Order of the Hospital

The Order of the Hospital (also known as the Order of St. John, and later as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta), was an international military religious order that originated in the city of Jerusalem before the First Crusade (1096-1099). Originally established as an order whose function was to provide hospital service, it gradually assumed military responsibilities and became involved in the defense and internal politics of the Frankish states of Outremer. At the same time, the order received European properties that were organized into langues (literally, “tongues”) that paid annual dues, called responsions, to the central convent.

The order moved its central convent and hospital to Acre (mod. `Akko, Israel) when Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187. After the fall of Acre in 1291, the order briefly moved to Cyprus. By 1310 it had captured the island of Rhodes (mod. Rodos, Greece) from the Byzantines, and it became a naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, maintaining a fleet of galleys and garrisoning castles. On Rhodes the Hospitallers faced several major sieges, including two by the Mamlüks in 1440 and 1444 and two by the Ottomans in 1480 and 1522. The Hospitallers surrendered Rhodes to the Ottomans in 1522. In 1530 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, gave the order the island of Malta. The Hospitallers ruled Malta until 1798, when Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch surrendered the island to Napoleon Bonaparte. Subsequently the order briefly found refuge in Russia and in Italy. Today, the order is still sovereign and devoted to hospitaller activities, administering medical charities worldwide from its headquarters in Rome. It no longer has a military character.

Origins and Militarization

The Order of the Hospital began as a pilgrim’s hospice, established in the city of Jerusalem by merchants from the Italian city of Amalfi. The hospice was operated by a lay con fraternity under the auspices of the Benedictine abbey of St. Mary of the Latins. The Hospitallers of St. John began receiving grants of lands and properties in Europe and Outremer after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and were recognized as a separate order by Pope Paschal II in 1113. The first master, Gerard, died in 1120 and was succeeded by Raymond of Le Puy (1120-1158/1160), a French knight who had come to Jerusalem with the First Crusade (1096-1099). Raymond’s leadership shaped the order, and it was under his mastership that the Hospitallers began to assume military duties in addition to the care of pilgrims and the sick in their Jerusalem hospital. References to the Hospitallers as a primarily charitable institution appear in papal documents until the late twelfth century. However, it appears that the entry of Raymond and other former knights into the order, the need to police pilgrimage routes, and a new definition of the Chris tian knight as a lover of justice and defender of the weak, influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux’s De laude novae militiae ad milites Templi (1128), caused the Hospitallers to gradually assume military responsibilities.

By the end of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers, along with the Templars, provided military forces for the Christian states of Outremer and garrisoned frontier castles. They were granted their first castle, Bethgibelin (mod. Bet Guvrin, Israel), in 1136 by Fulk of Anjou, king of Jerusalem. In 1142/1144 Count Raymond II of Tripoli gave them the Krak des Chevaliers. This castle and the castle of Margat (mod. Marqab, Syria, acquired in 1186) became major administrative centers with extensive domains that provided income for the order.

The early charters do not indicate whether Hospitallers initially garrisoned the castles themselves, and there is no definite reference to military personnel as members of the order before the middle of the twelfth century. Hospitallers did, however, serve in the armies of Outremer. Raymond of Le Puy fought in the army of Baldwin II of Jerusalem in 1128, and according to the chronicler William of Tyre, Hospitallers served at the siege of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) in 1153. In Aragon, Hospitallers were present at Tortosa in 1148 and received the castle of Amposta in 1149. The order may have reexamined its military role following the resignation of the master Gilbert of Assailly (1163-1169/1170), who had encouraged King Amalric of Jerusalem in his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and left the order in debt.

It is probable that the order initially followed the Rule of St. Benedict until the promulgation of its first rule, attributed to Raymond of Le Puy and strongly influenced by the Rule of St. Augustine. Subsequent masters augmented the rule with statutes approved by meetings of the chapter general of the order. By the 1170s these statutes had institutionalized the Hospitallers’ military duties. The 1206 statutes of Margat first describe the offices of knights and sergeants-at arms, and by the 1270s knights held all the high offices in the order. The 1206 statutes also reveal the international structure of the order and were influential in shaping its development. At the end of the thirteenth century, William of St. Stephen compiled the customs of the order (called esgarts and usances), which were based upon decisions made at meetings of the chapter general. The statutes of the order were not compiled and organized until Guillaume Caoursin, the vice-chancellor, published the Stabilimentum in 1494.

The Hospitallers in Outremer (to 1291)

Under Roger of Les Moulins (1177-1187), the Hospitallers became more involved in the politics of the Frankish states of Outremer, particularly the succession of Guy of Lusignan and his wife Sibyl to the throne of Jerusalem in 1186. Roger, a supporter of the faction led by Count Raymond III of Tripoli, vied with Gerard of Ridefort, the master of the Temple, who supported the Lusignans. Roger was killed in May 1187, at the battle of the spring of Cresson, leaving the Hospitallers leaderless at the battle of Hattin (4 July 1187). There the order suffered considerable losses, and in the aftermath of the battle lost its castles of Bethgibelin and Belvoir (mod. Kokhav ha-Yarden, Israel), although Saladin did not attempt to besiege Margat and Krak des Chevaliers.

After Hattin, the Hospitallers and Templars became more important as military and political advisors to the Frankish rulers, and their Western resources became essential for the survival of European rule in Outremer. The Hospitallers received money and provisions from their Western priories in addition to income from their properties in Outremer and from their participation in the coastal sugar trade. They contributed substantially to the campaigns of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), serving as senior advisors to King Richard I of England.

The two major military religious orders also assumed some administrative responsibility in the kingdom of Jerusalem, which for much of the thirteenth century was ruled by a series of regents for an absentee monarchy. As Mamlük power increased in the later part of the thirteenth century, the Hospitallers played an important role in making treaties with Egypt. Masters such as Hugh Revel actively acquired properties around the Krak des Chevaliers and adopted an aggressive policy against the Mamlüks. However, the Mamlüks took Krak des Chevaliers in 1271 and Margat in 1285. The Hospitallers left Outremer after the fall of Acre in May 1291, when the master, John of Villiers, was severely wounded during the city’s defense and was evacuated to Cyprus with the remains of the convent.



Babylonian Soldier.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest extent of power.

The so-called ‘Chaldaean’ dynasty of Babylon inaugurated by Nabopolassar has also been designated the dynasty of Bit-Yakin or the Third Dynasty of the Sealand. It was not, however, the first occasion the southern tribes had dominated the whole of southern Iraq, for Nebu chadrezzar I, Eriba-Marduk, and Marduk-apla-iddina II had each, for a time, united the leading families against their more powerful northern neighbours. Nabopolassar, aware of the dangers of any lack of central control, followed up the unity shown against their former enemy Assyria with a new alliance with the Medes before taking his army further afield. The treaty arrangements were perhaps intended also to guard the eastern frontier of Babylonia, and were sealed by the marriage of Nabopolassar’s eldest son to Amytis of Media. At an early stage Nabopolassar began renovation work on the palace, ziggurat, and walls of Babylon to make the city of Babylon the capital of the newly independent state. His son Nabu-kudurri-usur (Nebuchadrezzar, Biblical Nebuchadnezzar, classi cal Nabuchodonosor, ‘O Nabu, protect my lineage’) was present at the foundation ceremonies and soon thereafter was proclaimed ‘the chief son, the crown prince’. Since there was no principle of dynastic succession in Babylonia, the king by this means indicated his wish and brought the crown prince into public affairs. They were together in operations near Harran before the king departed from the field, more from the need to have a responsible member of the ruling family in Babylon than necessarily because of the king’s ill-health or old age, as Berossus later surmised. Meanwhile the prince led his own army into the mountains of Za[mua], seizing forts, setting them on fire and gaining much loot from a three-month campaign, the aim of which might have been to thwart incursions from Elamite territory. Then, while his father marched to Kimuhu (Samsat) on the upper Euphrates, setting up garrisons against expected Egyptian attacks, Nebuchadrezzar remained at home. If he were the author of a letter reporting the king’s earlier operations with the Medes in the Harran area, he was active in raising support from the temple authorities for these operations. The Babylonian Chronicle affords a precise and reliable source for the major events until 594/3. The Egyptians soon retaliated, besieging the Babylonians who were garrisoning Kimuhu, thus preventing their use of Carchemish as a forward base, and pressing the Babylonians to withdraw from Quramati and posts further south on the Euphrates.

In 605 B.C. Nebuchadrezzar took personal command of the whole army and marched direct to Carchemish, where the Egyptians had fallen back from Quramati. Near his objective he crossed to the west bank to cut the Egyptians off from their direct line of retreat and force them out to battle. The tactic worked and a contest ensued in which the retreating Egyptians were completely overwhelmed. Those who escaped were overtaken in the Hamath area and ‘not a single man escaped to his own country’. If the primary aim was the annihilation of Necho’s forces this was successfully brought about in the victory in August, enabling the Babylonian king to impose his hold swiftly over the former Assyrian provinces and vassal territories in the west. Sensitive opinion there, as in Judah, advocated submission (Jer. 25: 1 – 1 4 ; 36: 29; 46: 1-12). These operations were notable for the presence of Greek mercenaries on both sides, attested by finds from Carchemish, pottery evidence from a fort at Mesad Hashavyahu on the Mediterranean coast, and the statements about Antimenidas, brother of Alcaeus, fighting for Nebuchadrezzar. As far as the Egyptian border, hostages were taken as pledges to the new regime, among them Daniel and his companions from Judah.

