The Mediterranean – Sixteenth Century

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Cornelis Hendriksz Vroom, Spanish Men-of-War Engaging Barbary Corsairs, 1615.

By the mid-century the Mediterranean was a sea of disappearances, a place where people working the coastal margins simply vanished: the lone fisherman setting out in his boat; a shepherd with his flock on the seashore; laborers harvesting corn or tending vines, sometimes several miles inland; sailors working a small tramp ship around the islands. Once seized they could be in the slave mart at Algiers in a couple of days—or they could be subjected to a lengthy cruise in pursuit of other prizes. Those who weakened or died en route would be dumped overboard.

In a particularly cruel twist, the captives might reappear at their home village a day or two later. The raiders would materialize offshore, hoist a flag of truce, and display the victims for ransom. The grieving relatives would be given a day to raise funds; the families might mortgage their fields and boats to the local moneylender and enter a spiral of inescapable debt. If they failed, the hostages would be gone forever. The illiterate peasantry too poor to be ransomed seldom saw their birthplace again.

The sudden terror of these visitations cast a profound dread over the Christian sea. Those who were taken, such as the Frenchman Du Chastelet, seized in the seventeenth century, never forgot the trauma of their capture. “As to me,” he wrote, recalling the nightmarish moment, “I noticed a great Moor approaching me, his sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, holding a sabre in his large hand of four fingers; I was left without words. And the ugliness of this carbon face, animated by two ivory eyeballs, moving about hideously, terrified me a good deal more than were frightened the first humans at the sight of the flaming sword at the door of Eden.”

This was a terror sharpened by racial difference; across the narrow sea two civilizations communicated through abrupt acts of violence and revenge. Europe was on the receiving end of the slavery it was starting to inflict on West Africa—though the numbers slaved to Islam far exceeded the black slaves taken in the sixteenth century, and where Atlantic slaving was a matter of cold business, in the Mediterranean it was heightened by mutual religious hatred. The Islamic raids were designed both to damage the material infrastructure of Spain and Italy and to undermine the spiritual and psychic basis of Christians’ lives. The ransacking of tombs and the ritual desecration of churches that Jérome Maurand witnessed in 1544 were acts of profound intention. The Italian poet Curthio Mattei mourned “the outrage done to God”—the holy images skewered to the floor with daggers, the mocking of the sacraments and altars. Mattei was equally appalled by the disinterring of corpses and the destruction of generations of past people: “The bones of our dead are not secure underground…dozens of years after death.” The corsairs entered Italian folklore as agents of hell, and what made it more difficult to bear was that as often as not Satan’s emissaries were renegade Christians who had defected to Islam through circumstance or choice, and who were extremely well placed to maximize damage on their native lands.

In this atmosphere, Charles’s failure to retake Algiers in 1541 assumed a grave significance. The city, now protected by a breakwater and powerful defenses, became the center of piracy. It was a gold rush town, a place where a man might dream of becoming as rich as Barbarossa. Adventurers, freebooters, and outcasts came from across the impoverished sea and from both sides of the religious divide to try their luck at “Christian stealing.” The city resembled in part a gaudy bazaar where humans and booty were bought and sold, in part a Soviet gulag. Thousands of prisoners were kept in slave pens—the dark, crowded, fetid converted bathhouses—from whence they would be taken daily in chains to work. Wealthy captives such as the Spanish writer Cervantes, held in Algiers for five years, might enjoy tolerable conditions, awaiting liberation through ransom. The poor would lug stones, fell timber, dig salt, build palaces and forts, or, worst of all, row galleys until disease, abuse, and malnourishment finished them off.

It is impossible to know how many slaves were being taken in the decades after 1540, but it was not a one-way trade. Both sides were engaged in “man-taking” throughout the whole length of the sea, and if Islam was in the ascendancy, there were small correctives. The Knights of Saint John were ruthless slavers, particularly La Valette, the French knight who had fought as a young man at Rhodes. Putting out a small force of heavily armed galleys from Malta, the knights returned to their old haunts in the Aegean, disrupting the Ottoman sea-lanes between Egypt and Istanbul. They could be as unscrupulous as any corsair on the high seas. Jérome Maurand reached the Venetian island of Tinos shortly after a visit by a knight with some ships. The islanders had greeted the visitors “as friends and Christians,” until one morning, after most of the island men had left the town to work in the fields, “this Knight and his men, seeing that there were only a few men at the castle, killed them, sacked the castle, and took away the women, boys, and girls as slaves.” This treacherous act soon got its own comeuppance; the knight was in turn seized by Turkish corsairs and taken off to Istanbul, where Maurand was in time to witness his execution. Changes of fortune could be abrupt.

The knights were not alone; any small-scale Christian pirate might try his hand at raiding the eastern sea; Livorno and Naples on the Italian coast had active slave markets. Muslims disappeared into the Malta slave pens or the pope’s imperial galleys, but their numbers were far fewer than those taken to the Maghreb or Istanbul. There is a vast literature of Christian slave narratives; about the Muslims almost nothing. Occasional muffled accounts of personal suffering break the general silence. In the late 1550s Suleiman was bombarded by tearful requests from a woman called Huma for the restoration of her children, taken on a voyage to Mecca by the Knights of Saint John. The two daughters had been abducted to France, converted to Christianity, and married off. Distraught and persistent, Huma was a familiar figure in the Istanbul streets, trying to push a petition into the sultan’s hand as he rode by. Twenty-four years after their disappearance, Sultan Murat III could still write that “the lady named Huma has time and again presented written petitions to our imperial stirrup.” As far as we know the girls never came back; a further brother probably died at the oars of a Malta galley. There were countless thousands of such small tragedies on both sides of the religious divide, familiar tales of abduction and loss.

Viking Raids Up-River I



The brown areas on this map are Viking settlements. From late in the 8th century, Vikings raided, traded, and explored far and wide. They discovered Iceland in 870 and sailed farther west to Greenland in about 985. Leif the Lucky was probably the first European to set foot in North America. He is thought to have landed in Newfoundland, Canada, in around 1001. Vikings sailed east over the Baltic Sea and continued up rivers into Russia. They went on overland as far as the cities of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Jerusalem. Other Vikings sailed around the west coast of Europe and into the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to their ships and seafaring skills, they could take people completely by surprise.



This shows the #5 Roskilde warship replica in full sail. Viking sails were often dyed blood red, to strike fear into anyone who saw them coming. The shields were slotted into a shield rack that ran along the side of the ship. On other ships, the shields hung from cords.

