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Nerger and the Wolf





The raider Wolf(II) sailed on 30 November 1916. The raider was formerly the Hansa Line’s Wachtenfels (5,809 tons), now armed with seven 15-cm guns, three smaller guns for arming auxiliaries, four torpedo tubes, 465 mines, and a Friedrichshafen seaplane, dubbed Wölfchen. Her commander, Korvettenkapitan Karl-August Nerger, had by far the longest cruise—close to fifteen months—of any raider during the war, for the Wolf did not return to German waters until the latter part of February 1918. The Admiralstab ordered Nerger to mine the approaches to major ports in South Africa and British India and to continue the war against commerce only after he had expended his mines. His major objective was then to be the grain trade between Australia and Europe.

The Wolf was escorted through the North Sea by U-boats, passed through an ice field in the Denmark Strait, and then made the long journey to South African waters without attacking any ships. She laid her first minefield off the Cape on the night of 16 January. Nerger laid minefields off Capetown, Cape Agulhas, Colombo, and Bombay during the months of January and February. On 28 February he captured the British steamer Turritella (5,528 tons), which he commissioned as the auxiliary cruiser Iltis, and, after arming her and transferring 25 mines, ordered her to operate in the Straits of Perim and mine the main channel between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The captured Chinese crew agreed to work under the Germans.

British, French, and Japanese warships on the Cape, East Indies, and China stations had been placed on guard against raiders in January, but this had been based on news the Möwe was out. There was no definite intelligence of the Wolf until 5 March. In February, March, and April of 1917 there were approximately 31 cruisers (including 10 Japanese and 3 French), 14 destroyers (British, Australian, and Japanese), and 9 sloops searching for the raider. By the end of March, there was even the old battleship Exmouth working the transport route between Colombo and Bombay, and in April the light cruisers Gloucester and Brisbane were detached from the Adriatic and Australia, and a seaplane carrier, the Raven II, arrived at Colombo. The significant Japanese contribution has largely been forgotten, although Newbolt admitted in the official history that the Japanese did rather more than was asked of them and really became the predominant partner in the Indian Ocean. There was eventually a Japanese vice admiral at Singapore with four cruisers and four destroyers, and another Japanese rear admiral with two cruisers protected commerce on the east coast of Australia. Two Japanese cruisers patrolled in the region of Mauritius and then escorted traffic between Mauritius and the Cape, and another detached squadron of two Japanese cruisers escorted traffic between Australia and Colombo.

The Iltis was not particularly successful. Shortly after laying her minefield, which subsequently damaged but did not sink two ships, she was challenged by the sloop Odin in the Gulf of Aden on 4 March and scuttled herself to avoid capture. The Admiralty responded to the news by first halting all transports in the Indian Ocean and then escorting one or two transports with cruisers while other patrols searched fruitlessly for the raider. The Wolf continued to coal from prizes, and after six months at sea overhauled her engines and boilers at remote Sunday Island in the Kermadecs northeast of New Zealand. Nerger then proceeded to lay mines off the northwest corner of New Zealand and then near the Cook Strait and in the Bass Strait. The Wolf’s final minefield was laid off the Anamba Islands near Singapore. The Admiralty, having had no news of the Wolf for some time, had canceled the Indian Ocean escorts on 2 June, and when the raider reentered the Indian Ocean in September, shipping was unprotected.

Nerger, thanks to coaling from prizes, was able to prolong his voyage beyond original expectations. He was always far ahead of Admiralty intelligence in the vast oceans. For example, the report of the Wolf’s visit to the Maldive Islands in September did not become known to the Admiralty until December. They promptly resumed escorts of transports in the Indian Ocean. By this time Nerger was far away in the Atlantic, on his way home in company with the captured Spanish steamer Igotz Mendi (4,468 tons), which had been serving as a collier since her capture on 10 November. The Wolf, by now leaking badly, finally reached German waters on 17 February 1918, although the Igotz Menai ran aground in fog off Skagen and was interned by the Danes. The Wolf’s mines had sunk a total of 13 steamers (11 British) representing 75,888 tons. Three ships had been damaged by mines but brought safely into port. The Wolf also captured or sank another 7 steamers (5 British) and 7 sailing ships (one British), representing 38,391 tons for a combined total of 114,279 tons.118 This is of course impressive, but it represented a cruise of almost 15 months and would only average out to about 7,700 tons of shipping destroyed per month. It appears minuscule compared to what the U-boats were accomplishing.

Channel Battles I


1942 – HM Motor Gun Boat MGB.81


1942 – HM Motor Torpedo Boat MTB.234, Vosper-type
The Vosper MTB crews had confidence in their boats, which were known for good sea keeping abilities, high speed and sound construction. As the war progressed, radar and heavier weapons made the Vosper boats even more formidable. The boats and crews had a sterling record while enduring incredible hardships.

During the period mid-1941 until early 1942, the Germans were successful in getting a substantial number of convoys and warships through the English Channel, usually at night by moving in short stages from one port to another, and taking full advantage of bad weather. The traffic was considerably less than on the British side – for example, between April and June 1941 some 29 merchant ships of over 1,000 tons and 11 destroyers were known to have made the passage – and this meant that considerable escort forces could be made available as well as the cover provided by aircraft and coastal guns.

The boats of Coastal Forces were primarily engaged at this time against German minelayers and E-boats, and even when attempts were made to take the war to the enemy coast, the MTBs found it difficult to locate targets. When they did so, it was even harder to penetrate the screening escorts to attack the larger ships. However, a few successes were achieved which, apart from their value in boosting morale, pointed the way for the future. The MTB and MGB flotillas based at Dover found that instead of operating independently, it was beneficial for both types of craft to work together. Thus the MGBs would take on enemy escorts, especially E-boats, and drive them away in a series of running battles, while the MTBs slipped through the defence screen to attack the ships being escorted. A noteworthy example of this technique occurred on the night of 3 November.

While two MGBs led by Stewart Gould (with Lt M. Fowke commanding the second boat) engaged the escorts of a convoy sailing through the Dover Strait, two MTBs commanded by Lt-Cdr Pumphrey (with Lt P.A. Berthon commanding the second) torpedoed and sank a 5,000-ton merchant ship and got away before their presence had even been detected. Gould’s MGBs did sustain considerable damage and casualties, but not before they had shot up a trawler escort and severely damaged a German ‘T’ Class torpedo boat, equivalent to a small destroyer. The teamwork developed by Pumphrey and Gould had a great influence on the tactics later adopted more generally by Coastal Forces. It also showed the value of having one boat that could combine the dual role of gunboat and torpedo boat, and hastened the development of the larger Fairmile ‘D’ class boats.

Another technique tried out during this period also had a profound effect on later tactics, both offensive and defensive. This was the method of using MTBs or MGBs in conjunction with a destroyer which, through its more sophisticated radar and VHF devices, could locate enemy craft and vector the smaller boats towards them. This was not the original intention, however, when the first of these combined operations took place. Among the Coastal Force flotillas that had been formed at this time were those manned by Dutch, Norwegian, Free French and Polish crews (later in the war, American PT-boat flotillas were brought over to operate in the English Channel during the Normandy invasion). A Norwegian MTB flotilla was based at Scapa Flow and the decision was taken to carry out an attack off the Norwegian coast. The MTBs did not have sufficient range to make the two-way passage under their own power, and as an experiment, on 1 October, it was agreed that one would be towed across by a destroyer. The boat in question was MTB.56, commanded by Lt Per Danielsen, towed by the Norwegian destroyer Draug. Some thirty miles from the Norwegian coast, the MTB slipped away from the destroyer and quietly entered a fjord south of Bergen. The Germans had not expected such an attack and were sending a fully laden tanker northbound with only a light escort. Lt Danielsen torpedoed and sank the tanker, together with one of the escorts, and then sped away to rejoin the destroyer and be taken in tow once again for the return journey. Both got home safely without damage or casualties.

This attack and other Commando raids on the Norwegian coast convinced Hitler, wrongly as it happened, that Britain was about to invade Norway. It was for that reason he decided to bring three powerful warships back into German waters from their base at Brest, involving a spectacular run through the Dover Strait during the hours of daylight. The three ships were, of course, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. They made the run on 12 February 1942, escorted by no less than ten torpedo boats and a large number of smaller escorts including E-boats, with 16 aircraft providing continuous air cover. Among the attempts made to prevent this convoy getting through was an attack by five MTBs from Dover, led by Pumphrey, but the escort screen was too concentrated for them to get through. Equally unsuccessful but more tragic was a later hopeless attack against overwhelming odds by six Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, led by Lt-Cdr E. Esmonde. All the planes were shot down, with only five survivors being picked up (Esmonde was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross).

Further attacks by aircraft and destroyers were also beaten off, and by the morning of 13 February the warships arrived safely in German waters. The fact that both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been damaged by mines while off the Dutch coast could not disguise the German success in running the gauntlet through the Channel, almost within sight of the English shore. It was yet another example – although the most dramatic one to be sure – of a situation in which too many German ships were able to make the coastal voyage unscathed During the following month another large ship, the disguised raider Michel, also made a successful run down-Channel, from Kiel to La Pallice, in spite of attacks by destroyers, MTBs and MGBs. By May, however, when a second disguised raider Stier also made the voyage from Rotterdam to the Gironde, the British forces had become more experienced. Although Stier got through undamaged, two escorting torpedo boats – Iltis and Seadler – were sunk by MTBs with heavy loss of life, for the loss of MTB.220, in which the Senior Officer Lt E.A.E. Cornish and most of his crew were killed. Taking also into account the increased efforts of RAF Coastal and Bomber Commands to disrupt the enemy’s coastwise shipping, especially by minelaying, the summer of 1942 began to prove very hazardous for German convoys in the Dover Strait. It was for this reason that the Germans made a major effort to lay defensive minefields in mid-Channel to protect their shipping lanes, work that was mostly carried out by E- and R-boats with the results described in the previous chapter.

A major contribution in tipping the scales in favour of Britain was a rapid increase in the number of boats being commissioned in Coastal Forces, including the new designs. In mid-June, for instance, the 1st SGB Flotilla was formed at Portsmouth and within a few days undertook its first successful operation. This was on the evening of 18 June when three of the gunboats, under the command of the flotilla’s Senior Officer Lt J.D. Ritchie, set out in company with the ‘Hunt’ class destroyer Allbrighton to intercept two German merchant ships which were known to have left Le Havre with an escort of E-boats. SGB.7 commanded by Lt R.L. Barnet, succeeded in sinking a 3,000-ton merchant ship by torpedo in the Baie de la Seine, but was herself sunk by an E-boat; Lt Barnet and most of his crew were taken prisoner. The main reason for this loss was the SGB’s lack of speed in withdrawing after the action, and as a consequence, no further craft of this type were ordered although the Admiralty had originally envisaged a force of 60. However, the remaining six continued to give excellent service in the Channel and later in operations from the Shetlands. What proved to be highly successful was for SGBs and destroyers to work together, the latter making up for the gunboats’ vulnerability when up against E-boats. This kind of combined attack, in which the larger ship could give covering fire and illuminate the target for the smaller boat to make a torpedo attack, had been suggested at the beginning of the war when the Admiralty was considering how Coastal Forces could best be employed. But until 1942 there were not sufficient destroyers available, in view of pressing demands elsewhere, especially as convoy escorts in the Atlantic.