Nebuchadrezzar, as crown prince, was still in the west when, according to the Babylonian Chronicle, Nabopolassar died in his twenty-first regnal year (8/V/605). Berossus records that when Nebuchadrezzar shortly after heard the news, he arranged affairs in Egypt and the remaining territory. He ordered some of his friends to bring the Jewish, Phoenician, Syrian, and Egyptian prisoners together with the bulk of the army and the rest of the booty to Babylon. He himself set out with a few companions and reached Babylon by crossing the desert.

This rings true, for he reached Babylon in less than two weeks and ‘sat on the royal throne’ on i/vi/605. The phrase implies that he took it in his own right and was supported by the agreement of the leading tribes and palace officials. There is no basis for the view that the date of the succession was made retrospective, for documents were dated in Babylon by his accession within twelve days. Nor is there any indication of schism following the introduction of the new regime, for Nebuchadrezzar was sufficiently confident of his position to return to Syria (Khatti) almost immediately. If the procedures adopted for the coronation of Nabopolassar were used, the new appointment may have involved a double ceremony within the palace and before an assembly of the princes and palace officials who made their loyalty oaths outside for public acclamation. In Khatti the Chronicles record Nebuchadrezzar’s intentions almost annually for the next ten years: ‘he marched about victoriously’, an expression implying the regular enforcement of law and order in the dominions he had inherited from his father rather than specific military mopping-up operations. In his first year this required a six months’ absence during which ‘all the rulers of Khatti came before him and he received their heavy tribute’. Among these was Jehoiakim of Judah who entered into a vassalage he was to keep for three years. Ashkelon presumably refused to pay tribute, for its king was captured and thereafter Babylon reinforced key places to the south such as Arad (level VII) to thwart any possible Egyptian response. Judah was allowed to reinforce its own southern border and thereafter ‘the king of Egypt did not march out of his country again because the king of Babylon had taken all his territory, from the Wadi of Egypt (Nahal Musur) to the Euphrates River’ (II Kings 24: 7). Opposition in the west was, however, not fully overcome, for in the following year the Babylonians had to call up stronger military forces and siege equipment for use against an unknown city. A seventh century Aramaic letter found at Saqqara is an appeal from one Adon to his overlord in Egypt for help, since Babylonian forces had reached Afek. Their ultimate target is not specified and has been variously judged to be Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Lachish, or even Sidon or Tyre. Nebuchadrezzar sought to eliminate pro-Egyptian support in the coastal cities, and ‘the hostile alien king’ named in his Wadi Brissa and Nahr el Kelb inscriptions could well have been a dependent of the pharaoh from whom he took timber in the Lebanon for his works in Babylon during these early expeditions there.

During 601 B.C. the Babylonian garrisons in Khatti were reinforced, but towards the end of the year word reached them that Necho II had called out his army. In the month of Kislimu (December) Nebuchadrez zar took personal command of the Babylonian army, which clashed with the enemy south west of Pelusium on the road from Egypt to Gaza. In an open battle, favourable for the manoeuvring of chariots, cavalry, and archers, both sides ‘inflicted a major defeat on each other’. Losses were so heavy that the Babylonians had to devote the whole of the next year to re-equipment and retraining at home. Though the Egyptians may have penetrated as far as Gaza, the battle effectively ended any Saite control by land in Asia.


At the outset of its dominion over Egypt, the Saite dynasty was fortunate in being able to regard with some equanimity the power of Assyria in Western Asia. In a sense Necho I and Psammetichus I were puppet princes, owing their positions to the backing of Ashurbanipal, but the client character of Psammetichus’ relationship with the Assyrian king after the first few years of his reign seems never to have been more than nominal, and possibly even less than that. It has already been suggested that the supposed Assyrian presence in Egypt was negligible; it is by no means unlikely that in the course of Psammetichus’ reign Egypt became in the eyes of the Assyrians a support and buttress in the west, a potential ally in the expected trouble brewing to the east in Babylon. On the basis of Egypdan records, and in the absence of contrary evidence from Assyrian and Biblical sources, most of Psammetichus’ reign represented a time of peace vis-a-vis Asia. The sole records to the contrary are contained in two passages of Herodotus, one of which (11.15 7) states that the Egyptian king laid siege to Ashdod, the Philistine city, which fell after twenty-nine years. The other passage (1.105) tells how Psammetichus turned an invasion of Scythians away from Egypt by presenting them with gifts and entreaties. The lack of confirmatory evidence of any kind has generally led historians to throw doubt on both of these occurrences, but there is some reason to believe that there was Egyptian activity in Asia, at least towards the end of Psammetichus’ reign.

In the Babylonian Chronicle for 616 B.C. there is mention of an Egyptian army allied with an Assyrian army in pursuit of the Babylonian king, Nabopolassar, as far as Gablini on the Euphrates. In this mention can be found the first positive evidence of the Egyptian involvement in Asiatic politics since the start of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty – an involvement on the side of Assyria which would in due course develop, at times promisingly, but ultimately, disastrously. It is easy to find in the actions of the successive Egyptian rulers a foolhardy attraction towards the complicated politics of their Asiatic neighbours, but it should be remembered that for one thousand years Asia had been the source of repeated danger for Egypt. The lesson, which had never been learned, was that small-scale intervention in the affairs of the small states of Palestine and Syria provided no long-term solution for the aggressive intentions of the powerful empires which lay further east. Egyptian activity in Asia Minor attracted hostile attention; it was no effective deterrent. During the Twenty-fifth Dynasty the threat was Assyria; during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty it became Babylonia.

Although the evidence is so slight, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, towards the end of Psammetichus’ long reign of fifty-four years, a distinct change of policy led the Egyptian king to take vigorous action in Asia Minor in. alliance with the Assyrians. This active policy was continued by his successor, Necho II, who became king in 610. The Babylonian Chronicle records that late in that year the Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II, together with a supporting Egyptian army, abandoned Harran before the advance of Nabopolassar’s forces. No doubt the Egyptian army had been sent while Psammetichus I was still alive, but its ignominious withdrawal probably took place after the new king had assumed the double crown. In the following year Harran was retaken, Ashur-uballit again receiving substantial Egyptian help; but neither Babylonian nor Egyptian records provide any information about the immediate sequel of this action. The presence of Egyptian forces in Asia may be explained on the grounds both of possible treaty obligations towards the Assyrians, and of the defence of a recently established Egyptian hold over Phoenicia and Lebanon, the only positive evidence for which is the doubtful siege and taking of Ashdod, mentioned above, and a reference on an Apis stela of Psammetichus’ fifty-second year to chieftains who pay taxes to Egypt, and who seem almost certainly to have been Levantine.

Necho’s own appearance in the field at this time, unmentioned in the Babylonian record, is supported by the Biblical accounts of the attempt made by Josiah, king of Judah, to obstruct an Egyptian advance to the Euphrates which may possibly have formed a prelude to the successful Harran campaign of 609. The opposing armies met at Megiddo, the site of a famous victory by Necho’s illustrious predecessor, Tuthmosis III, in 1481 B.C. Josiah was killed, his army defeated, and his son and successor, Jehoahaz, replaced after a reign of three months only, by his own brother Jehoiakim. Necho is said to have secured this change, taking Jehoahaz captive to Egypt, and extracting a substantial tribute from Judah. Attention has been drawn to the relatively generous attitude of Necho towards Judah in comparison with the subsequent severe treatment meted out by the Babylonian king. Apart from the fact that the Egyptian king did not seek to establish an empire in the conventional sense in Asia Minor, he had far more to gain in his expected confrontation with Babylon by retaining an undestroyed state of Judah with a compliant king. For a few years, therefore, Necho may have been able to maintain a general, but loose, control over a large part of Asia Minor, extending from the Mediterranean as far eastwards as the Euphrates in the north at Carchemish, including Judah and possibly some of the former Assyrian tributary states lying between. At Carchemish in particular there are some traces of Egyptian occupation during Necho’s reign.

While the nature and extent of Necho’s Asiatic empire are matters wholly of speculation, it is at least possible to discern good reason for the presence of an Egyptian army in Western Asia at this time. The sudden collapse of the Assyrian domination after 609 resulted in a serious void of power which threatened to be filled by the aggressive forces of Babylon. Egyptian arms had overcome a Babylonian force in 609; the opposition therefore could not have seemed invincible. Subsequent events were to some extent encouraging. In 606, to counter aggressive moves in the region of Carchemish, an Egyptian army laid siege to, and captured, the town of Kimuhu, south of Carchemish, with its Babylonian garrison, and later in the year the same, or another, Egyptian force left Carchemish, crossed the Euphrates, and defeated the Babylonian army at Quramati, forcing it to withdraw. These provocative acts stimulated the Babylonians into quick and decisive action. The Babylonian Chronicle describes, in its laconic manner, the campaign in which the crown prince, Nebuchadrezzar, destroyed the Egyptian army in comprehensive manner. Early in 605 he led his force north, crossed the Euphrates, and engaged the Egyptians who were encamped at Carchemish. His victory was complete, and he followed it up by destroying a second Egyptian force at Hamath, to the south west of Carchemish. The massive defeat of the Egyptian forces led to the rapid abandonment of Asia Minor by Necho, and to the occupation of the whole region by the Babylonians.

