Battle of Sept-Îles

22/23 October 1943

The English Channel’s importance as a transit route for British and German shipping made it one of the war’s most bitterly contested bodies of water. When the blockade runner Münsterland and its escort of six minesweepers and two patrol boats departed Brest on October 22, 1943, the Royal Navy’s Plymouth Command ordered the antiaircraft light cruiser Charybdis (senior officer, Captain G. A. W. Voelcker); the fleet destroyers Grenville and Rocket; and the escort destroyers Limbourne, Wensleydale, Talybont, and Stevenstone to intercept the German convoy. Because Plymouth was a transit point, it often tried to maximize resources by using ships that were passing through, such as the Charybdis, but this practice had its dangers, as became clear in execution.

The British warships arrived off the Breton coast shortly after midnight on October 23 and, with the cruiser in the lead, began sweeping west. Meanwhile, the German 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla, T23 (Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf ), T26, T27, T22, and T25 reinforced the escort. Based on past operations, the Germans had a good idea when and how the British would come. When T25’s hydrophone detected ships to the northeast, the 4th Flotilla turned toward the contact.

At 1:30 a. m., the Charybdis’s radar detected the Germans 14,000 yards ahead. As the columns rapidly converged, Captain Voelcker ordered his column to come to starboard and increase speed, but there was confusion and only the rear ship received his signal. A minute later at 1:43 a. m., the German commander saw the cruiser’s large silhouette illuminated against the lighter northern horizon only 2,200 yards distant. He ordered an emergency turn to starboard. As they came about, the T23 and then T26 emptied their torpedo tubes toward the enemy.

British radar was registering contacts and the British were intercepting German radio traffic. The Charybdis fired star shell, but the rockets burst above the clouds and only brightened the overcast sky. The Limbourne, which had lost touch with the flagship, plotted a contact off its port bow and, unsure whether it was hostile, likewise fired rockets. The fleet destroyers came to port and crossed ahead of Limbourne. Then lookouts aboard the Charybdis reported the tracks of torpedoes.

The cruiser came hard to port, but at 1:47 a. m., a torpedo struck it on the port side. As this happened, the German column was still turning and both the T27 and T22 fired full torpedo salvos as they came about. Only the T25 failed to launch. At 1:51 a. m., the German column withdrew on an easterly heading.

Another torpedo struck the Charybdis, and within five minutes its deck was under water. A minute later, a torpedo slammed into the Limbourne and detonated the small destroyer’s forward magazine. The Grenville and Wensleydale barely avoided the massive explosion. The Charybdis sank at 2:30 a. m. Attempts to tow the Limbourne failed and it was scuttled.

The British force was an improvised one following a scripted plan and had blundered into a massed, close-range torpedo salvo. The British were fortunate in that they only lost two ships. Admiralty staff studied the action off Les Sept Iles intensely and drew many of the right conclusions. Not coincidentally, it was the last clear victory German surface forces would win during the war.

References Smith, Peter C. Hold the Narrow Sea, Naval Warfare in the English Channel 1939-1945. Ashbourne, UK: Moorland, 1984. Whitley, M. J. German Destroyers of World War Two. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991

Blockade Running

In the early stage of World War II, the main lines of communication between the Axis powers were either over land via the Trans-Siberian Railway or, when Japan entered the war in December 1941, across the sea by surface blockade runners. Japan used German blockade runners to send such goods as rubber, cooking oil, lead, tin, and tea to Germany. In return, the ships carried industrial products such as locomotives and machinery and various pieces of technical equipment, scientific instruments, and chemical and pharmaceutical products to Japan. In addition, ships carried supplies and spare parts for German warships in the Far East. Some blockade runners also supplied German armed merchant cruisers operating in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and Pacific.

After Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Operation BARBAROSSA ) in June 1941, the continental line was cut, and only sea routes remained. Blockade running that began in April 1941 and ended in October 1943 involved a total of 36 ships traveling from Asia to Europe. Six of them were recalled or returned after sustaining damage, and, of the 30 that remained, 11 were sunk by Allied forces or were scuttled by their own crews to prevent capture. Another 2 were accidentally sunk by German submarines, and 1 was seized by a U. S. cruiser. Thus, 16 ships actually completed their voyages and delivered their cargo to the port of Bordeaux in German-occupied France.

In the other direction, 23 ships, including 5 fleet supply ships, were sent from Europe to the Far East between September 1941 and April 1943. Of these, 16 reached Asian ports, 5 were sunk or scuttled, and 2 were recalled or returned to port.

Overall, 45.8 percent of the blockade runners on the Far East route were lost. However, annual ship losses rose dramatically over the course of the war. Between April 1941 and October 1942, only 12.1 percent were lost, whereas in 1943, losses rose to 85.7 percent. Of 104,700 tons of materials loaded on the ships, only 26,600 tons reached their destinations. In addition to raw materials and equipment, these ships also transported passengers. Some 900 passengers embarked to travel from the Far East to Europe, but fewer than half of them arrived safely. A total of 136 died when their ships were sunk, and the remainder became prisoners of war or remained in the Far East after their ships turned back.

From early 1944, submarines took over the blockade runners’ mission. Between then and early March 1945, 16 German U-boats sailed to the Far East as combat cargo transporters. But only 8 actually arrived in Far Eastern ports, carrying some 930 tons of cargo. The other 8 boats were lost, most of them to hostile action. Through the end of 1944, only 3 submarines reached Europe, but none got to Germany: the U-843 arrived at Norway but was sunk in the Kattegat Straits; the U-510 and U-861 reached French ports.

Under the code name AQUILA, 5 Italian submarines also participated in blockade running. Departing France, they carried some 500 tons of supplies for German/ Italian submarine bases in the Far East as well as personnel and cargo for Japan. None of them returned to Europe. The Japanese also sent five submarines to Europe to transport German military technology and to exchange personnel. Ultimately, four of them reached the Continent, but only three returned: two to Singapore and one to Japan. All these submarines had Japanese and German technicians, liaison officers, and equipment and blueprints of German’s newest weapons. Of 89 passengers aboard Axis submarines traveling from Japan, 74 arrived in France; the remainder died when their boats were sunk. A total of 96 passengers sailed in the opposite direction, 64 of them arriving safely; 22 were lost while under way, and 10 others fell into U. S. hands.

References Boyd, Carl, and Yoshida Akihiko. The Japanese Submarine Force and World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002. Krug, Hans J., and Yoichi Hirama. Reluctant Allies: German-Japanese Naval Relations in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.


Battle of the Bay of Biscay

28 December 1943

After the invasion of the Soviet Union severed German land access to strategic raw materials such as rubber and tin, blockade runners became essential to the Axis war effort, and the Kriegsmarine maintained destroyers and fleet torpedo boats on the French Biscay coast to escort blockade runners into port during the dangerous final leg of their voyage. On December 27, 1943, two German flotillas sortied to meet the blockade runner Alsterufer, not realizing that Allied aircraft had surprised and sunk it the day before. The German units were the 8th Destroyer Flotilla (Kapitän zur See Hans Erdmenger) with the Z27, Z23, Z24, Z32, Z37 and the 4th Torpedo Boat Flotilla (Korvettenkapitän Franz Kohlauf ) with the T23, T22, T24, T25, T26, and T27. Two British light cruisers, the Glasgow and Enterprise, which had been hunting the Alsterufer, were south of the Germans, and, learning of their mission from signals intelligence, they steered to intercept.

The German flotillas united just after noon on December 28 and swept eastwardly. It was a rough day in the Bay of Biscay with a strong easterly wind. Conditions were difficult aboard the German Type 36A destroyers, which were poor sea boats, and they were worse for the torpedo boats, which had green seas breaking over their bows and spray inundating their bridges.

At 1:32 p. m., the Glasgow spotted the Germans, and eight minutes later, the Z23 saw the British cruisers bearing down. At this point, the Germans were steaming south-by-southeast in three columns. Almost immediately, Erdmenger ordered a torpedo attack, which was impractical due to the range and rough seas. Meanwhile, the British closed, and at 1:46 p. m., Glasgow’s forward turret fired the first salvo from a range of 18,000 yards.

Initially both forces ran south-southeast trading long-range broadsides. At 1:56 p. m., Erdmenger ordered another torpedo attack, and the Z32, Z37, and Z34 took station to port and edged toward the cruisers. At 2:05 p. m., a shell from the Z32 struck the Glasgow, killing two men. At 2:15 p. m., the Z37 fired four torpedoes from 14,000 yards.

While this futile barrage churned through seven miles of stormy water, Erdmenger decided to divide his force, even though German shooting had been at least as good as the British. At 2:19 p. m., the T26, T22, T25, Z27, and Z23 turned north as Z32, Z37, Z24, T23, T24, and T27 continued southeast. The Z27 turned toward the British rather than away, and the flagship became the first German vessel damaged when a 6-inch shell from the Enterprise penetrated a boiler room and ignited a huge fire.

As the Germans divided, the Glasgow joined Enterprise and ranged its turrets on the three torpedo boats heading north. At 2:54 p. m., the Glasgow damaged the rear warship, the T25. Then the Glasgow shifted fire to the T26 and hit its boiler room.

After temporarily disengaging to clear some gun defects, the Enterprise joined the Glasgow, and the two cruisers sank the T26, the most southerly of the three damaged ships at 4:20 p. m. The Enterprise dispatched the T25 at 4:37 p. m. with a single torpedo. Finally, the Glasgow found the Z27 drifting with all guns silent. It closed and exploded the German destroyer’s magazines at 4:41 p. m. The British cruisers then made for Plymouth. The Glasgow had been hit once, while the Enterprise received minor splinter damage from numerous near misses. The rest of the German force safely made port.

The Germans fired 34 torpedoes from impossibly long ranges in eight separate attacks, but in rough conditions with extended visibility the better gun platform prevailed. The German commander’s decision to divide his flotilla also proved ill-advised as afterward ranges dropped. In the engagement, the Germans lost three ships.

The two British cruisers met up once more and, seeing no further signs of the German squadron and having accounted for three of them at no significant damage to themselves, withdrew toward Plymouth. They arrived on the evening of 29 December, low on both fuel and ammunition. Glasgow had received one hit that killed two crew members and wounded another three, while Enterprise had no real damage except for shell splinters.

The two German survivors, T22 and Z23, reunited and headed towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz near the Spanish border. The rest of the German ships headed back to the Gironde.

Only 283 survivors of the 672 men on the three sunken ships were rescued: 93 from Z27, 100 from T25 and 90 from T26. British and Irish ships, Spanish destroyers and German U-boats took part in the rescue. About 62 survivors were picked up by British minesweepers as prisoners. 168 were rescued by a small Irish steamer, the MV Kerlogue, and four by Spanish destroyers, and they were all interned.

