The Battle of the Atlantic December 1941-October 1942

The British could reasonably have supposed that with the United States fully in the war, the situation in the Atlantic would improve, but the Americans were far less ready for war than expected. So, as disastrous as war with the United States proved in the long run, it actually simplified the German Navy’s immediate problems.

As noted earlier, Hitler ordered attacks on American ships even before declaring war on the United States, but the concentration of U-boats in the south and the Arctic left the Germans in a poor position to strike along the American coast. Because Hitler became exceptionally nervous about a British attack on Norway, he ordered more U-boats north in early 1942. In December 1941, Dönitz wanted all possible U-boats—twelve—to go to the American Eastern Seaboard at once. The Naval Staff let him send just five Type IXs. At this point the navy believed that the Type VII U-boats’ range was so short that they could not operate south of Nova Scotia.

The force spread out between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In mid-January, the U-boats would strike only when all were in position (unless they could attack ships of more than 10,000 tons) to attempt to take advantage of whatever surprise was still possible. They assumed that the attack on the American East Coast would be a temporary diversion from the main battle in the mid-Atlantic and that the Americans would soon organize convoys, making long patrols to their coastal waters unprofitable. This was not the case.

A month had passed since Pearl Harbor, but the Americans took longer to react than expected. As John Waters wrote, had the Germans been fully aware of the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and pre-positioned twenty to thirty U-boats, including minelayers, off the Eastern Seaboard, they would probably have shut down traffic there completely. As it was, the Allies suffered a major disaster. Apart from the fact that ships carrying supplies to Britain usually departed U.S. East Coast ports before joining transatlantic convoys, the American economy depended far more on coastal shipping than was generally realized. No less than 260 of the United States’ 350 large tankers hauled oil from Texas to the East Coast. Other goods also traveled by sea rather than overburden the railroads, which were in bad shape after decades of bad regulation and the Depression.

The astonished Germans found the American coastline well lit, with shipping proceeding in an unorganized, normal peacetime fashion, silhouetted by the lights of towns. They gained useful information from listening to the chatter of the ships’ radios. Cape Hatteras proved an especially good hunting ground. In two weeks after the first attack on January 12, the U-boats sank thirteen ships of 95,000 tons, nearly three-quarters of them tankers. To their astonishment, the massacre went on and on, eliciting only a slight reaction. Dönitz soon reinforced the U-boats off the East Coast and, in mid-February, sent some to the Caribbean. The Type VII boats began pushing farther southwest. By using the most efficient method of cruising and carefully conserving supplies, they could reach the Eastern Seaboard. But the Germans rarely had more than a dozen U-boats there at any one time. Wolf pack tactics were temporarily discarded. The U-boats operated individually, usually on the surface at night, right offshore. American defenses were so poor that they attacked by day as well, sometimes on the surface, and found it possible to use their deck guns, which were normally of little value in World War II.

The Germans did not encounter any convoys, and the American forces were almost totally ineffective. The Americans’ only defensive preparations against the U-boats were minefields in the approaches to New York, Boston, and the Chesapeake Bay, and booms and nets to keep submarines from actually entering New York and some other harbors. Adm. Adolphus Andrews’s Eastern Sea Frontier started the campaign with only seven Coast Guard cutters; three unreliable Ford Eagle boats (poorly built World War I-era antisubmarine patrol craft); four wooden subchasers also left over from the earlier war; two gunboats; and four converted yachts.

The new chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest King, poorly supported Andrews’s efforts. Able enough in directing the Pacific War, King’s disinterest in the Atlantic struggle and Anglophobia made him a dubious asset in the war against Germany. (General Eisenhower once speculated in the privacy of his journal that if somebody shot King, it would help win the war.) King only belatedly let Andrews shift the regular shipping lanes sixty miles out to sea to make it harder for the enemy to find targets, and King rejected a blackout. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy showed little interest in British and Canadian experience or the ciphers and procedures the latter had prepared for the Americans’ use. King disallowed an early start of coastal convoys, wrongly believing that poorly escorted convoys were worse than none. Instead of shepherding shipping, Andrews sent the few available destroyers that he occasionally borrowed from other duties out on offensive patrols to hunt U-boats. This tactic proved as useless as it always had against submarines and that led to U-578 sinking the destroyer Jacob Jones on February 28. The navy and U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) did not collaborate well in providing air cover, and the few aircrews available were poorly trained for work over the sea. (Civilian fliers, acting on their own, had organized the Civil Air Patrol before Pearl Harbor.) King also failed to act on proposals to mobilize small civilian craft in a Coastal Picket Patrol until June 17, after the crisis was largely past. The small craft would have seriously interfered with German operations near the shore. Except around Cape Hatteras, East Coast waters were so shallow that the Germans would not have dared attack near the coast had the defenses not been so incredibly weak. Even less forgivably, the navy broadcast many claims of U-boat kills it knew were false.

Effort and lives were wasted on Q-ships, or converted freighters and trawlers armed with hidden guns to act as U-boat traps. Q-ships had enjoyed some success in World War I. British attempts to revive the idea in the second war had already failed, however; the Germans were too alert for it to work again. The Q-ship Atik was lost with all 161 men aboard. The president had pushed using the Q-ships, but King did not resist the idea. King seems to have been waiting for the arrival of new 110-foot subchasers and 173-foot patrol craft, but the program to build them received priority only in April 1942.

Meanwhile, the shipping losses had caused an adverse public reaction and alarm within the armed forces. The army grew increasingly concerned and angry, and the AAF launched a rival antisubmarine effort that lasted into 1943. The British were furious at losing precious ships in waters that should have been relatively safe. They had to send some of their own escorts to the Caribbean to guard tanker convoys, and King reluctantly accepted the loan of twenty-four British antisubmarine trawlers and later a Coastal Command squadron. The trawlers were mostly slow coal burners that required high-grade coal, were in poor condition, and were unsuited for the Atlantic crossing—one was lost en route to the United States—but as they became operational in March 1942, they proved welcome. By April, the strength of the Eastern Sea Frontier had grown to eighty-four army and eighty-six navy planes, sixty-five Coast Guard cutters, three 173-foot patrol craft, a dozen Eagle boats and converted yachts, and fourteen British trawlers. This larger fleet and the greater caution of merchant ship captains complicated the U-boats’ work. On April 1, the Americans finally started a semi-convoy system, the so-called Bucket Brigades, along the coast. During the day, locally based escort craft herded gaggles of ships close inshore, and the ships halted for the night in protected anchorages—regular harbors or specially mined and protected sites.

Losses, especially of tankers, however, remained so horrendous that the oil industry warned that the United States would run out of tankers by the end of 1942. Finally the disaster became so obvious that on April 16, all tankers were ordered to stay in port until further notice, although a few had special permission to move via Bucket Brigade. Frantic efforts were made to reduce dependence on oil moved by sea. Industries converted many oil-burning plants to coal or natural gas, and disused railroad tank cars and barges were rehabilitated.

By the end of April, ships passed Cape Hatteras only by day and at varying distances from the coast. The Germans perceived that U.S. defenses were at last hardening. They concluded that it was no longer safe to attack near the coast, except on dark nights. On April 14 the destroyer USS Roper sank U-85, the first U-boat destroyed by American forces off the East Coast.

By May, the Germans had eighteen U-boats operating from Newfoundland to Florida and seven more in or near the Caribbean, but in mid-May a true convoy system finally went into effect. That made patrolling the Eastern Seaboard unprofitable. Dönitz shifted the effort to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, where the opposition remained weak for three more months. The Germans were assisted by the introduction of the first Type XIV supply U-boats—known as the milch cows or U-tankers, they could refuel other U-boats—although only three were available during the American campaign. Italian submarines, which proved surprisingly effective, also joined the Germans. Eventually, however, convoys started in southern waters too, ending the campaign.

In the first seven months of 1942, the U-boats had sunk 609 ships of 3.1 million tons, including 143 tankers, mostly in the Americas. The Allies had lost another 45 tankers to other causes. (By comparison, at the start of the Pacific War, the Japanese merchant marine had 94 tankers and 1,609 passenger and dry cargo ships.) The peak month of June saw the U-boats sink 136 ships of 637,000 tons. Some sources give a slightly higher total of 144 ships of 700,000 tons, which, if correct, made June 1942 one of the few months of the war in which Dönitz attained his self-set target for destroying the Allied merchant marine. All Axis submarines in the months of January through July 1942 had sunk 757 merchant ships and auxiliary naval vessels of 3,773,469 gross registered tons. The Allies had lost 1,120 ships of 4.8 million tons to all causes. Most of these losses were suffered in American waters and, even given the limits of Allied resources, quite unnecessary.

Allied Shipbuilding

These fantastic losses were only bearable because of the growing success of the American and Canadian shipbuilding efforts, without which the Allies could not have sustained Britain, much less won the war. In 1941, the United States and Canada had begun mass-producing standardized freighters, often in entirely new shipyards using new workers. The American industrialist Henry Kaiser became especially effective and prominent at this effort. He was so successful that, against the navy’s opposition, he persuaded President Roosevelt to let him build escort carriers in the same way with good results.

Most new cargo ships were based on an older British design, the steam-powered Sunderland tramp steamer, which the British had standardized as the Empire Liberty type. The British had had some built as the Ocean class in American and Canadian yards in 1940. The U.S. Maritime Commission altered this design to make it easier both to mass-produce and for inexperienced crews to operate by modifying its engines, rudder, and crew accommodations and specifying all-welded construction, then a novelty. The result was the EC-2 Liberty ship of 7,176 gross registered tons. Usually named for famous Americans, Liberty ships were ugly but effective. They were powered by old-fashioned reciprocating steam engines when turbines and diesels were needed elsewhere. The first of 2,710 Liberty ships, the SS Patrick Henry, was launched on September 27, 1941. Kaiser’s organization built Liberty ships in fantastically short times, and by 1944 it completed Liberties in an average of forty-two days each. In that year, the industry also began to build faster and slightly bigger Victory ships.

During 1942, the American ship construction effort took off, building 646 freighters (597 Liberties) plus 62 tankers and 33 miscellaneous types. In December 1942 alone, American industry produced as many ships as it had in the entire preceding year. In the first six months of 1943, the Americans built 711 ships of 5.7 million tons.

A concurrent Canadian shipbuilding drive was in some ways even more remarkable given the lack of industrial base The Canadians concentrated on their own variant of the Ocean type, the Fort class. Unlike Liberties, they were originally coal burners, although a later version was oil fueled. The first of these ships, Fort Ville Marie, was launched on October 10, 1941, and in all, the Canadians built some 300 vessels.

The shipbuilding effort made it possible for the Allies to replace a good portion of their losses, even in the worst period of the war. From January to August 1942, for instance, 357 new ships of 2,634,000 tons came into existence.

German Doubts

As noted earlier, by the end of 1941, some Germans, including members of Dönitz’s staff, doubted the viability of the U-boat campaign in its present form. The relatively disappointing development of the Atlantic campaign since mid-1941, culminating in the disaster of convoy HG 76, suggested that the Allies already had the counter to the U-boat, and it was only a matter of time until they used it properly. The success in the Americas, never expected to be more than a temporary diversion, lasted longer than they had dared to hope. Dönitz, to be sure, remained optimistic and still thought that enough of the existing U-boat types could compete with the Allied shipbuilding program. That effort impressed even the Germans, although they underestimated its scope.

As he explained to Hitler on May 14, Dönitz thought that sinking 700,000 tons of shipping a month would offset Allied new construction, which he believed would reach 8.1 million tons in 1942 and 10.3 million tons in 1943. (It was a slight overestimate for 1942 but a gross underestimate of the 14.39 million tons that would be built in 1943.) But Dönitz overestimated Allied losses by a great margin. Hitler backed his call for concentrating all shipyard resources on U-boats rather than the more balanced program Admiral Raeder wanted.

The Naval War Staff continued to doubt that Dönitz’s integral tonnage strategy would work, if the rate of sinking (then high) remained the same and the Allied shipbuilding plans succeeded. The staff pointed out that success as had been attained so far in 1942 came from surprise attacks in weakly defended areas, and the rate of success against convoys was expected to fall. It would be necessary to sink not 700,000 tons but 1.3 million tons a month; however, that target was not in prospect. The staff suggested that the U-boats’ aim should be not on destroying tonnage but eliminating cargoes and sinking ships headed to Britain, both immediately around Britain and in the South Atlantic, although it did not fully explain how to accomplish this mission. Cmdr. Kurt Assmann of the Naval Operations Department even suggested that they could not expect victory in the U-boat war, but this conclusion was cut from the Naval War Staff’s final assessment, which it submitted on October 20.

New Submarines

Even Dönitz must have had private doubts about winning with the conventional U-boats. He and others looked for a technical breakthrough. An engineer working in the German Naval High Command, Adolph Schneeweisse, suggested building “underwater assault boats” to attack convoys. He envisioned that Type XB and Type XI U-boats would carry these superfast midget submarines, capable of speeds of 30 knots and armed with two or three torpedoes, to the battle area. But even had the midgets been developed in time to affect the outcome of the war, Germany did not have enough big submarines to serve as “mother ships” for a major campaign. Although these subs might have posed a difficult problem for the Allies, Dönitz had to look for a different solution.