Whether or no Necho himself led his army in this disastrous campaign, its outcome surely convinced him of the futility of trying to maintain an Egyptian imperial presence in Asia. In the aftermath of Carchemish Egypt was spared an immediate attack on its eastern frontier by the death of Nabopolassar, which brought Nebuchadrezzar back to Babylon to claim his throne. The Babylonian king, however, campaigned regularly in Western Asia in the following years, and Necho wisely seems to have refrained from engaging in ill-considered interventions. A letter from the ruler of a Phoenician city requesting help against the Babylonians, and invoking some treaty between his city and Egypt, almost certainly belongs to this time. Necho in the meanwhile reserved his forces for the inevitable assault by Nebuchadrezzar, which came eventually in 601. The Babylonian record describes the encounter, presumably on Egypt’s eastern border (although no exact location is given): a bitter battle took place in which both sides inflicted heavy casualties on each other, and the Babylonians were obliged to withdraw to Babylon. To that extent, therefore, the encounter may be counted an Egyptian victory, for Necho had successfully preserved his kingdom from invasion with all its dread accompaniments.

Kapyong, 23-24 April 1951

Australian soldiers in Korea, part of the United States-led United Nations forces, take a well-earned break. Men like these won a US Presidential Unit Citation for their gallant stand, determination and espirit de corps during the Battle of Kapyong.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, smoking a pipe in the centre, CO of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, at Kapyong, discusses his battle plans with a British officer, left in the beret, while an Australia soldiers watches.

The Battle of Kapyong, 22–25 April 1951.

Halting the Communist Advance

The seriousness of the breakthrough on the central front had been changed from defeat to victory by the gallant stand of these heroic and courageous soldiers [who] displayed such gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in accomplishing their mission as to set them apart and above other units participating in the campaign and by their achievements they have brought distinguished credit to themselves, their homelands and all freedom-loving nations.

United States Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to 3 RAR, 26 June 1951

Seeing another wave of communist Chinese troops advancing up the valley as the early dawn light silhouetted them against the towering mountains, Major Ben O’Dowd ordered his radio operator to call for immediate support.

An officer of the US 1st Marine Division answered but, despite the obvious Australian accent, refused to believe it was O’Dowd’s radio operator calling.

Fuming with rage and with seconds before the enemy arrived, O’Dowd grabbed the phone and demanded to speak to the American commanding officer. The general commanding the Marines came on the line, but when O’Dowd reported his position and the imminent attack, the American refused point blank to believe him.

The American insisted the Australian forces no longer existed because the Chinese had wiped them out the night before. Losing patience and with the enemy almost on them, O’Dowd blasted back: `I’ve got news for you-we are still here and we are staying here’.

The Battle

It was 24 April, the eve of Anzac Day, and O’Dowd and his fellow Australians were fighting hand-to-hand for their lives as they repulsed one of the biggest Chinese offensives of the Korean War.

All through the previous night they had been defending a series of ridges strung across the Kapyong River valley, trying to stop wave after wave of Chinese forces advancing south towards the capital, Seoul. The valley was a traditional invasion route and if the Chinese captured Seoul, they may have pushed the foreigners right off the Korean peninsula and won the war.

But UN forces wanted to draw a line in the sand at the 38th parallel, the line of latitude 38 degrees north, where it crossed the Korean peninsula. The Australians were fighting about 60 kilometres north-east of Seoul as part of a United Nations force.

O’Dowd was commander of A Company within the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which was fighting as part of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade. The Diggers were also fighting alongside Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Koreans. The Commonwealth Brigade had occupied strategic defensive positions across the valley in an attempt to halt the Chinese advance. As a reserve, British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, held a position to the rear.

On 23 April the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, took up their positions on prominent hills on either side of the valley, near where a small tributary joined the Kapyong River. The Diggers, who had been assigned positions on ridges such as Hill 504 overlooking the Kapyong River and one of its smaller tributaries, dug themselves in on 23 April.

It was a tiny force compared to the Chinese juggernaut. The Chinese launched their spring offensive south down the valley with an estimated 337,000 men in the main force across a 7-kilometre front, with an estimated 150,000 attacking further east. The expansive Kapyong valley was too large to defend with the forces available, and the defenders were spread very thinly.

The Chinese first overran American tanks placed unwisely out in front of the infantry and without artillery support. Unsurprisingly the Chinese, who had already occupied Seoul once, quickly overran South Korean forces defending the major invasion route. The Australians of the 3rd Battalion first realised the situation in the evening of 23 April, when South Korean forces came running back past Australian positions along with Korean civilians retreating from the Chinese.

Much to the Australians’ surprise, within minutes Chinese soldiers themselves came running past in the night, chasing the retreating South Koreans. It was difficult to differentiate between the two Asian armies in the dark, with Chinese in among the retreating Koreans, but the shrewd O’Dowd had expected the worst. `I knew that Chinese soldiers would mix in with the civilians’, he said.

They would be in civilian clothes or in uniform, in the half-light, and be penetrating to the rear in numbers. I rang the commanding officer and requested permission to open fire with the machine-guns to stop all movement on the road. This was refused on the grounds Republic of Korea soldiers could still be coming through.

The odd shot rang out and I repeated my request. Nevertheless, the panic became justified as firing broke out around battalion HQ. The enemy was at our rear.

O’Dowd and his men now had to watch their backs. This human wave initially swarmed between the positions of the Australian battalion’s A and B Companies and into the positions they were defending, so the Australians, all of whom were now fully alert, began to let them have it, firing at the Chinese charging in among them and stopping them in hand-to-hand combat.

The Australians killed many, but the enemy soldiers kept on coming and by midnight the Australians were fighting for their lives as the communists began breaking into their inner defences.

Throughout the night the Chinese used grenades and mortars, then repeatedly charged into the Australian positions in waves over their own dead and wounded. The Australians managed to keep them at bay.

It was a close-run thing; no wonder the Americans thought O’Dowd had been killed. O’Dowd said: `Some of the Chinese soldiers did not carry weapons, just buckets of grenades. They had the job of keeping my Diggers’ heads down so their rifleman and machine-gunners could rush in and get among us’.

The Chinese also attacked the nearby C Company and its highly respected commander, Captain Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal commissioned officer in the Australian army. Saunders reported he had first been alerted to the attack by `the sound of small arms fire’ and `the crash of cannon’ and also seen `flashes of fire coming from the direction of Battalion headquarters’. Saunders `thought the communists were in a good position to cut off our Company’-he was right, as his men had not been able to stop the Chinese. Saunders had no alternative but to retreat.

Then the enemy attacked the battalion headquarters deeper in the Allied lines in overwhelming numbers. The defenders had to withdraw towards the Middlesex position. This loss of the headquarters forced other Allied units to withdraw.

It had been a tough night’s fighting. Mick Servos, a rifleman and forward scout, said the Chinese `were a tough and clever enemy and they just charged in, wave after wave after wave’. At least every twenty minutes on average through the night, he said, the massed Chinese attacks kept coming at the Australians defending their positions on the hills overlooking the Kapyong valley.

When dawn broke on 24 April, most Australians had survived and were still defending their positions. The light enabled O’Dowd to see the Chinese getting ready for another attack on his position, which is when he phoned for support, only to be told by the Americans he had been wiped out. The American commanding officer’s reaction was understandable, though, because so many Chinese had infiltrated Australian positions during the night of 23 April.

O’Dowd mounted a counterattack that forced the enemy back, but `there was absolutely nothing I could do to help my men, beyond walking up and down, watching for the possibility of a break-in and shouting encouragement while attacks were in progress’. The battle was to be largely O’Dowd’s.

Although the Chinese were exposed on the floor of the valley in the daylight where Allied forces could reach them with artillery, during the night they kept creeping forward and the Australians had to stop them with fire or hand-to-hand fighting and bayonets. O’Dowd also called in New Zealand artillery support-he expected a better result in convincing the Kiwis he was still alive.

Fighting continued throughout 24 April. The Australians held their positions, even though US airstrikes accidentally killed two Australians and wounded others with napalm-an example of `friendly fire’. The Canadians also fought off intensive attacks by the Chinese, refusing to be dislodged from their hill-top position.

But it was plain the Australians would be unlikely to survive another night in such an exposed position without great losses, so they planned a night withdrawal along a ridge. Late on 24 April, with more Chinese arriving, the Australians were ordered to retreat to a position that had been successfully defended by the Middlesex men, then establish new front-line defences.

Their fighting withdrawal was supported by New Zealand artillery from the 16th Field Regiment, and as they fired and fell back the Diggers attacked the enemy occupants of their former battalion headquarters, killing 81 Chinese soldiers at the cost of four Australian lives. The Australians had delivered a blow but continued their retreat to safer ground.