References Koop, Gerhard, and Klaus-Peter Schmolke. German Destroyers of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. O’Hara, Vincent P. The German Fleet at War 1939-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004


On the 26th December eleven German destroyers and torpedo boats sailed into the Bay of Biscay to bring in the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”. however she was sunk by a Liberator bomber of RAF Coastal Command on the 27th, and next day as the German warships return to base they are intercepted by 6in cruisers “Glasgow” and “Enterprise”. Although outnumbered and out-gunned they sank the 5.9in-gunned destroyer “Z-27” and torpedo boats “T-25” and “T-26”.

Regarding the blockade-runner “Alsterufer”….Sunderland aircraft operating from Castle Archdale…201 & 422/423 RCAF also helped in the tracking and took part in several attacks on the ship.

‘Sixty-four survivors were rescued by the cruisers and several more by an Irish steamer, a Spanish destroyer and U-boats.

KERLOGUE, Wexford S.S. Co. Built in Holland in 1938 for the Wexford S.S. Co. In 1957 the KERLOGUE was sold to Norwegian interests and wrecked in 1960 off Tromso.”

All Irish ships leaving Ireland had to call at Fishguard to obtain a British Navicert before proceeding and likewise when returning to Ireland. In the early hours of the 29 December 1943 when the Irish Vessel Kerlogue was enroute from Lisbon a Focke Wulf 200 circled and signalled ” SOS follow” the ship picked up 168 survivors from the encounter with HMS Glasgow and HMS Enterprise. The little ship with a crew of 12 under Capt Donohue set course for Ireland direct. The senior German officer Kplt. Quedenfeldt requested that they be taken to Brest but he refused. They Irish crew could have been easily overpowered but the refusal was accepted. Despite repeated requests by Lands End radio, to proceed to Fishguard they continued to Ireland and landed the survivors there. They were interned. The Irish captain was at the receiving end of a very abusive Naval officer when he next called to Fishguard, who threatened to have him interned for his humanitarian act.

Bay of Biscay Offensive (February-August 1943)

Major anti-U-boat operation conducted by the British and U. S. air forces. Beginning in January 1942, Allied maritime patrol aircraft carried out air antisubmarine transit patrols in the Bay of Biscay. The advent of the new 10-cm radar in late 1942 and new methods of operations research encouraged a fresh approach to the flagging campaign there. The revised concept foresaw a continuous barrier patrol of the U-boat transit exit routes from the Bay of Biscay into the Atlantic by a total of 260 aircraft equipped with brand-new ASV Mk. III 10-cm-band radars. Operational command would lie with the Number 19 Group of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command. Allied projections for success were vague and excessively optimistic, but the planners assumed correctly that it would take the Germans at least four months to respond effectively to the new 10-cm radar.

The actual offensive was preceded by three trial phases: Operations GONDOLA (February 4-16, 1943), ENCLOSE I (March 20-28, 1943), and ENCLOSE II (April 5-13, 1943). Beset by difficulties, such as the withdrawal of the U. S. Army Air Force’s B-24 Liberator bombers, slow delivery of the ASV Mk. III radar, and lack of aircraft, the operations were nonetheless a success in that they demonstrated an increased efficiency in aircraft allocation and in U-boat sightings.

Air Marshal Sir John C. Slessor, head of Coastal Command, decided to launch the full-scale offensive (Operation DERANGE ) on April 13 with 131 aircraft. The repeated, accurate night attacks by the Vickers Wellington medium bombers of Number 172 Squadron, then the only Coastal Command aircraft equipped with new ASV Mk. III radars and Leigh lights, produced instant, although unforeseen, results. The failure of the German threat receivers to warn the U-boats of the incoming aircraft and the success of two U-boats in shooting down the attacking planes convinced the German U-boat command that the remedy was to give up the night surface transit and to order the U-boats to fight it out with aircraft while on the surface during daylight hours.

Coastal Command aircraft wreaked havoc among the grossly overmatched U-boats during those daylight battles. In May alone, six U-boats were destroyed and seven so severely damaged that they had to return to their bases. In turn, the U-boats accounted for only 5 of 21 aircraft lost by the Coastal Command in the Bay of Biscay that month.

The German withdrawal from the North Atlantic convoy routes following the “Black May” of 1943 allowed Slessor to step up the operation with additional air assets. The Germans took to sending the U-boats in groups in order to provide better antiaircraft defense, yet in June, four U-boats were lost and six others severely damaged. DERANGE peaked in July, when Allied aircraft claimed 16 U-boats- among them three valuable Type XIV U-tankers-compelling Grossadmiral (grand admiral) Karl Dönitz to call off a planned operation in the western Atlantic.

German losses in the Bay of Biscay dropped considerably thereafter, but the air patrols remained a formidable obstacle throughout the remainder of the war by forcing the U-boats to stay submerged for most of the time during transit. Although the Battle of the Atlantic was ultimately won around the convoys, the Bay of Biscay Offensive contributed to the success by preventing many U-boats from reaching their operational areas in time to saturate convoy defenses as they had done in March 1943.

References Blair, Clay. Hitler’s U-Boat War. Vol. 2, The Hunted, 1942-1945. New York: Random House, 1998. Gannon, Michael. Black May. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 10, The Atlantic Battle Won, May 1943-May 1945. Boston: Little, Brown, 1956. Roskill, Stephen W. The War at Sea, 1939-1945. Vols. 2 and 3. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1957 and 1960

Soviet MBT Design Overview

T-72, a classic of Soviet design. Noted small curved turret, steeply sloped chassis and turret surfaces, utilization of ERA tiles over tank surface, wide broadly spaced tracks and generally simple design which is quick and inexpensive to build.

The T-72 is an example of classic Soviet/Russian MBT design. The trademark feature of the T-72, as with many Soviet tanks, is the small rounded turret. These were made of cast armored steel until fairly recently. Though Western designers complain that the small turret size produces very cramped working conditions for the crew the design is effective in reducing target cross-section and increasing surface obliquity to incoming threats (curved surfaces are intrinsically of a high obliquity as they induce rotation of the threat on impact).

Modern Soviet/Russian turrets also include auto-loaders, an approach not taken by many Western armor designers. The auto-loader decreases the necessary crew members by one, reducing overall vehicle weight, and in theory increases the firing rate of the weapon. Jams however are more frequently and difficult to correct, and loading becomes very slow once the ready rounds are consumed. Because of the smaller turret size and auto-loader, available ready rounds are significantly reduced compared to Western designed vehicles. The Soviets originally did not use ammunition storage in a bustle rack attached to the turret with access doors and blow off panels to reduce crew injury in the event of a strike, as this acts to increase vehicle cross-section and makes a strike more likely. But due to too many incidences involving crew being killed by ammunition stored in the turret or vehicle chassis being set off as secondary explosions by threat overmatch penetration (i.e., ammo cooking-off), more modern Russian tanks have come to employ bustle rack ammunition stowage. The history of Soviet/Russian Armored vehicle development, and key characteristics of Soviet style MBTs, is reviewed.


Following World War I the major powers recognized the need to develop armored vehicles capable of mobility, firepower and protection (survivability). While England and France took the early initiative in designing armored vehicles, each other major power quickly copied their basic designs. Each would henceforth develop their own unique style of armored vehicle, evolving the process along their own design philosophy. By the 1930s both Germany and the USSR significantly outpaced the English and French development and took the forefront in armor design. In fact, through a secret pact, Germany and Russia were actually working together to develop innovative tank technologies, design concepts and battlefield tactics employing their newly developed weapons.

The initial armored vehicles designed by all of the major nations during the interwar period tended to be light and were designed with a focus on being able to support infantry. However these designs soon evolved into heavy infantry support vehicles, large enough and with sufficient armor to protect them against field guns and small arms fire. But these early ‘tanks’ lacked large weapons, preferring to integrate machine guns and small calibre cannon suitable for engaging infantry. Many of these weapons were mounted in turrets, or even multiple turrets, providing the ability to fire at infantry in many directions simultaneously. The vehicles were designed to breach the trenches that defined World War I and hence their design did not emphasize mobility or speed. The tanks were meant to accompany the infantry and so only need to move as quickly as infantry, and over ground infantry would advance over.

It was concluded that tanks would need to engage other tanks, just as aircraft were required be able to counter other aircraft. To optimize the tank in this new role is was determined that a single turret with the largest possible gun would prove most decisive. Therefore the ‘infantry support tank’ evolved into the true ‘combat tank’. Able to engage other armored vehicle and soft-skinned vehicles, the tanks maintained a heavy presence of machine guns, typically mounted in the turret and hull, to still meet the need to defeat opposing infantry.

Eventually these vehicles developed into the wide range of light, medium and heavy tanks that saw combat during World War II. Each was principally designed to engage and destroy other tanks and armored vehicles. Infantry ceased to be the main force factor on the battlefield. The tank battalions now held that honor. All of these tanks possessed reasonable firepower, which continued to increase in calibre and projectile velocity as the war progressed. Medium tanks had reasonable protection and reasonable mobility. Light tanks had high mobility but low protection, being designed to get a tank into the fight quickly, providing a tactical advantage. Heavy tanks had heavy protection and large calibre guns, but were slow and thereby more effective in defensive or long-range bombardment roles.

The Russians borrowed ideas from both the US and French tank designs. They were quick to employ the US developed Christie suspension system, which was superior to the then prevalent leaf spring approach. They also adopted the French notion of casting turrets, reducing cost and increasing productivity. Before WWII, and during the early stages of that war, turrets and hulls of most tanks tended to be fabricated from riveted plate, so casting also improved protection levels (rivets tended to fail when struck with a shell), and yet was inexpensive compared to the newly emerging field of welding.

The first extensively fabricated Soviet tank with a cast turret was the ubiquitous T-34 medium tank. Eventually, as welding processes were improved, as higher hardness steels were developed that could only be fabricated as flat plate, the advantage of cast rounded turrets was reduced, though the Russians tended to prefer this approach on many of their platforms until relatively modern times.

The JS-2 Heavy tank (left) and the KV-2 self-propelled gun (right). Both were well armored with heavy calibre weapons, but too slow to offer any operational tactical flexibility

In addition to the well-known T-34, the Soviets also developed a wide range of other highly effective tanks and armored vehicles throughout the war, including the heavy Joseph Stalin (JS or IS) series, heavily armored and powerful but lethargic anti-tank field guns, such as the KV-2, and lightly armored but mobile and well-armed Cavalry vehicles. There were also ‘tank killers’ which had the gun placed in the hull rather than on a rotating turret, which reduced tactical flexibility but also significantly reduced cost.

Despite the wide range of tank types explored during the war, the Russian experiences during WWII convinced them, as the war also convinced Western powers, that the optimal approach to tank design was a vehicle with good armor, a heavy gun, and effective mobility. This aligned with the medium tank approach rather than the under-armored light tank or the excessively cumbersome heavy tank. This realisation led the way to the development in the post-war period of the modern concept of the Main Battle Tank (MBT).