Since the early 1930s the German Navy had backed work on closed-cycle propulsion systems that required no external air supply and would let submarines with radical new hull forms run faster while submerged than on the surface and with speeds comparable to those of surface ships. Such systems used diesel or turbine engines supplied either with oxygen in high-pressure bottles or in liquid form or with a fuel carrying its own, or not needing, an oxidizer. Dönitz was especially fascinated by the work of Dr. Hellmuth Walter, who developed a high-speed submarine powered by the decomposition of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide. The Walter U-boats would use three different modes of propulsion: diesels on the surface, battery power for most submerged operations, and the Walter turbine to provide bursts of very high speed when attacking convoys. They could outrun most escorts. On June 24, 1942, Dönitz resolved to build a fleet of them; Hitler approved his plans on September 28. But the Walter boats were not a good choice. Apart from the problem that they would not appear in force until 1946, hydrogen peroxide, which could probably not be made in sufficient quantity, was very costly, hard to handle, and dangerous. Postwar British attempts to develop submarines of this sort strongly suggest that the Walter boats were a mistake. Dönitz would have been better advised to concentrate on a less radical closed-cycle system such as diesel engines fed with bottled or liquid oxygen, which conceivably might have been ready in time for the war. A system of this type, when tested, provided better range than the Walter boat.

As the situation in the Atlantic became more desperate, it became apparent that the Germans could not wait for the Walter boats. In March 1943, one of Walter’s engineers, Heinrich Heep, suggested to the director of naval construction that a modified version of the hull designed for the large Type XVIII Walter boat could carry an improved diesel-electric propulsion system that used new diesels, bigger electric motors, and a battery capacity triple that of a conventional submarine. Although not promising as much performance as hydrogen peroxide boats, it would be much faster than current U-boats when submerged. It at least could stay with slow convoys, escape from attacks, and run faster than some of the slower escorts, such as corvettes. It could also be built much sooner than the Walter boats.

Walter himself, at about the same time, suggested using a device the Germans had found years earlier on captured Dutch submarines, the schnorkel (snorkel), which was basically a breathing tube that enabled a submarine at periscope depth to run, albeit slowly and uncomfortably, on diesel power. The Germans incorporated the snorkel in their new designs and added them to conventional U-boats in 1944. The design of the large Type XXI “electro-boat,” as the Germans called it, was finished by June 1943; Dönitz approved the idea, and while work continued on Walter boats, they had lower priority. The new project was such an obviously better alternative that Dönitz, Speer, and others wondered why they had not initiated it a year or more earlier. Being a large craft of about twice the size of the Type VII, however, its manufacture involved a huge effort that seriously taxed German industry. The Germans also planned a much smaller electro-boat, the Type XXIII, for short-range operations in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. Considering its limited armament—only two torpedoes, or as many as the Seehund (Seal) midget submarine carried—it was a poor investment.

In July 1943, shortly after approving the Type XXI’s development and anxious to speed its construction, Dönitz accepted proposals from car manufacturer Otto Merker to build the new types in a radically different way. They would be prefabricated in eight different sections at inland factories. Only the final assembly would take place in conventional shipyards on the coast. The Germans hoped this process would minimize the effects of Allied bombing. The system resembled Kaiser’s construction of Liberty ships and the Germans themselves had built some U-boats this way in World War I, but German naval construction firms rightly suspected that it would not work well with such sophisticated craft. Some U.S. Navy submarines were prefabricated in sections, but this method was applied only to an already standard design by experienced builders such as the Manitowoc Company, which built all the sections in-house and at one site.

The Type XXI and XXIII submarines and the new construction system proved overrated. Apart from the “bugs” to be expected in any new type of equipment, the Type XXI’s diesel engines were less powerful than expected. Their hydraulic systems were vulnerable and unreliable. Further, the sections were often not properly made and were hard to “mate.” The finished U-boats performed far less well than projected. The first ones built were relegated to training. Defects and Allied bombing also delayed the new U-boats considerably; eventually the bombing of the inland water transportation system stopped the sections from reaching the final assembly points. Only a few Type XXIIIs and one Type XXI were ready in time to make war patrols. They seem to have been more effective at escaping Allied antisubmarine measures than at increasing sinkings. While it is difficult to say what would have happened had the new submarines become available years earlier, it seems unlikely that they could have won the war at sea.

Intelligence and Technology

As costly as it was to the Allies in other respects, the U-boat campaign in the Americas did minimize the impact of their losing access to U-boat messages in February 1942. The individualistic nature of U-boat operations in the Western Hemisphere made reading their transmissions much less important for a time. And the British were not quite as badly off for intelligence as they had been before they had started to read the German naval ciphers in May 1941. They had much better photoreconnaissance than before of German ports and observed U-boats being built and readied, and they had a more extensive network of direction finders. Moreover, the Germans’ shift to a separate cipher for communications in the main theater in the Atlantic left the British able to read the ciphers used for U-boats training in the Baltic or based in Norway; and they still read the Home Waters cipher that the surface craft used while escorting U-boats going in and out on war patrols in the Atlantic. So the arrival and departure even of U-boats employing the Triton cipher could be tracked. British estimates of the number of U-boats at sea remained accurate, and they continued to try to plot the positions of individual U-boats at sea. Their main failure was their inability, for some months, to recognize the deployment of the U-tankers, which they mistook at first for a new class of mine-laying submarine.

The Allies, meanwhile, were developing a whole new set of devices and weapons to deal with the U-boats. Early in 1942, they introduced special rescue ships—in effect, small hospital ships specially equipped to pick up survivors—but most Atlantic convoys did not have them. In June 1942, the British began refueling convoy escorts from tankers in the convoys themselves, a process requiring special gear and training for the tanker crews. This ability greatly simplified escort organization and eventually made it easier to spread convoy routes over a larger sea area. The Allies also introduced heavier airborne depth charges, better camouflage for planes, 10cm radars (at first only on surface ships), high-speed direction finders for the escorts, and the Hedgehog ahead-throwing weapon. This spigot mortar fired contact-fused projectiles ahead of an attacking escort. Unlike depth charges, which could only be dropped after passing the U-boat being attacked, these projectiles only went off when they hit something and did not interfere with maintaining sonar contact with the target.

Another successful device was the Leigh Light, a searchlight carried on an aircraft’s wing. While attacking at night, a pilot who spotted a surfaced U-boat on radar used the light to illuminate his target. The Leigh Lights, introduced in June 1942, made offensive patrols over the Bay of Biscay far more effective until the Germans introduced a radar search receiver that could pick up the metric wavelengths that the older airborne radars still used.

Other devices made aircraft more effective against submerged submarines. The sonobuoys (an air-dropped sonar set) and magnetic anomaly detectors (MAD) enabled planes to detect submerged submarines, although the latter was useful only at close ranges. As they overflew their targets, the pilots of the MAD-equipped planes dropped retro-bombs, which were slowed by small rockets, and air-to-surface rockets. When dropped by an aircraft, “Fido”—an especially secret, small acoustic homing torpedo given the misleading designation Mark 24 mine—stood an excellent chance of destroying a submerged submarine.

Return to the Transatlantic Routes

As the convoy system developed in the Western Hemisphere, Dönitz shifted attacks to the main route between Britain and America, although he continued to devote more of the U-boat effort than before to distant operations, mostly in the South Atlantic. The U-tankers and the new long-range Type IXD2 “U-cruiser,” which could reach Cape Town without refueling, made it possible to extend operations to South Africa in September-October 1942 and, later on, into the Indian Ocean.

Some U-boats continued to work near North America and off Newfoundland. There was a bottleneck of sorts, where all convoys going to and from North America had to pass, at least if they were to stay within range of air cover from Newfoundland. Moreover, some small ships did not have enough fuel to let their convoys deviate very far south. In this area, the concentration of Allied ships, the poor visibility from the air, and the fact that planes based on Newfoundland had older and less effective radars made it profitable for Dönitz to keep at least one group of U-boats operating within range of air patrols there and for wolf packs to pursue westbound convoys coming under air cover, something they avoided elsewhere.

In the Atlantic, the Allies continued to be hampered by several factors. (From this point, the escort of the northern Atlantic convoys was almost entirely a British and Canadian job, while the Americans guarded convoys to North Africa.) They were strained to support operations in many areas, while the Canadians were, through no fault of their own, a weak link. The hastily expanded Royal Canadian Navy was at the end of the line for equipment, and its ships had been in continuous action with little chance to rest or refit. Two new types of American aircraft committed to the struggle in 1942, the PV-1 Ventura and PBM Mariner—replacements for the Hudson and Catalina, respectively—proved to be duds or so full of bugs that they were of little value at first. A reduction in the number of convoys and a shortage of tankers forced transatlantic and Sierra Leone convoys to use the most direct routes. And with the success of the German Navy’s B-Dienst at decrypting the British Naval Cypher No. 3, convoys became easier to find. Finally most U-boat operations took place in a big “air gap” in the mid-Atlantic, where convoys did not yet enjoy air cover.

By August 1942, the U-boat fleet had risen to 339 submarines, of which 149 were considered frontline vessels. In late July, convoy ON 113 ran into a wolf pack, lost three of its thirty-three ships, and sank U-90. The Canadian escort had lacked up-to-date radar. ON 115, also with a poorly equipped but skilled Canadian escort group, lost a pair of ships and had another damaged, but it destroyed U-558 and damaged two more U-boats. These battles represented successes for the Allies, particularly considering what the Canadians had to work with, and the Germans could not afford to trade U-boats for merchant ships on anything like that basis. When SC 94 was caught on the Grand Banks heading out for Britain, its escorts again lacked good radar, although two modern British destroyers reinforced the convoy in the middle of a running battle. The convoy lost eleven of thirty-six ships, while the escort sank two U-boats. The Germans, in this case, had reversed their usual tactics, running ahead of the convoy and making successful submerged attacks by day. A wolf pack chewed up SL 118 using the same methods a week later. In late August, ONS 122 with modern escorts, including a group of well-equipped and trained Norwegian corvettes, lost four ships while damaging two out of a pack of nine U-boats.

Against less well-equipped or handled escort groups, however, the Germans scored heavily. Beginning on September 10, ON 127, hitting a submerged day ambush, lost three ships in the first attack plus four more and the Canadian destroyer HMCS Ottawa later. In late September, SC 100 lost four of its twenty-four ships despite bad weather of a sort that usually hampered U-boats. Even with a well-equipped escort, SC 104 lost eight ships from October 12 to October 17, but the escort sank two U-boats. Shortly afterward, HX 212, with a poorly equipped escort group, lost nine ships.

Thereafter, the escort of the North Atlantic convoys was reduced to release ships for the North African invasion. SC 107 and SL 125, running with poor escort groups, suffered particularly heavily. Despite a Canadian plane sinking two U-boats at the start of a weeklong battle between seven escorts (mostly poorly equipped Canadian corvettes) joined by an eighth ship en route and a huge pack of U-boats, SC 107 lost fifteen ships, and the Germans lost three U-boats, all to air attack. This battle led to a belated local reinforcement of escorts near Newfoundland. At about the same time, SL 125 lost eleven ships.

To concentrate the remaining escort resources for Atlantic convoys— for the North African invasion was not a brief, one-shot commitment—the Allies terminated all SL and nonmilitary Gibraltar convoys, inbound and outbound, for six months. Ships headed to Britain from southern waters sailed to North America and joined transatlantic convoys there. This entailed long, roundabout voyages and a further strain on Allied shipping. A fuel shortage toward the end of 1942 also forced opening the convoy cycle from eight to ten days.

The North African invasion seriously handicapped those fighting the Atlantic battle. It diverted escort resources and delayed the deployment of support groups, whose formation had begun in September. The latter were designed not to take individual convoys from one side of the ocean to the other but to serve as mobile reserves and reinforce the escort groups of convoys under threat. Even worse, perhaps, the North African invasion’s requirement for air support tied down the already delayed escort carriers. Most escort carriers had gone to the Pacific (where they mostly ferried planes), and the British were reluctant to use American-built escort carriers in the state in which they were delivered. They regarded them as unstable, requiring the addition of considerable ballast for safety, and thought their aviation fuel systems were dangerous. The last design flaw led to the loss in combat of HMS Avenger with nearly the entire crew in November 1942 and an accidental explosion that destroyed HMS Dasher with heavy losses in March 1943. The modifications the British deemed necessary further delayed the escort carriers’ service. For their part, the Americans complained that the British escort carriers were not commanded by air officers, had inadequate deck crews (a result of the Royal Navy’s shortage of manpower), and lacked onboard repair facilities. In any case, making the changes meant scheduling setbacks.



Then Joseph Stalin got his atomic bomb, although Kurchatov and Khariton and their colleagues were not able to hold to their two-and-a-half-year timetable. Problems with the plutonium production reactor delayed the test for eighteen months. Nevertheless, they moved with a speed unexpected in Washington. At 6:00 A.M. on August 29, 1949, four years and nine days from the date Stalin had signed the order setting the postwar nuclear arms race in motion, they exploded a device identical to the Nagasaki bomb at a spot on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia northwest of the city of Semipalatinsk. The device was subsequently code-named Joe One by American intelligence. Beria, who came to observe this Soviet version of Trinity, and personally report to Stalin on the phone line to Moscow, embraced Kurchatov and Khariton and kissed them on the forehead as the mushroom cloud rose. There were indications later that Beria had been worried about his own fate if the enterprise had been a fiasco.

