’s favourite, Biron (Bühren), was the dominant figure in the government, yet not — in Finch’s view at least – the linchpin that was needed. That function, he thought, was fulfilled by Count Andrei [Heinrich] Ostermann.

Ostermann, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, was given charge of the Foreign Office after Peter’s death, and soon undertook a thorough reassessment of Russia’s foreign relations in the light of current circumstances. The findings of this complex exercise led him to conclude that, although Peter’s policy of alliance with Denmark and Prussia had helped to keep a usually complaisant Poland in tow, it involved risk and yielded insufficient dividends. Prussia had proved an unreliable ally, and the orientation towards the Baltic region was too narrow to serve the Empire’s interests in the new era. Ostermann wanted to extend Russia’s influence in Europe as a whole, and, at the same time, to promote imperial growth. He was to achieve both these aims with brilliant economy, through one revolutionary turn of the diplomatic rudder.

The means was an alliance with Habsburg Austria, which was signed in August 1726. The two powers had a number of interests in common. They wanted to preserve the independence of their mutual neighbour Poland, the ‘sick man’ of Europe for the previous half century (its brilliant showing at the siege of Vienna in 1686 had been deceptive). They also wished to contain the Ottoman Empire, and to deter their other enemies – in particular France. But expansion to the south also figured in Ostermann’s strategy. His instructions to Ambassador Nemirov, Russia’s representative at peace talks with Turkey in 1735, included claims to the Crimea and the Kuban. As yet they were only negotiating points to be conceded, but they were not forgotten. Indeed, two years later Ostermann drew up a plan for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Strategists tend to plan for contingencies of course, but the Ottoman Empire was nowhere near collapse, as Ostermann well knew. These aims were for the longer term. A generation later they were to be pursued by Catherine the Great. Meanwhile the immediate thrust of Ostermann’s policy was directed further west.

One fruit of Ostermann’s policy of co-operation with Austria had ripened in the early 1730s, when the allies succeeded in getting their candidate, rather than France’s, elected as king of Poland — though not before a Russian army had advanced to France’s frontier on the Rhine. Russia had at last become a member of Europe’s major league. But the allies’ first war against the Turks ended in disappointment in 1739: Austria lost Belgrade, and although Russia regained Azov it was forbidden to harbour warships there. In 1741, when Peter’s daughter Elizabeth was brought to the throne by a coup d’état carried out by the guards regiments, Ostermann was arrested and purged. But the alliance with Austria continued to hold firm, and was to serve as the launch pad for brilliant advances late in the century. Where, then, did the cause of failure in 1739 lie?

Peter had left an army of 200,000 men – seven battalions of crack infantry guards, fifty regiments of infantry, and thirty of dragoons. Apart from a few hussars, the remainder were mostly garrison troops. By 1730 the complement of the guards had increased — by five squadrons of cavalry guards and three battalions of infantry. Three regiments of cuirassiers had been added to the establishment, and fourteen militia regiments to defend Ukraine. By 1740 Russia had 240,000 men under arms, and by 1750 270,000 — not counting over 50,000 irregular troops, mostly Cossacks and Kalmyks. Although the range of Russia’s military commitments meant that few more than 120,000 regulars could be fielded in a campaign, the army was growing in size.

Nor was it deficient in equipment. There were formidable magazines at Briansk, for operations in the west, and at Novo-Pavlovsk, for operations in the south, aside from the great arsenals in St Petersburg and Moscow. There were six cannon foundries, and two small-arms manufactories, one at Tula, the other outside St Petersburg, in which ‘everything is so well ordered that the connoisseurs, who have seen them, agree, that they are masterpieces of their kind’.

There was also provision now for specialist troops: an engineering school for the army; a navigation school for the navy. There were even some successful operations. In the Crimean campaign of 1736 Tatars had swarmed round the invading force as soon as it crossed the Perekop, but the regiments formed into square formation and marched on to the capital, Bakhchiserai. They captured it and sacked it, but they could not hold it. A third of the army had fallen sick, and the rest were exhausted from the great heat. However, in the following year the great Turkish citadel of Ochakov on the Dnieper estuary was taken, and its fortifications were demolished. Eighty-two brass cannon fell into Russian hands on that occasion, along with nine horsetail banners — the Ottoman emblems of senior rank. Those who had participated received a gratuity of four months’ pay from a grateful government. Four years later Swedish Finland was invaded and the well-defended strong-point of Wilmanstrand was stormed, taken, and ‘razed to the ground’.

Yet these successes were both hard-won and expensive. The root of the problem, according to an experienced officer, was not the enemy, however. ‘The Turks and Tatars … were what [the army] had least to dread; hunger, thirst, penury, continual fatigue, the marches in the intensest [sic] heat of the season, were much more fatal to it.’ And then there was the plague which broke out among the troops at Ochakov in 1738 and spread quickly into Ukraine. No wonder that by the end of a campaign regiments were seriously under strength, some by as much as 50 per cent.

The great empires of the age depended on sea power, and both France and Britain had considerable navies. Russia’s, on the other hand was outclassed even by those of Spain and Holland. The navy had been neglected under Peter’s immediate successors. The proud Baltic fleet of thirty ships of the line with their attendant frigates, sloops and cutters had mostly been allowed to rot. Empress Anna made some attempt to halt the decline after 1730, but in 1734 when the city of Gdansk had to be besieged the Admiralty found difficulty in fitting out even fifteen ships of the line, and some of those proved barely seaworthy. A serious programme of naval construction finally got under way again in 1766. But three years later, when the government attempted to send a fleet to the eastern Mediterranean to support a Greek insurrection against the Turks, operational difficulties soon became apparent. Since the enemy commanded the Black Sea, ships had to be sent from the naval base of Kronstadt near St Petersburg. The long lines of communication were as problematic as the army’s logistical problems had been on the long marches to the Crimea. Without help from Britain the voyage might never have been managed.

Admiral Spiridonov set sail from Kronstadt with many troops on board in the summer of 1769. The flotilla under his command was bound for Hull, where Admiral Elphinston was fitting out another force of three ships of the line and two frigates. Things did not go well from the start. One of Spiridonov’s 66-gunners had to turn back almost at once, and a frigate was lost in the Gulf of Finland. The rest proceeded to Copenhagen, there to be joined by an 80-gun ship; but bad weather in the North Sea caused the flotilla to disperse. They eventually put into Portsmouth, some of the ships in poor condition and their crews tired. But the British Admiralty had instructed the authorities there to be helpful, and by the spring of 1770 they were repaired, refreshed and ready to sail for the Mediterranean, Admiral Elphinston carrying his flag in the 84-gun Sviatoslav. This tidy force of nine ships of the line, three frigates and three sloops sailed on to engage a superior Turkish fleet of fourteen bigger-gunned ships off the coast of Greece in the Bay of Chesme. A Scots officer in Russia’s service, Captain Samuel Greig, led the attack in the Ratislav, and fire-ships proved the decisive factor. As many as 200 Turkish sail were set ablaze. It was a famous victory.

