Budapest – Relief Attempts 1945 Part I


Waffen SS “Totenkopf” tanks in Szomor around a church. (StugIII, Panzer IV, Panzer V) Operation Konrad I.

After the encirclement of Budapest, the German command launched three major offensives code-named Konrad, in an attempt to relieve the capital and recapture the eastern section of the Margit Line. Contrary to popular assumption, the intention was not to rescue the garrison but to move further forces to Budapest. By February 1945 all available reserves – including almost half of all panzer divisions in the east – had been relocated to Hungary for this purpose, and Hitler was desperate to show some success as a result.

By now the oil-fields of western Hungary were the German army’s last remaining source of fuel, and this, together with the need to defend Vienna, greatly increased the importance of the Hungarian theatre of war. Between autumn 1944 and April 1945 – by which time the first Soviet tank was within 60 kilometres of Berlin – every briefing in the Führer’s headquarters began with the Hungarian operations. Gerhard Boldt, one of the adjutants, recalls a mistake he made in February while preparing the maps:

Guderian began his comments on the Hungarian theatre of war. In the middle of his first sentence he stopped to give me a black look. Hitler was staring up at me with an inscrutable expression before leaning back in his chair with a bored gesture. I hastily stammered something incoherent, wishing that the ground would open and swallow me up. The general-staff maps were piled up in front of Hitler exactly in reverse order, with Kurland top and Hungary bottom.

As already noted, Hitler had insisted from the outset on holding Budapest and forbidden any break-out attempt. On 24 December 1944, before the final closure of the encirclement, he had ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps and the 96th and 711th Infantry Divisions – some 200 tanks and 60,000 men – to Hungary, and placed them under the command of SS Obergruppenführer Otto Gille, who had been highly decorated for breaking out of the encirclement of Cherkassy. Himmler cabled Gille that Hitler had chosen him because he had the most extensive experience of being encircled and because his corps had proved the best on the eastern front.

The cost of the relief attempts was soon to become manifest. The transfer of the IV SS Panzer Corps to Transdanubia deprived the Warsaw area of reserves, and on 12 January the Soviet offensive swept away the German front on the Vistula. The tanks of Marshalls Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov and Ivan Stepanovich Konev rolled on until they reached the Oder and even then stopped only because the Soviet command did not press the attacks any further.

The German Army Group South and Guderian disagreed about the use of the regrouped units, but there was general consensus that Budapest should be given up and the break-out approved as soon as possible. This suggestion was made to Hitler almost daily, but in vain.

The choice between two different relief routes was hard to make. An offensive from Székesfehérvár in the south (code-named Paula), given the greater distance, would have required 900 cubic metres more fuel and delayed the arrival of the troops by five days. An offensive from the north (code-named Konrad) involved a shorter distance and offered the element of surprise, but carried greater risks owing to the terrain. Although Guderian preferred Operation Paula, his representative, Colonel-General Walther Wenck, was persuaded by the reasoning of the German Army Group South, and the supreme command finally opted for the swifter Operation Konrad.

The regrouped units began to move into Hungary on 28 December. Hoping that the Soviets had not yet built strong defence positions, the German command gave orders to attack before all the troops had arrived. At that time only 32 per cent of the 5th SS Panzer Division (Wiking), 66 per cent of the 3rd SS Panzer Division (Totenkopf or Death’s Head) and 43 per cent of the 96th Infantry Division was in place, and of the 711th Infantry Division there was no sign. The regroupment was not completed until 8 January. Guderian had arrived in Tata on 7 January to oversee the operation. Károly Beregfy, Minister of Defence in the Szálasi government, offered the participation of Hungarian troops. However, his forces – the 1st Hussar Division, the 2nd Armoured Division and the 23rd Reserve Division – were too exhausted to be used. Lieutenant-General Gyula Kovács, Inspector General of the Honvéd Army, was disappointed to find that Colonel-General Balck had no time to discuss the details of the entry parade into Budapest.


German Sdkfz convoy with Panthers moving through in the passage of Agostyán. Operation Konrad I.

Operation Konrad I


On the evening of 1 January the IV SS Panzer Corps, only half of which had arrived at Komárom, launched a surprise attack in the Tata–Almásfüzitő region, while the 96th Infantry Division, crossing the Danube from the north by assault boat, established two bridgeheads behind the Soviet troops. The two battalions of the Hungarian Ney SS Combat Group (later Brigade) were deployed for the first time, attached as anti-tank grenadiers to the Wiking and Totenkopf SS Panzer Divisions. The attackers captured the Gerecse Hills, but on 6 January the Soviets stopped their advance near Bicske and Zsámbék.

Two topographical factors weighed against the offensive: first, in the Gerecse and Pilis Hills it was easy for the Soviets to set up roadblocks with anti-tank guns; second, the long and narrow pocket that would have developed alongside the Danube after a breakthrough could have been cut off by the Soviets without much effort. In the event the Soviets were able to slow down the assault of the German tanks and ensure that their reserves had enough room for manoeuvre.

Between 26 and 31 December Tolbukhin and Malinovsky had placed the Soviet units that had so far played the key parts in reserve, leaving one armoured corps, four mechanised corps and three cavalry corps – with 500–600 tanks – at the front to fend off the German relief attempts. Some Soviet troops were relocated from other regions: for example, the 19th Rifle Division took up position at Adony on the Danube after covering a distance of 190 kilometres from the southern shore of Lake Balaton in a day and a half. It was because he had overestimated the strength of the Germans that Tolbukhin had kept so many of his units in reserve until the situation became critical. As a result his forces suffered great losses but, unlike the Germans who had no reserves left, he had preserved his freedom of action. Table below, compares the numbers of tanks and assault guns at the disposal of the German Army Group South and the various units of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts on New Year’s Day 1945.


On 2 January the Soviet 18th Tank Corps joined the battle, followed on 3 January by three other fast-moving units. In the Bicske region the prime target of the German offensive, the Wiking Division, was confronted on 3 January by one heavy-tank regiment, four assault-gun regiments, three rifle divisions, one mechanised brigade and six technical battalions – two or three times the Germans’ strength. The same happened elsewhere along the breadth of the German onslaught, where by 4 January the Soviet 1st Mechanised Guard Corps had also arrived from Adony. Thus no less than five Soviet mechanised, armoured or cavalry corps had lined up against the main thrust of the relief attempt, blocking any further advance towards Budapest. Only the group attacking in the north was able to capture Esztergom on 6 January and Pilisszentlélek on 8 January. The German and Hungarian losses between 1 and 7 January amounted to some 3500 – almost 10 per cent of the IV SS Panzer Corps’s strength – killed, wounded or missing, and 39 tanks and assault guns destroyed.

Meanwhile, Tolbukhin had also made preparations to prevent a break-out from Budapest. He had erected defensive lines with anti-tank guns facing both the relief forces and the potential escapees, and on 3 January ordered the cessation of attacks on Buda in order to release further forces. On 6 January seven divisions – roughly equal to the whole German and Hungarian garrison in the capital – stood in readiness between Zsámbék and Tinnye. In the event of a break-out the escapees would first have had to breach the encirclement ring round the city and then, after a long march, meet this formidable second formation. The chances of an organised break-out in any direction other than the north were therefore doubtful, and a break-out in the north could have succeeded only if the relief attempts in the Pilis Hills had not been stopped, as they eventually were.

Guderian, unaware of the real situation, planned to include the defenders in the stalled offensive: in addition to holding the capital they were to launch an attack towards the northwest and assist the operations of the relief units. The army group, more realistically, recommended that they either abandon the eastern bridgehead on 9 January and break out northwest or, failing this, fight their way through the ring in separate small combat units. However, this was rejected by Hitler.

Budapest – Relief Attempts 1945 Part II


SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Totenkopf” moves out in bleak weather during Operation Konrad II, Hungary 1945.

Operation Konrad II


The setback to their northern offensive compelled the Germans to fall back on the southern option. The command of the German Army Group South decided to try and break through between Székesfehérvár and Mór with new forces (the Breith Group), the objective being not only to recapture the Margit Line but also to surround, jointly with the IV SS Panzer Corps, the Soviet units on the western slopes of the Vértes Hills. On 6 January the army group considered halting or scaling down the attack, but finally chose to go ahead, on the assumption that with the newly arrived 20th Panzer Corps it would be able to hold the front.

Tolbukhin, aware of the German troop movements, reinforced the 20th Guard Rifle Corps in the main trajectory of the attack, which was unleashed on 7 January. The Soviets benefited from the fact that on the preceding day Malinovsky’s 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian fronts had in their turn launched an attack along the Garam river, north of the Danube, so that the two enemies were moving in opposite directions on either side of the river. By 8 January Malinovsky’s units were within 3 kilometres of Komárom, heralding a major encirclement operation. Table below details the strengths of the opposing sides involved in the Konrad II operation.


The attack of the Breith Group – the southern branch of Operation Konrad II – met fierce resistance, and ran out of steam as early as 9 January. On the same day the German 7th Mechanised Corps launched a strike to prevent a Soviet breakthrough, but 57 of its 80 tanks were put out of action. In three days of fighting the fields of Zámoly became a veritable tank cemetery. With great losses on both sides the Germans made no further progress, but their salients remained in place.

After their failure at Bicske, both the German Army Group South and Gille, still hoping to avoid any major relocation, made plans for the IV SS Panzer Corps to breach the Soviet defence near Esztergom and relieve Budapest across the Pilis Hills, in what was to be the northern branch of Operation Konrad II. The increasingly ominous news from the capital made this appear even more urgent.

The new German attack was launched on 9 January from Esztergom, where 200 tonnes of supplies had been collected to be transported to Budapest immediately in the event of success. As a complementary measure, Colonel-General Balck ordered a reinforced battalion under Major Philipp to smash through the Soviet obstacles near the Danube and occupy Szentendre as a refuge for the defenders after their escape. However, everybody in the Wiking Division, including Gille and Philipp, considered the plan unworkable. As the division’s staff officer put it, the Soviets were ‘hardly likely to open the shore road for jaunts’. It is also difficult to see how Balck expected the defenders to continue their withdrawal along the road from Szentendre to Esztergom, which was within the range of the Soviet weapons across the Danube. Fortunately for the Germans, the question did not arise in practice, because the relief unit’s advance soon stalled, although the 711th Infantry Division attacking southeast of it managed to capture Dobogókő.