Soviet Main Battle Tanks

The first Soviet designed Main Battle Tank was the T-54/55. The first proto-type of this revolutionary vehicle was actually produced just at the closing of World War II and marked a significant leap in tank design. The overall tank appearance, and many of the progressive concepts introduced, continue to the core to Soviet MBTs still being produced to this day. The low profile of the T-54/55 series of tanks and the small rounded turret are distinctive Soviet design characteristic. With up to 100,000 of these vehicles built it has the status of being the most manufactured tank in history. Supplied in large numbers by the Soviets to their client states the vehicle proved its capabilities in numerous conflicts throughout the latter half of the 21st Century. Subsequently sold to non-Warsaw pact nations the T-54/55 currently remains in operation with armies of many third world nations to this day.

Equipped with a powerful 100 mm rifled gun, more powerful than other tanks of the time, gun stabilization was also introduced with the T-55 upgrade, further improving firing cycle time and accuracy. The hull and turret were well armored compared to other contemporary vehicles as well. The Turret was manufactured from approximately 8” (205 mm) of cast armored steel on the front and 5” (130 mm) on the sides, and the hull armor consists of 4” (100 mm) of steel angled at 60° in the frontal arc and 3” of steel (80 mm) on the sides at 0° obliquity. The vehicles were of a relatively simple and low cost design, while being tough and functionally effective.

This is another key characteristic of Russian design that evolved from the brutality of their experiences during WWII. Rather than make complex tanks which were slow and costly to build, as did the Germans, the Soviets recognized that most tanks covered minimal ground and had a short life expectancy once battle commenced. Therefore they put emphasis on designing tanks of which huge numbers could be produced quickly and inexpensively, relying on volume over sophistication to overwhelm an enemy. By maintaining a smaller sized vehicle with a small turret, the vehicle was also designed to offer as small of a target as possible to enemy tanks and anti-tank guns.

Keeping the vehicle relatively light compared to the Western vehicles also meant that mobility was kept high, both on the move and for transportation by rail or truck. The tracks are wide and spaced far apart, improving cross-country mobility by keeping the footprint (i.e., ground pressure exerted by the vehicle) low. These lighter MBTs could also pass over bridges which could not support the weight of heavier Western MBTs. Low overall vehicle weight is another key Soviet design characteristics that continued to be seen in subsequent and contemporary Soviet MBTs.

The T-54/T-55 performed well but had a number of negative features. The vehicles had a very cramped interior resulting from the effort to maintain a small silhouette. This compelled the Soviets to require smaller individuals as tank crewman. Another consequence of the cramped interior was this this limited the range of motion and speed at which the crewman could adjust controls and operate equipment. The most major consequence of this was restricting the rate at which ammunition could be reloaded. The ammunition was stored in the chassis and not protected, and so secondary detonations remained an issue. Oddly, the turret floor of the T-54 was not designed to rotate with the turret. As with the T-34, this forced the cramped crew to have to shuffle about as they rotated the turret. This had an impact on firing response time and accuracy. This however was corrected in the T-55 and all subsequent MBTs in which the turret basket floor is suspended from the turret so that the gunner and commander position remains synchronized with the turret orientation.

The T-55 primarily fired HEAT rounds to engage targets. At the time nations believed that the newly developed round would dominate the future battlefield. America even developed a 152 mm gun that could only fire HEAT rounds for one of its MBT variants. Both the Soviets and the British (Chobham armor) however developed ceramic armor systems, which performed very well against HEAT rounds compared to conventional armored steel. Therefore the quickly evolving kinetic energy based long-rod penetrators actually became the dominant anti-tank tank round. HEAT rounds do not require a high muzzle velocity but long-rod penetrators do. Therefore the Russians, as with the Western nations, had to abandon large bored low velocity guns and replaced them with high velocity guns, requiring stronger barrels and breach mechanism. The T-55 therefore also suffered from employing a barrel type and primary anti-tank round that were soon to become obsolete.

Despite the relative success of the T-55 platform, the introduction of this intimidating tank resulted in Western powers developing advanced MBTs of their own. The development of the American M60 MBT was a direct response to the appearance of the T-55. This in turn compelled the Soviets to continue developing their own technologies. The next major advancement in Soviet MBT tank technology was the T-62. The T-62 was essentially an evolution of the T-55, continuing to utilize many of the same components and systems. The main weapon calibre was increased from 100 mm to 115 mm. This was a smoothbore weapon, rather than rifled, and it is the first instance of a smoothbore barrel being used on a MBT. Despite the larger gun the rounded cast armored steel turret of the T-62 was actually smaller than that used on the T-55. Introduced into service in 1961, the vehicles continued to be manufactured until 1975.

The T-62 however was found to have a number of short comings, as identified during its deployment by Arab allies in the Yom-Kippur war with Israel. The vehicle was not able to perform adequately against its contemporary Western MBTs – though much of this in retrospect was probably due more so to the superior training of the Israel tank crewmen compared to their Arab counterparts than to the tank itself. Regardless, the T-62 was quickly further evolved into the more commonly employed T-64. Where the T-64 appeared similar to the T-62, it represented a significant change in Soviet design. The T-62 maintained the concept of a simple and inexpensive vehicle. While the T-64, though similar in appearance to the T-62, took the radical step of introducing more complex and expensive systems in an effort to compete with the sophisticated Western MBTs.

The lengthened main weapon was designed with high strength steel to accommodate the high barrel pressures required to attain the significant muzzle velocity of the kinetic energy based ammunition. The T-64 was lengthened to further decrease ground pressure through the addition of another track wheel, increasing from 5 for the T-62 to 6 for the T-64. Another revolutionary and characteristic feature of Soviet tank design was also introduced with the T-64. This is the integrated ammunition auto-loading system. The T-64 was the first full production tank to ever incorporate such a system and it resulting in a significant increase in main weapon reload time compared to manual loading in the cramped interior. Reload times with the auto-loader became comparable to Western MBTs, which still relied on manual loading of ammunition. Incorporation of the auto-loader also removed the loader, and so reduced crews from 4 to 3, as well as reduced the overall vehicle weight.

In 1967 the main weapon of the T-64 was further enhanced to a 125 mm smoothbore. Primarily designed to fire long-rod penetrators and HEAT rounds, an anti-tank missile was introduced in 1976 that could also be fired from the gun. These two revolutionary enhancements preceded Western developments by many years. Western powers continued to rely on their 105 mm rifled gun until development of relatively modern tanks, focusing on enhancing the design of the long-rod penetrators to improve their lethality rather than increase the gun bore (Implementing the bigger 125 mm was partly driven by the inability of the Soviets to adequately evolve their own long-rod penetrator designs). The original M1 Abrams in fact maintained the 105 mm gun and was only upgraded to the German 120 mm smoothbore with the M1A1 variant, when it was recognized that both a larger round and a better designed round would be necessary to defeat ever evolving Soviet armor.

T-80 MBT

The next significant Soviet MBT was the T-72, introduced in 1970. The T-72 returned to the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle used with the T-55 and T-62. While the complexities of the T-64 design were in turn used to develop the relatively sophisticated T-80. Though less widely built than the T-72 the T-80 introduced a number of progressive features, mimicking many of the better aspects of Western designs. Essentially, the Soviets were trying to figure out if KISS was adequate in a modern high-tech environment or if they would be compelled to produce complex but expensive vehicles to be able to compete with their Western competition. The Soviets do not have the large budgets of many Western nations and so need to be more conscientious of costs per unit when it comes to military equipment.

Lessons learned from combat experiences with the T-72 and the T-80 would in turn be used as the basis for development of the modern Russian T-90, a powerful lightweight vehicle that balances design simplicity with high-tech equipment. All three of these MBTs continued to employ the successful ammunition auto-loader, and therefore each still only requires a crew of 3 to operate the vehicle. Despite the introduction of ceramic and reactive armor, active protection systems and more advanced fire control systems, each of these MBTs all maintain many of the same key features typical of Soviet design, including the relatively small overall vehicle size and the small rounded turrets, with the corresponding overall light vehicle weight and high mobility performance as compared to their Western counterparts.

Overall, Soviet vehicle design conventions, and the relative advantages and drawbacks of these approaches, are summarized below.

  • The hull size of the T-34 and every subsequent MBT is relatively small compared to Western styled vehicles in an effort to improve mobility and reduce the vehicle silhouette. This places significant restrictions on the range of motion for the crew and often necessitates small sized crew members for some crew positions. As the weight of the vehicle is reduced through the smaller vehicle size, the power required to move the vehicle is therefore correspondingly reduced. Therefore a lower weight engine can be used, also lowering fuel consumption. But engine size does not decrease linearly with weight and therefore consumes more of the available space inside the vehicle. This acts to even further restrict the space available for the crew.
  • The small circular turret further aggravates the restriction on space availability for the gunner and commander, and loader when applicable. This space restriction not only reduced the rate at which the crews could respond to threats, put tended to exhaust the crews, further reducing their overall performance. Exhausted crews who were unable to move freely tended to reload more slowly, take longer to aim the weapon and were less likely to hit their intended target than Western crewed tanks.
  • Recognizing that Western vehicles were often reloaded at 2 to 3 times the rate of their own, the autoloader was introduced on the T-64. Early versions of this did not perform well, and even modern versions are prone to jamming. Once jammed, the gun cannot be used until the mechanism is cleared and re-set. This is a slow and cumbersome process within an already cramped vehicle interior.
  • The smaller chassis and turret size also reduced the number of main weapon rounds that the vehicle could carry, resulting in a greater potential of running out of ammunition through a battle. This problem was further aggravated when the weapon size was increased from 100 mm to 115 mm, and then to 125 mm. The larger the rounds, the fewer that can be carried in the same available space. The space taken up by the auto-loader also reduces the number of rounds that can be carried, and only a limited number of rounds fit in the auto-loader carousel. Once this ammunition is depleted, rounds must be manually loaded. In the cramped space and with the auto-loading mechanism in the loading path, this is a very slow process.
  • A small turret also results in a limited gun depression angle. This reduced the ability of the vehicle to defend itself against attacking infantry and while operating on a downward facing slope or in a ‘hull down position’, which is when the hull is concealed behind a barrier to improve protection and make the vehicle more difficult to hit.
  • The small vehicle size also meant that any ‘overmatch event’, which is to say when an incoming threat defeats the armor and penetrates the vehicle, would result in a higher probability of the penetrating fragments striking stored fuel or ammunition when compared with Western vehicles. This would typically result in ammo ‘cooking off’ and secondary combustion events, which in the cramped space would quickly kill the crew and destroy the vehicle. Until recently the Soviets have made little effort to isolate the vehicle fuel and ammunition from the crew as do Western designs. Soviet military philosophy stressed cost effective designs over crew survivability. A high value is placed on human life in Western societies. Russian government tends to regard humans as just one more expendable resource.
  • The equipment in the vehicle was more compactly packaged compared to Western vehicles and therefore overmatch events would also have a higher probably of damaging critical components of the communications, electrical, hydraulic and main weapon operating systems, resulting in a loss of functionality of the vehicle and a greater potential of being taken out of the battle.
  • Soviet guns were typically of a larger calibre than their Western counterparts. The larger gun however was necessary to off-set the poorer performance of Soviet long-rod penetrators, the performance of which suffered due to low quality manufacturing practises. Soviet main weapons also tend to provide inferior aiming capabilities compared to Western vehicles. The comparatively poor accuracy is a reflection of the lower fabrication quality of the gun barrel and more significantly is due to the lower sophistication of Soviet designed Computerized Fire Control Systems.
  • Soviet armor tends to be on par with Western armor and often even leads in introducing new concepts. The Soviets were the first to introduce ceramic armor, reactive armor, and Active Protection Systems, largely driving the development in Western nations of improved ammunition and armor systems. Soviets tend to layer their armor systems to produce an overall lighter armor solution, keeping vehicle weight down. However, because of their lesser attention to crew survivability, Soviet tanks are prone to having weak spots in an effort to reduce weight. Though the location of these weak spots are not evident, insurgents during the Chechnya Wars were quite successful through trial and error in finding these locations on T-80s and exploiting the weakness to destroy the vehicles.
  • The Soviet experience during WWII caused them to emphasize quantity over quality. The Soviets have typically fielded far more tanks than were in operation with all other countries in the world combined. They may not be built to the high design and manufacturing standards of the Western world, but they are not poorly built. This was much the same as how Soviet tanks compared to German tanks during WWII. Willing to take higher casualties than Western nations, the small size of Soviet tanks and their utilization of less expensive parts permitted them to overwhelm their enemy with excessive force. Ultimately the quantity of fielded Soviet tanks by 1943 made their victory inevitable. The Soviets/Russians continued to emphasize quantity over quality. Despite this, they are also often very innovative in their designs and progressive in their armored warfare theory.


Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

The 1983 invasion of Grenada was hailed as an American comeback. But it was nearly a military debacle.

In October 1983, U.S. forces invaded the small Caribbean island nation of Grenada for what was described as the rescue of American citizens.

After three days of combat, American troops secured the island. President Ronald Reagan said of Operation Urgent Fury: “Our days of weakness are over. Our military forces are back on their feet and standing tall.”

In fact, Urgent Fury was a confused, poorly planned, and poorly executed military operation. Prepared in haste, it was crippled by poor joint coordination, equipment failures, and unexpected hard resistance from Grenadian soldiers and their Cuban allies. It was only the quick thinking of the troops on the ground that prevented Urgent Fury from becoming one of America’s greatest military debacles.

Grenada, a one-time British colony, was largely unknown to Americans. On October 13, 1983, the pro-communist Bernard Coar and his Provisional Revolutionary Army (PRA) overthrew the island’s government. Coar jailed the island’s governor-general, Sir Paul Scoon.

On October 22, with the encouragement of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, Reagan ordered execution of Operation Urgent Fury to rescue nearly 600 American medical students living on the island.

Joint Operation

Urgent Fury came under the auspices of Admiral Wesley L. McDonald’s Atlantic Command. Because it was a joint operation, missions were largely chosen to make sure each service got a target, even if they were militarily insignificant.

The 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit was charged with assaulting Pearls Airport and the town of Grenville on the island’s east coast.

To the south, two reduced-strength Ranger battalions would take the Point Salines airport. Following the Rangers in at Salines would be elements of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Navy SEALs were tasked with infiltrating the Point Salines Airport, clear it of obstructions, and help an Air Force combat air control team set up beacons to guide the transports bearing the Rangers to the airport. The SEALs were also tasked with rescuing General Governor Scoon.

The Army’s Delta Force was given the questionable mission of capturing Richmond Hill Prison, where the PRA held political prisoners.

D-Day was October 25. H-Hour 0200.

Things went wrong immediately.

SEAL Team Drowns

One of the SEAL teams drowned after parachuting into the sea off Point Salines. Another, with the Air Force team, was swept out to sea after its assault boat swamped and the motor died. They were eventually rescued by a Navy ship.

A second attempt to infiltrate the airport pushed H-Hour back to 0500. That attempt also failed.

As the Rangers approached the airport, they learned of the failure of the SEAL teams. Rather than land, the Rangers would now parachute into the airport.

Failure of navigation equipment on one of the transport planes caused the Rangers further delay, losing them the cover of darkness. It also caused the air drop to take an hour and a half to complete, when it should have taken only minutes.

The Rangers secured the airport and pushed eastward toward True Blue campus, encountering stiff PRA resistance as they advanced. At first, the Rangers couldn’t talk to their supporting Marine Cobra helicopter gunships. Then coordinating targets was hampered because the Rangers and Marines used different maps. At one point, a forward air controller used a mirror to target a house concealing a recoilless rifle.

Meanwhile, a Navy SEAL team became trapped by PRA troops after rescuing Governor-General Scoon. Then-Major General H. Norman Schwarzkopf hastily organized their rescue by helicopter. The operation earned Schwarzkopf an instant appointment as deputy commander of Urgent Fury.

The Rangers secured True Blue campus at about 0800, then learned most of the American students lived at another campus, called Grand Anse, two miles to the north in an area controlled by Cuban and PRA troops

Schwarzkopf organized a hasty assault on Gran Anse. Marine helicopters picked up the Rangers at Point Salines and landed them at Gran Anse behind the enemy’s lines. The raid succeeded in rescuing 224 students without any civilian casualties and only one wounded Ranger.

Disaster at Calivigny

The Ranger’s next objective was Camp Calivigny. The PRA barracks had no strategic value, but was consider an imperative target by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Like so much that came from Washington during Urgent Fury, the orders lead to near disaster.

The first helicopter assault wave, lacking adequate intelligence, overshot the LZ. One suffered damage on landing, and careened into a second. A third crashed into a ditch. Three Rangers were killed and four wounded. The surviving Rangers found the camp deserted.

Poor intelligence led to a similar disaster during the assault on Richmond Hill Prison. Helicopters carrying Delta Force and Rangers were hit with devastating anti-aircraft fire, and turned back.

After three days of fighting and several more of mopping up, official casualties for U.S. troops included 19 dead and 152 wounded. Twenty-four Cubans died in the fighting, and 59 wounded. PRA casualty figures are not known.

Afterward, the planning and execution of Urgent Fury came under attack. Among the critics was Schwarzkopf, who credited the troops with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

“Even though higher HQ screws it up every way you can possibly screw it up,” the general said, “it is the initiative and valor on the part of small unit leadership that will win for you every time.”

Schwarzkopf learned the lessons of Urgent Fury, and took them with him to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. The price of victory against Saddam Hussein was paid first by the men of Urgent Fury.



Cyrus and the Achaemenids

Around 559 BCE a Persian prince called Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan on the death of his father. Persia and Anshan at that time were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia, making himself king of Persia, making Media the junior partner, and Persia the centre of the Empire. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth throughout antiquity. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, and also Phoenicia, Judaea and Babylonia, creating an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

But without romanticising him unduly, and although it took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian and Babylonian empires (notably in its written script and monumental iconography), it seems that Cyrus aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of Kings and the supposed favour of their terrible war-gods were a commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism after the man who found it) measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was found near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BCE–681 BCE). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king… king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters… guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me… has made powerful my weapons… he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare…

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils… I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city…

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities… by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines… I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil…

The way that the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was similar, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently.

By contrast, another not dissimilar clay object, about nine inches by four inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon, and has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world. This is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation, but the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family that always exercised kingship…

but it continues, describing the favour shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities…

and concludes:

As to the region… as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda, but it is propaganda of a different kind, presenting Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk, and declared that he had returned to other towns and territories the holy images that previous Babylonian kings had confiscated. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BCE) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no-one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that Cyrus permitted freedom of worship to the Jews too. He and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (being accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs in return).

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased, but that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite also, including the priests, the Magi, and (leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s own personal beliefs, which remain unclear) it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian, and according to one version was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed some light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of husbands or sexual partners (but men only one). Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in the apparent holding of women in common practised later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD and the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest, which might indicate an underlying folk tradition. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child (it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives). But in general the custom of Persian society seems to have limited the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence; but this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there that can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared). The tomb is massively simple rather than grandiose; a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings (many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs half-way up a cliff-face). Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs; effectively different religions. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizon-tal—in other words, a question of geography and tribe rather than social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Half-way between heaven and earth: itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise; a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’ memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with an imaginative vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as the other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period, as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

Religious Revolt

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses (Kambojiya), who extended the empire by conquering Egypt, but in a short time gained a reputation for harshness. He died unexpectedly in 522 BCE, according to one source by suicide, after he had been given news of a revolt in the Persian heartlands of the empire.

An account of what happened next appears on an extraordinary rock relief carving at Bisitun, in western Iran, about twenty miles from Kermanshah, above the main road to Hamadan. According to the text of the carving (executed in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian) the revolt was led by a Magian priest, Gaumata, who claimed falsely to be Cambyses’s younger brother, Bardiya. Herodotus gives a similar version, saying that Cambyses had murdered the true Bardiya some years earlier. The revolt led by Gaumata seems to have drawn force from social and fiscal grievances, because one of his measures to gain popularity was to order a three-year remission of taxes—another to end military conscription. Pressure had built up over the decades of costly foreign wars under Cyrus and Cambyses. But Gaumata also showed strong religious enthusiasm or intolerance, because he destroyed the temples of sects he did not approve of.

An Iranian revolution, led by a charismatic cleric, seizing power from an oppressive monarch, asserting religious orthodoxy, attacking false believers, and drawing support from economic grievances—in the sixth century BCE. How modern that sounds. But within a few months, Gaumata was dead, killed by Darius (Daryavaush) and a small group of Persian confederates (a killing that sounds more like an assassination than anything else). The carving at Bisitun was made at Darius’s orders, and it presents his version of events, as put together after he had made himself king and the revolt had finally been put down. The carving itself says that copies of the same text were made and distributed throughout the empire. And what a revolt it had been—Babylon revolted twice, and Darius declared that he fought nineteen battles in a single year. It was really a series of revolts, affecting all but a few of the eastern provinces of the empire. The Bisitun carving illustrates this by showing a row of defeated captives, each representing a different people or territory. Whatever the true nature of the rebellion and its origins, it was no simple palace coup, affecting only a few members of the elite. It was just the first of several religious revolutions, or attempted revolutions, in Iran’s history, and it was no pushover.