Greig was only one of many foreigners who were to influence the development of Russia’s armed services and its traditions. Scots, Greeks, Irishmen, Germans, Danes and Italians all served in them, as did a future American hero, John-Paul Jones. The best remembered are mostly those who held high rank: marshals Münnich and Lacy, generals Keith and Lowendal and a brother of Jeremy Bentham in the army; admirals Greig, Arf and Elphinston in the navy. However, the chequered career of a little-known naval captain, John Elton, draws attention to lesser men who served as instruments of Russian imperialism, and in less well-known areas of operation — in this case the territory of the lower Volga, Central Asia and Persia. Elton was not a conventional sort of eighteenth-century hero. He won no brilliant victories, was not an enlightened reformer, had no political importance, and was unknown in the haute monde, though he was for a time a serious nuisance to officials, businessmen and diplomats. Venturesome, entrepreneurial and courageous, he was also choleric and unstable in his loyalties. At times, indeed, he appears as an anti-hero rather than a hero. Entering Russia’s service in the early 1730s, he was employed as an explorer and cartographer on land rather than being given a command with the fleet. He served with the so-called Orenburg expedition, set up in 1734 to secure the area round the confluence of the rivers Or and Ural, to explore the region’s potential for agriculture, mining and trade, to navigate the river Syr-Darya, and to investigate the suitability of the Aral Sea for navigation. Elton was involved with all these projects. He was also sent to Tashkent, disguised as a merchant. He surveyed the coast of the Aral Sea, which had been thought to be connected with the Caspian, looking for a possible site for a dock to build ships; he helped construct the citadel of Orenburg itself, and sounded the upper reaches of the Ural river to determine its possibilities for navigation.

It was while exploring the low-lying steppe beyond the east bank of the lower Volga that he mapped the great salt lake which still bears his name. His find soon proved very useful to the state, which maintained stocks of salt in order to guarantee the supply of this essential commodity and control its price. When the Stroganovs began to demand higher prices for Perm salt, Moscow was able to resist the demand thanks to Elton, and an ecological problem was also avoided, for the salt-boilers used a great deal of wood and the government now had a policy of forest conservation. Lake salt could be panned from the brine; it did not need boiling. Production at Lake Elton was expanded, and by the late 1750s it became by far the biggest source of salt in Russia. Long before then, however, Elton, piqued at failing to receive the promotion he thought his due, had resigned the service and had immediately become involved in other ventures.

He set out to pioneer a new trade route from England, across Russia to Khiva, Bukhara and Tashkent. If such a route were found, he knew fortunes could be made by selling English woollen cloth there and bringing back valuable silks. While working with the Orenburg expedition he had questioned people who had crossed the Central Asian steppe, including Cossacks who had been taken as slaves on Bekovich-Cherkasskii’s ill-fated expedition of 1717. Concluding that the plundering Kyrgyz, Khivans and Karakalpaks made that approach too dangerous, he now set out to promote a new and safer route that went down the Volga, across the Caspian Sea to Rasht, and thence by camel caravan across the desert to Meshed and points east. Having negotiated the approval of the Persian authorities, he took his proposal to the British minister at St Petersburg and the Russia Company in London. Recognizing that the route would give it an advantage over its rivals, the Levant and East India companies, the Russia Company seized the opportunity and appointed Elton its agent.

But Elton soon fell foul of the Russian authorities, who suspected him of being in the pay of the Persians and of building a fleet for them to contest Russian mastery of the Caspian. Following diplomatic representations by the Russian minister in London, the Russia Company tried to recall Elton, promising him the handsome sum of £400 a year from the company’s profits and to use its influence with the British Admiralty to obtain a naval command for him. Elton, however, preferred to stay. He was distrusted now by both the Russians and the British. A political revolution following the death of his protector, Nadir Shah of Persia, made his position untenable, and he was eventually shot dead by his Persian enemies. His contributions to Russian imperialism survived, however.

The Orenburg project which Elton had served had been planned in the 1720s but was implemented only in the early 1730s. The submission of a group of Kazakhs under Abdulkhayir of the Little Horde in 1731 had given impetus to the scheme. They had wanted Russia’s protection against the Jungarians further east, and they had held out the prospect of helping Russia to subdue the Karakalpaks, Turkmens and Khivans. But most Kazakhs would not submit, and, realizing that diplomacy alone would not resolve the problem, the Russian government proceeded to develop a new fortress city of Orenburg at the point where the river Or flowed into the Ural river, between the Bashkirs to the north, the Kyrgyz-kaisaks and the Volga Kalmyks.

Two primary purposes were to exploit mineral deposits in the south-east and to find the most convenient routes to access the silks of Persia and the rubies, gold and lapis lazuli of India. A third priority, on which the others depended, was to protect the south-east frontier from the steppe nomads, and to insulate them from restless groups within the Empire, notably the Bashkirs of the southern Urals and the Volga Kalmyks. Furthermore, if these peoples could be brought into submission, not only would the region become safe for settlement, and hence more productive, but the tribute or taxes they paid would help the needy exchequer.

A range of persuasive means was used to encourage the steppe peoples to submit to Russian rule. The Kalmyks were allowed to trade at the frontier free of customs duties, and Muslim Kazakhs were allowed to build mosques in Orenburg. Chiefs were persuaded to send a son into Russian care to receive an education, and to serve as surety for the group’s good behaviour; they were also promised protection against their enemies, and sometimes an attempt was made to awe an important subject chief and prospective client or subject by showing him the sights of St Petersburg, including the collection of wonders in its new Academy of Sciences.

A key figure in the dealings with the Kazakhs was a former Tatar mirza who was employed by the Foreign Office as a translator. He was used in negotiations in 1734, later converted from Islam to Russian Orthodoxy, and was promoted a major-general based at Orenburg. His efforts paid dividends. In 1740 the Middle Kazakh Horde at last paid allegiance to Empress Anna, and the relationship proved to be mutually profitable. The Kazakhs were encouraged to divert their trade to Orenburg, where, so long as they met the Russians’ requirements of good behaviour, they were offered good prices for their wares and advantageous terms for Russian goods. By 1747 they were bringing 7,000 horses and 28,000 sheep a year to Orenburg.

But, although some Bashkirs had continued to serve the state, many opposed the Orenburg project. They had ambushed one of the first columns bringing labourers, building materials and supplies from Ufa, killing its commander and more than sixty dragoons and labourers. They also rode off with over forty carts carrying supplies. The building of Orenburg proceeded, but other Bashkir raids followed. Fearing that the Bashkirs’ attitude might be contagious, St Petersburg ordered up strong reinforcements from Kazan and put a new commander in charge of operations in Bashkiria. A bitter colonial war was soon under way there. The raids continued, some of them on a large scale. In retaliation, villages were torched and such leading rebels as could be caught were hanged.