Just before midnight on 24 April, the Australians were recovering at the Middlesex Regiment’s position where they had linked up again. On Anzac Day 1951, the Australians rested after their long fight.

They could celebrate as they had slowed and blunted the Chinese offensive for long enough for the Americans to move in and rein force the Kapyong River front. It cost the 3rd Battalion thirty-two lives lost and 59 wounded, but the battalion had certainly stood up well against massive odds. The Australians had taken the brunt of the fighting that first night, with little food and water, limited ammunition and no mines or barbed wire to secure their positions.

The 3rd Battalion held up the Chinese long enough for US reinforcements to reach the Kapyong River front and blunted the Chinese offensive, which never got going again.

After Kapyong the Chinese made only one more attempt to break through UN lines, only to be stopped once again by the Americans.

From then on, the 38th parallel was maintained by the Allies. Cease-fire talks began in July 1951.

It was the most significant and important battle for Australian troops in Korea. The Diggers of the 3rd Battalion RAR, nicknamed `Old Faithful’, along with the Canadian and American units, were presented with the US Presidential Unit Citation.

The commander of 3 RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his skilful leader ship at Kapyong.

It was a great achievement stopping the communist advance and the capture of Seoul, although it still cost thirty-two Australians their lives. It was a big achievement in Korea and instructors in military academies described Kapyong as `the perfect defensive battle’.

But few in Australia heard about Kapyong-in fact, so many knew so little about the Korean conflict it became known as the `Forgotten War’. The heroes of Kapyong returned to an Australia largely uninterested in their struggle. Australians had plenty of heroes and war stories from World War II.

The Kapyong veterans received little public recognition and even found it difficult to gain repatriation benefits. More than one remembers being turned away from RSL clubs because `that wasn’t a proper war’.

Defeating Chinese soldiers had also been downplayed by the great US General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the United Nations forces, who dismissed Mao’s army as `Chinese laundrymen’ who would flee at the first encounter with the Allies in Korea. MacArthur was dismissed just before the battle for failing to follow presidential orders. President Harry S. Truman said:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals in the US Army. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

The American leadership also made too many mistakes in the Battle of Kapyong-especially when they sent Corsair aircraft to hit Hill 504, believing no one could have survived the attacks of the night before, without making sure. The napalm attack killed two Australians and injured several others.

Courtrai – 1302


Defeat by the Flemish of the French under Robert of Artois for Philip IV. It followed the revolt of the Matins of Bruges. The Flemings besieged Courtrai whose castle was held by the French. The French attempted relief. A Flemish force, called `weavers, fullers and the common folk’, assembled under Guy of Namur, William of Jülich and Jean de Renesse. The Flemish army consisted mainly of citizen militias, infantry armed with crossbows and goedendags. The Flemings protected their position with ditches. The French charged but, faced by ditches and pikes, failed to break through. The garrison sortied against the Flemish rear but was beaten back. Robert led the rearguard into the fray. His horse was hit and he was dragged off and killed. Courtrai demonstrated the value of infantry against cavalry. The battle was known as that of the Golden Spurs, because 700 pairs were taken from French corpses as trophies. The defeat shocked France, but Philip IV gained his revenge at Mons-en-Pévele.

Staff weapons, used both by foot and equestrian soldiers, are of great antiquity, but the period from 1300 was when they especially came into their own as an infantry weapon. In 1302, at the Battle of Courtrai, the Flemish townsmen from Bruges, Ypres, and Courtrai, armed, in the main, with staff weapons routed a superior and supposedly better-armed French army. The reaction to this victory, essentially by the lower and middle classes, and the large numbers of French cavalry dead, were noted throughout Europe and caused up roar among the nobles, knights, and the upper classes of society. The weapon, called a goedendag (literally “good morning” or “good day”), which caused such a devastating and unexpected victory, far from being sophisticated or innovative, was basically a heavy-headed club to which iron spikes were attached. Their use at Courtrai and, equally important, the discipline of the Flemish forces, mark the rise of the infantry armed with staff weapons as a potent force on the battlefields of Europe. This victory was followed by that of the Swiss using staff weapons at the battle of Morgarten against the Austrians in 1315. From this time on staff weapons played an increasingly important part on the battlefield-blocks of disciplined, well-trained, and well-drilled infantry, all armed with similar weapons, were com mon down to the seventeenth century

Throughout the high Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had completely dominated warfare. It had become completely entrenched in both the military and socioeconomic systems of the day- the noble knight was a key component of the feudal system. In this way, infantry was overlooked as strategically important, even when certain groups of foot soldiers again began to claim victories against the knightly cavalry.

By the 14th century, infantry (without the large support of cavalry) was reasserting its effectiveness in combat. In certain areas of Europe, infantry was becoming a well organized and capable fighting force, which was even able to stand against heavy cavalry. Flemish infantry of the early 1300s, for example, were organized by guild into regular militias, and well equipped with mail habergeons, steel helmets, gauntlets, shields, and even plate armor; and they bore an assortment of weapons, including bows, crossbows, pikes, and goedendags. (This was a heavy wooden staff, four to five feet long, and tipped with a steel spike.) Because of their structure, in particular their ability to hold the line when facing a cavalry charge, the Flemish were able to achieve a decisive and influential victory against the French chivalry at Courtrai in July of 1302.

The cities of Flanders were rebelling against the King of France, and laying siege to Courtrai castle. The king sent 2,500 men-at-arms and 8,000 infantry to relieve the Courtrai garrison and dispatch the rebellion. He took it for granted that the Flemish would flee when they found themselves outnumbered in heavy cavalry, which was widely acknowledged as the master of the battlefield. Instead, the Flemish withdrew to a predetermined position away from the city, in marshland where their flanks were protected by streams, and prepared for the French advance.

The infantry was broken up (by guild and region, so that men who knew each other would be fighting together, which boosted morale) into four divisions, three in line and one as reserve. The soldiers were densely packed, about eight deep, with their pikes and goedendags extended. The Flemish knew that success depended on their holding formation during the French charge, and they did so.

At Courtrai in 1302, javelin-armed bidauts began the battle by advancing with the French crossbowmen. Withdrawing as the knights charged home, the bidauts then re-appeared in support of their cavalry, now engaged with the Flemish infantry line, by throwing their javelins, stabbing at the enemy pikemen and no doubt rescuing individual knights in trouble.

The charge was foiled, and degenerated into a vicious mêlée, in which Flemish infantry outnumbered the French men-at-arms. The surviving French, disarrayed and demoralized, and finding little ground to retreat, began to flee. Over a thousand French noblemen were killed in the battle. The dominance of cavalry in warfare now became subject to question.

It took two more bloody battles-Arques, a loss for the French, and Mons-en-Pévele, a loss for the Flemings-and more than three years before the county of Flanders was forced to submit to the king of France. Before peace was made in 1305, many had died on both sides, including the leading Flemish general, William of Jülich.

Yet the Flemish desire for economic and political self-rule was not quenched by the violence of the French reaction to the 1302-1305 rebellion, and they rebelled once again in 1323-1328. The result this time was the Battle of Cassel, a French victory. Yet again the Flemings revolted in 1338, led by the Ghentenaar weaver, Jacob van Artevelde. On this occasion, the French could not effectively use military force to put down the Flemish rebellion, as the English, al lies of the Flemings, posed a greater threat during these early years of the Hundred Years War. It was not until 1346, when an uprising by another faction in Ghent led to Jacob van Artevelde’s assassination, that peace would return to the county. However, thirty-three years later, the Flemings revolted again, this time under Philip van Artevelde, the son of the earlier rebel leader. In 1382, a lull in the Hundred Years War fighting allowed the young French king, Charles VI, to send a large army north, which resulted in a French victory at the Battle of Rosebeke, though the citizens of Ghent, leaders among the rebels, held out until 1385.

Courtrai: 1302 The Flemish victory over the French at Courtrai in 1302 provides a good check list of the actions necessary for traditional medieval infantry to combat a knightly army.