At the end of October, Stalin signed a secret decree, drawn up by Beria, passing out the rewards. In deciding who received what, Beria is reported to have followed the principle that the highest awards went to those who would have been shot first in case of a fizzle. David Holloway in Stalin and the Bomb says that the story may have been apocryphal, but that it accurately reflected the feeling of the scientists involved. Kurchatov and Khariton received the highest honors possible, Hero of Socialist Labor and Stalin Prize Laureate of the first degree; large amounts of cash; ZIS-110 cars, the best the Soviet automotive industry was making at the time; dachas; free education for their children in any establishment; and free public transportation for themselves and their families. In an enticement of what the future could hold, Stalin had already, back in 1946 when tens of thousands of rural families were living in dugouts under the rubble of their homes, built a fancy eight-room house for Kurchatov at his laboratory near Moscow, importing Italian craftsmen to furnish it with parquet floors, marble fireplaces, and elegant wood paneling. A number of the other leading physicists, engineers, and managers were similarly rewarded with the honor of Hero of Socialist Labor and with money, cars, and sundry other privileges in lesser degrees. Khariton was eventually also to be awarded his own private railway car.

In time, through the remaining years of Stalin and during the rule of his successors, Arzamas-16, its sister sites in the atomic industry network, and research centers for other branches of the Soviet military-industrial complex were to grow into self-contained cities, with their own schools, concert halls, hospitals, and, by Russian standards, first-class shops for food and clothing. Although officially secret, they became known as the “white archipelago,” and their privileged inhabitants, the scientists and engineers and their families, were referred to as chocolatniki by less fortunate Russians. Already by 1953, one of Stalin’s henchmen in the Politburo, Lazar Kaganovich, complained that the atomic cities had become like “health resorts.”

It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that these Soviet physicists lent their ingenuity to the building of the bomb because a life of privilege was held out before them if they succeeded. On the contrary, their motives were complicated. Imprisonment in a labor camp or execution were ever-present threats in Stalin’s Russia for failure to succeed or unwillingness to cooperate. On the other hand, David Holloway discovered in questioning them that they were also motivated forcefully by love of country, by the defense of their motherland. Many of them might not have liked Stalin’s system, but they could not change it. The Soviet Union was their country, the only one they had, a conviction ingrained all the more keenly by the war of survival, the Great Patriotic War, as Russians called it, that they had just emerged from with Nazi Germany. The atomic bomb project was, in an emotional way, a continuation of that primeval conflict. Andrei Sakharov was to become a world-renowned figure and to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 because of the persecution and internal exile he suffered in the cause of promoting civil liberties in the Soviet Union. In 1948, however, he was an imaginative twenty-seven-year-old physicist beginning the research that led to Russia’s hydrogen bomb. “I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war,” he subsequently remarked of those years. “We … believed that our work was absolutely necessary as a means of achieving a balance in the world.”

Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall did not hand Stalin’s Russia the bomb, as most of the American public thought that the Rosenbergs and David Greenglass and other Soviet spies unknown and unnamed had done. Kurchatov and those with whom he chose to collaborate were notably competent physicists who, given time, would have created a bomb on their own without any intelligence input. In 1951, they detonated a much improved version of the Nagasaki bomb that weighed only half as much and yielded twice the force, forty kilotons, with a mixed core of U-235 and plutonium. The real secret of the atomic bomb was whether such a hellish device could be devised at all. That secret was exposed in the dawn of the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, with Trinity and then dramatized to the world when its monstrous power was unleashed on the inhabitants of Hiroshima.

What Fuchs and Hall did accomplish was to save the Soviet Union time, probably a year to two years, in the race to achieve strategic parity with the United States after the explosion of Trinity a bit more than four years prior to Joe One. Ironically, Stalin initially kept the achievement of his physicists secret for some unknown reason and it was Truman who announced that the Soviets had the bomb. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, set up in 1946 to take charge of all things nuclear, had not been unwatchful under its first chairman, David Lilienthal, despite the illusions at the top. It had persuaded the Air Force to cooperate in the Long Range Detection Program, which involved high-altitude flights off the Soviet Union by aircraft equipped with filters to capture nuclear residue from the air. A B-29 flying at 18,000 feet over the North Pacific on September 3, 1949, collected a slightly higher count of radioactive material than would normally be found in the air. Further checks as the high-level winds continued in their stream over the United States, the Atlantic, and Europe confirmed that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb in the last few days of August.

The Soviet Union still lacked adequate means of striking the United States with atomic bombs. Even the hundreds of copies of the B-29, called Tu-4s (more than a thousand were to be built), that the Soviet aircraft industry was turning out on Stalin’s instructions lacked the range to reach most American cities and as propeller-driven aircraft were also vulnerable to the new American jet fighters in daylight bombing.

The practicalities of how the Soviet Union might drop an atomic bomb on the United States did not matter for the moment. The broken monopoly had been replaced by a balance of terror; the threat of nuclear devastation thrust into the minds and emotions of the American public and its leaders. The Berlin Blockade, while a defensive move by Stalin, had been interpreted yet again in the United States as evidence of aggressive intent. In Asia, a new Communist danger was rising as the armies of Mao Tse-tung neared their conquest of all of mainland China. Now the news that Russia had the bomb created a tangible sense of danger, a keener sense of insecurity in a nation already suffering from that malady.

The first response was to end the debate that had been going on over whether to build the hydrogen, i.e., thermonuclear, bomb. Truman reacted to his own apprehension and the clamor from the recently independent U.S. Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their allies in Congress by issuing an order on January 31, 1950, to begin developing this weapon, thousands of times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb. It was created and detonated within less than two years, on November 1, 1952.

Niels Bohr and other idealistic physicists who had lobbied to place international controls on atomic weaponry and thereby avoid a nuclear arms race after the Second World War were, it has become clear, scholarly Don Quixotes. All the control plans put forward by the Truman administration, such as the Baruch Plan promoted by the financier Bernard Baruch on the administration’s behalf in the United Nations, preserved an American monopoly, and Stalin would never have settled for second place. To have satisfied Stalin, Truman would have had to share the atomic bomb with him, a political impossibility.

Similarly quixotic was the attempt earlier in 1949 by Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project to stop development of the hydrogen bomb on the grounds that it was “in a totally different category from an atomic bomb” and might become a “weapon of genocide” with “extreme dangers to mankind.” (They also argued that technical problems stood in the way and higher-yield atomic weapons would serve any military needs, but it is clear that moral objections most concerned them.) As is now known, Kurchatov, undoubtedly at the behest of Stalin and Beria, had organized serious theoretical and design studies for a hydrogen bomb in 1948. By the end of that year, long before they had broken the American atomic monopoly, the Soviets had a basic design for an intermediate hydrogen weapon, Sakharov’s “Layer Cake,” which combined fission (atomic) and fusion (thermonuclear) elements. (“Nuclear fission” is the term for the explosive reaction that occurs in an ordinary atomic bomb, while “nuclear fusion” is the term used to describe the vastly more powerful release of energy that occurs when a hydrogen, or thermonuclear, device detonates.) Advanced design and experimental work got under way at Arzamas-16 in 1950, along with the creation of manufacturing facilities to produce the thermonuclear fuel, lithium deuteride, and other materials. The Layer Cake device was detonated at the test site on the Kazakhstan steppes on August 12, 1953, and yielded 400 kilotons, twenty times the power of the Nagasaki bomb. A bit over two years later, on November 22, 1955, just three years after the United States had detonated its first hydrogen bomb, a full-scale Soviet hydrogen weapon was exploded at the same Kazakhstan site. Kurchatov, Sakharov, and other Soviet physicists felt none of the moral qualms of their American counterparts. They saw the development of thermonuclear weapons as a logical second step to keep pace with the United States. Years later in his memoirs, Sakharov was certain that Stalin would not have reciprocated any American restraint in creating the hydrogen bomb. He would have seen it as either a trick not to be fooled by or as stupidity of which he should take advantage.


HMS Audacious crew take to lifeboats to be taken aboard RMS Olympic

By George P. Clark

The sinking of HMS Audacious has been described as the greatest secret of the war. Manned by 1,000 picked officers and men, she was Great Britain’s crack battleship and the pride of the British Navy. At exercises and gunnery, and for smartness and cleanliness, she could not be beaten, and for a ship to attain such a status as this in pre-war days was, indeed, a tremendous achievement, for competition in the Fleet was keen, and enthusiasm ran very high. It is, therefore, no wonder that when disaster befell this great ship and brought about her total loss, the Admiralty took most extraordinary precautions to keep the news from the Germans.

We, the officers and crew, were all sworn to silence, and the British Press, by reason of an appeal from the Board of Admiralty to suppress the news, had no alternative but to remain silent. But rumour soon spread round the country until the story that ‘a whole battle squadron had been sunk’ was being freely circulated. The true story did eventually reach Germany through the medium of American newspapers, for during part of the time the ship was struggling for her life, she was photographed by American passengers on board the White Star liner Olympic, that was standing by.

We belonged to the 4th Battle Squadron comprising the battleships King George V, Ajax, Centurion and Audacious, and which was under the command of Admiral Warrender, whose flag, at the time of the disaster, was flying in the Centurion. We had shared those cold, misty mornings in the autumn of 1914 with the remainder of the Grand Fleet, steaming up and down the North Sea waiting and watching for the German High Sea Fleet. But when the big action was eventually fought between the two great fleets the Audacious was not there. She, or her shattered hull, was safe in that part of the graveyard of Mr Davy Jones which lies about 19 miles N ¼° E of Tory Island, off the north coast of Ireland.

A short time before this disaster happened, the German High Command had decided to mine the entrance to the mouth of the Clyde in order to intercept, and, possible sink, a convoy of thirty-three troopships with Canadian troops on board which was expected about that time. The German armed liner Berlin, with Captain Pfundheller in command, was selected for this dangerous and deadly work. The Berlin was, accordingly, loaded up with mines, and Captain Pfundheller’s instructions were to lay them athwart the Glasgow approach between Garroch Head and Fairland Head; or, in the event of this being impossible, the principal change on, or south of, the line Garroch Head-Cumbrae Lighthouse.

As early morning fogs are frequent on this part of the Scottish coast in the autumn, the German captain was advised to arrive at his destination at about 7.00am under the cover of such fog or mist as might be present. And so, under conditions of the greatest secrecy, the Berlin sailed from the Weser on 21 September 1914, with her cargo of death and destruction-dealing mines. On his arrival at night in the vicinity of the Firth of Clyde, after having been six days at sea, Captain Pfundheller, his ship cleared for immediate action, was quite unable to fix his exact position by cross-bearings as, of course, the flashing lights which help navigators in this difficult part of the British Isles were not working. In these adverse circumstances he found himself compelled to abandon his original intention and decided instead to drop his mines in a position 19 miles N ¼° E. of Tory Island. It was one of these mines which sank the Audacious.

It is interesting to note at this point that had the mines been laid in the position originally intended they could not have damaged the large convoy of Canadian troops as all these ships were, fortunately, diverted to Plymouth where they arrived safely!

The 4th Battle Squadron put to sea in the morning watch of 27 October 1914, and, at about 8.45am, the Admiral made a signal ordering the Squadron to alter course 4 points to starboard. We, the Audacious, were the third ship in the line and were, I believe, a little out of station when we came up to the actual turning point. We did not answer our helm as quickly as might have been expected, and as we were swinging round to the new course in the wake of the two ships ahead of us, there was a sudden dull explosion on the port side aft, and obviously considerably below the waterline. The ship immediately heeled over to port and the engine-room quickly flooded. Clouds of steam and smoke burst from the after funnel and up the main hatches, and it was feared that the men in the stokeholds and engineroom had suffered bad casualties. They were, however, unharmed and, despite the inrush of water, stuck to it until ordered to go on deck.

In spite of having been badly holed by a very effective German mine, I cannot recall that the ship showed great distress as an immediate result. By this I mean that there was really no great amount of trembling in her such as one might reasonably have expected from so great an explosion – a fact which points clearly to her very solid construction. The list to port soon began to get worse, although, as is usual in any man-o’-war on occasions like this, the watertight doors had been closed wherever it had been possible to get at them.

After the sinking by a German submarine of the British cruisers Hogue, Cressy and Aboukir in September, 1914, the Admiralty issued instructions that where a ship was disabled by mine or torpedo whilst in the company of other ships, she must be left to her fate. We were left to our fate!

About midday, the White Star liner Olympic hove in sight to the westward. When she was as near to us as her captain, Commodore Haddock, thought safe, she lowered some of her lifeboats. These with some boats from destroyers, pulled towards us and managed, by daring seamanship, to get alongside and take off all but about 200 officers and men. These officers and men volunteered to remain on board and stand by the ship. She was doomed, so that there was no object in risking more lives than was necessary, for no one knew when she might capsize or blow up. Attempts were made to take us in tow, but they failed. We were so waterlogged and at the mercy of the sea that towing was impossible.

During the first dog watch, the Captain decided to reduce our number to about twenty. It was getting dark and the hungry-looking seas were leaping over the ship, impatiently waiting to claim us. It all looked pretty hopeless! There was, besides the possibility that the ship might go down suddenly, the greater risk that the torpedoes and ammunition might break adrift below and blow us up. Some impression of the state of the sea might be possible when I say that at times one could see the bow and stem of a destroyer right out of the water, while her midships was supported on the crest of a huge wave. Our quarter deck was under water, the main decks forward were awash, and we had, by this time, a most dangerous list, so about 6.00pm the Captain piped ‘Abandon Ship!’

Only the Captain, Commander, Navigating Officer and myself now remained on board. It was pitch dark, icy cold and, of course, wet. The sea was getting more angry and restless. The awful moaning of the swirling water below decks is unforgettable. At one time I saw what appeared to be boiling oil oozing up through the seams of the upper decks. We were labouring heavily, and all but finished.