In the early 830s the Viking raiders started altering their tactics in ominous ways. First, the number of yearly attacks increased markedly. So did the size of the raiding parties, as many Viking fleets grew in size to as many as thirty to thirty-five ships, and in the decades that followed a few had as many as a hundred vessels.

Even more disconcerting for the victims, the raiders’ ships began sailing far upstream on the larger, navigable rivers, which allowed them to ravage inland areas. In Ireland in 836, for instance, a Viking fleet moved up the Shannon River and sacked the important monastery at Clonmacnoise, in the island’s heartland. Similar forays were launched up the Rhine River in Germany and the Loire and Seine rivers in France.

Next, in the late 830s and early 840s, many Viking raiders ceased returning to Scandinavia each winter. Instead, they built longphorts, fortified coastal bases, on the shores of Germany and France and later Ireland and Scotland. Raiding parties spent the winter at such bases, allowing them to get an earlier and easier start in the next raiding season. The tremendous advantage this gave the Vikings can be seen by what happened when such overwintering began in England in 850 or 851. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that “The heathens now for the first time remained over winter in the Isle of Thanet.” Thanet is located near the tip of Kent, in south-eastern England, a strategic spot where the raiders were able to take the time to amass a huge force for their coming campaign. According to the Chronicle: “The same year came three hundred and fifty ships into the mouth of the Thames [River]; the crew of which went upon land, and stormed Canterbury and London, putting to flight Bertulf [a local king], with his army, and then marched southward over the Thames into Surrey [to conduct more raids].”

Most disquieting of all was when large Viking groups decided to forego ordinary raiding and pursue large-scale conquest and settlement. This happened in many parts of western Europe, most noticeably at first in south-eastern England. In 865, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded, the Viking forces wintering at Thanet “made peace with the men of Kent, who promised money.” Paying such money, essentially a bribe to guarantee that the intruders would not pillage the countryside, was becoming a common tactic among the Vikings’ victims. The English called it “Danegold,” a reference to the fact that many of the raiders were Danes. In any case, the Vikings took the money and then double-crossed the “men of Kent.” The Chronicle tells how “under the security of peace, and the promise of money, the [Viking] army in the night stole up the country, and overran all Kent eastward.” In the years that followed, more and more English and other European lands fell to the invaders.

Modern scholars have frequently debated about why some Vikings resorted to the conquest and settlement of foreign lands. Those scholars generally agree that it was not because the small amount of decent farmland in Scandinavia could no longer support the growing population. Instead, such conquests appear to have been away for some of the more determined and competing Viking leaders to create their own power bases outside the homelands. As Hall points out, the conquered lands

were arenas where ambitious and successful warriors with only a relatively low social standing in their homeland could escape those constraints, dramatically improve their fortunes, and become their own masters. The careers of some leaders suggest that they were not mere opportunists, but were prepared to assault target after target in dogged pursuit of a territory over which they could exert control.

Viking Raids Up-River II



This picture of a Viking ship is in a French manuscript from around 1100. Viking ships attacked French towns and monasteries all through the 9th century. One group of Vikings settled in the Seine region. Another band, under the chieftain Rollo, made their homes around Rouen. This area became known as Normandy, “Land of the Northmen.”



Paris was conquered on Easter Sunday, March 28, 845. Charles the Bald, the French king, had to pay the raiders 7,000 lb (3,150 kg) of silver to get peace. The Viking leader Ragnar even took a bar from the city gate as a souvenir. But he and most of his men died of disease on their way back to Scandinavia.


Whatever their motives may have been, from the early 800s on, the Vikings employed a mix of aggressive tactics against foreign lands, including large-scale raids, the creation of winter bases, and invasions and attempts to set up small kingdoms, as local circumstances seemed to warrant them. A clear example of this mixed approach can be seen in the way the Vikings targeted the Franks throughout much of the ninth century.

The early medieval Franks were the direct forerunners of the French, Belgians, Dutch, and western Germans. During the Viking Age, large Frankish kingdoms covered much of what are now France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Some early Viking raids occurred along the Frankish coasts, from the mouth of the Seine River northward to Frisia, between 799 and 820. Many of the attackers were driven away because Frankish coastal defenses were strong and well organized. But as happened in England, Ireland, and elsewhere, the raids on the Franks sharply increased in intensity in the 830s. In 834 a Viking fleet sacked Dorestad, an important trading city in what is now the Netherlands. And seven years later another raiding party sailed up the Seine and attacked Rouen (now in France). In 843 Nantes, on the Loire, was looted, and the Vikings set up a permanent base near the mouth of that river. A similar base appeared a few years later on the island of Oissel, in the Seine.

Meanwhile, another band of Vikings attacked Paris in 845. Charles the Bald, ruler of the western Frankish kingdom, paid them 7,000 pounds (3,157kg) of silver to go away, the first of thirteen Danegolds paid by Frankish leaders between that year and 926. But these payments failed to keep the Vikings out of the region. Some of them established a small kingdom centered on Dorestad in 850, and individual raids continued in the next two decades. A French monk of that period lamented:

The number of ships grows. The endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere the Christians are victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings. The Vikings conquer all in their path. . . . Rouen is laid waste . . . Paris, Beauvais, and Meaux taken, Melun’s strong fortress leveled to the ground, Chartres occupied . . . and every town besieged.

Though these raids took a toll, the Vikings eventually encountered stiff resistance in the Frankish lands. In the 860s a number of local noblemen organized defensive forces and delivered the intruders a series of sound defeats. And the same thing happened later. The Vikings attacked Paris again in 885, but a local ruler, Count Odo, drove them away from the Seine region four years later. They then tried to conquer Brittany, in western France, but were foiled there as well.

Nineteenth Century Chinese Army


Chinese regular soldiers photographed during the Sino-French War.



Ever Victorious Army field battery in Vincente’s day.

For the Chinese empire throughout its history, defence of its northern land borders was most important. The Ming rulers turned away from the sea after the first third of the fifteenth century precisely for that reason when they found their Mongol enemies once again at their gates. The Manchus, themselves overland conquerors of the Chinese heartland, were even more sensitive to what could happen if the northern frontiers were weak. They read Chinese history carefully and concluded that there were no enemies who could have conquered China from the sea. Even after Lord Macartney’s visit in 1793, with the ambassador’s open display of pride and confidence, Qing coastal officials still did not report accurately to Emperor Qianlong the intelligence already available about British naval prowess. Not until the British ships fought their way up the Pearl River to Canton (Guangzhou) in 1841 did the Qing court first realise China’s relative weakness.