On 10 January, with one day’s delay because of Hitler’s prohibition, the Panzer Group of the Wiking Division, including the Westland Panzergrenadier Regiment, was deployed to fill the gap. The same staff officer writes: ‘Enemy weak, completely surprised. Difficult mountain terrain of pre-Alpine character. At midnight first reports of success, prisoners mainly baggage-train crews of divisions encircling Budapest. Anti-tank gun and mortar fire. No own losses. Westland making good progress.’

By 11 January the Westland Regiment had crossed the Pilis-nyereg saddle and occupied Pilisszentkereszt, 21 kilometres from Budapest. First to enter the village in his armoured personnel carrier was SS Obersturmbannführer Franz Hack, who had been wounded twice during the preceding days and was awarded the Knight’s Cross for the courage he had shown in this action. Many German vehicles and wounded prisoners were liberated after being held by Soviets in the village for a fortnight. The German Army Group South again requested permission for a break-out, hoping to capture the airfield of Pomáz in order to remove the wounded and provide supplies for the spearheads expected from the capital.

By the evening of 12 January, the advance units of the Wiking Division had reached the Csobánka fork on the road to Pomáz, only 17 kilometres from Budapest, when they were ordered to withdraw, although no outflanking counter-attack by Soviet tanks through the valleys was to be expected and Gille would have had no reason to fear that his units would be cut off in the Pilis Hills by the large Soviet force in their rear at Dorog – at least if the aim of the German offensive had been merely to rescue the defenders, rather than to relieve Budapest. The Soviet 5th Cavalry Corps between Szentendre and Pilisvörösvár, 15 kilometres from the city, would almost certainly have halted a further advance, but a co-ordinated breakout might still have been achieved as the short distance and the bad terrain considerably restricted the Soviets’ ability to resist.

In fact the Soviets actually hoped for a break-out. By this time Malinovsky was very nervous, because the siege had lasted so long. He wanted the Germans to leave the capital as soon as possible, and in order to assist them, he had a 1-kilometre gap in the Buda encirclement opened. His chief concern was the capture of Budapest, and to avert Stalin’s anger over the delay he was prepared to spare the defenders. Ironically it was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s and Hitler’s orders that prevented a successful break-out.

From the outset Hitler and Guderian had not expected Operation Konrad II to succeed, and had favoured an offensive from the Székesfehérvár region. On 10 January they had signalled to the German Army Group South that unless there was a radical change within hours Gille’s troops would be regrouped. On 11 January, at the request of the army group, Colonel-General Wenck had spent two hours trying to persuade Hitler to allow the break-out, but ‘all he achieved was the award of the Knight’s Cross to SS Obergruppenführer Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’. The general staff wondered whether by the end of the belated operation there would be anybody or anything to relieve, but Hitler persisted in his original plan and issued the order for Gille’s forces to regroup immediately, even before their new offensive reached its full force.

A 24-hour tug-of-war began between Gille and the army supreme command. Hitler’s order was delivered to Gille at 8.20pm on 11 January. Three hours later Gille cabled that the offensive was making progress. Gille’s superiors passed his cable to Hitler without comment. When Hitler repeated the order Gille appealed to Himmler, but in vain. As his troops had shown no spectacular results since the capture of Pilisszentkereszt he had lost his last trump card, and at 8pm on 12 January he ordered the retreat. By the evening of 14 January the Soviets had reoccupied the Dobogókő area and Pilisszentkereszt.

The cessation of the offensive has provoked heated arguments in memoirs and historical studies. In the unanimous opinion of the combatants, Hitler’s order deprived them of certain success. However, several military historians argue that the Soviets would have cut off the Germans if they had continued their advance. The debate is rooted in diametrically opposed interpretations of Hitler’s objectives. Gille and his officers were convinced that the relief attempts were intended as a rescue mission. In their view, their offensive could have opened a corridor for the defenders to escape, but could not have maintained a link over a longer period. Hitler and his generals, who were not sufficiently familiar with the situation, hoped that their limited forces would be able to restore the pre-Christmas status quo. For them, abandoning Budapest was out of the question.

By 1944–5 there were fewer and fewer individuals in the top echelons of the Third Reich who could have confronted Hitler with the reality, and as a result, more and more absurd operational objectives came into being. The battles in Hungary from January to March 1945, in which new panzer units were continually being deployed while the strategic aims remained unchanged, reveal a total lack of co-ordination between different tactical assignments. Had these units been deployed simultaneously, their attacks would have had a real chance of success.

Time was working in favour of the Soviets, whose tanks had reached the edge of the Little Hungarian Plain on 8 January and were threatening Bratislava and Vienna. The German Army Group South would therefore have preferred to stop the relief attempts and regroup north of the Danube, which would necessarily have involved permission for the Budapest garrison to break out rather than being destroyed in a futile struggle. Hitler, however, preferred to gamble on the Soviet attack along the northern bank of the Danube stalling before Komárom. Events initially seemed to prove him right when the hastily regrouped tanks of the 20th Panzer Division pushed the 6th Armoured Guard Army back almost 50 kilometres, but even when the Soviets launched their grand offensive of 12 January on the Polish front and there were no significant German forces stationed between them and Berlin, he stubbornly ignored the general staff’s advocacy of immediately abandoning the attempts to relieve Budapest and regrouping as the only possible way of preventing disaster at home.

Operation Konrad III


On 18 January the IV SS Panzer Corps, whose relocation to the region between Lake Balaton and Székesfehérvár had been completed in utmost secrecy on the previous day, was thrown into battle. Tanks with infrared sights for nocturnal operations were used for the first time. Table below shows the Soviet and German strengths engaged in Operation Konrad III.


According to Soviet authors, ‘the reconnaissance section of the 4th Guard Army’s staff did not have the situation under control’ – the German offensive had taken their generals by surprise. Gille’s tanks crushed the Soviet 7th Mechanised Corps’s counter-attack, separating the 133rd Rifle Corps and the 18th Tank Corps from their rear lines. Only the lack of German infantry enabled the encircled Soviet units to break out of the ring. On 19 January the German tanks reached the Danube at Dunapentele, tearing the Soviet Transdanubian front apart. At the Danube crossings, in chaotic conditions, the Soviets moved more than 40,000 soldiers and large quantities of equipment to the east bank within a few days, although they were constantly being bombed by the Luftwaffe.

On 22 January the Soviets lost Székesfehérvár after heavy street fighting. First to enter the city was the Ney Combat Group, which had by then reached division strength, although one quarter of its members was dead, wounded or missing. On 24 January the Totenkopf Division captured the southern section of Baracska, 30 kilometres from Budapest. Tolbukhin’s troops developed a firm defence along the Váli-viz river, whose icy banks the German tanks could scale only with great difficulty, but by 26 January the offensive had reached a point roughly 25 kilometres from the ring around the capital.

Towards the end of the war, Stalin was no longer inclined to take any major risks because he knew that his troops would soon be facing the British and US soldiers. Earlier his inflexible orders to persevere had sent millions into captivity or death, but now he contemplated evacuating southern Transdanubia and gave Tolbukhin a free hand, even though the equipment and supplies of two armies would have had to be left behind.

On 21 January the nervous Soviet command had blown up its own pontoon bridges near Dunapentele and Dunaföldvár, halting supplies to the units still in action. Tolbukhin now chose a more courageous option: he decided to hold the bridgehead because he believed that it would be pointless to give up the occupied territories in the hope of a smooth second crossing of the Danube. On 27 January – having taken charge of the 104th Rifle Corps and the 23rd Tank Corps, which had been concentrated near south Buda to prevent a break-out, and the 30th Rifle Corps, which had been sent to southern Transdanubia as a reinforcement – he began a counter-attack.

The German spearheads that had reached the Danube could at any time be cut off by Soviet divisions from Lake Velence in the north and Simontornya in the south. Recognising this advantage, Tolbukhin attacked from both directions. Although the Germans destroyed 122 Soviet tanks on the first day, they had to abandon many of the occupied territories, with the notable exception of Székesfehérvár. Near the village of Vereb alone, the wrecks of 70 tanks and 35 assault guns bore witness to the heavy fighting. Eventually the relentlessly counter-attacking Soviet forces invaded northern Székesfehérvár, and by the beginning of February the Germans were obliged to give up most of their territorial gains.

On 28 January Hitler decided to send his last reserves – the 6th Panzer Army, in the process of replenishment since the Ardennes offensive – to Hungary to make one more relief attempt, code-named Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening). However, by 13 February, when this offensive began, there was nothing left to relieve because all of Buda was in Soviet hands.

INDISCHE LEGION – Operation Bajadere


An Abwehr unit [1]  composed of Indian volunteers and recruits, the Indische Legion (Indian Legion) was conceived in April 1941 following the arrival in Berlin of Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the radical wing of the All-Indian Congress. Bose had escaped from British house arrest in Calcutta with the assistance of both the Abwehr and the NKVD (Soviet People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). The first members of the legion were drawn from Indian prisoners of war captured in North Africa as well as Indians living in Germany. Further efforts by Bose produced 6,000 additional volunteers, although the nucleus of the new army was limited to 300 people sent to a special training facility at Königsbrück near Dresden.

The Abwehr envisioned a campaign that would advance via the Caucasus into India and spark an anti-British revolt. In a preparatory move, Operation Bajadere was launched in January 1942, paradropping an elite force of 100 into eastern Persia (Iran) so they could commit acts of sabotage in their homeland. Yet the later German reversals at El Alamein and Stalingrad meant that the planned offensive had little chance of materializing. The main body of the Indische Legion was surreptitiously transferred to Southeast Asia and became part of the failed Japanese invasion of India through Burma. Those soldiers remaining in Europe were absorbed into the Waffen-SS in August 1944.