Eventually a cordon of Cossack villages was established and stable administration followed, to a large extent using the Bashkirs’ own elders. But the pacification had been as cruel as such operations tend to be. ‘Seize their wives and children, their property, horses and livestock …’ ran an order from Kirillov, the Russian commander at Orenburg. ‘Destroy their homes and punish the main instigators as an example to the others.’ Minor offenders and male children were sent to the Baltic as conscripts for the army or the fleet. The women and girls were given to ‘whoever wants to take them … in order that their roots will be completely torn out’, for Kirillov reckoned that rebellion in Bashkiria tended to run in families. In 1740, after five years of rebellion and suppression, 17,000 Bashkirs had lost their lives, over 3,000 had been sent to the Baltic, and nearly 700 villages destroyed.

These operations had also been costly to the Russians, but the rewards were great. Rich new deposits of copper and iron had been found in that part of the Urals which was Bashkir country, and no time was lost in exploiting them. By 1750 the area accounted for 90 per cent of Russia’s considerable iron production and 70 per cent of its copper. Furthermore, the Bashkir threat to Russian communications with Central Asia had been eliminated. Both Bashkiria and Kazakhstan could now be counted among the Russian Empire’s permanent possessions.

On New Year’s Day 1740 St Petersburg was treated to an exotic spectacle. Representative couples of various native peoples in the Empire, including Bashkirs, went in procession to an ice palace, constructed on the ice of the river Neva, where the wedding of a courtier, Prince Mikhail Golitsyn, was celebrated. Charivari had long been a feature of the Russian court at this season, but the like of this had not been seen before. Pairs of Lapps and Finns from the far north, Tatars, Kyrgyz from Central Asia and Tungus from furthest Siberia, as well as the Bashkirs, rode on sleds drawn by dogs, reindeer, camels or whatever their native beasts of burden were deemed to be; each couple contributed to the festivities by dancing their native dance, and ate a celebratory dinner of their native foods. It was an exotic show, but also a live, if incomplete, demonstration of the Empire’s ethnic variety, which by that date included peoples even more exotic than these. In the far north, beyond the river Lena, for example, lived the Yukagirs and Nganasans, who were totally dependent on the seasonal migrations of wild deer for their food, housing and clothing; and in Chukhotka, in the far north-east (which involved a considerable journey not only in space but back in time) were the settlements of the Yugits, who hunted walrus and Greenland whales and wintered in dug-out igloos framed with giant whale bones.

The native Siberian population was soon to be severely reduced, however — not so much by war, for many of them had fought each other before the Russians came, but because of influenza and smallpox, which the colonizers inadvertently introduced, and syphilis, which became endemic because of their crowded living quarters. Nor was Russia the only power that wanted to impose its order on the natives. The Chinese, Russia’s competitors in Dzungara, slaughtered many Mongol- and Turkic-speaking natives in the 1750s. Yet the Russian government’s policies were enlightened, and even in furthest Siberia its administrators and explorers often exemplified the civilized values of the age. Some, indeed, were almost touchingly earnest in trying to persuade the native population to abandon their primitive ways. As one of them told the natives in the far north-east as he doled out a gift of beads and showed them portraits of Empress Catherine II and her son, the future Emperor Paul, ‘The Russian monarch and her successor are extremely gracious and diffuse their blessings among innumerable people. They also pay indefatigable attention to the welfare of all these nations who border on the Russian empire and have no protector; employing all possible means to preserve them in content, peace and security.’ One gets the impression that the speaker believed what he was saying. Another conscientious representative of enlightened imperialism

laboured to persuade [the natives he encountered] to quit their savage life … which was a perpetual scene of massacre and warfare, for a better and more happy state. I showed them the comforts of our houses, clothes and provisions; I explained to them the method of digging, sowing and planting gardens, and I distributed fruit and vegetables and some of our provisions amongst them, with which they were highly delighted.

All in all, Russian colonization in this period was kind rather than cruel, and if the smallpox the explorers introduced took its toll among the native peoples, so it did in St Petersburg. The population of Siberia as a whole grew at roughly the same rate as the rest of the world from the eighteenth century.

Chappe d’ Auteroche, a member of the French Academy, who visited Russia in the early 1760s, published an account of it in 1768 which enraged Empress Catherine II. In his book he denigrated the condition of Russia, and even poured scorn on its armed services. The army might be a quarter of a million strong, but it could field no more than 70,000 effective regulars. Moreover, the infantry was effective only in defence, and the cavalry was ‘the worst in Europe’. Russia’s artillery might be good, but ‘the corps of engineers … [was] incapable of conducting a siege.’ As for the navy, it had few ships and ‘the sea officers have as little knowledge as those on land.’ ‘In the present state of population and wealth in Russia, an army cannot be sent beyond the confines of the empire without being ruined even by the victories it may gain; a Russian army in such a situation must be almost entirely destroyed.’

Chappe was to be confounded on every point of his assessment. During the Seven Years War (1756—63) Russian troops had not only raided Berlin, they defeated the army of Frederick the Great at Gross Jägersdorf and at Künersdorf. And they were to triumph, almost without interruption, on every European front for the remainder of the century. The upshot was a considerable expansion of the Empire, much of it at the expense of Poland. Yet Russia did not initiate the first partition of Poland, in 1772. It had no interest in doing so. Poland was already a client state. Its king, Stanislaus Poniatowski, had been the Empress’s lover, and Russian garrisons were already quartered there. It had been Poland’s weak government, derived from its lopsided constitution (‘anarchy tempered by civil war’ was what one wit termed it), which had invited intervention. Russia did not want instability on its frontier. Furthermore, there was the question of the treatment of Orthodox Christians in Poland. Russia’s use of this issue is often regarded as a cynical excuse to intervene. So it may have been, but the Polish Church had a long record of persecuting Orthodox Christians, and Empress Catherine, who had been born a Protestant and was herself a convert to Orthodoxy, could hardly overlook it.

In fact the first partition was precipitated not by Catherine but by Frederick of Prussia. The port city of Gdansk and the Vistula estuary on which it stood divided his realm, and he wanted to unite it. He chose his moment to propose a partition carefully. Both Russia and Prussia had their hands full fighting the Turks. In other circumstances Catherine and Maria Theresa of Austria would have combined to warn Frederick off. However, as things were, they agreed to territorial compensation at Poland’s expense. So Russia gained a swathe of territory between Riga and Chernigov, whose inhabitants were predominately Orthodox and ethnically Ukrainian or Belorussian. It was soon to make more gains as a result of the Turkish war: the western shore of the Black Sea, the coast between the rivers Bug and Dnieper, and the Kerch Strait between the Crimea and the north-east shore of the Black Sea. And Ottoman troops were to quit the Crimea itself.