Bisitun was chosen for Darius’s grand rock-carving because it was a high place, perhaps already associated with the sacred, close by where he and his companions had killed Bardiya/Gaumata. The site at Bisitun is a museum of Iranian history in itself. Aside from the Darius rock relief, there are caves that were used by Neanderthals 40,000 years ago or more, and by others generations later. Among other relics and monuments, there is a rock carving of a reclining Hercules from the Seleucid period, a Parthian carving depicting fire worship, a Sassanian bridge, some remains of a building from the Mongol period, a seventeenth-century caravanserai, and not far away, some fortifications apparently dating from the time of Nader Shah in the eighteenth century.

Many historians have been suspicious about the story of the false Bardiya. The Bisitun carving is a contemporary source, but it is plainly a self-serving account to justify Darius’s accession. It is confirmed by Herodotus and other Greek writers, but they all wrote later and would naturally have accepted the official version of events, if other dissenting accounts had been stamped out. Darius was not a natural successor to the throne. He was descended from a junior branch of the Achaemenid royal family, and even in that line he was not pre-eminent—his father was still living. Could a Magian priest have successfully impersonated a royal prince some three or four years after the real man’s death? Is it not rather suspect that Darius also discredited other opponents by alleging that they were impostors?

If the story was a fabrication, Darius was certainly brazen in the presentation of his case. In the Bisitun inscriptions, the rebel leaders are called ‘liar kings’, and Darius declares, appealing to religious feeling and Mazdaean beliefs about arta and druj:

[…] you, whosoever shall be king hereafter, be on your guard very much against Falsehood. The man who shall be a follower of Falsehood—punish him severely […]


[…] Ahura Mazda brought me aid and the other gods who are, because I was not disloyal, I was no follower of Falsehood, I was no evil-doer, neither I nor my family, I acted according to righteousness, neither to the powerless nor to the powerful, did I do wrong…

and again:

This is what I have done, by the grace of Ahura Mazda have I always acted. Whosoever shall read this inscription hereafter, let that which I have done be believed. You must not hold it to be lies.

Perhaps Darius protested a little too much. Another inscription in Darius’s words, from another site, reads:

By the favour of Ahura Mazda I am of such a sort that I am a friend to right, I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my desire that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak. What is right, that is my desire. I am not a friend to the man who is a lie-follower […] As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback…

The latter part of this text, though telescoped here from the original, echoes the famous formula from Herodotus and other Greek writers, that Persian youths were brought up to ride a horse, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. Darius was pressing every button to stimulate the approval of his subjects. Even if one doubts the story of Darius’s accession, the evidence from Bisitun and his other inscriptions of his self-justification and the use of religion by both sides in the intensive fighting that followed the death of Cambyses nonetheless stands. It is a powerful testimony to the force of the Mazdaean religion at this time. Even the suppressors of the religious revolution had to justify their actions in religious terms. Although Darius by the end reigned supreme, the inscriptions give a strong sense that he himself was nonetheless subject to a powerful structure of ideas about justice, truth and lies, right and wrong, that was distinctively Iranian, and Mazdaean.

The Empire Refounded

Darius’s efforts to justify and dignify his rule did not end there. He built an enormous palace in his Persian homeland, at what the Greeks later called Persepolis (‘city of the Persians’)—thus starting afresh, away from the previous capital of Cyrus at Pasargadae. Persepolis is so big that a modern visitor walking over the site, wandering bemused between the sections of fallen columns and the massive double-headed column capitals that crashed to the ground when the palace burned, may find it difficult to orientate himself and make sense of it. The magnificence of the palace served as a further prop to the majesty of Darius, and the legitimacy of his rule; but helped in turn to create a lasting tradition, a mystique of magnificent kingship that might not have come about but for the initial doubts over his accession. A dedicatory inscription at Persepolis played again on the old theme:

May Ahura Mazda protect this land from hostile armies, from famine, and from the Lie.

The motif of tribute and submission is also repeated from Bisitun: row upon row of figures representing subjects from all over the empire are shown queuing up to present themselves, frozen forever in stone relief. The purpose of the huge palace complex at Persepolis is not entirely clear. It may be that it was intended as a place for celebrations and ceremonial at the spring equinox, the Persian New Year (Noruz—celebrated on and after 21 March each year today as then). The rows of tribute-bearers depicted in the sculpture suggest that it may have been the place for annual demonstrations of homage and loyalty from the provinces. Whatever the grandeur of Persepolis, it was not the main, permanent capital of the empire. That was at Susa, the old capital of Elam. This again shows the syncretism of the Persian regime. Cyrus had been closely connected with the royal family of the Medes, and the Medes had a privileged position, with the Persians, as partners at the head of the Empire. But Elam too was important and central: its capital, its language, in administration and monumental inscriptions. This was an empire that always, for preference, flowed around and absorbed powerful rivals: its first instinct, unlike other imperial powers, was not to confront, batter into defeat, and force submission. The guiding principles of Cyrus persisted under Darius and at least some later Achaemenid rulers.

Darius’s reign saw the Achaemenid empire in effect re-founded. It could have gone under altogether in the rebellions that followed the death of Cambyses. Darius maintained Cyrus’s tradition of tolerance, permitting a plurality of gods to be worshipped as before; and maintained also the related principle of devolved government. The provinces were ruled by satraps, governors who returned a tribute to the centre but ruled as viceroys (two other officials looked after military matters and fiscal administration in each province, to avoid too much power being concentrated in any one pair of hands). The satraps often inherited office from predecessors within the same family, and ruled their provinces according to pre-existing laws, customs and traditions. They were, in effect, provincial kings; Darius was a King of Kings (Shahanshah in modern Persian). The empire did not attempt as a matter of policy to Persianise as the Roman empire, for example, later sought to Romanise.

The certainties of religion, the principle of sublime justice they underpinned, and the magnificent prestige of kingship were the bonds that held together this otherwise diffuse constellation of peoples, languages and cultures. A complex empire, accepted as such, and a controlling principle. The system established by Darius worked, proved resilient, and endured.

Tablets discovered in excavations at Persepolis show the complexity and administrative sophistication of the system Darius established. Although some payments were made in silver and Darius established a standard gold coinage, much of the system operated by payments in kind; assessed, allocated and receipted for from the centre. State officials and servants were paid in fixed quantities of wine, grain or animals; but even members of the royal family received payments in the same way. Officials in Persepolis gave orders for the levying of taxes in kind in other locations, and then gave orders for payments in kind to be made from the proceeds, in the same locations. Messengers and couriers were given tablets to produce at post-stations along the royal highways, so that they could get food and lodging for themselves and their animals. These tablets recording payments in kind cover only a relatively limited period, from 509 to 494 BCE. But there are several thousand of them, and it has been estimated that they cover supplies to more than 15,000 different people in more than 100 different places.

It is significant that the tablets were written mainly in Elamite, not in Persian. It is known from other sources that the main language of administration in the Empire was neither Persian nor Elamite, but Aramaic, the Semitic lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. The Bisitun inscription states directly that the form of written Persian used there was new, developed at Darius’s own orders for that specific purpose. It is possible that he and the other Achaemenid kings discouraged any record of events other than their own monumental inscriptions, but these are all strong echoes of that Iranian distaste for writing that we encountered earlier in Mazdaism, and it may go some way to explain an apparent anomaly—the lack of Persian historical writing for the Achaemenid period. It is possible that the histories once existed, and that there were poems written down and all sorts of other literature which have since been simply lost. But later Persian literary culture was strongly associated with a class of scribes, and the fact that the scribes in the Achaemenid system wrote their accounts and official records in other languages suggests that the literature was not there either. There was no Persian history of the Achaemenid Empire because the Persian ruling classes either (like the Magi) regarded writing as wicked or (the kings and nobles) associated it with inferior subject peoples; or both. To ride, to shoot the bow, to tell the truth; but not to write it. That said, no histories as such have survived from the Egyptian, Hittite or Assyrian empires either—it is more correct, in the context of the fifth century BCE, to call the innovation of history writing by the Greeks the anomaly.

To ourselves, at our great remove of time, awash with written materials every moment of our working lives, dominated by the getting and spending of money, a human system that was largely non-literate and operating for the most part on the basis of payments in kind, not cash, even if it be a great empire capable of stunning monuments and great sculptural art, seems primitive. But the history of human development is not simply linear. It is not quite right to see the oral tradition of sophisticated cultures like that of Mazdaism as unreliable, flawed or backward, something we have gone beyond. The Persians were not stupidly trying, with the wrong tools, to do something we can now, with the right tools, do incomparably better. They were doing something different, and had evolved complex and subtle ways of doing it very well indeed, which our culture has forgotten. To try to grasp the reality of that we have to step aside a little from our usual categories of thought, for all the apparent familiarity of Mazdaean concepts like angels, the day of judgement, heaven and hell, and moral choice. The Achaemenid Empire was an Empire of the Mind, but a different kind of Mind.

The Empire and the Greeks

In general Darius’s reign was one of restoration and consolidation of previous territorial expansion rather than wars of conquest like those that had been pursued by Cyrus and Cambyses. But Darius campaigned into Europe in 512 BCE, conquering Thrace and Macedonia, and toward the end of his life, after a revolt by the Ionian Greeks of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, his subordinates fought a war with the Athenian Greeks that ended with a Persian defeat at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. This ushered in what the Greeks called the Persian wars, the shadow of which has affected our view of the Achaemenid Empire, and perhaps Persia and Iran and the Orient generally, ever since. From a Persian perspective, the more serious event was a revolt in Egypt in 486 BCE. Before he could deal with this, Darius died.

The standard Greek view of the Persians and their empire was complex, and not a little contradictory. They regarded the Persians, as they regarded most non-Greeks, as barbarians (the term barbarian itself is thought to come from a disparaging imitation of Persian speech—‘ba-ba’), and therefore ignorant and backward. They were aware that the Persians had a great, powerful, wealthy empire. But for them it was run on tyrannical principles, and was redolent of vulgar ostentation and decadence. The Persians were therefore both backward and decadent—at which point we may be irresistibly reminded (via the judgement of that supreme chauvinist, Clemenceau, that ‘America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation’) of the contemporary French view of the United States. Perhaps the view of the Greeks also was better explained in terms of a simple resentment or jealousy that the Persians rather than the Greeks were running such a large part of the known world.

This in itself is a caricature of the Greek view of the Persians, and cannot have been, for example, Plato’s attitude or the attitude (openly, at any rate) of the many Greeks who worked for or were allies of the Persians at various times. The Greeks were also an imperialistic, or at least a colonising culture, of pioneering Indo-European origin. Perhaps, as at other times and in other places, the hostility between the Persians and the Greeks had as much to do with similarity as with difference. But in contrast to the Persians the Greeks were not a single unified power, being composed of a multiplicity of rival city-states, and their influence was maritime rather than land-based. Greeks had established colonies along almost all parts of the Mediterranean littoral that had not previously been colonised by the Phoenicians (including the places that later became Tarragona in Spain, Marseilles in France, Cyrenaica in Libya and large parts of Sicily and southern Italy), and had done the same on the coast of the Black Sea. Unlike the Persians again, their spread was based on physical settlement by Greeks, rather than the control of indigenous peoples from afar.