The Captain, Cecil V. Dampier, and Navigating Officer were still on the bridge. The Commander, Lancelot N. Turton, and I were standing together on the break of the foc’s’le. His eyes were wet with tears. He was about to lose the ship in which dwelt his whole sailor’s heart and soul. I believe that up to this time he had hoped to save her. His great courage and endurance, his kindly manner and methods, had been well to the fore all through. He was a gallant commander, and he knew no fear.

At about 8 o’clock he told me to go round wherever I could, hailing anyone who might be left on board – perhaps disabled or hurt. I found no one. The Commander now told me I could go. I left him – still standing alone on the foc’s’le – to endeavour to find a way of getting clear of the ship. Swimming was, of course, impossible. I looked all round for something to use as a raft. There was nothing! Everything movable had been swept overboard. I began to feel a little dazed when, on the port beam, and almost alongside, I saw a destroyer’s whaler. I hailed her and her coxswain answered me. Brave lads, that crew! They might easily have been dashed to pieces against our gunwale.

I waited my opportunity, and jumped – or rather threw myself into her, and then I must have lost consciousness, for I remember nothing more until I came to with a basin of rum to my lips in the foc’s’le of the destroyer Ruby.

We lay off the Audacious, now completely abandoned, until about 9.00pm, when she blew up and sank. To see the huge pieces of whitehot metal falling back from the dark sky after the explosion was a sight I shall not easily forget.

The only serious casualty which resulted from our being mined was caused by some of the falling debris killing a petty officer on board the cruiser Liverpool as she was standing off. Not a single man was drowned.

Superstitious people may be interested to know that I was born with a caul. I am not, myself, superstitious; although I did carry this caul, hung round my neck by a silver chain, all the years I was at sea! Two things remain impressed on my memory. Though I had been soaked to the skin and partially dried again several times, I suffered no ill effects. I cannot remember having felt any kind of fear for a single moment during the whole long day. I sometimes tremble now to think of going through such another.


In mid-eighteenth-century India, a four-and-a-half-foot-tall former dancing girl (or perhaps courtesan) inherited a mercenary army from her husband (or perhaps lover) and became one of the region’s most successful mercenary commanders. (Not a small statement. The field was crowded.)

Farzana, later known as Begum Samru, was born around 1750 in a small town near Delhi. Her father was an Arab merchant. Her mother (anonymous, as they so often are) was either a second wife or a junior concubine. When her father died, around 1760, her half-brother, the son of his senior wife (or concubine), refused to support them. Her mother fled to Delhi, where she probably became a courtesan. The first thing we know for certain about Farzana is that by the time she was fourteen she worked as a nautch girl in Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar.

It was a time of political anarchy. The great Mughal Empire was crumbling. The emperor in Delhi was a powerless figurehead, kept on his throne only with the support of regional warlords. The Sikhs had revolted against the empire in 1710 and established an independent kingdom in the Punjab. The Maratha confederacy carved out an independent state in the area around Pune in 1714. Regional governors declared themselves rulers in their own right while still acknowledging the emperor in Delhi as the supreme political authority—a convenient fiction. Local rulers fought over their own unsteady thrones. The British and French East India companies—bitter rivals over trade privileges, territory, and monopolies—took sides in Indian succession struggles. Dismayed to find their much larger armies defeated by the companies’ European-led forces, Indian rulers hired European mercenaries as drill sergeants, tacticians, and commanders.

The best, or perhaps the worst, of the freebooters became commanders of their own mercenary armies. One such commander was Austrian mercenary Walter Reinhardt, known as Sombre—whether because of his coloring, his expression, or his disposition is unclear. The Indian sepoys under his command changed Sombre into Samru.

Reinhardt arrived in India in 1750. At first he worked as a sword for hire, moving from employer to employer as the mood took him. He took a step up to the commander of an independent brigade when the military commander of Purnea in northern Bihar hired him to recruit and train an infantry battalion on the European model. When Mir Qassim—the third puppet ruler of British-controlled Bengal in as many years—made a bid for independence and moved his court two hundred miles away from British bullying, Reinhardt joined up, gaining command of two battalions, a bad reputation as the Butcher of Patna, and British enmity. He fled British retribution, finding sanctuary for himself and his brigade with the powerful Nawab of Awadh. He fought alongside the armies of the nawab, the deposed Mir Qassim, and the Mughal emperor Shah Alam against the British at the Battle of Buxar on October 22, 1764.

After Buxar, Reinhardt was given the task of escorting the Awadh begums and their possessions to safety in Rohilkhand. The nawab could not have chosen a less trustworthy escort. Anxious to move out of the reach of the British, who were eager to get their hands on the Butcher of Patna, Reinhardt stole the begums’ jewels and cash and fled, along with his brigade, to the service of the Jat rajah Jawahir Singh.

Farzana and Reinhardt met when the mercenary commander rode into Delhi in January 1765 looking for an evening of entertainment. He ended up at the kothaa* where Farzana worked as a nautch girl.

By all accounts the young Farzana was beautiful and charming. Reinhardt soon moved her out of the kotha and into his household. Like her mother, she was a second wife or concubine. Unlike her mother, she was able to hold her own against Reinhardt’s senior concubine, Barri Bibi, and her son, Louis Balthazar Reinhardt.

According to James Skinner, “Her talents and sound judgment became so valuable to [Reinhardt] as to gain a great ascendancy over him.” Farzana accompanied Reinhardt’s troops into battle, carried in a palanquin†—on-the-job training in how to run a military campaign as a mercenary captain. Warren Hastings, who served as the British East India Company’s first governor-general from 1772 to 1785, reported that she was carried “from rank to rank encouraging the men who were enchanted with her heroism.” It is unclear whether Reinhardt ever married his Farzana, but his troops gave her the courtesy title of Begum Samru, the wife of Sombre.

After nine years in the rajah’s service, Reinhardt changed allegiance for the last time. When Mughal forces expelled the Jats from Agra, he defected to the army of the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, taking with him a brigade of some three thousand men including two hundred self-styled officers who had left the battlefields, or perhaps the slums, of Europe for richer pickings in India.

In 1776, the emperor named Reinhardt the jagirdar of Sardhana, a large estate, roughly eight hundred square miles, located forty miles northeast of Delhi. It was a mercenary’s dream come true. Reinhardt did not get to enjoy it for long.

When Reinhardt died in 1778, the company backed Farzana’s claim to both Sardhana and the brigade—which now numbered five battalions of infantry, three hundred European and Eurasian officers and gunners, forty cannons, and the fat oxen needed to pull them—rather than allowing command to pass into the hands of Reinhardt’s wastrel son, who was considered unfit to lead. Presented with a petition signed by those of the brigade who could write and attested to by those who could not, Shah Alam formally named Begum Samru commander of the Sardhana Brigade.

Members of the Sardhana Brigade may have thought they were getting a softer leader, but Begum Samru proved to be an active commander in chief. She personally led her troops into battle, though she may have relied on her officers for technical matters related to artillery and siegecraft. She won often enough that some of her rivals claimed she was a witch—a calumny often directed at successful female commanders over the centuries.† The only way in which she proved to be “soft” was her decision not to follow the contemporary custom of executing or blinding Reinhardt’s son, her rival for leadership of the brigade—a choice that would come back to bite her.

Reinhardt’s command of the brigade had been marked by looting, pillaging, and restlessly moving from one employer to another. The begum’s leadership was marked by good stewardship and loyalty. She cultivated her relationship with the emperor, who was the source of economic stability for herself and the brigade. She developed the fertile land of the jagir. She supported the widows and children of fellow mercenaries—including Reinhardt’s senior wife, who had slipped into senility.

Begum Samru saved the emperor’s life and his throne more than once. Her first opportunity came in 1787, when the Rohilla general Ghulam Qadir marched on Delhi. Two days later, Begum Samru and the Sardhana Brigade arrived in response to a distress signal from the emperor. Ghulam Qadir offered the begum an equal share of the plunder if she joined him. If Reinhardt had been alive, he might well have taken the bribe. Begum Samru, preferring an emperor in the hand to a usurper in the bush, refused the bribe, and drove the Rohilla commander back across the Jumna River.

When Ghulam Qadir returned the following year, Begum Samru once again marched to Shah Alam’s defense, though she was not in time to prevent Ghulam Qadir from blinding the emperor, ransacking the palace in search of nonexistent treasure, and forcing the imperial princesses to leave the protection of the zenana* and dance for the Rohilla troops. Ghulam Qadir made a run for it, but the Sardhana Brigade joined the Maratha army in tracking him down. They hung the Rohilla leader for two days in a specially constructed cage, then mutilated him in retaliation for his treatment of the emperor. His captors, among other tortures, scooped his eyes out of their sockets and sent them to Shah Alam in a box, so the blinded emperor could fondle them.

In recognition of her acts on his behalf, Shah Alam granted the begum a robe of honor—serious business in Mughal India—as well as an additional jagir for the support of her troops. He gave her the titles “daughter of the emperor” and “ornament of her sex”—a big step up for a dancing girl/prostitute from the Calcutta slums.

In 1792, Begum Samru broke the first rule of remaining a powerful widow, warrior, or otherwise: she remarried. She compounded the problem by marrying one of her own soldiers, the French artillery maker Pierre Antoine Levassoult, who was neither popular with nor respected by his fellow officers. Levassoult immediately attempted to take over the command of the brigade, alienating officers and sepoys alike.

When the begum failed to rein in her new husband, the unthinkable occurred: the Sardhana Brigade mutinied in the name of Walter Reinhardt’s “worthless” son, Louis Balthazar. They planned to install Louis Balthazar as a puppet commander and run the brigade in his name, much as the Marathas ruled the empire in the name of the puppet emperor Shah Alam.

Getting wind of plans to seize the couple, Levassoult convinced the begum to flee with him toward British territory. Most contemporary accounts say the two agreed to commit suicide if they were captured. Sources vary about what happened next. The most dramatic versions describe a Romeo and Juliet scenario, in which Levassoult committed suicide because he believed Begum Samru was dead. (At least one source suggests the begum and her maid faked the apparent death as a way to dispose of the inconvenient husband.) Modern historians speculate he was killed by one of their pursuers—most of whom despised him and all of whom were used to killing up close and personal on the battlefield. Whatever the details, their flight ended with Levassoult dead and Begum Samru a captive of her former troops.

She was rescued by a small force headed by George Thomas, an Irish mercenary who previously served with the Sardhana Brigade and may well have been a former lover. With a combination of threats, bluffs, and bribes, Thomas reinstated Begum Samru at Sardhana and took Louis Balthazar back to Delhi.

While Reinhardt and Begum Samru defended the Mughal emperor against those who wanted to depose or control him, the world around them was changing. The British East India Company had transformed itself from merchants and mercenaries to kingmakers and empire builders. On September 23, 1803, Begum Samru faced the British for the first time at the Battle of Assaye. Five battalions of the Sardhana Brigade fought on the side of Scindia and the Marathas against the East India Company’s army, which was under the command of acting Major-General Arthur Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington. The battle was Wellesley’s first major victory; he would later describe it as “the bloodiest for the numbers” that he ever saw. (Quite a statement for the victor of Waterloo.) It was certainly the bloodiest battle Begum Samru took part in. Reinhardt had taught her that a mercenary’s best strategy could be found in the line “He that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day.” At Assaye, she stayed on the field and lost a quarter of her men.

The battle was the turning point in the war between the British and the Marathas, and the end of Maratha primacy in Delhi. The British replaced the Marathas as Shah Alam’s primary protectors and Sardhana came under British control. Begum Samru successfully negotiated to keep possession of Sardhana, with all the rights and privileges she had previously enjoyed, and to maintain nominal command of the Sardhana Brigade. She was one of only two mercenary commanders who retained their forces under the British.

Begum Samru spent the next thirty years ruling Sardhana, while the brigade served as an irregular unit for the East India Company’s forces. She led her troops for the last time at the British siege of the Jat fortress of Bharatpur in 1825. She pitched her tent next to that of the British commander in chief, and proceeded to charm him as she had charmed so many others over the course of a long career.


In 336 BCE the aristocrat Pausanias, a member of the king’s bodyguard and reportedly also his former lover, assassinated Philip II, king of Macedon. Pausanias was almost immediately slain. Philip’s 20-year-old son Alexander III (356-323) succeeded to the throne.

Two years before, Philip had defeated the principal Greek city-states in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 and made himself master of all Greece through the Hellenic League, an essential step prior to his planned great enterprise of invading and conquering the Persian Empire.

On ascending the throne, Alexander quickly crushed a rebellion of the southern Greek city-states and mounted a short and successful operation against Macedon’s northern neighbors. He then took up his father’s plan to conquer the Persian Empire.

Leaving his trusted general Antipater and an army of 10,000 men to hold Macedonia and Greece, in the spring of 334 Alexander set out from Pella and marched by way of Thrace for the Hellespont (Dardanelles) at the head of an army of some 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Among his forces were men from the Greek city-states. His army reached the Hellespont in just three weeks and crossed without Persian opposition. His fleet numbered only about 160 ships supplied by the allied Greeks. The Persian fleet included perhaps 400 Phoenician triremes, and its crews were far better trained; however, not a single Persian ship appeared.

Alexander instructed his men that there was to be no looting in what was now, he said, their land. The invaders soon received the submission of a number of Greek towns in Asia Minor. King Darius III was, however, gathering forces to oppose Alexander. Memnon, a Greek mercenary general in the employ of Darius, knew that Alexander was short of supplies and cash. Memnon therefore favored a scorched earth policy that would force Alexander to withdraw. At the same time Darius should use his fleet to transport the army and invade Macedonia. Unfortunately, Memnon also advised that the Persians should avoid a pitched battle at all costs. This wounded Persian pride and influenced Darius to reject the proffered advice.