Command of the SGB Flotilla was later taken over by Lt-Cdr Peter Scott, MBE, DSC and Bar, son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic and a distinguished artist and ornithologist. It was he who created one of the most successful ship’s camouflage schemes of the war, blending duck-egg blue, off-white and green to such effect that on one occasion two ships disguised in this way collided in mid-ocean before being aware of each other’s presence. This camouflage was designed primarily for invisibility at night and broke away from the seemingly logical but entirely false notion which had previously been accepted that because the night is dark, dark colours should therefore be used. The Germans, with the grey-white colouring of their E-boats, were the first to find the opposite to be true; that if a ship was visible at all at night it was in the form of a dark shape against a moonlit sea, so the purpose of camouflage should be to paint her in lighter colours.

The first of the larger but slower Fairmile D-boats to see action was MGB.601 (Lt A. Gotelee), which set out from Dover on the night of 20 July in company with two Fairmile ‘C’s to search for enemy patrols south of Boulogne. The force was led by Lt. H.P. Cobb, with Lt G.D.A. Price commanding the other boat. Gotelee’s boat was not in fact armed with torpedoes on this occasion, which proved to be a drawback when they encountered a German convoy, a few miles north of Gap Gris Nez, comprising a merchant ship escorted by a number of armed trawlers and R-boats. The sea was too rough for small MTBs from Dover to reach the location in time, and so Cobb led his force in an attack with guns only, intending to drop a depth charge in front of the merchant ship if he could get close enough. The MGBs met a murderous fire from the escorts which set Cobb’s boat ablaze and caused casualties in MGB.601. Several enemy vessels were also hit and burning, but then Cobb’s boat blew up; a few survivors were taken prisoner, but Cobb was among those killed. As a result of the action, some modifications were made to all the other D-boats still being built and it was not until the end of the year that they came widely into use with the opening up of a new theatre of operations off the Norwegian coast.

By the autumn of 1942 it had become a major operation for the Germans to send a large merchant ship or warship through the Channel. On those occasions when it was tried, a single vessel might be escorted by a dozen or more E-boats or armed trawlers. These usually succeeded in getting their charge through unscathed when attacked by small units of British craft, as witness the previously described action. But it was another matter when an equally strong force could be despatched against such a convoy. This was the situation in the Western Channel where, following Hitchens’ success earlier in the year, large numbers of destroyers, MTBs and MGBs had been based at Dartmouth, Plymouth and Portsmouth for the purpose of clearing those waters of enemy shiping

Early in October, following their success in despatching the raiders Michel and Stier down-Channel, the Germans decided to try the same with the 4,000-ton armed merchant raider Komet. This was a new and important ship, fast and heavily armed. She had returned to Flushing at the end of 1941 after her first cruise, and now it was intended to take her round the coast in the Western Channel from where she could set out to attack the Atlantic convoys. The first stage of the voyage began at midnight on 7 October when the Komet left Flushing with a strong escort of minesweepers and torpedo boats. Early in the morning of the 8th, however, four of the minesweepers were themselves mined and the warship had to put into Dunkirk. She left four days later and coasted in stages to Boulogne and Le Havre, finally passing Cherbourg in the early hours of the 14th.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty had become aware of an important movement on the other side of the Channel. Five destroyers from Portsmouth, under Lt-Cdr J.C.A. Ingram in the Cottesmore, four more from Plymouth, and eight MTBs from Dartmouth were sent out against the convoy. Contact was made off Cap de la Hague by the first destroyer group, which set fire to the raider and two of her escorts. The second group of destroyers then arrived and engaged the other escorts, every one of which was damaged. Komet was still making 15 knots and in the smoke and confusion of the battle there was some danger of her getting away. However, the MTBs had arrived by then and one of them, MTB-236 commanded by Sub Lt R.Q. Drayson, managed to slip unseen between the shore and the enemy ships. MTB.236 crept ahead of the raider on silent engines, then at a range of only 500 yards delivered the coup de grâce with two torpedoes. The explosion as Komet blew up was heard on the English coast, some 60 miles away.


Barbarians and the Roman Order


The Persian King Shapur I using the captured Roman Emperor Valerian.




In the summer of AD 370, a group of shipborne Saxon raiders slipped out of the River Elbe, and headed west along the north coast of continental Europe. Avoiding the defended Roman frontier, they eventually disembarked in northern France, probably somewhere west of the Seine. The Romans quickly brought up enough troops to force them to negotiate. As Ammianus Marcellinus, our best fourth-century Roman historian, reports it:

After a long and varied discussion, since it seemed to be in the interest of the state, a truce was agreed upon, and in accordance with the conditions that were proposed the Saxons gave as hostages many young men fit for military service, and then were allowed to depart and return home without hindrance to the place from which they had come.

But things were not what they seemed. While negotiating, the Romans secretly placed heavy cavalry, together with some infantry, between the Saxons and their ships:

The Romans with strengthened courage pressed upon the Saxons from all sides, surrounded them, and slew them with their drawn swords; not one of them could again return to his native home, not a single one was allowed to survive the slaughter of his comrades.

Ammianus continues:

Although some just judge might condemn this act as treacherous and hateful, yet on careful consideration of the matter he will not think it improper that a destructive band of brigands was destroyed when the opportunity at last presented itself.

As far as Ammianus was concerned, when it came to despatching barbarians, double-dealing wasn’t a problem.

Killing barbarians still went down extremely well with the average Roman audience. Roman amphitheatres saw many different acts of violence, of course, from gladiatorial combat to highly inventive forms of judicial execution. A staggering 200,000 people, it has been calculated, met a violent death in the Colosseum alone, and there were similar, smaller, arenas in every major city of the Empire. Watching barbarians die was a standard part of the fun. In 306, to celebrate his pacification of the Rhine frontier, the emperor Constantine had two captured Germanic Frankish kings, Ascaricus and Merogaisus, fed to wild beasts in the arena at Trier. He also made very sure that a wider audience around the Empire heard of his triumph. If no barbarian kings were available, there were always alternatives. In 383 our old friend Symmachus, then Urban Prefect of Rome, wrote to the emperor Valentinian II to say how much the Roman audience had enjoyed feasting their eyes on the spectacle of some rank-and-file Iranian-speaking Sarmatian being slaughtered by gladiators. What’s striking is Symmachus’ commentary:

Rumour does not conceal the splendid outcome of your wars, but a victory gains greater credence if it is confirmed by sight . . . We have now seen things that surprised us when they were read out to us: a column of chained prisoners . . . led in procession, and faces once so fierce now changed to pitiable pallor. A name which was once terrifying to us [is] now the object of our delight, and hands trained to wield outlandish weapons afraid to meet the equipment of gladiators. May you enjoy the laurels of victory often and easily . . . let our brave soldiers take [the barbarians] prisoner and the arena in the city finish them off.

For him these deaths symbolized that civilized Roman order would continue to prevail over the barbarian forces of chaos.

The antipathy towards barbarians so uninhibitedly expressed in the arena rested, for articulate Romans, on much more than mere hatred. At more or less the same moment as the Saxons were being ambushed on Rome’s north-west frontier, the orator and philosopher Themistius, employed as an imperial spin-doctor, was standing in front of the Senate of Constantinople to justify the policies of his employer, the emperor Valens. The speech contains one particularly telling remark: ‘There is in each of us a barbarian tribe extremely overbearing and intractable – I mean temper and those insatiable desires which stand opposed to rationality as Scythians and Germans do to the Romans.’

Barbarians had their own well defined place in this Roman universe, based on a specific vision of the cosmos. Human beings, Romans argued, consist of two elements: an intelligent, rational spirit, and a physical body. Above humankind in the cosmos there exist other beings who, although endowed with greater and lesser powers, all share the characteristic of being formed purely of spirit. Below humankind are animals, encompassing pure physicality. Humanity is unique in combining both spirit and body, and from this flowed the Roman vision of rationality. In fully rational people – such as elite Romans, of course – the rational spirit controlled the physical body. But in lesser human beings – barbarians – body ruled mind. Barbarians, in short, were the reverse image of Romans loving alcohol, sex and worldly wealth.

Barbarian irrationality showed up in other ways too. As far as a Roman was concerned, you could easily tell a barbarian by how he reacted to fortune. Give him one little stroke of luck, and he would think he had conquered the world. But, equally, the slightest setback would find him in deepest despair, lamenting his fate. Where Romans would calculate probabilities, formulate sensible plans and stick to them through thick and thin, hapless barbarians were always being blown all over the place by chance events. Barbarian society was also collectively inferior: a world where might equalled right, and where those with the largest biceps triumphed. Barbarians thus provided the crucial ‘other’ in the Roman self-image: the inferior society whose failings underlined and legitimized the superiorities of the dominant imperial power. Indeed, the Roman state saw itself not as just marginally better than those beyond its frontiers – but massively and absolutely superior, because its social order was divinely ordained. This ideology not only made upper-class Romans feel good about themselves, but was part and parcel of the functioning of Empire. In the fourth century, regular references to the barbarian menace made its population broadly willing to pay their taxes, despite the particular increases necessitated by the third-century crisis.

Although the strategy worked well enough, casting their neighbours beyond the frontiers as the antithesis of Roman order while using them as a peg on which to hang the burden of taxation was not without its own costs. The image of the barbarian made anyone from outside the Empire seem a threat, and also, by definition, a lesser human being belonging to a benighted society. The overwhelming implications of this attitude were, first, that conflict should be the normal state of relations between Roman and non-Roman; and second, that the Roman Empire should be victorious in whatever it aspired to. What did divine favour mean, if not security against defeat at the hands of those lacking that divine favour? The supreme imperial virtue – again often represented pictorially on coinage as a deity awarding a crown of laurel leaves as this suggests, was one of victory. And any failure to deliver it could be taken as a sign that the current incumbent of the purple was not the right man for the job.

Imperial spokesmen faced the task, therefore, of angling their accounts of events on the frontier to maintain the required image of imperial invincibility. In early 363, for instance, the emperor Julian took a huge military gamble, leading his army 500 kilometres across Persian soil right up to the outskirts of the capital, Ctesiphon. The Persian King of Kings, Shapur, had let him advance, then sprung a trap. The Romans were forced into a fighting retreat all the way back to home territory. By the end of June, when Julian was killed in a skirmish, the situation was hopeless. The Roman army still had 250 kilometres to go, had more or less run out of supplies, and was managing to retreat only about five kilometres a day because of Persian harassment. Julian’s successor Jovian – elected on the campaign – had no choice but to negotiate a humiliating peace. The Roman army was allowed to depart, but surrendered to the Persians two major cities, Nisibis and Sangara, a host of strongpoints and five border provinces. But so pressing was the expectation of victory, especially at the start of a reign when the seal of divine approval needed to be particularly evident, that Jovian could not afford to acknowledge defeat. His coinage proclaimed the Persian peace a victory and Themistius was trundled out to reinforce the point. The spin-doctor’s discomfort is only too evident. The best he could come up with was this: ‘The Persians showed that they were voting for [Jovian as emperor] no less than the Romans by throwing aside their weapons as soon as they became aware of the proclamation, and shortly after were wary of the same men of whom before they had had no fear.’ He followed up with the quip, based on a famous story about the election of the Achaemenid King of Kings Darius in 522 BC, that the – obviously irrational – Persians chose their rulers according to the neighing of horses.