  1. Protect the rear. The Flemings were besieging Courtrai castle which contained a French garrison. When the French knights charged the Flemish battle line the garrison sortied-out, but were repulsed by the crossbows and spears of the men of Ypres. At other battles, such as Mons-en-Pevele (1304), a garrisoned screen of wagons was placed to the rear to prevent the more mobile knights outflanking the Flemish line. When the Flemings advanced they formed ‘crown’ formations capable of halting and presenting an all-round defence like the Scottish schiltrons of spearmen.
  2. Protect the flanks. At Courtrai, the marshy River Lys provided an anchor to the Flemish flanks so that they could not be turned.
  3. Make the front difficult of access. The Groenig Brook and the Grote Beek, both swampy declivities, provided obstacles that slowed and disordered the knightly charge, so that they arrived at the Flemish line without the impetus necessary to break through.
  4. Be uphill. From the brooks the land rises to the town, bestowing an advantage on foot soldiers combating knights.
  5. Form a reserve. Jan van Renesse had a reserve body of men, possibly the dismounted knights of Zeeland, whom he was able to bring to the relief of the men of Bruges when they were being bodily pushed back, which was the crisis of the battle. The reserve would ideally include mounted troops who could follow up the defeated enemy, but the Flemings lacked sufficient knights to do this.
  6. Provide a skirmish screen. This was to prevent the enemy thinning the ranks of the close-order infantry by missile assault. Robert of Artois sent his French crossbowmen forwards to weaken the Flemings. However, the Flemish crossbowmen were deployed in front of their spears and were able to keep the French at a distance until they had run out of ammunition.
  7. Ensure good order. The Flemings fought in contingents by town and guild. Their clothing was uniform and each guild had its banner so each man knew his station, and they learnt a battle cry to distinguish friend from foe. The pikemen and goedendag men (the goedendag was a heavy two handed club with a single spike at the point) knew how to work together. The pikemen rested the butts of their weapons on the ground to form a hedge the knights could not break; the goedendag man struck the knights and their mounts once they were halted.
  8. Keep the line intact. Jan van Renesse advised: ‘Do not let the enemy break through your ranks. Do not be frightened. Kill both horse and man. “Flanders, the Lion” is our battle cry…. Every man who penetrates into your ranks or breaks through them shall remain there dead’.
  9. Dismount the leaders. The Flemish princes, Guy de Namur and Wilhelm van Jiilich, both dismounted with their bodyguards and banners and took position in the front rank. Showing that the leaders could not run away (nor do a deal with the French to abandon the common soldiers) provided a crucial boost to morale and an addition to fighting power.
  10. Stiffen morale. Before the battle the commanders made speeches to their troops with fighting instructions and a reminder of their cause. Soldiers were enjoined to kill any of their own side who broke ranks to loot the rich corpses of French knights, for that imperilled the good order and safety of all. Guy de Namur knighted more than 30 of the leaders of the common people, thus elevating the representatives of the artisan army. Before the battle all were confessed of their sins and ensured of a path to heaven, for if they died it was in a righteous cause.
  11. Pursue rigorously. Despite being on foot, the Flemish commanders (who were mainly knights) sensed when the last French, reserve had failed in its attack and ordered an immediate pursuit. The infantry hurled themselves at the downed knights, slaughtering them and preventing the French cavalry from reforming. They pushed on, routing any remaining opposition, seizing the French camp and plundering it. The Flemings named Courtrai the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs’ because of the thousand symbols of knighthood they won.

5th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment

Tank Encyclopedia Cruiser Mk.IV, A13

Arriving in the 5th Tanks, recruits were told it operated on the principle of ‘shit and efficiency’ – it didn’t matter what things looked like; what was vital was that they worked properly.

The sense that they were better than erstwhile horse soldiers – smarter, more technically proficient and well led – was all very fine but did not sit easily with the late events in France. Some other battalions of the RTR had distinguished themselves just before Dunkirk with an effective counter-attack against the advancing Germans at Arras. But as far as the 5th Tanks was concerned, it had been a dismal campaign in which the battalion had been scattered with just a single claimed kill of an enemy tank. At Thursley the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dinham Drew, therefore drove his men hard to put the regiment back on its feet and restore its confidence. Infractions of discipline were swiftly punished, earning him the nickname ‘Detention’ Drew. He drove his young officers too, drilling them in the manoeuvres needed to bring a squadron into battle.

In addition to moulding his men, the colonel also had to oversee the re-equipment of the regiment, and the tanks that arrived in Thursley had plenty of peculiarities. Just as the army struggled to create new regiments, so industry strived to step up production massively, while embracing the technological changes needed to meet the Germans.

The 5th RTR had been built to a strength of fifty-two tanks. Four of these were being kept by the commanding officer and others in battalion headquarters, and sixteen went to each of the three squadrons. A Squadron, which had a reconnaissance role in the field, had been given tanks called A9s. B and C Squadrons were equipped with A13s. There were similarities between these two types, which both represented the evolution of what the army termed ‘cruiser’ tanks: they shared a main gun, the two pounder, and were lightly armoured. However, the steel plate on the front of the A9 was just 14mm thick, which was only enough to stop a rifle shot or shell splinters. The A13 had started with similar armour but been upgraded to 30mm. The A13 weighed in at thirteen tons and the A9 at twelve. They were designed for quick, decisive strokes rather than slugging it out.

Getting to grips with the tanks for the first time, those who had come through the wartime training system would have been struck by the cramped interiors of the A9 and A13. The War Office had decreed that the tanks should fit on standard railway flatcars, and this made them narrower than some continental designs. When squeezed from the top down, because a lower profile meant a smaller target, this compressed the available space within the armoured shell. For this reason the V12 Nuffield engine in the back of the hull was very hard to work on, and the turret, for example of the A13, particularly small. Three men had to fit inside it: commander, gunner and wireless operator or gun loader. The gunner had no hatch of his own in the turret roof and could only observe the world through the narrow aperture of his gun-aiming telescope as he was bounced about. The wireless operator and commander had their own hatches, but these were a tight squeeze for some of the battalion’s boxers or other big men who had to push one shoulder down through the hatch before the other. As those who had just been in France could testify, the design of these tanks added to the difficulty of maintaining them, and created a sense of claustrophobia, particularly if you worried about being able to get out quickly.

During the tactical debates of the inter-war years the army had ruled that there should be two types of tanks, cruisers like those given to the 5th RTR and ‘infantry’ tanks. The latter, as the name implied, were designed to support foot soldiers in battle. Consequently they were heavily armoured and slow-moving. The cruisers, by contrast, were to form armoured divisions that would be used for the more exciting stuff – racing forward to block a gap in friendly lines, or to exploit one in the enemy defences. The British theorists also expected the cruisers to do most of the tank-to-tank fighting, but the enemy could not be expected to adhere to these tactical distinctions decreed by the British General Staff. So when the Arras battle took place, in May 1940, it pitted British infantry tanks against German armour with results that were cheering but a little inconvenient for those who believed in having two different types of vehicle. The Matilda – the infantry tank – was much better armoured than the cruisers, with frontal protection almost three times as thick as that of the A13, and the Germans encountered considerable difficulties knocking out Matildas. The tank had proven a success even if the campaign as a whole had not.

All three tanks – Matilda, A9 and A13 – shared the same gun, the two-pounder or 37mm tank gun. This weapon had been designed to drive a small metal projectile, weighing two pounds and roughly the size of a small pear, through the armour of an enemy tank. The whole round, comprising the projectile and a brass case containing an explosive charge that sent it down the barrel, was about eighteen inches long; it could easily be picked up with one hand. Knocking out an enemy tank with a slug this small required a gun that could shoot it at high speed, and in this respect the two-pounder, which sent its shell down range at 2700 feet per second, was good for its time (the mid-1930s). The combination of a two-pound shot and this speed of travel was sufficient to pierce 50mm of armour angled at 30 degrees at a thousand yards. If it penetrated the enemy vehicle the shot might pass through a man, disable a vital piece of equipment or, since it was often red hot, cause the explosion of ammunition or fuel inside. Gunnery instructors appreciated that this might not happen on the first shot; it might take many hits to knock out the enemy tank.

The crews preparing their tanks for deployment from Thursley Camp had been taught that the two-pounder was their weapon of choice for dealing with enemy armour. If they came up against infantry, anti-tank guns or other resistance they were instructed to use the machine guns mounted on their tanks. There was no high-explosive shell for the two-pounder gun, a consequence of Tank Corps dogma that deemed a gun firing armour-piercing rounds only was sufficient to do battle with enemy ones, and of the practical difficulty of packing much power into so small a shell. The crews in any case were confident that their two pounders could sort out the Italian tanks in Libya – and in this particular matter their optimism was not misplaced.

As for the build of these tanks, it had something in common with Bristols, Morgans and Rileys, the great British sports cars of the day: there was a good deal of engineering ingenuity in them. The A9 had a power traversing system to help the gunner lay his weapon more quickly onto the target – one of the first tanks so equipped. The A13 had a new kind of suspension that allowed it to travel more quickly and comfortably across country. British tanks also embodied, like their sports-car counterparts, craftsmanship. They were built by British engineers – often in the same plants that built railway locomotives or ships – and each vehicle arrived in Thursley from the factory with a highly polished brass plate giving its serial number and manufacturers’ details.

The War Office contracted big industrial concerns as part of the mobilisation of British industry. A9 tanks were made by Harland & Wolff and Vickers-Armstrong; the A13 by Nuffield Aero, as well as the London, Midland & Scottish railway works. Tank production was also underway at several other factories that had previously made rolling stock or civilian vehicles. Many of the engineers were unused to working on tanks, and so production brought myriad challenges of fitting together components from suppliers they had not previously dealt with. ‘Concessions’, the permitted variations in the shape of parts, were generous, a fault that ‘cost millions of lost man hours’, according to Major George MacLeod Ross, one ofBritain’s leading tank designers. Contrasting British methods with what he saw a couple of years later in America, MacLeod Ross wrote:

We still pursued our love affair with ‘craftsmanship’, which may be defined as, ‘the ability to fit two things together which do not fit’. There was no place for craftsmanship in an American production plant, even the presence of a vice or a bench in such factories was regarded as a sign of incompetence. Accuracy was invariably the enemy of craftsmanship.