Most nationalist historians in China during the twentieth century have castigated the Manchu court for its failure to prepare China for war against the British. Much of their historical writing has also concentrated on the corrupt and treacherous officials who either misled the emperor or underestimated the enemy. The only praise for the higher officials has been reserved for Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850) for having defied the British and confiscated British opium. At lower levels of the Qing armed forces, there has been appreciation of some of the military officers who bravely defended the poorly designed coastal forts. But the warmest accolades have gone to the people of villages like Sanyuanli outside Guangzhou who had stood up to British troops. All this was hardly noticed then, and only came to be recognised afterwards, when nationalist historians went to work. At the time, early in the 1840s, the Qing court had little time to assess the damage along the coast when it was engaged in the desperate struggles with local rebellions in the interior. By 1851, these too were overshadowed by the greatest threat to the empire since the seventeenth century, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, whose armies swept through south and central China and made its capital in the empire’s second capital in Nanjing. This was followed by several other rebellions in the north, northwest and southwest, wars that engaged the imperial armies for the next thirty years.

In the eyes of the court, the empire managed, not surprisingly, to win all these land battles. The British in Shanghai did provide timely help to fight off the Taiping armies in the neighbouring counties of the Yangzi delta area at the time when these rebels were at their most dangerous. But the imperial forces that did the key fighting were built around the loyal Chinese militia units (called the “Hunan braves”) brought together by the scholar official, Zeng Guofan (1811–1872), and the local gentry leaders whom he had inspired. These armies fought against the Nian rebels in the north and the major Muslim rebellions in Yunnan (on the Burma border) and Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan), and eventually defeated them all. Thus, despite the fact that Qing officials could not prevent further debacles in Anglo-Chinese relations in the 1850s and their troops failed to prevent British and French naval forces from taking Beijing and sacking the Summer Palace, they could still interpret those disasters as merely partial setbacks, and remained hopeful that these would be temporary. The contrast between relative success on land and painful performance at sea did not seem to have been so obvious.

In post-1949 historiography, there have been numerous studies of the Opium War and the patriotism of Commissioner Lin Zexu. Lin Zexu’s many admiring biographies all touch on his mistakes but focus on his attempts to learn about the potential enemy before deciding to fight, and also on his courage and the dilemmas he faced. There have been efforts to find those literati who did realise the dangers that China faced but whose advice had fallen on deaf ears. There have also been writings that depicted the heroism of ordinary Chinese in Guangdong and outside Shanghai who fought the British in vain. But it has fallen to Mao Haijian of the Academy of Social Science in Beijing in his book, Tianchao de bengkui (The Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty), published in 1995, to reach the more specific but unpopular conclusion that the Chinese mandarins of that generation, including Commissioner Lin himself, had not done enough homework, either about coastal defences and naval warfare, or about the firepower of the British forces. They had simply underestimated the British. Otherwise, they would have known that China was in no position to challenge Britain and would not have been so ready to provoke the Opium War before adequate preparations had been made. The real lesson was not about bravery, or patriotism, or even technology, but about a complete reappraisal of what it would have taken to create the necessary defence for the empire, the kind of rethinking that would have included new attitudes towards the navy. It is particularly noteworthy that Mao Haijian’s book has the most complete study of all the British warships operating in China waters in the 1840s, more so than any previous Chinese work on this period.

As for the land forces, the fundamental problem for China before 1937 was how to get its soldiers to fight effectively again, not only for the government forces against their local warlord enemies but also, when the time ultimately came to restore the country’s sovereignty, against the foreign armies on Chinese soil. Neither Sun Yat-sen and his Soviet advisers, nor Chiang Kaishek (1887–1975) and his German commanders, had any idea how to restore the Chinese to the military traditions they once had, notably the fearsome and dedicated fighting skills of the Manchu Bannermen before 1800. What they had to offer in institutions like the Huangpu Military Academy, and all the smaller academies and training schools that were established in various provinces, were new methods of conducting war and how to fight with the latest weaponry. These institutions served largely to train officers how to defeat the immediate enemy, the warlords during the Northern Expedition and the communist armies of the Jiangxi Soviets. There was never time nor resources enough to build up a new tradition of career service, of the necessary professional pride that would overcome the historical reluctance to allow bright young men to become soldiers.

But two developments laid the foundation for a new burst of fighting energy among the Chinese people. First was the mobilisation of the peasantry for both a patriotic war against the Japanese and, in the best traditional style, a rebellion against landlords and corrupt officials plus – using the new rhetoric of revolution – their treacherous bourgeois pro-imperialist allies. This was not a great military tradition but, following the Long March that the communist armies made to the northwest in 1935, the experience revived and modernised older ideas about how the militarily weak could fight orthodox armies with guerrilla tactics and, if necessary, with overwhelming numbers. Secondly, a new Pacific power was born from the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and this led to full-scale United States support for the modernisation of the Chinese armies of the Nationalist government in Chungking.

Nineteenth Century Chinese Navy



During the First Sino-Japanese War, Zhenyuan was commanded by Philo McGiffin and saw action at the Battle of the Yalu River, of 17 Sep 1894, during which she suffered severe damage. when entering Weihaiwei harbor, Zhenyuan struck a rock and had to be beached, as the only repair facilities were at Lüshunkou. Her captain, Lin Taizeng, committed suicide by overdose of opium over the incident. Captured by the Japanese after the Battle of Weihai, on 17 Feb 1895, Zhenyuan was taken as a prize of war.


In the 1860s “to fight” for the Chinese meant desperate defence against enemies from all directions while, for the British, it was more a question of not fighting the Chinese again, but helping the Chinese keep internal law and order so that they could fight other enemies for themselves. The Qing court engaged a number of British advisers to equip and train their Bannerman battalions in modern weaponry, but these largely addressed the modernisation of land forces. Mandarin soldiers like Zeng Guofan had become aware that the lack of naval power was a serious deficiency in the imperial defences. He and his most innovative subordinates soon made plans to build a modern navy and sought British help to repair that weakness.