The Crimea was nominally independent, but since pro-Turkish sentiments were rife among its predominately Muslim population, and since the neighbouring Kuban region was as unstable as Poland, in November 1776 Russian troops crossed the Perekop again, and installed a Russian puppet, Shahin Girey, as khan. But this device did not work well enough for long, and so on 8 April 1783 Catherine annexed the Crimea, accusing the Turks of bad faith in order to justify her own breach of the treaty terms. The new imperial property was doubly valuable. It not only yielded a range of exotic crops — from wine, silk and olives to sesame seeds, dyes and cotton — it offered command of the Black Sea. Before long the old Tatar towns of Akht-mechet and Akhtiar began their transformations into the city of Simferopol and the naval base of Sevastopol.

It had been the birth of a second grandson, in 1779, that had served to crystallize Catherine’s ambition for the Empire’s advance to the south. She had him christened Constantine, after the founder of Constantinople, engaged Greek nurses, and later tutors, for him, and asked her secretary, Count Bezborodko, to sketch out a plan which was to achieve notoriety as ‘the Greek Project’. This contemplated the division of the Ottoman Balkans, the creation of an independent Romanian state of ‘Dacia’, even the replacement of the Ottoman Empire by a revived Byzantine Empire, to be ruled by the infant Constantine. In due course the plan, which drew on the earlier ideas of Andrei Ostermann, was shown to her ally Emperor Joseph II. This is somewhat surprising, since Austria might well have been expected to object to it as potentially detrimental to its interests. But, though Joseph demurred, he did so only on grounds of feasibility. Nikita Panin, president of Catherine’s College of Foreign Affairs, was soon dismissed and replaced by Ostermann’s son, Ivan. Thenceforth Russia’s policy in the south became more aggressive, as did its economic exploitation of conquered territory. But it did not go uncontested.

Eighteenth-century Russia Expansion II

Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

Battle of Kagul, southern Bessarabia, 1770

A substantial number of Nogai Tatars — nomads who had roamed the north Caucasian steppe since the Mongols had arrived centuries earlier — raised a revolt in the north-western foothills of Caucasus. Ottoman agents and Muslim religious had probably helped to stir them up, as they did other Muslim groups deeper into the mountains. In 1782 Aleksandr Suvorov, the general who had performed so brilliantly in several battles of the First Turkish War of 1768—74, was sent in to sort the problem out. His objective was to secure the eastern flank of the operation, which was to bring under direct Russian administration not only the north Caucasian plain and the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea, but also the Crimea and the Black Sea littoral as far as the river Bug to the west of it.

Suvorov employed a whole armoury of means to persuade the Nogais to accept Russian rule. He staged demonstrations of force; he used diplomacy; he offered bribes; and, inviting them to swear oaths of loyalty to the Empress, he laid on a feast to celebrate the occasion – 100 roast oxen and 800 sheep, to be washed down with dozens of barrels of brandy. The results, however, were disappointing. Only 6,000 Nogais turned up to the ceremony, and at least as many took up arms against the invading Russian troops. Three thousand were killed in one battle; many more fled towards the mountains, but pursuing Russian units caught up with them as they retreated northward up the river Laba, and its banks were soon littered with their bodies. The establishment of a new line of Cossack settlements along the banks of the river Kuban now went forward, and the Greben and Terek Cossack lines to the east were strengthened. Before long the rolling plains to the north and west of the Caucasus were being marked out for settlement. But country further south was also brought within Russia’s sphere. In 1783 Catherine had agreed to a request for protection from King Erekle of Kartlo-Kakheti in Georgia. Some authorities have seen in these episodes the real origins of the Eastern Question.

However, the fate of the Nogais had sounded alarms among the Muslim Chechens of the northern Caucasus, and by 1785 Sheikh Mansur Usherma had succeeded in bringing together most of the diverse mountain peoples, from Dagestan to the Kuban, in an anti-Russian jihad. That year Sheikh Mansur’s warriors trapped a sizeable force of Russian troops on the river Sunzha, and massacred most of them. The Russian command reacted systematically as well as strongly. By 1791 Mansur had been taken and imprisoned. Those followers who survived were subdued. Officials in the region remained watchful, but decades of relative peace were to follow, with no obvious sign that Mansur’s victory on the Sunzha was to be a harbinger of things to come.

A few months later the Sultan finally accepted the loss of the Crimea, at which Russia quickly put the new property to use. A primary aim was to establish naval bases, but increasing its population was also a matter of strategic concern: census-takers counted only 160,000 inhabitants in 1793. The troubles prior to the occupation had taken their toll of casualties; so had the disturbances which followed it, and the plague. But the chief factor was an exodus of population, including most of the Tatar elite, once the Treaty of Jassy confirmed the Crimea’s transfer to Russia, removing all hope that the Tatar state would ever be resurrected. However, those elements of the old Tatar establishment who stayed on — Muslim clerics as well as secular notables – were prepared to co-operate with the Russians, and the transition was further eased in the first instance by having Tatars versed in the old ways of doing things administer Russian rule. Furthermore, the demands imposed on the remaining inhabitants were at first very light. Until the end of the century they were even exempted from taxation and the standard recruitment laws. However, the kid gloves were slowly drawn off and a regime more consistent with practice in the Empire as a whole was gradually imposed, including an obligation to furnish sufficient recruits to man two regiments.

The repopulation of the Crimea was doubly advantageous for Russia. Not only had the country been rid of hostile elements, now there was space for new settlers and new projects. But the ambitious colonization programme for the south — of which Prince Grigorii Potemkin, the Empress’s one-eyed lover, had charge — involved far more than the Crimea itself. All the new territory between the lower Bug and Donets, along with the Zaporozhian Sech, which had been broken up in 1775, was placed under his administration as part of a new province called New Russia (Novorossiia). Its economic potential matched its strategic significance, but first new foundations had to be laid. Potemkin’s far-reaching plans for his new satrapy were based, according the Empress’s wishes, upon the most rational and enlightened ideas of the time. The policies he implemented as viceroy derived in part from legislation of the early 1760s which aimed to encourage foreigners to settle in Russia. However, the approach now concerned not only individuals, but entire communities. The purpose was to make underpopulated areas more productive.

Orthodox Christian settlers—including 20,000 Greeks, some Armenians who knew how to raise silkworms, and others — were recruited from Ottoman territory to help make the land fruitful. Some Georgians also arrived, responding to the offer of protection and financial inducements, and soon a major colonization programme was being implemented. Romanians who understood viticulture and Albanians also came. Poles were allowed to settle there too — and even Jews, who for the most part were confined to the-so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’ in the Polish provinces. These Jews, generally excluded from Russia proper, were valued here for their skills as artisans and, like the Greeks, for promoting trade. The policy was to result in a healthy development of commerce as the immigrants exploited connections with their places of origins and former trading partners. Greeks had long been important in the Levant; Jews were responsible for the growth of overland trade with western Ukraine, especially through Austrian Lemberg (Lvov), though many of them later became free farmer settlers. They were also prominent, alongside Italians and other immigrants, in the development of the port city of Odessa, which by 1802 was receiving an average of over 300 merchant ships a year.