The two armies met in May. The Persian force, which was approximately the same size as Alexander’s force, took up position on the east bank of the swift Granicus River in western Asia Minor. The Persians were strong in cavalry but weak in infantry, with perhaps as many as 6,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries. Memnon and the Greek mercenaries were in front, forming a solid spear wall and supported by men with javelins. The Persian cavalry was on the flanks, to be employed as mounted infantry.

When Alexander’s army arrived, Parmenio and the other Macedonian generals recognized the strength of the Persian position and counseled against an attack. The Greek infantry would have to cross the Granicus in column and would be vulnerable while they were struggling to re-form. The generals urged that since it was already late afternoon, they should camp for the night. Alexander was determined to attack but eventually followed their advice.

That night, however, probably keeping his campfires burning to deceive the Persians, Alexander located a ford downstream and led his army across the river. The Persians discovered Alexander’s deception the next morning. The bulk of the Macedonian army was already across the river and easily deflected a Persian assault. The rest of the army then crossed.

With Alexander having turned their position, the Persians and their Greek mercenaries were forced to fight in open country. Their left was on the river, and their right was anchored by foothills. The Persian cavalry was now in front, with the Greek mercenary infantry to the rear. Alexander placed the bulk of his Greek cavalry on the left flank, the heavy Macedonian infantry in the center, and the light Macedonian infantry, the Paeonian light cavalry, and his own heavy cavalry (the Companions) on the right flank. Alexander was conspicuous in magnificent armor and shield with an extraordinary helmet with two white plumes. He stationed himself on the right wing, and the Persians therefore assumed that the attack would come from that quarter.

Alexander initiated the battle. Trumpets blared, and Alexander set off with the Companions in a great wedge formation aimed at the far left of the Persian line. This drew Persian cavalry off from the center, whereupon Alexander wheeled and led the Companions diagonally to his left, against the weakened Persian center. Although the Companions had to charge uphill, they pushed their way through a hole in the center of the Persian line. Alexander was in the thick of the fight as the Companions drove back the Persian cavalry, which finally broke.

Surrounded, the Greek mercenaries were mostly slaughtered. Alexander sent the 2,000 who surrendered to Macedonia in chains, probably to work in the mines. It would have made sense to have incorporated them into his own army, but Alexander intended to make an example of them for having fought against fellow Greeks.

Figures for the Persian losses range from 10,000 to 20,000 infantry and around 2,000 horse. These estimates are almost as incredible as the allegedly minute Macedonian losses, which have been variously put at a maximum of 30 infantrymen (minimum 9) and 120 cavalry of whom 25 were Companions killed in the first charge.

After the Granicus

The result of the Granicus battle must have reaffirmed the faith placed by the Persian king, Darius III, in Memnon. The Greek mercenary commander’s strategy had been sound. He had wished to avoid a pitched battle, conduct a scorched-earth policy in Asia, fortify maritime and naval bases on the coast and cut Alexander off from the sea. While Memnon himself survived, there were still considerable prospects of putting this plan into effect. However, many coastal cities, as well as the important road junction of Sardis, soon fell to Alexander with little or no resistance. Miletus held out in the hope of relief from a Persian force inland. It also received encouragement from Phoenician and Cyprian ships based on Mycale. But Alexander forestalled both naval and military relief and captured the city. Memnon fell back on Halicarnassus and fortified it strongly. Driven from there, he tried to establish naval bases on the major Aegean islands, not only threatening Alexander’s flank from the sea but providing a springboard for a counter-offensive against Greece and Macedon. Unfortunately for the Persians, Memnon suddenly fell ill and died. Those who inherited his command persisted for some time in the same strategy, but were eventually deterred by quite a small show of naval strength by Antipater, the Macedonian governor whom Alexander had left in charge of mainland Greece.

Alexander had left Parmenio with the main body of the army at Sardis. With his own striking force, he marched round the south-west extremity of Asia Minor and along the southern coast, digressing northward to join Parmenio again at Gordium in the interior. Strategically, the move seems superfluous, but Alexander’s expeditions sometimes wore the aspect of exploration, pilgrimage or even tourism. In any case, he lost no opportunity of acquainting himself with the features of an empire which he already regarded as his own.

Having joined forces with Parmenio, Alexander marched southward again into the Cilician plain and threatened Syria. A Persian force, inadequate to defend the vital mountain pass, fled at his approach, but the main Persian army, under command of Darius himself, was waiting farther south in Syria. At this point, Alexander was suddenly incapacitated by a bout of fever and his advance was checked.

Emboldened by the delay, Darius made a circuitous march and descended, by a northern mountain pass, on the town of Issus, where he brutally put to death the Macedonian sick who had been left there. This manoeuvre placed him at Alexander’s rear. Alexander was surprised but not dismayed at the move, for it had carried the Persian army to a point where the plain was pinched between the mountains and the sea. Here, their superiority in men and missiles could not be deployed to advantage. However, the position in some ways resembled that which the satraps had chosen at the Granicus. Darius’ army was drawn up with a river in front of it; the river was not flowing, since it was late autumn (334 BC). The king’s mercenary hoplites were placed in the centre. His cavalry held the wings, his right wing being more heavily loaded, since the mountains left little room for deployment on the left. He also hoped to break through on the right wing and cut Alexander off from the sea. It must be remembered that after Darius’ encircling march the two armies had exchanged positions.

Much of Alexander’s success seems in general to have been due to good reconnaissance work. Darius had relied on preventing an outflanking move from the Companion cavalry by posting a substantial force on the mountain slopes above. Having ascertained this plan, Alexander provided a light detachment of his own to mean and ward off the threat. He also sent the Thessalian cavalry, under Parmenio, to reinforce his left wing. It was possible for Alexander to make all such changes shortly before battle was joined; his advance was leisurely, and the Persians kept their positions, leaving him the initiative.

The battle conformed to the pattern of many ancient battles. The right wing of the Macedonian army, in encircling the enemy, placed the central phalanx under strain. As the phalangists on the right strove to maintain contact with the cavalry on the wing, they parted company with the phalangists on their left and a dangerous gap appeared, which Darius’ Greek mercenaries were quick to exploit. It then became a question of whether Alexander with his Companions could encircle the mercenaries before the mercenaries could break through the centre and encircle him. Alexander won, ploughing devastatingly into the mercenary flank and rear. In danger of capture, Darius fled precipitately in his war-chariot, and even the Persian forces of the right, who had held back Parmenio’s cavalry, soon followed their king’s example. Darius’ mother, wife and children, who had accompanied the army, were left prisoners in Alexander’s hands


Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B. C.: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Hammond, Nicholas G. L. Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman. 3rd ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1996. Sekunda, Nick, and John Warry. Alexander the Great: His Armies and Campaigns, 332–323 B.C. London: Osprey, 1988

Propaganda at the Granicus

The battle of the River Granicus has at least two special claims on our interest: it was not only the first engagement fought by Alexander on Asiatic soil, but also, apparently, one of the most dramatic. Yet it is, on the whole, poorly documented; and the accounts we possess of it1 contain inconsistencies and anomalies which have never been satisfactorily explained. Motives remain impenetrable; tactical dispositions range from the willful to the lunatic. The baffling nature of the evidence was strikingly demonstrated in 1964 by E. W. Davis, who, after analysing the inadequacies of no less than four previous accounts — those by Tarn, Beloch, Fuller and Schachermeyr — concluded that the problem was, ultimately, insoluble, ‘for with the information at our disposal we cannot read the minds of the Persian leaders’. Davis handicapped himself needlessly by his curious assumption that the Persian army was under the command not of Arsites, but of a committee — perhaps in an effort to excuse the indubitably irrational Persian strategy as reported by our main sources. At the same time his pessimism is all too understandable, and his three basic questions — ‘why the battle was fought, why it was fought where it was fought, and why it was fought as it was fought’ — must be squarely faced by any student of this enigmatic engagement.

The first two points need not detain us overlong: on them there exists a fair (if not unanimous) consensus of agreement. It is the third which has always been the real difficulty. From Alexander’s viewpoint, an immediate engagement was essential. He had to secure Hellespontine Phrygia before moving on south; more important, he urgently needed the cash and supplies which only a victorious battle could give him. His debts were crippling. When he crossed into Asia he had a bare seventy talents (perhaps representing two weeks’ pay for his troops) and provisions for no more than a month at the outside.6 Memnon, well described by Diodorus as ‘famed for his understanding of strategy’, had accurately assessed Alexander’s predicament: hence his shrewd proposal that the Persians should avoid battle, implement a scorched-earth policy, and if possible carry the war across into Greece. Alexander would then be forced to withdraw for lack of supplies. As his invasion strategy had already made clear, he possessed neither the time nor the equipment to besiege cities en route. If they did not come over to him at once, of their own will, he simply by-passed them.

The Persians, however, rejected Memnon’s advice, and chose instead to establish a defensive line on the Granicus River, with the object of holding up Alexander’s eastward advance towards Dascylium, and, if possible, of cutting short this Macedonian invasion ‘as it were at the gateway of Asia’. This may have been, as most modern scholars argue, a mistaken decision; but it was a perfectly understandable one. Pride entered into it: Arsites declared he would not let a single house in his satrapy be burnt. So did distrust of Memnon, the Greek mercenary, who made no secret of his contempt for Persian infantrymen, and was thought, rightly or wrongly, to be ‘deliberately procrastinating over this campaign for the sake of [i.e. to prolong] his commission from the King’.

Modern scholars have found other additional or alternative explanations, not all equally convincing. Tarn’s I will deal with in a moment. Schachermeyr argues that the Persians’ aristocratic code forbade them to retreat without a fight, so that Memnon’s advice was by definition unacceptable. Though the Iranian nobility undoubtedly, like all aristocrats, did observe a strict code of honour, this had not prevented them, half a century previously, from using very similar tactics against Agesilaus; and as Davis says, ‘there is no evidence that Persian standards of knightliness had risen noticeably in the interval’. Davis himself suggests, rather more convincingly, that the satraps must answer not merely to their code but also to Darius; that Alexander was, as yet, merely a young Macedonian leader, Philip’s son, and not the charismatic world-conqueror of later years; while the threat of revolt by the Greek cities of Ionia would undoubtedly become reality unless a firm stand was taken against the invader.

However, once the decision to fight had been made, the Granicus line, it might well be argued, was the natural one to hold. This river, today the Koçabas, flows in a north-easterly direction from Mount Ida to the Sea of Marmara, through flat rolling country, ringed by low mountains, and ideal for a cavalry engagement such as the Persians were used to fighting. In May, when Alexander made his advance through Asia Minor, the Granicus would be swollen, though still fordable at its main crossing-points. The Persians now advanced from their base-camp at Zeleia (Sari-Keia), and established themselves on the high, steep eastern bank of the river. As Fuller points out, ‘the southern flank of its lower reach was safeguarded against a turning movement from its western side by a lake, now called the Edje Göl.’ Granted the Persians’ decision to stand and fight, Arsites and his colleagues had chosen about the best possible terrain for their purpose.

But one point which has worried every student of this battle is the strategy — if we are to believe our sources — which they then proceeded to adopt. They drew up their forces along the river-bank, on a broad front, with high ground behind them. According to Arrian, their infantry was kept at the rear, virtually out of action, and their cavalry posted in front, where it could not charge. As Davis understandably remarks, ‘either error is bad enough, but both together seem almost too much’. The Persians had hitherto acted without comparative good sense, and such a move makes them appear stupid almost past comprehension. It does not need Tarn’s assurance to convince us that this was not the proper way to hold a riverbank. Wilcken’s comment (‘a glaring error of tactics’) is typical of most historians’ reaction to this strange aberration, which wasted a perfectly good body of professional Greek mercenaries during the battle, and resulted in its near-annihilation afterwards.

Various attempts have been made to explain, if not to justify, such a move. All, as Davis notes without comment, ‘try to puzzle out some rational explanation as to what could have been the Persians’ purpose behind this apparently mad act of folly’ — i.e. they rest on the initial premise that our evidence is to be taken at its face value. None is in the slightest degree convincing. Tarn, for instance, argued that the Persian leaders ‘had in fact a very gallant plan; they meant to strangle the war at birth by killing Alexander’. Elsewhere he developed this thesis more fully, claiming that ‘the extraordinary formation they adopted was to induce Alexander himself to charge’. But Alexander, like all commanders of antiquity, led his own troops as a matter of course; nor, granted his position at the Granicus, could he refuse battle even if he so wished. The Persians had no need to adopt a special formation — let along a patently suicidal one — to make him attack, or do their best to kill him when he did.

Furthermore, how the king’s death would be more surely encompassed by pulling the Persians’ only first-class infantry unit out of the fighting-line is left to our imagination. Fuller, with his usual acumen in tactical matters, pointed out that ‘if the sole aim of the Persians was to kill Alexander, then the best way to do so was to meet his cavalry charge with a hedge of spears; let him shatter himself against it, and then, should he break through, overwhelm him with javelins.’ Elsewhere he spells out just what they should have done by telling us what they did not do: ‘They did not deploy the Greek mercenaries along the eastern bank, with the Persian cavalry on their flanks, and also in their rear to counter-attack any force that might break through the infantry.’ Fuller, like Tarn, takes this failure as fact, and simply casts around for an explanation.