Just as Persians appear in the plays of the great Greek playwrights, and on Greek vases, there are examples to show the presence of the Greeks in the minds of the Persians. As well as vases that show a Greek spearing a falling or recumbent Persian, there are engraved cylinder seals showing a Persian stabbing a Greek or filling him with arrows. But it is fair to say that at least initially, the Persians were more present to the Greeks than the Greeks to the Persians. Persian power controlled important Greek cities like Miletus and Phocaea in Asia Minor, only a few hours’ rowing away from Athens and Corinth—as well as Chalcidice and Macedonia on the European side of the Bosphorus. In Persepolis, Susa and Hamadan by contrast, Greece would have seemed half a world away; and events in other parts of the empire, like Egypt, Babylonia and Bactria for example, equally or rather more pressing.

Darius was succeeded by his son, Xerxes (Khashayarsha). The set-piece of Xerxes’s reign in the historical record was the great expedition to punish Athens and her allies for their support of the Ionian revolt, but at least as important for Xerxes himself would have been his successful reassertion of authority in Egypt and Babylon, where he crushed a rebellion and destroyed the temple of Marduk that Cyrus had restored. Xerxes is believed (on the authority of Herodotus) to have taken as many as two million men with him to attack Athens in 480 BCE. His troops wiped out the rearguard of Spartans and others at Thermopylae (when Xerxes asked them to surrender, demanding that they lay down their weapons, the Spartans replied ‘come and get them’), killing the Spartan king Leonidas there in a protracted struggle that left many of the Persian troops dead. Xerxes’s men then took Athens, his hardy soldiers scaling the Acropolis from the rear and burning it, but his fleet was defeated at Salamis, leaving his armies overextended and vulnerable. He withdrew to Sardis, his base in Asia Minor, and his forces suffered further, final defeats the following year at Plataea and Mycale (479 BC). Among other effects of the Persian defeat was the loss of influence on Macedon and Thrace on the European side of the Bosphorus, permitting the subsequent rise of Macedon.

Xerxes’s son Artaxerxes (Artakhshathra) succeeded him in 465 BCE, and reigned until 424 BCE. The building work at Persepolis continued through the reigns of both, and it was under these two kings that many of the Jews of Babylonia returned to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The latter was Artaxerxes’ court cupbearer in Susa, and both returned eventually to the Persian court after their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah give a different picture of the Persian monarchy to contrast with the less flattering image in the Greek accounts.

The wars that continued between the Persians and the Greeks ended at least for a time with the peace of Callias in 449 BCE, but thereafter the Persians supported Sparta against Athens in the terribly destructive Peloponnesian wars, which exhausted the older Greek city-states and prepared the way for the hegemony of Macedon. At the death of Artaxerxes palace intrigues caused the deaths by murder of several kings or pretenders in succession. In the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE) there were further wars with the Greeks, and a sustained Egyptian revolt that kept that satrapy independent until Persian rule was restored under Artaxerxes III in 343 BCE. Palace intrigue and murder had already claimed the lives of several of the Achaemenid kings, but a particularly lethal round of events orchestrated by the vizier or chief minister Bagoas caused the deaths of both Artaxerxes III and his son Arses, bringing Darius III to the throne in 336 BCE.

The Iranians must have changed their way of life considerably over the two centuries between the reigns of Cyrus and Darius III. One indicator of social change (as is often the case) was the constitution of their armies. At the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece and before, large numbers of Medes and Persians fought on foot, but by the time of Darius III the armies were dominated by large numbers of horsemen and the previous Assyrian-style big units of spear-and-bow armed infantry (and shield-bearers—sparabara) seem to have disappeared (though there were Greek mercenary infantry, and Persian infantry called Cardaces who may have been young men in training for the cavalry). The impression is that the wealth of empire had enabled the Iranian military classes to distribute themselves across the empire and supply themselves with horses, changing the nature of Persian warfare (though there seems also to have been a deliberate policy of military garrisoning and military colonies, notably in Asia Minor). According to Herodotus, Cyrus had warned that if the Persians descended to live in the rich lands of the plain (he probably had Babylonia particularly in mind) they would become soft and incapable of defending their empire. It is too neat to suggest that this is precisely what happened—it may be somewhat the contrary, that by the time of Darius III taxes had risen too high and the Iranians, having had their expectations raised, had become impoverished and demoralised. But whatever their exact nature, fundamental changes had taken place, and Iran had already moved closer to the social and military patterns of the later Parthian and Sassanid empires.

The British War in Iraq 2003 Part I

Alliances are compromises in self-interest. Some alliances are less self-interested than others. The Anglo-American alliance is one of the least. The United States and the United Kingdom have been allies since 1941 and, with understandable ups and downs, have been good friends ever since. It is a unique friendship. In 1941 Britain, battered by Hitler’s and Hirohito’s attacks as it was, still thought of itself as a great world power. Sixty years later, with America the only superpower, that illusion has withered. The British now realistically regard themselves as a power of the second rank. Nevertheless they take, with reason, great pride in the competence of their armed forces. The Royal Navy, the army, the Royal Air Force, greatly diminished in size though they are since they struggled to victory in the Second World War, remain military instruments of exceptional quality. They have retained the ability to motivate the young men and women they recruit to the highest level of achievement, with results that are admired by the nation and its friends and feared by its foes. Wherever they are deployed, and for whatever purpose, British forces succeed in their mission. In none of the dozens of small wars they have fought since 1945 have they been defeated. To many of the countries in which they have operated they have brought the benefits of restored peace and security.

The United States military has come to appreciate the qualities of the British forces with growing enthusiasm ever since the termination of the Cold War in 1989. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, which inaugurated the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client Warsaw Pact states, America was able to count on many allies in the Western world. As the Soviet threat fell away, most of its Cold War allies proved fair-weather friends. Self-interest reasserted its influence. The financial costs of sustaining forces of comparable quality to those of the United States seemed a burden better shed. It became more alluring to pursue policies that diverged from those that had assured collective security before the spectre of Communism. In 1990, when the United States called for a coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein’s illegal annexation of Kuwait, most of its Cold War allies, and some newfound Middle Eastern friends, responded. When in the crisis of 2002–03, America again appealed for support against Saddam, the ranks suddenly thinned. At the roll-call before hostilities commenced, only three countries came up to the mark: Australia, Britain and Poland, though it made a token contribution. The Australians, with skeletal armed resources, could only offer special operations troops and some ships and air support. The British, however, responded as they had done in 1990. They offered, besides sizeable naval and air components, a whole division of ground troops. They had done the same in 1990 but then that British contribution was matched by France and Syria, outmatched by Egypt and dwarfed by the Americans, who provided no less than eight divisions. In 2003 Britain’s division amounted to almost a third of the coalition force deployed and was appreciated by the Americans as much for the military contribution it represented as for the moral commitment its presence displayed.

The division had the same title as in 1990–91, the 1st (UK) Armoured Division, but was an unorthodox formation, the result of its having been hastily improvised from units in Britain and Germany. Its core was 7 Armoured Brigade, the ‘Desert Rats’, which had fought in the First Gulf War, but the rest of the division was not made up of other armoured and mechanized brigades, as would have been normal, but of two elements of Britain’s rapid reaction forces, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade. The air assault brigade consisted of 1st and 3rd Battalions the Parachute Regiment and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment; its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, would become famous by making an inspiring eve-of-battle speech to his troops which President George W. Bush had displayed on a wall in the Oval Office at the White House. The air assault brigade’s artillery was provided by 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, and armoured reconnaissance by the Household Cavalry Regiment. The commando brigade comprised only two of its normal three units, 40 and 42 Royal Marine Commando; 45 Commando was not deployed. A Commando is equivalent in size to an infantry battalion but on lighter scales of equipment and without tracked transport. The Commando brigade had, however, brought its organic gunner unit, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery.

The 1st (UK) Armoured Division also had attached to it for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Operation Telic to the British, who avoid descriptive codenames) parts of 20 Armoured Brigade and a number of individual units, allotted as required. Whilst the Desert Rats officially comprised the 1st Battalion Black Watch, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the last two tank regiments, also at the division’s disposal were the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Queen’s Royal Lancers, also armour, and four infantry battalions, 1st Light Infantry, 1st Black Watch, 1st Irish Guards and 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment; the latter was brigaded with the Commandos for the assault on the Fao peninsula. Additional batteries of Royal Artillery provided fire support and the Royal Engineers the essential combat engineering skills. Signals, transport and maintenance were provided by the Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Logistic Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

American army regiments, formerly transient organizations, have in recent years deliberately sought to create permanent identities for themselves, the high command having recognized that tradition is an important factor in fostering regimental morale. It seems to work. The parachute regiments in the 500 series, for example, take enormous pride in their histories, which began in Normandy, and they remain among the most effective and self-confident in the US infantry. The US Marine Corps has preserved its long-established regiments as a matter of policy, with highly beneficial effects on Corps morale. In both cases the Americans have been influenced by British example. British regiments glory in their antiquity: the oldest, the Royal Scots, dates from the early seventeenth century and is older than many of the key institutions of British public life, such as the Bank of England and, indeed, the reigning House of Windsor. By some mysterious chemistry, antiquity does not condemn regiments to senility, but seems to work as an elixir of youth. The long histories of the more senior seem to challenge fresh generations of soldiers to match the standards of courage set by their predecessors in battles long ago and challenge younger regiments to emulate them. Thus to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the regiment’s capture of an eagle standard from the enemy at Waterloo is a triumph which demands repetition; while the Irish Guards, a comparatively young regiment founded only in 1900, is constantly in competition with the Grenadiers, the personal guard established by Charles II at his restoration to the throne in 1660.

When the British go to war, therefore, commanders do not waste nervous energy in concern over their soldiers’ morale. They know that, given efficient subordinates and services of supply, they will fight with spirit and effect. The regimental system ensures that. High morale and self-confidence describe the mood of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division as it deployed for the second time in little over a decade to the head of the Gulf in 2003. The Gulf is one of the British army’s historic campaigning areas. It had fought and won an eventually victorious, if difficult, campaign there in the First World War. It had put down a pro-Nazi rising in Iraq in 1941. It had fought again victoriously in 1991, beside its American comrades-in-arms, in whom it had confidence. It expected that the new campaign would have the same outcome.