The views of Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885), one of the great generals of the period of Qing “restoration” after the Taiping rebellion, reflect well the ambivalence about what had to be done. On the one hand, he strongly recommended the establishment of a great shipyard, a modern arsenal, and a training academy for the navy. On the other, he had to fight a brutal and successful land war in the north-western region of Xinjiang against Muslim rebels and sought loans for that war at the expense of naval development. He justified this with the argument that China’s land enemies sought territory with the backing of either Tsarist Russia or British India, while its naval enemies merely sought trading privileges. In fairness to Zuo Zongtang, the Qing court was never committed to developing a strong navy anyway, despite the fine start given to its creation by Shen Baozhen (1820–1879) in Fuzhou (Foochow) between 1867–1874. It is also interesting that Zuo Zongtang was unhappy that the British, who were supposed to help, had not been more forthcoming. He noted that Sir Robert Hart (1835–1911) asked only to build a merchant fleet while Sir Thomas Wade (1818–1895) spoke vaguely of training naval personnel. It led him to distrust British advice and ask French naval officials instead to help with the shipbuilding facilities.

Shen Baozhen, on the other hand, realised that it was the British who knew most about navigation and engaged British naval officers from the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to help train the early batches of students at the Fuzhou Navy Yard. Later, he was also shrewd enough to send some of his brightest students to England. He was well aware that the Japanese had also turned to the British for naval training and shipbuilding. Although the mixture of French and British staff at the Navy Yard was, in the end, a mistake, a contemporary British observer of the Yard’s development over a period of twenty years commented that “In Foochow you had a very good naval college. You want four colleges like that of Foochow”. By then, in 1884, the Foochow squadron itself was about to be wiped out by the French. Nevertheless, it has been concluded that “The School itself became a model institution in China. . . When Li Hung-Chang founded the naval academy at Tientsin and established the Peiyang fleet, he relied heavily on Foochow-trained men.” But, by that time, there were not only rival centres of naval training, but also rival offers of help from German and American interests in addition to the earlier French offers. Deep-seated unease about relying too much on the British contributed to undermining efforts to bring naval development under a unified control.

One of the fascinating questions in East Asia later in the century was that concerning the fighting between the two sets of students trained by the British – which of them would learn better? On the eve of the Sino- Japanese War in 1894, there were nominally four naval squadrons in China: the Beiyang force in the north, the Nanyang along the coast south of Shandong, and the two provincial ones for Fujian and Guangdong, with nearly 100 naval vessels of various sizes, totaling 80,000 tons. The main force was the Beiyang squadron when war broke out with Japan in 1894. Within a few weeks, the question was answered. When the Japanese engaged the Chinese in the decisive naval battles off the coast of Shandong and the Liaodong peninsula, the active Chinese fleet was wiped out.

What went wrong with the naval shipyards and the training? Yan Fu (1854–1921), trained in Foochow Navy Yard and for many years the head of the Beiyang Naval Academy, has suggested an answer. This was found in the words of Sir Robert Hart in the 1880s that he recalled in 1918. He quotes Hart as having said:

A navy is to a country what flowers are to a tree. Only when the roots and branches are flourishing, and wind and sun, water and soil are agreeable, will the flowers blossom. The flowers produce fruit and this ensures that the tree will grow strong with age. There are many problems about your country’s navy that are unsatisfactory, but they can only be tackled by going back and examining the roots. It will be useless to seek the solutions only within the navy itself.

It is often forgotten, even by the Chinese themselves, that the Chinese did once have the most powerful navy in the world and had the skills to build great ocean-going warships that could take the offensive. Chinese historians are wont to blame the failures of 1894–1895 on the extravagance of the Empress Dowager (Empress Xiaoqin, commonly known as Cixi, 1835–1908), who failed to provide enough funding for the navy. Even if this were the sole explanation for failure, it is stark confirmation of the Qing court’s inability to adjust to the new world of naval power. In fact, there had been sustained neglect of naval forces for more than four centuries, and there was certainly no sense of priority about the need for a modern fighting force at sea.

The British continued to assist with naval planning and reorganisation, and the Chinese imperial fleet did recover enough after 1900 to show its colours across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. But, by that time, there was no pretence that the fleet was any match for the great navies of Britain, Japan and the United States, nor much more than one that was primarily for river and coastal patrols. When the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 provoked an international force to be sent to lift the siege of the legations in Peking, there followed a number of clear demonstrations of the Qing empire’s inability to fight at all. Not only was there no navy to speak of, but the armies also offered little resistance. It could not have escaped the court’s attention that there were Chinese overseas living in Western colonies who donated funds to support the forces sent to relieve the foreign legations. Clearly, these no longer identified with the Qing dynasty and shared the growing consensus in the West that Chinese civilisation was decadent and irretrievably in decline.

Battle of the Bulge


One of the key battles of World War II in Europe, the so-called Battle of the Bulge was the final German offensive of the war and came as a great surprise to the Allies, who widely assumed that the German armies had been beaten to the point that they were incapable of any offensive action. In sum, the battle began on December 16, 1944, when 25 German divisions attacked a thinly held portion of the Allied lines in the Belgian Ardennes Forest. Initially, the attack broke through the five green or recuperating U.S. divisions that had been assigned to what was considered a quiet sector, and the battle took its popular name from the bulge, or salient, the Germans achieved by penetrating nearly as far west as the Meuse River. The German plan was to cross the Meuse and divide Allied forces by penetrating all the way to Antwerp, Netherlands, the Allies’ principal supply port. When Allied high command recognized the danger posed by the surprise offensive, reinforcements were rushed to the area, and the U.S. 101st Airborne and U.S. 10th Armored Division were ordered to hold Bastogne, completely encircled by the Germans, at all costs, until the main body of reinforcements could arrive. In bitter winter action, Bastogne was held, and elements of the U.S. First and Third Armies, supported by heavy British and U.S. air support (initially delayed by bad weather), managed to turn a potential Allied catastrophe into a decisive German defeat, after which, for the rest of the war, German forces were continually on the defensive and continually in retreat. It was the largest single battle fought by U.S. troops in Europe.

Some military historians look upon the Ardennes offensive as evidence of Adolf Hitler’s heedless desperation in the closing phase of the war. There is a certain merit in this view, but the offensive was also a brilliantly staged, bold, violent, and ruthless thrust, which came remarkably close to achieving its objective of splitting the Allied lines and capturing the Allies’ most important supply port. Hitler’s generals made highly effective use of the element of surprise and, even more, of the weather. By attacking during a prolonged winter storm, they ensured that the Allies’ overwhelmingly superior air power would be useless, at least in the important early stages of the offensive. It is unclear whether Hitler actually imagined that victory in this battle would reverse the course of his defeat. However, he had rational reason to hope that such a victory would so dispirit the Allies that they would negotiate a peace rather than demand unconditional surrender.