The answer he comes up with is almost identical to that proposed by Schachermeyr, and we may conveniently deal with both together. This is the Military Etiquette or Medieval Tournament theory. According to Schachermeyr, this was to be a formal contest of Junker gegen Junker, where only the cavalry would participate, and both sides would observe rules of knightly warfare: Im Ritterstil hot sich der Gegner zur Schlacht an, im Ritterstil wollte ihm der König begegnen. But infantry and light-armed troops did, in fact, take part in the battle, while no knightly code known would require the Persians to adopt the formation they did. Then (we may legitimately ask) why pay several thousand Greek mercenaries for doing nothing? Fuller’s answer is that ‘throughout history the cavalry soldier has despised the infantryman, and to have placed the Greek mercenaries in the forefront of the battle would have been to surrender to them the place of honour. Military etiquette forbade it.’ In support he cites parallels from Taganae (A.D. 552) and Crécy. What he does not emphasize, though it is only too apparent from his own subsequent narrative, is the crucial role played by these supposedly despised Greek mercenaries, very much in the forefront of the battle, at Issus and Gaugamela. Nor, obviously, did Cyrus have any such social qualms when deploying his forces at Cunaxa. Greek mercenaries, in fact, very often enjoyed the place of honour in Persian tactical dispositions, unhampered by any hypothetical requirements of knightly precedence. This theory, then, will not do either.

There are in fact three possibilities, and three only. 1. The Persian commanders were sheerly incompetent. 2. Their known dislike and distrust of Memnon, the mercenaries’ commander, were so great that they deliberately threw away a battle rather than let him and his troops win it, even while keeping them on what must have been a very expensive payroll. 3. Our surviving accounts of the battle contain, for whatever reason, substantial inaccuracies. 1 and 2, though not by definition impossible, do not readily lend themselves to analytical investigation. Let us see what can be done with 3. The first, and most obvious, fact which emerges from a detailed comparison of our three main versions is that whereas Arrian and Plutarch (with certain exceptions I shall come to in a moment) agree well enough, Diodorus tells a quite different story, and may therefore be assumed to depend, in part at least, on a different source: not necessarily Cleitarchus, as was formerly thought to be the case, certainly not Tarn’s hypothetical ‘mercenaries’ source’, though perhaps a case of a sort could be made out for Trogus.

Arrian and Plutarch both make the battle take place in the late afternoon; Diodorus puts it at dawn.34 Arrian and Plutarch describe an engagement where the Persians are holding the high eastern river-bank against a direct assault through the river itself; in Diodorus Alexander gets his whole army across the river unopposed, and draws it up in battle-formation before the Persians can do anything to stop him. There are other discrepancies, but these remain by far the most important. It is worth noting at this point that though comparatively few scholars have thought the Diodorus version worth serious attention, they include Konrad Lehmann, Julius Beloch, Helmut Berve, and, most recently, R. D. Milns. Beloch complained of the difficulty involved in finding an account that was ‘unbeirrt durch den Arrian-Kultus’; it is hard not to remember this remark when reading Davis’s assertion that Beloch ‘contents himself with rewriting the entire battle’ — though in fact Beloch has simply utilized the testimony of Diodorus.

Now Arrian and Plutarch both allude to the possibility of a dawn attack. This was, according to them, the strategy recommended to Alexander by Parmenio when the army first reached the Granicus. It was late in the afternoon; the Persians were entrenched in an extremely strong position; while the Granicus itself, with its steep banks and deep, fast-flowing stream, presented a formidable initial hazard (I am leaving on one side, for the moment, the actual disposition of Arsites’ forces). There was, it seems, something of a panic among Philip’s old officers, thus called upon to launch an assault under highly unfavourable conditions, while exposed to concentrated enemy fire. Nor would it be the first time their youthful leader had made a dangerous error of judgement: his campaign against Cleitus and Glaucias had come within an ace of ending in total disaster. Tactfully, they argued that Daisios was a taboo month for Macedonians to fight a battle; Alexander replied by performing an ad hoc intercalation on the calendar, so that the month was now (officially at least) a second Artemisios.

This point being settled — again, according to Arrian and Plutarch — battle was joined, and after a hard initial struggle the Macedonians won their great victory. Yet few modern students would disagree with Plutarch’s verdict that the strategy which Alexander employed ‘seemed to be crazy and senseless rather than the product of reason’. In fact the one thing which, so far as we can judge, prevented it ending in total disaster was the even more lunatic strategy adopted by the Persians on the other side. This gives one food for thought, especially since Diodorus offers us not only a quite different picture but an eminently sane one.

Here, beyond any doubt, we have a situation in which Parmenio’s advice has been followed. Alexander moves at dawn, and gets his whole army across the Granicus undisturbed — which makes it a virtual certainty (assuming, for the moment, the validity of the report) that during the night he had moved away from the Persian position, and found an easier alternative fording-point. In which direction? Welles claims that Diodorus, or his source, probably ‘located the battle farther upstream, in the foothills’. He cites no evidence for this view, and the topography of the area is, on balance, against it. There is also the (admittedly ambiguous) evidence of Polyaenus to consider in this context. The Persians, that is, were advancing, which they could scarcely have been doing in the engagement as described by Ptolemy and Aristobulus; and they were advancing. While this phrase came to mean simply ‘from above’ or ‘from higher ground’ in many cases, its root meaning was ‘from above on the right’, and in various well-attested instances it could signify ‘from upstream’. Alexander then proceeded to outflank his attackers on the right wing, another significant departure from the canonical version of the battle. What Polyaenus would seem to be describing is an engagement fought at right-angles to the river rather than parallel with it, which suggests that he too drew on the Diodoran tradition.

Now in Diodorus’ account, the Persian order of battle, far from being a mere unaccountable whim, makes very good sense indeed. Here it is only after Alexander has crossed the river, and deployed his forces,45 that Arsites and his fellow-commanders decide to counter the Macedonian attack with an all-out cavalry front, and to hold their infantry in reserve. This plan bears some resemblance to Darius’ battle order at Gaugamela,  and was adopted for very similar reasons. In the first place, Persian infantry (or indeed any infantry if sufficiently outnumbered) was ‘unsuitable for a pitched battle in the plains either against hoplites or charging horsemen’.46 Secondly, and more important, in cavalry the Persians were overwhelmingly stronger than their opponents, a fact which went some way to balance out their shortage of first-class foot-soldiers.

To calculate the actual number of troops which the Persians had available at the Granicus is a highly conjectural task, but in ways a most revealing one. Arrian (1.4.4) states that they had 20,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry, the latter consisting exclusively of mercenaries. Diodorus (17.19.5) gives the figure as over 10,000 cavalry, plus 100,000 infantry. This latter figure, improbably enough in itself, is contradicted by Arrian’s statement elsewhere (1.13.3) that the Persian infantry was ‘outnumbered’, and thus even at an outside estimate lower than the overall Macedonian total of 43,00047 — some at least of whom were probably on line-of-communication duties. Plutarch gives no figures at all, while Justin (11.6.11) offers an all-in total of 600,000 (sic).

Let us now compare these figures with the casualty lists. Diodorus (17.21.6) claims that the Persians lost over 2,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. Plutarch (Alex. 16.7) places the infantry losses at 20,000, those of the cavalry at 2,500. Arrian (1.16.2) makes no assessment of infantry losses at all, except to say that the Greek mercenary phalanx, all but some 2,000 men, was totally wiped out. Diodorus further records the number of prisoners taken — and in the context it is clear that means infantry prisoners — as 20,000. In contrast, Macedonian losses, according to our sources, are unbelievably small. The highest cavalry losses recorded (Justin 11.6.12) are 120; Arrian (1.16.4) puts the figure at 60, including 25 Companions, while Plutarch (16.7), on the authority of Aristobulus, cites the 25 Companions alone. Infantry losses, on the testimony available, were even smaller: thirty, according to Arrian, no more than nine by Plutarch’s and Justin’s reckoning. The historian, remembering the circumstances in which the battle was putatively fought, may perhaps permit himself a brief smile of incredulity.

There is, however, one even more striking and paradoxical fact which instantly stands out about these figures. In an engagement where the Persians are often said to have relied exclusively on their cavalry, their heaviest losses — or so we are asked to believe — took place among the infantry. Yet according to the same sources, these troops, except for the Greek mercenaries, put up little resistance: they fled in a rout, and there was no pursuit (Plut. Alex. 16.6; Arrian 1.16.1–2). This would at once seem to dispose of those 10,000 corpses and 20,000 prisoners: the first law of propaganda is to make your story consistent. Yet in sharp contrast to this, the cavalry losses recorded are, as we shall see in a moment, perfectly plausible. What, one well may ask, lies behind so striking and blatant a discrepancy?

First, let us see if we can find any evidence from which the true size of the Persian forces can be deduced. Diodorus (17.19.4) gives Arsites’ order of battle in some detail, certainly as regards the cavalry: whatever source he is here utilizing at least had access to Persian as well as to Macedonian records, if only in the form of captured intelligence-files (always presuming that such things existed in the fourth century, for which there is little evidence). On the left wing was Memnon, with his Greek mercenaries: an exclusively mounted contingent, it is assumed. Next to him came Arsamenes with his Cilicians; then Arsites, commanding the Paphlagonians; then Spithridates, with the eastern cavalry from Hyrcania. At this point Diodorus has a moment of infuriating vagueness: the centre, he says, is also occupied by ‘other national cavalry contingents, numerous and picked for their valour’. Beyond them the right wing was held by 1,000 Medes, 2,000 Bactrians, and 2,000 unidentified horsemen under Rheomithres.

If this catalogue is at all trustworthy, we can make a very fair guess at the size of the Persian cavalry arm. Seven regiments are named and described; the other ‘national contingents’ provided at least two more, probably three. We read of two that are 2,000 strong, and one of half that number. If we strike a (conservative) average of 1,500, we obtain a round total of about 15,000 — a median figure, as it happens, between the estimates given respectively by Diodorus and Arrian. Losses of 2,000+ or 2,500 (i.e. of 14–16 per cent) would be just about what one might expect. When we turn to the infantry, however, it is a very different matter. To begin with, there can be no doubt that Arrian (or Ptolemy) has vastly exaggerated the numbers of mercenaries involved. When Memnon was first commissioned by Darius, he got no more than 5,000 mercenaries; Polyaenus puts the figure as low as 4,000. It is unlikely that the troops at his disposal were substantially increased until he obtained the supreme command in western Asia Minor; and Darius lost no time in recalling what mercenaries he did have immediately after his death — which shows that, as a commodity, they were still in short supply. Indeed, it was only in 333, when Alexander had already conquered most of Anatolia, that the Great King began recruiting in earnest. By the time of Issus he had arguably raised the number of mercenaries to 30,000, and the force on his payroll later reached an attested total of 50,000.

But in May 334, when Alexander reached the Granicus, it is doubtful whether Darius had more than 15,000 Greek mercenaries all told, in Egypt, Asia Minor, or anywhere else, including the eastern provinces. 5,000, in fact, would be just about what he could spare Memnon to deal with Parmenio’s advance force, and it is doubtful whether, at this stage, he thought Philip’s untried son dangerous enough to justify any further reinforcements. There are two additional points to bear in mind here. That Alexander massacred 18,000 out of 20,000 mercenaries at the Granicus is not an absolute impossibility per se; but it is, to say the least, unlikely. The sack of Thebes, a far more general and unrestrained piece of mass-slaughter, produced a death-roll only one third the size; even the butchery of the Athenians at the Assinarus was on a lesser scale. Secondly, it is quite incredible, on any reckoning, that the Persians, with so wide a variety of units to draw upon, should have had no infantry whatsoever apart from the mercenaries; and indeed neither Aristobulus nor Diodorus’ source assumed this to be the case.

On the other hand, if we are in search of hard figures, the case is almost hopeless. Arrian’s 20,000 is the only remotely plausible estimate: we should not reject it out of hand because of Ptolemy’s assertion that it consisted of mercenaries alone. But even this figure may well be too large. Justin’s overall estimate of 600,000 is so ludicrously inflated that it suggests textual corruption rather than propaganda. At some point a scribe might well have misread (30,000) in his Greek source as (600,000); but though this would give us a very plausible round figure, it is not a theory on which one can build with any confidence. If we allow for an infantry force of, say, 15–16,000, of which up to one third were Greek mercenaries, that is about as close as we are likely to get.

Let us now turn back to the battle itself, as reported by Ptolemy and Aristobulus. Against Parmenio’s considered advice, and amid general reluctance on the part of his Macedonians, Alexander disdainfully insisted on pressing home the attack (Arrian 1.13; Plut. Alex. 16.1–3). He then, according to Aristobulus (16.3), plunged precipitately into the river with no more than thirteen squadrons accompanying him. Ptolemy, on the other hand, makes him order his whole battle-line in a way that agrees with Diodorus’ account of the dawn engagement, and emphasizes at the same time the disposition of the Persians: lined up along the bank, cavalry to the fore, infantry in rear — again, duplicating Diodorus. One or the other of them, it is fair to assume, has mistaken his occasion. At this point, according to Ptolemy, there was a short pause, while both sides eyed each other and did nothing. Then Alexander sent the Scouts, the Paeonians, one Companion squadron and one file of infantry ahead, and followed in person at the head of the whole right wing, advancing obliquely with the current towards the Persian centre. This seems a far more deliberate and well-organized manoeuvre; it also sounds far more appropriate for a normal land-battle.