Substantial numbers of Germans were also attracted to the Russian south. Indeed they were reckoned at a premium on account of their industry, orderliness and farming skills. The terms offered them were tempting indeed: freedom to choose their occupation, cash subsidies or an allocation of up to 70 acres if they wished to farm, seed for the first winter and spring sowings, two horses per family, and either free equipment or money in lieu of it. They would also enjoy freedom from taxation for up to thirty years, be exempt from recruitment into the services, and receive the costs of passage if they needed it. Some settlers were even told that they would be under a form of administration based on the Swiss cantonal model. Recruiting contractors were engaged and were offered appointment to a military rank (which brought some privilege and prestige) if they produced a large enough number of settlers.

The prospects for German migrants were painted rosily by the recruiting agents. A prospectus for the Saratov area of the Volga issued in 1765 informed the public in the targeted area that the climate of their potential new habitat was ‘similar to that of Lyons in France … The soil… is extraordinarily fertile … There are the most magnificent meadows … also a great quantity of stock … The horses are … swift … can travel up to fifteen German miles a day and cost no more than six rubles … A milch cow [costs] not above three to four’ and the best of meat cost only a kopek a pound. In some areas grapes could be cultivated, yielding wine of ‘a splendid flavour’, and the soil was also suitable for tobacco. Fruit and flowers grew in abundance, and there was a profusion of game to be shot. The prospects, in short, were altogether excellent. But in case there should be any residual doubt, an assurance was offered: ‘The director of the colony … will make [every effort] to ensure that each new settler … shall be able to enjoy a peaceful and plentiful life.’

Not all the colonists found the Volga to be quite the promised Eldorado, but the strategy as a whole proved productive. This scheme, like many associated with the Empress, bore the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Indeed, some of the leading luminaries of the Enlightenment, including Diderot and Voltaire, longing for a country to receive their progressive ideas, and judging Bourbon France to be a hopeless case, now looked to Russia as the great hope for the future. This was not simply because Catherine was powerful and subscribed to many of their ideas, but because Russia was so backward and possessed so few institutions. This meant that the Empire could accept the imprint of their ideas and be moulded by them.

But if the government’s policy towards immigrants bore the stamp of the Enlightenment, what was it in regard to its other subject peoples?

In Poland, which presented such contrasts to Russia institutionally and culturally, sentiment was not totally hostile to Russian rule. Indeed, as a German traveller observed, ‘the Poles, particularly the nobility and gentry, are better affected to the Russians than the Prussian, as was … manifest [at the partition crisis] … when they made no scruple of openly declaring their intention to receive the Russians with open arms.’ The vast majority of the population, of course, were politically inert peasants.

Although some nobles were fiercely hostile to the new regime, a number of prominent aristocrats, notably those of the Czartoryski family, had been inclined towards Russia before the partition, and served their new masters willingly. What reconciled the more important Polish nobles to Russian rule, even though they were Catholics, was not simply the preservation of their noble status, with all the rights that in Russia went with it (Kazakh chiefs who did military service enjoyed the same privileges), but the preservation of serfdom. Its abolition in neighbouring Prussia threatened to undermine many of their compatriots across the frontier economically and destroy their local power. Even though, in conformity with Catherine’s provincial reforms, Russian laws and the Russian language were introduced to eastern Poland, the nobility was left in control of local government, and the Catholic Church was not interefered with. In fact most peasants and many townspeople in Russian Poland were Orthodox. The second and third partitions of Poland, in 1793 and 1795, brought 1.7 million of these under the Russian crown, and when the Uniate Church was brought into the Orthodox fold and under the administration of Russia’s Holy Synod it seems that as many of its communicants were relieved as were offended.

The partitions, however, created another religious problem by bringing well over a million Jews as well as several million Catholics into the Empire. This was the chief source of Russia’s reputation for anti-Semitism. Hostility to Jews had been imported into Russia, as into every other Christian country, with the writings of the Church Fathers. Yet Russians themselves were no more anti-Semitic than other European peoples, and less so than many. Before the partitions few Jews had been allowed to enter Russia proper except by express command of the tsar — a policy most probably due to the state’s care to avoid antagonizing the privileged merchant class, on which it was long dependent for financial advice and tax collection, as well as the Church, which had been an important economic support for the state before the eighteenth century. Anti-Semitism in the Empire was for the most part characteristic of certain subject peoples rather than the Russians themselves, having been entrenched for centuries among Ukrainians, Baits and Poles — in short, among the people who inhabited the frontierlands of the Catholic Church where it confronted Protestants or Orthodox Christians.

Although what had been eastern Poland was now subject to Russia militarily, the occupying power did not wish to alienate the Polish ruling class and so delayed the imposition of Russian norms on the Polish territories. But in the 1790s the Polish elite as well as the Russian authorities became increasingly concerned about how to counter the influence of revolutionary France. Polish landowners were terrified by the Jacobinism which had infected some of the budding intelligentsia in the towns, and Russian rule became more popular. But Russian concern resulted in the Polish elite retaining their social, cultural and legal distinctiveness. This helped to embed them as a ‘foreign body’ within the Russian imperium, creating a problem for the future.

Russian Ukraine west of the Dnieper was administered as part of Russian Poland, but eastern Ukraine was subject to policies that would help absorb it, indeed Russify it. This was not the consequence of any master plan to extinguish Ukrainian independence and distinctiveness, however. Since nationalist sentiment did not develop there until well into the nineteenth century, there was no need no counter it in the eighteenth. Nevertheless, some Ukrainians valued their autonomy as well as their traditions, and the Russians were to eliminate Ukrainian autonomy. They did so partly to improve security and prevent disorder. This is why the Zaporozhian Sech had been destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed in 1775, although some of its Cossacks had promptly gone over to the Turks, who allowed them to form a similar community on the lower Danube under their protection. The removal of obstacles to an enlightened monarch’s power was in itself an enlightened idea. So was the abolition of regional, sectoral and any other rights regarded as antiquated and irrational.

The occasion for implementing this principle of uniform centralism had come long before, in 1763, soon after the Empress’s accession. The Ukrainian elite, numbering about 2,200 out of a population of a million, had petitioned for their Council of Officers to be converted into a constitutional Diet of the Nobility. They had also wanted parity of rank and privilege with Russia’s nobility. At the same time Hetman Razumovsky of Ukraine, who had been the favoured lover of Empress Elizabeth, asked for his appointment to be made hereditary. This had angered the enlightened Catherine, who had just acceded to the throne. She not only denied the petitions, but abolished the post of hetman, appointed a governor-general for Ukraine, and looked forward to the time when, as she put it, even the memory of hetmans would be obliterated. There was strong resistance from those who demanded a new appointment, but the Russian authorities reacted with severity. Thirty-six of the objectors were sentenced to death, though they were subsequently reprieved.