For purposes of this offensive, Hitler created the Sixth SS Panzer Army, consisting of four Panzer divisions under the command of Josef A. “Sepp” Dietrich, an SS officer both fierce and trusted. From the northern Ardennes in the vicinity of Monschau, Dietrich would lead the Schwerpunkt (principal thrust) of a classic Blitzkrieg offensive. Supplementing this principal thrust would be another new Panzer force, the Fifth SS Panzer Army, under Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel, assigned to attack in the center, and, in the south, the Seventh Army, under Lt. Gen. Erich Brandenberger. In all, German strength amounted to 30 divisions with grossly inadequate air support— about 1,000 fighters—from the badly depleted Luftwaffe (Brig. Gen. Dietrich Peltz’s 2nd Fighter Corps).

As the Allies had deceived Hitler before and during the Normandy landings (D-day), so Hitler and his commanders prepared their massive offensive, code named “Wacht am Rhein” (“Watch on the Rhine,” suggesting a defensive operation) in profound and highly effective secrecy, even deceiving and bypassing the German commander in chief, Gerd von Rundstedt. This was understandable, because the realistic Rundstedt would doubtless have tried to veto a plan that seemed ultimately doomed to fail, even if successful in the short term. Even the commander Hitler chose to carry out the operation, Walther Model, thought the offensive too ambitious and suggested a modified operation he considered more feasible. Hitler listened but rejected the proposal out of hand.

As Hitler took advantage of the weather, so he exploited Allied weakness in the Ardennes sector. U.S. Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, in command of the First Army (part of the Twelfth Army Group commanded by Gen. Omar Bradley), had responsibility for Ardennes, but, acting in accordance with Bradley’s instructions and those of higher Allied command, concentrated on the Aachen area with the object of capturing the vital Roer dams. The 80-mile Ardennes front was regarded as a quiet sector, which could be adequately defended by battle-weary units in need of rest and recuperation and by green units, which could benefit from gradual exposure to the line. In place at the time of the initial attack were the 99th and 106th Divisions from the First Army’s V Corps, and the 28th and 4th Divisions from VIII Corps. The 9th Armored Division was held in reserve. Hodges and his superiors believed that careful intelligence would provide warning of any highly unlikely build-up of German forces in the area, affording sufficient time to reinforce the position, if necessary. However, the Germans were carrying out their build-up in such secrecy, amid absolute radio silence and under cover of weather that grounded Allied aerial reconnaissance, that neither Hodges, nor Bradley, nor British general Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, overall commander of Allied ground forces, were aware of the gathering danger. The only clue came from Ultra intercepts and decrypts, which revealed a build-up, but which the Allied commanders dismissed as a build-up being assembled to counter the next Allied offensive.

The attack, then, at 5:30 on the morning of December 16, came as a complete surprise. Worse, because German artillery had knocked out telephone lines, word of the attack reached Bradley’s headquarters only after much delay and, even then, was misinterpreted as merely a local attack. Bradley’s conclusions was overruled by the judgment of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, who ordered the 10th Armored Division of George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army and the 7th Armored Division of the Ninth U.S. Army to reinforce the Ardennes line. This enabled the beleaguered 99th Division, reinforced by the 1st, 2nd, and 9th, to hold out against the attack in the north, while the 4th held the line against Brandenberger in the south. But between these, in the center, which had been hit hardest, resistance by the U.S. 28th and 106th Divisions collapsed. Two regiments of the 106th were captured, and a third division, reinforced by the 7th Armored Division, held St. Vith until December 22, when these units were ordered to withdraw to a position behind the Salm River. Despite this withdrawal, Allied high command deemed the village of Bastogne, with its important crossroads, too important to lose. The 101st Airborne and the 10th Armored Division were ordered to hold it, even as Manteuffel encircled it. Throughout the rest of the Ardennes offensive, Bastogne would form an Allied enclave within newly acquired German territory.

In the meantime, Ultra decrypts persuaded Eisenhower that the German objective was the Meuse. On December 19, accordingly, Eisenhower suspended the general Allied offensive and ordered Patton to turn his entire Third Army from its ongoing westward advance 90° to the north. His mission was to counterattack—massively—in the Ardennes. The speed and efficiency with which Patton carried out this change in direction was one of the most remarkable tactical achievements of the entire war, and it spelled the beginning of the end of the German offensive. Patton would not only relieve the encircled 101st Airborne and 10th Armored Division, he would enable Hodges to realign his First U.S. Army and thereby transform his posture from one of defense to counterattack.

Dietrich’s advance in the north was thwarted, but Manteuffel, in the central position, continued to drive on. Hitler gave permission to transfer the bulk of the attack to support Manteuffel, who reached the village of Foy-Notre Dame, a mere three miles east of the Meuse, on December 24. However, by December 22, the weather improved, allowing the Allies to call in air support, which they did—massively—flying 1,300 sorties on December 23 and some 2,000 on December 24. The effect was devastating on German supply lines, which had already been stretched to the breaking point. The Luftwaffe launched a truly desperate raid on Allied airfields on January 1, managing to destroy some 156 Allied aircraft, but at a staggering loss of more than 300 of its own craft. Already reeling, the Luftwaffe was now neutralized as an effective force in the war.

Manteuffel’s advance to Foy-Notre Dame marked the farthest extent of the German “bulge.” Pounded by Hodges from the north and drained by the continued resistance of encircled Bastogne, Manteuffel stalled. On January 3, Hodges’s VII Corps attacked southward against Manteuffel, intending to crush him in a pincer action, of which Patton’s Third Army formed the northward thrust. Once again, however, the weather intervened, bringing heavy snows that slowed the advance of both American armies, and it was not until January 16 that Hodges and Patton converged on Houffalize, by which time Manteuffel had withdrawn. Thus, an opportunity to destroy outright most of the German units committed to the offensive was lost. Nevertheless, the Americans inflicted some 100,000 casualties against an attacking force of 500,000, suffering, in turn, casualties almost as heavy. Yet there was no doubt as to the victor. The last German offensive had been crushed, and whereas the Americans could make up their losses, the Germans could not. Hitler’s gamble at the Ardennes had spent much of his irreplaceable last combat-worthy reserves and had exposed his Luftwaffe, already in extremity, to a blow that effectively destroyed it.