The fitters in 5th Tanks knew all too well what he was talking about. A complex machine like a tank was only as strong as its weakest component. Within weeks of getting their vehicles, soldiers were reporting frequent breaks in the tracks on the A9 as well as all sorts of problems with the fan belts and engine cooling on the A13. These issues of reliability might have been overcome by deploying large numbers, but shifting production beyond the scale of a cottage industry proved problematic. During the first year of the war, by pressing so many new plants into service, Britain managed to produce about 1300 tanks – a respectable total, and one comparable to Germany’s. But the British made a dozen different types, half of which were already obsolete, whereas the Germans concentrated production on a smaller number of more effective models. Crucially, they also insisted upon building to exacting engineering tolerances, reaping their reward in superior reliability.

While training in Surrey the 5th had put on a number of demonstrations, one of them for some American visitors. The US army had gone even further than the British in its disarmament years, disbanding entirely its nascent tank corps. Even though the United States was officially neutral at this time, the country wa~ rapidly re-establishing both armoured regiments and mass-production facilities, while the British government was negotiating to buy weapons from American factories. The US army saw the RTR as natural partners in the business of tank soldiering.

By October 1940 the feeling in southern England was that the country had weathered the worst that the Luftwaffe could do. Hitler had postponed the invasion of Britain, while the war was spreading worldwide. Italian forces were operating in East Africa, as well as launching bombing raids on Egypt, Palestine and Malta. Japan, meanwhile, aligned itself with Germany and Italy. The 5th Tanks had reformed itself and rediscovered a well-practised confidence in its tactical exercises.

On 5 October the regiment was assembled in Thursley Camp for a short, sharp address. Colonel Drew told them the battalion had been ordered on overseas service. The men would be entitled to ’embarkation leave’ of a few days each.

The Desert

Lieutenant Arthur Crickmay, although callow in years and lacking seniority, understood the desert better than many of his brother officers. He had travelled to the Middle East three years earlier, while still a student, exploring the way through Egypt and northern Libya with a friend. Then, during early exercises he had polished his desert navigation skills to the point at which other officers had come to rely upon them. These abilities saw him posted to the reconnaissance section of 6th RTR, where by late 1940 he bore witness to a remarkable reversal of fortunes. The Italians, despite their great superiority in men and equipment, had been beaten and thrown back. Starting on 8 December, the British had launched what was meant to be a short-term counter stroke, moving westwards inland, bypassing the Italians at Sidi Barrani on the Egyptian coast and threatening their line of communication with Libya. Lieutenant Crickmay spoke for many when he observed that ‘we never dreamt how far we should eventually go. The Italian army seemed a huge and menacing thing in those days.

Having deployed into the field in April 1940, Crickmay had already learned many of the lessons of soldiering in this wilderness that his comrades in 5th Tanks were about to undertake. Of course, the old hands tried to impart some of these pearls of hard-earned wisdom, but often their words were ignored or drowned out in the general flow of bumf and bombast from headquarters.

The young lieutenant knew all about the savage variance of climate that boiled you one month and froze you the next. He also knew about the problems of supply, which could push a man to his physical limits within days. In France, the 5th had been able to forage for food and drink in villages but here, with the exception of the odd Bedouin trading in eggs or poultry, there were almost no possibilities to find food or water if the system failed.

On 27 December, the tanks of 5th RTR were unloaded in Alexandria. The British War Cabinet had decided to reinforce the army in Egypt, so the quaysides were a scene of constant activity for weeks. The opinions of the British soldiery who stepped blinking into the Egyptian sunlight were frequently harsh. Many remarked on the squalor of the scene, the pushiness of the locals and the strangeness of the food. One 5th Tanks man recorded that their port of disembarkation was ‘dirty, filthy, smelly’. Another, a corporal in A Squadron who had served with the Tank Corps on the North West Frontier, later said of his first impressions of Egypt: ‘I didn’t like it at all – I never liked it – it was scruffy.’ In time, they would come to dream of a few days in Cairo or Alex, just as Lieutenant Crickmay did.

By the end of 1940 there were hundreds of thousands of British servicemen and women in Egypt. There was an extensive network of airfields, bases and transport facilities that ran from Cairo, down the Nile valley to Alexandria and the sea, an area known collectively as ‘the Delta’.

For the 5th Tanks, the pleasures or indeed the social humiliations of the Cairo social scene would have to wait. The voyage out had been so comfortable that the battalion’s officers felt the men needed to be thrown into some hard work, and soon. Both of the ships that carried them to the Middle East were commercial liners that had been taken up a short time before. Only the dancing girls and cabaret artistes had been off loaded before they became troop ships: the soldiers were waited upon by stewards, ate fine food and drank copious amounts of alcohol. ‘Each day we bought six bottles of beer … sat on deck and drank them and ate our ice cream,’ Trooper Wardrop reported in his diary. ‘The weather was lovely and the tan was improving daily.’ Wardrop saved a bottle of rum and, once ashore, ‘on Hogmanay I was on guard and we killed it as the clock was striking’.

The early days of 1941 were a period of intense activity, as tanks were modified in the workshops and painted in desert colours, and exercises began on the training grounds near camp. Those running 5 RTR soon found themselves having to organise a swap with the 3rd, which had also come over as part of their brigade. The 5th handed its A9 tanks over to the 3rd, and got A13s in return, so that each battalion had one main type of vehicle. It made logistical sense, and the 5th weren’t complaining because they felt the later, heavier model was the better tank, but it was just a small taste of the endless chopping and changing by those in command that would characterise the months to come. Each new brainwave meant hours or days of hard work for the men. For A Squadron, who had manned the A9s before they went to the 3rd, this meant forgetting much of the preparation they had undergone at Thursley Camp and learning the peculiarities of a new wagon.

The soldiers got down to the job with alacrity, with good news from the front about further advances into Libya creating ‘a festive atmosphere’. But as the British pushed further into Libya, this caused worry as well as celebration for Lieutenant-Colonel Drew, the Commanding Officer. He knew that many of the A13s in his regiment had motored several hundred miles; the machines they had received from 3rd Tanks were particularly worn out. Given the standard of ‘craftsmanship’ of these machines, it was reckoned unwise to go more than a thousand miles between major engine overhauls. The way they had been put together, these tanks simply shook themselves apart if not regularly serviced. Yet it was about five hundred miles from 5th RTR’s camp to where the army was fighting. The first couple of hundred could be done by train, but the battalion faced the prospect of driving hundreds further before it could even come into action.

The 5th Tanks had left Cairo late in January, their armour being taken to the Egyptian port of Mersa Matruh by train, the echelon’s lorries and most of the men by road. From then on there was no choice but to push the tanks forward under their own power, up and over the Halfaya Pass and across the border into Libya, past Bardia and Tobruk. The first tank train had left Cairo on 27 January and they reached EI Adem, an aerodrome south of Tobruk, ten days later.

There, machines were moved about within the unit. The A13s brought out from Britain ended up in C Squadron whereas the others, particularly A Squadron, got clapped-out machines from other regiments. People were shifted too, and to his delight Trooper Solomon was moved from the Left Out of Battle contingent to driving a tank belonging to the officer commanding A Squadron. Others lounged about, getting a run into Tobruk for a beer and a swim, or reading in between working on their tanks.

The army in late March found its front at EI Agheila, hundreds of miles to the west, one of those places where a rare change in the coastal geography presented a defensible position – in this case, a bottleneck between the Mediterranean and some inland salt flats impassable to tanks. The 5th prepared to move up to this front, dispatching recce parties along the desert route that reached the coast near Ajdabiya, just south of Beda Fomm and east of El Agheila. One of these, under Lieutenant Deryck MacDonald, got so badly lost that the RAF were sent to scan the desert, without luck. The hapless young officer and his recce party eventually turned up a few days later.

During the stop at El Adem the regiment had tried to bring its A13s up to scratch with much maintenance. Mindful that many of them were passing the mileage where engines were normally overhauled the Battalion Technical Officer had been sent off to Cairo to obtain more motors. Some staff type there seemed to promise them, but the order to move forward again came before anything could be done. On 21 March the road move, nearly three hundred miles along the Trigh al Abd, began. For Solomon and other new men it was an education in the physical hardships of tank soldiering. They spent long hours being bounced and kicked by the hard surfaces of the moving machine they served. They were caked in buckets of sand thrown up by the tracks of the vehicle in front, and if they came sharply to a halt, were often engulfed in a sand cloud of their own making.

Each day began with the sun shining behind the tanks as they travelled westwards. Most had absolutely no idea where they were. There was no roadway, so they simply followed the tracks through the sand. It didn’t take long for the breakdowns to start, the first vehicle spluttering to a halt with an ignition problem. The fitters who stopped to repair it found the engine took hours to cool down, and ‘by the time we did move off the desert was horribly empty’. Each squadron had one truck with four or five trained mechanics on board. In addition, the Battalion Technical Officer had several specialists helping him. But the small staff of experts proved inadequate on this, their first proper desert march. There were simply too many vehicles breaking down. ‘We passed many tanks, but fortunately we had nothing to do with them, because they were write-offs,’ said one of the 5th’s fitters.