Not a bad effort at a brave front, perhaps, but this was one spin that no one was buying. By January 364, Jovian had already faced protests from eastern cities complaining about the surrender and, tellingly, in a speech to the Senate that lasted at least three-quarters of an hour Themistius devoted only about a minute to the Persian question before moving on smartly to more promising matters. In this case, policy could not be made to square with expectations of victory, and Themistius, shortly after, was on much safer ground when he could admit it. Jovian died in February 364, and, at the end of the year in a first speech for his successor Valens, Themistius seized upon Jovian’s early death, after only eight months in power, as a clear sign that his rule had not been divinely sanctioned. In this way, the loss to the Persians could be satisfactorily explained, and a nasty dent in the Roman self-image removed.

But such catastrophic losses even to the Persians were now rare, as we have seen, and Rome held an overall military advantage on its European frontiers. With just the odd white lie, expectations of victory could usually be satisfied and inconvenient reality prevented from scrambling the key message: the barbarian on the other side of the frontier had no place in the Roman order, and was being duly and regularly destroyed. Indeed, violent confrontation was a significant element in Roman foreign policy on all its frontiers, but reality – as much on the Rhine and Danube as in the east – was much more complicated than was implied by the simple ‘them and us’ view.

To explore this reality in more detail, we can narrow the focus to one corner of Rome’s European frontier, the lower reaches of the River Danube separating the Roman diocese of Thrace from the Germanic-speaking Goths who, in the fourth century, dominated lands between the Carpathians and the Black Sea.

Thrace: The Final Frontier

In 369, the same year that Symmachus’ embassy presented the emperor Valentinian with crown gold, a summit meeting took place in the middle of the River Danube, close to the fortress of Noviodunum. Valentinian’s brother, the emperor Valens, ruler of the eastern Empire, pushed off from the south bank in a magnificent imperial barge. From the north bank he was joined by Athanaric, leader of the Tervingi, the Germanic Goths settled closest to the frontier. Athanaric had been at war with Valens for the best part of three years. For once, we have an eyewitness account of the event, penned by Themistius for the Senate of Constantinople. He had attended the meeting as the head of a senatorial embassy to the emperor. As Themistius tells it, Valens managed thoroughly to perplex his enemy:

Valens was so much cleverer than the man who spoke for the barbarians that he undermined their confidence in him and rendered the verbal contest [on the boat] even more hazardous than the armed [contest of the previous three years]. All the same, having thrown his opponent he then set him on his feet once more, stretched out his hand to him in his confusion and made him a friend before witnesses . . . And so [Athanaric] went away highly contented, in the grip of contrary emotions: at once confident and fearful, both contemptuous and wary of his subjects, cast down in spirit by those aspects of the treaty in which he had lost his case but exulting in those in which success had fallen to him.

Athanaric’s followers were in pretty poor shape too:

[They] were dispersed in groups along the bank in docile and amenable mood, a horde defying enumeration . . . Looking at both banks of the river, [I saw] the [Roman one] glittering with soldiers who in good order looked on with tranquil pride at what was being done, the other burdened with a disordered rabble of suppliants cast down upon the earth.

Athanaric and his Goths thus played their parts perfectly, according to the traditional Roman script. The details of the peace agreement mentioned by Themistius only confirmed Valens’ domination. The emperor now discontinued the annual gifts that the Goths had been accustomed to receive, confined cross-border trade to only two designated centres, and inaugurated a programme of defensive building to ensure that Gothic raiders would have no opportunity for causing further trouble. Expectations of Roman dominance over pathetically inferior barbarians had been magnificently fulfilled.

But looked at more closely, the story as told by Themistius doesn’t quite add up. Hostilities had not been opened by Valens, but by Athanaric. In 364/5, Roman intelligence reports were already indicating that the Goths were becoming restive, and Valens had sent reinforcements to the Danube front. When, in 365, those reinforcements were bribed by Procopius, the uncle of the former emperor Julian, to kick-start his usurpation, Athanaric sent the would-be usurper a contingent of three thousand Goths. If the Goths had been happy being paid to keep the peace, as Themistius reports, why had Athanaric behaved so aggressively? Valens also failed, despite three years of campaigning, actually to defeat the Goths in battle. In 367 and 369 his armies ranged at will in Gothic territories, looting as they went. And they were only kept at bay in 368 by a premature melting of the Alpine and Carpathian snows. The flooding Danube made it impossible for the Romans to string up the pontoon bridges by which they customarily moved their heavy equipment across the river. Through strategic manoeuvre – running away – Athanaric managed to avoid being cornered. By the time peace was made, the Goths were massively inconvenienced and suffering major food shortages, but they were never trapped into total submission in the way that they had been some thirty years earlier, in the time of the emperor Constantine, who had forced their unconditional surrender. Since the Romans had not so decisively defeated them as Themistius would have us believe, it seems odd that the treaty of 369 enforced harsher terms upon them than that of 332.

In his speech, Themistius ‘forgot’ to mention, however, one crucial extra detail. Halfway through Valens’ Gothic campaign, all hell had broken loose on a corner of the Persian front. Having made major gains in Mesopotamia through the treaty with Jovian, the Persian King of Kings Shapur now turned his attention to Caucasia. In 367/8 he ousted the rulers of Armenia and eastern Georgia, who had been Roman allies, and replaced them with his own nominees. Safeguarding the Persian front was much more important to Valens than reducing the Goths to total submission, so that this new threat exerted huge pressure on him to extract his forces from the Balkans and redirect them eastwards. But Valens had already mobilized on the Danube and his taxpayers were expecting victory. He also had the Goths’ support of Procopius to avenge. He thus kept the war going into 369, but when total victory again proved elusive, he needed to make a compromise peace. That the meeting between Valens and Athanaric did generate a compromise is clear. Themistius notes that the Goth was ‘exulting in those [aspects of the treaty] in which success had fallen to him’. The same point is made, interestingly, by the location of the summit meeting. Roman emperors normally paraded their standards triumphantly on barbarian soil, and forced barbarian kings to submit to them there. Only one other waterborne summit is recorded in fourth-century sources, this time on the Rhine – again, a Roman emperor (Valentinian) needed to secure one frontier to tackle a problem on another. That peace was also a compromise.

The real task facing Themistius in selling the Gothic peace to the Senate now comes into focus. He presented the discontinuation of annual gifts to the Goths as a great gain to the Roman state. In fact, it was a rather small one. The state had used gifts for centuries to build up the position of client kings. We would call it ‘foreign aid’. The great loss to the Romans – which Themistius doesn’t mention – was the right, now rescinded, to call on Gothic military assistance against Persia. What emerges particularly clearly is the slickness of Themistius. A vivid scene of Gothic submission was conjured up for his audience, with Valens all-powerful at the peace-making. And the orator’s bravado performance seems to have done the trick, since two contemporary sources describe the peace as a reasonable end to the war. Valens’ face had been successfully saved.

For our purposes, however, there is a shadowy but much more important point lurking behind Themistius’ smoke-screen. It is impossible to know everything that Athanaric had in mind, since his precise aims are not recorded by our Roman sources, but he was clearly no mere stock barbarian of the Roman ideological ‘other’. He and his fellow Tervingi had been in receipt of Roman gifts for thirty years but were willing to put them at risk to avoid having to fight for the Empire. The same went for the trading privileges inherent in the open frontier established by their earlier treaty with Constantine. That these privileges were real and enjoyed by the Goths is visible in the archaeological record. Fourth-century Gothic sites are littered with the pottery sherds of Roman amphorae, most of them broken wine containers (by the sixth century biberunt ut Gothi – ‘drinking like Goths’ – had become proverbial). Despite this, Athanaric had a determined agenda to extract the Tervingi from the least acceptable constraints of Roman domination. He was able to rally support for this stance from among his Goths, and then used sophisticated strategies to achieve his ends. At first he had been ready to fight the Empire outright, but when Procopius’ plans for usurpation offered him the opportunity to fiddle in internal Roman politics instead, he took this route – hoping, presumably, that a successful Procopius would grant willingly what the Goths would otherwise have had to extract from Valens by force.

Here, reality contradicts Roman ideology in substantial ways. The usurpation of Procopius saw one Roman allying with a barbarian against another Roman, although, admittedly, Athanaric was no more than a junior ally. Nor was he an aimless barbarian intent only on the nearest bit of plunder. He had, rather, pursued a variety of means to renegotiate the bundle of obligations and privileges that Constantine had imposed on the Tervingi after his great victory of the 330s. Constantine had also tried – in a stock Roman diplomatic manoeuvre – to impress upon the ruling house of the Tervingi the benefits of Roman civilization. One of the hostages sent to Constantinople as part of his treaty was the son of the then ruler. Such hostages could be, and were, executed if the terms of peace were broken. But, more generally, they were used to convince the next generation of barbarian movers and shakers that hostility to Rome was pointless, and that they would be much better off embracing it. Sometimes the strategy worked; in this case it didn’t. The prince of the Tervingi sent to Constantinople was Athanaric’s father, and even though they put up a statue to him behind the Senate house, he was not won over (maybe they should have tried putting it in front). When handing on power in due course to his son, he forbade Athanaric ever to set foot on Roman soil, and Athanaric continued to press for as much separation as possible. The shipborne setting of his summit meeting with Valens implicitly acknowledged the Goth’s sovereignty over lands beyond the Danube, and, in the aftermath of the new agreement, Athanaric found himself free to persecute Gothic Christians. Christianization had been promoted among the Goths by previous emperors, as we shall see in a moment, so here was another deliberate rejection of Roman ideologies. No low-level barbarian, Athanaric was a client king with a coherent agenda for renegotiating his relationship with the Roman Empire.

Baltic and East Prussia




At the beginning of August, the German counterattack in front of Warsaw had succeeded finally in halting the momentum of the Soviet offensive, but not before the enemy had established bridgeheads across the Vistula and in places reached the East Prussian border. The bridgeheads over the Vistula south of Warsaw proved of most immediate concern. The OKH feared that any Soviet breakout could be exploited in a potentially decisive manner by either a turn north to encircle Warsaw or a drive straight west in order to seize the vital economic and industrial resources of Silesia, thus effectively crippling the German war economy. Already, as we have seen, the Germans had been forced to send units from the key tank battle at Warsaw to the south to prevent any Soviet exploitation of the bridgeheads and stabilize the situation. By mid-August, however, the Russians shifted the Schwerpunkt of their attacks to the key area just north of Warsaw where the Vistula, Narew, and Bug Rivers converged. If they could force their way across these rivers, the path to Danzig lay open, with the possibility of trapping German forces in the Baltic and East Prussia. The Soviets opened a new offensive on 18 August and over the next two months continued a series of attacks along the Bug and Narew Rivers designed to achieve a decisive breakthrough. Although the weight of these blows forced the Germans back, and despite the fact that they managed to create a few bridgeheads across the Narew, the Soviets proved unable to break the German defense line. Having achieved rather small tactical gains at a stiff cost in men and equipment, the Russians finally broke off attacks at the end of October.