Further reading: Astor, Gerald. A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It. New York: Dell, 1998; MacDonald, Charles B. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: Morrow, 1984; Toland, John. Battle: The Story of the Bulge. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

The Ploesti Raid



At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allied leaders agreed on goals for a strategic bombing offensive against German industry and its population. In the following months, strategic targets were assessed and prioritized according to their importance to the German war machine. Near the top of the list was the complex of oil fields and refineries called “the taproot of German might” by Winston Churchill, at Ploesti (pronounced plo-es-ti or plo-esh-ti), in the East European country of Romania.

On 1 August 1943, 178 B-24 Liberator bombers flew over 1200 miles from a base in North Africa to Ploesti and staged a daring, low level attack that devastated the targets. The raid was not part of any campaign, but stood alone as a singular blow to an important component of German war-making capability. Losses were heavy and the refineries were rebuilt, but the Ploesti raid stands as a magnificent example of a bold plan, well-executed by brave crews and their extraordinary aircraft.

History of the Raid on the German Oil Supply in Ploesti

The oil fields and eight massive refineries that surrounded Ploesti, Romania, spread over about eighteen square miles. They were the source of sixty percent of Germany’s crude oil supply, ten million tons of oil each year, including 90-octane aviation fuel, the highest quality in Europe. Romania was one of the world’s top suppliers of oil before the war and the Germans wasted no time directing its output to the Wehrmacht. The German drive on the Soviet Union directly depended on Ploesti for the huge quantities of fuel and lubricants needed for the mechanized divisions and aircraft on the Eastern Front. Ploesti also kept Rommel’s Africa Korps supplied in the deserts of North Africa.

The obvious target attracted the attention of Allied planners very early in World War II. In fact, destroying Ploesti had been a popular war college exercise. Right after Pearl Harbor, the American attaché in Cairo, Col. Fellers, recommended an attack on Ploesti, calling it “the most decisive objective.”

Approximate Route of Flight, Ploesti Mission - 1 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Halverson Raid on Ploesti

The first attack on Ploesti by the U.S. Army Air Forces was mounted by an improvised air group under Col. Harry A. Halverson. The group’s original mission had been to bomb Tokyo, but Japanese advances in China after the Doolittle Raid denied them crucial Chinese bases. A hasty revision of objectives put thirteen of Halverson’s B-24 Liberators in Fayid, Egypt on 11 June 1942. From Egypt each B-24 carried a small bomb load toward Ploesti, the first American B-24 combat mission and the first U.S. raid on Europe in World War II. Twelve aircraft made it to Ploesti the next morning (12 June). They hit the target but there were too few planes to do significant damage. Still, the raid did show the feasibility of a long range attack from North Africa. It also alerted the Germans, triggering major improvements to the defenses around Ploesti.

Preparing for Operation Tidalwave

At the same time as the Allies were battling for the liberation of Sicily (Operation Husky), the unique operation was finalized to cripple Ploesti. The raid was planned in the spring of 1943, developed by the Air Staff in Washington, utilizing the newly available bases in North Africa and the Middle East. This plan (called Statesman, then Soapsuds, and finally Tidalwave) consisted of a low-level mass attack, scheduled for 1 August 1943. The plan was approved by USAAF Commander General Arnold, presented at the May 1943 Trident Conference in Washington, and given a final go-ahead by General Eisenhower and the Combined Chiefs of Staff early in June. Major General Lewis Brereton, Commander of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, was given overall responsibility for Tidalwave, with Brig. Gen. Uzal G. Ent in command of the operation itself.

Several immediate decisions shaped the Ploesti mission. First, Benghazi, Libya was chosen as the origin, rather than an alternate site proposed in Syria. Second, although it was never designed for low level bombing, the B-24 Liberator was chosen, as opposed to the B-17 Flying Fortress, due to the Liberator’s greater range. 177 bombers were assembled to ensure that there would a minimum of 155 planes reaching the target. In order not to deprive Operation Husky of bomber support, only two groups of B-24s (376th and 98th) came from forces in North Africa with the remainder obtained by transferring two groups of B-24s (the 93d and 44th) from the Eighth Air Force and temporarily diverting one group (the 389th) on its way to the United Kingdom. All arrived in the Mediterranean in the last week of June and beginning of July 1943.

Extensive training occupied the Tidalwave force as well as tedious maintenance to keep ahead of the damaging desert conditions. A practice target was set up in the desert, highly accurate in detail, which was mock-bombed repeatedly. Intelligence assets were able to supply photographs and detailed descriptions of Ploesti refineries, storage and transportation, including briefings by eyewitnesses who had been to Ploesti as part of the oil business before the war. Everything possible was done to prepare the pilots and crews for the long and difficult mission. On 29 July 1943, three days before the mission, a sobering film was shown to the crews describing the raid and providing instructions on what to do if forced to land or bail out. The dangers were extreme and everyone knew it.

At the same time, the Germans were actively preparing for the raid from a defensive posture. More than 230 anti-aircraft guns were installed along with barrage balloons and smoke generators. Two squadrons of fighters, with German pilots, were stationed nearby. Another unit, staffed by Italians and a few Romanians, had another 200 fighter planes. This well-developed defense was much more than Allied intelligence anticipated.



The Ploesti Raid of 1 August 1943

The direct flight path from Benghazi to Ploesti was 980 miles. The actual flights were mapped to avoid unnecessary interaction with German strongpoints. The resulting total distance was about 2,100 miles round trip, with 1,400 miles over the Mediterranean and the rest over German-controlled territory.

Right after dawn on the morning of 1 August 1943, 177 B-24 Liberator aircraft took off from Benghazi, each bomber group from its own airfield. The planes carried 1,765 men representing every state in the U.S. plus a Canadian volunteer, all primed for an arduous and dangerous mission. They crossed the Mediterranean, flying a path that passed Corfu Island, then over Greece and onward northeast over the mountains of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria before penetrating Romanian airspace. Several planes developed mechanical problems and dropped out of the formation, including the mission navigator.

By the time they were over Bulgaria, the B-24 formations were down to 165 planes. Heavy clouds separated the groups of bombers, and they became widely separated. The formations, somewhat disorganized by the loss of the lead navigator, descended to 500 feet at Pitesti, 65 miles from the targets. As they approached the initial point where the final turn was to be made into Ploesti, the 376th Group, followed by the 93d Bombardment Group, on General Ent’s order, made an erroneous turn southeast toward Bucharest. The other bomb groups, the 389th, 98th, and 44th, continued as briefed. When Ent discovered the error, both groups headed back toward Ploesti. The 376th was told to strike targets of opportunity, and the 93d attacked the original targets from the opposite direction as briefed.