It is always necessary to distinguish between contemporary speculation and postwar sensationalism. The former process was an essential integral constituent of purposive intelligence analysis during the war, especially in the earlier phases of security-intelligence work in Persia, before a significant number of Axis or pro-Axis agents had been captured and interrogated, and the information obtained from them had been collated, cross-referenced, and corroborated. The latter phenomenon, on the other hand, is generally associated with the literature of neofascist or antifascist historical revisionism, particularly when authored by less than scholarly writers who have often employed the internet to propagate unsourced (or inadequately sourced) myths about the performance of Nazi agencies and agents in the region. An example would be the attribution to the Abwehr of a mythical parachute operation codenamed ‘BAJADERE’, together with a mythical narrative according to which 100 soldiers of the FKI entered India through Persian Baluchistan in January 1942 and carried out successful covert action on Indian soil. There is no basis for this operation in the records. Quite apart from the logistical infeasibility of such a long-range operation, the FKI was not mustered and sworn in until August 1942, only reaching its full strength of trained soldiers in mid- 1943. Equally fictional is the operation codenamed ‘AMINA’, which supposedly saw large numbers of marauding German special forces roaming around northern Persia (and even as far south as Abadan) in the aftermath of the Rashid Ali Gailani coup failure in May 1941 and before the Anglo- Soviet invasion in August 1941. Such narratives generally have in common an absurdly inflated operational scale, involving hundreds of participants. Contrast such fictions as ‘BAJADERE’ and ‘AMINA’ with the typically more modest, factual attempts by the Abwehr to insert officers singly, such as the Gräwer initiative in February 1941 or the deployment a few months later of the former First World War agent Oskar von Niedermayer to Persia (under the alias Otto Normann) in the summer of 1941, which was cut short by the Allied invasion. Niedermayer was at the time attached to Sonderstab F (Hellmuth Felmy’s special-operations staff) in Athens; he was to be sent via Turkey on a reconnaissance mission ‘of great significance for any military operations in the region, with particular reference to road conditions’.

[1] There was a factual unit named ‘Sonderkommando (SK) Bajadere’ (see Adrian O’Sullivan, Nazi Secret Warfare in Occupied Persia (Iran): The Failure of the German Intelligence Services, 1939– 45 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 63, 88, 164, 175, 200, 252); there is no trace or any mention of an operation by that name in the archival records. Had it existed, it would no doubt have been planned by Hans-Otto Wagner of Abwehr II, who had dealings with INA leader Bose, and it would therefore normally have been mentioned in connection with Wagner or Bose. Not surprisingly therefore, there is no mention of any such aerial deployment on Indian soil in Adrian Weale’s archives- based essay on the FKI in Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen (London: Pimlico, 2002), 199- 201. According to Weale, the men of the FKI saw active duty only in the Netherlands (building coastal defences), France, and Germany. Apart from the odd skirmish with the French Resistance, they appear to have done no fighting at all. In fact, the Germans seem to have been anxious to keep them as far as possible from any direct confrontation with British forces.


Irish Galloglass

“galloglasses” (gallóglaigh, troops of heavy-armored Scots from the Western Isles). The first galloglasses arrived in the mid-thirteenth century, but their numbers were reinforced by political exiles from Scotland after the Bruce wars. They too were billeted on peasant farmers in the Gaelic lordships, an exaction known as “coyne and livery.”



Conor O’Dea of Thomond and a small contingent of Munstermen held the ford of the Fergus river against an advancing Anglo-Irish force under Richard de Clare. De Clare heedlessly rushed across the river with some of his knights, only to be surrounded and killed. De Clare’s main force then crossed over and surrounded the O’Deas in turn, but were thrown into disarray by the arrival of Irish reinforcements and routed.

The armies of the Irish chieftains over the same period became increasingly professional. Instead of relying on musters of their own subjects, chiefs employed bands of “kernes” (ceithirne, ceatharnaigh; light-armed native Irish mercenaries) and “galloglasses” (gallóglaigh, troops of heavy-armored Scots from the Western Isles). The first galloglasses arrived in the mid-thirteenth century, but their numbers were reinforced by political exiles from Scotland after the Bruce wars. They too were billeted on peasant farmers in the Gaelic lordships, an exaction known as “coyne and livery.” The chieftains themselves, with their families and household guards, formed the cavalry, wearing suits of mail and helmets, and armed with long spears. A series of major Irish victories in the fourteenth century demonstrated their effectiveness: in 1318, at Dysert O’Dea, where the death of Lord Richard de Clare and the subsequent failure of his heirs ensured lasting independence for the Ua Briain lordship of Thomond; in 1346, when Brian Mór Mac Mathgamna (MacMahon) of Monaghan defeated the Anglo-Irish of Louth, killing four hundred of them; or in 1374, when Niall Mór Ua Néill defeated and killed the Seneschal of Ulster at Downpatrick. However, real territorial gains for the Irish chiefs came from a gradual war of attrition on the borders of the colony, resulting in considerable expansion for Ua Conchobair Failge (O’Conor Faly) along the southern borders of Meath and Kildare, for Ua Broin and Ua Tuathail (O’Byrne and O’Toole) in Wicklow, for Mac Murchada Caemánach (MacMurrough Kavanagh) in Wexford and Carlow, and for Ua Cerbaill (O’Carroll) in Tipperary. In Ulster, the murder of Earl William de Burgh in 1333, and the absenteeism of his heirs, led to virtual independence for the chiefs there, but in Connacht and Desmond, or south Munster, the Anglo-Irish Burkes and Fitzgeralds respectively dominated the local chiefs, although the English government itself had little control in those areas.

Austro-Hungarian Army’s Task



Corps areas in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

The Austro-Hungarian army’s task in a European war was at first glance straightforward: during the six weeks in which its ally defeated France, it was to bear the main burden of holding the Russians in the east. However, Conrad, unlike Moltke, could not simply plan for one major conflict. The predators that surrounded the Empire could plausibly attack in a number of combinations, and so unlike their German allies, with their obsessive focus on one single scheme, the Austro-Hungarians had stacks of war plans. There were plans for conflict with Russia (War Case ‘R’), in the Balkans (War Case ‘B’) and, although formally an ally, with Italy (War Case ‘I’). The army also prepared to deploy against combinations of these enemies and, a case considered hopeless even by the optimists in the Habsburg General Staff, against all three in alliance. In order to meet all eventualities, Conrad divided his operational force into three groups. A-Echelon, the strongest group with nine corps containing twenty-seven of the army’s forty-eight infantry divisions, was intended to provide protection against Russia. The Balkan Minimal Group of three corps (with nine divisions) had the task of defending against Serbia and Montenegro. Finally, there was a swing group, B-Echelon, which comprised twelve divisions that could be sent wherever needed. The circumstances of July 1914 presented two possibilities for this echelon. Habsburg leaders had to decide whether they faced ‘War Case B’, a conflict solely against Serbia, or whether Russia would intervene, bringing about ‘War Case B+R’. In the former case, B-Echelon was to be sent to the southern border for an offensive. In the latter, it would urgently be required in Galicia, where, with the units of A-Echelon, it would take part in an attack intended to disrupt the Tsarist Empire’s mobilization.

Conrad’s plans comfortingly appeared to deal with all eventualities. Yet there were fatal flaws which, combined with indecision and wishful thinking on the part of the Chief of the General Staff, disrupted mobilization and severely damaged Habsburg hopes of any early victory. First, the railway plan was geared to flexibility, when what was really needed was speed. The four corps allocated to the swing B-Echelon all lay far from Galicia but had access to good railways. The Budapest IV Corps could travel to the eastern fortress-city of Przemyśl on a double-tracked line. The Prague VIII and Leitmeritz IX Corps were on the Monarchy’s most modern rail artery, the Nordbahn. If speed had been the priority, then it would have been optimal to transport these distant units first and then start moving the divisions of A-Echelon, most of which were based closer to the battlefront. However, Conrad’s demand for flexibility meant that the army’s rail experts did the opposite. B-Echelon was to be held stationary, while A-Echelon was loaded into the first transports. Worse still, the delay was compounded by the military rail technicians’ ridiculously cautious timetabling. The regulation speed for Habsburg military transports on single tracks was just 11 kilometres per hour. On double-tracked lines they were expected to reach a heady 18 kilometres per hour. The trains themselves were permitted to be no more than forty-nine wagons’ long, comparable to other armies’ transports but just half the length of the civilian trains that usually travelled the Nordbahn. Stops of six in every twenty-four hours for fuel and feeding were calculated into the deployment programme. How slow all this was is clear from comparison with the French and German armies, which assumed basic speeds of 30 kilometres per hour for their mobilization transports. The result was that even under the best circumstances, a Habsburg general mobilization against the Tsarist Empire would be tardy. The Russians expected their enemy to complete concentration against them in fifteen days. However, under the Austro-Hungarian military rail plan the final units of B-Echelon deployed only on the twenty-fourth day of mobilization. The prioritization of flexibility over speed in Conrad’s plans therefore negated the one real advantage that the Habsburg army possessed. The Russians planned by the twenty-fourth day of their mobilization to have thirty-seven and a half infantry divisions on the Galician Front, just two fewer than their enemy. By the thirtieth day, they would enjoy a significant numerical superiority, with forty-five infantry and more than eighteen cavalry divisions.

The Austro-Hungarian army could ill afford to sacrifice this single advantage, for its multinational character made it difficult to command and the Hungarian parliament’s obstreperousness had left it undermanned and underfunded. It exhibited the structural complexity typical of Habsburg institutions. The Common Army was the main force with two-thirds of the Empire’s infantry and nearly all its artillery and cavalry. Alongside it were the Hungarian Honvéd and Austrian Landwehr, formations originally intended as second-line national guards but which through decades of Magyar parliamentary pressure had developed into first-line forces. A small Croatian-Slavonian force, the Domobran, served within the Honvéd, reflecting the autonomous position of Croatia within the Lands of St Stephen. The Common Army recruited from all parts of the Empire, while the other formations drew their soldiers exclusively from Hungary, Austria or Croatia respectively. The army was a dynastic force; all its parts owed allegiance solely to Franz Joseph as Austrian Emperor or King of Hungary and Croatia.

While the German and French conscript forces were, in the jargon of the time, ‘people’s armies’, composed of each nation’s manhood, the Austro-Hungarians fielded, as its history proudly asserted, ‘an army of peoples’. The ethnic composition of the force’s rank and file closely mirrored that of the Empire which it served and from which it was drawn.