At the same time as the Soviets began winding down their efforts near Warsaw, a new crisis erupted to the north in East Prussia. Although the Red Army had reached the German border at Schirwindt in mid-August, furious German counterattacks had thrown them back. In mid-October, however, the Soviets launched a frontal assault on Fourth Army positions with the intention, after breaking through, of sending one force streaming toward Königsberg and another to seize Danzig. If they succeeded, they would not only cut off Army Group North in the Baltic but also open the way to Germany proper. The assault began on 16 October with a three- to four-hour artillery and air bombardment of an intensity not previously experienced on the eastern front. By the eighteenth, Russian forces had again crossed the East Prussian border on a broad front and in places were advancing unhindered far to the west. On the twenty-first, they seized an intact bridge across the Angerapp at Nemmersdorf and also threatened to take the key railroad center of Gumbinnen even as German tanks were being unloaded from freight cars. With the roads full of refugees fleeing west in panic, concern rose at Führer Headquarters, less than fifty miles away in Rastenburg and within easy striking distance of enemy tank columns. Hitler, however, worried about the impact on the troops if he evacuated, refused to leave Wolf’s Lair, although some staff and files were sent away. Once again, the Germans averted disaster through a bold counterthrust. That same day, German panzer forces battled Soviet tank units near Gumbinnen, while others assaulted the base of the enemy breakthrough at Großwaltersdorf, managing the next day to cut off advance units of the Soviet Second Guards Tank Corps and the Eleventh Guards Army. Despite their numerical superiority, both Russian commanders and soldiers seemed stunned by the sudden turnabout in their situation. Lacking firm leadership, many men simply threw away their weapons and equipment and fled in panic eastward.

This initial foray into East Prussia had been fought with savage intensity and resulted in unusually heavy losses for an operation that lasted less than two weeks. German sources claimed to have destroyed almost one thousand enemy tanks and assault guns, while the Russians admitted to a casualty total of nearly 80,000 men of the 377,000 involved in the attack. Noteworthy, too, were the horrifying scenes that greeted German troops as they retook Gumbinnen and Nemmersdorf. In an explosion of violence, Soviet troops had exacted a first, bloody revenge on German civilians, with scores of women raped and murdered, often in the most gruesome fashion, stores plundered, and houses burned. Having suffered a whole range of German atrocities for three dreadful years, and having seen firsthand the awesome destruction of the scorched-earth retreat, Soviet soldiers engaged in an orgy of revenge that, although perhaps understandable, was, nonetheless, deplorable. Goebbels, of course, immediately seized on Nemmersdorf, that “place of horror,” as an example of what all Germans could expect. In a theme that would continue until the end of the war, he made clear that Soviet actions left Germans only one choice—fanatic, suicidal resistance—since they were going to be the victims of enemy cruelties in any case. Controversy still exists as to whether Stalin encouraged such action or whether Soviet commanders simply lost control of their troops, but one thing was clear: the atrocities at Nemmersdorf generally sent a chill through the German people and strengthened their will to resist. Although the SD reported a few examples of Germans drawing comparisons between the actions of their own government and soldiers against the Jews and what had now happened on German territory, the overwhelming majority simply feared that the Russians would do to them what they themselves had already suffered at German hands.

At the same time that the reality of war was being brought home to the German civilian population of East Prussia, an even more costly military drama was playing out in the Baltic as the Soviets now targeted Army Group North. Heretofore largely spared the full fury of the enemy summer offensive, the army group had, nonetheless, seen its strength dwindle as it had been forced to deliver more and more units to the defense of other sectors, even as its southern front expanded because of the disaster befalling Army Group South. By midsummer, it, too, faced a debilitating enemy superiority of up to eight to one across the board, yet Hitler forbade any withdrawal to shorter, more defensible lines. In this case, the Führer’s decision reflected less his typical hold-fast mentality than the key significance of certain political, economic, and strategic considerations. Always sensitive to the vital importance of Finnish nickel and Swedish iron ore to the German war effort, Hitler was determined to hold the Baltic as a guarantee of the continued deliveries of these ores. At the same time, he clung to the hope that new weapons technologies, both rockets and submarines, could produce a dramatic change in Germany’s fortunes. In the case of the latter weapon, the German navy was in the process of developing and testing two markedly superior types of U-boats that offered a glimmer of hope that the Battle of the Atlantic could yet be won. To complete sea testing, however, Hitler believed it was essential to hold on to the eastern Baltic coast, although his military (and even naval) advisers regarded this as a luxury Germany could not afford.

By early July, Army Group North found its position increasingly jeopardized by the collapse of its neighbor to the south. With Soviet forces racing west through the “Baltic hole,” a twenty-five-mile-wide gap between Army Groups North and Center, the commander of the former army group, General Georg Lindemann, not only had to defend more front with fewer troops but also faced the prospect that the advancing enemy might cut off his forces entirely. Lindemann, of course, reacted to the threat with the rational request that Hitler allow him to withdraw his forces to safety. Just as predictably, Hitler not only refused to give up territory but also ordered Lindemann to launch a counterattack with his nonexistent reserves. The latter responded by renewing his demand to be allowed to evacuate his troops in order to escape encirclement as well as halting the senseless counterattack. These actions left Hitler no choice, and, on 4 July, he replaced Lindemann with General Johannes Friessner, who, although initially determined to carry out Hitler’s orders energetically, soon discovered the correctness of his predecessor’s prescription. By mid-July, both Friessner and Model pleaded with Hitler to allow a withdrawal of Army Group North, which, as the most intact and battleworthy force on the eastern front, could be used to build the operational reserve so desperately needed to stabilize the front. These divisions, having been spared the brunt of battle in 1942 and 1943, had a level of primary group cohesion and combat effectiveness rare in German units at this point in the war and, thus, would have been invaluable as a backstop. Their fighting ability was on ample display in these weeks of summer fighting when, despite its overwhelming superiority in strength, the Red Army had been unable to achieve an operational breakthrough, instead being forced at high cost to push Friessner’s units back. Despite his dogged defensive success—in one month, his troops, mostly in close combat with the lethal handheld Panzerfaust, destroyed almost eight hundred enemy armored vehicles—Friessner met the same fate as Lindemann. On 23 July, he was relieved of his command, although formally he exchanged positions with the commander of Army Group South Ukraine, General Ferdinand Schörner. The latter, although given unusual command authority by Hitler, had no answer to the problems of the “poor man’s war” that the Germans were now fighting, and he too demanded withdrawal to sensible positions, which the Führer ignored. By the end of the month, the Soviets finally reached the Baltic coast just west of Riga, effectively trapping Army Group North. Although a tenuous connection to Army Group Center was reopened on 20 August, the position of Army Group North remained highly precarious.

After a temporary respite in order to prepare its forces, the Red Army on 14 September resumed its hammer blows against Army Group North. With any attempt to hold its exposed position untenable, Hitler finally relented two days later, following an impassioned appeal by Schörner, and approved the evacuation of Estonia, which commenced on the eighteenth. Still, he insisted on maintaining a bridgehead around Riga as well as holding on to Courland. Since Finland agreed to an armistice and left the war on 19 September, Hitler’s decision seemed to be based on his desire to continue testing the new-type U-boats. In any case, the Soviets continued their pounding attacks along the northern front, their forces increasingly augmented by units transferred from Finland, and, on 10 October, once again reached the Baltic coast. Although the Red Army paid a high price, suffering over 280,000 casualties and losing over five hundred armored vehicles, it had once more trapped Army Group North, with 250,000 troops and over five hundred armored vehicles, this time for good. Over the course of the next weeks and months, neither rational arguments (these tough, battle-hardened units could better be used as an operational reserve to defend Germany than sitting in Courland) nor emotional appeals (since most of the troops were from the eastern provinces, they would fight more fiercely than a bunch of untrained boys and elderly men in the Volkssturm) altered Hitler’s determination to hold on to Courland.

Nor, despite a series of battles until the end of the war that cost the Red Army a ridiculously high number of casualties, were the Soviets able to take it.

Of all Hitler’s controversial decisions in 1944, none has seemed to demonstrate so well his irrational stand-fast mentality as the decision voluntarily to entomb German troops and tanks sorely needed to defend the Reich in a backwater place such as Courland. As an illustration of his irrationality, however, it might be better to seek explanations on the strategic rather than the tactical level, with the key to the Courland puzzle lying in the Ardennes rather than the Baltic. As is generally known, Hitler hoped with the Ardennes offensive in December 1944 (originally scheduled for late November) to achieve a sudden turnaround in the war through an operation remarkably similar to Sickle Cut of May 1940. In this latest version, Great Britain was to play the role of France, with the United States, emulating the English, expected temporarily to withdraw from European affairs. Having dealt a savage blow to his Western enemies, and at the same time perhaps finally splitting the unnatural coalition arrayed against him, Hitler could then mass his remaining forces in the east to repel the Soviet invaders. In effect, he was clinging to the strategy outlined in November 1943 for the coming year: seek a turnaround in the war by striking in the west and holding on in the east. His forces had failed to achieve the desired results in both areas, but, Hitler believed, one last opportunity beckoned. For this plan to work, however, Courland had to be held as a springboard for a new offensive deep into the Soviet rear, while at the same time the new-model U-boats could be unleashed in the Atlantic. Although this interpretation is clearly a flight of fantasy, much speaks in support of it, not least the timing of Hitler’s final decisions to hold Courland and launch the Ardennes offensive, made within two days of each other in late October. Just as importantly, such a scheme fit his all-or-nothing mentality, his conviction, as Speer noted, that the war could be won only through offensive action. The Führer yearned to throw off the “eternal defense” into which Germany had been forced and again seize the initiative, but, when his “Blitzkrieg without gasoline,” as Karl-Heinz Frieser termed the Ardennes offensive, failed, he was left with the bankruptcy of his strategy. Only now, in early 1945, did he permit some units to be evacuated from Courland and sent back to Germany, although, even here, he could not quite fully abandon the illusion of a miracle that would again turn the war in his favor.

Epaminondas (418?–362 BC) Beotarch of Thebes I


Epaminondas was born to no great wealth or status. His father, Polymnis, was of a noble but poor family. Still, through one means or another Palymnis made sure his son received a more than ordinary education, since he “was so well educated that no Theban was more so,” reports the first-century Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos. Most important was the instruction he received in philosophy from the well-known student of Pythagoras, Lysis of Tarentum. Epaminondas became so devoted to this teacher that it is said he shunned the company of those his own age in order to learn more from the master. He also studied mathematics and music (both very important in Pythagorean thought) as well as dancing, and as he grew older, Epaminondas engaged in gymnastics, where he preferred speed to strength. Most of his physical training was in the ways of the warrior.

All ancient biographers mention his personality, molded by Pythagorean teachings. These included living simply, sharing possessions communally, treating all persons equally, speaking the truth in all situations, and engaging in contemplation. Pythagoras taught that there were three kinds of men: those who love gain, honor, or wisdom. He was also one of the originators of the concept of transmigration of souls. All of this is reflected in Nepos’s description of Epaminondas as “modest, prudent, grave, wisely availing himself of opportunities, skilled in war, brave in action, and of remarkable courage. He was so great a lover of truth that he would not tell a falsehood, even in jest; he was also a master of his passions, gentle in disposition, submitting to wrong not merely from the Theban people, but from his own friends. … He bore poverty so easily that he received nothing from his state save glory.”