The move to Ajdabiya proved a gruelling learning experience in many ways. Crews that did manage to get underway again after repairs soon discovered that if they had not been paying careful attention to their map reading, noting the distances between waypoints and the few landmarks that appeared, they got hopelessly lost. Many men cheerfully quaffed their water ration, assuming that the half-gallon allowed per man per day would be replenished by some unseen echelon every morning. By the third day some were so thirsty that they were leaving seat cushions from their vehicles out at night, having discovered that dew formed on them and the rubber could be wrung out into a tin. It tasted disgusting, but if the alternative was a thumping headache, dry mouth and nothing to drink, what choice was there?

Having limped into the forward area, with leading elements arriving on 6 February, the battalion tried to pick up the pieces. Many tanks had been left along the desert road, and it did not appear the brigade, division or army had any plan or troops detached to recover them. Others, who had got lost en route, appeared in odd places over the following days. A Squadron was sent forward with other reconnaissance troops to man outposts at the front of the army while the rest of the 5th tried to prepare for battle.

In truth, though, their country had hardly given them the tools for the job. Many of the A13s were by this time approaching two thousand miles on their engines, twice the recommended period between overhauls (one had reached 2002 miles). The tracks had an estimated life of two thousand miles, after which the metal pins that held them together became so stretched that they would frequenly break.

Sitting down in his tent on the last day of March 1941 Major Southon, the Battalion Technical Officer, was a man full of woes. He made notes of the state of the equipment under his care, scanning the returns given in by each of the squadron fitter sergeants. Of the fifty-three tanks on the regiment’s books, just twenty-seven were at the correct end of the desert road and in working order. The rest were scattered between there and Tobruk, hundreds of miles to the east, where the nearest properly equipped workshops were located. Next to twenty of the tanks listed on his ‘Tank State 30/3/41’, the Technical Officer wrote ‘engine u/s’. It meant ‘unserviceable’.

Early WWII British Cruiser Tanks

The cruiser tank–sometimes called the ‘cavalry tank’–was seen as a medium-weight, fast machine which could make reconnaissance forays deep into enemy territory, much as horse-mounted cavalry had in former conflicts.

Modern thinking on tank design demands that equal attention be paid to mobility, firepower and protection. These principles were not as well accepted in the mid-1930s when the concept of the cruiser tank was first mooted and the emphasis on the speed of the cruiser tank was generally at the expense of armoured protection and firepower–for the first years of the war, British cruisers were armed only with a 2-pounder (40mm) anti-tank gun.

As the Second World War progressed, the role of the cruiser tank, as originally envisaged, became less and less clear and battlefield experience showed that the cruisers were vulnerable to more powerful German anti-tank weapons–the fearsome 88mm KwK L/56 gun of the Tiger being an extreme case in point. The 2-pounder (40mm) gun was soon replaced by a 6-pounder (57mm) and then, in some cases, by 75mm, 77mm and 17-pounder (76.2mm) guns in an effort to engage German armour on equal terms. Of these, probably only the 17-pounder (76.2mm) and the related 77mm were superior to the German 88mm, particularly when firing armour-piercing discarding sabot (APDS) rounds.

Eleven cruiser tank designs were produced between 1934 and 1945. Some never saw enemy action at all and were retained for training purposes; others saw action but were no match for the German machines. Only two of the designs were really satisfactory–the Meteor-engined Cromwell and the up-gunned Comet variant.

Cruiser Tank Mk I (A9)

What became known as the A9 cruiser tank Mk I was originally conceived as a medium tank to replace the Vickers A6 medium tanks Mks I and II. Development work had started in 1934 under the direction of Sir John Carden of Vickers-Armstrongs, with a view to coming up with a cheaper and more effective design. The A9 was notable for being the first British tank to incorporate a ballistically designed hull, albeit that the maximum thickness of armour was not sufficient and the machine-gun turrets were vulnerable. It was also the first to be fitted with a centrally positioned hydraulically powered turret, and was the first to incorporate the Vickers-Gerlach tank periscope, rather than using direct-vision heavy glass blocks. The A9 was also a pioneer in deep wading and, in 1939, one example was successfully driven completely submerged.

The tank was relatively small: the low hull had a length of just 231in and a width of 100in. Riveted construction was used throughout, with a maximum thickness of armour of 14mm, giving a combat weight of around 12 tons. There was no separation of the driving and fighting compartments and the hull must have been a tight fit for the standard six-man crew. Vickers had proposed that a Rolls-Royce Phantom II engine be used, but production vehicles were powered by a rear-mounted AEC A179 six-cylinder petrol engine, producing 150bhp from 9,630cc, and driving the rear sprockets through a five-speed manual gearbox. Utilising the Vickers ‘slow motion’ suspension, the road wheels were arranged in threes on a pair of bogies, the front and rear wheels on each side being of larger diameter. A large single spring was provided for each bogie, together with a Newton and Bennett telescopic hydraulic shock absorber. Top speed was in the order of 25mph on the road and 15mph across country, with a range of 100–145 miles.

For the prototype, the main gun was a 3-pounder (47mm) but all production vehicles were armed with the standard 2-pounder (40mm), together with three Vickers .303in water-cooled machine guns: one coaxial with the main gun, the other two in auxiliary turrets on either side of the hull. A fan was fitted in the hull to clear the gun fumes. There was also a close-support variant–cruiser tank Mk I CS–which mounted a 3.7in howitzer in place of the standard 2-pounder (40mm) gun.

A total of just 125 vehicles were constructed: fifty by Vickers-Armstrongs and seventy-five by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. The Mk I cruisers saw service in France in 1940 and in the Middle East the following year; however, although the main gun was effective against the Italian tanks, it was no match for the more sophisticated German machines. The crews also complained that the design was unreliable and was prone to shedding tracks.

Cruiser Tank Mk II (A10)

Three months after starting work on the A9, Sir John Carden’s team at Vickers-Armstrongs began designing an infantry version, designated A10. However, despite the armour being increased to a maximum of 30mm using bolt-on plates, the design was felt to be inadequately protected for the infantry-support role and it was reclassified as a heavy cruiser, becoming the cruiser tank Mk II. Even as a cruiser it was not successful, however, and despite the suspension being found to work well in the desert, the War Office criticised the machine for being slow and underpowered, with a poor cross-country performance.

In design the hull was similar to the A9, although the auxiliary machine-gun turrets were omitted, which allowed the crew to be reduced to five. The Vickers ‘slow motion’ suspension was retained, as was the AEC A179 petrol engine and the five-speed transmission. Measuring 217in in length, making it slightly shorter than the A9, but with the width identical at 100in, the additional armour put the weight up to 13.75 tons, having the effect of bringing the top speed down to 16mph on hard surfaces and 8mph off the road.

The main gun was the 2-pounder (40mm); there was also a single coaxial Vickers .303in water-cooled machine gun, and a 7.92mm Besa machine gun in a barbette to the right of the hull, making it the first British tank to be fitted with an air-cooled machine gun. On the Mk IIA there was an armoured radio housing and a redesigned mount for the main gun; the Vickers machine gun was also omitted in favour of a second 7.92mm Besa machine gun. As with the A9, there was also a close-support variant (cruiser tank Mk II CS) mounting a 3.7in howitzer.

Production started in 1938, and the type was built by Vickers-Armstrongs (ten), Metropolitan-Cammell Carriage and Wagon Company (forty-five) and the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company (120). Like the A9, the A10 was never considered to be more than a stop-gap measure whilst the A13 was developed.

Cruiser Tank Mk III (A13)

The cruiser tank Mk III was probably the most significant British tank of the interwar period and made much of what had gone before redundant. Developed by Morris Commercial Cars and constructed in small numbers by the company’s newly established munitions subsidiary, Nuffield Mechanizations and Aero, it was the first British tank to incorporate the suspension that had been designed by the American J. Walter Christie. Using a combination of short swinging arms bearing against long coil springs, the suspension gave the tank a standard of off-road performance that was far in advance of anything previously seen in a British tank and the Christie suspension went on to be used on all subsequent British cruiser tanks.

Although Morris Commercial had been supplied with two Christie tanks from the USA during 1936, the hull of these machines was considered to be too small to accept the typical British turret and the decision was made to incorporate the suspension into a completely new hull. The opportunity was also taken to incorporate Newton and Bennett telescopic hydraulic shock absorbers. The A13 was powered by a rear-mounted Nuffield Liberty V12 tank engine, the origins of which went back to an aero engine designed in 1917. With a power output of 340bhp from a capacity of 27,022cc, the engine was coupled to the rear sprockets via a four-speed manual gearbox. In prototype form, the vehicle was capable of a maximum speed on the road of more than 35mph, with 25mph achievable across country–this led to various mechanical problems. Eventually the road speed was governed to 30mph; in conjunction, the transmission was modified and the tracks redesigned, with a shorter pitch between links.