The Habsburg army had followed other European forces and switched to territorial recruitment in 1882, raising units within sixteen corps districts, a measure that accelerated mobilization and limited the mixing of the nationalities. Even so, the force still had to overcome considerable communication challenges. These were resolved in the first instance by designating one tongue as a ‘language of command’ and ‘language of service’. This was German in the Common Army and Landwehr, Hungarian in the Honvéd and Croatian in the Domobran. Each soldier learned eighty words in this language so that he understood basic commands like ‘Attention!’, ‘At Ease!’ or ‘Fire!’ The men also memorized around a thousand technical terms, including the names for the parts of their weaponry; conversation might not be possible, but soldiers from different corners of the empire should be able to strip their rifles or service a field gun together. Additionally, to facilitate everyday communication at lower levels of the military organization, any tongue spoken by at least 20 per cent of the soldiers in a regiment (a unit of around 3,000 men) was designated a ‘regimental language’. In 1914, even though the army was territorially raised, only 142 regiments, fewer than half the total, were sufficiently ethnically homogeneous to be considered monolingual. Some 162 regiments officially had two languages, twenty-four used three, and there were even a few regiments raised from areas so mixed that four languages had to be recognized. Any new officer arriving at a regiment had three years to learn its languages. The duty was taken seriously, for the men had the right to speak in their own tongues to their superiors up to company commander, and failure meant delayed promotion or even dismissal. Most Habsburg professional officers were therefore proficient in at least two tongues. The corps’ high-flyers usually spoke more: Conrad, for example, had mastered seven.

The officer corps, which numbered 18,506 professionals and 13,293 reserve officers, was the army’s greatest asset. The corps shared its Prussian ally’s aristocratic ethos and honour credo, but its social profile was less exalted: two decades before the war, the share of nobles among career officers had been 28.6 per cent, but it had fallen by 1914. Most professional officers were of Austrian German stock, although the four-fifths suggested in the official figures (see Table 4) is probably an exaggeration. Perhaps one-sixth were from Slavic backgrounds. Whatever their origins, the vast majority were anational, identifying only with the Austrian state idea and their feudal lord, the Emperor. Recruitment for both the professional and reserve corps was blind to ethnicity and confession. One of the consequences was that Jews, who were informally but totally barred from commissions in the pre-war Prussian army, were four times over-represented in the Habsburg reserve corps, making up no less than 17 per cent of its officers. Although the Common Army was a conscript force, its professional officers held aloof from civilian society. The corps resented its lack of prestige in that society and was hostile to the rising nationalism. These attitudes, combined with Habsburg officers’ lesser social status, and education and pay comparing poorly with those of their German counterparts, influenced its command style and performance. Inter-rank relations in the Habsburg army were indifferent; better than those in its Russian enemy, for sure, but not so trusting as in Germany’s military, even though its officers had to spend more time than German officers instructing their men because their companies usually had only between one and three professional NCOs. This was not merely a matter of communication difficulties. Whereas the liberal reform of Prussian discipline had taken place at the start of the nineteenth century, not until 1873 had the more socially detached Habsburg force finally instructed its commanders to ‘show sympathy’ and ‘get to know and understand’ their subordinates. On the other hand, the corps’ self-isolation and rejection of civil society probably reinforced its intense devotion to the Emperor. The sacrifice that it made during the war was astonishingly high: 31.3 per cent of professional officers and 16.5 per cent of reserve officers fell in imperial service.

The Common Army’s biggest problem with its men was that it simply did not have enough. Its 1,687,000-strong Field Army was dwarfed by the 3,400,000 soldiers of the mobilized Russian force. Additionally, the low proportion of the male population drafted in peace meant there was a relatively small pool of trained reserves to act as casualty replacements in war. The manpower pool from which the army recruited was very mixed. In the west of the Empire, educational standards and the acceptance of state power were little different from that of western nations. In peacetime, just 3 per cent of German-speaking Austrians had attempted to dodge the three-year (from 1912 two-year) military conscription. In the disgruntled but well-educated Czech lands, 6–7.3 per cent of men ignored the summons to the colours. By contrast Hungarians, who still bore a grudge for Habsburg soldiers’ brutal suppression of their 1848 revolution and disliked the Common Army, had an absentee rate before the war of a little over 25 per cent. Worst of all were Galicia and the South Slav lands, areas with much illiteracy and irredentist movements as well as high emigration, where resistance in the last decade of peace had risen to the point that over one-third of those mustered failed to present themselves. Of course, war was a very different situation. Punishment for disobedience was more severe and a wave of patriotism did sweep the Empire as hostilities broke out. Nonetheless, it was inevitable that units raised in different parts of the Empire would in war display wildly differing capabilities and performance. Scepticism about the loyalty of some peoples also prevailed. As the Habsburg War Minister’s aide-de-camp remarked of South Slav reservists on the eve of war, ‘they will arrive at the depots all confident, but they’ll already be less willing when the time comes to march. Whether they attack over the last 1,000 metres, no one can give any sure guarantee.’

The army’s main deficiencies in 1914 nonetheless lay not, contrary to what is often claimed, in the loyalty or willingness of its Slav soldiers, but rather in inadequate support, poor training and, as the campaigns would reveal, spectacularly incompetent higher leadership. Its gravest materiel shortage was in modern artillery, a consequence both of inadequate funding and indecision and infighting about the specifications for the new weaponry among the army’s senior commanders. Habsburg Common Army divisions had forty-two field artillery pieces; eight to ten more than first-line Serbian divisions but far fewer than the sixty supporting Russian divisions. Worse still, only two-thirds of these guns were modern 05/08 80mm cannon. The others were obsolete 100mm field howitzers without recoil mechanisms for quick aiming and firing or armoured shields for the gun teams’ protection. The heavy artillery, which comprised eight 99/04 150mm howitzers in each corps, was similarly old-fashioned. All Habsburg gun barrels were cast of bronze, rather than stronger steel, which made them heavy and limited their range. Even in Serbia, the 150mm howitzers, which could fire 5,000 metres, found that the enemy’s heavy artillery could outrange them by no less than 3,000 metres. The Common Army had some excellent specialist artillery. The force had designed a superb mountain artillery gun, although only four of fifty-two mountain batteries had received it by 1914. The army was also equipped with some state-of-the-art fortress-busting 305mm Skoda super-heavy mortars. Neither weapon compensated for deficiencies elsewhere, however, nor for the army’s inadequate ammunition stocks. Just 330 rounds per howitzer and 550 rounds per field gun were available, around half that stockpiled by the other great powers.

The tactical skill of the Habsburg infantry was unlikely to compensate for this deficiency in materiel. The army not only lacked professional NCOs; it also relied more on reservists, whose martial skills were rusty, than was wise. The German army kept its peacetime units at two-thirds strength, so that on mobilization only the two youngest and most recently trained classes of reservists needed to be called to bring them to their full complement. In Habsburg infantry companies after mobilization, by contrast, only 20–25 per cent of the complement were active soldiers undergoing peacetime military training. To fill the ranks, men who had not seen service for a decade had to be drafted. So great was the army’s need that even Ersatzreservisten, men who had received no more than an annual eight-week military training, were called up. The army, denied funding through Hungarian intransigence in the last decade of peace, also lacked the equipment and infrastructure needed for an orderly expansion on mobilization. Most continental conscript armies followed the Prussian model of organizing three main lines. The ‘active’ units that composed the standing army and had the best equipment were filled with men undergoing their peacetime service and topped up with the youngest classes of reservists. The depots also kept sufficient equipment, NCOs and officers to permit the building of a second line: reserve regiments containing trained men aged between twenty-three and thirty-two. A third line of less well-equipped Landwehr or territorial units, intended principally for rear-area duties, was formed from reservists aged twenty-eight to thirty-eight. Additionally, older men up to forty-five years of age might be allocated to Landsturm police or labour units. The Habsburg Common Army, by contrast, treated its Landwehr and Honvéd regiments as first-line by 1914 and lacked the surplus equipment and officers needed to form extra second-line reserve units on mobilization. To supplement its weak front-line strength, it instead relied upon Landsturminfanteriebrigaden, scratch-built militia composed of men aged between thirty-two and forty-two issued with obsolete rifles and easily visible peacetime uniforms or even just armbands in imperial black-yellow colours. Their artillery support amounted to no more than one gun per battalion. During 1914 and 1915, similarly poorly equipped ‘march battalions’, whose purpose was to bring drafts to front-line units, were frequently also thrown into combat. Lacking training, equipment, cohesion and leadership, the march battalions and Landsturm brigades predictably achieved little and suffered horrendous casualties.

These deficiencies were multiplied by a misguided tactical doctrine. The ‘cult of the offensive’, an overestimation of the superiority of the attack and a conviction that raw will could beat firepower, was embraced by all armies in 1914, but those that felt themselves to be behind in the technological and material race extolled it most. The French army, with its faith in the offensive à outrance, is remembered as the most fervent advocate of these attitudes, but the Austro-Hungarian military leadership was no less fanatical in its belief. This was in large measure due to Conrad, who was considered in the army to be a tactical genius. His key work ‘On the Study of Tactics’ had appeared in 1890, and a quarter of a century later he clung to the same principles. Energy, decisiveness and action were his answers to firepower. ‘The attack,’ he insisted, ‘is the action most suited to the spirit of war.’ To prepare his men for the war of manoeuvre that he expected, he put them through ferocious route marches. Disastrously, unlike his German ally, he denied the necessity for combined arms tactics. His infantry regulations of October 1911, the last issued before the outbreak of war, insisted that foot soldiers could ‘win the victor’s laurels even without support from other weapons and against enemy numerical superiority if imbued with confidence and aggression, if equipped with unbendable steadfastness of will and the greatest physical toughness’. The only concession to the destructive effects of firepower was to recommend that troops be deployed in loose skirmishing lines, and in practice even this was frequently disregarded. Time and again after pre-war manoeuvres, foreign observers criticized Habsburg troops’ slow movement in closed formations. Officers stood up behind their firing lines or even stayed on their horses, offering ideal targets. The obliviousness towards terrain, failure to reconnoitre and lack of cooperation with artillery made these soldiers, in the German military attaché’s view, mere ‘cannon fodder’.

The Central Powers’ campaign in the summer of 1914 was unrealistic in the demands that it placed on both armies. Capable though it was, the German military was asked to achieve the impossible: a victory over France in just six weeks. Even Moltke lacked confidence in the chances of success. He hoped against reason for a quick victory, yet foresaw a horrendous conflict lasting up to two years. He had even, albeit halfheartedly, pushed civil authorities to prepare financially and secure the Reich’s food supply. The Austro-Hungarian army led by Conrad, an even more vociferous advocate of preventative war, was grievously unprepared to face Serbia and Russia combined. The decade-long funding freeze imposed by the Hungarian parliament must certainly bear much responsibility. Yet Conrad and his generals were reckless in accepting the task of holding the Russian army, contributed to the delay in their force’s re-equipment with modern artillery, and imposed a tactical doctrine divorced from the reality of the twentieth-century battlefield. Fatally, neither German nor Austro-Hungarian military leaders were willing to acknowledge their forces’ limitations in their operational planning. Their soldiers would pay for these illusions.