Warfare of the Time

Greek warfare in the Fourth Century BC was based on the phalanx formation, made up primarily of heavy infantry known as hoplites (from hoplon, the weapons and accoutrements of war). The nature of warfare went back to early Hellenic times, when communities and later poleis (singular polis, city-state) were primarily agriculturally based and not in close proximity to one another. The male citizens were true militia: farmers first and soldiers when necessary. The soldier’s role depended on what weaponry and armor he could afford. Most owned a bronze helmet, breastplate, and greaves along with a round, concave wooden shield with brass or iron around the rim, which is usually described as no more than a meter in diameter. The standard weapons were a spear (some two to three meters in length) and a short sword.

Those who could not afford such array acted as peltasts, light infantry carrying the small shield called a pelte, whose weapons were slings or javelins and whose role was mainly skirmishing and support. John Lynn argues that the peltasts got little respect from the hoplites because they fought from a distance. The hoplite viewed such warfare as unmanly. Real soldiers fought their enemy face to face. There was also probably some class and economic discrimination involved. Still, the peltasts were becoming a more integral part of Greek forces and at times showed themselves to be important to a battle’s outcome. In 426 Athenian phalanxes at Aegitium took a severe beating from a force of Aetolian peltasts, and the Athenian general Iphi-crates nearly wiped out a phalanx of Spartans near Corinth in 390. In spite of these successes, the peltasts remained a minor arm of the Greek military.

Cavalry was employed primarily as an auxiliary arm to aid the main infantry lines. When used, it was mainly for reconnaissance, screening the infantry as it deployed for battle, protecting the flanks during battle, and either pursuing a defeated enemy or covering one’s own retreat.4 The stirrup had yet to be invented, so using cavalry for shock was not yet considered. The city-state of Thebes was one of the poleis that did develop a fairly effective cavalry force. Sparta, however, fielded an inferior cavalry arm. In the Spartan military the hoplite was the soldier, so cavalry units were poorly trained and motivated. The wealthier Spartans raised horses but others rode them on campaign; according to Xenophon, “It was only when the ban was called out that the appointed trooper presented himself; then he would get his horse and such arms as were given him, and take the field on the moment’s notice. As for the men, on the other hand, it was those who were least strong of body and least ambitious who were mounted on the horses.”

The standard battle formation was the phalanx, a rectangle of hoplites usually (but not always) eight ranks deep. Contemporary accounts of ancient battles described phalanxes of more than fifty ranks, but that was rare. No author of the time gave any specific reason for phalanxes being of greater or lesser depth; it was often a decision of the individual phalanx leader to make as they deployed for battle. It may have been a matter of how individual units trained in their own polis. Still, units to a depth of eight ranks are described most often. Many factors would come into play when determining phalanx depth: whether the terrain covered the flanks, whether there was sufficient cavalry and light infantry to protect the flanks, the relative advantages of a narrow front for hitting power versus a wider front to prevent outflanking.

The ideal battlefield would be flat, open ground. The enemy armies approached the contest in an open formation, then tightened up as they went into battle, showing a series of almost-interlocking shields with spears protruding from above them. The troops would then break into a trot or run for shock. What happened next is a point of much scholarly debate.

The Greek word for the phalanx battle is othismos, meaning “shoving.” What, however, does “shoving” mean? Is it a figurative “pushing the enemy back”? Is it a literal tug-of-war in reverse, where the more mass on one side usually defeats the lesser mass on the other? Is it an individual shoving: the frontline soldier using his shield as an offensive weapon along with his spear or sword, pushing the man opposite him in an attempt to make him lose his balance? All these concepts have their advocates among historians, and all have ancient sources that support or contradict them.

There has also been some argument whether the othismos was constant throughout the battle or merely a final push as the enemy began to break. If it was indeed important to have the pressure from the rear, then the side to exert it first would have an advantage; hence, it would almost certainly have been used from the initial contact. In his article on the subject, Robert Luginbill writes, “Fatigue, terrain, casualties, skill, courage, and cowardice would doubtless all play a role in varying the amount of force imparted by the leading edge of shields, but whenever two opposing phalanxes ‘came to grips,’ the physical pressure of othismos would normally continue until one side literally pushed the other to the breaking point.” Others argue that the othismos came after the front ranks had fought each other with spears and swords. When one side began to gain the momentum, the shove would be the final maneuver to force the enemy’s retreat.

After reviewing the many conflicting views, Adrian Goldsworthy argues that the nature of the phalanx is as much psychological as physical. It is known that the most experienced veterans made up the front and rear ranks, putting the relative novices in the middle mass of men. After the initial violent contact, the front two rows would fight it out with their spears and, if need be, their swords. Given the weight of armor and exertion such fighting would entail, it would not be unlikely that the fighting would at times cease and the troops stop to catch their breath. The massed troops behind would give them the necessary encouragement to keep fighting (as well as block any path of retreat) while the veterans in the rear would make sure the rookies would hold their ground. Thus, to Goldsworthy’s mind, othismos may not have one simple meaning. It could have been the physical contact of individuals or units, or it could be the psychological impetus necessary to hit the enemy one more time until he breaks. Therefore, even if the phalanx did not smash the enemy at first contact, it could defeat them through attrition; in each case, depth of formation, combined with determination of the individuals within it, was of paramount importance. Also, if the initial contact did not result in one side breaking, the two forces could have paused to rest, replace wounded men in the front ranks, and charge again; thus, there could be multiple shoves in a battle until the side with the greater unit cohesion prevailed.

Goldsworthy also discusses a major question of practicality. Given the fact that all non-Spartan armies (less a few special units like the elite Sacred Band of Thebes) were militia with minimal training, maintaining a close formation while on the “run to contact” is impossible. Therefore, an initial mass shove would be strongly diluted by men running faster or slower than others. Thus the Spartans, by training to keep in step and advancing more slowly, tended to win their battles by maintaining their strong front.

By the time of Epaminondas, the Greek way of war had been in existence since the second half of the seventh century BC. Many wars were fought over that span of time but, as Chester Starr notes in his text on the ancient world, “The Greek states did not press severely and continuously upon one another … the states of Hellas rarely pushed their wars, in view of the difficulty of sieges, to the total destruction of a defeated foe.” Still, there were sufficient wars for citizens of all Greek city-states to have plenty of opportunities to become veteran soldiers, even though they remained primarily civilians. Only Sparta had a standing army.

The Opponents

The rival over which Epaminondas and his Thebans gained their great victories was Sparta, a power against which Thebes should have had little success. Sparta was the dominant city-state of the Peloponnese (indeed, of all of Greece in the early fourth century BC), a region they had ruled directly or indirectly since the eighth century BC). By defeating and then intimidating neighboring populations (primarily Messenia), Sparta had developed a servant class, the helots, who did the farming necessary to keep Spartan society functional while the Spartan males spent their lives pursuing martial arts. An occasional war against the helots kept them in their subservient position and kept the army sharp when no other enemy was on hand. A “middle class” of sorts consisted of non-Spartans living in the polis that Sparta ruled, Lacedaemonia. These were the perioikoi (literally “dwellers about”), craftspeople who in wartime served as soldiers and support troops for the Spartan army. They served as hoplites in battle but did not have full political or social rights, and served more as the citizen militia did in other poleis. The male citizens of the city of Sparta, the Spartiates (alternatively Peers or Equals), ran the society under the direction of two kings, a twenty-eight-man council of retired soldiers and former kings (the gerousia), and a council of five publicly elected men known as ephors. All of these functioned with an ecclesia made up of all Spartiates. The government thus had aspects of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. At most, the Spartiates numbered about 9,000, but all were trained from their youth to be the finest warriors of the Greek world. They allied with the rest of the Greeks to beat back the Persian invasions of the early fifth century, but maintained an almost continuous rivalry with Athens after that joint effort.

Thebes, located in the central part of Greece in the province of Boeotia, was a crossroads of invasion. The warfare going on constantly in its neighborhood served to keep it from ever becoming a major power, and it usually was under the sway of one of the two great powers, Athens or Sparta. A community known mostly for its “backward” farmers, it was something of a butt of jokes among the other Hellenic states. It was during one of those periods when Thebes was under the Spartan heel that circumstances began to alter, and Epaminondas was the political and military instrument of that change. He did, however, have some assistance from a close friend, Pelopidas. In 384, Pelopidas had been badly wounded while fighting in the Peloponnese, and Epaminondas had saved his life. Pelopidas became commander of the Sacred Band, the elite unit of Thebes. The unit, started earlier by Gorgidas, came into its own only under Pelopidas’s command. The unit consisted of 300 full-time soldiers based in the city citadel, the Kadmeia. It was Pelopidas who motivated the forty-year-old Epaminondas to join Theban leadership.

In the wake of the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC) Thebes began to grow diplomatically closer to Athens, since Sparta had emerged from the war as the major power in Greece. Also, Thebes was establishing a stronger position in the region of Boeotia, which it had long tried to control. The Boeotian Federation consisted of eleven cities that provided representatives to a sixty-man council under the leadership of boeotarchs, one from each city. Each city was assigned the task of providing 1,000 hoplites and 100 cavalry in time of war. Thebes’s closer relationship with Athens drew Spartan ire, and in 382 Sparta launched a sneak attack on Thebes, seized the Kadmeia, and established a Spartan garrison with the aid of the local pro-Sparta faction. Leading pro-Athenian political figures, including Pelopidas, fled for Athens, where they plotted a way to take back control of Thebes. In 379 BC, the exiles staged their own surprise attack, sneaking into the city and killing the collaborators, then rousing the citizens to isolate and force the surrender of the Spartan garrison. Soon thereafter, both Pelopidas and Epaminondas (who had had no role in the overthrow) became boeotarchs.

Over the next several years Sparta failed to reimpose its will on Thebes, primarily owing to Pelopidas’s engaging in some brilliant bribery and manipulation. Even more importantly, the nature of Boeotian society was changing, as Epaminondas and Peolopidas convinced the leaders of Thebes to expand the franchise to all adult males of the region, not just the city. Here we see Epaminondas’s Pythagorean views coming into play. Promoting wider democracy throughout Boeotia led to a more motivated citizenry that began to feel a new sense of pride in themselves and looked to Thebes as their champion. Further, the expansion of citizenship brought the potential pool of army recruits to an all-time high. Although Thebes had in the late fifth century been able to field an army of 7,000 hoplites, by the 370s it could potentially field one of 20,000, in addition to the light infantry and peltasts.

This motivation showed itself in the years 378–374 as Theban-Boeotian forces beat back a number of Spartan invasion attempts. The high point of this conflict occurred in 375 at Tegyra, when the Sacred Band under Pelopidas won a major victory over a much larger Spartan force. Unfortunately for Thebes, while Athens enjoyed seeing Sparta humbled, it also feared Thebes’s growing strength. This meant that if another Spartan invasion came, Athens was unlikely to offer aid.

As Athenian power revived in the wake of the Peloponnesian Wars, Athens’s navy began threatening Persian holdings in the eastern Mediterranean. In 380 BC, the Persian king responded to a Spartan request and oversaw the negotiating of a peace treaty that granted freedom to all Greek cities in Europe in return for Persian control of all Greek settlements in Ionia. Sparta was to enforce the peace against any polis that broke the treaty. The Spartans, however, saw their privileged position as an opportunity to expand and punish Thebes for past sins. Although Sparta did not initially do so, losing at Tegyra in 375, at the time of the second renewal of the peace treaty in 371, Sparta backed Thebes into a corner. Thebes had, in the intervening years, achieved the status of leading city of Boeotia, and Thebans began to view themselves as regional overseers just as Athens led the poleis of Attica and Sparta those of the Peloponnese. The difference was that Sparta dominated subordinate states and Athens was leader of a coalition of allied states, whereas Thebes was leader of what was basically a confederation of the Boetian cities.