Both sources are in general agreement as to what happened next. The Macedonian spearhead found itself up against the Persian cavalry, who were, very gallantly but for no good apparent reason, doing a job that could have been done far better by Memnon’s hoplites and light-armed javelin-men. Curiously, it is javelins which now rained down on them from the banks; the Persians are described as javelin cavalry, while the Macedonians resist with spears. When Alexander is struck it is with a javelin. We may note, however, that when there is a specific reference to the Persian cavalry, these are not, apparently, their weapons. They, like their Macedonian counterparts, use spears, and the sword, when their spears are broken. Some of them are also armed with the scimitar or sabre, a traditional cavalry weapon. Diodorus also mentions the scimitars. Only Ptolemy refers to javelins in this context, and though it remains uncertain just what kind of spears or javelins these were, they are specifically associated with cavalry usage.

The initial attack suffered badly, as we might expect (how this setback is reconciled with the minuscule Macedonian casualty-list remains a mystery) and part of the credit for the repulse is specifically attributed to Memnon. There follows another interesting discrepancy between Ptolemy’s version and that of Aristobulus. While the cavalry was engaged upon this heroic hand-to-hand struggle, the latter tells us, ‘the Macedonian phalanx crossed the river and the infantry forces on both sides engaged’ (Plut. Alex. 16.6). But according to Ptolemy, the Persian infantry (whether mercenaries or not) remained in rear of the cavalry throughout. Which of them is telling the truth? And who (if Aristobulus is correct) are these ghostly foot-soldiers, with their javelins and darts, that we glimpse here for a moment (under Memnon’s orders, it can scarcely be doubted), first resisting Alexander’s cavalry charge, and then grappling with the phalanx. In the next sentence we read that they ‘did not resist vigorously, nor for a long time, but fled in a rout, all except the Greek mercenaries’ — a clear enough statement that Memnon’s troops were not the only infantry fighting on the Persian side.

Ptolemy is at least consistent: according to his version, Alexander only dealt with the enemy infantry after the main cavalry engagement had been won — a view, be it noted, which is also that of Diodorus. But Diodorus, as he makes very clear, is dealing with a battle which supposedly took place at dawn the following morning, and in very different circumstances: not across the river, but in the open plain on the far side — in campis Adrasteis, as Justin says (11.6.10); a small pointer, but not without its significance. Nevertheless, once Alexander and his men are up the further bank of the Granicus, and firmly established — it is just at this crucial point, suggestively enough, that the narratives of Ptolemy and Aristobulus become momentarily blurred in detail — the three accounts all go forward in close agreement. We have the famous duel between Alexander, Mithridates, and Rhosaces; Alexander’s split-second rescue by Black Cleitus; the final rout and victory. Alexander himself is handled a little more roughly, a little less like the invincible hero, in Diodorus’ version: at one point he seems actually to be down on the ground, with Spithridates and his royal kinsmen assailing him from all sides. But that all three sources are from now on dealing with the same battle seems beyond dispute.

It will be convenient, before proceeding further, to recapitulate the facts that have emerged in the course of this investigation. Firstly, we have two separate (and on the face of it irreconcilable) accounts of the battle which Alexander fought at the Granicus. In the one he is advised to wait until dawn rather than launch an impossible frontal assault against heavy odds; he refuses the advice, attacks, and ultimately triumphs. In the other, he does wait till dawn. In the one he attacks across the river and up a steep bank on the farther side; in the other he gets his troops across unseen by the Persians (at least till the very last minute) and then fights a classic Macedonian-style engagement. In the one, both sides’ tactics are ill-advised, and those of the Persians flatly incredible; in the other they are appropriate and excite no comment. Up to the crossing of the river, Ptolemy and Aristobulus disagree not only with Diodorus, but also, on occasion, with one another, in a way which suggests that they may well be suppressing vital evidence (e.g. the possible role played by Memnon’s infantry during the initial assault). After the crossing, their account of the battle merges smoothly into that given by Diodorus, though the latter is, on the face of it, describing a quite different occasion. Lastly, we have the remarkable exaggeration of Persian infantry numbers and losses, together with a suggestion on Ptolemy’s part that they were all Greek mercenaries; and, balancing this, an estimate of Macedonian losses so small that it can hardly be explained away as propaganda. Propaganda, after all, is meant to be believed.

What are we to make of all this? We may argue, and with some confidence, that Diodorus’ version of events has a good deal more to be said for it than is generally allowed. This at once raises the question of why most scholars dismiss it out of hand. The most illuminating answer to this question is contained in Davis’s criticisms of Beloch:

The Arrian — Plutarch version of the battle he dismisses as merely a romantic picture designed to exhibit Alexander in the light of a Homeric hero. What he is doing here is not merely preferring the poorer to the better authority; he is also setting the Granicus against the evidence of Alexander’s whole career. He is making Parmenio out of Alexander the Great. Why should this be the one occasion when Alexander chose the more cautious over the bolder course? And it is impossible to explain either the rest of Alexander’s career or the history of the years after his death if Alexander is reduced to a mere colorless competence. Alexander was a Homeric hero.

Now whatever our feelings about a mechanical reliance on ‘better’ as against ‘worse’ sources, we may willingly concede Davis’s central point. The Diodorus account does indeed run counter to Alexander’s known life-style in every possible way. But does that justify us in rejecting it out of hand, without further consideration? I think not. Circumstances may arise in which even an Alexander is forced to act against his own wishes, or, worse, to admit a serious error of judgement. On such an occasion his immediate instinct will be to falsify the record in his own interests. Our problem, I would submit, is a more complex one than merely deciding between two alternative traditions. What we are faced with here is deliberate, unmistakable, and systematic manipulation of the evidence.

Thus we cannot, like Gulliver, opt for one end or other of the egg, since propaganda (contrary to popular belief) avoids direct lies whenever possible. It normally prefers to save the appearances, aided by those two time-honoured devices suppressio veri and suggestio falsi. The carefully slanted half-truth is far more effective than any mere fabrication, if only because it becomes much harder to expose for what it is. If we provisionally accept the hypothesis that our main account of the Granicus has been doctored to conceal some kind of initial failure, then a completely new light is shed not only on Alexander’s behaviour, but also on the supposedly divergent testimonia, which it may prove possible to reconcile in an unlooked-for fashion. What we seem to have here is, on the one hand, the ‘official’ version of the Granicus battle; and on the other an independent account which, while accepting some of the ‘official’ record’s more dubious claims (e.g. those concerning Persian infantry losses), nevertheless disagrees with it at several crucial points.

If we ask ourselves who was ultimately responsible for doctoring the record utilized by Ptolemy and Aristobulus (both of whom, incidentally, must have been well aware of the truth), the only possible answer is Alexander himself, aided in all likelihood by Eumenes, his chief secretary, and the expedition’s official historian, Callisthenes. So much seems clear enough. But our most important task is to find out not only how the truth was distorted, but also why. After all, the battle of the Granicus was won: that fact remains solid and undeniable. But it also poses an obvious dilemma. If Alexander won in the way suggested by Diodorus, why should he bother to make up a completely false version of events which does no credit to his strategic sense? And if Ptolemy and Aristobulus are telling the truth, how did the eminently sane and unromantic account utilized by Diodorus ever get into circulation at all? Diodorus, significantly, makes the king out as Homeric a figure as anyone could wish during the actual battle (whenever and wherever that may have taken place); it is only beforehand that caution comes to the fore.

Here we may pertinently recall Davis’s question: ‘Why should this be the one occasion when Alexander chose the more cautious over the bolder course?’ Might it not be that in the first instance he did nothing of the sort, but acted, characteristically, like the Homeric hero on whom he modelled himself, and with disastrous consequences? A hypothesis of two battles at the Granicus, one, abortive, in the afternoon, the second, overwhelmingly successful, the following morning, would not only enable us to reconcile our conflicting evidence; it would also provide the strongest possible motive for Alexander to falsify the record afterwards. An initial defeat, at the very outset of his Asiatic campaign — even though recouped immediately afterwards — would make the worst possible impression, not least on the still undecided Greek cities of Asia Minor. Delphi had pronounced Alexander, unconquerable, and he had to be, on every occasion. Herein lay the ultimate secret of his extraordinary personal charisma: the quasi-magical belief that he could not fail, that his leadership in itself guaranteed victory.

Now throughout his life, as we have seen, Alexander reacted very badly indeed to any direct thwarting of his will and ambition. His instinct was to destroy those who stood in his path; he would, if need be, wait years for an appropriate and satisfying revenge. A setback, even a temporary one, at the Granicus would bode ill for all persons responsible once victory had been secured. The most competent and experienced troops fighting on the Persian side were, of course, Memnon’s Greek mercenaries. Can we regard Alexander’s special, and singularly vicious, animus against this particular unit as mere coincidence? He slaughtered them wholesale, and sent the survivors, chained like felons, to forced labour in Macedonia, at a time when common sense would have suggested acquiring their valuable services for himself at preferential rates. Moreover, this was an isolated action: from then on he enrolled Greek mercenaries whenever he could get hold of them.

His ostensible reason (published by Ptolemy and accepted by most modern scholars) was that ‘they had violated Greek public opinion by fighting with orientals, as Greeks, against Greeks’. In other words, he was making a gesture as captain-general of the league. But Greek public opinion was something of which Alexander took notice only when it suited him; and the league served him as a blanket excuse for various questionable or underhand actions, the destruction of Thebes being merely the most notorious. A little good publicity in Greece never came amiss; but it is improbable, to say the least, that this was his primary motive. Aristobulus tells us that Alexander was ‘influenced more by anger than by reason’, and this sounds far more like the truth. His behaviour, indeed, bears all the signs of that terrible rage which could, at times, sweep away the last vestiges of his self-control, and was invariably caused by some personal insult, some thwarting of his destiny, some affront to his will, dignity, or honour.

The falsification of the record in this respect is highly suggestive. The infantry were made out to be more numerous than they were; in Ptolemy’s account (see above) they are no mere Persian conscripts either, but highly trained mercenaries to the last man. We have already seen how improbable a claim this was. As propaganda, however, its meaning is clear. The threat which the Greek mercenaries represented was to be highly exaggerated, and the glory of overcoming them correspondingly increased. Yet at the same time any part they may have played in the actual crossing of the Granicus was to be deleted from the official account, even if it meant crediting the Persians with a wholly unbelievable battle-plan. This double reaction, coupled with Alexander’s savage treatment of them afterwards, suggests that they somehow thwarted his plans in a way which showed him up in a very bad light, and which he was determined should be forgotten. In any case the odds against him were to be dramatically increased: if he had failed, he was determined to show that no mortal man could have succeeded.

Now if Alexander had in fact simply followed Parmenio’s advice, crossed the river at dawn, and won his victory, there would have been no pressing need for him to invent the long dramatic rigmarole recounted by Ptolemy, with its wealth of circumstantial detail: the Macedonian panic, the intercalation of a calendar month, the argument with Parmenio, the details of that first suicidal assault across the river. These things really happened; and they happened in the late afternoon, just as Ptolemy says they did. If, at this point, we are prepared to argue that Diodorus’ account is likewise substantially true, then the nature of Alexander’s propaganda at the Granicus at once reveals itself, and all the apparently unmotivated discrepancies fall into place. Here, then, is a reconstruction of what I believe may have been the true course of events.

When Alexander reached the Granicus, he found that Arsites had made his dispositions not perversely but all too well. He did, indeed, have his cavalry along the river-bank, since this was by far his strongest native arm; but it was not alone. At the crossing-point itself he had placed Memnon’s redoubtable mercenaries, just as any competent commander might be expected to do. The Persians knew the strength of their defences; they simply sat tight and waited to see whether Alexander (whose dashing reputation, clearly, had preceded him) would be rash enough to try a frontal assault. They had gauged their man well. Alexander was determined to cross the river at once; any further delaying tactics on the part of his officers would leave the man who used them facing a charge of cowardice, if not of treason. For the second, and last, time in his life, the king’s youthful impetuosity, coupled with the dire need to force an engagement at all costs, got the better of that cool strategic head. Parmenio suggested, hopefully, that the enemy might decamp during the night. This, of course, was the one thing Alexander had to prevent, and it was probably a major factor in deciding him to reject his second-in-command’s advice.

Besides, his Homeric destiny was summoning him to achieve heroic deeds, like his exemplar Achilles; and where better, here and now, than across the Granicus River, in the face of fearful odds? He charged headlong into the stream, and thirteen squadrons went with him. Perhaps the phalanx followed; just possibly it did not. There had been panic in the ranks; Parmenio’s advice had been flouted; and almost every key command — including those of the Hypaspists and the Companion Cavalry — was held by one of Parmenio’s sons, relatives, or personal nominees. If there was a power-struggle between Alexander and Parmenio from the first, Burn asks, why did the army not simply ‘make a Uriah’ of Alexander at the Granicus? Nothing, he adds, could have been easier. In fact, I would submit, they may well have attempted to do so; but Alexander, as his subsequent exploits make abundantly clear, had an even more remarkable talent for survival than his father Philip.

For a while, with furious resolve, Alexander and his squadrons battered at Memnon’s mercenaries, while a deadly blizzard of javelins rained down on them. If other Macedonian units, whether of foot or horse, supported this attack, they still made very little headway. At last, forced to admit defeat, they turned back across the river. This is the central fact which Ptolemy and Aristobulus are at such pains to conceal. Alexander’s first brush with the Persians had ended in humiliating failure. Worse still, Parmenio had been proved right; and with all the weight of his sixty-five years behind him, he would not be slow to emphasize the fact. Yet Alexander, though he never forgot or forgave an injury, was also a realist, who never lost sight of his ultimate goal. He swallowed his pride; it must have taken some doing. During that night the army marched downstream and forded the Granicus. Perhaps Alexander simply intimated to his staff that if the troops distinguished themselves in battle next morning the matter would be regarded as closed. After all, he had as much reason for wanting the first assault forgotten as anyone.