Woode Rogers—Pirate/Privateer I


Rogers’ men search Spanish ladies for their jewels in Guayaquil.

They sighted Cape San Lucas on 2 November 1709 and took up their stations. They spread out so that between them their lookouts could spot any vessel which appeared between the coast and a point some sixty miles out to sea. The Marquiss was stationed nearest the mainland, the Dutchess in the middle and the Duke on the outside, with the bark roving to and fro to carry messages from ship to ship. As far as Rogers and his men were concerned, the only thing that mattered was locating the Manila galleon, and they were experiencing troubles of their own. By 17 November they were running short of water. They sent the bark ashore, where they found a primitive settlement of local Indians. They were given a cautious welcome and allowed to fill up their water barrels from a nearby river. There was still no sign of the galleon on 14 December. They had now been at sea for seven weeks and the Marquiss, which was under the command of Edward Cooke, was in urgent need of repairs to her hull and rigging. She was sent to refit at a place which Rogers and Cooke refer to as Port or Puerto Seguro, on the basis that this was the name given to it by Thomas Cavendish. No such place exists today and it is evident from the description given by one of Cavendish’s sailors, and by Rogers’ detailed description, that the place they were referring to was the sheltered harbour now called Cape San Lucas or Cabo San Lucas. This is situated in the lee of the cape of the same name. Rogers described the entrance of the harbour as being marked by four high rocks which looked like the Needles at the Isle of Wight – and the promontory at the end of the cape certainly does bear a striking resemblance to the Needles.

Out at sea Rogers was increasingly doubtful about seeing the Manila galleon because it was nearly a month past the time when the ship was due. The chief concern now was the shortage of bread and provisions. There was no safe place on the American coast where they could obtain supplies and they had barely enough left to last them the fifty-day voyage across the Pacific to Guam, which was their next destination. On 19 December a council meeting was held on board the Dutchess at which the chief officers decided they would have to abandon their cruise for the Manila galleon. They were bitterly disappointed and as they put their signatures to the resolution ‘all looked very melancholy and dispirited’.

Before heading west into the vastness of the Pacific all three ships needed to stock up with wood and water, so the Duke and Dutchess set a course for Cape San Lucas. They were hampered by calms and a contrary current and were still some way off the coast when, at nine o’clock on the morning of 21 December 1709, the lookout at the masthead of the Duke cried out that he could see a sail on the horizon. ‘We immediately hoisted our ensign, and bore away after her, the Dutchess soon did the same.’

The calm weather continued all through the afternoon of 21 December. The Duke and Dutchess made little progress towards the distant sail and there was some speculation that the ship might be the Marquiss coming out of the harbour at Cape San Lucas. This led to some of the crew laying bets on whether it was the Marquiss or the Manila galleon. They watched the Duke’s pinnace make contact with the Dutchess and lie alongside her for a while before rowing on towards the strange ship. Robert Fry was despatched in the yawl to see whether the men on the Dutchess had managed to identify the ship, and while he was away the Duke hoisted a French ensign and fired a gun, which was answered by a gun from the ship. When Fry returned he brought the good news that ‘it was the ship we had so impatiently waited for, and despaired of seeing her’.

With dusk approaching it was agreed that the two pinnaces should keep close contact with the galleon during the night and at intervals show false fires (an early form of flare) so that the two privateers, which were hampered by the lack of wind, would know exactly where they were. The ships were cleared for action and everything was made ready for engaging and boarding the galleon in the morning. Throughout the hot night the pinnaces showed their lights, which were answered by lights on the privateers. At daybreak the crew of the Duke could see the galleon on their weather bow, about three miles away. The Dutchess was beyond and to leeward of her. At 6 a.m. the pinnace returned and her crew said that during the night the Dutchess had passed close to the galleon, which had fired two shots at her which she had not returned.

There was still no wind, so Rogers ordered his crew to get out eight of the ship’s large oars or sweeps and for an hour they rowed until a light breeze sprang up. He then ordered a kettle of chocolate to be prepared for the ship’s company, before arranging for prayers to be said. While these were in progress they were interrupted by the guns of the galleon, which was slowly bearing down on them with barrels of gunpowder hanging from her yardarms to discourage the privateers from attempting to board her. At 8 a.m. the Duke opened fire, first with her bow-chasers and then, as they came closer, with her full broadside. The thundering boom of the carriage guns was joined by the rattle of small-arms fire as the crews of the Duke and the galleon fired volleys of shot at each other with muskets and pistols. Rogers was the first and only serious casualty on his ship. ‘I was shot through the left cheek, the bullet struck away great part of my upper jaw, and several of my teeth, part of which dropped down on the deck where I fell … I was forced to write what I would say, to prevent the loss of blood, and because of the pain I suffered by speaking.’

The Duke’s gun crews had been well trained and were able to fire faster and more effectively than those of the galleon. They kept on firing as the Duke swung alongside the stout wooden hull of the galleon, causing so many casualties that the galleon’s commander hauled down his ensign and surrendered. As there was still very little wind, the Dutchess, being to leeward, had difficulty in reaching the galleon. When she came within range she fired her guns and a volley of small shot, but the fight was over. As the clouds of acrid gunsmoke cleared and drifted away the three ships drifted on the calm waters of the Pacific. Edward Cooke, who watched the action from a hill overlooking the harbour where the Marquiss was anchored, reckoned the engagement lasted no more than half an hour.

Rogers sent a boat across to the galleon to bring her captain and officers over to the Duke. They learnt that the ship they had captured was called the Nuestra Señora de la Incarnación Disenganio and her commander was Monsieur Jean Pichberty, a French chevalier (in his report Rogers anglicised his name and rank to Sir John Pichberty). He was the brother-in-law of Admiral Jean-Baptiste du Casse, who had fought Admiral Benbow and Admiral Whetstone in the West Indies. On board his ship were 190 sailors and servants, ten passengers and eight black Africans. During the action they had lost nine killed, ten wounded ‘and several blown up and burnt with powder’.

The vessel which the privateers had captured was not, strictly speaking, a galleon but a frigate-built merchant ship, armed with 20 carriage guns on a single gun deck and 20 swivel guns mounted on her rails. At 400 tons burden she was not much larger than the 350-ton Duke and her captain had little option but to surrender when faced with the 30-gun Duke and the 26-gun Dutchess. From her commander the privateers learnt that she had set sail from Manila in company with a much larger galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, a newly built vessel of 900 tons armed with 40 carriage guns on two decks and an equal number of swivel guns. The two galleons had lost touch with each other during the 7,000-mile voyage but had an agreement to meet off Cape San Lucas in order to present a combined front to the privateers – the captains of both ships had received information at Manila, via English trading posts in India, that two Bristol ships were planning to intercept and attack them.

For the rest of the day and during the night the three ships remained out at sea while their crews carried out repairs, and the privateers’ surgeons dressed the wounds of the injured men on board the Spanish ship. The following day, 23 December, they headed towards Cape San Lucas and at 4 p.m. they rounded the distinctive rocky promontory at the end of the cape and dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of the bay beyond. The Marquiss was there to greet them ‘and all the company much overjoyed at our unexpected good fortune’. That night Rogers felt something clog his throat. He swallowed with great pain and presumed the object was either part of his jawbone or the musket shot which had hit him. In his journal he made light of the injury but admitted that his head and throat were badly swollen and he had considerable difficulty in swallowing the liquids he needed for nourishment. In the morning a council meeting was held on the Duke but Rogers was unable to attend. The other chief officers agreed that the Dutchess and the Marquiss would set sail immediately and cruise for eight days with the objective of intercepting the other Manila galleon. They duly weighed anchor at eight in the evening and headed out to sea.

By dawn the next day they were six miles off Cape San Lucas. Edward Cooke, commanding the Marquiss, recorded in his journal, ‘Sunday, December 25, being Christmas Day, at eight in the morning were two leagues of Cape St Luke, and saw a sail bearing S.W. distant about seven leagues, which we concluded to be the great Manila ship.’ Both ships gave chase but made little progress and by nightfall they were still several miles away. At around midnight the Dutchess came within gunshot of the galleon and opened fire. In the ensuing action the powerful guns of the galleon inflicted so much damage on the masts and rigging of the Dutchess that Captain Courtney was forced to break off the action in order to carry out repairs. The Marquiss was still some four miles from the scene at daybreak owing to the continuing lack of wind. And then, at 8 a.m., Cooke saw the Duke slowly emerging from Cape San Lucas and heading their way.

Rogers had wanted the Duke and Dutchess to go out together to intercept and attack the great galleon but he had been over-ruled. He had, however, arranged for two lookouts to be positioned on the hill above the harbour with orders to signal him if they saw another ship appear on the horizon. Meanwhile he had spent a productive Christmas Day negotiating terms with the commander of the captured Manila ship, who was clearly a man of influence. Jean Pichberty agreed to pay five bills of exchange, payable in London, for the sum of 6,000 dollars. This would cover the remaining ransom money due for the taking of Guayaquil and would enable the privateers to release the three Guayaquil hostages who were still being held as surety for the ransom.

During the afternoon of 25 December the lookouts on the hill above Cape San Lucas made the agreed signal with flags to indicate that a third ship had appeared in addition to the distant sails of the Dutchess and the Marquiss. Rogers was determined to put to sea at once. Arrangements were hastily made to secure the large number of prisoners now in their hands, and at 7 p.m. the Duke set sail. His officers had tried to persuade him to remain on board the prize in the harbour but to no avail. He remained in command in spite of the injury he had sustained, but admitted, ‘I was in so weak a condition, and my head and throat so much swelled, that I yet spoke in great pain, and not loud enough to be heard at any distance.’

There was so little wind that the Duke was still nine miles to leeward of the galleon at noon the following day. Her crew watched helplessly as the diminutive Marquiss moved in to attack. She was dwarfed by the galleon but her sailors gave three cheers, fired a broadside and raked her massive sides with volleys of small-arms fire. She was joined by the Dutchess, which came up under the stern of the galleon and poured in a broadside before drifting away. For several hours the two privateer ships attempted to make some impression on the apparently impregnable galleon, moving in to attack and then falling away out of range of her guns. By nightfall the Marquiss had almost run out of ammunition. According to Cooke, they fired ‘above 300 great shot, about 50 cross bars, and two great chests of steel bars, besides abundance of partridge small shot, and above nine barrels of powder’. Not till the early hours of the next day was the Duke close enough to send a boat across to find out what sort of condition her two consorts were in. The boat returned with the news that the foremast of the Dutchess was seriously damaged and her crew had suffered many casualties. The Marquiss had escaped lightly but Rogers arranged for three barrels of gunpowder and a supply of shot to be rowed across to her.