At the signing of the treaty, the Spartan king Aegesilaus intentionally provoked Epaminondas, who was representing Thebes. Sparta signed the treaty for the Peloponnese, then Athens signed, then the Athenian allies signed. Epaminondas signed for the Boeotian Federation. Aegesilaus demanded that the Boeoetian cities sign for themselves, and when Epaminondas refused, the Spartan king scratched Thebes off the treaty. It was a declaration of war.

Epaminondas (418?–362 BC) Beotarch of Thebes II



The Battle of Leuctra

The second of Sparta’s two kings, Cleombrotus, already had an army in the field in Phocis, northwest of Boeotia, when relations were severed. Epaminondas rushed to Thebes to raise the army ahead of the Spartan arrival. He was named army commander alongside a council of six boeotarch advisors, while Pelopidas commanded the Sacred Band. Thus, Epaminondas went with a force of 6,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry to face a Spartan army (with allies) of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. He decided to force a battle at the pass overlooking Coroneia and seized the spot, but Cleombrotus instead marched south to enter Boeotia through Thisbae to Creusis on the Gulf of Corinth, where his forces captured the fortifications and moved inland from the coast toward Thebes. Thus, the Theban army had to rush to get back home and defend its city, but Cleombrotus was in its way at the plain of Leuctra.

Seeing 11,000 enemy soldiers spread out before them was more than a little disheartening to the Thebans. Not only were they outnumbered almost two to one, but the omens had not been hopeful. According to Diodorous, as they had left Thebes an old blind man looking for lost slaves called out for their return and safety. Epaminondas responded with a line from Homer: “One only omen is best, to fight for the land that is ours.” That heartened the men, but soon thereafter a pennant from a spear flew away from its haft and landed on some Spartan graves, as if honoring or protecting them. Epaminondas told the crowd, “Do not be concerned, comrades! Destruction is foretold for the Spartans. Tombs are not decorated except for funerals.” Upon seeing the Spartan army, the boeotarchs with whom Epaminondas commanded demanded a vote on whether to fight or move and look for better ground; Epaminondas barely won the vote, four to three. Still, as his men faced overwhelming odds, Epaminondas thought it wise to introduce some positive omens. He secretly directed some of the newly arrived reinforcements to tell the army that weapons kept in the temple of Herakles had disappeared, meaning the ancient heroes had come to help. Another man told the troops that he had visited the cave sacred to Trophonius, son of Apollo, who had assured their victory if they would institute a festival in honor of Zeus. A turncoat, Leandrias, helped with the propaganda by relating a legend that Leuctra was an ill-chosen location for the Spartans, as it was the site of the deaths by suicide of two Theban maidens raped by Spartans, daughters of Leuctras (or Scedasus, according to Pausanias) for whom the town was named. Their curse was that Sparta would begin its decline on this plain. Epaminondas offered sacrifices and prayers for the girls and called for revenge. All of these tales, true or not, rallied the Theban morale. For those who may not have been convinced, Epaminondas announced that whoever did not want to fight could leave; the contingent from Thespiae did so.

The night before the battle, Pelopidas supposedly had a dream in which he saw the long-dead maidens alive with their father. They told him the Thebans must sacrifice a maiden with chestnut hair. The next morning, as the dream was being discussed, a chestnut-colored colt ran into camp. This was deemed to be the right sacrifice and the ceremony ensued. As a final encouragement to his men, Epaminondas appealed to their patriotism. According to the ancient historian Forintinus, “In order that his soldiers might not only exercise their strength, but also be stirred by their feelings, he announced in an assembly of his men that the Spartans had resolved, in case of victory, to massacre all males, to lead the wives and children of those executed into bondage, and to raze Thebes to the ground.”

Across the plain things were not pleasant, either. In spite of their numerical superiority, as well as the virtually inbred tradition of winning, the Spartans were not entirely confident. At the staff meeting on the morning of the battle, subordinate commanders pushed Cleombrotus for quick action. They reminded him of some of his past failures (in two previous invasions, in 378 and 376, he had failed to bring his armies to battle) and assured him the Spartan council would not look kindly on anything that hinted at incompetence. They also (possibly owing to a religious festival) had been drinking since the morning meal. Also in many minds must have been the memory of what the Sacred Band had accomplished at Tegyra, where the smaller Sacred Band had defeated the Spartan phalanx. That certainly had been a bitter blow. All of this combined to make Cleombrotus aggressive.

Epaminondas gave his men one more pep talk. He took up a live snake and then crushed its head; so too would be the fate of the enemy: kill the Spartan head and the allied body would die. Even so, as Epaminondas began to form his army, he had doubts about the morale of some of his units. Thus, he needed to maximize his advantages and minimize his disadvantages. He ordered his men forward in the standard phalanx formation, but as they deployed he held back the units on the right of the line, whom he thought insufficiently motivated, thus refusing the right flank (deploying in echelon to the right rear). As Diodorus observes, “The weakest he placed on the other wing and instructed them to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy’s attack.” Epaminondas placed his more trusted troops on the left into a formation fifty ranks deep and eighty files wide. He placed the 300 men of the Sacred Band in the front ranks, then waited to see what the Spartans would do. Cleombrotus deployed his army in the standard phalanx formation, his men in ranks twelve deep. The Spartans held the right end of their line, facing the Sacred Band and the deep phalanx; a force of mercenaries they placed in the center; the far left was held by Sparta’s Peloponnesian allies.

The two armies faced each other for a time. The initial action was on the part of the cavalry. Before the infantry had fully deployed, the Spartan cavalry (after harassing Theban camp followers) rode toward the strong Theban left flank. It was met and soon routed by the Theban cavalry, superior in both numbers and quality. Xenophon writes, “Now when Cleombrotus began to lead his army against the enemy, in the first place, before the troops under him so much as perceived that he was advancing, the horsemen had already joined battle and those of the Lacedaemonians had speedily been worsted; then in their flight they had fallen foul of their own hoplites, and, besides, the companies of the Thebans were now charging upon them.” This is where Epaminondas demonstrated his originality. He was gambling the entire battle on one throw. His most motivated men went into battle first; if they failed, the demoralized right flank would break at the first sign of wavering. He was throwing his best troops at the more numerous Spartans, the best troops in the known world. As soon as Pelopidas and Epaminondas saw the confusion in the Spartan ranks, they began their advance.

As with the debate over the use of the “mass shove,” there is also some argument over just how Epaminondas formed what has come to be called the “Theban wedge.” One scholar has suggested that the Theban left was actually deployed into a point, an inverted V, with the Sacred Band at the apex. The fact that the V was hollow would not be obvious to the enemy, thus giving the impression of greater than actual numbers. All of this depends on the translation of the Greek word embolon, or wedge, and its use by a variety of ancient writers. This theory has been answered by a different study of the word that indicates a comparison to a ram on a Greek trireme, hence the strong point of contact to break an enemy, not necessarily a literal wedge. Thus, if there was a “point” to the wedge it would be at the spot at which the right wing began its refusal.

As the cavalry began to clear away and Cleombrotus saw the unbalanced formation advancing toward him, he ordered troops to shift to his right to attempt a flanking movement. Seeing this, Pelopidas ordered his Sacred Band into a run and struck the Spartans as they began their redeployment. The rest of the Theban left wing, under Epaminondas, was soon engaged and the battle was on. Harking back to the earlier discussion on othismos and the nature of a massed charge, here is my proposal as to how the initial stage of the battle was conducted. Goldsworthy argues that the narrower the formation, the easier it was to maintain cohesion. Add to that the fact that the massive Theban left flank was led by the Sacred Band. These soldiers were the nearest Theban equivalent of Spartiates, a force of men who did not farm like the normal militia, but spent their time in military training. Their defeat of a much larger Spartan force at Tegyra a few years earlier had to have built up a strong measure of confidence within their ranks. While there is no reference to their marching in step like the Spartans, these professionals must have been able to keep a tighter formation than could a standard phalanx. In Goldsworthy’s opinion, “A deeper, and therefore narrower, phalanx encountered fewer obstacles and could as a result move faster and further, whilst retaining its order.” Add to that the timing of the charge, just as the Spartans were reorganizing from the disrupting cavalry retreat and trying to redeploy to take advantage of the narrower front approaching them. All of these factors should equate into a powerful initial contact that could easily have gained at least temporary momentum for the attackers. Then, the rest of the phalanx arrived for support, whether moral or physical or both. The Spartans must have been at a disadvantage from the outset In spite of all those advantages, it was not enough to immediately sweep the field. The hand-to-hand front-rank fighting was intense. Whether Cleombrotus stood in the front rank or not, he was mortally wounded in combat. Xenophon reports that the Spartans were doing well, or “they would not have been able to take him up and carry him off still living had not those who were fighting in the front of him been holding the advantage at the time. But when Deinon, the polemarch, Sphodrias, one of the king’s tent-companions, and Cleonymus, the son of Sphodiras, had been killed, then the royal bodyguard … [and] the others fell back before the Theban mass, while those who were on the left wing … gave way.”

The massive “ram” of the Theban left flank coupled with the speed of the attack caught the Spartans unprepared. Once their king and a number of his top men began to fall, the Spartan contingent of the battle line retreated to their camp. The mercenary and allied forces saw little or no combat because of the refused Theban flank angled backward from the front line, so they retreated just as quickly when they saw the Spartans withdraw, both from shock at the sight of such an event and fear of that “ram” striking their flank. Once in camp, established behind a ditch, the Spartans reassembled for a stand.

Epaminondas did not push his luck, for he knew he had no need to do so. Piled on the field of battle were 400 dead Spartiates out of a total of 1,000 casualties, the worst loss of Spartan life in their history, far greater than their losses at the stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480. Sparta also had not lost a king since that battle. Such a historic defeat was not unappreciated by Sparta’s allies in the ranks. Xenophon writes that the Spartans perceived “that the allies were one and all without heart for fighting, while some of them were not even displeased at what had taken place.”

Epaminondas’s movement to contact was an approach march, since he had a fair idea where the Spartans would be. He lost any element of strategic surprise when Cleombrotus took the long way around to approach Thebes from the west. This also cost Epaminondas the opportunity to choose the battleground. Initially, therefore, he was at a disadvantage both as to his position and his numbers. Certainly the battle itself was no surprise, since the two armies had been facing each other for a time. Epaminondas did achieve tactical surprise, however. He may or may not have known of dissension in the Spartan camp and the pressure being placed on Cleombrotus. Even if he did, he was smart enough not to underestimate his opposition.