The mission was tracked by German radar, and detected by German intelligence; Romanian defenses were alerted, there was no surprise. Coming in low as planned, the bombers flew into a maelstrom of oil fires, bomb explosions, and defensive fire. As bombers made it through to the other side, German fighters were waiting. Some bombers came in on the wrong heading, flying into bursts from delayed action bombs dropped earlier. Heavy flak made it near impossible to keep on flight path or to execute the planned bomb drops, although the bombers were so low that ground guns had a hard time targeting them. The Germans were amazed at the bravery of the pilots and the precision of the attack; simultaneously the scene appeared out of control to the attackers.

Turning for home after completing their bomb runs, or striking alternate targets of opportunity, the B-24s were pursued by fighters as far as their range allowed. The bomber formation was disorganized and under heavy German fighter attack for much of the return trip.

Results of the Ploesti Raid

The USAAF losses on the Ploesti raid were devastating. In all, fifty-four planes were lost, forty-one of those in combat. Ninety-three planes returned to Benghazi, nineteen landed at other Allied fields, seven landed in Turkey, and three crashed at sea. 532 men were killed, captured, missing, or interned. Every man who flew on the Ploesti mission was decorated. Five Medals of Honor were awarded for Ploesti, three posthumously, more than for any other mission in WW II.

In terms of mission objectives, around forty percent of the Ploesti refinery capacity was knocked out, but three of the refineries were not touched due to the confusion in the attack. The loss of capacity had little practical effect on the German war effort since Ploesti had not been running at full capacity even before the raid. Idle capacity was activated and within a few months production had increased over pre-raid levels. The heavy losses in the attacking force dissuaded the USAAF from any follow up raids. After the war, USAAF historians concluded that “though the over-all damage was heavy it was not decisive.”

The Allies were finally able to mount sustained attacks on Ploesti when airbases in Italy became available in April 1944. These attacks succeeded in reducing production to a relative trickle. Ploesti was liberated by Soviet troops in August 1944 putting an end to the German utilization of the oil.


The 1 August 1943 low-level strike on the Ploesti oil refineries by five B-24 groups has been the subject of a fair number of books. The latest Ploesti volume is this 2007 volume by military writer Duane Schultz for Westholme Publishing. While it recounts the mission in exciting fashion, it can not claim to be the definitive account of that fateful mission.

Operation Tidal Wave pitted five 8th and 9th AF B-24 bomb groups against the very well-defended Ploesti, Romania refineries. The raid did not deliver the knock-out blow the Allied hoped. Then too the cost was horrendous, 54 out of 177 Liberators were lost, a 30% loss rate!

Schultz’ account of the often heartbreaking experiences of those wonderfully brave men over Ploesti made for compelling reading. I didn’t find all that much new material but INTO THE FIRE was a good read.

I had mixed feelings about Schultz’ research though. I don’t think he dug deep enough. His biggest gaffe is repeating that hoary old chestnut that Flavelle’s ‘Wongo-Wongo’ was the lead ship of the strike and that its loss enroute to the target contributed to the mission’s mixed success. For the record: the 376th BG led the Tidal Wave strike, its lead ship being ‘Teggie Ann’ carrying Compton and Ent. ‘Wongo-Wongo’ was lead ship of the second element which was BEHIND Compton. The only effect its loss had was that it deprived the strike of two B-24s, Flavelle’s bird and that flown by his wingman, who dropped down to check for survivors!

Tidal Wave’s outcome resulted from: (1) a flawed attack plan reflecting a complete lack of U.S. intell on Ploesti’s defenses; (2) Ent’s inability or unwillingness to order all five group commanders to maintain the same cruise settings enroute to the target; and (3) Compton turning at the wrong IP. Those factors resulted in a hopelessly scrambled – and uncoordinated – attack by two separate formations that put lumbering, unarmored bombers directly in the sights of numerous AAA batteries and Axis fighters.

Likewise, INTO THE FIRE’s recreation of Tidal Wave would have benefited if Schultz had done more research on the Axis air units who took such a grim toll of B-24s. He doesn’t give enough credit to – or even identify – those German, Romanian & Bulgarian units and pilots who engaged Tidal Wave aircraft. The mixed German-Romanian I/JG 4 along with other ARR units claimed 17 B-24 kills; five more Libs were claimed by the Bulgarian 3.6 Orlyak. Incorporating some of their reminiscences into the text would have made for a more balanced – and interesting – account.

INTO THE FIRE’s tale of bravery and dedication will appeal to all military enthusiasts. I recommend it with some reservations. For my money, the best Ploesti book remains Michael Hill’s BLACK SUNDAY: PLOESTI done back in 1993 for Schiffer.

Battle of Trafalgar


Nicholas Pocock’s painting of the closing stages of the action at the battle of Trafalgar. In the distance the French van escapes south-south-west and to the left the French Achille catches fire and explodes.


Battle of Trafalgar by William Clarkson Stanfield


The Battle of Trafalgar was one of history’s most important naval engagements. On May 16, 1803, after a scant 14 months of peace, fighting resumed between Britain and France. French first consul Napoleon Bonaparte collected along the northern French coast a large number of small craft and a sizable number of men in what he called the Army of England for an invasion attempt. How serious he was is by no means clear, but in early October 1804 British captain Sidney Smith led a raid of fire ships against the mouth of the Rhine, destroying a number of vessels in the purported invasion fleet. British naval units also kept French warships from concentrating elsewhere for an attempt at attacking across the English Channel.

In 1805 Napoleon, now emperor, ordered another invasion effort. This was based on a deception that he hoped would cause the British to leave the Channel unprotected. Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve’s fleet at Toulon and allied Spanish ships under Admiral Federico Carlos de Gravina were to sail to the West Indies. At the same time, Admiral Honoré Ganteaume and his 21 ships were to break out from Brest and release Spanish ships at El Ferrol in northwestern Spain. French hopes rested on British warships pursuing west. The French fleets would unite at Martinique under Ganteaume, elude their pursuers, and make for the Channel. Napoleon assumed that he would then have available 60–70 ships of the line and at least a dozen frigates to provide a brief period of naval mastery sufficient to convoy a host of small vessels ferrying an invading army across the Channel to England.

British vice admiral Horatio Nelson had been carrying out a loose blockade of Toulon in the hope of enticing out his opponent. On March 30 Villeneuve indeed escaped Toulon and sailed west into the Atlantic, where he reached Cádiz and linked up with Admiral de Gravina. Their combined 20 ships of the line, 8 frigates, and some smaller vessels then sailed for the West Indies with Nelson’s 10 ships in pursuit. Napoleon’s orders were for Villeneuve to wait at Martinique no longer than 35 days. If Ganteaume was unable to break free of Brest, Villeneuve was to proceed to El Ferrol and then on to Brest to release Spanish and French ships for the invasion attempt.