Russia’s new system of regional administration, proclaimed in 1775, was applied to Ukraine. However, this obliged the government to recognize the Cossack elite as nobles on a par with the Russian nobility, and in 1783 serfdom was introduced into Ukraine. These measures mollified the Ukrainian elite, who were landowners as well as Cossack officers, so that when Ukraine’s own indigenous institutions were abolished, as they were in the 1780s, protest was muted. Indeed it was Ukrainians on the Russian governor-general’s staff who installed and administered the new regime. Although the Ukrainian elite continued to take pride in their Cossack past, most of them accepted the new order, and in time many of them were to become Russian patriots.

The processes by which differences in wealth within a community increased, and the officer class was accorded both the privileges of noblemen and the right to keep serfs, took place in other Cossack communities which had previously been rebelliously inclined. In 1773 the Don Cossacks had produced in Pugachev the most terrifying rebel of all, but another development also helped to break them in. This was the emergence of an ethos of pride in loyal service which the state helped to shape. The ethos related conveniently both to a sense of social privilege and to pride in military glory.

The later eighteenth century saw an almost uninterrupted series of campaigns in which Cossacks were involved. The imperial citations, awards of decorations for bravery and donations of colours combined to create a patriotism that was gradually to blot out any will to assert a collective independence. Indeed, when the government needed to establish a new Cossack community to build and guard the Kuban river line, former Zaporozhian veterans who had served as marines in the Second Turkish War of 1787—92 were allowed, as a reward for their valued service, to kneel down before the Empress and petition for a grant of land in the area on which they could settle. The petition was, of course, granted, the purpose of the ceremony having been achieved. In an age when glory could inspire both pride and awe, the state now possessed a means other than suppression to fend off thoughts of protest and manipulate its subjects. That is how the Cossacks came to be psychologically enslaved.

The Baltic provinces constituted a quite different case. The great majority of the population there were peasant serfs whose horizons extended very little further than their village and who spoke local Baltic dialects (the modern literary languages had not yet been constructed). Russian rule made little difference to such people, except that men in Russian rather than Swedish uniforms garrisoned the towns and when necessary patrolled the countryside. Authority was represented by the same lord that they had had before. The lords themselves were predominately German-speaking, and, as we have seen, they had been co-opted into the Russian elite. Every governor-general in the eighteenth century was a Baltic German except one, and he, George Browne, was an Irishman married to a Baltic German.

The dependence of government on educated Germans became so pervasive from the 1730s that many a provincial governor would put his signatures to reports that were actually written in German. So long as the Baltic Germans preserved their right to use German in the local courts and in correspondence with the imperial government they had little incentive to learn Russian unless they aspired to very high office. Indeed, until the middle of the century German was the principal language of the imperial court, as subsequently French would become the favoured medium. Furthermore, in the later eighteenth century Baltic Germans held a far higher number of senior positions than their numbers warranted in the imperial administration, the judicial service and the military. They were content with Russian rule. The honeymoon ended only when, in August 1796, the terms of Catherine’s Charter of the Nobility of 1785 were applied to them. The charter deliberately ignored the noble traditions and institutions of the Baltic Germans. Its introduction prompted polite remonstrance, and then protest. But Catherine — a German herself — was adamant. The protestors, she said, did ‘not appreciate the advantages offered to them, but [clung] to traditional habits … The disposition of rulers’, she warned, ‘should at all times be accepted with respect and obeyed without demur.’ The sword of the enlightened improver cut evenly against ancient constitutions and the habits of savages alike.

As ever, there was less restlessness among the peoples of the north and west than in the southern provinces of the Empire. In part this was due to rising affluence, in part to a measured combination of firmness and concession. Indifference and inertia also counted. But, if there was little opposition to Russian rule, there was little inclination to assimilate either. Religious toleration — another principle of enlightened government — helped reinforce the distinctiveness of Catholic Poles, German Protestants and Jews. So did the preservation of serfdom and the persistence of private law. The state was beginning to encroach on privilege and localism, though decades were to pass before the effects were very visible. Had these reforms been implemented earlier and been more widespread, a far higher proportion of the population would have been Russified and there would have been less scope for the nationalism of an age yet to come.

Yet no thoroughgoing Russification policy was applied consistently, even in the mid-Volga region, one of the earlier scenes of Russian empire-building. If Russians came to predominate in that region, this was because of demographic expansion rather than policies of absorption. Russians had formed the majority of the population at least from Peter I’s time. In the 1790s the Chuvash in the region numbered 310,000, the Cheremis 140,000 and the Votiaks only 127,000, but there were more than 250,000 Mordvs and 400,000 Tatars. Some of these minorities, as well as Russians, moved into the Bashkir areas of the southern Urals. The Kalmyks, about 200,000 strong, found they had to share their part of the steppe with Ukrainian, Tatar, Mordv and German as well as Russian colonists. Again, no great effort was made to Russify these elements, although between 1740 and 1755 the Church did mount a missionary campaign directed at animists, and groups whose co-operation the government particularly valued were offered inducements to convert to Christianity. Kazakhs and, later, Crimean Tatars and others who did so were granted three years’ remission of taxes and allowed to own Christian serfs. Yet no attempt was made to make even the patriarchate of Moscow a Russian preserve. Of the 127 Orthodox bishops installed in the Empire between 1700 and 1762, no fewer than 75 were Ukrainians and only 38 Russians. And there was no policy to promote ethnic homogenization.

Russia’s laws, policies and institutions — including Catherine’s ‘enlightened’ rationalizing measures — came to apply to the new provinces as well as to the old, to the Crimea as well as to Livonia and Ukraine and Moscow Province. Not only did they arouse understandable resentment, however, they sometimes resulted in anomaly rather than standardization. In 1795, thanks to the partitions and the age-old policy of co-opting elites, there were some 600,000 registered noblemen (szlachta) in Russia’s Polish provinces — four times as many as in Russia proper. Many of them, however, were devoid of resources — in effect they were the servants of noblemen with means. And, although the local-government reforms of 1775 were applied throughout the Empire, their norms regarding the administration of justice in particular remained a dead letter in Siberia, because the new laws had allotted various administrative functions to members of the nobility, and the Siberians had no noble class.

The Second Turkish War, which formed the backdrop to these developments, confirmed Russia’s superiority over Ottoman Turkey, and established its power in the Black Sea and the northern Caucasus. Success in that war was achieved through a succession of brilliant victories in hard-fought battles – the defence of Kinburn, the battle of the Rymnik, the storming of Ismail. At the same time Russia was able to sustain successful operations, chiefly by sea, against a hostile Sweden. The gains resulting from this triumphant progress were only half digested when another southern project got under way. In 1796, 30,000 troops moved down the Caspian coast to take Derbent and Baku and to prepare for an advance into the heartland of Persia. The ultimate objective of this ‘Oriental Project’, led by the brother of the last of Catherine’s lovers, Platon Zubov, was to seize Tibet and the roads into India.