With an overall height of 100in, and an overall length of 237in, the A13 seemed long and low, an illusion reinforced by the large-diameter road wheels that also served as track-return rollers. The turret was similar to that fitted to the A9 and A10, and the main gun was the familiar 2-pounder (40mm), together with a coaxial Vickers .303in water-cooled machine gun. The maximum thickness of armour was just 14mm, giving a battle weight of 14 tons.

Trials began in October 1937; in January 1938, even before the trials were completed, sixty-five vehicles were ordered, with deliveries scheduled to begin in early 1939.

Cruiser Tank Mk IV (A13 Mk II)

With the design redesignated as A13 Mk II, the cruiser tank Mk IV was fitted with a new style of turret that incorporated distinctive V-section side plates to give a spaced armour configuration. At the same time, new minimum requirements for the armoured protection of cruiser tanks resulted in the maximum thickness of armour on the hull being increased to 30mm, raising the total weight of the vehicle to 14.75 tons. Some examples were built with additional armour covering the gun mantlet. Whilst the turret may have been redesigned, the main gun was still the 2-pounder (40mm), and there was also a coaxial Vickers .303in water-cooled machine gun, which, on the Mk IVA, was replaced by a Besa 7.92mm machine gun. A close-support variant was also produced, mounting a 3.7in howitzer and designated cruiser tank Mk IV CS. The engine, transmission and running gear were unchanged and, despite the increase in overall weight, the maximum road speed remained 30mph.

Some sources suggest that the total production amounted to 655 vehicles, of which 455 were produced by Nuffield Mechanizations and Aero, and a further 200 by the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) workshops, English Electric and Leyland; others suggest that the figure was 240. The A13 Mk II was withdrawn from active service at the end of 1941, but remained in use as a training vehicle.

Tank Encyclopedia United Kingdom (WW2)

Defending the Japanese Homeland

B-29s of the 500th Bomb Group on a bombing strike against Tokyo on 19 February 1945. The bombers encountered flak and were attacked by numerous Japanese fighter aircraft – “Tonys”, “Zekes” and Ki-45 “Nicks”. A Kawasaki Ki-45 “Toryu” of the 53rd Sentai piloted by 2nd Lt. Osamu Hirose rammed “Z Square 12”, a B-29 of the 881st Bomb Squadron. The bomber was cut in two and six parachutes were seen, although one was on fire and it collapsed. Of the five remaining crew members, only one survived. 2nd Lt. Hirose also perished, but his back seater, Corporal Kimio Kato was ejected from the aircraft and survived. Most people associate B-29s with the atomic bombing of two cities in Japan.

This painting shows what bomber crews had to contend with each week. Seventeen hour missions, battling flak, fighters, fatigue, weather and 200 mph jet streams at high altitude.

Japan’s ability to repel an American bombing campaign began with very few prospects in 1942 and sharply declined thereafter. Yet an enduring question is why Tokyo squandered more than two years after the Doolittle Raid, and why so little interservice coordination was attempted once B-29s appeared in homeland skies. The answer lies in the Japanese psyche more than in its military institutions.

In defending its airspace, Japan’s army and naval forces were tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Nonetheless, they failed massively in even approaching their nation’s potential to ameliorate the effects of the Allied onslaught.

Japan’s only prospect for staving off aerial immolation was to inflict unacceptable losses upon B-29s. Because of the Superfortress’s exceptional cost—some $600,000 each—a downed B-29 represented the financial equivalent of nearly three B-17s or B-24s, plus an invaluable crew. Development of ramming units demonstrates that some Japanese understood the value of a one-for-one or even two-for-one tradeoff, but the tactic largely failed for technical and organizational reasons. Therefore, defense of the home islands reverted to conventional means: flak guns and ordinary interceptors.

The resulting failure was systemic, crossing all boundaries of government and military-naval leadership. Probably the major cause was Japan’s national psychology: a collectivist culture possessing a rigid hierarchy with unusually strict protocols that inhibited breakout thinking and instilled extreme reluctance to express contrary opinions. Japan poses an intriguing puzzle for sociologists and political scientists: how an extremely well-ordered society permitted itself to make a series of disastrous decisions, each threatening its national existence. Ironically, the situation was partly explained by the atmosphere of gekokujo (“pressuring from below”) in which strident subordinates often influenced their superiors.

If interservice rivalry constituted a “second front” in Washington, D.C., it was a full contact sport in Tokyo. The postwar United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, “There was no efficient pooling of the resources of the Army and Navy. Responsibility between the two services was divided in a completely impractical fashion with the Navy covering all ocean areas and naval targets . . . and the Army everything else.”

In June 1944, the month of the first B-29 attack, Imperial General Headquarters combined army and navy assets in an air defense command but the navy objected to army control. A compromise was achieved with naval air groups at Atsugi, Omura, and Iwakuni assigned to the respective army district. Phone links from JAAF command centers were provided to each of the three naval units, but operational integration was seldom attempted. In fact, throughout Japan, the two air arms operated jointly in only three areas: Tsuiki on Kyushu plus Kobe and Nagoya.

A major part of the problem was astonishingly sparse allocation of fighters to air defense. As late as March 1945, Japan allotted less than one-fifth of its fighters to home defense, and the actual figure only reached 500 in July. By then very few were flying, as Tokyo hoarded its strength for the expected invasion.

In the crucial realm of radar, Japan got a jump on the world—and almost immediately lost its lead. The efficient Yagi-Uda antenna had been invented in 1926, the product of two researchers at Tohoku Imperial University. Professor Hidetsugu Yagi published the first English reference two years later, citing his nation’s work in shortwave research. But such was military secrecy and interservice rivalry that even late in the war few Japanese knew the origin of the device that appeared on downed Allied aircraft.

The Allies rated Japanese radar as “very poor,” and fighter direction remained rudimentary. While land-based radar could detect inbound formations perhaps 200 miles out, the data included neither altitude nor composition. Consequently, picket boats were kept 300 miles at sea to radio visual sightings—of marginal use in cloudy weather. However, what radar systems did exist were easily jammed by American radio countermeasures—aircraft dropping aluminum foil that clogged enemy screens.

Furthermore, the Japanese army and navy established separate warning systems, and seldom exchanged information. Even when unit-level pooling was attempted, navy officers generally refused orders from army officers.

Civilian observers were spread throughout Japan to report enemy aircraft, but predictably there was no unity. The army and navy established their own observer corps, and neither worked with the other.

Japanese navy doctrine contained an internal contradiction for air defense. A 1944 manual asserted, “In order to overcome the disadvantages imposed on fighter plane units when the enemy raids a friendly base—that is, getting fighter planes airborne on equal terms with the enemy airplanes—full use must be made of radar and other lookout methods. . . . These must be employed in the most effective manner.” But as noted, use of radar remained rudimentary.

Some pilots dismissed the state of their nation’s electronics. “Why do we need radar? Men’s eyes see perfectly well.”

Excluding mobile radar sets, at least sixty-four early-warning sites were built in the homeland and offshore islands: thirty-seven navy and twenty-seven army. But the rare assets often were squandered by duplicating effort: at four sites on Kyushu and seven on Honshu, army and navy radars were located almost side by side. The southern approaches to Kyushu and Shikoku were covered by some twenty installations but only two permanent radars are known on all of Shikoku.

Though the huge majority of Japanese radars provided early warning, some sets directed AA guns and searchlights. But apparently there was little integration of the two: some B-29 crews returned with harrowing tales of ten to fifteen minutes in a searchlight’s probing beam with minimal or no flak damage.

Apart from inadequate radar, some of Japan’s technical focus was badly misdirected. From 1940 onward, the military devoted over five years to a “death ray” intended to cause paralysis or death by very short-wave radio waves focused in a high-power beam. The nonportable unit was envisioned for antiaircraft use, but the only model tested had a range much less than firearms.

Tactically, the lack of army-navy cooperation hampered the already limited potential of Japan’s interceptors. With unit commanders conducting their own localized battles, there was little opportunity to concentrate large numbers of fighters against a bomber formation as the Luftwaffe repeatedly achieved.

Overall, Japanese fighters were spectacularly ineffective against B-29s. From more than 31,300 Superfortress sorties over the homeland, only seventy-four were known lost wholly to interceptors and perhaps twenty more in concert with flak guns. Japanese pilots logged their best performances in January and April 1945, each with thirteen bombers downed. But during fifteen months of combat, losses to interceptors amounted to merely 0.24 percent of effective B-29 sorties.

The Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, “The Japanese fighter defense system was no more than fair on paper and distinctly poor in practice. One fundamental matter stands out as the principal reason for its shortcomings—the Japanese planners failed to see the danger of allied air attacks and to give the defense system the requisite priorities.”

Lieutenant General Saburo Endo of Army Air Force Headquarters stated, “Those responsible for control at the beginning of the war did not recognize the true value of aviation . . . therefore one defeat led to another. Although they realized there was a need for merging the army and the navy, nothing was done about it. There were no leaders to unify the political and the war strategies, and the plans executed by the government were very inadequate. National resources were not concentrated to the best advantage.”

In short, in Japan’s military, parochialism trumped efficiency at every turn.