After inconclusive maneuvering, on June 8 Villeneuve panicked on the news that Nelson was in pursuit and departed Martinique for Europe. Nelson followed and returned to Gibraltar on July 20. Two days later Admiral Sir Robert Calder, with 15 ships of the line and 2 frigates, clashed with Villeneuve’s combined fleet off Cape Finisterre. The Spanish ships bore the brunt of the attack, and the British took 2 of them as prizes along with 1,200 seamen as prisoners. Poor visibility allowed the remainder of the combined fleet to escape, but 5 other Spanish vessels, including a frigate, were so badly damaged that they had to go into dry dock for repairs. Three British ships lost masts. Calder had won a nominal victory, but it was by no means decisive.

Villeneuve meanwhile proceeded to El Ferrol and then, on August 13, sailed south to Cádiz, where he was reinforced with Spanish ships. The British soon had this combined naval force under blockade. British Prime Minister William Pitt insisted that Nelson, then in England, take over command from Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood.

Arriving on station, Nelson rejected Collingwood’s cautious close blockade in favor of a loose arrangement that kept his fleet out of sight of Cádiz. Nelson used a line of frigates to signal the main body of the fleet over the horizon, some 50 miles out. He hoped that this would entice out the French and Spanish. A loose blockade was risky because his enemies might get away. Nelson, however, preferred it to no action at all.

Nelson had no way of getting the French and Spanish to oblige him, however. Napoleon arranged that. In mid-September he ordered the combined fleet to the Mediterranean to support French operations in southern Italy, a recipe for disaster. Villeneuve was well aware that his ships were not ready to do battle. Many of the Spanish crews were untrained, a large number of his own men were sick, and he could not be certain what British force was lurking offshore. His Spanish colleagues also urged him not to sail on because of approaching bad weather.

On the plus side, the wind was to the south, and Villeneuve was aware that Nelson had recently detached some of his ships to escort a convoy through the straits. Nelson also had committed the serious error of allowing Calder to sail home to a board of inquiry over Cape Finisterre in a ship of the line rather than a smaller vessel. Yet Villeneuve risked everything in the final analysis because he was stung by Napoleon’s charges of cowardice and the news that he was about to be replaced as commander of the combined fleet. Indeed, Napoleon had dispatched Vice Admiral François Étienne Rosily-Mesros to Cádiz to succeed Villeneuve, whereupon Villeneuve was to return to Paris to explain his conduct.

On October 19 the French and Spanish ships began exiting Cádiz; in all 33 allied ships of the line (18 French and 15 Spanish) straggled out over that day and the next. His lookout frigates soon informed Nelson, off Cape Spartel. Nelson called his captains to a council of war and explained his daring plan. Outnumbered by his opponents, who also boasted the 2 largest ships, Nelson intended to attack in two or three columns to cut off some 20 or so ships in the allied van from the remainder. With the French and Spanish ships running before the wind, the others would find it difficult to tack back and rejoin the action. By the time they could come up, Nelson hoped to have the battle decided. This extraordinarily bold plan promised either great success or disaster.

When Nelson’s ships appeared and approached the Franco-Spanish fleet, Villeneuve realized the size of his opponent’s force and ordered the combined fleet to turn back toward Cádiz, a decision that astonished his flag captain. The five-mile long irregular allied line became even more ragged; in places ships of the line bunched up and even came abreast. Nelson’s 27 ships, in two divisions, did not hesitate and drove directly into the center of the opposing line, cutting it in two.

In numbers of guns, the British had only 2,148 to 2,568 for the allies. The French and Spanish also had some 30,000 men to slightly more than 17,000 for the British. But Nelson’s ships were far superior in terms of gunnery training and seamanship. These factors and superior leadership more than compensated for any deficiencies in numbers.

In the resulting five-hour battle on October 21, 1805, the British took 19 allied ships. Another, the Achille, blew up. No English ship was lost, but human casualties were heavy, and Nelson was among them. His flag in the Victory had been easily visible to ships in the van of the combined fleet, and the flagship became a principal target for Spanish-French gun crews and sharpshooters. Pacing the deck in full uniform, early in the battle Nelson fell mortally wounded from a musket ball fired by a sharpshooter in the Rédoutable. Carried below, he learned of the great victory before he died.

The British seamen did not have long to mourn their beloved leader or to savor their victory. A great storm came up, and despite valiant efforts, most of the prizes were lost in the fierce tempest. Crewmen who had just fought each other now fought just as desperately to save their ships and themselves. Only four of the prizes were saved, a cruel disappointment to seamen who had hoped to profit from hard-earned prize money.

No British ships were lost, but of the original 19 prizes, excluding the 4 taken to Gibraltar, Collingwood ordered 4 scuttled, including the giant Spanish ship of the line Santísima Trinidad. Two others escaped to Cádiz. The remainder either sank in the storm or were dashed on the rocks, with heavy personnel losses. Although 13 ships of the combined fleet made it back to Cádiz, 3 of these soon broke up on the rocks. As a consequence of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy had thus reduced its opponents by 23 capital ships.

Napoleon, who had just won a great victory over a Habsburg army at Ulm, dismissed the Battle of Trafalgar in one sentence: “Some ships have been lost in a gale following an unwisely undertaken engagement.” In truth, the Battle of Trafalgar shattered the French Navy for decades to come. Trafalgar also marked the completion of the shift from the formalist school of fleet tactics to the melee school. Nelson’s tactics, combined with a new signaling system, saw sailing ship warfare at its peak. Trafalgar was quite possibly the most important naval victory in British history and raised Nelson to the status of the greatest of Britain’s military heroes. It also established Britain as mistress of the seas, not seriously challenged until the end of the 19th century.

More immediately, the battle confined Napoleon to the land. To get at the British thereafter, he resorted to a war against their trade from the land side by denying British goods entry into all parts of Europe. This led to the Continental System, which alienated many Europeans, and to the over-extension of French military commitments.

References Howarth, David. Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Pope, Dudley. Decision at Trafalgar. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Schom, Alan. Trafalgar: Countdown to Battle, 1803–1805. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Tunstall, Brian. Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650– 1815. Edited by Nicholas Tracy. London: Conway Maritime, 1990.