Already alarmed by the build-up of Russian sea power in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, Britain was spared further concern by Catherine’s death later the same year. But, although the Oriental Project was called off and British interests in India became safe for the moment, the progress of Russian arms was not to end there. Suddenly, in November 1798, the Knights of St John – based on Malta, the pivotal point in the Mediterranean — elected Catherine’s son and successor, the Emperor Paul, grand master of the order, so Malta in effect became a Russian protectorate. Yet there was to be no clash between the Russian fleet and the British who had helped to create it. Indeed, they were soon united by a common enemy: revolutionary France. Thanks to Russia’s alliance with Britain, Napoleon Bonaparte was to be denied Malta and Egypt, but Russia’s Mediterranean plans were also to come to nothing.

By the end of the century the Empire covered well over 2 million square miles, more than a fifth of them in Europe. Just before the turn of the century a Russian—American Company was founded to exploit the trading possibilities in the north-eastern Pacific and to administer territories on the eastern side of the Bering straits ‘belonging to Russia by right of discovery’. Russian explorers had already been burying inscribed copper plates in new-found lands and erecting crosses over them declaring them to be ‘imperial Russian territory’. The company was empowered to make new discoveries south as well as north of the 55th Parallel, and to exploit them.

This had all been achieved with relatively modest military resources, given how great a power Russia had become. Of a total military establishment of 435,000 in 1782, more than half were garrison troops, labour battalions (of convicts, rebel tribesmen and the like) and frontier troops such as the Cossacks. There were only 118,000 regular infantry, 52,000 regular cavalry and 29,000 artillerymen. The cost, according to the reliable Le Clerc, was 5,173,000 rubles a year. The navy cost a further 1,226,999 a year, compared with 1,588,747 for the court and a mere 73,000 for the Academy of Sciences.  Richard Hellie has estimated that the army cost one-eighth of all Russia’s productive resources in the eighteenth century.  Russia lost 653,000 men in its eighteenth-century wars, nearly a third of them in the Turkish wars. High as these costs were, they were not an excessive price to pay for the immense assets gained — territorial and human — and it has been calculated that between 1719 and 1795 the male population had grown by almost 7 million, not counting the population of the new territories.

Russia was incontestably a world power now, and, as powers do, it attracted opposition. Not only traditional rivals like the Ottoman Turks and France, but former allies now harboured misgivings. Britain was concerned at possible Russian threats to its interests in the Mediterranean and India; Habsburg Austria, long Russia’s closest ally, was now worried that a collapse of the Turkish Empire, previously unimaginable, might precipitate serious problems for it in the Balkans. In the natural way of things, these powers would have been expected to club together with France against Russia in order to restore a balance of power in Europe — but this did not happen. A new factor had intruded itself: the rise of revolutionary ideology. Concern about France’s radically new form of imperialism with its weapons of mass mobilization, democratic populism and subversion was ultimately to mobilize a new, nationalist, form of opposition to it. But in the meantime the disruption of Europe in the Napoleonic Wars was to facilitate the further expansion of Russia’s traditional empire.

United States Navy Carrier Air Groups

Snub-nosed with a rotund fuselage and plank-like wings it was never going to win any beauty awards, but the Grumman F4F Wildcat proved there was more to an effective fighter than svelte looks. In fact, it is hard to see how Allied navies, particularly that of the USA, could have managed without the sturdy, pugnacious Wildcat. A typical product of the Grumman `Iron Works,’ the F4F could also hand out punishment as well as take it. Its battle honours were as good as they come: the Battle of the Atlantic, the heroic defence of Wake Island, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.

The United States Navy began deploying Grumman F4F-3 fighters aboard its carriers in January 1941. Powered by a 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engine, it could reach 328 miles per hour at 21,000 feet, cruise at 155 miles per hour, had a range of 845 miles, and was armed with four 0.5-inch wing machine guns. Pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and robust construction made the F4F a tough opponent. A version with folding wings and six machine guns entered service in mid- 1942. Speed fell to 315 miles per hour and range dropped to 770 miles. The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type.

The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. Although over 8,000 Wildcats were built, 6,000 were manufactured by General Motors, leaving the Grumman factory free to concentrate on the F4F’s successor, the F6F Hellcat. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

The United States Navy’s chosen successor to the Grumman F4F was the Vought F4U Corsair. With a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, it reached 417 miles per hour at 19,000 feet, cruised at 182 miles per hour, and had a maximum range of 1,015 miles. It was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and most versions also could carry rockets or bombs. The F4U’s deck landing characteristics, however, were judged unsatisfactory. So, from February 1943, it was issued for front-line service only with shore-based United States Navy and Marine Corps squadrons. The Royal Navy also received large numbers which, since it needed every modern carrier fighter possible, successfully undertook an urgent modification and trials program to suit the Corsair for carrier operation. Corsairs began front-line operations aboard British carriers in the spring of 1944 and were in action by the beginning of April. As a result, the United States Navy conducted new carrier trials the same month and Corsair began operations from American carriers in the late summer of 1944, going on to become probably the most successful carrier fighter of the entire war.

USN NAVAL AVIATORS

The basic curriculum established in October 1939 served the United States Navy well throughout World War II. Aspiring aviators first spent one month at a naval reserve air base for elimination flying training, by the end of which they made their first solo flights. Those who successfully completed this indoctrination period became aviation cadets and proceeded to one of several training bases. Primary training required three months flying biplane trainers, combined with ground school. Successful cadets then moved onto intermediate training, learning basic formation flying and instrument and blind flying using obsolete front-line types and monoplane advanced trainers. Finally, cadets went to advanced training, where they practiced formation flying, aerobatics, night flying, gunnery and dive bombing, and simulated carrier landings. The total training period, including indoctrination, was seven months, after which graduates received commissions as reserve ensigns with about 200 hours of flying time in their log books. Between 1941 and 1945 the United States Navy trained over 65,000 pilots.

Until mid-1941 newly commissioned ensigns completed their operational training with front-line fleet squadrons that were shore based for routine refresher training. This was very inefficient and, as a result, the navy created advanced carrier training groups, initially one for each coast, that could undertake this task. The curriculum for newly-minted aviators devoted seventy-five hours to teaching navigation, advanced gunnery, dive and torpedo bombing, and night and instrument flying, culminating in carrier landing qualification (eight successful landings) after extensive practice on dummy flight decks ashore. From mid-1942 further advanced carrier training groups were created to accommodate the rapidly growing number of new aviators. Several escort carriers spent much of their careers serving as deck landing training vessels and two Great Lakes paddle steamers were fitted with flight decks for the same purpose.

As the United States Navy’s ambitious program of carrier construction hit its stride, it needed to create new air groups for the new carriers. The navy also adopted a policy of withdrawing existing air groups from carriers and replacing them with new groups rather than allowing them to be ground down completely in combat. These new groups coalesced around a core of combat-experienced squadron and flight leaders with the balance of their complements made up of new graduates from the advanced carrier training groups. Before embarking on their first cruise, these new groups spent several weeks “working up,” so that the novices could start to learn all they could from the veterans.