General Franks allotted the British a special and separate task from that of his American formations. He correctly recognized that the American divisions, with their unmatched capacity to cover ground and to resupply themselves while doing so, were the best suited to make the long-distance strike up the central valley to Baghdad. He equally recognized that the British, with their long experience of pacification operations and their historic connections with the Gulf region, would be better suited to tackling the problem of taking and holding Basra. Iraq’s second city had never fully acceded to the Ba’athist system. Its Shi’a population resented control by the Sunni of the central region. On the other hand, through its commercial association with the British, which went back as far as the days of the East India Company, it was used to their presence as traders and, indirectly, to their political and naval influence over the Gulf waters at their doorstep. General Franks’s calculation that the British were the best qualified of the contingents at his disposal to deploy to the Shatt el-Arab and Basra was therefore well judged.

The attack in the south was nevertheless to begin as a joint American-British operation. The decision was taken in December 2002, while the attack on Iraq was in the planning stage, to assign a US Marine Corps formation, 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (15 MEU), to 3 Commando Brigade. Essentially a strong infantry battalion, with attached helicopter squadrons, 15 MEU combined with the commanders to land on the Fao peninsula and seize the oil facilities, while other elements of the force, reinforced by US Navy SEAL units, landed on the oil platforms twenty-five miles offshore, the points where oil pumped from the land was transferred to tankers. At the outset 40 Commando succeeded in securing two key oil installations near the town of al Fao. When its position was judged precarious, it was reinforced by 42 Commando, flown in by USMC helicopters. The operation was supported by fire from batteries of the Royal Artillery and ships offshore, the frigates Marlborough and Chatham; another Royal Navy frigate and one from the Royal Australian Navy were also involved. After securing the wellhead facilities, 3 Commando Brigade and 15 MEU proceeded up the Fao peninsula, to take Umm Qasr and Zubayr. Coalition casualties incurred in the whole operation were light, while at least thirty Iraqis were killed and 230 made prisoner.

The American Marines commented in an after-action account on the excellence of the co-operation arranged with the British. The two corps have a long association, train together frequently and cross-post personnel to each other as a matter of course. For once it is not a cliché of alliance-speak to say that they enjoy each other’s company. It is easy for them to do so, for they are similar in ethos and even in appearance; ceremonially, in dark-blue uniforms and white-topped caps, they are almost indistinguishable and in recent years the Royal Marines have adopted a semi-formal dress, greenish in hue, which closely resembles its USMC equivalent. Their rank structure, based on the primacy of long-serving senior sergeants, is similar and so is the training, with this difference: all Royal Marines have to complete the gruelling commando course, which commands high prestige in USMC eyes. The commando green beret, gained also by US Marines who successfully survive the course, is highly prized and is eagerly sought in barter for USMC kit when the two corps operate together.

The commander of the 15 MEU reported after the joint operation that co-operation had gone well from the start, when it had passed through the berm, the military sand bank on the Iraqi border, via gaps blown in it by the commando squadron of Royal Engineers, a joint task they had rehearsed together. The USMC reconnaissance unit was supported in the preliminary stage by fire called down from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery. Once inside Iraq, 15 MEU was opposed by the 45th Brigade of the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division but it soon melted away as its conscript soldiers deserted the ranks. Their place was taken by fighters in civilian clothes who waved white flags but continued to deliver sniper fire without surrendering. The marines pressed on though, to seize Umm Qasr and then, after ninety-six hours of combat with the enemy, to take the Iraqi naval base of Zubayr where they were relieved by British commandos. They then departed the battle zone by helicopter to join 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fighting on the road to Baghdad.

The British marines, in their own report, paid generous tribute to the assistance received from their American comrades. The Americans provided helicopter transport, which the British lacked, as well as a great deal of electronic reconnaissance and surveillance, which the British also lacked the equipment to acquire. The information ‘philosophy’ of the two corps is, moreover, strikingly different. The British operate a traditional ‘top-down’ network, by which superiors inform subordinates of what is judged necessary. The Americans operate a ‘flat’ system, through a commonly available website to which all who have clearance have access. As the two corps are likely to co-operate more rather than less in the future a switch to the American system seems eventually essential. It will, however, need expensive re-equipment, a programme from which the Ministry of Defence will shrink, since it has only just completed a costly programme of radio purchase; it will also be important, as the Americans themselves recognize, to avoid increasing reliance on a system that threatens information overload. The British, in American eyes, work with too little information, the Americans, in the British view, with too much. No mastermind has yet suggested an effective compromise.

With the completion of the operation to secure the Fao peninsula, and the departure of 15 MEU to join the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, taking with it G Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which continued to provide it with fire support as far north as Nasiriyah, the thrust of the campaign in the south changed focus. Important results had been achieved. The Fao peninsula, the mouth of the Shatt el-Arab and the platforms and terminals at the head of the Gulf were essential to the export and distribution of oil from Iraq’s southern fields. They had also been highly vulnerable to sabotage by Saddam’s officials. In the event, only a handful had been set alight, while the essential pumping and separation plants had been captured undamaged. The Fao operation had been an outright success. The task following was to repeat it in Basra, which had a population of one million people.

The British War in Iraq 2003 Part II

It had not originally been intended that the British should be responsible for securing Basra. When planning began at Central Command for Operation Iraqi Freedom in the spring of 2002, the only task allotted the British, and that to 3 Commando Brigade, was the seizure of the Fao peninsula by amphibious assault, while other British forces participated in the drive north to Baghdad. While the Americans wanted the British to participate, their military participation, as opposed to their presence for political reasons, was not judged essential. It was thought, probably correctly, that the United States had sufficient available force to liberate Iraq without allied assistance. By June, however, the plan changed. The moving force seems to have been General David McKiernan, nominated as the general commander (CFLCC – Combined Force Land Component Commander), who knew the British well from his involvement with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in Germany, liked them and was liked in return. He now offered the British not only a part in but control of operations in northern Iraq, through the ARRC, which has a British commander.

His proposal then encountered political objections. The northern operation, to include not only the British but also the American 4th Infantry Division, could only be mounted with the consent of the Turkish government, which would have to approve its transit from Mediterranean ports and airfields to and across the Iraqi border. Even before the Turks began to make general difficulties, they were expressing particular objection to admitting British troops to their territory. The Americans found the Turkish attitude difficult to understand. The British planners involved, through consultation with the Foreign Office, were able to offer what seemed a persuasive explanation. The Turks are deeply sensitive to British involvement in their internal affairs. In 1919, after the First World War, in which they had been enemies, the British installed an army of occupation in western Turkey, the Army of the Black Sea. It had only been removed by armed confrontation. Throughout their administration of the League of Nations mandate for Iraq, the British had managed the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan in a manner the Turks found hostile to their national interest. Most important, in 1932, the British had argued for and successfully achieved the award of the Mosul region, with its rich oil fields, to its client kingdom of Iraq by the Treaty of Lausanne. Turkey’s attitude in 2002 may have been tit-for-tat. It may have expressed some deeper-seated suspicion of British motives. Whatever the explanation, the Turks were immovable. Even before they had made it clear that they would not allow American troops to traverse their territory, they had definitively excluded any British. As a result, an alternative front of operation for the British complement had to be found. On 28 December 2002, the British told the Americans that they would deploy the bulk of their forces to Kuwait and take part in operations in the south.

That left time short. While the political crisis between Saddam and the West dragged out, with the Iraqis seeking to demonstrate that there was no justification for the taking of military measures against them, and with the Americans and British insisting the opposite, planning at Central Command went on. British planning had suddenly to accelerate. Though no deadline had yet been set, it was prudent to suppose that an invasion of Iraq would occur, without a satisfactory political settlement, by early spring. The Americans were speaking of March. That left only ten weeks for a deployment, a far shorter period than had been available before the First Gulf War of 1991. Fortunately there had been an extended exercise in Oman earlier in 2002, which had revealed certain necessary measures to be taken, including that to ‘desertize’ the Challenger tanks. The exercise had also left one of the units of 3 Commando Brigade in the area. Hastily the Ministry of Defence began to reinforce, sending ships and aircraft and speeding the dispatch of ground forces. Ever since the Falklands crisis of 1982, when Britain had had to assemble a long-range expeditionary force at a few days’ notice, the planning organization had been honing its skills of improvisation. Now, in a hurry, another Commando was sent out to join its sister unit; 16 Air Assault Brigade, which was not encumbered by armour requiring heavy lift, was despatched, and 7 Armoured Brigade, the most experienced and readily deployable major formation on hand, was shipped from Germany. By February Britain had the makings of a respectable intervention force in place. No other European country could have achieved the same results in the time available, not the French and certainly not the Germans. British troops, though few in number and less technically advanced than the American, had once again demonstrated their formidable readiness to respond to a challenge and competence to meet it.

Their competence was particularly suited to the problems presented by the need to isolate, enter and subdue the resistance in Basra. The British cannot match the Americans at the highest level of modern military performance. Shortage of funds deprives them of state-of-the-art equipment in the fields of target acquisition, reconnaissance, surveillance and intercommunication. In certain military tasks, however, they are without equal. Special operations is one, as American emulation of the SAS demonstrates. Counter-insurgency is another. Thirty years of engagement with the Irish Republican Army, in the grimy streets of Northern Ireland’s cities, has taught the British, down to the level of the youngest soldier, the essential skills of personal survival in the environment of urban warfare and of dominance over those who wage it. Every man covering another on patrol, watching the upper window, skirting the suspicious vehicle, stopping to question the solitary male: these are the methods the British army knows backwards. Painfully acquired, they have resulted in a superb mastery of the technique of control of the streets. The army has created an artificial urban training ground where these skills can be taught. As a result they have become expert at reading the geography of an urban area – which are the likely ambush points, where bombs are likely to be planted, what observation point must be entered and occupied – and have used their mastery of urban geography to dominate. Irish Republicans hate those they call ‘Crown forces’ for their professionalism, since it has blocked their ambition to control the Northern Irish cities themselves. As the entry into Basra was to prove, the British army’s mastery of the methods of urban warfare is transferable. What had worked in Belfast could be made to work also in Basra, against another set of urban terrorists, with a different motivation from the Irish Republican though equally as nasty.

Basra’s inhabitants occupy an area about two kilometres (1.24 miles) square, with a sprawl of suburbs on the southern side. The eastern boundary of the built-up area is formed by the Shatt el-Arab, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. The old city, a warren of narrow streets, is not, however, on the water. The modern city has grown up to enclose it. There are a number of tall buildings but they are few and scattered; nothing in Basra resembles the government quarter in Baghdad, with its complex of towers and ultra-modern buildings. It is a shabby, traditional Middle Eastern town, overgrown by the influx of population and bewildering to an outsider who does not know its street pattern at first hand.