Although facing the prime units opposite each other on the field had been done before, Cleombrotus was not ready for it. Epaminondas’s deliberate attack led to a battle that he controlled as much as any commander could in a phalanx battle. The massed Theban left wing was a surprise, but Cleombrotus tried to adapt to it by shifting men to his right flank. It is possible that the Spartan cavalry was deployed as a screen once Cleombrotus saw the Theban formation and was beginning the redeployment of his own phalanx to be in an outflanking position. So the nature of the Theban deployment was unexpected and the assault began, in Xenophon’s words, “before the troops under [Cleombrotus] so much as perceived that he was advancing.” Although the Spartans really could not have expected their cavalry to prevail, they certainly did not expect to see it retreating into their main force. That is where the Theban control of the tempo of the battle became all important. In the midst of the turmoil and troop movement, the Sacred Band’s assault came well before the Spartans were prepared. Epaminondas’s concentration of not just manpower but high-quality troops was key to his plan succeeding. The most audacious part of the plan was the refused flank, for he was chancing everything on one throw of the dice. Even though the echeloned units were the least dependable of his army, their mere presence was enough to freeze the Spartan allies.

Epaminondas neither tactically exploited his victory nor pursued his enemy; there was no need. He had inflicted sufficient casualties to not only damage the numbers of the Spartiates but more importantly to damage their reputation and morale.

Epaminondas followed up the Battle of Leuctra with an invasion of the Peloponnese, where he ran rampant over Spartan-controlled territory and liberated the helots who provided the Spartiates with their agricultural sustenance. Sparta’s slow decline now became precipitate. Not only beaten on the field but also humiliated before the rest of Greece, Sparta tried one last time to save its reputation and lands. The Spartans gathered one last force at Mantinea in 362, and this time it was Thebes that had the larger force. Epaminondas repeated his Leuctra maneuver at the battle with the same results. Unfortunately, he was killed in that battle. He was wounded by a spear; he asked about the progress of the battle as he was dying and learned the enemy was withdrawing. The battle was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for Thebes, since it reinforced the newly liberated peoples of Lacedaemonia and ended Spartan power once and for all.

The battle was a draw mainly because Epaminondas was killed. Until that point the Thebans were sweeping the field, according to Xenophon: “Thus, then, he made his attack, and he was not disappointed of his hope; for by gaining the mastery at the point where he struck, he caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee.” Victor Davis Hanson argues that had the Leuctra tactics been new and able to stand on their own, then Epaminondas’s death would not have mattered. Yet ancient history is full of instances where one side gave up the fight when their leader was killed; would Leuctra have turned out differently if Cleombrotus had not died? It’s impossible to say, but it is a tribute to any leader’s standing that his men lose heart upon hearing of his death. The fact that the Theban wedge “caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee” sounds like a successful tactic. The Thebans around the dying general did declare victory, and that was the news that released a mortally wounded Epaminondas from this life. “I have lived long enough, for I die unconquered,” he is supposed to have said. Other accounts say that before the spear (or javelin) was withdrawn, Epaminondas asked after two of his chief subordinates. When informed that they had been killed, his last command was to make peace. Perhaps had he said “keep fighting” the victory would have been complete.

Epaminondas’s Generalship

The two main principles of war Epaminondas mastered were the twin concepts of mass and economy of force. Epaminondas chose the correct center of gravity for his objective: the Spartan contingent and King Cleombrotus. Although a deeper-than-usual phalanx had been seen in other battles, what made its deployment at Leuctra significant is that it was on the Theban left, directly facing the strength of the Spartan army. Traditionally, the place of honor in the line of battle was the far right, which meant that the best troops of opposing armies did not face each other. Historian of ancient Greece George Cawkwell writes, “Epaminondas’ reversal [of tradition] at Leuctra is the mark of a revolutionary change in the conception of warfare.… [I]n 371 the conflict was centred on, and indeed confined to, the main antagonists.” As Hans Delbrück comments, “All of this is valuable only because it guarantees one’s own left wing the victory over the enemy right.” Taking out the enemy leader as well as the strongest force on the battlefield necessarily demoralized Sparta’s allied units.

Hanson in a 1998 article disputes the revolutionary nature of Epaminondas’s action, primarily by taking most of the accounts by ancient historians to task. While it is certainly true that every tactic Epaminondas employed at Leuctra had been used some time earlier, the question remains: how many other generals had learned any lessons from previous uses, and how many had welded them into a coherent whole? The combination of massed phalanx, strength versus opponent’s strength, and the refused flank together took down the king and caused the vast number of Spartiate casualties. It was the concentration of force at the center of gravity that is key. In his 1999 book The Soul of Battle, Hanson admits that the heavier left wing was “a novel tactical innovation” that “gained enormous penetrating power, as accumulated shields created greater thrust.”

The Theban wedge showed its other advantage in the realm of economy of force. In normal hoplite warfare the entire lines attacked as one, but Epaminondas attacked only with his left flank. There is some debate over whether the refusing of his right flank was intentional. Goldsworthy asserts, “It may be that later accounts of Epaminondas’ echeloned advance at Leuctra described not a deliberate ploy, but the inevitably faster advance of the deep Theban phalanx compared to the rest of the army.”

The echelon attack and the weighted wing were introduced by Epaminondas but copied by many. The almost immediate impact came with the rise of Macedon. In his work on ancient warfare, J. E. Lendon observes that “[Philip II] lived in the house of the Theban general Pammenes, who had a formidable reputation for military cunning. In Thebes, it was said, Philip learned many lessons.” Philip’s primary accomplishment as king of Macedon was to create a professional standing army that used the latest equipment and tactics, depending heavily on cavalry. Alexander would almost certainly not have accomplished his great deeds without the army he inherited from his father, Philip.

Epaminondas’s influence was not only beneficial to Macedon in the immediate future, but was reincarnated two millennia later, as noted by Basil Liddell Hart: “He not only broke away from tactical methods established by the experience of centuries, but in tactics, strategy, and grand strategy alike laid the foundations on which subsequent masters built. Even his structural designs have survived or been revived. For in tactics the ‘oblique order’ which Frederick [the Great] made famous was only a slight elaboration of the method of Epaminondas.”

Hanson also argues against the presence of a deliberately refused flank, taking Xenophon as the only reliable source. Not trusting Diodorus, the only ancient historian to describe the Theban formation so, he argues that if Plutarch and Diodorus mention an oblique attack by the left wing, then the right wing would trail behind, not being an intentional refusal of the flank. He asserts that “there was little tactical reason for these generally inferior troops to attempt such a complicated maneuver,” what he calls “a deliberate withdrawal.” Refusing a flank, however, does not necessitate a withdrawal, especially on offense. While the most famous flank refusal of modern times, Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, did indeed involve a deliberate withdrawal, that was the nature of being on the defense and in immediate danger of being outflanked. All Epaminondas had to do was stagger his less dependable allied forces in echelon. Thus, such a move would answer Hanson’s citation of Pausanias that the Spartan allies did have the opportunity to fight but would not stand their ground. The first phalanx of the echelon could, indeed, have had contact with the enemy.

Some sources refer to these forces not in the main assault as reserves, but I agree with Hanson that they were not deliberately held back for commitment at an important moment, as is the role of reserves. Held back in echelon, yes, but not as a traditional reserve to be committed as circumstances dictate.

Battle of Santa Cruz


Anti-aircraft shell bursts, fired at attacking Japanese aircraft, fill the sky above USS Enterprise (center left) and her screening ships during the battle on October 26, 1942.


Although the Japanese had originally considered the occupation of Guadalcanal subsidiary to the advance on Port Moresby, at the end of August they made the recapture of Henderson Field their prime objective. On 18 September, they further determined that their troops in New Guinea, now within 30 miles of Port Moresby, would go onto the defensive and begin a slow withdrawal, so that all available reinforcements could go to Guadalcanal. During early October, the ‘Tokyo Express’ duly brought them to the island; Lieutenant General Hyakutake personally arrived on the 9th.

It had been planned that a ‘Tokyo Express’ should set ashore a particularly large reinforcement of men and equipment, including heavy artillery pieces, on the night of 11/12 October. Its approach was detected and Rear Admiral Norman Scott, commanding a task force of cruisers and destroyers, some of them fitted with new, improved radar sets, attempted to intercept it, only to encounter instead an enemy covering force of similar strength to his own.

The resulting clash, known as the Battle of Cape Esperance after the north-west point of Guadalcanal, provided the delighted and relieved Americans with their first victory in a night action. The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto who had led the Port Moresby Close Support Force at Coral Sea, was killed and his flagship, heavy cruiser Aoba, was badly damaged. Heavy cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki were sunk and next morning, aircraft from Henderson Field sent two more destroyers, Murakumo and Natsugumo, to the bottom. Several of Scott’s vessels suffered considerable damage but only destroyer, Duncan, was lost.

While Scott’s success dramatically lifted American spirits, however, it seemed merely a temporary irritation to Hyakutake. By 15 October, he had 22,000 men under his command, the majority of them fresh troops. The Americans could muster a thousand more but many of them were far from fresh and suffering from a variety of ailments. Hyakutake’s target was Henderson Field for he rightly regarded American control of the air as a crucial factor in deciding the ownership of the island.

To assist him in attaining his aim, Hyakutake was strongly supported by the Imperial Navy. A carrier force hovered some 300 miles north of Guadalcanal to prevent any American attempt at reinforcement or evacuation and meanwhile to deliver strikes on targets of opportunity; one such on 15 October sank destroyer Meredith with the loss of 185 men. Japanese surface vessels were instructed to neutralize Henderson Field by bombardments. In the early hours of 14 October, the greatest of these was delivered by battleships Kongo and Haruna, while on the nights of both the 14th/15th and the 15th/16th, pairs of heavy cruisers poured their 8-inch shells onto the aerodrome.

Yet despite the damage and casualties inevitably caused, the ‘Cactus Air Force’ was never subdued. On 15 October, its aircraft so damaged three Japanese transports that these were forced to beach, ultimately becoming total losses. On 25 October, they repulsed another attempted bombardment, this time in daylight, and left light cruiser Yura crippled and on fire; her destruction was completed by Flying Fortresses. The defenders of the airfield proved equally steadfast. Starting in the afternoon of 23 October, the Japanese made a whole series of attempts to capture it. By the early hours of the 26th, the last of these had failed with immense losses. Hyakutake accepted that he must await further reinforcements before he could renew his attempts to secure Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto ordered his warships to reverse course to the north.

That, sadly, was not the end of the story. On 18 October, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, had replaced Vice Admiral Ghormley with Vice Admiral William Halsey, an extremely determined and pugnacious character whose nickname – bestowed by the newspapers; no one who knew him ever called him this – was ‘The Bull’. His appointment was received with delight throughout the South Pacific and gave notice to friend and foe alike that however long and hard the Guadalcanal campaign might be, the Americans would see it through to the end.

Unfortunately Halsey’s virtues were weakened by one great defect: his corroding hatred of his foes often prevented him from appreciating what brave and dangerous enemies they were. So now when the Japanese had accepted that their plans had failed and their ships were interested only in retiring, he insisted on bringing about a naval battle under very disadvantageous circumstances that could well have resulted in the loss of America’s only two serviceable fleet carriers.

When Halsey took up his post, he had only one carrier under his command but by 26 October, Enterprise, her repairs hastily completed, had returned to the South Pacific and joined forces with Hornet north of the Santa Cruz Islands, which in turn lay well to the east of Guadalcanal. Both of them were placed under the tactical control of Rear Admiral Kinkaid and were ordered to steam north-westward to engage the Japanese fleet. This put them outside the range of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ and they were further deprived of the support of a force built around battleship Washington that Halsey decided to retain in the vicinity of Guadalcanal to guard against another attempted bombardment. Halsey later came to appreciate his mistake, declaring that he would never again allow the Japanese to ‘suck’ his ‘flat-tops’ away to the north.