SQUADRONS

From early 1943, the Royal Navy also began forming new squadrons that were to equip with Lend-Lease aircraft in the United States itself. These squadrons completed all their operational training in the United States before moving to the operational zones in Europe or, later, the Far East and Pacific.

A fundamental organizational difference between the American and British naval air services, on the one hand, and that of Japan, on the other, had a major impact on aircrews’ operational experience and wartime careers. Both the United States and Royal navies adhered to a squadron-based organizational pattern. The overwhelming majority of squadrons were established to operate a single aircraft type, usually between 12 and 24 machines but sometimes, especially late in the war among fighter units, with as many as 30 or more. Squadron rosters often included more aircrews than aircraft, and also included the all-important maintenance personnel: mechanics, airframe repairmen, electricians, armorers, and so on. Essentially, each squadron was self-sufficient from an operational perspective. Almost invariably, new squadrons formed or older units returning from combat re-formed around a nucleus of combat-experienced aircrew amidst a larger number of freshly-trained personnel, so that the veterans could impart their hard-won skills to the new crews.

Each British or American carrier embarked a number of squadrons to endow it with an air group made up of the appropriate mix of aircraft types to suit operational requirements. By the later stages of the war, most air groups undertook some coordinated training prior to embarking on their carriers, but the bulk of such training still took place afterwards. After an extended period of combat or heavy losses, it was straightforward to replace a carrier’s air group without withdrawing the ship itself from operations, thus maintaining a high level of operational tempo and also ensuring that the aviators could recuperate from combat stress and also prepare for a return to action as the core leadership of fresh squadrons and air groups. Furthermore, an individual squadron that suffered disproportionately high losses could be replaced very simply by an available fresh unit.

During the course of World War II the aircraft carrier demonstrated its unrivalled flexibility and effectiveness in combat. In addition to engaging other carriers and major fleet units in full scale naval battles, aircraft carriers supported major landing operations; raided and interdicted warship and shipping movement on the high seas and in the littoral; attacked and destroyed shore installations and facilities; protected merchant shipping against submarine, surface, and air attack; and hunted submarine and surface raiders. This great flexibility sprang from the relative ease with which carriers could both upgrade their capabilities through embarking superior aircraft and change missions by taking aboard air groups with varying compositions of aircraft types. Carriers attained capital ship status not only because of their flexibility but also because, especially from 1941 onward, they could deploy both long-range power and overwhelming local force. This combination of capabilities reduced battleships, previously the arbiters of naval power, to a subsidiary role.

The wartime combat experience of the United States and Royal navies, the only fleets still operating carriers by the end of the war, profoundly influenced their approaches to carrier aviation in the postwar era. The dominant mission of carriers during the war, combat against their cohorts, became irrelevant with the dominance of the United States Navy and the disappearance of carrier-operating potential enemies. In its place, the projection of power from the sea against an enemy homeland and the protection of naval and mercantile assets, mainly against submarine and air attack, took center stage. As carrier-operating navies and those with ambitions to join their ranks entered this new environment, the role of carriers shifted subtly away from the traditional mission of capital ships, like on like combat, into this less clear-cut realm.

World War II dramatically altered the world’s naval situation. Thanks to the realization of its immediate prewar building plans and an additional massive wartime construction program, the United States Navy’s fleet enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance in both numbers and overall quality relative to any other individual navy or combination, either friendly or potentially hostile. Nowhere was this more apparent than in comparing strengths of carrier fleets: by December 1945 the United States Navy possessed twentyone modern fleet carriers and eight light carriers, while the Royal Navy, the only other carrier operator, had but six fleet carriers and six light carriers.

The first US Navy ace of World War II, Lt Edward Butch O’Hare seated in the cockpit of his Wildcat circa spring 1942. The aircraft is marked with five Japanese flags, representing the five enemy bombers he was credited with shooting down. He was killed in November 1943 when he was shot down by friendly fire.

WILDCAT ACES

Given the relatively small number of pilots involved and the intensity of the fighting in the first 12 months of the war in the Pacific, there was no shortage of Wildcat aces.

A total of 25 US Navy and 34 USMC F4F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft and therefore became aces. The first of them was Lt (jg) Edward `Butch’ O’Hare of VF-3 who was credited with shooting down five Mitsubishi G4M `Betty’ bombers in a single engagement in February 1942.

During the Battle of Midway three further F4F pilots became aces. Lt Cdr John S. Hatch CO of VF-3 took his total score to 6.5 as did the battle’s top-scorer, VF-3’s Lt (jg) Scott `Doc’ McCuskey. The Navy’s top-scoring F4F pilot was Donald E. Runyon of VF-6 who shot down eight enemy aircraft during three engagements in August 1942.

The Guadalcanal fighting resulted in 30 USMC aces including the war’s top three Wildcat pilots. Between them VMF-223, VMF-121 and VMF-224 claimed to have downed 315 Japanese aircraft. Maj Joseph J. Foss had 26 victories, Maj John L. Smith 19 and Maj Marion E. Carl 16.5. All three survived the war.

`I noticed one Zero skirting in and out of clouds and as I made pass at him, he promptly ducked back into them. I played cat and mouse with him for several minutes until I climbed into the sun to let him think I had retreated. When I came down on him for the last time, he never knew what hit him as his wing tanks and cockpit exploded. I ended up splashing four Zeros that day to bring my total aerial victories up to nine kills. Little did I know that within six months I would more than double that score.’

Lt Alex Vraciu recalling one of his victories that made him the US Navy’s fourth highest ranking ace.

HELLCAT ACES

A total of 307 F6F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft to make them aces and the Hellcat the most successful US fighter ever. Not for nothing was the Hellcat also known as the `ace maker’. Hellcat pilots claimed three-quarters of the aerial victories attributed to the US Navy in the Pacific. Navy and Marine F6Fs flew 66,530 combat sorties (45 per cent of the total) of which 62,386 were flown from aircraft carriers. Against its principal adversary, the Mitsubishi Zero, which it had been intended to counter, it achieved a 13:1 kill-to-loss ratio. David McCampbell was the top USN ace, but three other Hellcat pilots scored 20 or more victories against the Japanese.

CORSAIR ACE

US Marine Corps squadron VMF-124 was the first Marine squadron to take the F4U into combat. One of its pilots, Lt Kenneth A. Walsh, proved to be amongst the top scoring Marine Corsair aces in the war with 21 confirmed kills. The unit arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal on the morning of 12 February 1943 with 12 F4Us, and by the middle of August Walsh had already become a double ace with 10 kills. Later in the month he was involved in one of the most exciting dogfights to take place in the Pacific theatre, for which he would receive the Medal of Honor for his fighting prowess.