Fortunately, in the years since the First Gulf War, the British intelligence services had done a great deal to set up a comprehensive network in Basra, in the expectation that, if trouble with Saddam continued, the largest concentration of Shi’a in the country could be turned against him; it would certainly yield useful information if properly exploited. It was greatly to the advantage of the British that, despite their withdrawal from empire in the 1960s and ’70s, they had never fully lost touch with the region. Their long association with the Indian subcontinent and with the Gulf principalities provided a bedrock of familiarity with the political and ethnic realities; their commercial involvement in Iraq, particularly through the oil industry, sustained personal contacts; and the British services’ provision of equipment and training programmes to the Gulf principalities’ armed forces kept in being a body of local experts who knew the terrain and the tribes and, above all, spoke the local language. Knowledge of Arabic was a not uncommon language skill in the British army, particularly in its Special Forces and Intelligence Corps.

After the British parted company with the US Marine Corps on 23 March, their conventional ground forces were quite well prepared to undertake the isolation and capture of Basra; 7 Armoured Brigade took over the positions vacated by the 7th Marine Regiment, 16 Air Assault Brigade those of 5th Marines. They did not, however, immediately close up to the city, but remained at a distance, forming a cordon outside the built-up area to put it under surveillance, prevent the passage of reinforcements into the city and monitor the inhabitants leaving. Each flank of the cordon rested on the river, the opposite bank of which was held by 3 Commando Brigade, while the cordon itself, about twenty miles long in circuit and crossing all the roads into the city on the west bank, was maintained at a distance of about two miles from the outskirts. The plan formed by Major General Robin Brims, the 1st (UK) Armoured Division commander, was at first to wait and watch and to gather as much information as possible from fugitives about points of resistance, whereabouts of armed bodies of fighters and the identity of leaders, military and political. Despite the efforts of the Ba’ath organization to control the population, fugitives soon began to trickle out, progressively in larger and larger groups. They sought safety, but also food and water, and were ready to talk to the British, who spread the word by mouth and printed leaflet that they had come to stay, would protect civilians and could be trusted. Meanwhile SAS and SBS teams penetrated the built-up area under cover, to reconnoitre and make touch with intelligence contacts in the city.

General Brims was resolved not to provoke a fight for the city until he was certain that it could be won quickly and easily, without causing serious damage or heavy loss of life, particularly civilian life. The policy was particularly necessary in view of the hostile attitude of much of the British media, the BBC foremost, to the war against Saddam; unlike their American counterparts, who generally supported the war and their President, home-based British journalists – not those travelling with the troops – regarded it as a neo-colonialist undertaking, doubted official justifications for its launch, particularly that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and were eager to report anything that smacked of atrocity. Ali Hassan al-Majid, ‘Chemical Ali’, the senior Ba’athist in the city, was for his part anxious to keep the population within the city bounds and hoped to provoke a bout of street fighting in the narrow byways that would feed Western media prejudice. He also hoped that the British forces would suffer heavy casualties, with a consequently bad effect on British public opinion at home.

‘Chemical Ali’s’ capacity to achieve the effects he desired was, however, severely limited by the means available to him. He was personally intensely unpopular with the Shi’a population, which he had slaughtered in large numbers after the Basra uprising of 1991. His Ba’ath party organization was thinly spread in a city where it had always been regarded as an instrument of Sunni dominance. He had, finally, only the sketchiest military apparatus with which to operate. The 11th Division, the local formation of Iraq’s so-called regular army, had already largely dissolved. Those soldiers who remained could be made to fight only by terror methods, which provoked farther desertions. As a result, those who would do his will were either local Ba’athists, all too aware of the fate that awaited them if the fight for the city was lost, and fedayeen sent from Baghdad by Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s son. Many were foreigners; few had any training beyond a sketchy course in firing the Kalashnikov assault rifle and the RPG-7 grenade launcher. Of the skills at which the British infantry excelled – marksmanship, mutual support and massing firepower when attacked – they had no knowledge whatsoever.

Between 23 and 31 March the siege of Basra took the form of a stand-off, with ‘Chemical Ali’ trying to tempt the British inside and the British refusing to move major units downtown. They waited and watched, gathering intelligence and interrogating fugitives. Small units infiltrated the city, SAS and Royal Marine Commando SBS teams, patrols from the regular units and individual snipers, who chose fire positions and observed. The Iraqis tried to provoke a fight, by launching sorties with tanks and armoured vehicles and by mortaring the British lines. Sometimes they overreached themselves. On the night of 26–27 March a column of Iraqi tanks headed out into open country. At daylight it was intercepted by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, who destroyed all fifteen tanks at no loss to themselves. The Iraqi tanks involved were Soviet T-55s, when built after the Second World War excellent fighting vehicles but, by the twenty-first century, museum pieces. The British Challengers, with their 120mm guns, could destroy them at ranges too great for their own guns to reach.

By 31 March the British were becoming more aggressive. General Brims decided that his intelligence picture was sufficiently clear for him to begin infiltrating larger units into the city. One task given them was to attack Ba’ath party leaders, whom snipers were able to identify by their habit of using cell phones on the streets and visibly issuing orders to people around them. Engaging at several hundred yards, with an updated version of the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle, in use in the British army for over a century, they achieved a dominant psychological effect. Major Ben Farrell, a company commander in 1st Irish Guards, described the technique to The Daily Telegraph: ‘Our snipers are working in pairs’ (one man used the rifle, the other a telescope), ‘infiltrating the enemy’s territory to give us very good observation of what is going on inside Basra and to shoot the enemy as well when the opportunity arises.… They don’t kill large numbers but the psychological effect and the denial of freedom of movement to the enemy is vast.’ An Irish Guards sniper later described to a Daily Telegraph reporter how their missions worked. ‘It’s a bit scary going into buildings because they haven’t been cleared and we don’t know if they have left any booby-traps for us. But once we are here they don’t know where we are and it feels OK. We can report back what is going on – to call in air strikes or direct artillery – and if they are within range of our rifles we will shoot them.’

This sort of operation – targeting armed terrorists acting singly or in small groups, without causing harm to the civilian population – is one at which British troops excel. They have learnt the skills in many terrorist-ridden environments, including Beirut and Sierra Leone as well as Northern Ireland, over the last thirty years and more.

British technique paid off in Basra, in what could be viewed as a repetition of the success of Operation Motorman against the Irish Republican Army in Londonderry in 1972. There the IRA had seized control of a large area of the city, proclaimed it to be ‘Free Derry’ and denied entry to the security forces. Anxious to avoid both the widening of disorder and a bad press, the army did not intervene. Over several months, however, it constructed a detailed intelligence plot and secretly rehearsed a plan to retake ‘Free Derry’ without provoking a costly fight in the narrow streets. When ready, it struck. Early one morning, columns of military vehicles penetrated ‘Free Derry’ from several directions simultaneously and within a few hours had reoccupied the whole area and re-imposed civil order, without provoking armed resistance. Motorman was the indirect inspiration of the operation to take Basra.

Because Basra is much larger than Londonderry, with a far greater population, its capture could not be staged as a single coup. Having assembled an intelligence picture of where the Ba’ath power structure was located and how it worked, 1st (UK) Armoured Division began in early April to launch raids into the city, down the main roads leading into it, by columns of Warrior fighting vehicles. The Warrior is well adapted to such tasks. Relatively well-armoured and well-armed, with a 30mm cannon in its turret, and capable of speeds of 50 miles per hour or more, the Warrior has the capacity to make quick penetrations of a position and speedy withdrawals. For several days the Warriors raided in and out, destroying identified Ba’athist positions and adding to the divisional staff’s stock of intelligence. Such intelligence, amplified by information gathered by the SAS, SBS and Secret Intelligence Service teams, allowed point attacks to be launched by artillery outside the city and by the coalition air forces. Among the successes achieved was the destruction of a building in which the Basra Ba’ath leadership was meeting, causing many fatalities, and another attack on what was believed to be the headquarters of ‘Chemical Ali’ on 5 April. It was later found to have been based on false intelligence but it was for a time believed by the population to have been successful and so helped to weaken Ba’athist control.

Finally, on 6 April, General Brims launched a full-scale assault. The city was now ringed with British units, the 1st Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to the northwest, the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment to the west, the Black Watch with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment to the southwest, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards to the south and the Royal Marines across the river, but with amphibious capability, to the east. The original plan was that, after the units had launched simultaneous but individual drives down the streets leading to the centre, they should withdraw and wait the night outside before repeating the procedure. The initial penetration, however, went better than expected: in an uninhabited factory complex, where there was no risk of causing civilian casualties, it proved possible to call in helicopter gunship strikes directed by Air-Naval-Gunfire Company (ANGLICO) liaison teams of US Marines allotted to the British armoured division. The firepower deployed inflicted heavy losses on Ba’athists and fedayeen defending the complex.

Such was the early success achieved by his forces that General Brims decided to persist. They were organized in ‘battle groups’, an improvised formation much favoured by the British and viable in a small army where everyone knows everyone else. General Brims’s battle groups consisted typically of one or two companies of infantry mounted in Warrior armoured vehicles and a squadron of Challenger tanks. One battle group, which had cleared out the factory complex, was switched to attack the area of the College of Literature, a university campus occupied by 300 fedayeen, mostly non-Iraqi Islamic terrorists from other Arab countries, including Morocco, Algeria and Syria. Reducing the resistance of the fedayeen, who lacked military skills but were eager to fight to the last, took four hours, in a battle in which the British troops could not call on fire support, because of the danger of causing civilian casualties, but had to depend on their own infantry skills.

By the evening of 6 April the British were largely in control of Basra and 7 Armoured Brigade, the core of 1st (UK) Armoured Division, set up its headquarters on the university campus. The next morning, 7 April, 16 Air Assault Brigade, with two parachute battalions and the 1st Royal Irish Regiment under command, entered the narrow streets of the old city where armoured vehicles could operate only with difficulty, and set about chasing the remnants of the Ba’ath and the fedayeen out of the area. It proved that there was little to do. Saddam’s régime recognized that it was beaten and its representatives were leaving the city.

On 8 April the British began to adopt a postwar mode. Anxious to reassure the Shi’a population that they had come to stay, they took off their helmets and flak jackets, dismounted from their armoured vehicles and began to mingle with the crowds. Soon afterwards General Brims withdrew his armoured vehicles from the city centre altogether, leaving his soldiers to patrol on foot, with orders to smile, chat and restore the appearance of normality. It was an acknowledgement that the war in the south was over. The struggle to win ‘hearts and minds’ – a concept familiar to British soldiers in fifty years of disengagement from distant and foreign lands – was about to begin.

The British campaign had been an undoubted success. They had secured all their objectives – the Fao peninsula, the Shatt el-Arab, the oil terminals, Iraq’s second city – quickly and at minimal cost. British loss of life was slight. They had also conducted their war in a fashion that appeared to leave them, as the representatives of the coalition, on good terms with the southern population of defeated Iraq. The inhabitants of Basra made it clear, to the British soldiers who took possession of their city, that they were glad to be rid both of the representatives of Saddam’s régime and of the foreign fighters who supported it. If a new Iraq were to be created from the ruins of the old, Basra seemed the most promising point at which to start.