Furthermore, unlike Midway where, contrary to myth, the Americans had had larger numbers of ships and aircraft available in the actual combat-zone, at the Battle of Santa Cruz it was the Japanese who held these advantages. As usual their fleet was divided into a number of separate formations, the most important being Nagumo’s Striking Force containing Shokaku, Zuikaku, light carrier Zuiho, a heavy cruiser and eight destroyers. Junyo, whose lack of speed made it difficult for her to operate in close company with the other Japanese carriers, was stationed to the north-west, screened by a couple of destroyers. In advance of Nagumo steamed the Vanguard Group of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe with battleships Hiei and Kirishima, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and seven destroyers. The oddly entitled Advance Group – battleships Kongo and Haruna, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and twelve destroyers under the overall commander, Vice Admiral Kondo – in fact brought up the rear.

The ships in these various formations considerably outnumbered those with the American carriers that, as at the Eastern Solomons, formed the centres of two separate groups about 10 miles apart. Enterprise was guarded by battleship South Dakota, one heavy and one light cruiser and eight destroyers; Hornet by two heavy and two light cruisers and six destroyers. In aircraft, Nagumo could bring fifty-seven Kates, sixty-eight Vals and eighty-seven Zeros against Kinkaid’s seventy-two Dauntlesses, twenty-nine Avengers and seventy Wildcats. In addition, Enterprise carried a new Air Group, the first to be formed after Pearl Harbour, the pilots of which were mostly very inexperienced, having only just completed their training. A large proportion of American aircraft losses at Santa Cruz would be the results of accidents unrelated to combat.

As so often seems to be the case, the stronger force had most of the luck. Enterprise at 0512 sent out sixteen Dauntlesses flying in pairs on armed reconnaissance but it was not until 0650 that two of them, flown by Lieutenant Commander Lee and Ensign Johnson, sighted Nagumo. A Japanese reconnaissance machine had discovered Hornet 20 minutes earlier, and though both sides prepared for action, Nagumo had the priceless advantage of being able to strike first. At 0710, a total of eighteen Kates, twenty Vals and eighteen Zeros from Shokaku and Zuikaku, plus nine Zeros from Zuiho, set out to strike at Kinkaid.

Nagumo then made ready for another raid, but at 0740, two more of Enterprise’s scouts appeared. They dived on little Zuiho, their bombs striking her near the stern and tearing a jagged 50-foot hole in her flight deck that prevented her from conducting any further flying operations. Though pursued for miles by the furious Combat Air Patrol, Lieutenant Strong and Ensign Irvine made good their escape, their gunners downing two Zeros for good measure. Nonetheless, Nagumo was able to get a second strike of twelve Kates, twenty Vals and twelve Zeros airborne at 0822, while Junyo contributed eighteen Vals and eleven Zeros soon after 0900.

Meanwhile Kinkaid was also sending out his airmen but in accordance with the then American beliefs and mindful of the need to recover lost time, they flew, as usual, in separate groups. The first of these, fifteen Dauntlesses, six Avengers armed with bombs and eight fighters, left Hornet at 0730, but the inexperienced Air Group on Enterprise could not launch its raid of three dive-bombers, eight torpedo-planes and eight fighters for another half-hour. Nine more Dauntlesses, nine bomb-carrying Avengers and seven Wildcats from Hornet followed at 0815.

Having taken off first, the Japanese arrived first. At 0910, their first wave hurtled down on Hornet in a perfectly co-ordinated assault. The Vals had already made a hit on her flight deck aft together with two very near misses, before the most spectacular incident of the raid took place. The aircraft flown by the dive-bombers’ leader, Lieutenant Commander Mamoru Seki who had also led the successful attack on Enterprise at the Eastern Solomons, was fatally hit but, trailing a long column of flame, he deliberately dived into Hornet’s superstructure, then crashed on through the flight deck where two of his bombs exploded, starting a furious fire.

Immediately afterwards, two torpedoes struck Hornet’s starboard side, flooding the forward engine room and two boiler rooms and destroying all power and communications. Next, three more bombs found their mark, two of them penetrating deep into the carrier’s hull before detonating. Finally, a blazing Kate torpedo-bomber with a doomed pilot at the controls came charging on to dash itself into Hornet’s bow close to the forward elevator. The raiders had lost twelve Vals and half-a-dozen Kates, including that of their commander Lieutenant Jiichiro Imajuku, to AA fire, but in ten savage minutes they had left Hornet dead in the water, burning from bow to stern, with 111 of her crew dead and 108 others wounded.

The American airmen continued to have ill luck, particularly those from Enterprise. On the way to their target they sighted and were sighted by the original Japanese strike force. The Zeros from Zuiho attacked out of the sun and at a cost of three of their own aircraft downed four Avengers, including that of the leader, Lieutenant Commander John Collett, and four Wildcats. The survivors attacked Abe’s Vanguard Group, as did the Avengers of Hornet’s first wave that had lost their dive-bombers in cloud, and the whole of Hornet’s second wave. Heavy cruiser Chikuma was damaged by bombs.

Only the fifteen Dauntlesses in Hornet’s first wave located Nagumo – at 0930. They were engaged by some twenty Zeros that shot down one, damaged two more so badly they had to head back to their mothership, one failing to reach her, and forced the Air Group Leader, Lieutenant Commander William Widhelm to ‘ditch’. He and his gunner scrambled into their life raft, from which they watched subsequent events, rather like Ensign Gay at Midway. They were rescued by a Catalina two days later.

Lieutenant James Vose, who now succeeded to the command of the remaining eleven dive-bombers, pressed on unflinchingly. Since lucky Zuikaku, as at Coral Sea, had found a rain squall to shelter under and Vose could see that Zuiho was still burning, Shokaku received the full weight of the Dauntlesses’ attack. Four 1,000-lb bombs struck Nagumo’s flagship, wrecking flight deck, hangars and elevators, starting fires, reducing her speed, causing about 100 casualties and, best of all, putting her out of action for nine months. Not one of Vose’s aircraft was lost.

At this point, honours might be considered even, but the Americans had now struck all their blows, while the Japanese still had two formations airborne. Of Nagumo’s second wave, one Kate had to turn back with engine trouble and one Val became separated from its fellows and attacked Hornet ineffectually, but the remaining warplanes targeted Enterprise on which by further ill fortune, all attention had been directed to a different danger. At 1002, a Wildcat pilot, Lieutenant Albert Pollock, suddenly saw a torpedo, fired by I-21, racing towards destroyer Porter. He dived down, firing, in the hope of detonating it or at least warning the destroyer, only to be shot at by her ungrateful AA gunners. It was a misunderstanding that cost Porter dearly. The torpedo found her boiler room and caused so much damage that the Americans had to sink her.

Consequently, when the Japanese dive-bombers plunged down at about 1015, they caught the Combat Air Patrol by surprise. The anti-aircraft fire, however, especially that from Enterprise and South Dakota, was devastating. At least fifteen Vals were destroyed and their leader, Lieutenant Sadomu Takahashi, was engaged by a Wildcat as he withdrew and subsequently ‘ditched’; he and his gunner were later rescued by a Japanese tanker. Nothing, though, could prevent the Vals from scoring two direct hits and one very near miss; one bomb striking near Enterprise’s forward elevator that it put out of action.

Happily for Enterprise, Takahashi’s men, in their eagerness, had not waited for their torpedo-planes. By the time eleven dark-green Kates appeared the Wildcats were ready – and annihilated them. Lieutenant Stanley Vejtasa alone was credited with having downed six, including that of the veteran Lieutenant Commander Shigeharu Murata who had led the torpedo-bombers at Pearl Harbour. It was one of his victims, however, that achieved the raid’s only success; it flew on into the forecastle of destroyer Smith, turning this into a mass of flames. Fortunately these were mastered by her damage control personnel, aided by the initiative of Lieutenant Commander Hunter Wood who put his ship’s bow close behind South Dakota, where the battleship’s foaming wake helped to subdue the fires. At 1121, the raiders from Junyo also attacked. They made bomb-hits on South Dakota and light cruiser San Juan inflicting little damage, achieved only one near miss on Enterprise, and lost twelve Vals including their leader Lieutenant Masao Yamaguchi.

Nonetheless, Enterprise was still in a vulnerable position. Aircraft from both US carriers returning from their own raids had to land on her and the resulting confusion, aggravated by her inoperative elevator, made future operations very difficult. Since it was known that the Japanese still possessed two undamaged carriers, Kinkaid had little choice but to withdraw to the south-east, which he did at 1400.

Meanwhile, Hornet, her fires brought under control and most of her crew taken off, was being towed slowly towards safety by heavy cruiser Northampton. Her plight had become known to her enemies and Rear Admiral Abe’s Vanguard Group was heading towards her at high speed, ready for a surface action. Yamamoto even hoped that she might be captured as reassuring evidence of the Imperial Navy’s superiority. And at 1515, nine Kates and five Zeros from Junyo renewed the air-attacks on her. Seven of the Kates, including their leader Lieutenant Yoshiaki Irikiin, were lost but a torpedo, tearing open her starboard side, sealed Hornet’s fate. The remainder of her crew was ordered to leave her.

Though this decision was unquestionably correct, Hornet now proved embarrassingly durable. The bulk of her escorts retired but left a couple of destroyers to finish her off. They put nine more torpedoes into her but at this stage of the war American torpedoes were not famed for their effectiveness and she remained afloat. They then fired 430 5-inch shells at her, reducing her to a furnace, but she was still afloat when at 2040, the approach of Abe’s ships forced them to retire. At least there was now no question of her falling into enemy hands and at 2100, she was finally sent to the bottom by four ‘Long Lances’.

It cannot be disputed that Santa Cruz was an American defeat and one that left them with only a single crippled fleet carrier ready for service. Such was their concern that, in response to urgent requests, HMS Victorious was sent to Pearl Harbour. Here, though, she had to re-equip with American machines and train her airmen in their use, as otherwise she would have been unable to make good any losses suffered, and by the time this had been completed, the crisis had passed.

Yet if the Americans had lost more ships, the Japanese had lost more airmen – a reversal of the situation after Midway. While seventy-four US aircraft had been destroyed most of these were the victims of accidents caused by inexperience; only twenty had fallen in combat. By contrast, sixty-nine Japanese warplanes had been shot down, twenty-three more had ‘ditched’ and about 140 irreplaceable veteran airmen were dead, among them, as will have been noticed, almost all the Val and Kate formation commanders. So great were the losses that Zuikaku, as after Coral Sea, was temporarily inoperable for lack of aircrews to man her.

It seems indeed that while the Imperial Navy in general was lifted by its victory, those concerned with its naval aviation were much less elated. Nagumo was not asked to bring his carriers into action again and like his old antagonist Fletcher, he would be found later only in less important posts. Though carrier Junyo was still fit for action and was now joined by her sister-ship Hiyo, they remained well to the north-west of Guadalcanal and accordingly, unlike Enterprise for all her jammed elevator, they had no influence on the next, most decisive of the six savage sea-fights that were the highlights of the campaign.