At daybreak on 27 December the three privateers made a combined attack on the great galleon, later recorded in graphic seaman’s language by Cooke:

Captain Courtney in the Dutchess, stood close up, gave his broadside and volleys and then ran ahead. The Marquiss coming up under her quarter, did the like, and the Duke next performed the same along her lee-side. We kept raking of her fore and aft, and then wore to get out of the way of the Duke’s shot, still firing, as did the other ships … The enemy fired at us all three at once, but slow, seldom missing our masts and rigging, and sometimes hulling us. After lying near half an hour along the chase’s side, the Dutchess lay by to stop her leaks, and secure her foremast being much disabled, having 25 men killed and wounded and the sails and rigging much shattered.

In addition to the damage caused by the guns of the galleon, the privateers were also subjected to a hail of hand-grenades (described as ‘stink pots’) which blew up several cases of powder on the quarterdeck of the Duke and started a fire on the Marquiss which the crew managed to extinguish before it spread. Around 11 a.m. the Duke broke off the action after her mainmast had received two direct shots. Rogers made the signal for the other captains and senior officers to come aboard his ship for a meeting. There was still a general determination to continue the action but the ships’ carpenters warned that the foremast of the Dutchess and the mainmast of the Duke were likely to go by the board and take the other masts with them. The Dutchess had thirty men killed or wounded, and the Duke had eleven wounded, including Rogers, who had been hit in the ankle with a wood splinter which exposed his heel bone. He had lost a lot of blood and was unable to stand. It was evident that they had little chance of taking the great galleon. Between them they had fewer than 120 men fit for boarding the enemy, which, according to information they had obtained from the prisoners they had taken in the smaller galleon, had around 450 men on board, including a large number of Europeans, ‘several of whom had been formerly pirates, and having now got all their wealth aboard, were resolved to defend it to the last’.

The problem was that the privateers’ guns were making no impression on the powerful teak hull of the galleon, which towered above them and made it difficult to cause significant casualties among her crew. According to Cooke, ‘we might as well have fought a castle’, and Rogers noted that the ships built at Manila were much stronger and had thicker sides than ships built in Europe so that ‘few of our shot entered her sides to any purpose, and our small arms availed less, there being not a man to be seen above board’. It was agreed that it was better to secure the prize they had already taken than to resume the action and risk losing more men and further damage to their battered ships. As always the resolution was drawn up in writing and was signed by the captains commanding the three ships as well as eleven other officers, including William Dampier, Robert Fry and Alexander Selkirk.

On the evening of 28 December the ships limped slowly back towards Cape San Lucas. On the Duke it was necessary to take down the main topgallant mast and secure the mainmast with additional stays and runners, while the other ships also carried out running repairs. Contrary winds and currents slowed their progress and not till the evening of the following day did they reach the safe haven of the harbour in the lee of the cape. As they anchored alongside their Spanish prize a light shower of rain swept across the bay.

During the next two days negotiations were concluded with Jean Pichberty and the three Guayaquil hostages, all of whom signed a document to the effect that they had been well treated and that the financial transactions made for the payment of the ransom had been carried out voluntarily and with their full consent. On 1 January the hostages and the captain and crew of the Manila galleon-sailed for Acapulco in the Jesus, Maria y José, the thirty-five-ton coasting vessel the privateers had captured off Lobos Island. The Spaniards were supplied with water and provisions for the voyage and the captain was allowed to retain all his books and instruments, ‘So that they parted very friendly, and acknowledged we had been very civil to ’em.’

The captain took with him a letter from Rogers to Alderman Batchelor and the other sponsors of the expedition. The letter eventually reached Bristol and is preserved among the other documents relating to the voyage of the Duke and Dutchess. It is addressed from California, dated 31 December 1709, and provides a brief account of the taking of the smaller Manila galleon and the unsuccessful attack on the larger galleon: ‘This ship was too strong for us, and has wounded all our masts …’ Rogers mentioned the death of his brother and his own injuries, but, being aware that the letter must pass through enemy hands before it reached its destination, he gave no information about the value of the captured galleon’s cargo, nor did he describe the raid on Guayaquil or the taking of other prizes. He ended, ‘My endeavours shall not be wanting on all occasions when please God to restore me to my strength.’

Before leaving Cape San Lucas and setting sail for home, Rogers had to face another mutiny. This time it was orchestrated by Thomas Dover and concerned the command of their valuable prize, which had been renamed the Batchelor Frigate, in honour of their chief sponsor. Rogers made it clear that he wanted an experienced sea officer to take command of the galleon on the homeward voyage. Dover wanted the command himself and persuaded a number of other officers, including Courtney, Cooke and Dampier, to support his claim. There followed a paper war in which both sides recorded their arguments at length. Rogers and his supporters made it clear that Dover, who was no seaman, was utterly incapable of acting as commander of a sailing ship, and Rogers further pointed out that ‘his temper is so violent that capable men cannot well act under him’. In the end it was agreed that Dover be given nominal command but that Robert Fry and William Stretton would be responsible for navigating and sailing the ship ‘and that the said Capt. Thomas Dover shall not molest, hinder or contradict them in their business’. Alexander Selkirk was appointed to the key post of master of the ship.

Woode Rogers—Pirate/Privateer II


Rogers (right) receives a map of New Providence Island from his son, in a painting by William Hogarth (1729).

They spent less than two weeks at anchor in the harbour of Cape San Lucas, repairing their damaged ships and stocking up with wood and water. Rogers was still suffering from his injuries (it would be many months before he was fully recovered) but for most of the men it was a pleasant interlude. The weather was calm and the air was fresh and healthy, in marked contrast to the tropical heat of Guayaquil. They had little rain but there were heavy dews during the nights. The surrounding countryside was mountainous, with barren, sandy wastes relieved by a scattering of shrubs and bushes. The local Indians became increasingly friendly. They much admired the privateers’ ships and paddled out to them on bark logs and climbed aboard. Rogers described them as tall and straight with much darker complexions than other native people they had seen on the Pacific coast. They had long black hair which hung down to their thighs. ‘The men stark naked, and the women had a covering of leaves over their privities … The language of the native was as unpleasant to us as their aspect, for it was very harsh and broad …’ The Indians’ huts were so badly constructed of branches and reeds that they appeared to be temporary dwellings, and they did not have any pots, utensils or furniture of any kind. They lived chiefly on fish but had no nets or hooks and caught the fish by diving underwater and striking them with sharpened sticks. Although he was critical of the Indians’ appearance and primitive way of life, Rogers was impressed by their honesty: ‘They coveted nothing we had but knives and other cutting instruments, and were so honest that they did not meddle with our coopers or carpenters tools, so that whatever was left ashore at night, we found it untouched in the morning.’

On 10 January 1710 the Duke, the Dutchess, the Marquiss and the Manila galleon (now the Batchelor Frigate) weighed anchor, rounded the end of the cape and sailed out into the Pacific. Their destination was the island of Guam, which lay more than 6,000 miles away on the far side of the great ocean.

On the advice of the Spanish pilot of the Manila galleon they followed the route taken by the west-going Acapulco galleons. From Cape San Lucas they headed west-south-west until they reached the latitude of 13 degrees north. From there they sailed due west along the line of latitude to Guam. The crossing of the Pacific took them two months and it proved to be an arduous and difficult voyage. The Duke had sprung a leak, so one of the pumps had to be manned continuously. To conserve food and water the crews were strictly rationed. Each mess of five men was restricted to one small piece of meat and a pound and a half of flour per day. When some of the Duke’s crew were caught stealing pieces of pork Rogers ordered the ringleader to be flogged by every member of the watch and his companions were put in irons. The black slaves were allowed even less food and water than everyone else and three of them died during the passage. Three other people were buried at sea: an Englishman who had joined the privateers at Guayaquil; the Spanish pilot who had been wounded during the capture of the galleon; and a Welsh tailor on the Duke who had been shot in the leg during the same action and ‘being of a weak constitution, fell into a dysentery which killed him’.

Apart from catching two dolphins they rarely landed any fish but the strict rationing and favourable winds enabled them to reach Guam with fourteen days of provisions left. On the morning of 11 March they sighted the distant hills of the island and by midday they were sailing along a green and verdant shore lined with coconut palms. They were greeted by sailing craft with outriggers which flew past them at astonishing speeds. During the afternoon of the same day they dropped anchor opposite a small village and sent ashore two interpreters with a letter for the Governor of Guam. As Guam was a remote outpost of the Spanish empire and a key staging post for the Acapulco galleons, the privateers were not sure what sort of welcome to expect. To their considerable relief they received a reply from the Governor to the effect that they would be given all the hospitality the island afforded. Within two days of their arrival they were being presented with bullocks, limes, oranges and coconuts, and on 16 March the chief officers were invited to the Governor’s house for a magnificent meal of sixty dishes. By the time of their departure on 21 March they had taken on board more bullocks, sixty hogs, rice, corn, baskets of yams and some 800 coconuts.

The next destination was the Dutch trading port of Batavia (Jakarta), which was more than 3,200 miles away. They headed south-west for Ternate, one of the Moluccas. On 15 April they encountered three waterspouts, ‘one of which had like to have broke on the Marquiss, but the Dutchess by firing two shot, broke it before it reached her’. They survived several storms but the Duke was taking in more water than ever, so that it took four men half an hour to pump her free of water and the pumping had to continue night and day. They threaded their way past innumerable islands, never quite certain where they were until on 29 May they reached Butan on the south-east corner of the Celebes. Here they were courteously received by the King of Butan. Presents were exchanged and they replenished their wood and water, but they had to pay extravagant prices for the provisions brought out to them by the local inhabitants. They set sail on 8 June and two days later intercepted a small vessel whose Malayan captain agreed to pilot them through the shoals and islands that lay between them and Batavia. By 14 June they were passing the island of Madura, off the north coast of Java, and on the afternoon of 20 June they saw thirty or forty ships lying in the roadstead of the great Dutch port. They dropped anchor just after sunset ‘at the long desired port of Batavia’.