So, indeed, it turned out: the Macedonians, perhaps a little ashamed of themselves, won an overwhelming victory. But that, from Alexander’s point of view, was by no means the end of the matter. There were scores to settle, and an episode to be hushed up. Not for several years yet would the king feel himself strong enough to try conclusions with that indispensable figure Parmenio; but Memnon’s mercenaries, who had been instrumental in achieving his humiliation, were quite another matter. On them he took prompt and savage vengeance, camouflaging his personal motives by the pretence that he was executing justice on behalf of the Hellenic League. His initial débâcle may also provide a possible explanation for the minuscule size of the Macedonian casualty-lists in our sources. As an overall estimate they are ludicrous, a fact which every scholar has acknowledged. If the final battle took place in the way Ptolemy claims it did, by direct frontal assault, the one thing we can say with absolute assurance is that Alexander’s losses would have been murderously heavy, almost on the scale of those suffered (in not dissimilar circumstances) by the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. But if we take them as the casualties suffered by the thirteen squadrons which charged across the river with Alexander, and by them alone, they at once fall into place — even down to the nine foot-soldiers, who will have belonged to that ‘one file of the infantry’, included in the spearhead. Alexander had statues erected at Dium to the twenty-five Companions who fell at the Granicus — another unique gesture, never to be repeated: it is significant that all of them are said to have been killed ‘in the first assault’. To commemorate the faithful few, and them alone, would have been a superbly contemptuous gesture, very much in line with all we know of Alexander’s character.

Now it only remained to put the record straight for propaganda purposes. There was no need to tamper with the final battle; only to transfer its setting. What had to be eliminated, at all costs, was that disastrous, ill-conceived, and humiliating initial charge. So the two separate engagements were run into one, and the scene of the final conflict changed from dawn to evening, from the Adrasteian plain to the river-bank of the Granicus. Callisthenes (or whoever was responsible) had to do the job in a hurry; small wonder that some loose ends and tell-tale inconsistencies remained, that the stitching of the join could be seen by those who cared to look for it. Memnon’s role in the defence was carefully obliterated, though (as we have seen) not quite carefully enough; the Persian battle-plan was put, unchanged, into a new context which made it appear perverse to the point of insanity (itself an excellent piece of propaganda); and the king’s deed of personal ἀρετή was increased beyond measure as a result.

No one would dare to publish the truth during Alexander’s lifetime: too many high officials had connived at its falsification. Nor, indeed, was the real story one that reflected overmuch credit on anyone concerned — except, perhaps, on Parmenio. The battle had, after all, been won; and human memory is mercifully short. But discrepancies — mostly caused by unthinking adherence to the truth except at specifically sensitive points — were bound to find their way into the official version. Lastly, one of Diodorus’ sources utilized a tradition which put on record the true facts of Alexander’s dawn manoeuvres. The genesis of this tradition can be no more than a matter for speculation; but it appears, severely truncated, in Diodorus’ own narrative, and is hinted at by Justin and Polyaenus. If this hypothesis should be correct, it shows us the one occasion in his whole career when Alexander suffered a personal defeat — and by so doing renders him one degree more credible as a human being.

I do not for one moment suppose that the theory here put forward solves the enigma of the Granicus beyond any reasonable doubt, and I am well aware of the arguments that can be brought against it. Diodorus is a notoriously uncritical and unreliable source (or transmitter of sources); his contaminated account of the battle of Issus would hardly encourage one to accept him on the Granicus were it not for the (to me) unavoidable considerations advanced above. Nor, let me freely confess, do I find it intrinsically plausible that — as one of my more cogent critics represents the case I propose — of our two accounts one (Arrian) is a deliberate falsification, combining (roughly) the first half of the first battle with the second half of the second; while the other (Diodorus), coincidentally but by pure accident, omits the first battle and gives us only the second one’. I simply find this less unlikely than the alternative possibilities. Again while the motives of Ptolemy and Aristobulus in this matter are clear enough, why should any source hostile to Alexander not have instantly jumped on the first, abortive, attack on the Granicus, and given it maximum detrimental publicity — as indeed happened with so many other incidents, known to far fewer people, which Alexander’s propagandists afterwards suppressed or distorted? To this question I can see no answer — any more than I understand how, supposing Arrian to be telling the truth, the Diodorus version (so much saner and more commonsensical by comparison) ever got launched. The one postulate raises just as many problems as the other. It may be that there was no botched afternoon attack, and that Alexander crossed at dawn without further demur. It may even be true (a point hard to determine without on-the-spot topographical investigation) that he forced the crossing ab initio, though I find this improbable, to say the least. But in either case the very real difficulties I have outlined still need to be explained. (It will not do, for instance, to dismiss Diodorus’ account of the battle’s preliminaries as a piece of rhetorical fiction straight from the Issus stock-pot. Alexander repeated his basic dispositions in almost every major battle he fought: the cliché, if cliché there be, is tactical rather than rhetorical.) I would claim no more than that my hypothesis answers more questions than it raises. Perhaps in the last resort Davis was right, and the enigma must be pronounced insoluble.


Philip would turn the traditional method of combat on its head by creating an army and introducing new tactics the likes of which the Greeks had never seen. His enemies were no match for him. Nor, as events would prove, were the Persians, Bactrians, and Indians a match for Alexander, thanks to the army he inherited from his father.

A Macedonian phalanx by Johnny Shumate.

Macedonian phalanx formation carrying sarissas. From N. G. L. Hammond, Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman, 2nd ed. (Bristol: 1989), p. 84.
Mechanical bow and torsion catapult.

The strength of Macedonia’s army before Philip had lain in its cavalry, provided by the nobles who alone could bear the costs of horses and armor. The infantry by contrast consisted mostly of peasant farmers, who were hastily conscripted when danger threatened. They were poorly, if at all, trained and armed. When called to fight they had to leave their farms, bringing with them their oxen and wagons, which in turn adversely affected their crop outputs and livelihood. No match for the aggressive tribes on the kingdom’s borders or the trained hoplite Greek armies, the Macedonian army had a torpid track record. Philip changed all that by implementing reforms as soon as he became king to create a professional, full-time fighting force.

Like the Greek cities, Philip relied on mercenaries throughout his reign. However, to attract his own people as well as those whom he conquered to military service, he introduced regular pay and a promotion pathway; he also provided arms and armor to the infantry, although the wealthy cavalrymen still had to pay for their own horses. The elite hypaspist (shield bearer) infantryman was paid one drachma a day, and a cavalryman, three drachmas. These rates were higher than the daily five obols for a Greek hoplite soldier (six obols = one drachma) and two (possibly three) drachmas for a Greek cavalryman. In addition, cash bonuses and even grants of land in conquered territories were awarded to his men in recognition of their service and as an incentive to fight all the more. These simple acts dispensed with the need for conscription and also benefited the economy, as the farmers no longer had to leave their lands to fight.

Philip never considered adopting the Greek hoplite style of hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters. Instead, thanks to the tactical influence of Pammenes and Epaminondas of Thebes, he taught his infantry new skills and grouped them together in various battalions (led by battalion commanders) that together comprised the phalanx, over which he had ultimate control. He may have done so because he lacked money and time to make the armor and train his men in hoplite tactics. On the other hand, given the 4,000 losses under Perdiccas, Philip must have had to hire some mercenaries at the start of his reign, which indicates that he had money. Further, these mercenaries would have been versed in hoplite tactics, affording him the time to train his own men accordingly. Therefore a more plausible reason for fashioning the phalanx as he did is that he wanted it to be utterly different from anything the Greeks had ever been confronted by in battle. To cope with different terrains and enemy formations and numbers Philip varied the depth of the phalanx formation from eight to 32 ranks (he and Alexander preferred 16), thereby affording it weight and power as well as maneuverability in the field.

Philip (or possibly Alexander II) may also have created a contingent of infantry known as pezhetairoi, “foot companions,” as a sort of “special forces” unit. Later, pezhetairoi became the name for all the infantry, perhaps as a “balance” to the Companion Cavalry, and this specialist unit was called the hypaspists (shield bearers), who would prove invaluable to Alexander in Asia. Philip also introduced new weaponry, including the sarissa, a 14- to 18-foot-long pike made of local cornel wood, with a pointed iron head, altogether weighing around 14 pounds-the modern reconstructions of them at Thessaloniki show how intimidating these weapons must have been.

The sarissa required both hands to wield it, but since it came in two parts it could easily be carried and then quickly fitted together before engaging an enemy. The infantryman would then carry the weapon upright (in “close order,” pyknosis), and as the phalanx approached the enemy line the first five ranks of the battalions would lower their sarissas to charge.

The sheer length of the sarissa allowed the Macedonian troops to impale their enemies, whose short swords came nowhere near them, thereby thwarting the close-formation hoplite fighting. Even when the two lines actually did meet the Macedonians’ armor of a cuirass, leg greaves, small shield over one shoulder, a short sword, and an iron, hoplite-style helmet weighed less than that of the Greek hoplite, again giving them an advantage.

Most of Philip’s innovations involved the infantry, but he did not neglect the cavalry and viewed both divisions of his army as equally important. He arranged the cavalry in various divisions (ilai), each of about 200 men, which were based on the regions from which the troops came. A special royal squadron of cavalry (ile basilike) comprised 300 men. He may even have created the fast, mounted cavalry scouts (prodromoi), on whom Alexander relied so heavily in Asia. Instead of a frontal cavalry assault, Philip trained his cavalry to attack in a wedge formation, and its principal role was to disrupt the opposite line. The Macedonian horses pushed and shoved the enemy combatants, while their riders, brandishing spears and short swords, slashed and stabbed from on high. There was also a cavalry squadron named the sarissophoroi, who therefore carried sarissas. These must have been shorter than the infantry sarissas, as the riders could not have used both hands to wield a long sarissa and at the same time control their horses. To wreak havoc among enemy ranks even more, Philip reversed the standard Greek tactic of infantry engaging the enemy before the cavalry. His army was unique in Greece for having its cavalry advance against the adversary’s flanks at the outset of an engagement and wheel behind it while the massed phalanx bore down on the center and poured through gaps opened up by the cavalry. In this way, his opponents were trapped between two offensive fronts.

Philip kept his men in constant training to help prepare them for any type of engagement. The infantry especially had to learn to use their sarissas effortlessly, especially if marching across rivers and rocky terrain, and to run with them in upright and lowered positions. We learn about aspects of the training and drills from a campaign in Illyria that Alexander waged in 335, shortly after he became king. Philip would also have arranged for the infantry and cavalry to work seamlessly together, perhaps charging dummy lines of differing lengths and depths to hone their shock-and-awe tactics. The king also intended his new army to be self-sufficient. To this end, the men were taught to forage for provisions and to carry all their equipment, food, and drink. The “hangerson” who normally accompanied Greek and Persian armies, from wives and families to various attendants and even prostitutes, were banned from traveling with Macedonian troops. The slow-moving carts carrying provisions and equipment that oxen had previously pulled were also abandoned and replaced by faster-moving pack animals such as mules and horses. The end result was an army that could march quickly and effortlessly regardless of terrain or weather conditions.

Philip’s military reforms did not happen overnight but, rather, continued throughout his reign. In about 350 he formed an engineering corps, headed by Polyeides (or Polyidus) of Thessaly, who was designing new siege machinery, including the torsion catapult. This was akin to a spring-loaded crossbow that fired arrows farther and faster than the traditional mechanically drawn catapult. Philip first used the torsion catapult at his siege of Byzantium in 340, and the weapon enabled Alexander to take many walled cities and force others into capitulation. In fact two of Polyidus’s students, Diades and Charias, accompanied Alexander on his campaigns.

Philip also integrated regular and specialist troops from the areas he conquered into his army. For example, after his campaign in Illyria in 358 Agrianian javelin men (who lived above the Strymon River) joined his ranks, as did Thracian javelin men and Scythian archers after his conquest of Thrace in 342-341. Some of the individual regiments of the phalanx had special functions or were held in particular esteem, such as the elite hypaspists, who were lighter-armed and marched at faster speeds and whose number included the royal agema or guard. Competition to be in these units was fierce, and membership meant everything-as Philip intended. Here, the political nature of his military reforms becomes evident. Former opponents who were made to join the army and who were deliberately kept in territorial divisions fought all the harder to prove that their divisions were the best, while outstanding commanders could be rewarded with membership in Philip’s senior staff (like his general Parmenion). In turn they came to owe loyalty to their general and king and maintain a united Macedonia.

To this end Philip may also have introduced the school of royal pages, young noble boys who lived at court from 14 to 18 years of age and received a military training, accompanying the king on campaign in their last year and serving as his personal attendants. This innovation was really a form of hostage-taking and was perhaps inspired by Persian practice. The families of these boys had little say in their sons being taken to court, where their well-being depended on the loyalty of their fathers.

Diodorus grossly overstated that Philip left so vast and powerful an army that Alexander never needed to ask for reinforcements when campaigning against the Persians. Nevertheless, Philip increased the army’s size from only about 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry in 359 to 24,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry by the end of his reign in 336. He created an offensive army such as Macedonia had never seen before and in doing so enabled his kingdom to become an imperial power.

Command Structure of the Macedonian Army

Philip II of Macedon

Mercenaries in Macedonian Service