The sailors were so delighted to find themselves in a civilised place where alcohol was cheap and plentiful that some of them were seen hugging one another with glee. Rogers himself was astonished to see such a noble city in this part of the world and the Europeans so well established. Batavia was the centre for the flourishing Dutch empire in the East Indies. Much of it looked like Amsterdam: there were fifteen canals which were crossed by numerous stone bridges and lined with handsome brick houses; there were elegant churches and an impressive town hall overlooking a square in the centre of the city; there were hospitals and schools and printing houses. On the outskirts were fine country houses with gardens shaded by fruit trees and decorated with statues and fountains, ‘so that this city is one of the pleasantest in the world. I don’t think it so large as Bristol, but ’tis more populous.’

Batavia was ruled by Abraham van Riebeck, the Governor-General, who lived like a prince with a personal escort of guards bearing halberds, and a garrison of more than 1,000 soldiers. His residence was a palace within a heavily fortified citadel and when the privateers sent a deputation to meet him they were greeted in a great hall decorated with armour and hung with flags. He examined and approved their commissions as private men-of-war and agreed to their using the port facilities to careen their ships. However, the chief administrator of the port proved obstructive and more than four weeks passed before they were able to take the Marquiss across to Hoorn Island and heave her on her side. When they did so the carpenters discovered that her bottom planks had been eaten to a honeycomb by teredo worms. They had no option but to sell her at a knockdown price of 575 Dutch dollars and transfer her prize goods to the other three ships.

During their prolonged stay in the Dutch port Rogers wrote a second letter to Alderman Batchelor in Bristol. He gave no more information about the value of the Manila galleon’s cargo and explained, ‘I don’t write fuller here nor to any one else, because of the distance and uncertainty of going safe.’ He did mention that they had lost seventy men by death or desertion, and he did admit that he was much thinner and weaker than usual and had been so ill as a result of his wounds that he had not been able to conduct his normal business. His journal entry for 30 June records in more detail the extent of his wounds, and indicates the extreme discomfort he must have been under:

8 days ago the Doctor cut a large musket shot out of my mouth, which had been there near 6 months, ever since I was first wounded; we reckoned it a piece of my jaw-bone, the upper and lower jaw being much broken, and almost closed together, so that the Doctor had much ado to come at the shot, to get it out. I had also several pieces of my foot and heel-bone taken out, and God be thanked, am now in a fair way to have the use of my foot, and to recover my health. The hole the shot made in my face is now scarcely discernible.

For all its amenities Batavia could be a deadly place for visiting seamen, and during the eighteen weeks the privateers spent in the vicinity four of them fell ill with ‘fevers and fluxes’ and died. Sixty years later Captain James Cook called in at the port during his first great voyage of exploration in the Endeavour. He had not lost a single man from sickness in a voyage which had taken him from England around Cape Horn to Tahiti and then on to New Zealand and Australia, but in Batavia his men went down with fevers (probably malaria and typhoid) and within a few weeks thirty-one were dead.

Before leaving Batavia the privateers recruited seventeen more men, mostly Dutchmen, to replace those who had died and those who had deserted. On 24 October they weighed anchor and set sail for the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. They sighted Table Mountain on 27 December and the following day they entered the harbour of Cape Town. They saluted the Dutch fort with nine guns and dropped anchor a mile offshore. The anchorage was exposed to fierce gusts of wind from the mountains and to winter storms from the sea, but the town, which Edward Cooke reckoned to be about the size of Falmouth, enjoyed a fresh and healthy climate. Some 250 houses and a church were surrounded by small vineyards and plantations of oak trees. The dockyard and naval storehouses had everything needed to refit and service the ships of the Dutch East India Company, while a fine hospital ‘furnished with physicians and surgeons as regularly as any in Europe’ was able to look after 600 to 700 sick men from the ships returning from the Far East.

Although Rogers spent much of his time ashore during the three months they stayed at Cape Town, he remained thin and in poor health but he was able to write a long and optimistic letter to Alderman Batchelor. ‘I heartily congratulate your good fortune,’ he began, and for the first time he revealed the riches of the Manila galleon. ‘Her cargo consists of most sorts of goods India affords proper for Acapulco and New Spain, the chief of which are silks, brocades, Bengale goods of several sorts, raw silk, musks, spices, steel ware and china ware.’ He reckoned that the likely value of the cargo was one million Spanish dollars. In addition to this the possessions of the ship’s officers, men and passengers amounted to not less than 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of eight. In terms of English money he estimated that the prize, after allowing for damage to some of the goods, was worth around £200,000 (£15.5 million today). He was already aware that they were likely to face all sorts of problems when they returned home with their prize goods and he asked Batchelor and his fellow owners to be ready to act for them ‘and to hasten to us as soon as you hear of our arrival in any part of Great Britain’.

With no sign of an end of the war in Europe, and the consequent danger from French warships and privateers, it was agreed that the Duke, the Dutchess and the Batchelor should join a Dutch convoy of East Indiamen for the voyage home. The convoy was under the command of Admiral Pieter de Vos and consisted of sixteeen Dutch ships and nine British ships, including the Bristol privateers and their prize. They sailed from Cape Town on 5 April and headed out into the heavy swell of the South Atlantic. On 30 April they made the island of St Helena, which Cooke noted was ‘garrisoned by the English, for the refreshment of India Ships’, and early on the morning of 7 May they passed Ascension Island, then uninhabited and no more than a tiny speck in the great expanse of the ocean.

As they approached the waters off Europe the Dutch admiral hoisted a broad pennant and all the other Indiamen hoisted long naval pennants from their mastheads so that they would look like a squadron of men-of-war rather than peaceful merchantmen. And to avoid French ships lying in wait in the English Channel and the Irish Channel the convoy made a long detour. They sailed west of Ireland and around the coast of Scotland, pausing briefly off the Shetland Isles to pick up provisions and to join a squadron of ten Dutch warships which had been sent to escort the convoy down the East Coast of England to the Netherlands. On the morning of 23 July 1711 the leading ships in the convoy sighted the Dutch coast and pilot boats came out to meet them. The guns of all the British ships fired a thunderous salute to the Admiral, while the Dutch ships ‘fired all their guns for joy at their safe arrival in their own country’. The Bristol ships waited for the flood tide to take them over the harbour bar into the River Texel. At eight in the evening they finally dropped anchor in Texel Road about two miles offshore. Cooke noted that the voyage from the Cape of Good Hope had taken them three months and seventeen days.

The day after their arrival Rogers made his way to Amsterdam, where there was a letter from the Bristol owners. This advised them to remain at their current moorings until some of the owners came over to see them. There were a number of problems to be sorted out, the most critical being the hostile reaction of the directors of the English East India Company, who ‘were incensed against us, though we knew not for what’. The company had a monopoly of trade between Britain and the East which included everywhere from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan. The company’s agents had kept the directors informed of the movements of the Bristol privateers and the directors were determined to seize and confiscate the Manila galleon. When Squire Holledge and a small group of the shipowners arrived on 5 August they were welcomed by a salute from the guns of the three ships. After a brief visit to each ship they travelled to Amsterdam with the ships’ officers to see the Chief Magistrate of the city. They presented him with a brief account of the voyage and swore that their only trading in the Indies had been for provisions and basic necessities.

Some of the crew were now becoming mutinous not only because they wanted their share of the prize goods but also because they wanted to get home. The ships’ council agreed to make an immediate payout of twenty Dutch guilders to each sailor, ten guilders to each landsman ‘and to every officer in proportion as his occasion required’. Meanwhile the shipowners had persuaded the Admiralty to provide an armed escort to accompany the ships back to England. Among the surviving correspondence of the expedition is a letter to John Batchelor from Sir Thomas Hardy, Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Writing from his flagship HMS Monk on 9 September, the admiral assured Batchelor and his colleagues that warships would be sent to bring the ships across from the Netherlands and a fourth-rate ship would take them up the Thames to the Nore. He ended, ‘I wish you success over the East India Company.’


Codename “Foxtrot”


Foxtrot Class SSK

The Foxtrot boats were intended as a follow-on to the Zulu class, but only 62 of an anticipated programme of 160 were completed as the change to nuclear boats took effect. These diesel-electric submarines were built at Sudomekh between 1959 and 1983 and formed the bulk of the Soviet submarine force in the Mediterranean in the 1960s and 1970s. These boats were also exported to Cuba, India and Libya.


A Foxtrot attack submarine belonging to the Cuban navy. These boats were intended to replace the earlier Zulu class derived from the German Type XXI U-boat.

Standing on the deck of his submarine, staring at a strange-looking torpedo, Captain First Rank Ryurik Ketov flipped up the collar on the back of his navy blue overcoat to shield his neck from the cold. A fading September sun coated the waters of Sayda Bay and reflected remnants of orange and yellow from the sides of a floating crane. The crane hovered over Ketov’s boat and lowered a purple-tipped torpedo through the loading hatch. Within minutes the long cylinder disappeared into the forward torpedo room. Blowing into his gloved hands to keep his nose warm, Ketov glanced at the submarine’s conning tower. Three large white numbers were painted on the side, but Ketov knew this label held no meaning, except to serve as a numerical decoy for enemy eyes. The boat’s real designation was B4—B as in Bolshoi, which means “large.”

The handsome, blue-eyed Ketov inherited his B-4 Project 641 submarine—known as a Foxtrot class by NATO forces—from his former commander, who was a drunk. Tradition dictated that submarine captains who were too inebriated to drive their boats into port should lie below until they sobered up. First officers took charge and positioned a broomstick on the bridge in their captain’s stead. Atop the handle they placed the CO’s cap so that admirals on shore peering through binoculars would raise no eyebrows. Ketov stood watch with a broom more times than he could recall. He didn’t dislike vodka, nor did he disapprove of his CO’s desire to partake, but Ketov felt that a man must know his limits and learn to steer clear of such rocks when under way. He demanded no less of his crew. Unfortunately, as his appointment to commander required the approval of the dozen sub skippers in his group, and all of them drank like dolphins, Ketov’s stance on alcohol held him back for a year when he came up for promotion.

The Soviet navy formed the sixty-ninth Brigade of Project 641 submarines in the summer of 1962. Ketov and his comrade captains were ordered to prepare for an extended deployment, which they suspected might be to Africa or Cuba. Some wives, filled with excitement, anticipated a permanent transfer to a warm locale.

The four subs arrived in Gadzhiyevo at Sayda Bay a month earlier and were incorporated into the Twentieth Submarine Squadron along with the seven missile boats. Vice Admiral Rybalko assumed command of the squadron, and over the next thirty days, each boat was loaded with huge quantities of fuel and stores.

Now, aboard B-4, Captain Ketov coughed into the wind and turned to stare at the weapons security officer. Perched near the crane, the man shouted orders and waved long arms at the fitful dockworkers. The officer’s blue coveralls and pilotka “piss cutter” cap signified that he belonged to the community of submariners, but Ketov knew better. The shape of a sidearm bulged from under the man’s tunic, and his awkwardness around the boat made it obvious that he was not a qualified submariner.

Ketov also knew that the security officer came from Moscow with orders to help load, and then guard, the special weapon. Although he’d not yet been briefed about the weapon, Ketov figured this torpedo with the purple-painted nose, which stood in sharp contrast against the other gray torpedoes on board, would probably send a radiation Geiger counter into a ticking frenzy.

Ketov looked down at the oily water that slapped against the side of his boat. Attached by long steel cables, three sister boats of the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet floated nearby. If one approached these late-model attack subs from the front, their jet-black hulls, upward-sloping decks, and wide conning towers with two rows of Plexiglas windows might look menacing. The silver shimmer of their sonar panels, running across the bow like wide strips of duct tape, might appear odd. The reflective panels of the passive acoustic antenna, jutting from the deck near the bow, might look borrowed from the set of a science-fiction movie. But the seasoned sailors on the decks of these workhorses were unmistakably Russian, and undeniably submariners.

Ketov strutted across the wooden brow that connected B-4 to the pier. Two guards, with AK-47 assault rifles slung on their shoulders, snapped to and saluted. Ice crunched under his boots as he walked toward a small shed less than a hundred meters away. Captain Second Rank Aleksei Dubivko, commander of B-36, matched his stride and let out a baritone grunt.

“Did they give you one of those purple-nosed torpedoes?”

“Yes,” Ketov answered, “they did.”

Although the round-faced commander was about Ketov’s height of five foot seven, Dubivko’s stocky frame stretched at the stitches of his overcoat. He let out another grunt and said, “Why are they giving us nuclear-tipped weapons? Are we starting a war?”

“Maybe,” Ketov said. “Or maybe we’re preventing one.”

Dubivko’s boots clicked on the ice as he hurried to keep up with Ketov. “We haven’t even tested these weapons. We haven’t trained our crews. They have fifteen-megaton warheads.”


“So if we use them, we’ll wipe out everything within a sixteen-kilometer radius. Including ourselves.”

Ketov neared the door of the shed and stopped to face Dubivko. “Then let’s hope we never have to use them.”

Dubivko let out a low growl and followed Ketov into the shack.

Inside, Captain First Rank Nikolai Shumkov, commander of submarine B-130, stood by the door. Only a few stress lines underscored his brown eyes and marked his boyish features. Next to Shumkov, Captain Second Rank Vitali Savitsky, commander of B-59, appeared tired and bored. None of them had slept much since their trip from Polyarny to Sayda Bay.

The tiny shed, once used for storage, offered no windows. A single dim bulb hung from the ceiling and cast eerie shadows inside. Someone had nailed the Order of Ushakov Submarine Squadron flag on one wall. The unevenly placed red banner, fringed in gold and smeared with water stains, appeared as if hung by a child in a hurry. In one corner sat a small stove that flickered with yellow sparks but offered little warmth. The air smelled of burnt coal.

One metal table graced the center of the room, where the squadron commander, Leonid Rybalko, sat with his arms crossed. Ketov noticed that the vice admiral shivered, despite being bundled in a dark navy greatcoat and wool senior officers’ mushanka cap. The tall, broad-shouldered Rybalko had a reputation for analytical brilliance and a smooth, engaging wit. A dedicated performer, Rybalko exuded the confidence and mastery of a seasoned leader.

To the side and behind Rybalko, the deputy supreme commander of the Navy Fleet, Admiral Vitali Fokin, fidgeted with his watch. Thin and lofty, Fokin kept his back straight. Ketov deduced that Fokin, given his close relationship with Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, held the reins of what ever mission they were about to undertake. A slew of other officers filled the room, including Anatoly Rossokho, the two-star vice admiral chief of staff. Ketov suspected that Rossokho was here to define their rules of engagement about using the special nuclear torpedoes.

Vice Admiral Rybalko motioned for everyone to find a seat. He coughed and brought a handkerchief to his lips to spit out a clump of mucus. His face looked pale and sickly. He locked his eyes on each submarine commander one at a time. When he looked at Ketov, those few moments seemed like days.

“Good morning, Commanders,” Rybalko said. “Today is an important day. I’m not going to discuss mission details, as we’ve included those in your sealed briefings, which you will open under way. So instead we will focus on other aspects of your mission.”

Metal clanked as an attendant creaked open the front panel on the hot stove and dumped in another can of coal pellets.

Rybalko continued. “I’m sure you all know Admiral Fokin. He asked me to emphasize that each of you has been entrusted with the highest responsibility imaginable. Your actions and decisions on this mission could start or prevent a world war. The four of you have been given the means with which to impose substantial harm upon the enemy. Discretion must be used. Fortunately, our intelligence sources report that American antisubmarine warfare activity should be light during your transit.”

Ketov hoped that the ASW intelligence report was correct but feared that optimism probably overruled reality. He glanced at the other sub commanders. Dubivko and Shumkov wore excited smiles. Savitsky, who’d earned the nickname “Sweat Stains” because he was always perspiring about something, wrinkled his brow. Ketov, who received the title of “Comrade Cautious,” shared Savitsky’s angst. As adventurous as this might seem to Dubivko and Shumkov, Ketov knew Project 641 submarines were not designed for extended runs into hot tropical waters and had no business carrying nuclear torpedoes.

Rybalko imparted more information, concluded his speech, and asked if anyone had questions.

Ketov raised a hand. “I do, Comrade Admiral. I understand that our sealed orders provide mission details, but we share concerns about our rules of engagement and the special weapon. When should we use it?”

Vice Admiral Rossokho broke in. “Comrade Commanders, you will enter the following instructions into your logs when you return to your submarines: Use of the special weapons is authorized only for these three situations—One, you are depth charged, and your pressure hull is ruptured. Two, you surface, and enemy fire ruptures your pressure hull. Three, upon receipt of explicit orders from Moscow.”

There were no further questions.

After the meeting, Ketov followed the group out into the cold. A witch’s moon clung to the black sky and hid behind a dense fog that touched the ground with icy fingers. Ketov reached into his coat pocket and took out a cigarette. Dubivko, standing nearby, held up a lighter. Ketov bent down to accept the flame. Captains Shumkov and Savitsky also lit smokes as they shivered in the dark.

Between puffs, Ketov posed the first question to Captain Savitsky. “How are your diesels holding up?”

Savitsky cringed. “No problems yet, but I’m still worried about what might happen after they’ve been run hard for weeks. If they fail on this mission…” Savitsky’s voice trailed off as he shook his head.

Ketov knew that shipyard workers had discovered flaws in B-130’s diesel engines during the boat’s construction. The shipyard dismissed the hairline cracks as negligible, and Savitsky did not press the issue, as to do so would have resulted in his sub’s removal from the mission. Still, he fretted endlessly about the consequences.

Sensing his friend’s distress, Ketov changed the subject. “Have you seen those ridiculous khaki trousers they delivered?”

“I’m not wearing those,” Savitsky said.

“I wouldn’t either,” Shumkov said, “if I had your skinny duck legs.”

Savitsky snorted and threw his head back. “I’d like to see how you look in those shorts, Comrade Flabby Ass.”

“Right now,” Dubivko said as he pulled his coat tighter, “I’d rather look like a duck in shorts than a penguin in an overcoat.”

Ketov smiled and shook his head. “I’m going back to my boat, try on those silly shorts, and have a long laugh and a can of caviar.”

“And maybe some vodka?” Shumkov said.

“I wish,” Ketov said. “We cast lines at midnight.”

Shumkov nodded and said nothing.

Savitsky raised his chin toward Ketov. “Do you think we’re coming back or staying there permanently?”

Ketov shrugged. “All I know is that we can’t wear those stupid shorts in this weather.”

Back on board B-4, Captain Ketov sat on the bunk in his cabin and stroked the soft fur of the boat’s cat. “It’s time to go, Pasha.”

Over the past year, the calico had become a close member of B-4’s family. Like many Russian submarines, B-4 enlisted the services of felines to hunt down rats that managed to find their way on board, usually by way of one of the shorelines. Boats often carried at least one or two cats on board, and the furry creatures spent their entire lives roaming the decks in search of snacks and curling up next to sailors on bunks. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, headquarters decreed that cats were forbidden on this journey. Given no choice, Ketov found a good home for Pasha with a friend who could care for her and keep her safe.

As Pasha purred by his side, Ketov reached for a can of tuna. “The least I can do is give you a nice snack before we leave.”

Ketov thought about his mother, still living in the rural Siberian village of Kurgan. She’d lost her husband to one war; would she now sacrifice her first born son? When Ketov was thirteen, his father, who was an accountant with bad eyesight, was forced to fight in the battle at Leningrad. He was killed in his first engagement. Ketov became the man of the house and helped support his younger siblings and his mother, who earned a meager teacher’s salary. He could still not explain why, but the day he turned eighteen, one year after the war ended, he took the train to Moscow and enrolled in the naval college. He also had no explanation for why he’d jumped at the chance to serve aboard submarines. He only knew that, despite the sacrifices and often miserable conditions on the boats, no other life could fulfill him like the one under the sea.

A few minutes past midnight on October 1, 1962, Captain Ketov stood on the bridge of B-4 and watched Captain Savitsky cast off lines and guide B-59 away from the pier using her quiet electric motors. Captain Vasily Arkhipov, the brigade’s chief of staff, stood next to Savitsky in the small cockpit up in the conning tower. A flurry of snow mingled with the fog and dusted the boat’s black hull with streaks of white. Thirty minutes later, B-36, commanded by Dubivko, followed in the wake of her sister sub and disappeared into the darkness of the bay. After another thirty minutes, Shumkov, in B-130, followed by Ketov in B-4, maneuvered away from the pier. Ketov stared into the blackness as the three subs ahead of him, all with running lights off, vanished into the night. Then he heard the low rumble of B-59’s diesel engines, signaling that Savitsky had cleared the channel and commenced one of the most important missions undertaken by the Russian navy since World War II.